LEAP OF FAITH

Documentary Review - Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist


There is a power that certain films hold, captivating audiences for decades after release. It is fair to say that such renowned works also have such staying power with their creators. That is the story of Leap of Faith. In this new film, director Willian Friedkin sits in a chair and for almost 2 hours winds through the genesis of one of the most revered horror films of all time, The Exorcist

Leap of Faith is marketed as a documentary on cinema. It is currently on Shudder and is going to please not only fans of The Exorcist, but also any viewer who loves hearing someone speak with passion and conviction. Friedkin is shown sitting and speaking, comfortable and confident. He laments on both the good and the bad from his Exorcist experience. There are many clips of The Exorcist film and it’s production spliced in, supplementing his words, filling in the visual gap. Therefore, it certainly looks like a documentary. 

But, it isn’t a documentary at all though actually. It is more of a recitation from someone who lived through an experience and made something magical almost five decades ago. In some ways, Friedkin is our grandfather, spinning a yarn about a part of his life that he can never let go of. We are his grandchildren, sitting on the rug, legs crossed, our chins cradled in our hands as we listen with devotion.


What might come as a disappointment to some viewers is the lack of spookiness. This film is hosted on the aforementioned Shudder horror streaming service and any The Exorcist devotee will tell you that the production of that film was plagued with mystery and misfortune. Friedkin does not dive into any of that material here. If you are interested in the behind the scenes paranormal underpinnings regarding The Exorcist’s production, Shudder has a limited series called Cursed Films. That program devotes to the spooky factor solely and is also worth the watch. The Exorcist is actually featured in the very first episode.

But Leap of Faith still has a place on Shudder and in the place of the hearts of all horror fans. It is through Friedkin’s many anecdotal examples of friendship, disappointment and revelation that we truly see the wonder and beauty behind such a classic film. 

This was produced by the same wonderful crew who made the astounding documentary on Psycho called 78/52. While that film was about deconstructing Psycho’s famous shower scene, Leap of Faith deconstructs Friedkin’s path of seeing his vision come to fruition. The Exorcist was a best-selling novel and the pressure to turn it into something remarkable on screen was never far from Friedkin or his mind’s eye.


Stepping stones about all aspects of putting a film together are explored here. There are strong passages that showcase Friedkin’s reasoning for the score selection and location shooting. The sections that display his consideration for removing parts of the source material and casting Jason Miller as the fated Father Damien Karras instead of Stacy Keach are so juicy and wonderful to take in. I particularly liked the graphics showing how Friedkin marked up his own copy of the novel with pre-production notes. He fully brings you into his mind’s eye, unlocking the doors to his storytelling process.

But what are undoubtedly the strongest parts of Leap of Faith are Friedkin's consistent recounting of his inspirations. He mentions paintings (and I do mean a lot of paintings), films and even certain directors’ habits that either he channeled into various set pieces or purposely side-stepped altogether. We hear about his process for having Max Von Sydow embrace a powerful climactic scene through his own crisis of faith, how he manipulated Jason Miller to jump so effectively, or making the voice of the demon Pazuzu sound so … demonic. The most profound shot in The Exorcist is arguably Father Merrin (Sydow) arriving at the Georgetown home; a beam of light from possessed Regan’s window casting out over the priest’s frame. Friedkin recollects seeing the painting Empire of Light by Magritte and knowing he would use that as inspiration. It is in this film that we see the dots connect.

Father Karras (Max Von Sydow) arrives in Georgetown - THE EXORCIST (WARNER BROS. PICTURES)

The title of the documentary is a double entendre. Firstly, it is about the climax with Father Karras taking the demon Pazuzu into his own body, leaping out the window and falling down the famous Georgetown steps ostensibly taking the demon with him. The steps are still visited today by many fans. There is even a plaque at the bottom citing the location’s significance. But the title is also how the author William Peter Blatty and Friedkin -- who are good friends -- chose to close the story. Friedkin admits that the end of the film was something he wasn’t comfortable with as it didn’t truly make sense to him. But he compromised. He took a leap of faith on his friendship and his work. It has been paying dividends to this day, mostly in the spiritual sense.

This film is a must-watch for fans of cinema, horror, The Exorcist and the human experience. William Friedkin speaks of many memories, but his face tells the true story. We see his heartbreak and we sense his joy. The Exorcist never really let him go and it probably never will. Leap of Faith is a cinematic essay documenting an alliance between art and man. In many ways, it's very personal. I might never truly appreciate or understand this relationship, but I must respect it.


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