On Tuesday night, William Friedkin, a legend to horror fans for his film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist, appeared at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood to discuss the upcoming stage version of Blatty's book (set to open at LA's Geffen Playhouse on July 3rd), along with the man responsible for the new adaptation -- playwright John Pielmeier. Joining Friedkin and Pielmeier were the Geffen's artistic director Randall Arney and Variety's Stuart Levine, who served as moderator of the discussion. Find out what these guests had to say after the jump.
"The first question that most people ask me," began John Pielmeier in discussing his stage adaptation of The Exorcist, "is 'How are you going to make her head turn around?' And I thought, 'That's not the kind of thing we want to see on stage.' I felt very strongly. First of all, I think it's a completely brilliant movie. And there was no way that I wanted to try and replicate the movie on the stage. I met with Bill Blatty and said, 'Look, the way that I would want to do this is with a minimal cast, six or slightly more (we ended up with nine); and with no or very minimal special effects. And a play that was incredibly theatrical in presentation.' He liked that idea. He responded to that, and gave me permission to go off and write it. When I sent him the first draft he was incredibly thrilled. Incredibly supportive of it. And we've gone on from there."
"I wrote it in ten days," added Pielmeier, "and I've never written anything that fast before. It usually takes me years to write a play. But I was just so jazzed by this book. I'd read it when it first came out, but I reread it when the opportunity came to me, and I just started exploding with ideas and passion and feelings that just spoke to me in such a deep, deep way. I let it gestate in me for a while. Then I went off alone and I vomited it out, so to speak."
"Can you imagine how good it would have been if he took twelve days?" joked Friedkin.
"The first job is to get a great director," said Arney of the Geffen's production, "a great stage director. When I first read the script, we were thrilled to get to be the first ever staged version of this amazing story... The center of the story is ultimately this incredible struggle between faith and despair. There is nothing more central to the stage. If the center of all drama is conflict, there is no more primal conflict than that between the demon and the human for the soul. In fact, theater history is loaded with the demon on stage. All the way back to Faustus. So it seemed like an absolutely perfect thing to put on the stage. The trick is you have one location, a forty foot opening. Our director John Doyle, who is a world-famous director, who directed a famous version of Sweeney Todd in New York, where he'd completely reimagined that, has come up with a central place. A central umbrella where all of the action of this play takes place. It's very Catholic in its feel. It's very palpable. It gives the whole piece an authenticity. You come to the theater and feel like you're in, literally, a church. It's a very serious take on this story. Any time you tell a story about the Catholic Church or the Jesuits, as Bill will tell you, you've got to take all of that very seriously. And John wrote an amazing adaptation that is simple, economic, and yet unbelievable harrowing."
"We've been fortunate enough, " said Pielmeier, "to acquire the talents of a British composer by the name of Sir John Tavener. He's a genius, and he's happily agreed to write and adapt his music for our piece."
"It's got a great pedigree," agreed Friedkin. "Mr. Pielmeier is a distinguished American playwright. I think John Doyle is the best stage director in this country. I've seen his revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd. He did an opera at LA Opera. He's just great. And Tavener is as good as it gets today. You've got a terrific combination. I'm looking forward to it."
When asked why his film version of The Exorcist still works today, Friedkin replied, "It deals with the mystery of faith, which even atheists are concerned about, or think about. Even if you deny the existence of a god, you're thinking about it. And to me, anyone who can say, 'Absolutely, there is no such thing as a god' doesn't know what they're talking about. We don't know. The idea of faith is we're not supposed to know on this earth, but we know that every day before our eyes is a miracle. The miracle of birth, the miracle of love. We have nothing to say about how we come into this world or how we're leaving it; but some force does, I believe. Now I'm not Catholic, but I strongly believe in a god, and I very much believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Which I think are profoundly beautiful and important. I personally feel, I must say, that the Church has come a long way from the practices and teachings of Jesus… The film is important in a way because of the teachings of Jesus. That's what is in every frame of this film."
In explaining how his stage adaptation will differ from the book, which he referred to as his "bible", Pielmeier said, "What was wonderful about how generous Bill Blatty was was that he allowed me to riff on things that are barely mentioned in the novel. For example, there's a brief mention that Chris had a child before Regan, a little boy who died. I kind of took that and expanded that in the play, as something that's haunting her life. I think these are people who, everyone has something haunting them."
"We can't announce the cast this evening," said Arney. "We're getting very, very close. And here's a shamless plug – if you go to GeffenPlayhouse.com and sign up for our mailing list, you'll be the first to know whenever that cast is announced."