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The Eternal Struggle

From The Exorcist to Bug William Freidkin's movies examine people battling real and symbolic forces of evil

Friedkin in 1973 on the set of The Exorcist with Linda Blair.

By Ian Grey | Posted 5/23/2007

Thirty-four years after his career-defining Antichrist smash, The Exorcist, director William Friedkin still blames the devil. "Everybody has this thin line between good and evil," he says from his cushy seat in Lionsgate's swank Manhattan PR suite. "And sometimes we cross it. Like the kid in Virginia. I don't think he was born evil, but I think it was the devil that caused him to do it."

Speaking in a measured drawl, he projects a sense of holding court rather than being interviewed, reminiscent of a long-tenured professor who doesn't really care what you think of his opinions but can't help but express them in detail. The odd takeaway is that everything he says sounds completely rational. But the devil? As in Judeo-Christian?

After discussing the inability of psycho-social context to explain Hitler's atrocities, he nods. "It's very well expressed in the Judeo-Christian manner," he says. "We can [at least] get a handle on it as a metaphor. But yeah, the devil, a force of evil--just as I believe in a force for good."

In Bug, the war between evil and good plays out in moral gray tones on a notably secular proscenium as the conspiracy theory-crazed war vet played by Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd's soul-blown waitress go mutually mad in the middle of a very American nowhere. Deviling these lost souls is a post-truth world where Friedkin says we can no longer "trust the government" or a media that "takes what's fed to them and print it as fact." In short, Bug is partially about how, bombarded with disinformation and with no viable filters, we're all going crazy.

But there's more. After an aghast recollection of a recent poll showing that 35 percent of potential Democratic voters and not a few Republicans believe that George W. Bush knew about Sept. 11 before the planes hit the towers, Friedkin says, "Another thing that's at work is how people who are vulnerable, lonely, and isolated--which is most of us--will hook up with somebody who's in the same boat and attach ourselves to their worldview. So when this guy comes on in the film and spouts out these theories, she believes them . . . because they make sense to her in the same way it makes sense to [all those voters] that Bush knew."

Friedkin insists that Bug, Lionsgate's marketing aside, is not a genre film in the post-Hostel frame, but a very new sort of horror picture. "It could be viewed that way," he says. "This would have been flagged in the '60s or '70s as a horror film. But the horror film . . . isn't what it was. And that's too bad, because it was a very promising genre."

What Bug inarguably is is a relentless mind-fuck. "All of filmmaking is a kind of a game between the filmmaker and the audience," he points out. "Ever see one of Michael Haneke's films?"

But like the Caché director, Friedkin takes the "game" to extremes. Instead of opening up Tracy Lett's play, he makes it even more constricted, shooting most of it in one room in purposefully static closeups. ("Some of the most dramatic events take place in a room where personalities clash," he says, putting the kibosh on that discussion/critique.)

And for a director known for his inspired use of unconventional music--think Mike Oldfield's pre-ambient "Tubular Bells" in The Exorcist or Tangerine Dream's nightmare sound swathes for Sorcerer--Bug is notable for its lack of a score. "The score is the air conditioner and the coffeepot," he says, and so much for that topic as well.

But the biggest mind-fuck is the movie's subjectivity. "I can't vouch that anything in that film actually happens," Friedkin says. "I don't know how much that happens is their combined fantasy. The only way I could make that film is to be able to see the world through their eyes."

As for Judd's frighteningly visceral performance, which finds her sweaty and filthy when she also isn't naked and/or covered in sores and cuts, Friedkin rather charmingly expresses both admiration and awe. He likens her interpretation of Lett's often febrile text to what "often occurs with a musician and a score. . . . A score's a bunch of illegible notes on paper, and then Pinchas Zuckerman plays it and it breaks your heart. And Ashley does that."

What is impossible to imagine is Judd, covered in fake gore, segueing from shrieking "I am the super mother bug queen!" to ordering a ham sandwich when the director called "cut." "In many ways, [Bug is] a black-comedy love story," Friedkin dryly notes.

But Friedkin says "that's exactly what she'd do. Immediately after I said `cut.' The same way that Linda Blair was able to. If you saw the outtakes of The Exorcist, she'd go through the most outrageous things, I'd say `cut,' the camera's still rolling, and you see her start to giggle and from offstage a prop man hands her a milk shake." He shrugs. "I can't tell you that I know where that comes from. I just don't have it."

But with Bug, Friedkin has at least sussed out his own career-long motivation for making movies. "In the maybe 40 seconds of introspection I encounter in a year, I was thinking, Why did you do this [film] or that?," he says. "And the same theme keeps popping up: The constant struggle of our better angels to exceed over the horrible impulses all of us get."

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