Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (Phillipe, 2019)

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is an engaging and interesting film even if you are not a horror aficionado.

I’m not a horror fan, but The Exorcist is one of those rare films that transcends its genre. Participating in one distinct thread of the Gothic horror tradition, the film presents supernatural evil as a part of our real world. It doesn’t explain away the supernatural at the end, rather it argues that the world is full of unexplained phenomena. Only in recent centuries have we hubristically begun to think that we can explain everything.

Friedkin has said previously that he tried to approach the film straight — to shoot it in the style of realism. For that reason, the documentary isn’t a new argument, but you may have more fun listening to the director talk about these issues than reading about them in a printed review or interview.

Documentaries that use this much conversation — particularly from one particular source — rely heavily on editing to keep the tempo moving and the visuals interesting. Leap of Faith reminds me in many ways of the Zizek showcase Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. It contains one informed but enthusiastic participant (in this case Friedkin) analyzing and explaining movies. While Leap of Faith is more focused than the Zizek film, it does contain a generous amount of insight about other films, especially when Friedkin talks about his influences or makes thematic comparisons.

It is also a “making of” style documentary with stories that are both entertaining and sobering. Mercedes McCambridge, a Catholic alcoholic felt she had to drink and smoke to get the voice of the demon and made Friedkin pay two priests to be on the movie set with her. Jason Miller paid to fly to his own screen test because the Father Karras part had already been cast. Max von Sydow struggled to give a forceful reading of a key exorcism line because, he confessed to Friedkin, he just didn’t believe in God.

If these anecdotes have a through thread, it is that they illustrate (as the title suggests) Friedkin’s belief that there was a serendipity surrounding the production of the film. The director’s discussion of “grace notes,” both in his own film and in those that influenced him, reinforce my belief that The Exorcist is “spiritually significant” (to use a term from the Arts & Faith website) not just because of its manifest content because of the latent themes of nihilism wrestling with despair.

I’m not entirely sure that stories of serendipity are evidence of broader spiritual forces. They could just be remnants of large sampling. So many movies are made, it is not surprising that occasionally one of them comes together in ways that obscure the already thin line between providential and random. But those stories are always fun to hear, whether you take them as signs of something more mysterious or not.

Leap of Faith is going to play on Shudder, which is a subscription service. While I wish the film had a streaming rental option, Shudder plans start as low as $4.75 a month and include a one week free trial period, so one could get a monthly plan for roughly the same cost as a streaming rental. The film premieres on that service on November 19, 2020.

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