The Exorcist Documentary Leap of Faith Takes You Inside an Iconic Director’s Mind and Process

The Exorcist Documentary Leap of Faith Takes You Inside an Iconic Director’s Mind and Process
William Friedkin, Linda Blair, and Ellen Burstyn during the making of The Exorcist. (Image: Shudder)

You’ve seen The Exorcist, probably more than once; by now, even the often-repeated stories about its creation are the stuff of Hollywood legend. But there’s always room for more — especially in a new doc that goes straight to the source to dig into one of the most acclaimed horror movies ever made.

Alexandre O. Philippe — whose previous works include Doc of the Dead, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, and Memory: The Origins of Alien — has created another film-centric doc that’ll appeal to both genre fanatics and cineasts alike: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. Styled as a sit-down conversation with the legendary director, and dynamically illustrated with film clips and other visual aids, Leap of Faith is a memoir, film history lesson, and deep dive into the creative process all rolled into one — with a focus on the blend of precise artisanship and twists of fate that went into making The Exorcist.

If you’re very familiar with The Exorcist — which came out in 1973 and has been studied closely ever since, with multiple making-of books and documentaries, as well as a 2014 autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, by the man himself — not everything in Leap of Faith will register as new information. It’s still a pretty extraordinary documentary, going well beyond the usual behind-the-scenes anecdotes (though there are some juicy ones shared here) to specifically pick Friedkin’s brain about the influences and techniques he brought to the table. He cites other films; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 Ordet comes up most often, along with Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho. He also speaks rapturously about the great paintings that inspired lighting, mood, staging, and even very specific shots, showing how Magritte’s The Empire of Light series famously inspired the instantly recognisable moment when Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin first arrives at the MacNeil house in Georgetown.

Leap of Faith succeeds not just because Friedkin is (quite obviously) a really great storyteller, but that’s a big part of it — his commentary over what he calls his favourite scene in the movie, a polite yet dreadfully tense meeting between Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and police Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), offers great insight into some of the most powerfully understated acting in the movie. It’s also delightful to hear Friedkin talk about what he calls “grace notes,” moments that don’t necessarily advance the plot but add texture to the movie’s world, like when Chris MacNeil walks past a pair of nuns with billowing robes, then kids in Halloween costumes, early in the movie.

We get the sense that in making The Exorcist, Friedkin had to find a balance between being in control of all the elements while also making way for what he calls “gifts from the movie gods.” For example, an actor had already been cast as Father Karras, a part that Exorcist author William Peter Blatty was also longing to play — but when Friedkin happened to meet playwright Jason Miller, the wheels were set in motion to put him in the role instead, and the rest is show biz history. “I didn’t question my instincts,” Friedkin says, in essence, more than once throughout the documentary, which is obviously titled Leap of Faith for that reason.

There’s so much more, including a detailed discussion of how the movie’s score came together (at least one longtime friendship was ruined over it), as well as how the demon’s vocalisations and other eerie sounds were created (“The Exorcist is an experimental sound museum,” the director says at one point). Friedkin also freely discusses what he thinks is the movie’s greatest flaw — it has to do with the ending — as well as the enjoyment he’s felt over the years when audiences come up with their own interpretations of what it all means.

After premiering at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival and screening at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, as well as this past weekend’s virtual Nightstream Film Festival — which is where we saw it — Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist will be available on Shudder starting November 20.