Like some of you, whenever I find myself in the presence of someone I greatly admire, particularly when it’s a “famous” someone like an actor, writer, director, musician, athlete, etc., the same two questions always leap to mind: “Should I say something to them? Or should I just leave them alone?” Most of the time, I choose the latter option. I decide to respect the person’s privacy and I keep my distance. And, most of the time, I can live with that decision. In fact, the only time I truly regret having made that decision was when Gregory Peck came to speak at my college – and I decided against chasing him down and telling him how much his work meant to me afterwards. Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter and I still have mixed feelings about not having seized the moment. Anyway, as I said, most of the time, I play it cool. Most of the time. But, every once in a while…
I geek out.
In 1998, while I was attending my first year at the American Film Institute, I purchased my first DVD player. (I can’t believe that was almost 10 years ago.) Anyway, way back then, the selection of movies on DVD left a lot to be desired. A lot of studios were just dumping low-quality copies of their films onto this new format and, in terms of “special features,” you’d be lucky if they included the original theatrical trailer. But one DVD was different. For whatever reason, perhaps it was the 25-year anniversary of something, Warner Brothers decided to release a Special Edition DVD of the 1973 horror classic, “The Exorcist.” I was a huge fan of the film, of the writer-producer, William Peter Blatty, and of the director, William Friedkin. And this DVD came fully loaded with multiple commentaries, multiple documentaries, trailers, etc. It was an absolute godsend.
Initially, what surprised me most about this particular DVD was what appeared to be Friedkin and Blatty’s enthusiastic participation in the production of the DVD itself. In addition to taking part in the commentaries and the documentaries, Friedkin also recorded a special introduction of the film, in which he talks about the mystery of faith, the origins of the film, and the intentions of the filmmakers. At the climax of the introduction, Friedkin smiles and says, “In any case, turn down the lights and turn up the sound and enjoy the digitally remastered version of ‘The Exorcist.’”
Later, I remember listening to Friedkin’s commentary and wondering to myself, “Do I really need to drop $20K per year on film school when I just bought this DVD for $20?” It was that good, that informative, and that inspiring.
Maybe six months later, I was working as a lowly production intern at Mace Neufeld Productions in the old Dressing Room Building on the Paramount lot. In the beginning, it was just supposed to be a summer-long internship, but I really liked the people I was working with and vice versa – and I was asked to continue working through the Fall. I spent most of my time doing coverage, answering phones, and running errands.
Anyway, one day, I think I was on my way back from grabbing lunch or something when I heard a familiar, distinctive voice – and turned to see none other than William Friedkin walking with someone from the Admin Building to the Dressing Room Building. I couldn’t believe it. There he was. In the flesh. I didn’t dare to interrupt their conversation. After all, I’d read Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” a book about the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation’s impact on Hollywood, in which Biskind had essentially described Friedkin as a madman with a reputation for discharging guns on his sets in order to get the reaction shots he needed from his actors. In short, as much as I revered Friedkin, I was a little scared of the man. Furthermore, his wife was Sherry Lansing, the head of the studio. In short, I was a little scared of her, too.
When I got back to the office, I did some research and discovered that Friedkin was making “Rules of Engagement,” a military courtroom thriller with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, on the lot at the same time. For the next couple weeks, I would pass Friedkin from time to time while walking around on the lot. I never said anything, but it was getting harder and harder for me to hold my tongue. I mean, this guy was a fucking legend. They didn’t make ‘em like him anymore. What if he pulled a Gregory Peck and died on me? What would I do? What could I do?
One morning, I got to the office early, around 8 o’clock, and decided to write a letter to the man himself. Nothing fancy. Just something to let him know how much I appreciated the efforts he’d put into “The Exorcist” DVD. The following is a copy of that letter:
September 16th, 1999
Dear Mr. Friedkin,
This is just a note to tell you how greatly I appreciated your commentary on The Exorcist Special Edition on DVD. As a screenwriting fellow at AFI, I found it tremendously inspiring. Really, inspiring. Blatty’s was wonderful too, but seeing how you interpreted the material visually was magic. There are so few of you left anymore -- magicians, that is.
I could list everything that I found particularly interesting, but that would be like opening Pandora’s Box, so I’ll just say, Thank You.
I’m a reader at Mace Neufeld Productions and come across countless imitations and blatant rip-offs, but nothing even comes close to your defining accomplishment. The Exorcist is the best DVD I own and thank God it’s now forever preserved on the digital format, so it can live on and inspire future generations of filmmmakers.
“Turn down the lights and turn up the sound,” indeed.
P.S. I’d hug you, if it wasn’t inappropriate.
In retrospect, that postscrīpt is pretty fucking embarrassing, but clearly I was experiencing some very strong feelings for the man. I printed the letter, signed it, slipped it into an envelope, and went upstairs to either the second or third floor of the Dressing Room Building. Then, I walked down the long hallway, reading the names on the doors until I found one with Friedkin’s name on it.
Like I said, it was early in the morning. So, the office was closed. However, the mailbox was hanging right outside the door. I dropped the letter inside. And I got the hell out of Dodge. I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone about the incident, most of all my superiors at MNP. Why? Well, A) I didn’t want them to think that I was some crazy fanboy who couldn’t be trusted; and B) I was sure they’d make fun of me. And, for about an hour or so, I succeeded in keeping my trap shut.
But, when Kathy, Mace’s assistant, and Elizabeth, Mace’s second assistant, showed up later that morning, I couldn’t stem the avalanche any longer. And I told them everything. Actually, they were pretty cool about it. Kathy was like a mother to me and Elizabeth was like a sister to me, so they already knew how excited I was about the fact that Friedkin was working in the same building as we were. In fact, they were probably tired of hearing about every Friedkin sighting I’d experienced over the past few weeks.
Then, around 10 o’clock that same morning, I was sitting at the desk next to Kathy’s and covering a scrīpt when I heard her answer the phone. I was only half-paying attention, but her side of the conversation sounded something like this: “Mace Neufeld Productions… Yes, he is… May I ask who’s calling, please?”
Then, Kathy told the caller to hold on just one moment. She put the call on hold, turned to me, and, with eyes as big as saucers, said, “Dax, William Friedkin is on Line 2 for you.”
Normally, I would have thought it was a joke. But I could tell from the look on Kathy’s face that this was no joke. And I couldn’t tell if I was going to throw up or shit my pants or do both at the same time. I looked down at the blinking light that indicated the call being held on Line 2. I wasn’t sure if I should answer it. I wasn’t even sure if I could speak. I slowly picked up the phone and hit the “hold” button, as Kathy and Elizabeth quickly cleared the room in order to give me some privacy.
“Hello?” I whispered.
“Dax? This is William Friedkin,” he said in that voice I’d heard so many times while listening to his commentaries. No one was playing a joke on me. This was definitely him.
I’m not sure what I said next, if anything. I only remember what he said. He thanked me. He told me how he received my letter, how it meant a lot to him, and how he had already faxed a copy to William Peter Blatty. Then, he told me that a new version of “The Exorcist” was in the works and would be released soon. This version would restore some of the deleted scenes and include some special effects that were impossible to achieve back in 1973. All in all, I’d say we talked for maybe 5 minutes. And, when we were finished, he thanked me again and hung up.
It was so fucking cool.
But, more than that, I learned two important lessons that day. One, don't believe everything you read or hear about someone. And, two, sometimes it's surprising how much you can accomplish, if you're polite, sincere, and respectful.
P.S. Below is the trailer for “The Exorcist,” courtesy of Youtube. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. Obviously.
Log in to alivenotdead.com with one of these trusted providers
NOTE: Users of the original website please Click here to reactivate your account.
New users - Join the alivenotdead.comcommunity instantly by confirming your identity with a trusted authentication service.
Returning users - Please use with the same authentication service to login to your alivenotdead.com account.
First time users can create a new account from scratch by authenticate using any of the following trusted services:
WARNING: If you disconnect all your social media accounts your profile will be locked and you will not be able to access it again. If you want to keep your page, please add another social media account and then remove this one.
If you understand the risks, click this box to deauthorize your account.