Acclaimed film director William Friedkin is perhaps best known for his 1971 film, The French Connection. He won an Oscar for directing the gritty tale of New York narcotics cop, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle.
Friedkin went on to direct The Exorcist, and his latest film is Bug, starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr.
But a few years ago, he took up another art form: opera.
Although Friedkin, 71, had listened to plenty of opera, he says he had never been to one — until his friend, the conductor Zubin Mehta, suggested that he try directing one.
Currently, he's directing a double bill at the Washington National Opera: Puccini's one-act comedy, Gianni Schicchi and Bartok's one-act Bluebeard's Castle.
Friedkin describes Puccini's "outrageously hilarious" Gianni Schicchi, and explains what Puccini and the Marx Brothers have in common and the difference between stars of opera and film.
He also talks about why directing is a "young man's game" and recalls the filming of The French Connection's legendary car-chase scene on the streets of Coney Island — and why he would never do it again.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
(Soundbite of The French Connection)
Unidentified Man: I know the deal hasn't gone down. I know it hasn't. I can feel it. I'm dead certain.
Unidentified Man #2: Last time you were dead certain we ended up with a dead cop.
SIEGEL: Remember The French Connection? It came out in 1971. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. The director was William Friedkin, who later directed The Exorcist. In The French Connection, Friedkin made the story of two New York narcotics cops feel real.
(Soundbite of tires squealing)
SIEGEL: Nothing felt more real than a famous chase scene through the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
(Soundbite of tires squealing)
SIEGEL: Jump cut to 2006, a couple of weeks ago.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (Director): Lights change. Set parts. Staircase moves forward. Look at each other. Look at each other.
SIEGEL: Bill Friedkin is still making movies. His forthcoming picture, Bug, stars Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr. But a few years ago, he took up another art form - opera. He says he'd listened to a lot of opera but never been to one until his friend, the conductor Zubin Mehta, suggested that Friedkin try directing one.
(Soundbite of opera music)
SIEGEL: So there he was at the rehearsal hall of the Washington National Opera, working the cast of the Puccini one act comedy Gianni Schicchi. He's staging it together with another one act opera, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.
(Soundbite of opera music)
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Silhouette them.
SIEGEL: Friedkin is 71 years old and he says he's wildly enthusiastic about Gianni Schicchi, this story of the household of a rich Florentine and the battle over his inheritance.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: First of all, it's an outrageously hilarious comedy. It's Puccini's only true comedy. So I think he wanted it to be funny, so I think it has to be funny. And I will let the singers invent a lot of stuff, and then I will edit that down before performance, because being funny doesn't mean you're getting in the way of portraying the reality of these characters that he's written.
And what I did when I originally directed this opera in Los Angeles four years ago with basically a similar cast - Sam Ramey in the lead in both - I gave them a bunch of Marx Brothers films to watch, because I think since this opera has its roots in the comedia del'arte, in America that translates to me at best as the Marx Brothers. And so there's a feeling of the Marx Brothers on the stage, because all the singers - many of them weren't familiar with the Marx Brothers. By the time they do this opera, they are. And they are imbued with the spirit of the Marx Brothers.
So I've not set it in the year 1299, where Puccini sets it, because I think it pertains to issues today. I set it kind of around the period of the 1920s. Let's say, E.M. Forrester's Florence rather than Dante's, although there are references to Dante and none to E.M. Forrester in the opera.
But they're both mythical periods in the history of Florence.
SIEGEL: You've been dealing with Samuel Ramey, and you're also directing Denise Graves in the other one-act opera and you've -
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Bluebeard's Castle.
SIEGEL: Is dealing with major opera singers any different from dealing with big deal movie actors?
Mr. FRIEDKIN: First of all, the opera singers are better trained to do what they do. That's number one. I mean all you need really to succeed in an American film is basically a look and a character that the audience falls in love with or gets interested in. I won't say that to be a film star you need to be a great actor. I don't think the two things match at all. And a lot of great film stars cannot appear on a stage successfully.
But the opera singers, as I say, are better trained. They come in knowing the opera. They've studied it or even performed it months if not years before the latest production of it and that's, of course, not true with a film script. You're lucky if the actors know what you're shooting that day.
SIEGEL: You're saying because of the nature of the film or because that's the way actors are in movies?
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Most of the best known actors believe in improvisation and spontaneity. And I have to say that what I look for in directing a film more than anything is spontaneity.
I haven't done any of Shakespeare's works on film. If I had, I would not be looking for spontaneity.
Most if not all of the films I've done - well, most of them are on contemporary subjects and themes and with contemporary settings. And so I want the people to sound like people do, where they stumble on words occasionally, talk over each other and generally don't look or sound like they've memorized the lines.
And so you have to provide an atmosphere where that can take place.
SIEGEL: Of course depending on how one looks at it, that's either a challenge that you face in making a movie, that I should go to the movie and I should believe that's how it might be, whereas when I go to an opera, I really don't assume that people break out into arias in the middle of conversation.
On the other hand, there's nothing naturalistic really about an opera. It's the most artificial kind of drama one can imagine.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Right. So I'm not necessarily looking for spontaneity, except in Gianni Schicchi. Gianni Schicchi is hilarious as written. It's a little gem. And Puccini above all wanted it to be funny, and it is. And if it's well cast it's going to be funny.
SIEGEL: I once read a remark attributed to you that directing movies was a young man's game and we shouldn't be surprised that young men do it really well.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Well, yeah, I think it is. It requires a lot of energy, more than anything. And a lot of ambition, tremendous ambition to succeed. I think the qualities that someone trying to direct film requires are first, ambition and then a great deal of luck and the grace of God. And you notice I didn't mention talent.
SIEGEL: No, you didn't mention talent in there.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: No. Because there are a lot of guys directing films who - you know, I - well, what can I say? I didn't mention talent. But there are a lot of guys making a superb career directing films who have only ambition and luck and the grace of God.
SIEGEL: By one account, I've heard you say that by the time it was ready to edit, the chase scene in The French Connection - the editing was easy, you once said.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: To do a chase scene, you - unlike doing an entire film - you have to have the chase completely in your mind's eye. But I never storyboarded a scene or a whole film, including the chase in The French Connection. I had it in my mind's eye and I went out and did it one shot at a time.
SIEGEL: In the sequence of the chase?
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Not in the sequence - out of sequence.
SIEGEL: No. Out of sequence, I would imagine.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Because of the dictates of various problems of getting to one location or another. So the chase was filmed entirely out of sequence, but I saw it in my mind's eye in sequence.
And so when I set out to edit it, all I did was I used a piece of music that I never used in the film, which was a track by a group called Santana called Black Magic Woman, and then didn't use the music. But it did have a kind of preordained rhythm to it that came from music.
And of course, all the sound was put in afterwards. I went out and recorded all the sound after I shot the sequence and put it together visually.
SIEGEL: But there's some moment when you either see someplace under an elevated train in Brooklyn or Queens and it clicks with what you have in your mind that that's where this is supposed to be? Or you're adapting your prior idea to whatever it is you find as you go looking for a location, say?
Mr. FRIEDKIN: I went into doing the chase for The French Connection having seen the chase scene from Bullitt a few years before. And I knew that I had to do something different than Bullitt. I couldn't have two cars chasing each other. And I thought well, what else can I do that's different from Bullitt? So I analyzed it.
Bullitt is basically done on empty streets where the streets of San Francisco are cleared out and the two cars are jumping the hills and nobody's in any jeopardy on the streets. So one of the first notions that came to me was, I will do this chase scene where there are people in jeopardy, just bystanders or people trying to cross the street.
So I filmed it in that way. And then I thought I can't have two cars chasing each other. What can I have? And while I was walking the streets of New York, I would hear the subway rumbling underneath me, and I thought well, I can't have a car chasing a subway train. And I thought, a car chasing an elevated train.
And then I constructed the scene to that notion. I had to find out how fast an elevated train could go. Where there was still an elevated train in the New York vicinity. And in this case it was the one in Coney Island.
And then I had to get permission to do it, which was very difficult to come by. It involved something called bribery. Which is another, you know, which is another subject altogether for another interview. But, yeah, we had to bribe officials to let us do this because…
SIEGEL: Ah, New York. But you're from Chicago, so you could appreciate it.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: I understood that. But the notion came to me and that was easy, but then how to get permission to film it was the most difficult part of it.
SIEGEL: Using the pedestrians, and for that matter the passengers on the el, on the elevated train, this was a stroke of genius. Because suddenly you can imagine not only being Gene Hackman or somebody, you could imagine being one of the pedestrians, which is a lot more real. That I could be endangered by this whole thing that's happening.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Yes, and I would never do the same thing again.
SIEGEL: That's done. You did that.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Well, I mean thank God no one was injured. But most of the French Connection chase scene was done with a car going at 90 miles an hour for 26 blocks with no controls whatsoever. The only thing we had was we put a police gumball on the top of the car, which we didn't photograph. But, you know, the police red light.
SIEGEL: You mean that you didn't have the whole area cordoned off and cleared?
Mr. FRIEDKIN: No.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: No, not at all. As I say, it's a young man's game, Robert.
SIEGEL: It's almost a dead man's game at that rate.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: It could've been. You know, I put people's lives at risk to do that scene and I would never do that again and haven't done that since. I've done a couple of other chase scenes, but they were totally controlled. Because I realized I had gotten off the hook and not injured somebody. Because someone could've been injured.
SIEGEL: So both a case of, as you said, ambition and also luck in that case.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: The grace of God being most predominant, I would say. There's not a day goes by that I don't think about the fact that we didn't hurt anybody doing that and how could I have done it? You know, how stupid and insensitive it was. I'm not going to take away from its success as a scene in a movie, but as you get older, Robert, you realize that there are other things more important than shooting a scene in a movie and I didn't know that when I was 27, 28 years old.
SIEGEL: Well, Bill Friedkin, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FRIEDKIN: Pleasure, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's William Friedkin. His directorial debut at the Washington National Opera is this Saturday with a double bill of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. Here's Amanda Scutierri(ph) in the rehearsal singing the aria Al Mil Vabino Caro(ph).
(Soundbite of opera)
Ms. AMANDA SCUTIERRI: (Singing in foreign language)
SIEGEL: And you can hear more of the interview with Bill Friedkin and see the French Connection chase scene at our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.