"If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that there is a movie god. Sometimes he's benevolent, sometimes he's cruel, but he's always present," said director William Friedkin during a Q&A following an April 15 DGA screening of his multi-Oscar-winning 1971 classic The French Connection. The screening was the latest installment of the Independent Directors Committee's (IDC) "Under the Influence" series which features directors currently working in the independent world talking with veteran directors about a film that inspired them.
In this case, Q&A moderator Rod Lurie told Friedkin, "When I saw The French Connection [for the first time] I knew not only that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I knew what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be. If you think about it, there are just a few films that you can say are seminal films in American cinema history, movies that forced other movies to behave in their wake."
Lurie added that he felt that the naturalism in Friedkin's film really applied the French New Wave philosophy in the United States.
"You're right. Those European films of the 1950s and '60s were a powerful influence on most of the filmmakers of, I hate to say it, my generation," Friedkin said with a laugh. "We were also influenced by the American classics of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, so the work we did in the '70s was really a synthesis of how we felt about all those films and all those different styles."
Another element of the film, and Friedkin's overall filmmaking style which Lurie pointed out, is the utter naturalism inherent in the actors' performances.
"One of the ways I was able to get naturalistic acting, and still do, is that I really don't rehearse," Friedkin said. "For me, so much of filmmaking is in the casting. If the roles are cast well, and you've talked to the actors about what you want to do, they express what they see, and you reach a kind of consensus about how it should be played, how it should look, then very often you get what you want in one take.
"But very early in my career, I didn't do that. I rehearsed a lot. And most of the performances were left in the rehearsal room. Everything was set, stolid, and did not breathe. The more I rehearsed, the more set and inflexible the performances became. What I'll do today is just talk to the actors and the crew, usually well beforehand, and when we're all in agreement, we'll do a take. Almost always it's the first printed take that works the best, that was the most natural."
Friedkin also said that when doing close-ups he allows the off-camera actor to overlap the dialogue, while this is a nightmare for the editor, he feels that it's part of what makes the film more natural
"In this particular film, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider had spent two or three weeks with their two prototypes," Friedkin said. "They went out on raids with these cops, as did I, before I did the film. In fact, the scene where they come in, bust up a bar and grab all the stuff, I saw that three, four nights a week. Usually Eddie Egan, who was the character who Hackman played, he would give me his gun in a situation like that. He would say, 'Here, watch the back.' And I would be standing in the back with a .38 and he did that with Hackman and Scheider and they got to know what it was like to do a frisk properly. Gene and Roy improvised that scene from having seen what Eddie and Sonny [Grosso] did."
Like most great films, The French Connection did not have an easy time being born. The financing, the casting and the post-production, all proved to be problematic for Friedkin and his team.
"This film was turned down twice by literally every studio in town. Then Dick Zanuck, who was running 20th Century Fox, said to me, 'Look, I've got a million and a half bucks tucked away in a drawer here. If you can do this picture for that, go ahead. I don't really know what the hell it is, but I have a hunch it's something.' "
Friedkin's ideas for casting were somewhat offbeat as well, with Hackman being far from his first choice for the lead role of NYPD detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle. "I had actually wanted Jackie Gleason to play the lead, but the last picture he'd done for Fox, Gigot, was such a bomb, they refused to use him again."
Friedkin then suggested the famous New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, but pretty soon it became obvious that Jimmy was no actor. He had also promised his mother on her deathbed that he'd never get behind the wheel of a car, and the script had the soon-to-be-famous car chase. The casting search continued. "Scheider was the only person I cast immediately, the minute he came into my office. The only thing I'd seen Roy in before was a Jean Genet play in which he played a cigar-smoking nun."
Friedkin, who was now due to start shooting literally in days, still had no lead. The "movie god" intervened in the nick of time however, in the form of a phone call from legendary agent Sue Mengers. "Sue was Gene's agent at the time, and she suggested him. [Producer] Phil D'Antoni and I had to make the decision the next day, so it was either cast Gene and shoot the picture or scrap the whole thing. We went with Gene."
The casting faux pas continued with the pivotal role of French drug smuggler Alain Charnier. "Bob Weiner was this casting director out of New York, a real character," Friedkin explained. "We had sort of a shorthand together where I'd say, 'Remember that guy in that movie that Kubrick did?' And he'd instantly know who I meant. So I noticed this actor in Luis Bunuel's film Belle de Jour who I thought would be perfect for the part of Charnier, who was supposed to be this very rough-looking Corsican. Bob said, 'Oh yeah, that's Fernando Rey.' So we hired Fernando Rey, and I'm supposed to meet him at Kennedy Airport when he arrives.
"I'm standing there and I don't see anybody that resembles the actor that was in Belle de Jour. Then I get paged by this very slick-looking gentleman who wore a goatee and this impeccable suit. He looked like a duke or something, not at all what I wanted for this part. It's Fernando Rey alright, but he's not the actor that I wanted from Belle de Jour!"
In addition, Rey did not speak a word of French, he was Spanish, and refused to shave his goatee. Friedkin called Weiner and D'Antoni and they realized the mistake. The actor Friedkin wanted was Francisco Rabal!
"Rabal, it turned out, was unavailable and did not speak one word of English. So we went with Gene Hackman, who I didn't want, in one lead, and Fernando Rey, who I didn't want, in the other," Friedkin said.
Lurie followed this by asking, "Billy, did you audition anybody for this movie?"
Without missing a beat, Friedkin replied, "No, but sometimes you get lucky."
French Connection's ADs
William Gerrity, the initial 1st AD on The French Connection, recalled that shooting in 1970s New York was far more difficult than it is today. "It was tough getting permits," he said. "Before they streamlined things, you had get permits from every single department. Water Department, Gas Department, and if one backed up you never got your permit. The cops we used as security were also never paid to work, so they'd sometimes get a little upset if there wasn't something specific on the permit. If you had a permit saying you'd be shooting on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue, and you went on the northwest corner, they'd say, 'No, you got to go to the other side.' But Billy [Friedkin] had a good way with the police and I knew a lot of them from working so many years on the TV show Naked City."
However, even those 'connections' weren't enough to get the job done. "We had one sequence where the bad guys get away from the cops over the Brooklyn Bridge," Gerrity explained. "The police wouldn't let us hold up traffic. So we had one of our extras park his car right at the exit and put his hood up and make believe there was something wrong with his car. We blocked traffic practically back to Brooklyn from the New York side and we got our shot."
Gerrity was replaced during the shooting by Terence A. Donnelly who said that The French Connection team were the guinea pigs for the first use of a Motorola walkie-talkie. Prior to that communication involved waving different colored handkerchiefs ('green' for action, red for 'cut') or, at night, using flashlights to signal.
"I couldn't have done that chase scene without those walkie-talkies," Donnelly said. "I can hardly call them walkie-talkies because they were 10-pound bricks of circuitry with a huge battery. But since it was all Motorola had, they were certainly welcome."
Unlike today's walkie-talkies, those early Motorolas were single channel units. For Donnelly to have one channel dedicated for his stunt men, another for his other assistant directors and another for the police helping with security, he had to have three separate "bricks" hanging off of his Eddie Bauer coat. "It was a little sketchy at best, but it did start the use of walkie-talkies in modern filmmaking and, God knows, today we couldn't do without them," he said.
Donnelly feels one of the biggest responsibilities in the AD job description is to keep people safe, and The French Connection's famous car chase proved particularly challenging. "Anytime you shoot in New York City you can't expect to have total crowd control," Donnelly said. "There's just too many people and automobiles. Fortunately we had some very talented stunt people that made it safe for us, and a terrific stunt coordinator, Bill Hickman, who did a lot of the driving for [Gene] Hackman in those sequences in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn."
Donnelly, who now produces long form television, is impressed with today's crop of ADs. "A lot of things that we, as ADs, didn't concern ourselves with and probably should have concerned ourselves with back then, are now being addressed with great vigor by the ADs I've been working with," he said. "They are extremely conscious of keeping a set safe. It's so easy for somebody to get hurt on a movie set and I laud them for it. Today, there's just so much more concern paid to the cast and crew in that regard."