Leap of Faith: Alexandre O. Philippe Deconstructs The Exorcist

On the set of The Exorcist with Linda Blair, who played the possessed young girl, Regan.
On the set of The Exorcist with Linda Blair, who played the possessed young girl, Regan. Courtesy of Leap of Faith
It’s Sundance season, and the world's independent film community is gathered in Utah for two weeks of breakout cinema. This year, Colorado filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe — who was last at the festival in 2019 with Memory: The Origins of Alien — has returned with his latest work, Leap of Faith. An intensely personal interview with William Friedkin, director of the groundbreaking 1973 film The Exorcist, Leap of Faith dives into the mind and method behind this iconic film.

And while the fascination with Friedkin's Exorcist has gripped audiences for 37 years, Philippe’s work is also making a name for itself. A Swiss-born filmmaker who now mostly resides in Colorado, Philippe is known for documentaries such as The People vs. George Lucas, 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene, and Doc of the Dead. He is the go-to director when it comes to making films about films. So much so that Friedkin invited Philippe to interview him.

Leap of Faith screens at Sundance on February 2. In advance, we caught up with Philippe to talk about the film, his six-day interview with Friedkin, what it means to be a "part of the fate of The Exorcist," and what's next.

Westword: You’re known for directing meta-cinematic pieces. What is it that attracts you to this type of subject matter?

Alexandre Philippe: I'm very interested in why certain movies resonate with us culturally, why they resonate with our collective consciousness –– sometimes our unconscious, as well. There are very few movies in the history of cinema that have made a real impact on culture beyond their art form and become part of the cultural dialogue. Certainly Psycho and The Exorcist, Star Wars — those movies have had that kind of impact. And I'm very interested in trying to understand the deeper meanings and connections that we have with those films.

Tell me about the making of the film and your interviews with Friedkin.

Initially, we talked it out, essentially using the Hitchcock-Truffaut model of interviews. We set up a whole series of interviews over a series of days to crack open The Exorcist, to really look at it through the lens of the process of the filmmaker, his influences, the connections to fine art, to classical music, to classic cinema. I wanted to get into the finer nuances of his filmmaking process and a deep dive into his mind's eye. So that's how these interviews were structured, and ultimately the film itself leads to what I consider to be the essence of William Friedkin.

click to enlarge Director Alexandre O. Philippe. - COURTESY OF LEAP OF FAITH
Director Alexandre O. Philippe.
Courtesy of Leap of Faith
There’s one point in Leap of Faith where Friedkin talks about the differences between documentary and dramatic filmmaking, and how he used some documentary tactics in the making of The Exorcist. It made me wonder how that dichotomy came into play in this film, and if you felt like you did a lot of directing, or if the essence of making a documentary like this is just letting the subject talk.

No, you come in with a very specific point of view and story to tell. The structure of that, of course, changes over time. But the approach was very clear. Stylistically, the way that we shot it, we had three cameras every day, one on a slider, and we changed the camera angles every single day. It really feels like a twelve-camera shoot. I worked for a month to decide on our interview sessions and what we were going to focus on and all the different themes. There was a lot of prep that went into that. But at the end of the day, Freidkin really gave me carte blanche to make the film the way I wanted to make it. He showed me an extraordinary amount of trust. A couple of times he asked me if I wanted to talk to other people, like Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow — and, of course, it would've been a thrill to meet them, but I kept telling him, I think this is really your personal, intimate Exorcist. If you think about The Exorcist itself, it's a chamber film. Everything happens in that room. And it's a very small film in that sense, so I wanted Leap of Faith to be a chamber piece on William Friedkin.

How was it directing a director? Was it different than any other subject would have been?

Friedkin certainly has a reputation for being a presence. But we had this immediate trust. He pretty much picked me to make this film; it wasn't the other way around. It wasn't me asking him. He invited me to lunch in Los Angeles, he loved 78/52, and he gave me the opportunity to make this film. And I think at that point he really trusted that I would make the right film. And he's told me that since. Once he put this particular project into my hands, he never questioned anything. He just went along with it. It was an amazing process. And I’m really glad that he loved the film, because he put so much trust into it. And it really, really, moved him a lot.
click to enlarge Filming the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist. - COURTESY OF LEAP OF FAITH
Filming the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist.
Courtesy of Leap of Faith

So do you think this was a film he’s known he wanted someone to make, and when he came across your work he thought, you’re the one? Or do you think it dawned on him after he saw your work that this was something he should do with The Exorcist?

I don't know. That's a really good question. I really don't know. It's maybe a combination of both? It may be that he was looking for somebody to do it; then when he watched 78/52, it felt right to him. As you know [from watching the film], he's a very intuitive person, and I think that it came very intuitively. As he told me now, "You're part of the fate of The Exorcist." So whatever that means, it's a pretty great honor to be a part of that.

Do you think there’s any particular reason to revisit The Exorcist today?

There's always a number of reasons to revisit any great piece of cinema like The Exorcist. You can never get to the bottom of great films. But I think one of the most contemporary aspects of it in terms of his techniques, which he does talk about in Leap of Faith, is his approach to directing certain [actors], especially non-actors. Like Father Merrin, who he has to slap in order to get that performance, which he acknowledges is not something that one would get away with today. This was part of the Wild West of Hollywood that certain directors like George Lucas, like John Ford, like William Friedkin, those were techniques that they were resorting to at the time that wouldn't fly today. So it's important to acknowledge that this was a different time in culture and in cinema, that the time has gone, and to reflect upon that. It's very interesting to see the results of that particular approach.

I’m always curious, just because Colorado has such a small community of filmmakers, how did you end up living in Colorado, and what’s it like being part of a smaller scene here?

I live in Colorado, but I travel 95 percent of the time. These days, if I spend two weeks in Colorado per year, it’ know – I've always been a big believer if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to travel. Spending a lot of time in L.A. is crucial. My agents are there; my manager is there; many of the people I work with are there as well. Many of my closest collaborators are based in Denver, but I’m constantly abroad. It's a global scene, and I think any serious filmmaker has to think beyond the rectangle of Colorado. I think that's very important. Especially today, it's a very global film industry. There are global ways to release your films. Understanding the international market, understanding how distributors and film agents work outside the U.S., understanding that there are opportunities and collaborators that you can work with around the world — that’s all very important, in my opinion.

Is it too soon to ask you what’s next?

No, no, no. There's a number of projects. I'm deep in pre-production right now on a film about John Ford and Monument Valley, and a deconstruction of the way he films the monuments in Monument Valley over the course of his six major Westerns. It's a deconstruction of the myth of the West. So it's kind of a mythological take on John Ford's Westerns and on his cinematic style. If we can premiere it in the fall, then we'll do that, and if not, we'll probably aim for spring of next year. It's always a bit hard to say when I'm going to be ready for it. But I'm very excited about it. I'm very excited also to move away a little bit from the horror genre, which I've been kind of steeped in for a long time now. So it's a bit of a breath of fresh air.

If you're at Sundance, see Leap of Faith on February 2 at 9:45 p.m. in the Rose Wagner Theater, 138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City.
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Lauren Antonoff is a Denver native dedicated to telling Colorado stories. She loves all things multi-media, and can often be found tinkering in digital collage. She joined the Westword team in 2019, where she serves as the Audience Engagement Editor — connecting people, ideas, and the stories that matter.
Contact: Lauren Antonoff