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

To Live and Die in LA

Director William Friedkin declared “To Live and Die in L.A.” to be one of his personal favorites of his career when he dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The film was being shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and it played as a double feature with “The French Connection.” But while Friedkin was scheduled to be there, he brought along two of the movie’s stars as surprise guests: William Petersen who played Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, and Darlanne Fluegel who portrayed his “girlfriend” and informant Ruth Lanier.

With “To Live and Die in L.A.,“ Friedkin worked with casting director Bob Weiner who had also worked on “The French Connection.” With this film, Friedkin didn’t want any stars and could only consider no-name actors as the budget was only $6 million. In a sense though, casting unknown actors was a plus for this film as the characters they play walk a thin line between good and evil, and having recognizable stars might affect how this came across.

Known these days for “C.S.I.,” it was a shock to realize that “To Live and Die in L.A.” was Petersen’s first lead role in a movie (he previously had a small role in Michael Mann’s “Thief“). Weiner discovered the actor when he was playing the lead in a Canadian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Petersen said he hadn’t done any movies nor did he have an agent at the time. All he knew about Friedkin was the films he directed, and they met in New York to do a scene together. But Petersen didn’t ever get around to finishing when Friedkin interrupted him to say, “That’s good enough for me. You got the part!”

From there, Petersen said he didn’t know what to do. Excited as he was for the opportunity, he was already scheduled to be in another play soon and wasn’t sure how to go about negotiating with Friedkin or the studio. It didn’t even occur to him he would be making $400 a week! So, he ended up talking with John Malkovich, who knew him from Steppenwolf, to get advice on what to do. Later, Petersen went back to Friedkin saying he wouldn’t be able to play Richard Chance due to his prior theatrical commitment. To this, Friedkin told him, “No problem. We’ll wait for you.”

Now how cool was that?! Seriously, how many other directors, let alone movie studios, would wait on an actor who is not even an established name yet? Considering the sheer charisma Petersen exudes onscreen just from one look on his face, it makes perfect sense why Friedkin waited on him before he started production.

Although he was used to doing theater more than film, Petersen said he found making “To Live and Die in L.A.” a “freeing, fun experience” and thought all movies would be exactly like it. This, of course, got a good dose of laughter from the audience as we know they are not. Despite the long hours on set, Petersen was never tired at day’s end.

In researching his role, Petersen worked with Gerald Petievich, the former Secret Service Agent who wrote the book this movie is based on, and with criminals including actual counterfeiters. This led Friedkin to tell the audience how Petievich ended up getting a counterfeiter paroled from jail just so he could create the fake money they needed. Friedkin even admitted he passed so many fake bills to where he concluded the government’s money was worthless and only paper. Some kids of the special effects supervisor were not as lucky as they ended up taking some of the fake money to buy candy, and a Treasury Agent got called on them in ten minutes flat.

Fluegel was shocked about getting a part in “To Live and Die In LA,” and she created one of the film’s most unforgettable characters. She said working with Petersen was “so easy,” and they both agreed there never was a moment between them which didn’t feel real. We always hear these stories about how actors don’t like doing sex scenes and how awkward they can get, but Fluegel said they were actually easy to do. She also made it clear neither of them actually had sex onscreen even though it looked like they did. When they worked together, everything always flowed perfectly.

But one great behind the scenes story Petersen told was when they were at the airport and Chance was chasing down John Turturro’s character of Carl Cody. This had Petersen jumping on top of the moving walkway while in pursuit, but in rehearsing it, security came over and told him and Friedkin it was against safety regulations and didn’t want him to do that again. Petersen, however, was insistent as it was easier for him to jump on top, and it worked better for the scene. So, when security was out of hearing range, Friedkin told Petersen to jump on top anyway when he said action, and that after he said cut, Friedkin would yell at him not do it again, making it look like he didn’t forget what security said previously. Once again, Friedkin does movies his way regardless of the warnings others throw at him.

Like several of William Friedkin’s movies which came out after his heyday with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” was not a big hit when first released. It was only after its debut on video and DVD when it gained a cult following which has gotten bigger and bigger over time. Seeing it on the big screen was a blast, and it deserves to be ranked alongside the best movies of Friedkin’s career. Besides, this is much more preferable to watching him pick his feet in Poughkeepsie.

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William Friedkin Discusses the Creation of ‘The French Connection’ Car Chase

The French Connection car chase

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” was shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and he went into great detail about how the famous car chase came together. It is still one of the best car chases in cinema alongside “Bullitt,” and it’s the kind Hollywood doesn’t dare do anymore.

The French Connection movie poster

Actually, it turns out there was never a car chase in the original script for “The French Connection,” but Friedkin felt it needed one as this was a police procedural, and the audience would need a temporary release from it. Also, Friedkin didn’t do any storyboards to prepare for it. In fact, he has never done storyboards for any of his movies because he feels he has to see it in his mind. The shots captured on film come together from what he sees at the time, and he doesn’t even use a second unit to shoot any footage. All that you see on screen in “The French Connection” comes from life as it happened in front of Friedkin.

In coming up with the chase, he and some crew members walked down 50 blocks of New York streets to figure out how it would work best. As Friedkin kept walking, he suddenly felt the subway under his feet. Now logistically, he couldn’t do a car chase with a subway as it was underground, but it made him wonder if there were any elevated trains left in New York. The production team ended up finding one in Brooklyn, so Friedkin went to the Transit Authority to get their cooperation in pulling this chase off.

The first thing to figure out was how fast the trains could go. Friedkin said if they went over 100 mph, they couldn’t do the chase as it would be impossible for Popeye Doyle to follow the train by car. The train supervisor he talked to said the trains go at 50 mph, so what seemed impractical suddenly became possible. Not only did Friedkin want to have a car chase the train, he also wanted to crash the train for the chase’s climax. But the train supervisor said it would be too difficult because they had never had an elevated train crash or even heisted. Having heard all this did not deter Friedkin, and he planned to steal the scene if the transit authority’s cooperation was not going to be granted.

As Friedkin and his crew headed for the exit, the train supervisor suddenly said, “Wait a second. I told you it would be difficult. I never said it would be impossible!” He told Friedkin that if he were to help him with this, then he would need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. His reasoning was if the movie was to be done Friedkin’s way, he would be fired, and retiring to Jamaica was always in the back of his mind. Sure enough, the supervisor was fired, and he moved to Jamaica like he said he would, so it’s safe to say he lucked out.

In filming the chase, the shots were picked up just as they happened in real life. There’s no way they would ever be able to film a chase like this today without prior approval from the city, but Friedkin and his crew were young and reckless, and they unleashed mayhem New York never saw coming. There were not supposed to be any accidents while filming it, but there ended up being many of them which forced the crew to fix the car after each take. I’m pretty sure they ended up using more than one as a result. Friedkin ended up saying they did a number of things he would never even think about doing today, and that they were very fortunate no one got hurt.

Taking all this information into account, this car chase feels even more thrilling than when I first saw it. The way it was filmed was completely insane, and the fact they pulled it off at all was a miracle. When Gene Hackman finally brings the 1971 Pontiac LeMans he is driving to a complete stop, the sold-out audience at the Aero Theatre applauded loudly which shows how powerful the sequence remains today. “The French Connection,” like many of Friedkin’s movies, has deservedly stood the test of time.