Director William Friedkin visits DC for ‘Exorcist’ commemoration and shares his favorite scenes

March 31, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews William Friedkin (FULL INTERVIEW) (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He won Best Picture and Best Director for “The French Connection” (1971) then proceeded to make arguably the scariest movie of all time with “The Exorcist” (1973).

This Friday, Oct. 30, legendary director William Friedkin will join writer William Peter Blatty atop the infamous Exorcist Steps in Georgetown to commemorate the famous film locale with a plaque.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” Friedkin tells WTOP. “It’s been called The Exorcist Steps for many years anyway, but this is going to be official. I was very happy to participate in it.”

The Dupont Festival event is free to the public from 4-6 p.m. at 3607 M St. NW, where fans are invited to bring memorabilia for the filmmakers to sign (limit one item per person).

The official plaque commemoration will happen at 6 p.m. with Friedkin, Blatty, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia.

It will be followed by a private screening of “The Exorcist” with Friedkin (invitation only).

Friedkin says he used to have mixed feelings toward the Exorcist Steps and Exorcist House.

“I had misgivings for many years,” Friedkin says. “The woman who owned (the house) at the time we made the film was a woman named Florence Mahoney, a wonderful woman … While we were filming there, she was hosting George McGovern, who was running for president at the time. … She had no idea whatsoever what those steps would become and it kind of made her life very difficult. … People took stuff out of the fence and they graffiti’d the walls for years, and I guess a lot of people still camp out there on the steps. Mrs. Mahoney is gone, but I imagine it’s caused a lot of unexpected problems.”

March 31, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews William Friedkin at Exorcist Steps (Jason Fraley)

Now, he loves the idea of The Steps as a D.C. landmark and understands why fans still flock there decades later to see the exact spot Father Karras (Jason Miller) plunged himself in a sacrificial act.

“I’m very pleased about it. Mr. Blatty wrote that house and those steps into his novel without knowing who owned the house,” Friedkin says. “At the time he wrote the novel, there wasn’t going to be a film made. He could have never anticipated that area would become so iconic.”

Blatty, the son of a deeply Catholic mother, graduated from Jesuit school at Brooklyn Preparatory in 1946, before studying graduate-level literature at George Washington University and Georgetown University. There, he learned of a 1949 case involving a 14-year-old boy from Mount Rainier, Maryland, who underwent an exorcism in St. Louis, Missouri. Blatty now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Your listeners can Google it, just type in ‘1949 Exorcism,’ and you’ll get a two-and-a-half page front page story in The Washington Post by a reporter named Bill Brinkley, who laid out all of the details of the case without mentioning the name of the person, of course. But it was the lengthy article that inspired his desire to write about that case. Of course, The Church kept it, then and now, very close, because they didn’t want to create a lot of publicity around it or reveal the name of the victim, who was exorcised and is still around and has no memory of what happened. … (Blatty) actually spoke to the original exorcist … Father William Bowdern, and they corresponded for a long, long time.”

Thus, he penned the 1971 best-selling novel “The Exorcist,” which he then adapted into an Oscar-winning screenplay. It follows Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old daughter of a Hollywood actress (Ellen Burstyn), who visits Georgetown to shoot her next project. After a series of freaky occurrences, the possessed Regan is treated by two priests, the spiritually conflicted Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the world-traveling Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), to drive out the demon.

The film was an instant hit, fueled by reports of moviegoers fainting and vomiting in the aisles. “The Exorcist” was not only the highest grossing movie of 1973, it remains the No. 9 grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation). It also won two Academy Awards (Screenplay and Sound) among ten total nominations, including Best Picture and Director. How many horror films can claim that?

The teenage Blair won a Golden Globe for her performance — with a demonic voice provided by Mercedes McCambridge — while three actors earned Oscar nods: Blair, Burstyn and Miller. In fact, Blair and Miller were rookies compared to Burstyn, who won Best Actress the following year for Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974), and Von Sydow, a legend of Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish masterpieces from “The Seventh Seal” to “Wild Strawberries” (1957).

“Jason Miller and Linda Blair were gifts of the Movie God,” Friedkin says. “Neither of them had been in a film before. Jason had done some acting in road companies, never leads. He was basically a playwright at the time, and I met him very offhandedly. Linda came in for a meeting in my office in New York … We had seen thousands of girls her age … and I began to think I could never cast that role. Then one day, Linda’s mother brought her in, she walked through the door, and I knew instantly.”

While Blair turned Regan MacNeil into one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Villains of All Time, the physical Georgetown locations have become legendary characters in their own right.

The first time we see both the house and the steps is an extreme wideshot of the Georgetown skyline, filmed with a long zoom lens from a hill in Rosslyn on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

“We shot it early in the morning, so the steps are very hard to see,” Friedkin says. “It’s not until later in the film that I feature them, but at that point, if you know where the steps are and you look for them, you can probably pick them out. It’s about 10 minutes in.”

Friedkin says he would have likely shot the Georgetown introduction differently today.

“It was the best zoom Panavision made at the time, but it was obviously underexposed, done at a time of very low light levels. It had about a 20:1 zoom ratio,” Friedkin explains. “If I was doing it today, I’d use a drone! There’s a lot of very effective shots, very stabilized as well, from drones now. Tiny, little handheld drones that contain these GoPro cameras, and that’s what I would have done today. But at the time, (it was) the only place you could get back safely far enough from the steps to give an overall view on the left side of the frame of the university, and on the right side the steps and the house.”

Of all the iconic horror moments that occur in that house — the shaking bed, the crucifix masturbation, the 360-degree spinning head, the upside-down backwards stair descent, the levitation — Friedkin lists two lesser known, more intimate scenes as his personal favorites.

March 31, 2023 | William Friedkin shares his favorite 'Exorcist' scene (Jason Fraley)

“I have two favorite scenes. One is between Lee J. Cobb, who plays Det. Kindermen, when he first comes to the house to interview Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) about the death of the director of her film who had fallen down the stairs somehow with his neck turned completely around. It’s a scene that shows the two of them both talking around the subject, tiptoeing around it very cautiously, each of them knowing that the only person in the room with the man who fell down those stairs was her 12-year-old daughter. That to me, to this day, is the most beautifully played scene I’ve ever directed.”

He says the scene was simply shot, but powerfully conceived and acted.

“I just did one take on each side, one on her side looking at him, and a reverse of that,” he says. “It was one take each, two great actors and they just nailed it, and I cross-cut between those two zoom shots. That’s a scene I’m really proud of. It’s more horrific than some of the more graphic stuff.”

So what’s his other favorite scene?

“The other scene is between Ellen (Burstyn) and Linda Blair just before Chris MacNeil puts her daughter Regan to bed and they have a conversation. We had rehearsed that scene so often that I allowed the two actresses to just improvise it. I had rehearsed them so much that I told them, now just put it in your own words and just be a mother and daughter, and they played it so beautifully. Those are the two scenes I’m most proud of, of anything I’ve ever done!”

It says a lot about Friedkin’s sensibilities that these two intimate scenes are his favorites.

“Blatty and I set out to do a suspense film. We never used the word, or talked about, a horror film. Obviously, the book was disturbing. … But we set out to make a suspense film about the mystery of faith,” Friedkin says. “None of the great horror films were my models. The scariest film I had ever seen at the time was ‘Psycho,’ which is at least as much a suspense film as it is a horror film. And then much later, the scariest film I’ve ever seen was ‘Alien,’ which is undoubtedly a horror film and a great one. … ‘Les Diabolique’ is probably the second or third favorite suspense film I’ve ever seen.”

March 31, 2023 | William Friedkin tells WTOP his favorite movies (Jason Fraley)

In fact, it was Hitchcock who helped launch Friedkin’s career, landing a gig directing the final episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” (1962-65), the follow-up to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-62).

“It had been on for 10 years and I did the last one. I was very young and had never been on a soundstage, but I had made a documentary that impressed the producers. … One day, (Hitchcock) came on the set! … Hitchcock was brought over to meet me, and of course he was a legend then, and he walked over to me with his entourage, all in black suits like him, and he stuck out his hand in a manner that appeared as though he wanted me to kiss it. … And I took his hand and I said, ‘What a great pleasure to meet you,’ and he said, ‘Mr. Friedkin, usually our directors wear ties.'”

March 31, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

Friedkin was wearing a T-shirt at the time, but he sported a tuxedo the next time he saw Hitch.

“Five years later, I had won the Directors Guild Award for ‘French Connection.’ At the dinner, I noticed at a table right below where I was standing to accept the award, there was Hitchcock with his family. I had one of these rented tuxedos and a clip-on bow tie, and I had this enormous Directors Guild Award. Instead of going offstage to do interviews with the press, I walk down the center steps to Hitchcock’s table and I snap my bow tie at him, and I say, ‘How do you like my tie now, Hitch?'”

The DGA Award was just the start of the “French Connection” accolades. The crime drama was nominated for eight Oscars, winning five: Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni), Director (Friedkin), Actor (Gene Hackman), Editing (Gerald Greenberg) and Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).

The film is best known for its legendary chase scene, where Hackman’s obsessed cop Popeye Doyle drives beneath an elevated train, chasing the villain who’s on the speeding train above.

“I didn’t storyboard it. … We filmed one shot at a time. It’s not unlike knitting. … It’s one stitch at a time. Knit one, purl two. That’s how a chase scene is filmed. … There were times we went 90 miles an hour through big city traffic without any clearances to do it. … What I think makes that scene effective is it’s more about the driver than it is about the car. … I don’t think there’s enough of that in chase scenes today. A lot of filmmakers who do them today think it’s about how fast you can run the cars. … One thing about the woman with the baby carriage; that was the easiest and least dangerous sequence to shoot. It was a zoom into the woman’s face. She was never in proximity to the car.”

While the chase sequence shows the power of the edit, the rest of the film boasts gritty handheld camera moves. The camera weaves in and out of subway cars via handheld camera operators under the watchful eye of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Owen Roizman. This was prior to the invention of the Steadicam, mind you, so these camera moves were achieved riding in wheelchairs.

“I had a great cameraman, his name was Ricky Bravo, who actually photographed the Cuban Revolution at Castro’s side and later he defected. But he was a great handheld camera operator, so we never laid down dolly tracks. … He could keep the camera smooth while being pushed in a wheelchair. … He also photographed ‘The Exorcist,’ where we did use a lot of dolly tracks because it required a different style, smoother than ‘The French Connection,’ which I shot like a documentary.”

This gritty, cinema verite approach is reminiscent of the Neorealist style pioneered in Italy, where Friedkin just recently directed “Aida” for the Teatro Regio in Turin. While there, he spoke at the International Rome Film Festival. He returns next month to direct “Rigoletto” for the Florence Opera.

But first comes the once-in-a-lifetime “Exorcist” event Friday here in Georgetown.

“I’m very pleased and proud of it, which is why, God willing, I will attend the dedication of the Exorcist Steps on Oct. 30 in Georgetown. I’m very honored that the city of Georgetown has undertaken to do this. It’s a great honor,” Friedkin says. “Here’s the test: those films that stand the test of time, that you can still watch after 75 or 50 years or more … a film that will live on past its end date.”

Something tells us “The Exorcist” will make heads spin forever.

Listen to the full interview with William Friedkin below:

March 31, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews William Friedkin (FULL INTERVIEW) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

© 2015 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up