Not to mention, his plane was more than an hour late. He lowered the shade on a window, which looked out on Rosemont, the freeway and, beyond, O'Hare Airport — an inauspicious start to a book tour.
This was late Sunday afternoon. His luggage and black leather bomber jacket lay on the bed.
“OK, here's what I have,” he said. “I have to be at the Muvico theater at 6 for the Chicago Film Critics Association (Film Festival). Then a car is going to pick me up after the screening of (his 1977 movie) ‘Sorcerer.' But first I'm doing a book signing, then I will introduce ‘Sorcerer,' then I have my Giordano's, then I sign more books and do a Q&A until it's over. Then tomorrow in the morning, a photo shoot, then at 11:15, Union League Club, then at 5 p.m. WTTW. Then a cocktail party at Christie Hefner's, then more interviews Tuesday and my talk at Harold Washington Library.”
He comes to town a few times a year, he explained, stops at Mr. Beef, the Art Institute, visits with relatives and friends. His wife, former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, grew up in the South Shore neighborhood (and recently donated $5 million to the University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park, from which she graduated in 1962). Though he's 77 now and lives with Lansing in Bel Air, Calif., Friedkin still retains some of the brusque, restless and confrontational directness that made him, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and a handful of others, synonymous with filmmaking in the first half of the 1970s.
Indeed, his book — which he wrote without the help of diaries, because, look, he never kept diaries, he said — is a lot like him: somewhat lyrical (“My world always ended at the shore of the frozen Great Lake,” he writes, “watching the ice floes, jagged pieces of a big white puzzle breaking in the sun”), somewhat guarded personally (“This is a professional memoir,” he told me, “Frank Langella can write a book about all the men and women he had sex with, but I wouldn't do anything like that”) and generally unwilling to sugarcoat stuff.
When I asked if he felt revived — with back-to-back critical successes in “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011) after decades of being written off, with a successful side career as a director of opera — he said: “I don't know what you are talking about. I feel revived because I took a shower! Look, after ‘The Exorcist,' which was 40 years ago, I didn't make a film for four years. There was nothing I was interested in. I started to look after my personal life. Remember, I was hands-on — with ‘The Exorcist' I supervised subtitles, dubbing in different languages. I contacted projectionists at the 26 theaters it was showing, two or three times a week, for six months! If they told me the brightness was on 15 I'd say, ‘Make it 16 or I pull the print. And what's the sound at?' If they said 12, I'd say, ‘It's 15!' They'd say they had complaints that the film was loud. I'd say, ‘Make it 15 or I pull your print!'”
His phone rang.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said.
“Hi, honey, just arrived in Fort Myers,” Lansing said, sounding cheerful and loud on the speaker.
“I have this little room near the airport,” Friedkin said.
“What time is Christie's party?” she asked.
He told her.
“Casual attire?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“OK, I love you, have a good interview,” she said.
“Love you, darling,” he said, and hung up. The smile on his face evaporated. I asked him about Chicago playwright Letts, and how their relationship started, why they've become a good fit.
“What? It's not something that can be easily framed,” he said. “We both find the same things disturbing, humorous, chilling. We share a worldview. We see dark and light in the same person. That's why I am so out of touch with today's filmmakers. I don't believe in pure heroes or pure villains. Did you read my book?”
I assured him I had.
“It's all there.”