Harper has made available a generous excerpt from William Friedkin’s newly published autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. Anyone familiar with Sidney Lumet’s memoir Making Movies will find their rat-a-tat-tat no-time-for-bullshit prose style quite similar.
The Exorcist was 340 pages. A 100-page screenplay, more or less, would result in a two-hour film. We worked for several months as David Salven assembled the crew and we started talks with Nessa Hyams, head of casting for Warner Bros. Ted Ashley told me he wanted Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, or Jane Fonda to play Chris MacNeil. Excellent choices. And with Blatty’s and my blessing, the studio offered the role first to Audrey Hepburn, who responded favorably, but said she would only do the film in Rome, as she was living there, married to an Italian doctor. I thought it was a request on her part, not a condition. No way did I want to film in Rome; it was impractical from every standpoint. All other actors would have to be imported from the United States, and I didn’t want a language barrier with the crew. In fact, I wanted my crew from The French Connection, starting with Owen Roizman and Ricky Bravo. We asked Ms.Hepburn to reconsider, but she declined.
Anne Bancroft was next. She said she’d love to play Chris, but she was pregnant; would we wait a year for her? We wished her mazel tov. Jane Fonda sent us a telegram after receiving the script: “Why would anyone want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?” I never learned how she really felt.
At one point during these maneuverings, I had a phone call from Ellen Burstyn: “Do you know who I am?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” I lied. She was considered a very good actress. She was in The Last Picture Show. But I frankly didn’t remember which role she’d played, and I tended to confuse her with Cloris Leachman.
“I’d like to talk to you about Chris MacNeil,” she said.
A pause, while I considered a response.