Dateline: July 24, 1975 – Olympia, Washington
Treehouse. Late, sunny afternoon. Hot. The smell of plywood, pine tree sap, competing barbecues. The sound of somebody’s car stereo blasting Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” somewhere in the distance.
“Jeezuz,” said Danny. “How long’s it been?”
I looked at my watch. “About 45 minutes.”
He shifted around anxiously. “You don’t think he got caught, do you?”
My stomach clenched. Mike would sell us out at the first hint of trouble. He always did. And this thing… well, this was my idea. I could imagine it playing out: Mike caught in his mother’s vice-like grip in one hand, her shaking the offending stolen item menacingly and accusatorially above her head with the other. And like some mouth-frothing evangelist casting out blasphemous spirits from an innocent parishioner, she would demand, in that two-packs-a-day rasp that she cultivated, “Michael, who? Who put you up to this?” Cowering, Mike would reflexively offer me up for sacrifice,”STEVE! IT WAS STEVE’S IDEA!”
I was cooked. I just knew it.
But then the trapdoor to the treehouse flew open and Mike’s portly body bullied through the opening. “Shit, that was close!” he said as he fell over, dramatically, out of breath, clutching in his hands the spoils of our scheme: a paperback copy of William Peter Blatty’s shocking novel The Exorcist.“My goddamned sister almost caught me,” he said, eyes wide with a combination of panic and glee.
“Lemme see that thing,” Danny said, snatching the book from Mike’s hand. He peered at it for a moment, turned it over, looked at the back. “Huh. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“It’s a book, Danny,” I said, taking it from him. “You’ve gotta open it up and read the damn thing.”
Danny punched me in the shoulder with his canned-ham sized fist. “Shut-up–I’m not stupid.”
“Jeezuz,” I gasped. “Not so soft next time.” I smiled and pretended that my arm didn’t go numb or that a jolt of freezing pain didn’t rush down my side. Danny was my best friend, but he was a big, handsome boy from West Virginia that was used to getting by in the world through his southern charm, his tank-like build, and his athletic prowess. Books, let’s just say, weren’t his thing. They never had to be.
“Well?” Danny said to me.
“Are you going to read it, or what?”
“Yeah, c’mon! This is supposed to be better than Hustler!” said Mike, salaciously.
We had previously discovered Danny’s older brother Keith’s cache of porno magazines–Playboys, Penthouse, and what was considered to be the gold-standard of raunch, Hustler. (He had them hidden in his athletic bag, jammed under football pads and jock straps.) Those porno mags were the business for us, but this would be the first prurient book that we brought into the treehouse. It was something of an anomaly, to say the least.
A voracious reader, I argued that a good book could be better than any movie, and would certainly be better than any static magazine picture. Danny wasn’t convinced, but Mike had heard all about this book from his sister. “My sister says it’s goddamn disgusting!” We had to get our hands on it.
I opened the book to the first page. There were several acknowledgements, some bible quotes, dedications–all sorts of stuff.
“Well? What’s going on?” Mike asked.
“Hang on,” I said.
“Just read it,” Danny said.
I just read the prologue…
The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clang to his back like chill wet leaves.
I continued on, reading a long paragraph that detailed a disappointing archeological dig. When I got to the end of the paragraph, I stopped. “It just goes on like that,” I said.
Danny and Mike were silent. The disappointment on their faces said it all.
“Well, skip to somewhere in the middle,” offered Mike.
I randomly opened it up to the middle of the book and scanned the pages for something that might jump out at me, a random curse word, a tawdry sentence.
Nothing. Just a lot of dialogue between a police detective and a priest. Boring stuff.
“Listen,” I said. “Why don’t I read it first? Then I’ll know all of the good parts.”
“Forget it,” Danny said. “There’s no reason to read a whole book.”
I wanted to keep it, to read it–just for me–but Mike had to get it back to his house, back to his mother’s nightstand where he had stolen it from. If he could get it home before she got off work, we’d be fine. And by ‘we’, he really meant me. He looked at me with traitorous eyes when he said so before squeezing out of the treehouse entrance and back to his house to perform the reverse heist.
One day, two weeks later, Danny called on the telephone, sounding like his house had just collapsed. “It’s playing!” Danny shouted, his voice distorting over the phone. “At The Sunset!”
“What is?” I asked
“The Exorcist! The goddamn Exorcist!” He was out of breath with excitement. “Friday night!”
“Whatta you think?”
Now, what Danny was really asking was akin to asking me whether or not we might be able to thread a needle whilst riding on the back of an ill-tempered and rabid bucking bronco in the middle of a tornado.
“Maybe,” I answered. “You figure it out on your end. I’ll talk to Mike.”
“Mike? He won’t be able to go!”
“If his mom will let him go, then my mom will let me go–and either one of them can take us,” I offered. “We’ve got a couple of days to figure this out.”
The Sunset was one of the last working drive-in movie theatres in the area and seemed to specialize in cheap thrill b-movies, soft-core pornography, and odd, one-off revivals of sensationalistic horror and sci-fi movies–we had made quantum leaps of understanding about life, sex, and just plain how the world worked through the movies they exhibited there. We got Mike’s sister to take us to see Death Race 2000 earlier in the spring, for example. Their presenting The Exorcist made perfect sense.
I got off the phone and started to rustle up a plan.
“Are you crazy? You are not seeing that movie,” my mom said. I made the mistake of asking her whilst she was sitting at the kitchen table, papers strewn about, her chequebook open, an expression of pure aggravation engraved on her face.
“But why?” I offered feebly.
Why? Was I serious? If Mike’s sister was to be believed, the book had scenes of a young girl masturbating with a crucifix and enough foul language to make a sailor blush. But I pushed on. And on. And on. Until, finally, my mother snapped. “Steven, shutup! Get the hell out of here–right now!” She was pissed. But even at that young age, I could tell that she wasn’t really mad at me. Oh, sure, my whining and begging to have a grown woman willfully take their eleven year old kid to a movie that featured a young girl violating herself with a symbol of Catholicism’s most sacred iconography seems completely psychotic now from the safe confines of sanity and reasoned thought here in adulthood, and would surely raise the ire of any parent, let alone my Italian born, devout Roman Catholic mother, but I could tell there was something else, something sinister at play here.
I went to my room and played some records for a while, some upbeat songs to bring my mood back up (Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” got a few spins). Then I heard her. On the phone. With my father.
After a few minutes, it was all clear to me. My mother had been struggling to wrangle my father’s child-support payments for a while now and things were coming to a head. Things were not going smoothly. My father, I should point out, was safely ensconced back in Europe, in Germany–far from the flimsy reach of a pre-internet, world-wide-webbed and digitally connected 1970s west coast of North America. My father might as well have been undercover in Siberia. But she found him. Finally.
I heard my mother rally off a volley of vitriolic epithets, then shift into angry, staccato Italian, and then, finally, she ended with a loud and assertive “Fuck you, Peter. Fuck you!” before slamming the big, rotary, 1970s Avocado Green Bell telephone to it’s cradle so hard that I thought it was sure to have broken. It was the only time in my entire life that I would ever hear my mother use the ‘f word’ and she did so with the conviction and acumen of a seasoned veteran.
An uneasy silence followed. So much that my record playing felt self-conscious, so I pulled the needle off of my 45 of Elton John’s version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. (Heresy, I realize, but I still think that this version beats The Beatle’s version by a country mile.) I waited to hear what would happen next.
I heard my mother talking with someone, the phone miraculously still in working order, apparently. The conversation was short, to the point. Then, footsteps. Loud, purposeful footsteps. And getting louder. My door swung open, my mother leaned in.
“If you want to go see that movie, we’re leaving at 8:30–with Mike and his mom. Ask Danny to come, if you want.” She looked at me for a moment then added, mysteriously, “Just remember; you wanted to go,” before closing the door and leaving. Although I was curious as to what she meant with that ‘you wanted to go’ comment, I knew better than to ask any questions now. And, really, I couldn’t have cared less; we were going and that was all that mattered.
We rode to the drive-in theatre in the back of Mike’s mom’s station wagon like we were kings being chauffeured to our coronation–that is if kings punched each other, swore under their breath, and had their moms talking shit about them in the front seat.
Well, that’s what I thought they were doing–at first. Soon, though, I realized, after a bit of eavesdropping, that the ‘he’ and ‘hims’ that came out of my mom’s mouth weren’t meant for me but for my father. But I also learned that night that the distinction was minor; one fact was clear: I recalled, for her, my father–through my mannerisms, my physical appearance. Indeed, my very existence reminded my mother of my father–someone who she saw as a demon in his own right, if not the devil himself. It was no accident that were hurtling, headlong into a cinematic confrontation between good and evil, with none other than Catholic warriors leading the charge. Salvation and absolution were out of the question; I could tell from my mother’s mood, her look of determination on her face, that this was about victory.
We pulled into an empty stall. Mike, Danny, and I immediately situated ourselves on the hood of the big station wagon, laying pillows on the windshield which we improvised into a lounge chair, the three of us with a perfect view of the screen. My mother and Mike’s mother brought lawn chairs and sat at the side of the car, talking amongst themselves.
We made a quick trip to the concessions building to load up on popcorn, RC Cola, Raisenettes, and Sno-Caps. Then we crawled up onto the hood with our bounty, preparing for the bevy of forbidden images and sounds that were going to assault our senses, like interlopers who happened upon Aladin’s Cave.
“Oh, man, I can’t wait!” said Mike, his eyes like saucers.
“This is going to be amazing!’ said Danny.
I don’t know why, but at that moment, I looked over at my mother. She was animatedly in the middle of conversation with Mike’s mom, but she made eye contact with me–it was chilling. She gave me a look that seemed to reiterate her warning to me: “Just remember; you wanted to go.”
I should’ve listened to her.
After the movie, I sat silent in between my two compatriots, Mike and Danny, quiet as I have ever been. I was shell shocked. I witnessed, in no particular order, a young girl urinate on a carpet in front of her mother’s dinner guests, this same girl implore Jesus to fuck her whilst she lunged a crucifix into her crotch–to bloody, gore-filled results; I saw her head spin around, I watched her vomit green bile on a priest, I heard her say ‘fuck’ numerous times, I heard her tell this same priest that his mother–who just died–“sucks cocks in hell”. I was, probably, suffering a form of post traumatic stress disorder.
Danny and Mike were carrying on like it was the best thing that had or would ever happen to them.
“Did you see her head spin around? Boss!” exclaimed Danny.
“And what about how she floated above the bed? That was crazy!”
And so on.
I remained silent. I had things to think about.
And think about them I did.
When we got home, my mother went to bed without anything to indicate anything out of the ordinary had occurred–except for one thing. Before I went to my room, my mom said, “I spoke to your father today,” she said solemnly. “Steven, I want you to think about who you want to be.” And then she went into her bedroom, closed the door.
I went to my room and turned on my small black and white TV. The Tomorrow Show, with Tom Snyder was on. I didn’t know who he was interviewing but I rarely did. I watched him sometimes, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep. I found his voice and his personality soothing, comforting. And, right now, I needed to feel safe.
The movie, for the obvious reasons, bothered me. But I was also bothered by the fact that I saw in Linda Blair, the actor that played the possessed 12-year-old, Regan, every girl that I knew–especially every girl that I had ‘funny feelings’ for. She was beautiful and sweet and every bit like me and my friends. I worried that, whilst I slept in my bed that night, that I, too, might wake up in the morning to find myself possessed. I had been up to all sorts of stupid things lately–as was befitting of a kid in adolescence in the mid seventies. Had I left the door open to The Devil himself? Would he come and take possession of my soul, my body sometime during the night? Maybe, if I stayed awake, if I kept sleep at bay, I could be on guard and thwart any attempts.
Think about who you want to be. I just lay there and really thought about those words, those words that my mother said to me. I didn’t really understand, but I knew that what she was talking about had to do with my father–that all of those times that she said to me, “You’re just like your father” were meant to be cautionary warnings, shots across the bow to me to get my attention, to change my course; that, in her world–and indeed mine–my father was analogous to the demon of Pazuzu in The Exorcist–a patient demon just waiting to inhabit me, take me over. I was already halfway there; I looked like him, I walked like him, I made the same snarly faces, heck, I even spoke like him, if what my mother said was to be believed.
I would learn later in my life–much too late to be of any use, unfortunately–that what I really should have been paying attention to, and what was, in actual fact, resonating deep within me, even on that first viewing of The Exorcist, was the character of Father/Dr. Damien Karras, the troubled young priest at the centre of the story. I couldn’t know at eleven years old, but my life would greatly resemble that of this guilt-ridden priest as my adult years spooled out.
I, too, would work hard and diligently to achieve success in my field of work–a work of service to others. (Whilst Karras would become a priest, I would become a teacher–some might say these to callings are more similar than not.) And both the character of Karras and I felt enormous responsibility for their ailing, single mothers and yet both of us lived close enough to make visits but far enough away to ensure that these visits were infrequent and short, due to the distance to be travelled and the complications of getting there. We both loved our mothers dearly, but simply could not coexist in their everyday world. I would recognize in Father Karras the same incongruent combination of unconditional love and gentle care for my mother but also the same suffocating sensation and impatience that would envelope me if I was anywhere near her for more than a few hours. And, like Karras, I would have to endure the unexpected yet strangely inevitable and predictable death of my mother and the attendant guilt and grief that accompanied it like a shadow.
Demon: You killed your mother! You left her alone to die! Bastard!
Father Damien Karras: Shut up!
When I watch The Exorcist now, I am overwhelmed with empathy for the young priest, his final act of defiance against the demon ostensibly to save a young girl, but in actual fact his last attempt at absolution, at clearing the ledgers of a life filled with regret and guilt.
It’s galvanizing stuff.
I can remember, even as that kid splayed out on that hood of the station wagon, my head resting against the pillow on the windshield, watching this exchange on the screen, realizing that, sure, there were spinning heads, foul language, immolation, and all sorts of horrors, but it was this, the story of the priest and the demon, that I was actually meant to pay attention to:
Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Damien Karras: You would like that?
Father Damien Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Damien Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.
If this priest, this handsome, adult priest, who clearly knew what he was doing, could be at risk, what hope did I have? Even at eleven years old, I felt that I was tempting fate, that I was being drawn, inexorably, to doing the wrong thing; that I had my own demon inside of me–patient, all the while working it’s claws around my heart–and that demon was me.
Over the years, I would heed my mother’s words with varying degrees of success. Always, in the back of my mind, through my precarious twenties, my ill-advised thirties, my thought-I-knew-what-I-was-doing forties… through all of those years, those decades, one thing was always in the back of my mind: don’t be ‘possessed’ by your natural nature–fight it. Be different. My mother’s words from that day when I was eleven years old still resonate: “…think about who you want to be.” She could see in me, even at such a young age, a natural tendency to arrogance, aggression, hubris. I would have to be conscious of these traits and fight like hell to suppress them, to rise above them and be a better person than I was hereditarily destined to become. If I’m honest, I have only been partially successful.
I woke up that next day surprised and relieved to realize that I had not been possessed, overnight, by a demon, or The Devil himself. I might have even felt, if I’m honest, a bit surprised–maybe even a little disappointed. If there was anyone that had seemed to have bad intentions born and bred into him, someone who had regularly left the door open for The Devil to enter his soul, whatever that was, I felt it was me. Little did I know that the real possession, the real fight of good and evil would be decided in my movements, the choices I would make, and the paths I would choose in the years that lay far ahead of me. If I am honest, it’s still a struggle I fight today. Every day.
Two Donkeys in Poland: The William Friedkin Story
Little could I know that night at the drive-in, but I would, one day, make the acquaintance of the person responsible for the film that would make such an impression on my life: the director of The Excorcist, William Friedkin. It would prove to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life.
First, a bit of background. I’m a filmmaker. Or, I should say, I was a filmmaker. Now I’m a teacher—I teach screenwriting at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Way back when, in the beginning of my career in film/TV (late ‘80s early ‘90s), I went to film school at New York University (Tisch School of the Arts), back when there were, really, only two primary film schools of note, USC and NYU. (Three if you counted UCLA’s grad program at the time.) Being that NYU was pretty prestigious, they would arrange for us to have some amazing guest lectures, screenings, previews, etc.
While I attended NYU, I was also a teaching assistant. This offered me a job, good experience, and, most important, it granted me access to every guest lecture or screening that the film school presented. (Oftentimes, I would be directly involved in the projection of films or the organization of the presentations.) One of the perks was that I would regularly screen movies well before their release, usually presented by their director, in-person, followed by a lecture and question and answer session. One of those screenings was with William Friedkin. He screened his (then upcoming) film The Guardian. Being that it was Friedkin, EVERYONE at NYU wanted to show up, but it was limited to about 30 of us, all packed into a small screening room.
“Mr. Friedkin, we all have a bright future ahead of us.”
Oh, you’ll need to know one thing to make this story work: NYU’s film school had a reputation—and it was (and still is) exclusive. Meaning that, at the time, the film program–particularly if you were one of the ‘lucky’ ones to be whittled down to direct anything–was very small compared to programs today—and it was these directing majors who were the folks in the room. Add to that the fact that so many Hollywood luminaries had passed through NYU’s gates (Scorcese, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, etc.) and you may understand why there was a bit of a sense that we were all part of a Hollywood ‘farm team’, and you also may understand what is at the core of this story: complete and utterly misguided hubris of the sort that only kids in their twenties, with a little bit of knowledge, can possess. (For example, I would earn a fellowship from Warner Bros. that paid for my thesis film and which supplied me with a job on the lot and a pitch meeting with the head of the studio. Even I–intense skeptic and realist that I was and would forever be–was under the impression that it was a fait accompli that I would be rubbing elbows with Spielberg and Scorcese, sharing beers on the patio with A-list actors. So, you know, the signals were easy to misinterpret by even the most level-headed of us.)Anyway, things are going as you might expect for an Academy Award winning directer in a room full of eager film students; the usual questions about technique in the film we just screened, a ton of questions about his two most famous films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, etc. Everything, all things considered, is normal.
Then it happens.
Someone in the back of the room says this: “Mr. Friedkin, I’m sure you’re aware that we are all directing majors and that this is NYU—we all have a bright future ahead of us.”
At this moment, my buddy murmurs “Oh, shit” and nods in Friedkin’s direction. There was what can only be described as a mischievous smile beginning to form on William Friedkin’s face. The kid behind us blindly soldiers on.
“I guess what I’m asking is this: When we go out to Hollywood—and many of us have already got some offers—how should we go about deciding what project is right for us?”
Friedkin now looks genuinely puzzled. And he asks for the kid to ask the question again, pretending that he didn’t hear the question. The kid begins repeating the question. Now, remember, this is a small screening room and we’re in a pretty intimate setting—you don’t need to raise your voice to be heard in here. Remember this.
Anyway, the kid’s about ¾ of the way through his repeating his question when Friedkin cuts him off. “Okay, I think I get what you’re getting at. You guys are the cream of the crop here at what may be the best film program in the world—hell, all sorts of big guys, some real heavy-hitters have come out of here–Marty, Oliver Stone—and you’re almost out of here, things are happening. Hell, you’ve probably got a film out in the festivals right now—am I right?”
Well, shit. The kid couldn’t be happier—Friedkin knows! He’s one of us! There’s hope! And what’s even better, I’m sure the kid was thinking, He’s going to confer on us some inside knowledge; some real deal stuff for us real deals!
And that’s when Friedkin goes into ‘Friedkin’ mode. And that’s when I knew that, for the kid, it was all over.
“Well, here’s what might happen… uh, sorry, what’s your name?” Friedkin asks, fake humility poring out of every pore.
“Dave,” the kid answers proudly.
“Okay, Dave. Right. Well, you’ve got a point; you guys have to really start thinking about this, you’ve got to start getting your shit together. You’ve got your work out there, in festivals, and, here, NYU, and USC, the studios, the big boys, are checking you guys, your stuff out. NYU’s got quite a history of real talent coming out of this program.”
Now some of the other knuckleheads in the room are getting on board. They’re hanging on Friedkin’s every word as if their future families depended on them.
“You know, you’re going to go out to L.A. and your going to have a meeting. Dave, you’ll have a lot of meetings, sure, but let’s say you’re going to have a meeting that might go a little something like this: They’re going to give you a script, Dave. But you know this. You’re going to come out of here and your going to see a lot of scripts. But you’re at a meeting at Universal for this one, at the lot. And this one’s the one, man. I mean the picture’s on the studio’s Christmas release schedule. This is big stuff. Here’s how the script starts, Dave:
It opens up in the clouds. Nothing but clouds, a perfect shot taken from IN the clouds, Dave—but that’s okay; beautiful credits are over these pillows of loveliness, Dave. Your credit, directed by… what’s your last name, Dave?”
He tells him.
“Great. And now we’ve got a big swell of music, Dave, right on the ‘Directed By’—which is your name, Dave. And you know whose music it is? John fucking Williams, that’s who—the best. Like I said, Christmas release. And now, now, Dave, we come out of the clouds…”
Friedkin makes this moving shot gesture with his hands, his face oohing and aahing, at the shot he’s composing in front of us.
“And now we see them, Dave. Our main characters. They’re small—just dots, just dots on the horizon, a green horizon—a beautiful, greenmeadow in Poland, Dave.
And now the camera comes down—one of those perfect helicopter shots, just like that opening of The Sound of Music—you know the one.
And now, Dave, now we see what’s happening, we see our stars.”
And Dave and the rest of the chumps are hanging on every syllable now—who are the stars, they wonder? Bruce Willis? Eastwood? Meryl Streep?
“Two donkeys, Dave. Two big-ass, donkeys. And you know what they’re doing? They are fucking, Dave, like no two donkeys have ever fucked in the history of the world, I mean they are going to town. This is like The Last Tango In Paris of donkey movies.”
Well, finally, it dawns on Dave and company. It’s over.
“You still with me, Dave?”
Nothing. All we can hear is the air-conditioning.
Friedkin’s fired up now. “And this scene goes on, Dave, and on—for nine pages! You look through the goddamn thing—all 147 pages—and you see that the whole thing is one donkey fuck scene tied to another! And then the executive asks you, Well, whatta ya think? You want the job? We shoot in six weeks.”
Friedkin walks up the aisle a bit, gets poor, stupid Dave in his sights… and then lets in with, “You know what you say, Dave?”
Dave says nothing. Wishing, no doubt, that he could just disappear.
Friedkin lowers his voice, leans into Dave, and starts, in a near whisper, “This is what you say, Dave…”, then, suddenly screaming, like the screening room is on fire, “YES! HOLY CHRIST, YES! I’M YOUR GUY! I’M YOUR TWO DONKEYS FUCKING IN POLAND GUY! I’VE BEEN WAITING TO SHOOT A REAL EASTERN EUROPEAN DONKEY FUCK-FEST PICTURE FOR MY WHOLE MISERABLE LIFE. YES, YES, YES! JEEZUZ CHRIST ON A POGO STICK, YES! I’LL TAKE IT!” His words bounce off the screening room walls like the ball in a pinball machine.
He ambles down to the front, turns, and with a steely gaze looks at us and says, “If if anyone–ANYONE–graces you with a job offer to even clean some producer’s diarrhea spray off the fuckin’ studio bathroom—that’s what you say: YES!”