play "TUBULAR BELLS" (radio vers.) - Theme from THE EXORCIST (M. Oldfield)
* Unbeknownst to most, William Peter Blatty’s legendary novel THE EXORCIST was initially deemed a failure by it’s publisher, Harper & Rowe, at the time of it’s 1971 release. Blatty claims that, in spite of laudatory reviews, copies were being returned by bookstores “by the carload” until “fate” intervened. To this day he refuses to elaborate.
* Born in 1928, Blatty was raised by his deeply religious Catholic mother. He attended the Jesuit's Brooklyn Prep and Georgetown Univ. (both on scholarship), then George Washington Univ., receiving his Masters in English Literature.
* After a varied career as an Electrolux vacuum cleaner salesman, beer truck driver, member of the USAF’s Psychological Warfare Division, and a short stint with the United States Information Agency, Blatty decided to “live his dream” of acting and/or writing in the entertainment industry.
* Before THE EXORCIST Blatty was best known as a writer of light comedic fare, such as his novels JON GOLDFARB PLEASE COME HOME (1963), “I, BILLY SHAKESPEARE” (1965), and feature film screenplays including PROMISE HER ANYTHING (1965). He was perhaps best known as director Blake Edwards’ writer of choice on a string of films including the Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau classic A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964), WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? (1966), the detective adventure GUNN (1967), and DARLING LILI (1970).
* After his comedy career “dried up” (as Blatty puts it), he challenged himself to write a serious fictional treatise based on notions of personal faith, psychological guilt, and the question of “why evil exists in the world”. These themes would find ventilation in THE EXORCIST, which the author claims was never intended to be scary, but rather a penetrating examination of the aforementioned themes.
* Blatty based his novel in part on the true 1949 incident of a young Cottage City, Maryland boy’s three month long ordeal to which his family attributed to demonic possession. The story made the front page of the Aug. 24, 1949 edition of The Washington Post, and Blatty became familiar with it while a student at Georgetown.
* Striving for a sense of utmost realism in the telling of his story, during the research and outlining phase of his novel, Blatty spent a year conferring with his former teacher, the Jesuit Priest, author/playwright the Rev. Father William O’Malley. O’Malley appears in the film version of THE EXORCIST as Father Dyer.
* After a rocky publication start, the novel THE EXORCIST topped best seller lists. It remained on The New York Times Book Review list for an astounding 57 weeks - 17 of them at number 1.
* Despite the novel’s success, most studios feared a faithful translation to film would be difficult and controversial at best, to laughable at worst. Having been recently impressed with the near documentary-like verisimilitude of the film version of another best seller, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and the documentary film history in general of it’s director, William Friedkin, Blatty lobbied Warner Bros. to team the young cinematic wunderkind with his novel. The studio agreed.
* Previous directors considered included Arthur Penn (BONNIE & CLYDE), Peter Bogdanovich (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), Mike Nichols (THE GRADUATE -who didn’t want to do a film dependent on a child’s performance), Mark Rydell (who felt the material was cruel towards children), John Boorman (DELIVERANCE), and even Stanley Kubrick.
Director William Friedkin on set
* Blatty penned THE EXORCIST’s screenplay himself, and Friedkin despised his first draft. The director felt in “condensing” elements of the novel into cinematic shorthand, Blatty had resorted to “heightened, underlined, overwrought” and obvious symbolism. Using a copy of the novel given to him by Blatty, Friedkin went through it and underlined sections he felt needed to be in the film. In subsequent drafts the two collaborators chose to remain doggedly faithful to their story's literary origins.
* Warners originally wanted a “big name” actress for the role of Chris MacNeil - the mother of THE EXORCIST’s 12 yr. old victim of demonic possession. They recommended Jane Fonda, Carol Burnett, Shirley MacLaine (whom Blatty had used as a template in creating the character), Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft. Fonda famously declined, calling the story a “capitalist piece of shit!” (she was very political in those days), and Hepburn turned the film down when it was decided it would not shoot in Rome.
* Since first seeing actress Ellen Burstyn in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), Friedkin had been impressed with her down-to-earth intelligence and realness of presence. After an obligatory auditioning process with other actresses, he was able to obtain Burstyn.
* Blatty based aspects of the character of elderly exorcist Father Lankaster Merrin on two men: British archeologist Gerald Lankaster Harding - finder of the Dead Sea Scrolls, whom Blatty had met earlier in Beirut, Lebanon. And on Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In THE EXORCIST a photo of de Chardin hangs in the room of young Father Karras (Jason Miller).
* Warner wanted Marlon Brando for Merrin, but Friedkin nixed the idea, feeling “a Brando movie” would rob the film's vérité feel.
* Jack Nicholson was up for the part of young Father Karras, but Blatty (also serving as producer) hired Stacy Keach (THE LONG RIDERS) instead. Friedkin later saw Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, in New York and felt it wonderfully “reeked of failed Catholicism”. He wanted it’s writer for the role even though Miller had never acted before the camera.
* Amazingly, in light of the "Brando movie" nixing, Friedkin’s first choice for Lt. Kinderman - the detective who's investigation into the death of Burke Dennings drives Chris MacNeil to desperate measures, was John Wayne. Other actors approached included Orson Welles, Gregory Peck and James Cagney before veteran actor Lee J. Cobb (12 ANGRY MEN, ON THE WATERFRONT) took on the role.
* For the pivotal part of 12 yr. old possession victim Regan MacNeil, early auditions included Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) and Anissa Jones (best remembered as blond Buffy on the TV sitcom FAMILY AFFAIR) before Friedkin settled on the relatively unknown Linda Blair. Attending public school, Blair was at the time garnering mostly modeling and TV commercial work. When her own talent agency failed to put her up for the part, Blair’s mother took it upon herself to bring her daughter in for readings.
* Slated for an 85 day shooting schedule, THE EXORCIST began principal photography on August 14, 1972. It’s shoot eventually ballooned to 224 days.
* The film’s opening archeological dig, where Merrin confronts the statue (and presence) of the demon Pazuzu, was shot in Sinjar, Iraq - near the Syrian border.
Blair (left), Friedkin (center), and Burstyn (right) prep a particularly harrowing sequence
* The now famous “EXORCIST stone steps” at the end of M Street in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. where fitted with safety padding. The stuntman, depicting Father Karras’ climactic self-sacrificial dive down the incline, performed the “gag” twice for the cameras. Jason Miller recalls local Georgetown students charging onlookers $5 each to watch the stunt from nearby rooftops.
* Interiors of the MacNeil home were filmed at (what used to be) the CECO studios in Manhattan, NY. In an era years before the advent of CGI, Regan’s bedroom was actually refrigerated to achieve the icy look and breath mist from the mouths of the performers.
THE EXORCIST - "Suite from the Unused Score" (L.Schifrin)
* The film’s in-camera visual effects, including furniture violently flying about Regan’s room, her levitating bed (via hidden weights and leverages), and various inhuman physical convulsions (yanking the performers as they wore strap/harnesses), were executed on set by visual effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere (DELIVERANCE, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER). The climactic “earthquake” during the exorcism sequence was achieved via the room being shifted back and forth atop eight pneumatic wheels strategically placed beneath the set floor.
* In an attempt to capture documentary-like footage and authentic reactions from his cast, Friedkin resorted to extraordinary measures, which to this day many feel were unnecessary and dangerous. Both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered permanent back injuries as a result of being yanked violently in their harnesses. In fact Burstyn’s injury is captured on film in the scene where the possessed Regan slaps her mother across the room. Landing backwards on her coccyx (tailbone), Burstyn reached behind her back in pain while screaming for Friedkin to “turn the fucking camera off!”, as the director had cinematographer Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE) zoom into her face for a close up. The scene is cut just before Burstyn’s pain-laden profanity.
* Friedkin would also notoriously fire a gun into the air in order to illicit shocked reactions from Jason Miller as Father Karras. Perhaps most offensively to many however was his violent slapping of the Rev. Father William O’Malley (portraying Karras’ good friend - Father Dyer) in order to elicit tears and a nervous shaking reaction from the amateur actor during the scene where Dyer performs last rites over Karass. The sequence takes place after the young Karass has flung himself down the Avenue M steps.
* THE EXORCIST was the first mainstream film to kick off the popular urban legend of the so-called “cursed” movie set. One night while dining in a Georgetown restaurant, actor Jason Miller was given a medallion of the Virgin Mary by an elderly priest for protection. The priest explained the concept of “Intervention” - stemming from Gnosticism of the 15th Century, wherein “If you do anything to expose the devil as the trickster that he is, he will seek retribution against you and attempt to stop you”. Three days later the priest was dead.
* A total of nine deaths occurred of people connected to THE EXORCIST during it’s shoot; perhaps most famously, the mysterious demise of actor Jack MacGowran, who’s director character in the film, Burke Dennings, is killed by the possessed Regan.
* Actor Max Von Sydow’s pragmatic assessment of the “EXORCIST curse” was simply, “If you have a shoot which last two or three weeks, nothing happens. If it last nearly a year, many things are bound to occur within that time span”. In subsequent years other films such as THE OMEN, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, POLTERGEIST, and even the James Bond adventure LIVE AND LET DIE (a major aspect of it's plot involving Jamaican voodoo rituals) would all claim to have "cursed" movie sets which required "cleansing".
* THE EXORCIST stunning makeup designs and applications were created by Dick Smith. Smith’s legendary career began in television on shows such as DARK SHADOWS and THE UNTOUCHABLES, then segued into film, where he’d stun audiences with “aging” appliances on actors such as Dustin Hoffman in LITTLE BIG MAN and Marlon Brando in THE GODFATHER.
* While the possessed Regan MacNeil was THE EXORCIST’s primary attention grabber, the film’s most stunning makeup achievement was the aging of (then) 44 yr. old actor Max Von Sydow into the 70-ish Father Merrin. Sydow today looks remarkably similar to Smith’s prosthetic prognostication almost 40 years ago. Smith would mentor and influence many of the industry’s future makeup FX titans, including Rich Baker (GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN LORD OF THE APES, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, the MEN IN BLACK series), Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD, CREEPSHOW), and Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, THE THING - 1982).
* THE EXORCIST’s primary post production phase (editing, sound, etc.) took place at suites located at 666 5th Ave. in New York.
* While the original 1973 print of the film had a monaural soundtrack, Friedkin and his crew would spend 16 weeks realizing the director’s desire to immerse the audience in “naturalistic unease” by including many “organic” elements into the film’s aural mix. These included during the exorcism scenes, sounds of squealing pigs in a slaughterhouse, hives of buzzing bees, fighting dogs, and foley (sound effects) creations by Gonzalo Gavira.
* Best known at the time for his stunning sound effects work on the philosophical 1970 Mexican western EL TOPO, Gavira was (what later would come to be known as) a “human beatbox”, creating miraculous sounds - many of which today can only be achieved electronically, using his own body, voice and objects found in the recording studio. Gavira achieved one of THE EXORCIST’s most disturbing sound effects - the snapping bone as Regan’s head pivots 360 degrees, by twisting an old leather wallet beneath an open studio microphone.
* After unsuccessfully attempting to electronically process Linda Blair’s voice for her “possession” scenes, Friedkin hired popular husky voiced radio and film noir actress Mercedes Cambridge (JOHNNY GUITAR, GIANT) to dub those sequences. McCambridge would “deepen” her vocal timbre via raw eggs, whiskey and cigarettes. McCambridge brought legal suit against Warner Bros. when, after the film’s release, the studio attempted to hide her participation. One of McCambridge’s final roles was as the voice of sadistic dog trainer Miss Lestrange in Brad Bird’s 1987 animated AMAZING STORIES episode “Family Dog”.
* THE EXORCIST’s first score was (partially) composed by multi-award winner Lalo Schifrin (DIRTY HARRY, BULLIT, VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED). Schifrin had written six minutes of music for early film teasers which Warner Bros. felt was “too intense” for audiences. Partway into the film’s experimental orchestral score proper, Schifrin was dismissed by Friedkin. In the end the film’s soundtrack would feature excerpts from Krzystof Penderecki’s "1970 Cello Concerto", a few original compositions by Jack Nietzsche (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, STARMAN), and Mike Oldfield’s popular “Tubular Bells” - which would come to be known as the “Theme From THE EXORCIST”.
* THE EXORCIST opened on June 19, 1973. It’s “rollout” release structure (wherein a film would open in selected cities, build momentum and buzz, then a few months later go into wide “general” release) helped create worldwide media frenzy. Photos of audiences lined around city blocks for hours, waiting to get into the film, graced the pages of international magazines and newspapers. And stories of patrons fainting, running from theaters, and even some exhibitors distributing “EXORCIST Barf Bags”, fanned the "flames of hype", helping the film become THE box office sensation of the year.
* THE EXORCIST received ten 1973 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, which it lost to THE STING. It received two: for Best Sound (Robert “Buzz” Knudson & Christopher Newman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty).
* The film would start a trend of “devil themed” features throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 80s including THE OMEN series, Italy’s BEYOND THE DOOR, RUBY, Britain’s THE DEVIL WITHIN HER (starring Joan Collins), and the blaxploitation take-off ABBY.
* In 1979 THE EXORCIST was converted to 70mm and six track Dolby Stereo. All successive re-releases (theatrical and home video versions) have since used this sound mix. The 1998 25th Anniversary DVD (our choice as best presentation of the film to date) features deleted footage (including the infamous “spider-walk” sequence, and a more upbeat ending featuring Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer) but they are NOT re-edited into the film as in 2000’s re-release THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN (… which for us is "the version we’ve never much cared for"). All variants (including a box set featuring every version of the film - a’la BLADE RUNNER) is now available on Blu-ray.
* A sequel film, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977), was directed by John Boorman (DELIVERANCE, THE EMERALD FOREST), and starred Richard Burton, a returning Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow (as Merrin in a series of flashback sequences), Kitty Winn and James Earl Jones.. But it was panned by both critics and audiences.
* In 1990 William Peter Blatty directed an adaptation of his own 1983 sequel novel LEGION. Blatty wanted to retain the book’s original title, but the studio (Fox / Morgan Creek) insisted on releasing it as EXORCIST III. It starred George C. Scott as Detective Kinderman and a returning Jason Miller as (another “version?”) of Father Karass. It garnered a small degree of critical acclaim.
* In 2004 Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER) directed the prequel film DOMINION, starring Stellan Skarsgard as a young Father Lankaster Merrin. Deemed “too slow” by studio Warner / Morgan Creek, the entire film (utilizing a few sequences from the Shrader version) was re-shot by director Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER) with actor Skarsgard performing the role for a second time. Harlin’s film, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, was lambasted by critics. Then in 2005 Warner / Morgan gave a limited release to Schrader’s film, now titled DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST. It fared slightly better with critics but was still deemed a box office failure. Both films are currently available on various home video and streaming formats.
* In 2009 it was announced William Peter Blatty would direct a TV mini-series version of his original THE EXORCIST. To date that has yet to materialize.
* In 2010 the original THE EXORCIST was added to the United States’ prestigious NATIONAL FILM REGISTERY, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and therefore worthy of future preservation.