Review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
Alexandre O. Phillipe's documentary is a valuable and engaging conversation with a master filmmaker
Written by Jonathan Hatfull
Having dedicated an entire documentary to the shower scene in Psycho and dived into Dan O’Bannon’s archives to explore the origins of Alien, filmmaker Alexandre O. Phillipe has taken a somewhat more straightforward approach to his film about The Exorcist: put William Friedkin in a comfy chair and let him talk for 100 minutes or so. The stylistic quirks and artistic flourishes of his previous two docs are mostly absent in Leap of Faith, replaced by smartly assembled footage and a genial raconteur who’s more than happy to expound on what makes his horror masterpiece so special.
As with several of Philippe’s films (he also directed zombie genre exploration Doc of the Dead), there’s the inevitable question: is there anything left to say about the subject? The Exorcist has been extensively covered over the years both in film (perhaps most notably in Mark Kermode’s documentary The Fear of God) and literature, but the director’s knack for finding an angle strikes again. By making Friedkin the only voice in the film (we hear Philippe prompt him once or twice with a follow-up question), Leap of Faith feels surprisingly intimate and takes the feel of an organic conversation.
This sense is strengthened by the film’s structure, which flits between Friedkin’s memories of the production, his inspirations and personal philosophies. In turn, Philippe keeps some of the more familiar anecdotes from feeling stale, and the new details feel even more precious (fans of The Exorcist will prick up their ears when Friedkin begins a story by announcing he’s never told it before). There’s also something to the fact that there’s no corroboration or counter to anything that we’re told here, no academic voices chiming in with “Yes, that was a masterfully shot scene” or cast members offering a slightly less rose-tinted version of Friedkin firing guns on set to provoke a terrified response. His lack of modesty comes across as almost endearing, and the moments of real introspection, such as remembering his disappointment with Bernard Hermann or catching himself referring to the late William Peter Blatty in the present tense, are quite moving.
Phillipe has assembled a wealth of archive footage to illustrate Friedkin’s points from both his inspirations to his own later works (moments from Sorceror are particularly well-used), but perhaps what’s most impressive about Leap of Faith is that is such a powerful reminder of how valuable a lengthy, engaged conversation with a master filmmaker is. Devotees of The Exorcist may not come away from this knowing that much more than they already did, but they’ll absolutely enjoy it, and they’ll want to dig out their Blu-ray. Just…maybe not the 2000 cut.
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is available to stream on Shudder from 19th November.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Screenwriter: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cast: William Friedkin
Running time: 104 minutes