This weekend marks an exciting date in the UK cinematic calendar for lovers of 70s genre film. Sorcerer – director William Friedkin’s 1977 follow-up to his iconic horror hit The Exorcist – is being reissued in selected cinemas across the land.
Unfairly maligned upon release and slumping at the cinema (it arrived just after pop culture behemoth Star Wars changed the box office landscape forever), this scorching South American action thriller never reached the kind of audience it so thoroughly deserved during that initial run.
We recently had the honour of chatting with the film’s legendary director over the phone, where he talked about Sorcerer’s burgeoning cult status on the small screen, the sometimes treacherous filming conditions encountered during the shoot, and how he tapped an avant-garde electronic German group to score his overlooked masterpiece.
William Friedkin: I love Sorcerer. It was very difficult to make it but it’s the film I feel closest to. Had it been successful originally, I might have gone in a completely different direction with the kind of films I made.
You take a lot of time and care setting up your characters and their individual back stories. Do you think that type of attention to detail is what’s missing in modern large-scale Hollywood features?
I don’t see a lot of films today of that nature. I tend to watch mostly the independent films where, to generalise, there is more attention to detail. I like the Coen brothers films that speak about America, and there’s a young director named Damien Chazelle who I think would have been successful in any period of American cinema. I don’t see the so-called ‘blockbusters’. I haven’t seen enough to say.
There’s lots of thrilling moments in Sorcerer, but could you briefly take us through how you conceived and shot the bridge crossing scene. It’s a truly unforgettable, heart-in-mouth sequence. You manage to wring out of the kind of tension and suspense that simply doesn’t exist in big contemporary action pictures.
We originally built the bridge in the Dominican Republic across a rushing river that was about six feet high. It was a river that had not really diminished in recent history, but gradually, the water level did begin to drop until it reached the height of a little over a foot off the ground. We had to take the bridge down and John Box the production designer went off looking for a similar terrain in the Mexican jungle and a river that hadn’t dropped.
The river that was found ultimately began to recede, too, until we had two feet of running water. In order to disguise the fact that this was not the enormous rushing river I had hoped for, we decided to bring in rain machines and only film when it was overcast. There is a sense that you can’t tell how high the river is because of how we concealed it and the way I shot it. I used three or four cameras from various positions. The fact that I could change the angle really took the audience’s minds off the fact that this was not the rushing river we had originally planned. We also made a crude dam upwards so there was a larger flow where we were filming. It was an extremely dangerous and difficult shoot. Both trucks actually went in the water many times and had to be fished out.
How were the actors working in those conditions?
Despite my attitude during the shoot – which was a kind of strange, focused madness – nobody ever complained. They all knew it was dangerous and their reactions, for the most part, are real. I didn’t have to tell them to be afraid – they were terrified. It was actually the actors behind the wheel [of the trucks] most of the time. They were driving during the bridge crossing. If they had put their foot on the gas unintentionally, it really could have been a disaster. It was not as tightly-controlled as you would have to do a sequence like that today. There was a lot left to chance, and fortunately, nobody get injured at all.
The score by Tangerine Dream still holds up as an astounding piece of work. How did you discover them and manage to get them on board?
I was touring Europe and Asia in 1974 for The Exorcist. Whilst in Germany, someone from Warner Bros. mentioned to me that there was this incredible concert due to be held at an abandoned church in the Black Forrest at midnight. It sounded intriguing and the executive tried to explain what kind of music it was, but couldn’t. I drove out to the church [for the concert] and saw what must have been a thousand people stood there in the dark. You couldn’t see them or the band. The band then played for three or four hours, long uninterrupted stretches of their electronic music. The only light source in the church was from the flashing lights on their instruments. The music was unbelievable. It was an extraordinary revelation to me. It was three guys who called themselves Tangerine Dream, and I meet with the leader, Edgar Froese, the following day. I told him I didn’t know what my next film was going to be, but whenever I did it, I was going to try and use their music.
It was roughly three years later I had the script for Sorcerer. I got back in touch with Froese and sent him a copy. I also told him how I was going to shoot the film and what it was about. I asked him and his band to write music and record it based on what I told him and what he could interpret from the script, and that’s what he did. They wrote the score before I made the film and I didn’t receive it until I came back from Mexico. It was hours worth of impressions of what I had told them, and the tracks I selected for the film were from those freeform sessions.
The score wasn’t written directly for the film which, as you know, is an unusual way to work. I tried the same method with Wang Chung for [1986’s] To Live and Die in L.A.
That’s really interesting as the music melds so well with the film.
I was on the same page as the band and got what they were doing. I wanted to use their music to inspire me, not for it to underline what I had done.
After all these years, do you feel vindicated now that Sorcerer is being put out again for cinema audiences and a potential new fanbase?
I don’t think of it in those terms. Frankly, I’m very grateful there is an audience to see the film today. Over the years the film’s reputation kinda magnified, largely because of those people who saw it originally never forgot about it. You’d often see online writers doing a piece on it. Finally, it was Warner Bros – not the two studios who initially financed the film – who came along and suggested doing a Blu-ray of the film a few years back in the US, during the height of big sales in that format. It come out and sold enormously well. A similar thing happened over at Warner Bros. with Blade Runner. The audience for Black Runner and Sorcerer grew up during the interest in home video. VHS and eventually DVD brought [Blade Runner] back and the popularity has proved so strong, there’s now a sequel.
For the Blu-ray release of Sorcerer, I retimed the colour on the film using today’s equipment. You can make the blacks really black and the light in the jungle very strong, just as it was when we shot in there. That, in particular, was difficult to achieve in 35mm at that time because of the high contrast you get of light and dark in the jungle.
Going slightly off-topic, could you talk a little about your last feature Killer Joe being turned into a TV series?
I’m working with a writer named Robert Moresco who won the Academy Award for Crash. He also co-produced Million Doller Baby. It’s set amongst the unscrupulous rich who have their wives or business competitors killed. This time around, Joe is a hired killer who frames bad guys for the murders who can’t get arrested for something else, or he makes them look like suicides. He becomes a kind of avenging angel because he doesn’t just kill anybody for hire. He’ll be played by John Cusack in the TV show.
SORCERER is in cinemas 3rd November and on Blu-ray 6th November