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On the set of ''The Guardian''

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A prop man comes up to William Friedkin while the director is having lunch on location just outside Los Angeles. He holds out a leg, severed at the thigh, which for an intense moment looks like the real thing. Friedkin takes the leg and inspects it. ”The tear in the pants ought to be more jagged,” he advises before returning to his sandwich. ”A little more blood, too.”

For the first time since he frightened half the earth in 1973 with The Exorcist, Friedkin is out to scare again with a new horror film opening this week, The Guardian.

”It’s taken me all this time to find a project in the genre that I like,” he says. But he doesn’t consider The Guardian strictly a horror film. ”It’s much more a realistic story about inexplicable things that happen, but it’s not going to come at you like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th.”

Tell that to the visitor on the set earlier this morning who screamed during an attempted beheading — a malevolent tree (yep, a tree) swipes off a punk’s face instead, and the complicated scene had to be reshot. Decapitation is only for starters: Later in the day half a dozen honest-to-goodness timber wolves will be brought in as extras.

Still, Friedkin likes to call the story of The Guardian realism — magic realism. A young couple, played by Dwier Brown (Kevin Costner’s dad in Field of Dreams) and Carey Lowell (the latest Bond girl from Licence to Kill), hire a British nanny (Jenny Seagrove of Local Hero) to care for their infant. Curious things start to happen, notably around the aforesaid arboreal horror the nanny is wont to visit.

”The tree itself is not an evil force,” Friedkin maintains. ”Certain evil things happen around the tree inexplicable things. There’s no explanation in The Exorcist, either. Some said it must be the devil. Others, more rational, don’t believe in the devil, but can still be held by its intensity. The Guardian has a kind of unpredictable pace, like a Miles Davis blues. It starts off slowly and states a theme, then works itself into a frenzy at the end.”

A pacing, Friedkin allows, that’s not dissimilar to The Exorcist‘s, where nothing frightening actually happens until at least 40 minutes into the movie. The Exorcist fed on its audience’s anxieties, creating an unbearable dread with each minute.

Friedkin will know soon whether The Guardian has, as The Exorcist certainly did, The Fright Stuff. If the film is a commercial success, maybe Friedkin finally will experience a bit of exorcism himself. He says he hasn’t seen The Exorcist since he remixed it for stereo 10 years ago. That film has, in a sense, become his bête noire, a staggering success that he may never eclipse, and he knows it. Nat Segaloff, in a just-published biography, Hurricane Billy (Morrow), quotes the feisty Friedkin: ”’You know what it’s going to say on my tombstone?’ he asked with a mixture of sarcasm and bitterness. ‘It’s going to say ”The Man Who Directed The Exorcist.””’

His 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s story of demonic possession captured the public imagination in a way that not too many movies have before or since. Some of the audience fainted; others threw up; nearly everyone screamed. But crowds kept lining up to buy tickets. With such a major commercial and critical success coming so soon after his Oscar-winning cop drama The French Connection (1971), Friedkin was king of the Hollywood hill. He was well on his way to creating an impressive body of work and in a position to call his own shots. But somehow, it didn’t turn out quite right. He has had plenty of box-office disappointments since those glory days — Sorcerer (1977), The Brinks Job (1978), Cruising (1980), Deal of the Century (1983), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) — and no winners.

But the director discounts talk that his return to sophisticated horror is just an attempt to recapture the lost success of his younger years. That’s probably why he discourages comparisons between that picture and this one. ”I wouldn’t want to repeat The Exorcist and do another story about possession,” he says. But he acknowledges that there are similiar basic elements in both movies. For all its sulfurous pyrotechnics, The Exorcist was the story of something horrible happening to an innocent little girl. Friedkin points out that The Guardian, at root, is about ”a baby in danger and a young married couple with all kinds of anxieties about the care of their infant child.

”We filmed an actual birth,” Friedkin says, as if he were talking about his own child, ”which will probably be the most disturbing thing in the film. Babies are born in blood and guts. It’s not romantic.”

What hooked Friedkin on the idea of The Guardian were nanny horror stories of his own, one in particular: ”I had a horrible experience with an English (nanny) My wife (at the time, Lesley-Anne Down) and I went away for two days and we came back to this girl and her girlfriend who’d picked up three guys in a bar and brought them back to our house. Here’s this girl, sweet and demure, well-educated, great family background — and she winds up getting rolled by Hell’s Angels in my bed with my son there. I don’t go away since. I just don’t go away.”

So this movie is about the darker side of adventures in babysitting. It’s not about the devil. If there’s one point that Friedkin wants to make clear, it’s that this picture is not The Exorcist. Whatever his ambivalence about that earlier triumph, there is little argument that The Exorcist completely changed the direction and tone of horror films. Its special effects, such as levitating beds, spinning heads, and projectiles of vomit, completely spoiled moviegoers. Filmmakers had to keep coming up with more magical and disgusting transformations through makeup. Viscera finally came oozing out of the closet. An American Werewolf in London, Alien, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, The Howling, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator are a few of the movies that continued to push the limits. And after the demon’s demonstrations of its powers in Linda Blair’s bedroom, audiences had no problems accepting the telekinetic jamborees in both Carrie and The Fury and the flying objects from hell in Poltergeist.

Stephen King once expressed a truly deranged theory about The Exorcist‘s phenomenal impact. Parents needed some explanation for the behavior of youth during the hippie era, King maintained. Why were kids behaving so badly? It was simple: The whole lot of them were possessed by the devil. Children, generally seen and not heard much in the movies during the previous decade, soon became little horrors on film. Think of Damien in The Omen, David Cronenberg’s The Brood, the awful infant from It’s Alive!, Children of the Corn, Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. Kids became bad seeds — vessels for all kinds of evil visitations.

Friedkin prefers not to analyze what he has wrought. Instead he displays a very pragmatic approach to the task at hand. There’s not a lot of theorizing about the nature of good versus evil. In fact, the only supernatural quality that’s clearly evident is that he works like a demon to make a scene work. ”I don’t rehearse anymore,” he says. ”I see wonderful things in rehearsal that I never see again. In the old days I did 10 to 15 takes of a scene. The first is the best.”

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