Every horror fan has a story about The Exorcist. Whether they rushed to theatres to see it after reports emerged of people fainting, were expressly warned against watching it by their parents, or sought it out after noticing it featured prominently in every list of the scariest films ever made, most people know a lot about the movie going in.
Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe is no exception. Like many of us, he had a relationship with The Exorcist that began years before he ever actually saw the film. But when he decided to make a documentary about it, he wasn’t interested in exploring that legacy—instead taking a deep dive into the mind of writer and director William Friedkin.
The result was Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, an intimate and at times deeply moving documentary about Friedkin’s process and artistic influences that will challenge much of what you thought you knew about the film. To celebrate the release of the documentary on Shudder, I caught up with Philippe to discuss the fate and circumstance that brought it all together.
SCREAM: I would love to hear a little bit about your own personal experiences with The Exorcist. When did you first see it and what was your first impression?
ALEXANDRE O. PHILIPPE: You know, it’s actually a strange story. I was a huge horror fan when I was a kid; I was watching certain kinds of films at an age when I probably wasn’t supposed to. My parents were not concerned on that front, and that’s great—I’m really grateful that my parents let me do that. But with The Exorcist, I actually waited, because my mom had told me stories about it. She had been so profoundly disturbed by it that she couldn’t sleep for like a week and had to keep the lights on, so I carried this dread for a long time. And I watched it for the first time in my 20s, and it may be a strange thing to say, but it’s a film that really moved me.
You have to look beyond the horror of it. Is it a horror film? Yes, sure. Is it a spiritual film? Yes. Is it a film about love? Yes. And that’s where the film really becomes truly a great movie. It’s a heartbreaking movie, really, if you think about the four major characters. Whether it’s Regan or Chris or Father Karras or Father Merrin, they all have their own sort of personal tragedy or—no pun intended—cross to bear. This idea of a mother seeing this happening to her child and being completely powerless and not knowing what to do—can there be a more horrible thing to go through as a mom? At the end of the day, I think that’s why this film continues to resonate, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic or you have a different faith or you’re agnostic or atheist. It’s a film that just can’t leave you indifferent if you’re a human being, and that’s the sign of a great film.
Before Leap of Faith, you’d made a few documentaries about classic horror films, from Psycho to Alien. What draws you to tell a particular story?
Strangely enough, they just make themselves known. I never actively think “this is going to be my next film”—it’s just in the air, it’s at the back of my mind for a while. It keeps knocking at my brain to the point where I’m like, “Okay, okay, fine, I have to do it.” It’s happened that way, historically, for all of my films. It’s circumstance, or the universe, or the movie gods, as Billy Friedkin might call them.
In terms of Leap of Faith specifically, this is definitely not a film that I was planning on making. It all came out of an encounter at the Sitges Film Festival when he [Friedkin] invited me to his table. I was having lunch with Gary Sherman and he literally interrupted our lunch, called me out, and said he wanted to tell me some stories about Hitchcock, so of course we went to his table. He told me in retrospect that that 78/52 [O. Phillippe’s 2017 documentary on the infamous Psycho shower scene] was a reason why he wanted me to make this film, so that’s a great compliment. But it was total serendipity. I could have been sitting at any of those 50 restaurants on the port at Sitges, and I’d never have had that moment, that encounter with him. He invited me to have lunch with him in Los Angeles three weeks later and everything sort of snowballed from there. So that film definitely chose me.
We did six days of interviews for this, and obviously we’ve had numerous conversations aside from that. But at one point, we were having coffee I think, and he said, “You are now part of the fate of The Exorcist.” And I’m like, “Okay. I hope that’s good news!” [Laughs]
Documentaries today tend to feature multiple interviews, but the driving force of Leap of Faith is just Friedkin sitting in a chair candidly telling his story. Was there ever a point when you were concerned audiences wouldn’t find this approach engaging, or did you always have faith in his ability as a storyteller to carry audiences through the doc?
Let me put it this way: I’m more and more interested in simplicity. I’ll tell you an anecdote that, to this day, I think about a lot. When Andrew Wyeth met Edward Hopper, Wyeth was pretty young at the time, and what he related is that Edward Hopper told him, “You know Andrew, the older I get, the only thing that interests me is the way that light hits a white wall.” It’s such a beautiful thing to say. Then I think about a filmmaker like Mikio Naruse, who is one of the truly underrated great Japanese filmmakers, whose dream was to make a film with two actors in front of white curtains. He never got to make that—he has this extraordinary body of work, but the simplest film he wanted to make was probably the most complex thing to pull off. I like that a lot in art in general, because simplicity is a way to open up and to let complex ideas truly come to life.
In making Leap of Faith, the whole concept of just having him, of having a single cello all the way through—that became very clear to me that’s what I wanted to do. Billy gave me total carte blanche, but a couple of times he did ask me, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Linda Blair or Max [von Sydow] or Ellen [Burstyn]? I’d be more than happy to introduce you.” And the film geek in me was like, “Oh, my God, of course, I would love to!” I think, had I been a younger filmmaker then, I would have probably jumped at the chance and said, “Screw this, I’m gonna open it up and I’m gonna get to meet all these people and it’s gonna be great.” But I’m glad that I stuck with my instincts, because I think that was the right thing to do. With a little bit of pain in my heart, I said, “No Billy, I think this one is really about you, and it has to be you and only you.” Simplicity.
Even with that simplicity, you managed to cover such a broad range of topics relating to the making of the film. But you didn’t really touch on the legacy of it. Was there ever a point where you thought about going into that, or did you feel it had been done to death already?
Anytime that I make a film about a film, it’s essential to have a distinct angle on it. With my previous film Memory: The Origins of Alien, I initially wanted to make a film about the chestburster scene. I went down the wrong path for about nine months, and when I realised, I started really asking myself, “Okay, so if you want to make a film about the resonance of the chestburster scene, what makes it similar and what makes it different from the Psycho shower scene?” I didn’t want to make the same film. But what I believe to be true is that Alien worked on our collective unconscious in 1979 because it tapped into an ancient mythological past. It’s not a film about the future—it’s a film about the past. The moment I realised that what I needed to do was a mythological film about Alien, it clicked instantly. So that was my very specific angle.
For Leap of Faith, I felt that the legacy of The Exorcist had been really well explored and that the special effects of The Exorcist have been extremely well documented. What I was interested in is Friedkin’s process as a filmmaker. He is such a Renaissance man—I mean, my God, you can talk to him about anything. He has so much knowledge and so much depth that I wanted to see, okay, can we crack open The Exorcist in relation to art, music, classic cinema, your own philosophy about life? That’s what I wanted this film to be. And once you decide that this is the angle, then by definition, certain things are going to fall off the map. Then it’s no longer a film, really, about legacy: it’s a film about process.
You talked a little about your own relationship with The Exorcist and the baggage that comes with it because people know so much about it going in. Did you have any expectations or beliefs going into the documentary that were upended by the time you finished it?
I was expecting that Billy would be this extraordinary storyteller, which he was—he certainly did not disappoint. I knew that he was going to be a showman because he loves to tell stories. He really will give you every element of a story to put you on the edge of your seat. So I was expecting all that stuff. What I did not expect, and I’m glad that it came out, was this more introspective, emotional, vulnerable questioning artist, but also human being. Those moments, when the showmanship and the storytelling and all the artifice were put to the side—I think those are my favourite moments.
The final sequence in the Kyoto Zen gardens… As he started his monologue, I felt like he was giving me something that meant a lot to him at that moment. It came completely out of the blue. We were on day four of our interviews and we were on a short break, and all I remember is that, all of a sudden, he said, “Did I tell you about Kyoto?” And I said, “No.” Then he said, “Are we rolling? Let’s roll.” And then he launched into this extraordinary monologue. At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be the end of the film, because it immediately struck me that, to understand Friedkin and to understand his films, you have to understand his relationship to the Kyoto Zen gardens.
But I also knew that we would have to go to Kyoto. We didn’t have the budget for it, so we had to find a way to make it work, and we did. That was something. For him to be so emotional almost 50 years after going to Kyoto and having this extraordinary memory about the Zen gardens—when I went there, I completely connected with that. I called him, of course, and said, “Well, I’m there right now.” What a special place. And was a special gift for him to give me. These are the moments, as a documentary filmmaker, that when they happen, you have to recognise the importance of them. Hopefully I did it justice.
It’s a very moving ending. And not something you expect from a documentary about one of the most infamously scary horror films ever made.
Yeah. Another thing is when he talks about his favourite scene in The Exorcist, which I won’t spoil here. Any fan of The Exorcist will probably pick any given scene out of a hat, because there are many great scenes, but I can pretty much guarantee that the one scene he’s referring to is not the scene they’re thinking about. And again, his favourite scene in The Exorcist is, in many ways, the simplest—and quite possibly, I would even say, the simplest set-up of any scene that you can find in any movie by William Friedkin. What does that say about him and where his mind is at now? I think it’s remarkable.
Absolutely. It made me want to go back and rewatch The Exorcist with a fresh perspective, and I think a lot of people are going to come away from the doc feeling the same.
I mean, I hope so. That’s the goal. Absolutely.
Now, we’ve touched on this a little already, but The Exorcist is coming up on its 50th anniversary, and it still holds such power over audiences. Why do you think people keep coming back to the film?
It’s a film about love and loss and grief—tremendous grief—and sacrifice. It’s funny, because when I think about The Exorcist, I only think about its beauty. I don’t think about its horror, which is very interesting. There is so much beauty in that film.
Guilt is another key emotion. The guilt Father Karras feels toward his mother is a very important element of the film. But if you think about the fact that Father Karras essentially sacrifices himself to save this little girl whom he has not even met in the first place… He never meets Regan. He only meets the demon. He never gets to see her—he never gets to experience that wonderful, warm, cute, intelligent, kind little girl who likes to ride horses that we see at the beginning of the film. So the selflessness of that act, to basically sacrifice himself to save a little girl whom he has never even met—I mean, if that doesn’t move people, then I don’t know what’s gonna move you.
To me, that’s the power of this film. It is a profoundly moving human experience, and I think that’s why we’re still talking about it. Obviously, it’s executed to perfection—and the novel [written by William Peter Blatty], let’s not forget, is a brilliant piece of literature. But Friedkin was probably the only director who had that real vision. Numerous other great directors were considered but wouldn’t touch the film. As he says—and I don’t think he means this in a pompous way—he was the only one who knew how to make that film. I think that’s 100% correct.
So what’s next for you? Are there more stories in the horror genre that you’re hoping to tell?
I feel very blessed because I’m actually hard at work. I’ve been working on not just one, but two films, and they’re actually COVID-proof because they are audio interviews, which means I can work from anywhere and use existing footage, mostly. There’s some shooting we have to do, but they’re very small crews.
The first one is called The Valley, and it’s about John Ford, Monument Valley, and the myth of the West. It’s an exploration of the way the Monuments have been filmed over the years, especially in John Ford’s movies, but also beyond to try and understand the relationship between iconography and myth. And the second film I’m working on is called Lynch/Oz, and it’s about the relationship between The Wizard of Oz and the films of David Lynch. We’ve got amazing filmmakers participating, from John Waters to Karyn Kusama to Rodney Ascher, and we’re going deep down this rabbit hole.
I’m very excited about both films. I keep stretching my muscles as a filmmaker and trying to do things differently. And it’s nice, in a way. Working on Psycho, Alien, and The Exorcist back to back to back was very intense, and even though Lynch obviously has some horror elements, I’m taking a little bit of a step back from horror to take a breath. I will always be a huge fan of horror cinema and will probably do more deep dives into the genre at some point in the future. We’ll see.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us! I really enjoyed the documentary.
My pleasure! And thank you for letting people know about it—hopefully they’ll enjoy it too!
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is now streaming on Shudder in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)