The 1970s were probably the last decade when the film industry had many honest-to-goodness auteurs. Directors who made movies on their own terms without compromises; not just the ones making little indie art films, but the guys in charge of sizable projects with the backing of major studios. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma came of age during this era, and were responsible for movies that would resonate for decades. Another name you can add to that list is William Friedkin, who during that period made two instant classics and one misunderstood masterpiece.
The classics are obvious: in a span of three years, Friedkin made The French Connection and The Exorcist, movies that respectively are prime candidates for Best Cop Film Ever and Best Horror Movie ever… You all can debate that in the comments… The French Connection won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, making Friedkin one of the hottest filmmakers in the business. The Exorcist became one of the biggest box office champs of all time and won two Oscars of its own, subsequently making Friedkin a God… Well, in his own mind anyway.
Coming off two such respected and successful movies could make any director feel invincible, and Friedkin was a man who by his own admission believed his own hype. When it came time to follow those two movies, Friedkin would ultimately decide on SORCERER, a fairly low-budget suspense film that he thought would be easy enough to squeeze in before delving into a much larger project. But fate had a much different plan for Friedkin, transforming his low-budget movie into an expensive and exhausting undertaking.
Buckle up because the road ahead is very rocky; Hold on tight and find out WTF Happened to this movie!
Sorcerer was based on the 1950 novel “The Wages of Fear” by French author George Arnaud, which was subsequently turned into a 1952 movie of the same name by legendary director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Both tell the tale of four desperate men who are tasked with driving trucks filled with unstable explosives through dangerous terrain in order to help stop an oil field fire. One wrong turn, one big bump, the nitroglycerine gets rattled too much, kaboom – everyone’s dead. Friedkin was an admirer of both the book and film, and intended to make a far grittier version than Clouzot, a movie that would be nearly as cynical as he was. Friedkin has always maintained it’s not actually a remake of the movie, but just another adaptation of the book, but he still went to Clouzot to get his blessing for the update, which was granted.
Friedkin initially intended his version to be a reasonably small movie, a side project that he could make cheaply and quickly before embarking on a sci-fi epic called “The Devil’s Triangle,” about the legendary Bermuda Triangle. Safe to say things did not work out that way, and “The Devil’s Triangle” never happened – mostly because Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which allegedly contained many similar concepts.
After spending four months working on his Wages of Fear script with The Wild Bunch writer Walon Green, Friedkin was ready to make the movie he thought would be a major part of his legacy, the big one people would remember him by. Heading to the Dominican Republic, where the weather and conditions would turn out to be wholly unpredictable, Friedkin’s $2.5 million movie eventually expanded to $12 million before finally consuming approximately $22 million – needless to say, a very expensive project in 1976, even more than his peer Steven Spielberg ultimately spent on Close Encounters. In fact, the budget eventually became so bloated that it took two studios to co-produce it, Universal and Paramount.
Friedkin was interested in making “Wages of Fear” his own in some key ways; the most dramatic change being the four lead characters, depicted as decent men in Clozot’s movie but who Friedkin sought to make highly flawed, morally corrupt individuals – one character literally describes our protagonist as “a real piece of shit”. Transporting the dangerous nitro would be a journey of redemption, even though we see from the film’s first act that they are killers and thieves. Then and now, Friedkin has never been interested in traditional movie heroes. Furthermore, he saw Sorcerer as a metaphor for the world at large, in which strangers who don’t like each other have to find a way to work together; otherwise, everything will explode. A timeless theme, to be sure.
Another key change, obviously, would be the title. Apparently, one working title was “Ballbreaker,” and another was, appropriately, “Dynamite.” But while doing research in South America, Friedkin saw trucks with names crudely painted on the doors. Two such vehicles were called “Sorcerer” and “Lazarus.” Inspired, Friedkin named his two trucks in the movie the same, even if the audience never really gets a clear look at the writing. Friedkin also found a metaphor in the title, saying a “sorcerer in an evil wizard, and in this case, the evil wizard is fate,” further hammering home the idea that these men’s destinies are completely out of their hands.
For the lead character of Jackie Scanlon, a crook from New Jersey hiding out in South America, Friedkin envisioned Steve McQueen. McQueen actually loved the script and wanted to do it, but he had just married Ali MacGraw and didn’t want to leave her in the States while he was away for three months shooting the movie. McQueen asked Friedkin if he could write a role for MacGraw so she could accompany him to the Dominican Republic – a request Friedkin scoffed at. After McQueen tried and failed to get her attached as an associate producer, the actor dropped out of the film. Other names like Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Robert Mitchum were tossed around, but ultimately the role went to Roy Schieder, who had previously worked with Friedkin on The French Connection. Their relationship had gone a little frosty because Scheider had wanted to play the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist and was denied. Still, he was coming off Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws and seemed like a bankable leading man to that film’s studio, Universal.
The other three primary actors were not household names in the U.S., and the studio was concerned the lack of star power would hurt the movie, but Friedkin forged ahead, convinced it wouldn’t matter. He believed people would see the film just because his name was on it. At one point he even told the studio they should change the actors’ names for the release to sound more American, an idea that never got off the ground.
Standing in for the movie’s remote Colombia setting, most of Sorcerer was shot in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, where the crew literally had to make their own roads to film the truck-driving scenes. It was beyond hot and uncomfortable, and throughout the production many people – Friedkin included – fell ill with malaria or dysentery. Some crew members were sent back to America because they were suspected drug users, which the local governments would not tolerate, so to avoid winding up in prison, they simply fled back to the states and had to be replaced.
And if the crew wasn’t sick or evading jail time, they were being canned. Already known for a volatile personality that earned him the nickname “Hurricane Billy”, Friedkin was in full dictator mode out in the jungle, routinely firing people left and right, including production managers, teamsters, stunt people and anyone else who rubbed him the wrong way, even his own longtime line producer. His first cinematographer, Dick Bush, was replaced during production because Friedkin was not pleased with his work. He even got into it with Roy Scheider, even though they got along well during French Connection. Scheider would later joke he was the only person Friedkin could not fire because he was the leading man, and said the famously-troubled Jaws production was a picnic compared to Sorcerer.
Considerable challenges came when shooting the film’s most incredible sequences, where the nitro-carrying trucks have to cross a rickety rope bridge over a raging river. The initial river chosen in the Dominican Republic was nixed because it was bone dry due to a drought in the country. The production decided to move to Mexico, where they found a river that looked appropriately intimidating. However, after the bridge was constructed, the water began to dry up, and the river became no more than a trickle. Perhaps the production was cursed? To compensate, Friedkin had to fake the river by pumping thousands of gallons of water into it, while also utilizing rain machines and hoses to create the powerful storm. The shaking and swaying of the bridge was achieved by placing hydraulic mechanisms underneath to simulate its flimsy nature, and oftentimes the trucks themselves were attached to the bridge in order to keep them from slipping off. Even so, they did fall into the river, many times, once while Friedkin was inside the cab. The actors were often actually driving the trucks, or at least steering them, and somehow none of them were ever seriously hurt. The two bridge sequences together, lasting about 12 minutes in the film, took several months to complete and chewed up around $3 million of the movie’s growing cost.
Another of the movie’s key moments is when the trucks arrive at a gigantic fallen tree that’s blocking their route; the only solution to use some of the nitro and blast the thing to smithereens. The production hit a snag when it turned out they didn’t have nearly enough explosives on hand to actually put a sizable dent in the tree, so Friedkin called a disreputable associate of his from New York to help. “Marvin the Torch” was an arsonist who blew up buildings for people looking to collect the insurance money, and although he was supposedly retired from this questionable line of work, he still flew to the Dominican Republic armed with a couple of suitcases filled with quote-unquote “beauty supplies.” At the end of the day, Marvin detonated the tree, the explosion was spectacular, and “the Torch” was back on a plane a day or so later.
After filming on the movie was complete – a shoot that lasted somewhere in the crazy neighborhood of ten months – editing began, which at least according to Friedkin went fairly smoothly. But the studios were nervous, unsure if they had just tossed over $20 million into a flaming oil well. After some execs from Universal saw an early cut, they summoned Friedkin to a meeting to discuss. Friedkin brought writer Walon Green and his editor Bud Smith to the meeting, instructing them to just stare blankly at the suits as they read over their notes, but not to nod or agree with anything they said. Friedkin himself ordered a bottle of vodka and began drinking straight from the bottle during the meeting, eventually falling on the floor. The aim was to disorient the executives so much that they would just leave them alone, which is pretty much exactly what happened. Friedkin had final cut on Sorcerer, and was intent on crafting the masterpiece he had pictured from the start.
To score the film, Friedkin hired German electronic group Tangerine Dream, who he’d seen play a concert in Germany years earlier. Friedkin was mesmerized by their music and asked if they’d be interested in scoring his next movie. He eventually sent them the script for Sorcerer and wanted them to write the score based only on the pages; in fact, they finished the score and sent him the tapes while he was still shooting the film. In an unusual creative decision, Friedkin and his editor eventually cut the movie to match the eerie and surreal score.
Sorcerer was released in theaters in June 1977; the studios stood by the movie and rolled it out with fanfare. But almost immediately it was clear that Friedkin’s big gamble would not pay off. The reviews were tough, and the box office was even tougher. This was the summer of Star Wars, released just a month earlier and well on its way to becoming cultural phenomenon. Audiences wanted to bask in the brilliant space fantasy world created by George Lucas, not sit in a truck filled with nitroglycerine with guys who hardly spoke. As moviegoers kept returning to see the galactic heroes defeat the oppressive Empire, Friedkin’s band of sweaty criminals was essentially ignored.
Some theorized that the title could have been an issue: a movie called Sorcerer from the director of The Exorcist implied a supernatural picture, but when it became clear that wasn’t the case, audiences were turned off. And aside from Scheider, a complete lack of familiar faces in the cast didn’t help. Whatever the reason, Sorcerer’s time in theaters was even rougher than the roads traveled in the movie — it couldn’t even compete with Exorcist II: The Heretic, director John Boorman’s dodgy sequel to Friedkin’s own massive hit. Ultimately Sorcerer only grossed about $9 million that summer and was quickly chased from theaters that wanted more screens for Star Wars, which ironically cost around half of Sorcerer’s budget. Money Into Light has an interesting piece about how the movie was brutally cut down in the international version, with it also being renamed The Wages of Fear.
The box office disaster also chased away Friedkin; the director exiled himself to France to lick his wounds while pondering what went wrong. After living and acting like a God for a few years, he came crashing back down to Earth, correctly guessing there were plenty of people glad to see him taken down a few notches. And while he’s reached some high notes since, with movies like To Live and Die in L.A., and Killer Joe, Friedkin’s career seemed to take a nitro-blast in the guts after the experience of Sorcerer.
Of course, in the years after its theatrical failure, Sorcerer has undergone something of a reevaluation, as time has been very kind to it. Now, many movie fans appreciate the suspenseful, unnerving, masterfully-produced thriller that it is. Friedkin says it’s still the movie he’s most proud of, and it was certainly the most difficult to make. People like Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino rank it among the greatest movies ever made, and it’s being rediscovered all the time. When put together with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Sorcerer completes a three-movie streak from a man at the very top of his game. Fittingly, the making of Sorcerer was nearly as torturous and harrowing as the events it depicts, and maybe even more fittingly, it was not appreciated for how impressively it accomplished its job. But after a very grueling start, it’s now recognized for being a true gem; perhaps that was its destiny all along.