The director of classics like 'The Exorcist,' 'The French Connection,' and more opens up about the Tangerine Dream founder and the making of the iconic 'Sorceror' soundtrack.
On his classic battle track "Ether," Queensbridge MC Nas rhymed "Name a rapper that I ain't influence." The same could be said for filmmaker William Friedkin.
Coming up in the late 60s and early 70s, Friedkin is responsible for some of the most important films in history including The Exorcist and The French Connection, as well as underappreciated classics like the 1977 thriller Sorceror. Set in the jungles of South America, the film follows a team of four criminals who do not know each other and are tasked with moving a load of highly unstable nitro-glycerin down a long and winding jungle road to extinguish an explosion at an oil well 200 miles away. The tense film is driven by the legendary soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, a bonafide classic and the first of several soundtracks that mastermind Edgar Froese would do in the years to come.
In late January, Edgar Froese passed away from a pulmonary embolism, and as such we contacted Friedkin to discuss his relationship to the legendary artist, their masterwork together, and their personal relationship. Our discussion, which also delves into everything from opera to Tool, is below.
So let’s start with the passing of Edgar Froese from Tangerine Dream and his integral part in the film Sorcerer. How did you come across Tangerine Dream the first time?
The Exorcist was about to open, so I went on a long European tour in late 1974. When I got to Frankfurt, I asked the Warner Brothers rep “what do you do at night around here?” because it seemed like a pretty quiet city. He said, “well, there’s an interesting new electronic rock band,” and that was very new at that time. “They’re playing in an abandoned church in the Black Forest.” I asked if they were good and he said “They’re great. They’re unique.” I said, “let’s take a ride out there” he said, “well, the concert starts at midnight.” Jesus.
But we drove out there, and it was an abandoned church in the heart of the Black Forest. I didn't know what to expect but the place was packed. There must have been a thousand people and there were no lights. No stage lights. No spot lights. They played on what was the altar, and the only light in the room while they played was the electronic lights from their instruments.
There were only three guys and they were all electrified; Guitar, drums, and Edgar was playing a synthesizer. They played for well over three hours, close to four with long stretches of musical tones, occasionally extremely rhythmic. It was very hallucinatory. The audience was dead quiet. It was really trance-like, everybody was really into it and so was I. They were really emotional and the sound was so loud that you could feel it throbbing within you. It was very exciting, long stretches of chords and heavy beat.
So afterwards, I asked if I could meet them. We talked briefly at about three in the morning; my German was terrible and Edgar’s English was not very good. They got the idea very quickly through a translator that I was interested in having them score a movie for me, a film that had not been written yet. I just said to them, “whatever I do next, I want you guys to score it.” I told them the story of what I was planning, this was Sorcerer. including the characters. I kept in touch with them, and some months later I sent them a script. I said, “you guys just write long stretches of music the way I heard you play it, and send me the music when you get it. Give me your musical impressions of what’s in that script, and what I’ve told you.”
Some months later when I was filming in Oaxaca province, these quarter-inch tapes arrived. It was the score. I couldn’t play it right away, I had no equipment in the jungle to play this stuff. So we sent it to Mexico City where I got it transferred to cassettes. I first heard the music on a little cassette tape machine. It was fantastic! It was obviously something very emotional, rhythmic, and it could not have captured the tone of the film any better. At that point, they had not even seen it when they wrote the music. I finished filming, and we had quite a bit of film left to go.
When I got back to Hollywood to edit it, I listened to the tracks in full and they were just fantastic. What I did was basically cherry pick from several hours of tracks that they recorded. They had written much more than what I used. I simply took those pieces that I felt were appropriate. I actually cut a lot of the sequences to the music that had been pre-recorded. They did not write to finished film at all. They only saw the finished film much later.
Do you still have those original tapes?
Oh yeah. And actually they were talking to somebody about a release. Sorcerer, the film, is going to be released in the summer throughout Europe theatrically and I’m gonna loan these tapes to the distributors out there. There’s a huge demand for this stuff. I don’t know why they didn’t release it again. I think they were waiting for the European release of the Blu-Ray. I would love to have had that score as an extra on the US Blu-Ray. Perhaps we can get that done with the European version.
So I guess when you saw them in Germany at the Black Forest in the dark, you had never really experienced any kind of live show like that? Or that style of music?
I had never heard that kind of music before. Few people had. I think one of the reasons for that venue, an abandoned church, other than psychological, was the fact that it had not grown to its full popularity by then. It was new! This sound was very new. The only thing similar that I can recall that was any way like it, but was more pop-oriented, much more pop-oriented, was the music of Giorgio Moroder, which was basically electronic trance music.
There was another German band that was electric, which was Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk got popular before Tangerine Dream did. But they too were writing shorter pieces, and much more commercial pieces. It was kind of a new pop music. Tangerine Dream wrote pieces that would sometimes run on for an hour, and keep changing rhythm and time signatures. Everything. It was more akin to jazz than to anything popular or classical, because it hadn’t been really written. They were improvising.
Going back to what you said earlier about cutting scenes to the music, it’s completely backwards to how most scores/soundtracks are done. Shaping the film to the music instead of vice versa.
It isn’t the way it’s done at all. I’ve done this twice now, I did this same thing a number of years later in 1985 with Wang Chung.
With the To Live & Die in LA soundtrack…
I heard them on the radio in London and thought their stuff was incredible. I met with the two guys Jack and Nick and sent them a script when I had it. They wrote the score for “To Live and Die in LA” also without having seen the film. Then later they came in and suggested a few adjustments. Very few. Which I made, but I told them, “don’t write me a song called ‘To Live and Die in LA’.” But they saw the film, and a few days later they handed me a track, it was a title song. It was a huge hit. But I didn’t want it until I heard it. Tangerine Dream just nailed the mood of the film from the script and from what I had told them about the film.
Absolutely. So I own the original Sorceror vinyl, and the quote on the back of the vinyl is really fascinating. It says, and I am paraphrasing here, “Had I heard Tangerine Dream sooner I would have asked them to score The Exorcist.”
Yeah. The Exorcist score ended up being different bits of contemporary and, at the time, classical music. It was not scored by any one person. But having heard what Tangerine Dream did, yeah, I would have asked them to score that.
It’s very interesting. They went on to do so many great soundtracks as well, Sorcerer sort of kickstarted it all. Was the first time they ever saw their music within the film was when they were sitting in a theater?
No, they came to California and I ran it for them. I imagine they were quite a bit surprised, as to how it was used. Edgar is the only one I got to know well and we became close friends. I would stay in touch with him. He loved the way we used the music. He just loved it.
I was, as I say, influenced by their sound. I didn’t want to have them write music that simply followed what I had filmed. I wanted to edit the film and be inspired by the music. You make suggestions, you say, “I wanna underline the drama here, make this a little tense or scarier.” Quite frankly, my own experience has been that it doesn’t always work out. It’s hard to describe music, you know? When you’re talking to a composer, it’s hard to describe what you want. You really have to be on the same wavelength as the composer. I found myself on that same wavelength with Edgar and Tangerine Dream. So I never had any doubt that they would produce something that would work.
I mean, there’s so many ways that film could have been scored. It could have had no score…like it is during the bridge crossing, or when they have to blow up the big tree.
Well to be fair, that bridge crossing scene is so iconic without any score or soundtrack.
Thank you. But yes, Sorcerer could have been scored in any imaginable way at the time. It could have been jazz, it could have been classical, chamber, orchestral.
As far as your relationship with Froese post-this record, you said you kept in contact and were friends.
Oh yeah! We would periodically either talk on the phone or email. I had seen him in the year before he died. The last time being a concert in Copenhagen.
Where they played this Sorcerer material in full.
Yeah, he gave me a recording of the entire concert, which is spectacular. I hope they release it.
Edgar’s music was very deep and very complex, as was he. He was one of the nicest, gentlest men I’ve ever met, which belied his appearance. There was no one warmer. He was one of those guys that just had the music in him. It was coming from within. He wasn’t trying to write to get hit songs or hit records. I don’t think he actively sought out scoring movies. He was sought out after Sorcerer. That influenced a lot of guys to call Edgar and have Tangerine Dream score their films. I don’t know how many he did but he did a few. He was into exploring music.
At the end of his life, he was mostly called on to repeat the successes of the past, like the Sorcerer score. He was going around and performing that live. He was a tender, loving man, who was completely devoted to his wife of many years, who was really his partner in everything that they did. She became like a non-performing member of that band. He was deeply in love with her. We’ve been in touch, and she’s shattered by his death.
Edgar was not well for a while, but you would never know that if you were in his company. Edgar was an intellectual with a very great knowledge of other art forms like painting, poetry, and all literature. All of that went into the music that he created, which is not derivative of anything. Tangerine Dream was like a psychological autobiography of Edgar Froese. The music is him. I’m a big fan of Edgar Froese as a gentleman, a human being, and as a composer. I remain eternally grateful to him for what he did for Sorcerer. I feel that his music is inseparable from the film.
With respect to other music that you take inspiration from, personally or otherwise… what are you listening to right now?
I listen to the same thing I always listen to. I listen to classical music, and the jazz of the 50s and 60s. Namely Miles Davis. Especially Miles Davis, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Dave Brubeck. I especially love the 60s albums of Miles Davis, just before and just after he went electric. But I love the album Kind of Blue. Are you familiar with that?
Definitely. Jazz 101.
I used to hear the Miles Davis’ sextet live in Chicago. They used to play on the bar at a place called the Sutherland Hotel.
Who was he playing with at that time?
Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Philly Joe Jones, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass. I knew that this stuff was great when I was listening to it, but I didn’t know that it was going to become American classical music, which it has. I used to hear it live when I was working in Chicago. I’d go down to the south side, and I’d see Muddy Waters play live at Teresa’s lounge on the south side. Jimmy Smith too. I loved his stuff. I didn’t know what it was gonna turn out to be.
So contemporary pop and rap aren’t exactly your bag I take it?
I am just completely out of the contemporary pop music scene. I’m totally off it. I’ve tried to listen to it, and I don’t get it. I heard rap many years ago in the 60s, when it first came around and wasn’t called that. It was being done by a man called Gil Scott Heron.
Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist
The famous spoken word artist.
Yeah, and I heard him live at The Whiskey a Go Go and The Roxy. He was doing rap music, Gil Scott Heron. As was, a few years later and for a number of years, Isaac Hayes who had a number one hit, the theme from Shaft. That was rap! I loved that stuff. I’m trying to remember what was the name of Gil Scott Heron’s big song was. It was incredible. That was the beginning of rap music...
I think the song you’re talking about in particular is the classic “The Revolution Will Be Televised.”
That’s it. But there were many others. I heard them live, that he was great. These guys were great musicians. So I loved that stuff, but I don’t get the pop music of today. I just don’t. I don’t have anything against it I just don’t hear it. I don’t hear a lot of the country and western music of today. But I certainly heard Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings…
Are you into more challenging classical stuff? Mahler, Mussorgsky, Liszt and all that kind of stuff. Is that something that you’re into as well?
Oh, yes. All the composers you mentioned I listen to constantly. I just couldn’t name them all when you first asked me. Mahler is a continuous voyage for me -- as is Shostakovich, and Brahms, who wrote quite a bit less. And Bach, of course.
But if I had to take the one desert island disc, it would be Carlos Kleiber’s recording of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.” He passed away a few years ago, but he was probably considered the greatest conductor of the last fifty or so years. He conducted very little, and often he wouldn’t show up. He made very few recordings. He only recorded live. He didn’t like to record in the studio.
You listen to his version of “Fifth Symphony,” and it’s as though you’ve never heard it played before. There’s more detail and little corners and edges in that music and not because it’s such a great recording, it’s damn good, and it’s a CD, but there’s stuff there that I’ve never heard in the Fifth Symphony. He moves that orchestra like a jazz band. I mean, they just swing.
Friedkin with Froese
Do you ever listen to anything weirder than just classical stuff?
Oh yeah, I’ll tell you a band that I love, which is Tool. Have you heard of them?
I definitely know them.
Tool is un-fuckin’-believable. I love their sound and their videos are among the most interesting things that I’ve seen. It’s just great.
Their videos are insanity and really pushed the boundaries of what a music video could be.
There’s a Japanese guy who did some videos and set it to music, I don’t know where he got the music… He sort of disappeared, but Tool is still very much around and I love Tool. Well, you know, I still listen to Led Zeppelin and The Who. I don’t like to rate bands, but the greatest rock band to me is The Who.
I am also a big big fan of The Who.
In addition, I am very much into opera. I don’t know if you’re aware, but I’ve directed a lot of operas. I plan to do two operas this year, one in September that opens in season at The Turbine, my production of Aida. That production is going to Japan, and then Oman. Then I’m going to do a Riggleto for the Florence Opera. I’ve been directing opera since 1998, although I had no background in opera at all.
What else do you have going on in the near future?
I’m writing a film I plan to direct on HBO with Bette Midler playing Mae West. I’m writing that as we speak. That will contain a lot of songs that Mae West introduced like “Frankie and Johnny,” “All of Me” and others. Plus I’m doing some other very interesting stuff. Stay tuned.