Another Meeting With the Director of Sorcerer
Just When He’s on a Rampage of His Own
The moment I finished seeing an advance screening of Rampage, before its theatrical release in October 1992, I arranged a trip to Los Angeles so I could cover the film in as close-up-and-personal a way as I could. On a Friday morning in late September I arrived at the Bel-Air estate of the film’s director, Billy Friedkin. Well, Willliam Friedkin when his name appears in the credits of his films. But I had found out during our first meeting that he preferred to be called ‘Billy.’)
It was a beautiful mansion overlooking central Los Angeles. I knew that not only did Friedkin live there, but so did a former studio executive who was now a major producer, Sherry Lansing. She had been Friedkin’s wife for a little more than a year following his divorce from actress Kelly Lang.
It was a warm, sunny day – in sharp contrast to the dark mood that Rampage projected in its intricate examination of crime and punishment and our contemporary court system. But it was exactly those factors that had brought me here and which helped to charge me forward as I rang the front doorbell. Here is the story as it appeared in the Sunday Datebook of the San Francisco Chronicle.
A Case Against Psychiatry in Court:
Championing Victims’ Rights
BECAUSE HE CLAIMED he drank the blood of his random victims, a cold-blooded murderer became known in the press as “The Dracula Killer.” In January 1978 Richard Trenton Chase had been accused of murdering six people in the Sacramento area. It was a senseless series of grisly slayings that included decapitation and disembowelment.
Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Chase clung to an insanity plea, the only choice available to him given the evidence presented by the prosecution. After a change of venue from the Sacramento court system to Palo Alto, CA, Chase’s trial took place in 1979 with 175 witnesses testifying. Of these, 21 were psychiatric doctors who debated the defendant’s sanity back and forth, back and forth. No doubt the jury had to be fed pills to keep them awake as the trial unfolded, day after day, week after week, month after month.
Although all that “shrink” testimony muddied the waters, the prosecutor finally asked the jury to disregard all that psycho stuff and concentrate on how Chase behaved during the killings. Apparently the jurors, at a moment when they were all wide awake, took the prosecutor’s advice. Chase was judged to be sane and found guilty on all six murder counts. Although sentenced to die in the California gas chamber at San Quentin, he was found dead in his cell in 1980, having consumed an overdose of anti-depressant pills he had hidden away in his cell.
The Chase case became famous in psychiatric annals, and now serves as the springboard for a disturbing new film that examines the American justice system and the use of psychiatric testimony to determine sanity or insanity. That film is Rampage, although admittedly it is a heavily fictionalized version of the Chase case, written and directed by William Friedkin.
It is based in large part on a novel by William P. Wood, who was a young district attorney in the Sacramento prosecutor’s office at the time of the Chase trial.
Friedkin, best remembered for directing The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer, has made no attempt to spare the gruesome aspects of the case.
When I sat down with him in his Bel-Air home, he told me he did not make Rampage for sensational reasons. “I had a much more serious agenda in mind when I took on this project. I’ve fictionalized the case so Chase is put through a three-step ‘bifurcated’ trail determining (1) guilt or innocence, (2) sanity or insanity and (3) degree of punishment.”
Friedkin feels that “the Chase case had a positive outcome for justice. But sometime important I wanted to point out. There have been many instances where the criminal, after being found insane, has often been fed back into society with horrible consequences.” He made reference to the case of Edmund Kemper, who murdered his grandparents, was paroled and then killed eight women.
“I wanted to speak out against that policy,” Friedkin emphasized. “I wanted to make a statement abut how the courts have abrogated their authority to the shrinks, who come along and excuse every form of revolting criminal behavior.” One thing that angers Friedkin is that “this mocks the victim.” As our interview continued, I could sense a growing level of anger within Friedkin.
A growing passion as he continued to discuss Rampage. “The victim becomes a cog who happened to get in the way when these criminals were acting out their free will. Psychiatry has insidiously worked its way into our culture. What started out as a fade has become a disease, and I find it unconscionable.”
Rampage stars Michael Biehn as the young attorney Nicholas Campbell, who prosecutes the murderer – his name changed to Charles “Charlie” Reece (Alex McArthur). He finds his own attitudes about capital punishment utterly shaken. “In some ways,” Friedkin told me, “what happens to Biehn in the film reflects what I experienced when I was writing the script.
I was going through a bitter divorce with my wife [actress Lesley-Anne Down]. I feel our case was decided by psychiatrists and not the courts, and that the shrink’s methods were no more valid than a witch doctor’s. It only fueled me to speak out against these guys who weave their voodoo and black magic.”
There is a long history to Rampage, for initially it was finished in 1987 and 300 prints were struck by Dino de Laurentiis’ company for a nationwide release. Then, suddenly, the entrepreneur’s film empire collapsed. The film fell into bankruptcy, where it languished until a year ago. But then Harvey Weinstein, the president of Miramax Pictures, saw a bootleg tape copy of Rampage and spent seven months in negotiations to extricate it from its quagmire of creditors.
Finally, Miramax emerged the new owner of the film, but any joy on Friedkin’s part was soon dashed when a sneak preview in New York proved disastrous. Friedkin explained why: “In California we have the bifurcated trial, a three-step process that swings into effect when someone is using the insanity defense. I hadn’t made that point clear in the film. So we had to go back and shoot new material to clarify just what was happening.”
Now that there’s a new version, Friedkin believes it is much stronger and gets closer to how he personally feels. “I would have to define myself as a knee-jerk liberal,” he said. “I grew up in a lower middle-class Jewish family where all of the ideals were liberal and progressive.
So instinctively I grew up against the death penalty. But now, I have to tell you that I’ve gone through a change of heart. It’s not an emotion I’m proud of, but under certain circumstances I think the death penalty is necessary, and I tried to reflect that new attitude through the Biehn character. Society has so disintegrated that there are times when the answer is simple justice. On the other hand, I don’t believe capital punishment is a deterrent to other violent crimes.”
During the 1970s, Friedkin became one of Hollywood’s top directors with a string of box-office hits. But the failure of the 1977 Sorcerer, a remake of the French 1953 classic Wages of Fear, started a career decline from which he has never fully recovered. His nadir was probably the feeble comedy Deal of the Century (1983), although more recent films (To Live and Die in L.A., 1985) and The Guardian, 1990) have indicated a sincere effort on his behalf to get back on track.
Rampage certainly is a step in the right director, and really follows through on a theme that Friedkin first pursued long before his career in Hollywood began. Back in 1960 he made his first film, The People vs Paul Crump, a documentary about a black man who had been on death row in the Cook County Jail for shooting a night watchman.
A winner of the Golden Gate Award at the 1962 San Francisco International Film Festival, The People vs Paul Crump was a model example of a hardened criminal who had rehabilitated and educated himself, Friedkin had hoped the film would earn the convict a pardon.
But “the ABC network deemed my film too inflammatory and refused to show it. The governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, saw it and soon after gave Crump life imprisonment. But no one would ever consider his freedom.” That included another governor of Illinois for three terms, Jim Thompson.
According to Friedkin, Thompson also had been Crump’s chief prosecutor at his trial.
Friedkin always has been extremely hard on his own work, plagued by a “love-hate relationship . . . there’s always something I could have done to make it better.” It’s not surprising to hear him turn self-critical. “I’m not enjoying the prominence I once had but I still love making films as much as I ever did.
“What hasn’t changed in Hollywood since The French Connection is that people still basically want to be entertained. And over the years I got away from that. I got more into doing social issues that challenged me.” On the subject of mental illness he had one final thought for me. “Everybody has mental problems,” he said. “We’re all hanging by threads. And yet society has to hold together. It must hold together or we’ll all lose together.