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Dax Phelan
Director , Producer , Screenwriter
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MY WILLIAM FRIEDKIN STORY

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.’”  

It’s chilling.  

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.

Respectfully,

Dax Phelan

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. 

-Dax

P.S.  Below is the trailer for “The Exorcist,” courtesy of Youtube.  If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.  Obviously.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGdbbVcKJlc

about 12 years ago 0 likes  17 comments  0 shares
Photo 32989
that's so cool Dax, I'm glad you got a personal phone call from one of your idols :) about to strike up a business partnership with one of mine, not allowed to reveal any details yet though =D
about 12 years ago
Photo 36337
Wow, such a awesome experience, it was definitely worth the letter you wrote, which in all honesty, had I of been Mr Friedkin, I too would of made the effort to contact you and say thanks, they were heartfelt words that showed you had enjoyed every inch of the process of the Exorcist, not just the film itself.
about 12 years ago
Stephen 93 stephen
My 3rd year of college, my girlfriend at the time and I celebrated Valentine's Day by going to Blockbuster and selecting a DVD to watch together. It was late at night and, of course, all of the romantic comedies were all taken. I had the crazy idea of selecting "The Exorcist" since I'd never seen it before and I thought it'd be funny counterprogramming. Needless to say, I didn't receive any nookie that night -- instead I just felt gross and wanting to be alone. The moral of the story -- as much as you like this movie, DON'T watch it on a romantic date.
about 12 years ago
Photo 23337
Thanks for sharing another great experience. Yet, again, another one of those thoughts that have crossed our minds. I'm glad to you "seized the moment", many people don't do that with possibly thinking that they'll do it "next time". Good job!
about 12 years ago
Photo 23337
I forget to mention. Exorcist is THE (or at least mine) All Time Most Frightening movie! I still cannot watch that movie alone or at night. Supernatural stuff is just creepy stuff.
about 12 years ago
Photo 16256
I can't bring myself to watch The Exorcist. I've been retold the story in many bits by many people but I just don't wanna freak myself out. I was very afraid of supernatural or demonic elements (being the little thing that I was) and that somewhat carried over to adulthood. heehee. I don't want to watch clips or trailers or anything to do with it. I haven't even seen "Carrie" either. ;D It's nice to show appreciation to others whom you admire esp if it's taken graciously. Who doesn't like to be admired? When I met Daniel, Andrew, Conroy and Terence at the SFIFF, I didn't want to hold back or live to regret what I could've/should've done. Of course, I was a blathering idiot and was indistinguishable from every other chick but I got my input. But there wasn't gonna be a next time....
about 12 years ago
Photo 23902
That's an interesting letter you wrote to him. Good that he called you back. How long did you work at Paramount for? And how many people work there, roughly? I had some tearful experiences when I met some idols at school.
about 12 years ago
Photo 1831
I don't think I could ever watch the Exorcist because I get scared easily. I would probably get nightmares too. But I'm glad you had the chance speak with someone you look up to. :)
about 12 years ago
Photo 33405
So true... sometimes you just have to go ahead and do something or you'll end up regretting it. That's a really great story, I'm happy for you that you were able to tell him how much you admire him, and that he truly appreciated your letter and personally call you back. That's awesome, that was really cool of him... I watched The Exorcist years ago with friends, and we were all pretty freaked out afterwards. Good thing I didn't watch it by myself.
about 12 years ago
Default avatar
I watched the Exorcist for the first time when I was 18 with the RA and another suite mate from my dorm. I was so scared from the movie that I had trouble sleeping the whole entire night and practically fell off my bed when my roommate came back from clubbing. I never used to have a problem watching horror movies, but after the Exorcist I couldn't watch any horror movies without being scared of turning the lights off when I go to sleep. Your letter was very sweet!
about 12 years ago
Photo 24183
Very interesting blog! Thanks for sharing. I've seen the Exocist in the cinema. Now you've made me want to buy the DVD to watch all those extra features...
about 12 years ago
Photo 35751
I can't bring myself to watch the Exorcist (like Peachey) but what a great blog. Its so cool you went out on a limb and its evener cooler that he rang you. My mum always says, you just never know what your words might mean to someone (un-characterically wise for her ;P )
about 12 years ago
Photo 34078
What a great story. I like the letter you wrote. It's quite earnest . The postcript definitely screams of some "man love" but that's alright. Pretty amazing that Friedkin actually phoned you. It's great when your heroes don't let you down. I'd be afraid of that which is why I usually don't approach people. My fingers are shaking just typing "The Exorcist " which is clearly the scariest movie I've ever seen to this day. I still can't hear the music or even look at Linda Blair w/o getting chills. I sometimes check when the movie is going to air on TV just so I can avoid the channel.
about 12 years ago
Fb img 1493569407689
That's amazing, I'm so happy that you got the guts to write that letter!!! *hugs* :) That's a great story, I like reading your stories :)
about 12 years ago
Photo 32958
Love that movie. But - maybe I've told you - it hasn't actually 'scared' me since I was religious. The movie's horror rests almost entirely on believing Christian iconography as gospel truth, and if you don't see the movie through that lens I don't think it's nearly as frightening. The crab walk still rocks, though, and it's a beautifully crafted film. (Side note: The Shining, one of the only movies that actually scares me, is coming out on HDDVD. Methinks thou needest an entertainment center.)
about 12 years ago
Default avatar
That's a great story, thanks for sharing! It was nice of him to call. =) Hmm, I've never watched "The Exorcist" before... maybe I'll catch it on cable with all the other horror flicks they're showing for Halloween.
about 12 years ago
Photo 32914
yes Dax, that post script ranks right up there. maybe even neck and neck with your most embarrassing moment story ever.
about 12 years ago

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\"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.\" -Henry David Thoreau \"The harder I work, the luckie

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June 22, 2007

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