Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About To Live and Die in L.A. That Might Make You Want to Wang Chung Tonight
As an audience, we sometimes forget how much a director’s vision and artistry affects the films we watch and one of the great things about writing this column, is that I’ve learned so much about different directors’ styles. Some are very meticulous, storyboarding everything and taking great pride when printed scenes match their drawings exactly—and some barely use scripts, allowing actors to ad-lib almost every line. It is inspiring to hear about the creative process, and especially from the director of this film. Friedkin treats the footage he has shot like a sculptor does a lump of clay; he goes into an editing room and completely manipulates and shapes his film there, rather than molding it to a specific outcome planned ahead of time. Listening to this man who is clearly more artist than technician, it is hard not to be amazed by how in tune he is with combining music and visuals with spontaneous ideas and input that ranges from the actors, to the way the scenery unfolds itself in front of him. The resulting stylistic and moody film has inspired other directors to this day; Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was directly influenced by To Live and Die in L.A..
1. Director William Friedkin’s (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Rules of Engagement, Sorcerer) thriller is based on Gerald Petievich’s novel, a fictionalized account of his job as a United States Secret Service agent. Friedkin was drawn to the surrealist nature of an agent; one day Petievich might be protecting the President (or playing cards with him during downtime, as the agent did with Ronald Reagan), the next day he’d be chasing a counterfeiter for stolen credit cards or bad checks. The director’s first impulse was to show that surrealism; when he got to the editing room, Friedkin realized he hadn’t gotten any footage of agents protecting the President. So the beginning of the film was shot as an afterthought, and as a prologue.
2. After reading the novel, Friedkin contacted Petievich and acquired the rights, then wrote the first draft of the script himself. He called the author many times, met with him and was introduced to people by Petievich—the director found he was leaning on the writer quite a bit. It reached a point that when he came up with a new scene, Friedkin would ask Petievich to write it and Friedkin would edit. The director decided to put Petievich’s name on the screenplay; though it didn’t set out to be that way, the writing became very collaborative.
3. The Iranian terrorist on the roof wasn’t part of the book, that came from Friedkin’s discussions with Gerry Petievich about what sort of heroic deeds he might have done? “In 1985 many terrorists went after the President, and many times it didn’t even make the paper—it was just hushed up—because obviously the USSS doesn’t want to give people any ideas. This scene is based on one of many threats to the President that happen every time the President makes a speech.”
4. The main title sequence tries to give a flavor of the world that the audience is about to experience; it shows several characters without giving any idea of who they are or what they’re doing, along with counterfeiting. Friedkin mentioned “…all kinds of people who deal in cash are still buying counterfeit at half price (i.e. drug dealers). The number of people who made money as good as Rick Masters (Willem DaFoe) can be counted on one hand. He’s very good, a better counterfeiter than a painter, but he needed the conceit of calling himself a painter.”
5. The real artist (who created Masters’ paintings), Rainer Fetting “is an artist who sold a lot of paintings in Europe and New York…a young, German modern expressionist—who was very evocative of what Rick Masters should be doing. Willem Dafoe spent time watching him paint. The canvas burned at the film’s beginning—if not destroyed—would have sold for a lot of money. All the canvases were done by Fetting.”
6. Friedkin felt it would be good to show how counterfeit money was actually made. Gerry (Petievich), who had busted a number of counterfeiters, found “a guy.” Friedkin said he didn’t know if Petievich “got the guy out of prison or if the guy had done his time—but the counterfeiter was running a print shop and guess what that involved? It was an out of the way print shop in an area you’d need a police escort to get through.” The guy showed them the process, the kind of paper to use (a certain “rag” paper) and the particular inks to use. “The money he was making—twenty dollar bills—was as good as the government was making at the time. The government is supposed to make better money now. As you make it, you do one side of the twenties and then the other side—the so called grey side and green side. (For the film) we only needed one side of it. Someone took some of the money lying around, took it home. He had a teenage son with a friend who saw the bills, they took them (to a store) and tried to buy some Hostess Twinkies or something, offered the guy a one-sided twenty. Within five minutes they had someone from the Treasury Department in the store, asking where they got it. Up pops the name of their Property Master, Barry Bedig, who was in charge of the counterfeit money. For weeks…months, the Treasury Department would show up at his house; the Secret Service would grill him and question him about where he got the money. He’d say making a movie, they didn’t believe him.” Finally, Friedkin’s name cames up and they called him. Friedkin had already talked to Petovich about what he should do if they contacted him. The director asked if the agents had a warrant to bring him in—they said “No”—he’d tell them to get a warrant. The next call came from the U.S. Attorney’s office, again Friedkin asked, “Do you have a warrant?” They’d say, “No,” they just want confirmation of his story. Friedkin told them he was making money for the movie. They’d want to know, “How much did you make? Do you have it on your person?” He told them, “Maybe some souvenirs”…he kept telling them to get a warrant. “They just tried to browbeat (him). No crimes were committed. The counterfeit was made for the movie and we basically destroyed it all. The money in film is authentic—the guy who had been in prison made it.”
7. Casting director, Bob Weiner (The French Connection, The Wrong Way, The Seven-Ups), was a writer for Village Voice who “would see every play and every unusual or foreign film.” Weiner knew of a wide range of actors and had brought him Roy Scheider (who starred in Friedkin’s Sorcerer). Several years later, Friedkin contacted Weiner to have him help, telling Weiner he wanted to do another piece with similarities to The French Connection, and didn’t want to use anyone well known or a major star. He wanted—as he did with The Exorcist—people who could disappear into their roles. Weiner went out and after getting tips on people, told Friedkin to fly up to Toronto to see a young actor from Chicago who was doing A Streetcar Named Desire. Weiner told the director, this guy is “not doing anything to remind you of Brando, which is hard to do. He’s unusual looking but women find him attractive—women were lined up to see A Streetcar named Desire.” Friedkin went and saw William Peterson’s (Manhunter, Cousins, Hard Promises, Mulholland Falls, Fear, The Beast, “CSI”) performance; “he had a great stage presence.” Friedkin met with Peterson and spent a couple of days with him, “trying to get a feel as to whether he’d be willing to hang a starring role on this guy. Peterson was athletic and had played football, he was like a cowboy, a fantastic actor.” Friedkin said Peterson had all the ingredients—most especially intelligence—and decided to go with him. Peterson suggested John Pankow (The Secret of My Success, Monkey Shines,”Mad About You”), and Friedkin liked him too. Wiener also proposed Willem DaFoe, who was part of New York’s experimental acting company, The Wooster Group. Willem had made “one or two films, not widely seen” and had worked with Kathryn Bigelow, a director Friedkin “admired very much.” Friedkin thought Dafoe was great, and explained that he “just goes instinctively in casting.” The director recalled repeating to Willem “Zen,” as a code word about how he wanted DaFoe to do his performance. “Masters always has his emotions under control. There’s a suggestion that underneath that calm is some raging fire, but the key was’ Zen,’” and he often would give nothing but that word as a direction to DaFoe.
8. Bob Wiener rented a house “in Beverly Hills or Brentwood” and all the actors stayed there; it was like a boarding house. They called it Camp Wiener and had t-shirts made and worn by the crew. Defoe and Peterson stayed apart though, they didn’t become as friendly as some of the others because their characters were against each other.
9. The film was all shot on locations: LAX, the Terminal Island Freeway, Utro’s Cafe and Knoll Hill in San Pedro, a condo on Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway, Palmdale, Santa Monica and the surveillance was specifically shot across from a First Congregational Church in Pasadena because Friedkin wanted lawyer Max Waxman’s (Christopher Allport—“Brothers and Sisters, Mad Men, Commander in Chief, Felicity”) office to be more interesting. The director wanted to show the two Secret Service agents on surveillance duty at the church, watching Waxman’s office. For the scene, rain was manufactured, because “it was too dull without it.” The artist Rainer Fetting, played the scene’s priest. The prison footage was filmed at San Luis Obispo State Prison (“where some of the Manson family was”) with inmates and principal actors; Friedkin and Peterson played basketball with “and beat” some of the inmates.
10. Filming the foot chase between Peterson’s Richard Chance and John Turturro’s Carl Cody at LAX, the production was given many restrictions by airport personnel. There were a lot of areas they couldn’t go through and other areas they could use; they had to shoot when the airport wasn’t busy; they weren’t supposed to get a lot of footage of real people traveling, and were asked to use extras—but Friedkin still filmed a lot of regular people. They were told, “under no circumstances” could Peterson run on the handrails. “Bill said he could do it, he was very athletic, very capable in all the physical stunts; he did almost all of them.” Peterson assured Friedkin he could make the run on the rails and they worked it out. After the shot, Friedkin received a severe talking to by the airport manager, who was all upset that they violated the agreement. Friedkin said “It was a young actor who got carried away, it was his dream, he always wanted to run the rails of the people movers at the airport and now he’s done it!” The director told the manager it was a harmless incident and he’s (Peterson) okay, “Why don’t we forget it and move on.”
11. The first time Friedkin ever saw John Turturro (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, Transformers, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 , Margot at the Wedding) was when the actor came in to read for his part (Carl Cody), “He looked strange and sounded strange—the part was not written that way—it was written very straightforward. He just comes across strange like Peter Lorre—I loved the accent, his dialogue was improvised; he took it a step further and wilder. Cody’s emotions are a mirror of his temperament. Turturro did wonderful job of creating his character in that way.”
12. The choreography of the dance scene was by Lesli Glatter—Friedkin first met her in Japan. “Glatter is the only woman to ever dance with the Japanese all-male theater yarō-kabuki. She is an extraordinary dancer and had studied choreography in Japan.” Friedkin had an idea to copy Henri Matisse chasubles as costumes. The artist had designed a small church in Vence, France, along with everything in it including the priests’ robes and chasubles. Friedkin showed Lesli the designs and she choreographed a dance that would show the movement of the robes—it was a kabuki based dance number.
13. On his directorial style: “I don’t like to spell things out for the audience or (for them) to know where the next scene or shot will be. That’s called show and tell. A lot of films are structured that way, the audience is told where they’re going and when, and then they go there.” Friedkin likes to just have things unfold (music as well); he loves Stravinsky, who is “completely unpredictable. Citizen Cane, All About Eve, Paths of Glory,Treasure of Sierra Madre are unpredictable in their structure. You have no idea the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ will ever be determined for audience, but not to the characters in the film. In All About Eve, Eve is going to be played the same way she’s been playing all the other characters in the film; that ironic unpredictable quality is seldom achieved. Spike Jonz and Charlie Kaufman are completely unpredictable.” Friedkin “…most values the ironic and unpredictable.” He encourages crew and cast to make suggestions, and will often alter his plan according to suggestions, especially from the Director of Photography (Robby Müller, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, 24 Hour Party People, Barfly, Mad Dog and Glory) or camera operator. Friedkin had seen Robby Muller’s work in European films, “Paris,Texas being best example—it had the kind of look that I thought would be very good for To Live and Die in L.A.. He didn’t do the chase scene” (Bob Yeoman, Moonrise Kingdom, Bridesmaids, The Royal Tenenbaums, Get Him to the Greek), but Friedman loved Robby’s sensibility—“he is a master of the single setup scene. He finds the best light, shoots the scene in that light and moves on. We couldn’t do it the whole film, but it added to the unique approach of the film.” There are no drawings, just talks. Friedkin believes in “only moving the camera when an actor moves, or when something moves. I don’t like to move just for the sake of moving it, one exception is when trying to draw an audience into a more intense moment (with a close up).” The director regards the set and all the filming that goes on during production as raw material for the editing room—he often has no idea how a scene is supposed to look in the ultimate edited version. He likes to “find the film in the editing room—the film decides what it wants to be.”
14. When Chance and Vukovich enter Waxman’s office and Chance snatches up Waxman’s notebook because he thinks it will have valuable information, Vukkovich points out the notebook is evidence—they should have left it or handed it over. But Chance sees it as an opportunity to pin something on Masters—it’s a kind of roadmap to people Masters associated with, and the kind and amounts of money he’s put out. “It is at this moment the two agents have an essential fissure or break between them that never quite gets repaired. Vukovich starts to see that Chance is a psycho, a guy who will break the law in order to catch someone”. Friedkin thinks the very best cops not only think like criminals, but often will act like criminals to catch a bad guy. “That used to be more acceptable (in the real world), but now the public is less sympathetic”. Friedkin calls it a major theme of his, that there is a very thin line between cop and criminal (in fact, the director made a television documentary in 1966, “The Thin Blue Line”). “Masters and Chance are two sides of the same coin. They’re driving toward suicide—‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ is both characters’ credo. In that kind of lifestyle, policeman or criminal, there’s a death wish. You’re out there every day dealing with possibility you may get killed or may have to kill somebody. The personalities of those who do this work is that of suicidal people. I can’t imagine a lot of people watching, choosing to go into a profession where they might die at any moment. Ultimately, that’s what they’re doing.”
15. Friedkin had actress Darlanne Fluegel (Once Upon a Time in America, Lock Up, Breaking Point, Pet Sematary II) hang out at her character Ruth’s apartment, decorate it and choose the apartment colors. Fluegel and Peterson could “get some feelings of how they would behave as they move around in their space.” For their love scene, Friedkin said he gave them “only the direction Russian ballet masters Diaghilev and Nijinsky would give during production: ‘Surprise me.’” He merely tells the actors where he’s putting the camera and they work it out. “It’s clear Chance is using Ruth for sex and information; she’s using him for money and keeping her out of prison. It’s part of the metaphor of the counterfeit world. I can’t tell you that I actually understand any character’s true nature,” Friedkin just “tries to show the complicated nature of people…I don’t know or care about all their backstories.”
16. Friedkin knew “and loved Steve James (American Ninja, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, “All My Children”) as a human being and an action actor,” he wrote the Jeff Rice part for him because the director is a fan. Steve did a couple of television shows, one called “C.A.T. Squad (with Friedkin);” he loved working with him. James called himself “The Funky Man,” and was introduced Friedkin’s six year old son that way—the boy only knew James as the The Funky Man.
17. Stunt Coordinator Pat Johnson (Mortal Kombat, Enter the Dragon, Batman and Robin, Punisher: War Zone, The Karate Kid II, Wild Wild West, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) choreographed the fight scene between Masters and Rice. Johnson is a ninth degree black belt and was “the number two middle weight karate champ, behind number one, Chuck Norris. A fight has to be choreographed or you’ll hurt someone. You might hurt someone anyway.” Friedkin’s concept was that “they fight using objects in the room; there was no sense of karate, except occasionally—it’s an impromptu brawl.” The director doesn’t think Masters kills Rice (“some people do”), “he just put the gun down his throat to get what he wanted. Don’t assume that Masters kills him, though he may have.”
18. Valentin de Vargas (The Magnificent Seven, “Zorro, Kung Fu, Mission Impossible”), last seen by Friedkin in Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, played the federal judge. Director/Writer/Actor Robert Downey Sr. (Hugo Pool, Up the Academy, Tower Heist, Magnolia, Johnny B. Good) was Bateman. Because Gerry Petievich referred to his own boss as “Pencilneck,” that’s what Bateman is called. Friedkin used to play basketball with Downey; “He did cutting edge comedy, I thought he had a weird sensibility…he’s a nice guy, a funny guy,” cast because Friedkin liked him and “thought he would bring a different color to the film.”
19. Friedkin “only made one or two independent films, the others were major studio.” He wanted to do this as an independent “with guys who knew how to work quickly. Union pictures move slower, with a lot of unnecessary personnel. The French Connection was union but made with a small group, almost an independent sized crew. That picture was shot in forty days and part of that (speed) was because they were a small unit, moving quickly.” The director wanted to make this film in that way, in Los Angeles. He sought out people from the independent world. Friedkin “Loves to see a good chase scene, he’s only come up with about three in all his films—(they’re) hard to dream up.” Though chases are done to a greater extent now with digital optics, he did all the scenes mechanically. “I wanted something different from The French Connection.” He first finds a locale that looks cinematic, then comes up with a chase. “The cooperation from the city was great, we had no problem getting permits.” Shooting was done on weekends when there was no heavy traffic.
“You don’t need a lot of people to shoot a chase. Sound is added afterwards. One shot is completed at a time, there might be multiple cameras, but do one shot at time; sound can’t do very much in that situation.” Friedkin frequently does sound after the film is cut. “You go out with one recordist and often not even to the same location. Live sound is not good on a chase. It requires lots of cutting; it’s like knitting, painstaking work.” Friedkin saw a lot of things while filming that became ideas to him—“You should always be open to accidents or things you’d never planned on—then weave them into a sequence. I saw the L.A. dry riverbed basin at the time, and thought we could do some things down there. I decided midway that the two guys weren’t being just chased by two agents in one car—rather, by agents all over the place. I wanted this to be Kafkaesque…they thought they were being chased from everywhere, and they were.” Along the way, Friedkin also came up with idea of the car being chased the wrong way up a freeway. Stunt Coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker (Superbad, Scarface, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Harold and Maude, “Lost, Dexter”) helped him execute it. “Hooker came up with several ways to do it with a team of fantastic stunt drivers to make it believable. It needed to be different than any other chase people had seen.
20. Friedkin had heard some of the recordings of Wang Chung (Jack Hues, Nick Feldman) in Europe and liked it: “Intelligent and ironic lyrics—particularly a song called Wait, listen carefully. The beat and melody is insinuating and sensuous.” The director met with the musicians and told them he’d be interested in them writing the film score, though he hadn’t made the movie or even written the script yet. When he did, he sent Hues and Feldman the script and described the style, asking them to write free form. “Don’t write a beginning, middle and end, I’ll take care of that.” Friedkin felt their music had an affinity with the movie he was trying to make. “They’d never been to the United States except for a couple of tours, had no idea of street life in L.A. or a Secret Service agent’s life, but something about their music inspired Friedkin in terms of mood and attitude. The director had done this once before with the electronic group, Tangerine Dream and Scorcerer. “In both cases, the scores turned out to be very good, although the musicians hadn’t seen any part of the film by the time they composed the score.” Friedkin remembered asking Hues and Feldman, “Guys, don’t write a theme song song that has any lyrics, let alone the lyric ‘To Live and Die in LA.’ To his amazement, they one day in the editing room, handed him a song that they had written and recorded with that title, and it was meant to be the signature song of the picture. I have to admit, I liked it very much—it had a wonderful mood both musically and lyrically for the the film.” (Jack Hues Interview)
Cindy Davis remembers her dance hall days well.
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