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William Friedkin On ‘The French Connection’ At 50 And The Sequel He Still Wants To Make

Director William Friedkin’s game-changing crime thriller The French Connection landed in theaters 50 years ago. Not only did it become a colossal hit at the box office, grossing $75 million against a $1.5 million budget, but it also went on to be nominated for, and won, a slew of Oscars, including the trifecta of Best Picture, Best Actor and Director.

Even the filmmaker himself didn’t see any of that coming.

On Saturday, November 13, 2021, Friedkin will appear on TCM with a double-bill screening of The French Connection and To Live and Die in LA to mark the classic movie’s milestone. I caught up with him to discuss the acclaimed thriller that broke the rules, the true sequel he’d love to see happen, and his reaction to Gene Hackman’s recent interview about the film.

Simon Thompson: The French Connection remains the gold standard in the genre. What are your thoughts on the fact it is still the one to try and beat after all these years? 

William Friedkin: Well, when that happens, it means the picture must be pretty good. There’s no getting away from it. Nobody in the film is sympathetic, but there’s something about the film itself that gets through to people. In many ways, Popeye Doyle represents what Captain Ahab represents in Moby-Dick, and that is an unflexible, diligent pursuit of, in Ahab’s case, the whale and, in Popeye’s case, the Frenchman, Alain Charnier. I think people relate to that. I never intended that. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not what I thought would happen. I was making a film about unsympathetic characters, but I tried to present them as honestly as I saw them.

Thompson: You took an unorthodox approach to filming The French Connection. Did you get much push back from the studio because you weren’t shooting the movie in the traditional way but more like a documentary?

Friedkin: They were very nervous, but there was no pushback. They had no idea of how to do it differently. They didn’t pay much attention to the dailies. The French Connection was not a film that they were gambling on. In many places, like 42nd Street in New York, they released it as a double feature, and they had no belief in it whatsoever. It came out and immediately went through the roof like a rocket. We don’t know why but sometimes that happens. Star Wars is another excellent example. That was a movie that nobody wanted to make. Every studio turned it down, and many of them turned it down twice for various reasons. Star Wars came out and took off. It is very difficult to predict. You can predict some of the kid’s movies that are made by Marvel or Pixar and companies like that because you know they’ll have a big audience, but something like The French Connection? It came out of the blue.

Thompson: People often say that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore. Could you make a movie like The French Connection in 2021?

Friedkin: I don’t know. First of all, I had no permits to do the chase scene. None. Secondly, we had to pay the guy from the transit department $40,000 to shoot on the elevated train. I broke all the rules, which is something I would never do again. I look at this business with Rust, the Alec Baldwin movie, and I think to myself, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ I broke all the rules, I put myself in danger, I put the lives of others in danger, and I really didn’t care. I just felt that nothing was going to go wrong, and, by the grace of God, it didn’t.

Thompson: Your non-traditional approach to making The French Connection included having a critic as your casting director, and it paid off. Did you ever think to employ those tactics again on any of your other movies?

Friedkin: Generally, no.  I did use the same casting director on To Live and Die in LA. He was a critic for The Village Voice, and he basically knew every actor in the country. If you went into his apartment, it was stacked with newspapers with reviews of people who did some play in Minneapolis or something, and he knew who they were. He was able to find people in ways that other casting directors didn’t. I did it for To Live and Die in LA because, as a movie, I thought it lent itself to the same style and the same approach.

Thompson: I wondered if pairing the two movies together for this TCM event was entirely coincidence but is that the reason the two movies are being shown together?

Friedkin: I think so. I know that they like both films. I didn’t suggest it, they chose to do it, and that’s fine with me. I do see a thread between the two pictures, definitely. I set out to make both movies in a similar way.

Thompson: So they are East Coast and West Coast companion pieces.

Friedkin: Yes, I would say they are.

Thompson: How much of The French Connection did you approach traditionally on set? For instance, did the other actors know that Gene Hackman would slap them, or did he decide to do that on the day? They do look genuinely surprised.

Friedkin: There was no script, really. I had both Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider ride around with Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, the real cops their characters were based on. They mimicked what they saw, which is what I wanted. I had seen all that behavior months before, and they were seeing it fresh before they did the film. Gene did not want to go that far. He thought the guy was really racist, but I didn’t. I thought it was an act that he was doing to survive in the street. Gene actually found the character very tough to play. On the other hand, Scheider fit into the role of Grosso like a gloved hand. It was perfect. Grosso loved what Roy did with that character. I gave him minimal direction, but I directed Hackman very carefully and tried to provoke that anger from him as often as I could.

Thompson: You didn’t shoot many takes of scenes. Was that to keep it authentic?

Friedkin: Well, I believe in one take, unless there’s a serious mistake like a light falls in the shot or somebody makes a face at the camera as they walk by on the street. I’m much more interested in spontaneity than in perfection. I have no interest in going for perfection. All that is is wasting time. What I tried to do was get spontaneity from the characters. If I get that in the scene, that’s the take, and that’s it.

Thompson: The ending of the film is very abrupt, but obviously, there was a sequel. Was the intention always for there to be a French Connection II? Was that discussed, or did you finish this film and think that was the end of the story? Do you regret not picking up that sequel yourself?

Friedkin: I won’t say that French Connection II was a sequel. It was something, but it was not a sequel to the first film. It was an attempt to try to do some of the same things again. It was directed by a fellow I have great respect for, John Frankenheimer, and before he did the film, I sent him an eight-page handwritten letter, with writing on both sides, urging him not to do it. I told him that critics would see The French Connection as a classic and a masterpiece the minute he did that, and his sequel was an interloper. Unless it’s totally great, what have you got? Why would you do that? I begged him in that fashion not to do it. I, of course, would never do it. That wasn’t a sequel to the story. There’s a wonderful sequel to the story that’s out there, and that’s what happened to the $32 billion worth of dope that was taken from the Property Clerk’s Office by members of the New York City Police Department. That’s the sequel, and that’s always interested me. What they did afterward with French Connection II had no interest for me at all. It just capitalized on the title.

Thompson: You make it sound like that is the movie that got away. Are you still interested in picking that up all these years later and making that yourself?

Friedkin: It’s possible. The French character, whose real name was Jean Jehan, we called Alain Charnier. We had releases from the two cops and other people connected with this story, but we had no releases from the bad guys. The studio lawyers made us change the names. I have no idea why because it accomplished nothing but that was the level of stupidity that prevailed then. The sequel I’d like to do is a great story. Jean Jehan fought at the side of Charles de Gaulle in the Resistance and World War II. He fought side by side with De Gaulle. Jehan did plenty more than was in The French Connection, so it would be interesting to examine both sides of what happened afterward.

Thompson: Gene Hackman did a rare interview recently and said he’s only seen The French Connection once.

Friedkin: Yeah, I don’t believe that. I think I saw it with him five times myself. I don’t know why he’s being so modest. Gene retired from acting, he hates acting, and he always did, and he gives funny responses like that. I’m amazed that he even came out of this hole and gave an interview. Gene has abandoned the movie business. He hasn’t talked about any of his films for something like 20 years. 

Thompson: When was the last time you spoke to him?

Friedkin: I did talk to him when he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We used to see each other regularly. We played basketball at his house, or my house, with the same group of guys. We’d see each other maybe three or four times a week after the film. When he moved to Santa Fe, I lost touch with him at that point.

Thompson: I know he considers himself retired, but I would love to see you guys reunite on a project.

Friedkin: I would love to work with him. He’s a great actor. There’s no question about that, but he couldn’t see it. He never saw it even though others did. It was a strange affair. I thought his interview was bizarre, especially when he said that the chase scene in Bullitt was better than the one in The French Connection. Both of those chase sequences are very nice, much celebrated, but they’re different. It’s very difficult to compare them. For Bullitt, they cleared the streets of San Francisco and ran the cars over the hills. The French Connection chase was much more dangerous and realistic, but I’ve never claimed it was better. I don’t know which is better. They’re just different. It was very strange to see Gene say that because, you know what, I don’t know that he ever saw Bullitt (laughs).

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