Interview: Picking Up on William Friedkin's Cruising
The director on his newly re-mastered 1980 film.William Friedkin will forever be remembered as one of the legendary New Hollywood directors of the 1970s. He and the "film brats" worked feverishly during a decade-long confluence of bewildered (but rich) studio executives who entrusted young (but learned) filmmakers to win back disaffected (but daring) audiences by filming innovative and accessible stories. Friedkin and his band of precocious auteurs loved movies more than anything and only when their egos and wallets grew larger than their desire to continue the cinematic innovation of the European New Waves did it all come crashing down.
Friedkin's best known and most-celebrated work is The French Connection (for which he won a Best Director Oscar at the age of 26), which he followed with the ever-controversial The Exorcist. Outside of dedicated cinephiles, most would be hard-pressed to name his other films. However, Friedkin continues to work even today (see this year's psycho-thriller Bug), creating movies that, while not as groundbreaking as his earlier work, share a strong thematic consistency and show the artist to be as keen and original as he ever was, if in smaller ways.
RT met with the notorious director -- who's been featured with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese in Peter Biskind's unforgiving tome on 1970s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls -- to discuss his 1980 film Cruising, which will get the deluxe DVD treatment from Warner Home Video on September 18. Cruising stars Al Pacino as Steve Burns, an undercover cop who must infiltrate the gay New York City underworld to attract a serial killer whose modus operandi is to pick up young men in S&M bars. Armed only with the information that the murderer targets men of his type (but not certain if the victims are even related, or whether there are multiple killers), Pacino must shed his inhibitions and adopt a homosexual persona until he himself gets "cruised." When the film opened, liberal culture in America was ending just as the gay rights movement got underway. Cruising portrays a paranoid era when personal identity had suddenly become a dangerous secret.
You've always been an unflinching director, both with the subject matter you choose and how you treat those subjects onscreen -- there's a sense of immediacy and rawness. Cruising follows your other work in that sense. Is that what attracted you to the story? How S&M was a subterranean culture that you could explore in a way both shocking and revealing?
William Friedkin: I think that's probably a good way to put it. I never thought of it as anything shocking at the time. I thought it was fascinating. There are many outside events that led to making Cruising but what drew me toward it more than anything was that it was based on an actual series of murders that took place in Manhattan around that time, and they were unsolved. I was making a film about unsolved murders. That was really the unusual and unique thing about it.
Because at that time, and even more so today, a movie about a murder starts and it's two hours long, at the end of two hours the murder is solved and everything gets put back neatly into its drawer. This convention is nowhere worse than on television. At nine o'clock somebody gets murdered and at 10 o'clock the murder is completely solved and put away. I realized because of a lot of contact that I had with police officers all over the country and many parts of the world that's not how it works. There are many more unsolved murders than solved. There is this evil out in the world that's vying with good on a constant basis. The thing that attracts me to almost every film I've made is the thin line between good and evil. In all the characters there are no real, single villains or heroes. There's a part of good and [a part of] evil in all the characters, which is what I really believe. So this was a way of making a film about unsolved murders. And at the time, that had not been done. I don't know if it's been done since. But it was considered, if not confusing to audiences, then ambiguous. And it may to some extent still be, because audiences are conditioned to know who the killer is. When a normal movie's over, you walk out saying, "I knew it was that guy all the time!" But Cruising isn't "that guy." And that's what happened in the series of murders that took place, which prompted me to do the film. They weren't solved.
In that sense, the story has connection to San Francisco through a comparison to the Zodiac murders; the sense of everyman killers -- your neighbor could be a murderer -- that sense of paranoia.
WF: Those were unsolved. And the BTK [bind, torture, kill] murders in Kansas City [between 1974 and 1991]. They got the guy 30-some years later.
Is that why you always resist resolution at the end of your movies?
WF: There is no resolution. I don't resist it. Cruising is a film about a series of murders that took place to which there were no clear answers. They pretty much knew who did one or a couple of the murders, but not all of them. Nor is it suggested that the murder was gay. One or two of the murderers may have been gay. They may also have been seeking vengeance against gay people. There was a lot of that going on at the time. Even in recent years where young people are victimized because of their religion or sexual preference or something else. It's pretty frightening that's still occurring.