The Horror, the Horror
An Interview With Exorcist Author and Screenwriter William Peter Blatty
A little girl, a pair of priests, and several gallons of split-pea soup: That's how most people remember William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin in 1973 from Blatty's adaptation of his bestselling novel. Until The Sixth Sense arrived last year, it remained the highest-grossing supernatural thriller ever. A re-release touted as "The Version You've Never Seen" is set to terrify a whole new generation of filmgoers. The "new" Exorcist includes footage excised from the original print for time considerations, as well as a remixed audio track and even a few new surprises enabled by the tremendous leaps in digital technology made since the film's initial release. Blatty, a soft-spoken, extremely well-preserved 72-years-old, has had a varied career, from early screenwriting work alongside director Blake Edwards to the popular and critical success of The Exorcist, and from the critical bashing of his directorial debut (1980's The Ninth Configuration) to his current work with the next film in the Exorcist series, Dominion, following the early years of Father Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow in the original) and his first encounter with the demon Pazuzu.
Blatty himself directed 1990's critically panned The Exorcist III, which, while it failed to spark much box office, remains head-and-shoulders above John Boorman's execrable The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film so laughably bad that it's practically a comic masterpiece. Blatty, thankfully, had little to do with that travesty, managing to keep his name away from it while simultaneously taking the high road and doing it better himself 13 years later.
In town for the SXSW Film premiere of the newly restored The Exorcist, currently showing in local theatres, Blatty spoke with me about his remarkable life on both sides of the camera.
Austin Chronicle: Most people seem to associate you almost exclusively with The Exorcist, but you were actually working in Hollywood long before that, and indeed were writing novels before that. How you make the transition from novelist to screenwriter?
William Peter Blatty: Back in the Fifties I was working as a publicity director at USC and trying to sell my first novel -- Which Way to Mecca, Jack -- which was about some experiences I had while working for the U.S. Information Agency in Beirut. While I was there I met a man from the publishing industry who finally agreed to publish my novel. After the book came out, I wrote a letter to The Jack Paar Show telling them that I'd like to be on their program to discuss my novel. Well, I got a letter back from the producer, who said if I was ever in New York to give them a call. Two days later, I'm in New York, and arranged to be on the show that night for the last five minutes. Watching me on the show was the head of the story department at Columbia Pictures whose wife, apparently, thought I might be someone her husband could use. The next thing I know I've written a screenplay for Columbia and I'm under contract and here I am today. That began the whole roller-coaster ride that's been my life.
AC: Tell me a little about working on A Shot in the Dark with Blake Edwards. How was that?
WPB: While I was writing another film for Blake, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, he got a call from the producers who were gearing up to do this film based on a French play called A Shot in the Dark. It wasn't a straight comedy at that point, more of a thriller, really, and apparently Peter Sellers had just had a huge fight with the original director and Blake was tapped to fill in. So Blake told me, I'll do it if you'll write it. I thought it over that night and came up with a story in which there were five murders all involving the same household so that it appears that one murder is to cover up the last one. The gimmick is there's no connection between any of them, though. The only way I could see to make it all work was if Peter Sellers would agree to play Inspector Clouseau, because up to that point he had been cast in a relatively minor part in the film. This time, with the new script, we could make him the lead. Long story short, Peter accepted, I wrote most of the finished script on the ship to France, and we did it.
AC: Did it surprise you how much audiences took to the film? It's hard to envision a time when the Pink Panther wasn't sort of a brand name, but back then it was so new and different ...
WPB: I went to the first night's sneak preview in Westwood, California, and you couldn't even hear the dialogue the audience was laughing so loud. My stomach hurt from laughing. It was amazing. I figured then that if they could do that again they'd have another hit on their hands, and of course they did.
AC: Let's talk a little about the writing of The Exorcist. How did you move from these jaunty screen comedies to this punishing horror novel?
WPB: Comedy had dried up. Nobody would hire me to write anything straight or serious because I was only known as a writer of comedies. I not only was known for farce but off-the-wall stuff to boot. I had nothing better to do than go down to the unemployment office and pick up a few dollars at that point, so I thought maybe I'd better write that book I'd been thinking about, if for no other reason than to prove that I can write something other than comedies and go on with my life in Hollywood. I didn't know if I could even get it published -- even my agent thought it was a rotten idea. So one night I went to a cocktail party and met the editor-in-chief of Bantam Books who asked me what I was doing. I told him my idea for The Exorcist, and right away he said he'd publish it. He gave me a $10,000 advance which was just enough to rent a cabin and try to write.
AC: How long did it take to write it?
WPB: Nine months of writing. It was every day, minimum 14 hours a day and frequently 18 hours. On and on and on and on. I just had to finish it, and eventually I did.
AC: Had you always been attracted to suspense and psychological horror? It seems as though it was quite a departure for you at the time.
WPB: My reading was very much in tune with that sort of thing. When I was a kid I started out on Ray Bradbury and moved on to whatever spooky stories I could get my hands on. I went up and down Manhattan to all the different bookstores and libraries and just read my way through the city. I was very much into the paranormal and the supernatural, mostly to assuage my own fear of my mortality, of dying. There's got to be something more, I thought.
AC: After the book came out it really took off like nobody's business. Did that catch you off-guard?
WPB: When I was about three-quarters of the way through writing the book, I thought: This is going to be big. This is going to catch the public eye. Then it went out, and at first, bookstores were returning it by the boxload. I couldn't believe it. The publisher would call and tell me how many shipments were returned that day and so forth. It was a disaster. But once again, someone was looking out for me. I was in Manhattan to try out for the Dick Cavett show, which at that time was the talk show to be on. Cavett didn't really care for my book, and his people discouraged me from coming back, but at the last moment, one of their guests called in sick and they decided to use me instead. I raced over to the studio, into make-up, and waited for my slot, which was to be at the very end of the show. Well, the first guest got the hook after five minutes, the second guest was drunk, got the hook, and finally out I come, with 45 minutes to burn, and off I go. I got to do virtually a 45-minute monologue about the book. I think Cavett asked only one question.
After that, the book took off like a shot. In 10 days it was No. 4 on the Times Bestseller list, the next week No. 1, and it stayed there.
AC: How did William Friedkin become involved?
WPB: I met him when I was working with Blake Edwards, actually. He'd only done one documentary at the time, but we had lunch together, and he critiqued some of my work in the film Darling Lili, and I remembered that when it came time to do The Exorcist. I thought to myself: Here is a director who can bring the look of documentary realism to this incredible story, and also, just as important, here is a guy who is never going to lie to me. When I made the deal with Warners, we mutually agreed on seven possible directors -- Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Mark Rydell, etc. -- but they didn't like Friedkin. The French Connection hadn't come out yet. But all the others passed on the project, so they went -- wisely -- with Friedkin despite their reservations.
AC: How involved were you in the day-to-day production of the film?
WPB: Well, apart from writing the script I also produced, so I was heavily involved. I wasn't on the set all the time, but I was involved in casting and so on.
AC: Speaking of which, how did you find Linda Blair?
WPB: She was wonderful. Just the most wholesome, all-American girl-next-door. That's what she was. After all these difficult scenes she'd tiptoe around and giggle, after every bit. It was all a big funhouse ride for her. She was disturbed only one time, and that was when her pet mouse died.
AC: Could that be chalked up to The Exorcist curse? Probably not.
WPB: [laughing] There is no Exorcist curse. I am The Exorcist curse!
AC: When the film was released, it caused a tremendous stir, with viewers fainting and throwing up and so forth. How did you feel about all the commotion? Did you expect it?
WPB: [The fainting] was because of that shot of the arterial blood spurting out of Regan's neck in the hospital. I don't even watch that scene -- I look away, too. That's where all that happened. In Kansas City, the lines were so long that people were nearly rioting and the police had to be called in with tear gas. And in Chicago, a bunch of people got hold of battering rams and they battered down the side or the back door to the theatre. It was just ... I remember the opening line of the Newsweek cover story: "On December 26 a movie called The Exorcist opened in theatres across the country, and since then all Hell has broken loose."
AC: Do you think if the film was made today it would have that same sort of cultural impact, or do you think that was a product of the times?
WPB: Well, I think it has a tremendous visceral power that works even today. We saw it at the screening here. That nervous laughter is still there, indicating that the film still scares. I don't know the source of it. Something in that movie scares people. It takes ahold of your nervous system and just squeezes it. It has a tremendous power.
AC: Some people seem to get the wrong message at the end of the film, assuming that since Father Karras is killed that it means that evil has triumphed. But that's getting it completely backward, right?
WPB: Right. The night before Bill was to shoot that penultimate scene, we went over the blocking and we were both so sure that it was crystal clear what was happening in that scene, but not everyone gets it. My theory over the years has been that at that point in the movie, most of the audience is a little out of it. They're really not seeing what's happening there, and, of course, the film lost its original ending and instead ended with Father Dyer looking down the steps and, you know, that's a real downbeat, a real sad ending, and I think it gives an audience an emotional cue about how they're supposed to feel. So now, finally, we've got the original ending back as it was shot, which at least tells you somehow Karras lives on, and that everybody's going to be okay.
AC: You've made the leap from humor writer to screenwriter and back, and then to actually directing your own films, beginning with The Ninth Configuration in 1980. Why the leap to the director's chair?
WPB: Many writers are frustrated by what directors do to their scripts, and I was no different. So even though I doubted that I had the capabilities to direct, I'd always itched to get my script up there on the screen. And finally The Exorcist gave me the chance. I found a financier -- the Pepsi-Cola company -- and went ahead with The Ninth Configuration. I was terrified at first. We shot it in Budapest, Hungary, but you know what? It's exactly as Woody Allen has said: "Ninety percent of directing is just showing up." So I had a few sleepless nights, but it was actually quite simple. Blake Edwards once said to me, "It's not as hard as it looks." And it's not.
AC: What's your final verdict on this new, restored version of The Exorcist? Are you satisfied?
WPB: It's the version that I've wanted for 25 years. It's the version that I first saw on the moviola in the editing room all those years ago, and it's the way it ought to be seen.
The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen is currently playing in Austin theatres.