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Monday, November 24, 2014

William Friedkin on Making To Live and Die in L.A.

Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin joined us last year for a special retrospective of his 1970's work, and he returns to BAMcinématek’s screens this Wednesday with the opening night of Sunshine Noir, a film series curated by BAMcinématek and Next Wave artist Gabriel Kahane that soaks in the sun-drenched seediness of Los Angeles.

In the following excerpts from his memoir The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin discusses the process of making To Live and Die in L.A., his pulse-pounding cult classic which features an iconic car chase down the LA freeway.

John Pankow in To Live and Die in L.A. Photo: MGM/Photofest

On the film’s “unisex” visual style

I didn’t want the film to be a clone of The French Connection. I would abandon the gritty, macho look of that film for something more in the unisex style of Los Angeles in the 1980s. I went to Lily Kilvert, not only because she was a talented production designer, but for a feminine sensibility. I hired other women as key members of the crew, including costume designer Linda Bass and a brilliant set decorator, Cricket Rowland. I had seen Paris, Texas by the German director Wim Wenders, photographed by the Austrian cinematographer, Robby Muller. His films were beautifully lit and composed, with long uninterrupted takes. This was the style I wanted for To Live and Die in L.A., in which the city would be portrayed as a violent, cynical wasteland under a burning sun.

On the influence of Wang Chung’s music

In England the year before, I’d heard a band called Wang Chung, whose name came from the sound a guitar makes when strummed. Two songs in particular grabbed my attention: “Dance Hall Days” and “Wait,” from an album called Points on the Curve. Band members Jack Hues and Nick Feldman were at the forefront of what was then called post-punk New Wave. Their sound was created on electronic instruments, a drum kit and keyboard. The lyrics were offbeat, suggestive, and slightly subversive. In many ways the style of To Live and Die in L.A. was influenced by the music of Wang Chung, so before I shot a foot of film, I sent them the final draft of the script and asked them to record their impressions of what they read—the same way I worked with Tangerine Dream. The only request I made was that they not write a song called “To Live and Die in L.A.”

Willem Dafoe in To Live and Die in L.A. Photo: MGM Photofest

On depicting Los Angeles on film

I wanted to portray the city with no landmarks, no iconic skylines or neighborhoods. So I chose fringe areas: Nickerson Gardens in Watts; Temple and Eighteenth Streets, home of the Crips and Bloods gangs; Slauson Avenue in South Central; the Vincent Thomas Bridge; the Terminal Island Freeway; a Fijian community in the shadow of vast power plants in Wilmington; and San Luis Obispo Prison.

On directing the perfect chase scene

I wanted to do a chase scene as the centerpiece of the film. I thought for many years about what I might do to surpass the chase in The French Connection. For To Live and Die in L.A. it would be at high speed going the wrong way on the freeway. “The chase” is the purest form of cinema, something that can’t be done in any other medium, not in literature nor on a stage nor on a painter’s canvas. A chase must appear spontaneous and out of control, but it must be meticulously choreographed, if only for safety considerations. The audience should not be able to foresee the outcome. It helps to have innocent bystanders who could be “hurt” or “killed.” When I see vehicles in a film whipping through deserted streets or country roads, I don’t feel a sense of danger. Actual high-speed chases take place in big-city traffic or on a crowded freeway. Pace doesn’t imply speed; sometimes the action should slow to a crawl, or even a dead stop. Build and stop, build and stop, leading to an explosive climax.

Sunshine Noir runs at BAMcinématek from Nov 26—Dec 9, and The Ambassador is at the Harvey from Dec 10—13.

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