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Leap of Faith

“Leap of Faith” is a fascinating exploration of “The Exorcist”‘s William Friedkin, a filmmaker just as captivating as the horror phenomenon he directed.

Always a contender in any ‘scariest movie of all time’ debate, The Exorcist has been the subject of constant analysis and behind-the-scenes examinations.

In addition to the film being in continuous discussion for over 45 years, much has also been written about its director, William Friedkin, including a memoir released in 2011 called The Friedkin Connection. But Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, the new documentary from Alexandre O. Phillippe (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, Memory: The Origins of Alien), presents a fresh and captivating look into not only the film, but the art of filmmaking itself.

The main reason why Leap of Faith works as well as it does is because of Friedkin.

Never a dull interviewee, the always candid Friedkin completely opens up about his approach to The Exorcist and filmmaking in general.

He lays out in great detail the many artistic influences he brought to the film, with an emphasis on imagery from paintings and sound to build tension and create fear. Among many, one work of art in particular helped craft the most famous image of the film. Friedkin incorporated “The Empire of Light”, a painting by René Magritte. What resulted was the infamous shot of Max von Sydow’s character, Father Merrin, standing by a lamppost outside of Reagan’s home in the dead of night.

Friedkin also discusses how he largely followed his gut while making The Exorcist, even filming certain shots he wasn’t sure were even needed for the film. He was just guided by the determination to get the mood and story right. In fact, Friedkin maintains that some shots used in the film have no real meaning or purpose. But he’s enjoyed reading and hearing the varying interpretations over the years.

In one scene towards the end, Friedkin openly states that a pivotal moment did not —  and still doesn’t — work for him. He can’t explain how the scene makes logical sense, and he says it was just a compromise to appease The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. Friedkin boldly challenges any viewer to make sense of and logically explain the scene.

Given the film’s passionate fan base, that’s a tempting request that begs for a response.

One of the most engaging segments of the film focuses on the unseen star of The Exorcist: Mercedes McCambridge.

The actress has surely haunted many dreams, having provided the voice of the demon within Reagan. Friedkin explains the actress swallowed several raw eggs a day and broke her sobriety by drinking and smoking to create the chilling raspy, phlegmy voice of the demon. It’s incredible what the actress did to get the performance she knew was needed.

Another highlight of this segment is hearing Linda Blair say the lines in her 14 year old voice before they were dubbed over. Other than seeing Blair in clips, Leap of Faith‘s only disappointment is the actress not being mentioned once by Friedkin. It’s well known that Blair doesn’t have the fondest memories of filming The Exorcist, so one can understand the omission. Though her absence is certainly felt.

To that end, Friedkin delves into the unconventional tactics he imposed on set, which may explain why Blair had such a tough time filming. From firing a gun off camera to get the startled reaction he wanted, to even slapping an actor (a real priest!) across the face to prepare him for an emotional scene, little was off limits if it meant getting the perfect shot. He admits these tactics would never fly on a film set today.  But they do help illustrate the deep conviction Friedkin had for his work.

The filmmaker also struggles with faith and the ultimate despair of being human, openly talking about the subjects.

All of this presents a complicated man — a deep thinking, conflicted yet confident man — who, whether on purpose or not, put as much of himself into his work as his many influences.

Leap of Faith is a masterclass in a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Friedkin is a natural storyteller. And the fascinating process of how he crafted one of the scariest and most critically acclaimed films of all time is absolutely engrossing, even riveting at times. The captivating subject of THE EXORCIST is matched by Friedkin himself, who remains as engaging and passionate as ever at the age of 85.

Leap of Faith proves that Friedkin is a filmmaker as tied to the success of his masterpiece as Orson Welles is to Citizen Kane, as Steven Spielberg is to Jaws.

This extraordinary documentary is a must watch for anyone who loves scary movies, for anyone who loves film, or for anyone who searches for answers about fate, faith, and the meaning of life.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4.5

Leap of Faith made its World Premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival and recently screened at the Nightstream Film Festival. Immediately before its Nighstream screening, Shudder announced it had acquired rights to the film, which will air exclusively on AMC Networks’ genre streaming service on November 19th. 

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