Interview: Picking Up on William Friedkin's Cruising
The director on his newly re-mastered 1980 film.
WF: Cruising definitely reflected the attitude of the times: The temper of the times. How the culture was either accepted or ignored, at that particular time, and then attention would be brought on it because of this or that event, like the murders. But what was happening during the time we were making the film, there were all of these gay people dying and it wasn't clear why. There was a "gay disease". And it was the beginning of AIDS, but those were considered unsolved deaths at the time. Shortly after, maybe by the mid-1980s, the largest group of AIDS victims was women in prison. Then they were able to trace it to needles, and the exchange of needles, either for transfusions or drugs. But at first it was thought to be a plague that struck only gay people. And so, again, it was a series of unsolved murders. Unsolved killings: Why, all of a sudden? I had many friends who were contracting AIDS, and many of them were not outwardly gay. It's hard to underestimate how paranoid people became with the onset of AIDS.
The sense of suspicion comes through in the movie. And in the middle of it, you interject this character of Steve Burns (Al Pacino). You put this guy in the middle of all these shifting identities, hidden identities that conceal potential danger, and his own identity starts to shift. He starts to question his own sexual orientation. Could you talk about how you found that character with Pacino?
WF: Steve Burns is based on a guy who went through that; a police officer named Randy Jurgensen. He [Jurgensen] plays a detective in the movie, in the morgue scene and in the interrogations. He was also in The French Connection. He had a 20-year career as a New York City detective. He was involved in the periphery of the actual French Connection case, and the murders in the Harlem mosque, and he had a number of extraordinary cases. He was sent into the leather bars, which were at that time subterranean, because there was a series of killings where the victims all had a similar appearance, and they looked like Randy; about his height, dark hair, mustache, swarthy complexion. The police had no clues and basically threw up their hands.
Randy was sent in to try and attract the killer. These were his experiences, much more so than anything that's in Gerald Walker's book, Cruising. I used the basic foundation from that book, but his book is not set in the leather bars. Randy's life was. He went through that. He told me how he became disoriented and confused as a result of that experience. Because you're dealing with basic human needs, sexual and emotional, quite apart from whatever sort of religious or moral or social or ethical rules we're given, you're dealing with life at its most primitive level. Randy was in there to do the job of a police officer, and he had no idea what in the hell he should be doing. But he was being held out there as bait for a killer. So it was Randy's very vivid descriptions of his life during this period that formed the basis of Cruising.
The description of the killer that Burns was given is equivalent to the modern "black male between 18 and 30, between 5'5'' and 6'5''", which is so general it's practically useless. So he does have to put himself out there; he has to be very open, but suspicious at the same time.
WF: It's fear. He wasn't allowed to carry a gun. He was afraid. As with all undercover police work, you're asked to be an actor: A convincing actor. A handful of them were [convincing actors], and those were the guys we made movies about. Most of the undercover detectives cracked under the tension or emotion distress of being thought of for 20 years as part of this or that Mafia outfit. Most of that went very badly for the guys who did it, because they weren't actors.
To succeed, you have to give yourself over to the farce so completely that you're at risk of truly becoming the role.
WF: Yes, exactly. Of course, the very best cops are the ones who think like criminals anyway, who could have gone either way.
That theme of play-acting as a policeman is made explicit in the ironic scene when Pacino shows up to "Precinct Night" at the local leather bar, and he's the only one who's not dressed as a cop, so he gets kicked out, even though he's the only one there who's actually a cop.
WF: There was "Precinct Night" where everyone had to dress up as a cop. And it was interesting because the bars in New York were owned at that time by two groups: the Mafia and cops. Sometimes working cops, but sometimes ex-cops who made so much money that they retired. The police that were supposedly out there for protection were actually owners of the clubs where these crimes were originating.