Who's cruising who: William Friedkin speaks

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Did Cruising director William Friedkin cruise the gay community without taking responsibility for the consequences? Was he cruising for a bruising, or careless about his film's impact on gay men's safety? (Is it a double standard when sexualized slasher-movie killings of gay men draw protests, but the same acts done to women on screen are treated as par for the course?) Friedkin the man may have been ignored while filming a scene from the movie at a bar's jockstrap night, but Friedkin the director's 1980 look through -- or is it at? -- a sexual underground hasn't gotten the blind-eye from gay men, then or now. In this week's Guardian and on this blog, you'll find critical writing and specific history on the subject, some of it scathing.

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William Friedkin circa 1970s

Cruising is not a perfect movie, or Friedkin's best movie. It has ridiculous moments. The faux-Freudian explanation at the end parrots Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as routinely as any Brian DePalma imitation of Hitch. But I've been fascinated by it since an era when it was reviled and hard to find on VHS tape. And I like it. I like Cruising's ambivalence and its ambiguity, which could be viewed as prophetic in a societal sense and influential in a stylistic sense. (In comparison, a lot of New Queer Cinema still seems rather, um, safe.) I like the movie's gorgeous but scary shots of Central Park at night. I like its soundtrack. I think it's interesting that the "killer"'s disembodied voice -- a quality that takes on new meaning the more you consider the story -- might very well be the influence behind the killer's voice in gay screenwriter Kevin Williamson's Scream series. Today, Cruising seems most interesting to me as a movie that critiques (hyper)masculinity, straight and gay, as the boundaries between them blur.

I had a 20-minute block of time to talk with Friedkin when he came through town recently in conjunction with Cruising's upcoming run at the Castro Theatre and DVD release. Here's what he had to say about Cruising -- and about Mercedes McCambridge being tied to a chair, knocking back hard liquor and swallowing raw eggs for The Exorcist. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Guardian: The Roxie Cinema here in San Francisco has had a role in the changing reputation of Cruising, so I want to ask you about your relationship with them.
William Friedkin: I don’t know if Elliot [Lavine] and Bill [Banning] are still running [the Roxie], but they always ran films that I made, and I came up [from L.A.] whenever I could to answer questions from the audience. I loved what they were doing.
Now it seems the DVD is the true cinematheque.

G: Some aspects of Cruising, in particular the murder sequences, became clearer to me when I looked at the featurette that is part of the DVD.
WF: You know, I’ve talked about those scenes a bit over the years. I’m not certain it’s a good idea. I generally like it when people discover those things.
That to me is the downside of DVDs. You have to put on these extra features that make things interesting for new generations, but in a way, it can be like a magician giving away a trick.
I do all these extras, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
For example, the murders in Cruising are not solved. There’s more than one killer. I say that right upfront now. I never said that when the film first came out, and so people were confused and angry because the murder that happened at 9 o’clock wasn’t solved at 12 o’clock.
Today, I just reveal the truth: there’s more than one killer. Most of the murders are unsolved, just as the murders that I based this film on were unsolved.

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Al Pacino and Paul Sorvino in Cruising

G: I suppose the positive side of that is that your talking openly about this caused me to look a little more carefully at the way in which there’s kind of a circle of characters in the movie, and not just the various murderers. You see the clerk at the hanky store in one scene, and then in another he reappears as someone cruising Al Pacino in one of the bars. There’s not even any recognition between these characters, maybe because they’re in that sexual, serial, meat market atmosphere.
WF: Absolutely. The cop in one of the early scenes, riding around in the patrol car –

G: Joe Spinell.
WF: Yes. That character also shows up in the bars, and then at the end, when Don Scardino’s character is killed. He’s there – like a bad penny.

G: [Laughs] A bad penny. That’s a good description for a lot of Spinell characters.
WF: I loved him. A tragic figure. He was in a few films of mine, and he was involved in casting them. He was also in The Godfather --

G: -- and Taxi Driver --
WF: -- and that wonderful horror film, Maniac. That’s great.

G: The directorial styles behind Taxi Driver, Maniac, and Cruising aren’t the same, but they do have some major things in common – in particular, they depict a New York City that seems gone today. Parts of the city such as the Piers, for example. Cruising also starts out by matter-of-factly presenting police harassment of gay people and streetwalkers.
WF: That’s an underlying theme of the film – the police attitude towards violence in a minority community, which was a joke. They didn’t want to deal with it other than to exploit it further, which they did. There were shakedowns because the closet was still there.
Part of the impetus behind Cruising was that some friends of mine got hooked up in a murder case, and they hung around the [S/M] bars. One guy was in The Exorcist [in the hospital scene when Regan (Linda Blair) gets a brain scan]. I went to see him in prison and asked him what happened, and he told me. That was another route into what was happening at the time. I realized that some of the guys I knew in the Mafia owned the bars. I went to one and asked if he’d let me go to the bars to make a film, and he put me in touch with the guys who were managing the Mine Shaft.
At the time, I was reading about murders that were going unsolved, and about mysterious deaths [through AIDS] that had nothing to do with murder. I decided to make a film about murders and deaths that were unsolved.

G: There’s definitely an ambiguity and ambivalence to the movie that I don’t think people are comfortable with, or that some viewers don’t like. Filmmaking of the ‘70s often had those qualities, but combining them with the sexual subject matter had a powder keg impact.
WF: People don’t like it that there’s no solution and no happy ending.
You couldn’t make Cruising today. You wouldn’t dare walk into the office of a major studio and produce another such film. It’s too frightening a subject to the powers that be – some of whom are gay.

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Cruising soundtrack

G: There is a lot of writing and reporting about the responses to Cruising during filming and when it was released. But I’m wondering what kind of response you might have gotten from other directors. This can range from Hollywood to a director such as Fassbinder if he saw the film.
WF: Someone like him might have loved the movie. I would say the overwhelming response was shock and shame. I went through this before then with The Exorcist. A guy like Robert Aldrich, who the head of the Director’s Guild at the time, said to people I know, “If The Exorcist wins the Academy Award, it’s the end of Hollywood as we know it.”
Because The Exorcist was so different from the pap that was being put out there, and Cruising as well – I’m not saying whether it was good, great or terrible, it was just different – it scared them.

G: Looking back at reviews and books, one thing that struck me was that some critics who have had an adversarial relationship to your work don’t even mention Cruising.
WF: Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby hated The Exorcist, and Kael hated The French Connection, but Canby thought it was great.
A critical consensus would occur back then; someone wouldn’t go against Pauline Kael. That used to happen a lot; reputations were made and broken by a handful of critics. Sometimes they would like what you did, other times not. I remember Kael trashing Robert Altman one time. Suddenly, after ten years of promoting every half-baked idea he ever had, she torpedoed him.

G: There are some casting choices I want to ask you about. The first is the use of Mercedes Mccambridge’s voice in The Exorcist.
In Cruising, the casting of Brad Davis’s brother Gene in one of the smaller roles is interesting to me, partly because of Brad Davis’s own back story.
And more recently, I’d like to ask about Ashley Judd in Bug. It’s a pleasure to see her get a great role like that, because I think she’s a really underrated actress. To me, she’s like a Barbara Stanwyck for today – she can take ludicrous B-movie material like Double Jeopardy and make it convincing in a wacky way because her performance is so strong.

WF: She [Ashley Judd] holds the screen.
Mercedes McCambridge I remembered from dramatic radio when I was a kid. In [William Peter] Blatty’s book he talks about a demonic voice, but what the hell is that? I did a lot of experimentation having men do the voice, and it always looked like a man speaking through a woman.
I sat down one day and thought about it further -- if it’s not a man’s voice, what is it? I realized it should be a neutral voice, neither male nor female, but a little bit of both. I didn’t know who had that, but then the answer came to me: Mercedes McCambridge.
I didn’t know if she was still alive or retired. I had my production manager ask around. She was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Dallas, Texas, and I got her on the phone.
I told her what I was doing, and she said, “That’s interesting. I’ve been a Catholic for many years. After this tour, show me the picture.” She came to LA, and I showed it to her, and she agreed to do it.
She said, “It’s going to be difficult for me. I know how to get my voice to give you everything you want. But to do that, I’m going to have to start drinking again, and I’m going to have swallow some raw eggs. The drinking is especially bad for me because I was a member of AA.”
She said she wanted two priest friends of hers in the room with her at all times.
When we recorded, she started to suck these raw eggs. She also asked me to tie her tightly to a chair. For three weeks, every day, five days a week, we recorded the demon voice that way. She would come in the morning and gradually become more of a wreck. The priests would be there comforting her and telling her that this was a good thing, and that it would help people realize there was evil in the world as well as good.
At some points she would just breathe into the microphone, and you would hear three or four different pitched sounds coming out of her that were not overlays. Her throat was tuned to produce these otherworldly sounds.
Brad Davis’s brother Gene came in to audition for Cruising. Lou DiGiaimo and Joe Spinell were the casting directors, and they brought Gene in.
I knew Ashley [Judd] socially. I’d never worked with her, but she impressed me enormously. I met her at the Deauville Film Festival; she spoke to the audience in fluent French. I always thought that if she ever found the right part, she would tear it up.
She’s married to this race car driver, and she’d fly out on weekends to go to his races. He’s the guy who won the Indy 500 this year, Dario Franchitti. He’s obviously Italian, but if you talk to him, he has an Australian accent – he’s from Australia. With a name like that, you expect to hear Vittorio Gassman's voice, and out comes Mel Gibson.

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Mercedes McCambridge in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar

G: The relationship between Paul Sorvino’s character and Al Pacino’s character in Cruising is another twist in the troubled father-son connections the movie presents. I wondered if you could tell me anything about their approaches to acting their scenes together.
WF: They were totally different.
I don’t know what Pacino’s approach is now, but back then it was to do twenty or thirty takes without knowing the script in order to find the character while you were shooting. Paul Sorvino would come in totally prepared. Often, Pacino’s approach was difficult for the other actors.
With a guy like Sorvino, it doesn’t get better with more takes. But with Al, it did. He would use the film to find the scene and the character. Nothing was preset. I liked that approach to some extent – until the number of takes goes up to where it’s going to kill the schedule and other actors. I believe in spontaneity in the kinds of films I’ve made. They’re not Shakespeare. I filmed one script word for word, and that was [1968's] The Birthday Party. If you changed a word or a rhythm of a sentence in that, you messed up the meaning.

G: [Pulling out an LP of the Cruising soundtrack] Lastly, I wanted to ask about your overall use of sound in Cruising. One of the ways that you witness Al Pacino’s two worlds coming together in a way that is confusing to him is through the way the sounds from club or bar scenes infiltrate or seep into scenes of his home life. Also, the music is really mixed to the fore.
WF: These were all the bands that I was listening to in LA at the time. The Germs self-destructed early, and I loved John Hiatt and Willy DeVille.
I always regard the soundtrack in a film I make as totally separate from the picture. I approach it separately and do it after [filming]. The soundtrack often has things going on that have nothing to do with what is up on screen.
One thing that came together with the things happening around me [that went into Cruising] was the music. The music of the clubs was Donna Summer. I just took that out and put in the Germs.

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Ashley Judd in Bug

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