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If you think the gritty thriller Sorcerer looks tough, spare a thought for the filmmakers; director William Friedkin lost 50 lbs and half his crew, while one actor had to work with two guns aimed at him by Mexican police, as Friedkin reveals publicly for the first time, to Andrew L. Urban.

William Friedkin has no trouble remembering the production of Sorcerer; it was 10 months of hellish conditions in locations ranging from Paris and Jerusalem to impenetrable jungle in the Dominican Republic – and principal locations in Mexico. He lost half his crew to illness – or to the alert work of undercover ‘Federales’ on the set, who sniffed out the drug takers in the cast and crew. One local actor had to perform his final scenes with two cops pointing a gun at him from either side of the camera.

Like a good storyteller, Friedkin warms to his story and fills in the colour (sitting comfortably in an armchair in a Sydney hotel suite) as he recounts the sweaty moments. “I’ve never told this story publicly before,” he says.

With two more days of shooting to go before the local actor finished his part, Friedkin pleaded with the senior officer (who he had befriended on the shoot thinking he was a general dogs body) to let him shoot his scenes. “This guy had to act, to take control of that scene, be really smug….and when I called ‘Cut!’ the Federales grabbed him, into handcuffs and outa there.” 

It was only possible “because he said I was a good man,” says Friedkin, eternally grateful for the Mexican officer’s flexible attitude. At one stage, though, some key crewmembers were quietly sent out of the country. Locals had no such options: “drugs are no good for this country,” the Federale told Friedkin, “they go to jail.”

"an education and an adventure"

All filmmaking, especially at the intense level of Sorcerer, “is both an education and an adventure,” says the veteran filmmaker (if he’ll excuse the ‘veteran’) “all kinds of crazy things happen. Like when I finally hire a small private single engine plane to fly me out of Mexico into El Paso, Texas, and one of the stuntmen, Freddie Wah, wanted to hitch a ride. No problem. So we landed and the customs guy came out, he knew me, knew my work, welcomed me, Hello Mr Friedkin, welcome back to America…nice to have you back.” 

(Remember, Friedkin had already made The Exorcist, and before that, The French Connection. He was hot. He has since made films like To Live and Die in L.A., and Rules of Engagement, the latter with Guy Pearce in a co-starring role with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. His next film, The Hunted, reunites him with Tommy Lee Jones, who stars with Benicio del Toro and Connie Nielsen.) 

The pleasantries soon evaporated, however: “Then the guy with the dog comes out and the dog goes crazy…leaps on the plane and goes right after Fred Wah’s briefcase, which was all he had with him. The dog’ going nuts and the customs guys are looking at us…” Friedkin revels in the story, now a safe distance from it.

As it turns out, Wah had stored a small amount of marihuana in his briefcase, but he had dumped it all out before take off. Except for a few grains. “All of a sudden this guy’s demeanour changed. I’d been in the jungle for months and had lost 50 pounds, I had malaria and I was finally back in the US, exhausted ….and this guy turns to me and says, Mr Friedkin, this aircraft is now the property of the United States Government. Please go inside and have a seat. I had to sit there for about eight hours, while they called the studio, people who knew me, checked me out, checked my record….. I finally left, but they kept Freddie for about 10 days, just sweating him out.”

Sorcerer is about what desperate men will do in desperate times. Paris banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is on the run for fraud; small-time hood Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is in hiding when a heist goes wrong; Kassem (Amidou) disappears after a Jerusalem bank building explodes; hit-man Nilo (Francisco Rabal) vanishes from the scene of a murder. They end up in hiding, working as labourers in the small village of Porvenir, in the South American jungles. When an oilrig at the Poza Rica erupts in flames, thanks to revolutionary guerrillas, the oil company’s representative Corlette (Ramon Bieri) needs to transport sufficient explosives to bring the fire under control. But the only nitroglycerine available is old and so volatile that it will detonate at the smallest jolt. He recruits four expert drivers willing to risk their lives – promising $10,000 for each and legal residence in the country without police harassment. But the hazardous journey cuts through 200 miles of impenetrable jungle, creeky swing bridges and crumbling mountain tracks.

"If the story is tense and the end of production was eventful, so was the beginning"

If the story is tense and the end of production was eventful, so was the beginning. Paramount financed the picture, and Friedkin recalls going to see the then head of the studio, the most powerful man in Hollywood, Lew Wassermann. Friedkin originally wanted to make it in Ecuador, “one of the most beautiful places on earth – wild, primitive, with a 2000 foot waterfall that bounces half way back up…it’s got everything. They had a nice little civil war there so we couldn’t get insurance to shoot there.”

By this stage Wasserman was getting a little fed up. “He says, ‘You wanna take a crew into a jungle, you wanna go to places where they have wars….you’re nuts! Crazy! We’re not going to do this. I’m going to cancel this picture. Do somethin’ else. Who needs this? You don’t need this.’ I said, no Lew, I really want to make this film. Lew said, ‘How much do you want to make it?’ I said I’d make it for nothing. Well, at that, Lew slammed his palm on the table, ‘Now you’re talkin’! Now you’ve said something that got my attention! For nuthin?!’”

Friedkin recalls thinking ‘holy jeeezuss! I’m liable to be down there a year and not get paid!’ He did get paid – but he did have to cut his fee. 

It had taken him four years after The Exorcist to decide what to do. “I decided to do this…and it was a hassle from beginning to end – and beyond the end.”

"very happy that it’s being run again"

But now, Friedkin is very happy that it’s being run again. But it only came about because of an Australian film historian (and a member of Pioneers of Cinema) called Jim Sherlock, who had seen the full length version in America and the one released in Australia. “He called me and wanted to set it up for an Australian re-release in its original form and I was amenable – if the distributor (now UIP) agreed.” And UIP happily did.

When first released in Australia in 1978, the then distributor, CIC, called it Wages of Fear and cut the first 30 minutes. “They did that in a couple of other countries,” Friedkin says, “but I was able to sue the distributors there under moral rights legislation, which didn’t exist in Australia.”

As Friedkin points out, the cut was not an artistic decision. “The distributor at the time, CIC (no longer trading as CIC) was run by a guy who would often cut 20 or 30 minutes from a film so he could get more screenings in. He’d do it to get the money in faster. He was fired,” he adds dryly.

The 30 minutes cut from the film in 1978 deleted the establishment sequences in the film, where we meet the four central characters in their own settings, from Paris and Jerusalem, to South America and New Jersey. Each character is forced to go on the run in a desperate attempt to escape from repercussions of a deed. They are all desperate men. Without those first 30 minutes, says Friedkin, “you don’t understand these guys motivations….why they’re there and why they’re fugitives.”

"Fate had spoken"

The first film taken from Georges Arnaud’s novel, The Wages Of Fear, was a 1956 French production, starring Yves Montand. Friedkin is adamant that that film “should stand on its own. Sorcerer is definitely not a remake…the characters are different, the stunts are different.”

But while the story of Sorcerer is an adaptation of the novel (The Wages of Fear), the title is not. “A sorcerer is an evil wizard, “ explains Friedkin. “And in this case, the evil wizard is fate – it takes control all of our lives. None of us can determine our lives, and that is the underlining theme of this movie. And while I was in South America doing some research, I came across these trucks in lovely colours and made up of different auto body parts like a Frankenstein monster, and the drivers had given them all strange names. Two I noticed were Lazaro, and the other was Sorcier – the French for Sorcerer.” Fate had spoken.

Published December 5, 2002

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