No Sympathy for the Devil: ‘The Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin Looks Back
“Let’s go to the steps.”
Filmmaker William Friedkin is leading a group of journalists around Georgetown, the Washington, D.C. neighborhood that served as the setting for his 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist on a fittingly overcast April day. After a quasi-lecture about his history with the film in Georgetown University’s Healy Hall, we’ve walked through classrooms, courtyards and churches that all played significant roles in the making of the picture and the book that inspired it. Now we’re on one of the streets that actress Ellen Burstyn, who played beleaguered mother Chris MacNeil, strolls down during the calm before the storm. “I cut to four or five different shots of her walking just to show what I believe is the beauty of this magnificent little town,” he says. Our destination served a more sinister role.
“The Exorcist Steps,” as they’re officially known on a D.C. landmark placard, are where Jason Miller’s character, Father Damien Karras plunges to his death after the demon Pazuzu, which had been afflicting 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, enters him. “We built a false front that came out to where those trees are,” Friedkin says at the head of the stairs, pointing up. “The house had to be extended about 25 yards. The stunt man’s jump could never have been possible, but this is the house that [author William Peter] Blatty wrote about, so I decided to make an extension and make it possible. It was an incredible jump. All the steps and corners were padded with rubber.”
The stone stairwell – which is nearly 125 years old – consists of 75 steps that stretch three stories. “I’m told this is one of the five most visited sites in Washington,” he says. And while TripAdvisor ranks its popularity lower, user-submitted photos mostly show multiple people gleefully posing dead on them. It’s been a mecca for cinephiles ever since The Exorcist became a runaway hit nearly 50 years ago.
When the adaptation of Blatty’s 1971 novel came out, it was a revelation. Horror, up to that point, was monster flicks like Frankenstein and Dracula and unsettling psychodramas like Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby; Friedkin’s film was gritty and visceral almost like a documentary. And it was over the top. Here was a jejune girl possessed by a demon, screaming, “Fuck me Jesus,” while stabbing her crotch with a crucifix; her head spun 360 degrees; she spewed ropy pea soup like a fire hydrant, and, before any of that could happen, she was subjected to all sorts of bloody, watch-through-your-fingers medical tests.
It was shocking and – years before Jaws ratified the blockbuster we know – it had people lining up at the entrances of movie theaters while the exits were soppy with puke from the previous showing. The New York Times reported at the time that it was “the biggest thing to hit the industry since Mary Pickford, popcorn, pornography and The Godfather.” It inspired several sequels, including one by Blatty, and a TV series; it’s been referenced in countless rock and rap songs; and Linda Blair even appeared in an Exorcist spoof, Repossessed.
Now Friedkin is revisiting the topic of possession in a new film, a documentary titled The Devil and Father Amorth, for which he filmed an authentic rite of demon purging carried out by a real-life, world-renowned exorcist, the late Father Gabriele Amorth. The director, who won Oscars for The French Connection and is also known for To Live and Die in L.A. and Rules of Engagement, returned to Georgetown today to bring his experience full circle, and he beams with pride as he visits his own personal stations of the cross.
Friedkin is now 82. A man of average height, he has a big, commanding, friendly personality. When bystanders ask for selfies with him and the Exorcist steps, he positions their cellphone for them to frame the photo as cinematically as possible. He speaks in long, husky, staccato monologues. He has an inquisitive nature – when Italy comes up in conversation, he says he wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and has anyone seen it? – and it’s that indefatigable questioning, that curiosity, that brought him back to the themes of possession and exorcism all these years later.
“I had serious doubts about making this documentary,” Friedkin says, a hint of P.T. Barnum flare in his voice. “I did it because I was able to witness this, and I wanted to share it with people to make of it what they will. And you’re not gonna see an exorcism in any other way.”
In Healy Hall’s wood-paneled Philodemic Room, where Georgetown’s ancient Philodemic Society holds regular debates, Friedkin stands in front of a wooden throne at a university-branded podium. His arms are variously crossed, placed on his hips and outstretched in a Christlike pose as he speaks. Portraits on the walls of notable Philodemicians and alumni from the past two centuries gaze down on him as he recalls his history as it relates to The Exorcist and Father Amorth, a journey which began in the late Sixties.
After telling the producer of TV’s Peter Gunn to stuff it after he was asked to direct “the worst script I ever read,” its screenwriter, one William Peter Blatty, approached him and thanked him for his honesty. “He said, ‘We all know this script is no good,'” Friedkin recalls. “‘I really admire what you did, turning it down, because you lost a job in there.'” A few years later, when Friedkin was doing pre-release press for The French Connection, Blatty sent him galleys of The Exorcist and asked if Friedkin would direct a film of it. Several filmmakers had come and gone from the project, including Stanley Kubrick (“He wanted to only develop his own stories,” Friedkin says), Arthur Penn (“He did not want to do any other stories that had violence after Bonnie and Clyde”) and Mike Nichols (“He said he will never be able to find a 12-year-old girl who can carry this movie”).
“Why me?” Friedkin asked. The author replied, “Because you’re the only director who has never lied to me.” Blatty had directorial approval, leading to several disagreements with the producers. Once The French Connection became a hit, the studio stopped fighting him on Friedkin. It was a victory for Blatty, for whom The Exorcist was a very personal story.
It was in one of Healy Hall’s classrooms where, while earning a bachelor’s degree in English, he heard about a case of possession in a nearby Maryland town. The story was so unusual it had even made the front page of The Washington Post, which reported, “In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history, a 14-year-old Mount Rainier boy has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday.” The boy was a Protestant but was referred to a Catholic priest, after furniture started moving of its own accord, things flew across the room and the walls made scratching sounds. Blatty researched the incident as much as he could, hoping to write a nonfiction account, but hit wall after wall with little to go on and turned the story into a novel. (A New York Times search for the word “exorcism” between 1940 and 1959 turns up only 30 results with only one reporting on a specific instance of exorcism, which took place in England.)
Friedkin took the subject matter seriously. Although he was born Jewish (“Yes, I was bar-mitzvahed,” he later tells Rolling Stone glibly), he says he believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ. “I made the film with that belief, and, of course, Mr. Blatty wrote it with not only that strong belief, but his deep faith in the church.”
To both Friedkin and Blatty, who died last year, The Exorcist was not a horror story, but one of the “mystery of faith.” It’s a loose term Friedkin refers to frequently both in Georgetown and in a later interview that doesn’t so much mean, “How could God forsake people by allowing possession?” so much as, “How does the nature faith lead people to believe in things like possession?” With The Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin doesn’t attempt to solve the mystery of faith. Instead, he indulges it.
Friedkin and Blatty first became aware of Father Gabriele Amorth around the time the priest published in 1990 book, An Exorcist Tells His Story. Amorth mentioned the movie in a paragraph, writing, “It is thanks to the movies that we find a renewed interest in exorcisms.” He also quoted another Jesuit priest who said of The Exorcist, “Save some special effects, the film had dealt very soberly with the problem of evil, reawakening an interest in exorcisms that had been all but forgotten.” Amorth was grateful for the film.
By the time of his death in 2016 at the age of 91, Amorth is said to have performed some 70,000 exorcisms over 29 years, as the practice has a certain prevalence in Italy due to the influence of Catholicism. Some 500,000 people reportedly request exorcisms a year in a country of 60 million, according to USA Today.
A Pauline priest, Father Amorth become famous through media appearances and once claimed that both Hitler and Stalin were “certainly” possessed by the Devil, according to the National Catholic Register, though he said they were still both responsible for their deeds as individuals; he also declared “ISIS is Satan.” Armchair diagnoses aside, Amorth would see a possessed person only after he or she had met with a medical doctor or a psychiatrist and were told they were untreatable. He founded the International Association of Exorcists in 1990 and served as its president for a decade. Friedkin calls him “the most spiritual man I think I’ve ever met outside of William Peter Blatty.”
In 2016, the director met Amorth for the first time while on a trip to Italy where he was receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Lucca Film Festival. Exploring his touristing options while there, he asked a theologian friend if he could meet either the Pope or Father Amorth while in Rome. The pontiff was out of town, he was told, but Amorth would meet him.
Friedkin later relayed his story to then–Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter who asked him to write about Amorth. “I wrote a 6,500-word article that they printed and at the end of the interview, I asked [Amorth] if he would ever allow me to witness an exorcism,” Friedkin tells everyone gathered in the Philodemic Room, just as a cell phone goes off, playing Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” the eerie theme music from The Exorcist. “I didn’t plan that,” he says to a room of laughs. (The phone belongs to Julie Blatty, the author’s widow.)
The filmmaker expected a “no” when he asked to see an exorcism, but Father Stefano Stimamiglio of the Pauline order told him Amorth would allow it. Friedkin asked to film it. Again, to his amazement, he got a yes with the stipulation that he alone could film it with a small camera. (Father Stimamiglio did not return a request for comment about how and why the approval to film was granted in time for publication.)
On May 1st, he documented Amorth’s ninth exorcism of a 46-year-old woman named Cristina. Although it’s not in the film, Friedkin’s Vanity Fair article states that her family believed she’d been cursed by her brother’s girlfriend, whom the filmmaker later says belonged to something called the Pyramid Cult.
For about 17 minutes, as shown in The Devil and Father Amorth, the priest sits next to the woman. He literally thumbs his nose at the Devil and begins to pray at which point Cristina’s voice drops significantly, sounding very much like Regan’s demon voice in both the movie The Exorcist and how it was described in Blatty’s book as “deep and thick with menace and power.” Cristina shouts “Stop it” in Italian.
“Surrender to the will of God,” Amorth commands as several men restrain her as she attempts to leap forward. “Surrender to the will of the Virgin Mary. Surrender to the will of Jesus. … The Virgin Mary will destroy you, Satan.” It’s not quite “The Power of Christ compels you” with Linda Blair floating in the air as Holy Water rips her skin apart, but it’s still arresting. Cristina’s demon tells Amorth that it is Satan Himself but also that there are many demons inside her. “We are legion.” When it’s done, Cristina appears to return to normal until Amorth exorcises her parents in case the demon moved to another person and she lashes out again.
“Something I cut from the film is that Father Amorth told me that during the course of the exorcism, the woman, in her altered personality, had cited to him some of his actual sins,” Friedkin says. “I had the good sense not to ask him what these sins were and mention them.”
Friedkin attempted a follow-up interview with Cristina without Amorth present but, upon learning she was acting irrationally, he left his camera in the car and did not film the encounter. He tells the camera in the movie that her boyfriend threatened his life and demanded the film as she slithered her body around a church like a snake and bellowed in her demon voice. “No, I want it shown,” Friedkin says Cristina shouted in her demon voice. (“I certainly would have turned the camera on, had I brought it,” he says later, “but I didn’t want to upset her by putting a camera in her face because of the way she sounded on the phone.”)
Amorth contracted pneumonia and died without liberating Cristina, whom Friedkin says, he’s told is still seeking exorcisms. “I’m convinced Father Amorth was authentic,” Friedkin tells the hall, and this woman had a complete transformation of personality.” USA Today reports that requests for exorcisms have tripled since the priest’s death.
A couple of days after the Georgetown visit, Friedkin welcomes Rolling Stone into his plush suite at New York City’s high-end hotel, the Carlyle. He’s dressed comfortably in a black button-up, beige slacks and sneakers. A copy of the thriller Fear: A Novel, by Dirk Kurbjuweit, a bowl of fruit and an empty bag for Manolo Blahnik shoes sits next to a stack of CDs by his late friend, Miles Davis. “I showed the film The French Connection to him, and his comment after was, ‘Hey, Billy, how come two guys to chase one guy?'” Friedkin laughs. “Later, when I did To Live and Die in L.A., I showed it to him and he said, ‘Two guys to chase one guy.'” He laughs again.
Friedkin retrieves a bottle of Fiji water to share and we settle into a table in the corner of the room next to windows that overlook East 76th Street where he reclines in his chair and crosses his legs. The conversation naturally gravitates to the mystery of faith. “It’s the fact that people believe in somebody [Jesus Christ] who left no writings of his own. We have no recording of his voice,” he explains. “We have no image of him that we can rely on. He lived for a very short 33 years, of which 12 years nothing is known. Yet people by the billions have believed that he was the son of God. There’s something more to that that I can’t dismiss.”
Now that he’s made two films about the mystery, he says he doesn’t understand it any better. “I was absolutely terrified [during the exorcism] because I saw someone become completely unhinged and I had no idea why,” he says, recalling that it was freezing cold in the room while warm outside. “Unlike the film The Exorcist, she wasn’t in that state when I met her. The Exorcist suggest that once this happens, it’s a permanent state but that wasn’t true. She would go in and out of these fits and had had numerous exorcisms. It was just really disturbing and terrifying. She was in such extreme pain.
“It was her pain that finally got to me, and I wondered, ‘Why is this directed at this woman? What did she ever do to deserve this?'”
When Friedkin reedited The Exorcist in 2000, he included a scene where the two priests attempted to answer that. “I think the point is to make us despair,” the elder priest, played by Max Von Sydow, says. “To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.” When he hears that today, the director says, “Blatty wrote that line, and it’s beautiful.”
The Bible describes possession, whether literal or metaphoric, in simpler terms. “Your adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” reads 1 Peter 5:8. And in Mark 5, a group of impure spirits who identified themselves as Legion were so craven that they begged their exorcist, Jesus Christ, to send them into a herd of two thousand pigs. Once the sows were theirs, they drowned themselves. When you look at the source material, so-called “possession” appears to be a kind of confusion.
To understand it all better, Friedkin took his home-movie exorcism to various experts – brain surgeons, psychiatrists, representatives of the church – and interviewed them for the second half of The Devil and Father Amorth. Dr. Neil Martin, then the chair of neurology staff at UCLA, described Cristina as experiencing an “major force within her.” He added that Cristina seemed to be suffering delirium and, when Friedkin asks if she would be better helped by brain surgery than this ritual, the doctor says, “unlikely.” “I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any [regularly treatable] disorders,” he explains.
A group of shrinks referred Friedkin to their bibles: the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Dissociative Identity Disorder, as defined in DSM-V, is “an experience of possession.” It explains: “Possession-form identities in D.I.D. typically manifest as behaviors that appear as if a ‘spirit,’ supernatural being or outside person has taken control, such that the individual begins speaking or acting in a distinctively different manner. … An individual may be ‘taken over’ by a demon or deity, resulting in profound impairment, and demanding that an individual or a relative be punished for a past act, followed by more subtle periods of identity alteration.” Moreover, it says, “The identities that arise during possession-form D.I.D. … are not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice,” dovetailing even deeper into Friedkin’s mystery of faith. One of the doctors compared exorcism to “placebo response” – “If you believe something is more likely to work, it’s more likely to work.” To that point, it’s worth noting, too, that because the diagnosis is faith-based, people who aren’t Christian, such as Muslims or Jews, are unlikely to be seeking a Catholic exorcist.
Reflecting on his interviews, the filmmaker agrees that it’s uncommon that a doctor would make a recommendation based on a video with no examination. He says, “You’re right, that was unusual. But they saw the whole thing and they made comment.” (An attempt to reach Dr. Martin for comment was unsuccessful.)
A Catholic leader he interviewed, Bishop Robert Barron, who serves for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Friedkin he never met anyone he felt needed an exorcism, but he believed in the phenomenon of possession. But he added that he would never be able to speak to the Devil the way Father Amorth did because he did not feel he was holy enough. “It was the most shocking thing I had heard through the whole thing,” Friedkin says. “What do you mean? You have the power of Christ.” (A request for comment from Bishop Barron was not returned in time for publication. Similarly, requests for general comment on the film from the Vatican and the Archdiocese of New York were not returned.)
His documentary is rough and personal, but he stands by it. When questioned about Cristina’s voice, which sounds manipulated or double-tracked because there appear to be multiple levels to it, he asserts he did not alter it. “She had never seen The Exorcist movie and there are certain similarities to the way Regan and [voice actress] Mercedes McCambridge sounded in the film,” he says. “I thought that Cristina’s voice was remarkably similar. McCambridge’s voice was due to having started drinking again to do this and swallowing raw eggs and stuff. So when she’d breathe into a microphone” – he makes a wheezing sound – “you would hear four or five different sounds. It’s like when Coltrane played. You’d hear overtones. We recorded [Cristina] at a normal level and … we did not mess with the tracks.”
He doesn’t want to color people’s opinions by trickery, he says. He wants people to draw their own conclusions about faith and possession from the picture. “It was a home movie, and then it occurred to me, ‘Is there anything that could be done with it?'” he says. “It’s a document by the Vatican exorcist, which had never been filmed. ‘Why should just I see it?'”
When Friedkin watches The Exorcist these days, it’s usually to approve of a print. But he’s still impressed by what he sees. It’s not his favorite movie he’s made (that’s Sorcerer) but the mystery of faith – the connecting thread to today – is still strong.
“Some of the scenes are amazingly well done,” he says with a laugh. “The fact that we had no digital in it. We had to achieve all of that. But what still holds me are the performances.” He’s also proud of the way audiences suspended their disbelief while watching. “I’m sure a lot of people are skeptical about the real thing when it comes to exorcism,” he says, “but the movie scared the hell out of them.”
He remembers James Cagney requesting his audience during a taping of The Merv Griffin Show, and the actor told him, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, son. I had the greatest barber in the world for more than 30 years. He saw your movie and he left the profession to become a priest. I’ll never find a barber that good again.”
“I thought that was wonderful,” Friedkin says.
In 1974, the film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It won two, for sound mixing and for Blatty’s screenplay adaptation his book. It did not earn Friedkin Best Picture or Best Director Oscars as he had won two years earlier for The French Connection. “There was a campaign against The Exorcist led by Robert Aldrich and George Cukor,” he says. “The guy who produced the awards show that year told me they were going around saying, ‘If The Exorcist wins Best Picture, it’s the end of Hollywood as we know it.’ Fuck them. I think there was a lot of resentment and jealousy. Robert Aldrich wanted to direct The Exorcist. And I think what bothered Cukor was that the film was disturbing and blasphemous, as well as the fact I had recently won it for a little fucking documentary about two cops.”
Nevertheless, the movie’s cultural impact is undeniable and far greater all these decades later than that year’s winner, The Sting. Just look at the way people flock to the Exorcist Steps. “When the film first opened, I went back to Georgetown and there were thousands of people on the steps around the house and that continued for years,” Friedkin says. “I saw kids sitting on every step for years, eating sandwiches, smoking, hanging out. It really disturbed the owner of the house and we had to build her that terrible black fence.”
Those stairs – and steps in general – are a defining metaphor in both The Exorcist and Friedkin’s latest film. When we walked through Georgetown, Friedkin kept pointing out stairways he shot – one in Healy Hall that Jason Miller’s character ascends to ask for the extension, one out front where Burstyn’s character led a student protest, another in a courtyard that led to the Jesuit residence, another outside where two priests discuss obtaining the Roman ritual of exorcism and then two minutes away those famous 75 steps that ended in a pool of blood. In The Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin explains that the priest used to perform his exorcisms in the Scala Sancta atop a staircase – the Holy Stairs that lead to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate – that can only be climbed on one’s knees.
“It all represented the idea of ascension,” Friedkin says.
It’s something he won’t be doing anytime soon, at least on the Exorcist steps. Back in Georgetown, he’ll only go up a few to take photos before coming back down. “I used to regularly go up those 75 steps,” he says. “I tried it last week here, and it almost claimed my life. I actually had the thought on the last landing that it would not only be fitting but poetic for me to die on these steps.”