Self Possessed

An interview with William Peter Blatty

(Taken from Fear Magazine June 1990)

(Steve Biodrowski, interviews)

(Page 1)


    Before the Publication of his novel, The Exorcist, in 1971, William Peter Blatty had an established career as a writer of comic novels and screenplays, including 'A shot in the Dark', the second in Blake Edwards' Pink Panther series starring Peter Sellers.
    The phenomenal success of The Exorcist changed all that.  A bestseller, the novel was adapted into a controversial film in 1973, directed by William Friedkin, produced and written by Blatty.  The $10 million Warner Brothers production grossed over $100 million at the box office, earned ten nominations from the Motion Picture Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay.
    In 1977, Warner Brothers paid for the rights to proceed with a sequel without Blatty's involvement.  The result was John Boorman's The Exorcist 2: The Heretic, which Blatty once suggested should have been titled Son Of Exorcist and sold as a comedy.
    Meanwhile, Blatty adapted his novel The Ninth configuration into an unfairly neglected film, which he produced and directed in 1980.  Although not a horror film, The Ninth Configuration wrestles with a question of faith raised by The Exorcist, namely: "in a world so filled with Violence and horror, how can man believe in a benevolent God?"  In an entertaining and dramatic context, Blatty provides a possible answer, which however, raises another question: "if God Exists, then why does he allow such evil?"  Answering this question would provide the premise of Legion, a screenplay which Blatty translated into a best-selling novel in 1983 when he encountered difficulties getting the project off the ground.
    Now, seven years later. legion ( which Blatty describes as "the true sequel to The Exorcist"), finally makes it to the screen, under the expanded title The Exorcist 3: Legion. (Previous titles have included Exorcist 1990 and The Exorcist: The Next Chapter, apparently in an abandoned attempt to avoid numerical continuity with Part 2.)  Written and directed by Blatty, the new film stars George C Scott, replacing the late Lee J Cobb as Lt William Kinderman, who investigates a gruesome murder case bearing an uncanny resemblance to the work of a serial murderer who died fifteen years ago.  Brad Dourif portrays the dead Gemini Killer, and Jason Miller returns as Father Damien Karras, who plunged from a window at the conclusion of the first film.
    Having completed principal photography last year, Blatty found time in his busy postproduction schedule to conduct this interview, just as he was starting four weeks of special effects shooting for a new exorcism scene, featuring Nicol Williamson as a priest.

SB: Before the Exorcist, you were more established as a comedy writer.
WPB: Totally. I love comedy.
So how did you make the jump to writing about possession?  I've read you were inspired by an authentic case in Washington DC.
The 1949 case.  I was a graduate at Georgetown University at the time.  It stuck in my mind.  I thought, 'If I ever do go ahead and write, I'd like to write about this, non-fiction.' But I never wrote a word
Instead, you went to Hollywood and wrote comedies, including several for Blake Edwards
There came a time when comedy dried up in town, and I couldn't get work.  People would say, 'Blatty --- dramatic? He not only writes comedy --- he writes off-the-wall comedy.' So I had nothing else to do, and I thought this could be the time to demonstrate that I can write something other than comedy.  The immediate result was that my entire body of work as a comedy writer and comic novelist was obliterated, gone.  I know a producer, with whom I had done a comedy or two, pitched an idea at Paramount for a comedy, and they liked it, but when he proposed my name, they said 'Blatty---Comedy?' So it's a complete circle.
    I must say I enjoyed writing comedy infinitely more.  When you write a funny line, there's an instant gratification, an immediate reward:  you know it's funny

Half Million-Dollar Lunch
The Exorcist was released back in 1973.  This isn't your first attempt at a sequel.
In the early 1980's, Billy Friedkin and I were going to do it together.  In fact, we had the famous half million-dollar lunch.  That's a droll story.  At long last I came up with an idea that I thought was credible and worthy of the original.  Billy loved it.  We went into partnership with Jerry Weintraub.  Literally everyone wanted it.  All the studios who had bid were going to give us --- back then it was $15 million to go away and make the movie.  Nobody knew what the story was.  Warner Brothers offered the best deal of all, but they said: "Boys can't we have lunch in New York, and at the lunch tell us anything you want about the picture?   Anything: one line, ten lines.  And if it sounds right, you have the deal --- its official.  And if we don’t like it --- for some impossible reason --- we'll give you $500,000 for coming to lunch"
    Everything was fine.  I flew into New York for lunch, and I presented Billy with a synopsis of exactly what the three of us had agreed upon.  The night before, Billy told me he didn't want to do this story.  He came up with a dozen reasons for not doing it.  That really aborted it.  We went to lunch and got our half million dollars, but eventually we all gave it back.
What happened at the lunch?
I said, "Billy, I'm not saying a word.  We don't agree on anything.  You tell them."  Billy began by talking about opening in a field where mutilated cattle are discovered.  I shot him such a look --- what did that have to do with anything? --- But I looked around the faces at the table, and they were eating it up.  Sometime later in the day, I just blew the whistle.  I told Warner Brothers, "We don't agree on anything."  I don't know how they would have voted, up or down; they seemed pretty set on up.
    We tried again.  We had it set up with Weintraub a couple years ago with Billy to direct.  I went through the same thing all over again.  Billy came to my house, read the script, and said, "It's terrific --- it goes like a bat out of hell."  So we make a deal with Weintraub, and the Billy says, "I can't shoot this!" That's just Billy --- and he's probably somewhere now, saying, "That's just Blatty."
What made you want to do a sequel to The Exorcist?
Why do I want to do any film?  I didn't want to do it at the time Warner Brothers asked me if I would write a sequel, because I didn't have an idea.  When I finally got an idea, naturally I was quite eager to put it on film.
When Warner first asked for a sequel is when we got The Exorcist 2
An amazing film.
It is amazing to see a film so bad from a director whose other work shows talent.
That's right.  I saw it with a paying audience in Washington DC, where I was living at the time.  I must say, I was the first to giggle, breaking the respectful silence, and that broke the dam for everyone in the audience.  We roared from that point on --- you'd think we were watching The producers

Evil Personified
To me, Legion seems an attempt to expand on the Good Versus Evil theme of the Exorcist.
It is actually.  The Exorcist and Legion --- I'm speaking of the novels --- slap them back-to-back they make one story.  They're one book.  In The Exorcist, questions were raised regarding God's providence and goodness and the problem of Evil in the world.  There weren't a lot of answers, you'll notice.  We certainly came to believe in the power of evil, if not Evil personified.  In Legion, the novel, there is a presentation of a possible solution to the problem of evil with which I can certainly find --- if you grant my premises --- no fault.  It preserves the goodness of God, while not denying evil or trying to eliminate it by simply referring to it as an 'absence of perfection.'
    None of that is translated to the screen, because the theory is a bit complex.
That struck me about the novel --- that it presented these philosophical ideas through Kinderman's interior monologues, which seemed difficult to transfer to the screen.
They are.  I have not even attempted to translate them.  Kinderman remains a character obsessed by the problem of evil.  He finds no solution to it.  What I did --- the film is a pure entertainment --- was pose his problem as basically one of  'Is there a spiritual world?  Is there an afterlife?  Is it possible we live forever?'  That he comes to believe by the time the film is over.  Beyond that I couldn't take it.
The Thematic material had to be simplified for the film.
Because it is a thriller, I had higher aspirations for the original film.  Footage was shot which preserved the moral core of the novel and which I thought should have remained even for commercial purposes --- because you were given a reason why you had been asked to sit through the muck and the obscenity and the shock.  That allowed an audience --- this is my opinion --- to enjoy the film and not hate themselves for liking it.
    The point was, if there is a Satan and he works in the world, his object principally is to make us despair by coming to despise our own humanity and thinking of ourselves as so bestial and repellent that, if there were a God, he couldn't love us.  That was the moral centre.  That's why the possession of Regan MacNeil took place, being a struggle for the soul of Damien Karras, not the body of the little girl.
Then why was the footage cut?
Billy is ruthlessly honest about his own work.  The reason he gave me, long after the success of the film, when perhaps a lesser mortal would never have confessed, was that when he looked at the first cut, he didn't think he had a hit, so he got nervous and arbitrarily sliced it down from two hours and twenty minutes to two hours, thinking no audience is able to bear any film for more than two hours.  The result is, at least to me, some glaring construction flaws.