Or was it? That's a question for its author, and thankfully there's an entertaining and enlightening new documentary out on Shudder this Thursday called Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist that asks just that to just them. And as the doc's subtitle makes clear when I just said "author" I meant its "director" -- book author William Peter Blatty is not interviewed here. Neither are the film's stars Ellen Burstyn or Linda Blair interviewed. Not Owen Roizman who did the icily gorgeous cinematography, not Jean-Louis Decarme who designed the all-time-best sound, and not Mike Oldfield whose "Tubular Bells" has become as iconic as any horror music ever. And sadly I must report that Leap of Faith does not resurrect Mercedes McCambridge from the grave so she can detail to us her process of gargling eggs just right to get that perfect demon intonation. Boo!
No, Leap of Faith is presented by director Alexandre O. Philippe, the cineaste-scavenger who recently gave us the movie-specific studies 78/52 (on the shower scene in Psycho) and Memory: The Origins Of Alien, as a 103-minute sit-down with Friedkin and Friedkin alone -- Friedkin talks, we watch clips and listen. It brings to mind Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's 2015 doc on Brian De Palma -- you might remember it, it was called De Palma -- just with far less of a free-wheeling focus, narrowing itself down to a single film instead of that wide-ranging career retrospective.
Does Leap of Faith maybe at times feel like an extra on a DVD of the film? Sure. But a really fantastic extra, one movie-nerds text and tweet their movie-nerd friends about -- one like Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, which situates our understanding of a masterwork from that point forward. It helps (by leaps and demon-dog bounds) that, like Werner Herzog and Brian De Palma, William Friedkin is a hell of a character and a heck of a story-teller all on his own. He's just a blast to listen to, whether he's rifling around in his recollections of paintings he leaned on to create some of the most memorable images in the horror canon -- Magritte looms large -- or in the desecration of a real-life friendship due to disagreements over the film's score.
That last tip does bring up the major shortcoming to Leap of Faith's approach, but it's at least one the film (and Friedkin himself) seems aware of -- we are just getting one man's perspective here. And directors, I don't know if you've heard, can trend towards the egotistical. Auteur Theory seems to be on its way out now, with a more generous approach to the hundreds and hundreds of people that it takes to get a movie made. There are, no doubt, other voices that saw the process of making The Exorcist very differently -- Friedkin at least reads as generous in giving credit to as many people as he can. But I still can't tell you how many moments I hoped the film might yank the rug of its own expectations out from under us and surprise-cut to a grinning Ellen Burstyn, with a sudden "Oh no, Bill, I don't recall it happening that way." Maybe Linda Blair could've popped out from behind a potted plant like she's Chris Hanson on How To Catch a Predator? I don't know. I guess we can save that for the sequel.