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Familiar With Center Stage
Oscar-Winning Filmmaker William Friedkin Puts Touch on Washington Opera's Latest

By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

Denyce Graves and Samuel Ramey glide dreamlike through Bela Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," unfurling their world-class voices in one of the Washington National Opera's hangar-size rehearsal spaces.

At the front of the darkened room, William Friedkin, director of the WNO's latest production, wordlessly offers a visitor his leather-bound notebook. It's filled with sketches, figures composed in frames. A kind of storyboard.

"Yeah, but there's one difference," the Oscar-winning director of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection" says later. "I've never storyboarded a movie."

It's hardly unheard of, giving film directors a shot at opera -- Franco Zeffirelli has famously straddled both worlds, and lately it's been done by Anthony Minghella, Bruce Beresford, Robert Altman and even Garry Marshall. And it's not exactly a risk for the WNO: Friedkin is here at its vast Takoma Park complex mostly for touch-up work; he's remounting his 2002 Los Angeles Opera production pairing Bartok's only opera, the haunting "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," with Giacomo Puccini's comic caper "Gianni Schicchi." (The bill was L.A. Opera and WNO General Director Placido Domingo's idea, with Ramey headlining both operas and Graves starring as Bluebeard's latest wife.)

Longtime music lover Friedkin, 71 -- he looks like a mid-career airline pilot, with thick shock of hair, tan face scarcely lined, trademark aviator glasses -- has helmed several operas since maestro (and friend) Zubin Mehta arranged for his 1998 debut in the Florence staging of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck." And the beat goes on: Friedkin heads for Munich to direct "Salome" immediately after this production opens at the Kennedy Center tomorrow.

Says Friedkin: "I have a very improvisational technique directing a film, and the thing I want most from an actor is spontaneity -- I don't care if they get the words right or aren't exactly as written as long as, you know, it sounds real. Here, you can't change a syllable. And there's no need to. But actors on a film set need a certain amount of freedom. Opera singers are all about discipline."

He declares that his approach to operatic works is Hippocratic: "First, do no harm."

"I take second position to the conductor," he tells a small gaggle of arts journalists at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring two days before a screening of "The French Connection." (The conductor in this case is Giovanni Reggioli, stepping in at the last minute for WNO Music Director Heinz Fricke, who had to withdraw for medical reasons.) "Nobody comes to the opera to see the director at work."

Still, he's given "Bluebeard" a bit of stark visual flair -- red scarf, fallen chandelier, a seven-ton staircase based on the Louise Bourgeois sculpture "I Do, I Undo and I Re-Do." He's also slightly punched up the climax -- the fate of Graves's character -- in a way that Ramey says was initially "a bit surprising."

For the antic "Schicchi," in which the title character keys a scheme involving a dead man's up-for-grabs will, his model has been the Marx Brothers by way of MGM. That particularly tickles Ramey, who recalls his first thought about Friedkin was "Will he know anything?" but says he had no worries after watching the first 20 minutes that Friedkin had put together before his star's first day. "You don't often get the look that time has been spent on the smaller parts. It's really an ensemble performance."

Friedkin consistently downplays his contribution. " 'Schicchi' works," Friedkin says, "but not because of what I've done. It's hilarious. It just is."

He insists he doesn't miss the camera when directing for the stage, despite having spent a lifetime behind the lens. The Chicago-born Friedkin skipped college and caught on at WGN, where he directed live TV for eight years and more than 2,000 broadcasts -- news, dramas, cooking shows, baseball games, symphonic performances. In the early 1960s he put together a film documentary called "The People vs. Paul Crump," which helped get a convicted murderer off death row.

That steered Friedkin toward Hollywood and what turned out to be a roller coaster of a career. You can ride the titles up and down: "Good Times" (with Sonny and Cher), "The Boys in the Band," "The French Connection," "The Exorcist," "The Brink's Job," "Cruising," "Deal of the Century," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Rampage," "Blue Chips," "Jade." Lots of dark, masculine pictures with characters living in the smudgy area between good and evil. The Bartok opera fits the profile. The Puccini, not so much.

And big or little canvas, stage or screen, actors go a long way to making or breaking the piece.

"There are some decisions I made where people are miscast," he says. "My fault. Usually, with the right cast you have a good shot at a movie at least working on its own terms. With the wrong cast, none. And the case in opera is similar. If you can't get one of these world-class singers to do these roles -- if you've got two schleppers in there -- it ain't gonna work."

Friedkin, who has been married to former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing for 15 years, is still directing movies. His next is "Bug," starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., based on the paranoid trailer-trash play by Tracy Letts. He nurses a heart condition now, and won't cop to anything wilder in his Hollywood heyday than arrogance. He does confirm a story, however, about swilling from a bottle of gin, or pretending to, until he passed out while two studio honchos tried to give him their input on "Sorcerer," Friedkin's ill-fated 1977 remake of "Wages of Fear."

"That was my attitude then," he says. "I felt those two guys didn't know their [bleep] from left field, and they're giving me notes."

That was just about the tail end of what's now enshrined as the last golden, anything-is-possible days of American movies.

"The guys who ran the studios when I started," Friedkin says, "would make a film because they liked the idea, or liked the story, or a filmmaker or a couple of actors." He tells of how 20th Century Fox finally took a shine to "The French Connection" after Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni exhausted themselves shopping it around. They thought they could make it for $3 million. The Fox exec said he had half that. Friedkin hesitated. D'Antoni told him to say yes.

"D'Antoni sort of taught me that it was all a game," Friedkin says, vowels flattening in classic Chicago style the longer he talks. "It still is, except now the numbers are so [bleepin'] high that they're afraid to make a film at any number."

Did Lansing, the first woman to run a Hollywood studio, regard making pictures as a game?

"Whenever I say that she gets [mad]: 'What do you mean it's a game?' I said, Well, we had to tell the head of the studio what he wanted to hear! If we hadn't told this guy at Fox we could make 'The French Connection,' it would never have gotten made! And they made a ton of money with it. Covered themselves in glory."

"So," he concludes, homing back cannily or intuitively (who can tell?) to his current project, "like 'Gianni Schicchi,' it starts out as a fraud, but it all turns out in everyone's best interest."

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