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William Friedkin on 'The French Connection' at 50: 'They wanted to fire me every day'

The director shared his memories with NBC News on the 50th anniversary of his Oscar-winning crime classic.
Image: Director William Friedkin in Milan on July 1, 2019.
Director William Friedkin, in Milan on July 1, 2019.Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty Images file

The story goes that 1970s Hollywood was a golden age for creative freedom, a time when maverick filmmakers could make their freewheeling passion projects without interference from studio suits. But director William Friedkin remembers the decade differently.

“They wanted to fire me every day,” Friedkin, 86, recalls of his experience making “The French Connection,” a white-knuckle crime thriller starring Gene Hackman as brash, bigoted New York cop Popeye Doyle, based on real-life narcotics detective Eddie Egan.

And yet, despite the “threats” from the bosses at 20th Century Fox, Friedkin mostly made the film on his own idiosyncratic terms. The documentary-style cinematography was raw and ragged. The foul-mouthed dialogue was partly improvised and ripped straight from the streets.

The centerpiece of “The French Connection” is a deliriously high-octane car chase. The sequence — which Friedkin shot partly from the back seat of a Pontiac LeMans while a stunt coordinator barreled through Brooklyn at 90 mph — remains a master class in electrifying filmmaking.

Friedkin’s high-wire gambit paid off: “The French Connection,” budgeted at $1.5 million, nabbed more than $50 million at the domestic box office and earned five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

In honor of the movie’s 50th anniversary, Friedkin will appear on TCM on Nov. 13. He spoke to NBC News via FaceTime this week, reminiscing on the no-holds-barred production and looking ahead to the future of the movie industry. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

NBC News: “The French Connection” is often described as a time capsule of grungy, pre-gentrification New York City. When you revisit the film, does it take you back to the sights and smells of Brooklyn circa 1971?

It does. I lived for a long time in New York. About six months before I made the film, I rode around with the two cops [who inspired it], one in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the other in Harlem. It was devastating. To be frank, I was living on Park Avenue at the time, and 10 or 15 minutes away from me were all these shootings and people shooting up in the streets.

The film reminds me of the different nature of New York back then. Nothing about the city was embellished in the film.

You created arguably the greatest car chase sequence in cinema. It is the subject of so much critical appreciation and so many retrospectives. Are there memories of filming that sequence that are not widely known?

First of all, Steve McQueen was a friend of mine. He had made “Bullitt” a few years before. Whenever he’d see me at a social gathering [after “The French Connection” was released], he would say, “Here’s the man who made the second-best chase in movie history!”

Let me just tell you that the very best chases of any kind were made in silent movies by Buster Keaton. If I had seen Buster Keaton’s films before I shot “The French Connection,” I would never have done a chase scene. Never. They’re incomparable.

My thoughts now are: I took too many chances.

The sequence was life-threatening. I would never do it again. Everything you see, we actually did. There was no CGI [computer-generated imagery] then. There was no way to fake it. I just put the pedal to the metal, and we went 90 miles an hour in city traffic.

The fact that nobody got hurt is a miracle. The fact that I didn’t get killed, the fact that some of the crew members didn’t get hurt or killed. That’s a chance I would never take again. I was young and I didn’t give a damn. I just went out and did it.

I set out to make a great chase scene and I didn’t care about the consequences, and now I do.

It’s striking to hear you say that in light of the tragedy on the set of “Rust” in New Mexico, when so many people are reflecting on whether any risk is worth it on a film set.

They didn’t follow any of the usual code or instructions, it seems. The code is, there’s usually an armorer on the set who knows weapons very well. The armorer checks the barrel of the gun, and then hands it to the assistant director, who checks the barrel again. It seems to me they didn’t do any of that. I don’t know what the hell they were doing.

We used blanks or nothing. I would have a guy hold a gun and “click,” and then I’d put the sound in later.

American television these days is filled with morally dubious antiheroes, and a lot of those characters owe a debt to Popeye Doyle. Did you go into the production with a specific idea of how you wanted this character to be perceived?

I went into the production with a feeling that Gene Hackman had to duplicate him [Eddie Egan] as closely as possible. I didn’t want to soften any of the aspects of the real guy.

Gene and I had a lot of conflicts on the set. I pushed him as far as he could go. I directed him in a way that I’ve never directed anyone else. Usually, when I finish a shot or a take, I’ll say, “OK, guys, let’s move on,” or whatever.

But with Gene, he would do a take, and I would say, “Oh, Jesus, you better get a day job, pal, because you ain’t making it here.” Although I was 10 years younger than Gene, I became like his father, and he hated his father.

He was able to direct a lot of that anger that I needed for the character toward me. I didn’t care where he directed it as long as I got it. I’ve never done that with another actor.

Are you still in touch with him?

I haven’t been, although I was when he originally moved to Sante Fe. After the film, we became very close and we were very much in touch. We used to play basketball. We’d have lunch or dinner. But when he moved to Sante Fe, I kind of lost touch with him.

He left the movie business completely [around 2004]. He hated doing movies. He started to paint and to write novels. They’re sort of pseudo-Tom Clancy novels. I haven’t talked to Gene in more than 10 years, but I hear he’s doing OK.

Gene Hackman and William Friedkin on the set of "The French Connection."Twentieth Century Fox / Alamy Stock Photo

“The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” were made during the so-called New Hollywood period. The story goes that directors like you exercised far greater creative control during that time, before corporate-owned studios clamped down in the 1980s. I know there's a lot of mythology about the era, though. How much of that narrative is accurate based on your experience?

[Laughs.] Well, let me tell you, Francis Coppola, who’s a great friend of mine, [Paramount Pictures] wanted to fire him every day off “The Godfather.” Every day he’d come back and say he was fired. They kept him on reluctantly. He seemed to have a fix on the story. But he was in trouble all the time.

They wanted to fire me every day. They never did. They were always threatening. But we didn’t give a damn about the threats. We made the pictures the way we wanted to make them. There were some very good films made then.

“The French Connection” was budgeted at $1.5 million and I made it at $1.8 million. I was $300,000 over [budget] on a picture which really had no script. I was winging it. But it came out and it was praised.

But as the years progressed, the guys at the studios were mostly appointed by corporate chiefs, who felt they had to take more control because of the budgets.

How closely do you follow contemporary film culture? Is there anything you’ve seen recently that you thought was interesting or noteworthy or decent?

The three adjectives you just used — especially “noteworthy” and “decent” — apply to a film I just saw called “King Richard,” which is about Richard Williams, who trained his daughters, the Williams sisters, to be tennis champions. I was very impressed with it.

The theater experience is going away. There will be some theatrical releases, but the ones that will be most likely to survive are the big, bloated Marvel films and action films. They’re very successful. But your average little, meaningful film may not ever get to a theater.

I see that they opened the film “Dune” in theaters and on streaming. That’s a major change. I know a distributor, a very popular guy who has a great company. He told me that, within two years, we will go from 30,000 screens [in the U.S.] to under 1,000 screens.

I haven’t made that many films. I think, in a career that’s over 60 years, I don’t think I’ve made 20 films. If I can’t see a film in my mind’s eye, I won’t do the film. I turned down [Robert Altman’s] “M*A*S*H” because I couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye.

Are there any films you see in your mind’s eye now? I guess that’s another way of asking if you’ll direct again.

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t have the motivation that I once had. I’m not excited to make a film that’s going to open on a streaming service.