Nowadays, seeing an older film released on DVD can bring on the same
enthusiasm as when a classic screened at the local repertory house --
especially if the film in question is considered an underrated gem that
never had its day in the sun.
Such is the case with William Friedkin's 1985 film To Live and Die
in L.A. -- which didn't exactly do poorly, but also did not reach
the level of acclaim and support that his earlier films The French
Connection and The Exorcist did.
MGM/UA has released a spectacular new single-disc edition of the
film, complete with a Friedkin commentary track, outtakes, a really
terrible alternate "happy" ending, featurettes, and more. The disc
retails for $19.98.
"It's the best print of it that's ever existed," Friedkin says of the
new DVD during a recent phone conversation. Indeed, the pastel color
scheme established by cinematographer Robby Muller shines, and the music
score by Wang Chung pulses on the soundtrack.
The score may be the only element that dates the film, but Friedkin
insists it still works. For one thing, he did not take the usual route
by simply sticking new pop songs arbitrarily on the soundtrack. In his
case, he heard Wang Chung, liked their sound, gave them a script and
asked them to make up some music and send it to him.
"I told them to make it their impressions of the script," Friedkin
says. "I cut the movie to their music. It really dictated the nature of
certain sequences. I think the music was unique at the time and still
is. I can't think of a recent film soundtrack that really knocked me
out. When you get a good score, it's inseparable from the rest of the
Because of his background in documentary filmmaking, Friedkin has
always taken a realistic, research and detail-oriented approach to his
films. If he makes a film about narcotics cops (The French
Connection) or FBI trackers (The Hunted), he researches until
he knows the subject as well as he knows filmmaking.
In the case of To Live and Die in L.A. he fell in love with
Gerald Petievich's novel, which dealt not only with the world of
counterfeiting, but also with the bizarre world of the United States
"The thing that fascinated me was the surrealism in the life of a SS
agent: guarding the President of the United States one day, playing
cards with him and telling jokes, and the next day chasing some guy down
in a bad neighborhood for 50 dollars worth of bad credit cards,"
Friedkin wrote the screenplay himself, but wound up calling Petievich
in to help with creating a few new scenes and getting their details
In the film, agent Richard Chance (William S. Petersen, now famous
for his hit TV show "CSI") teams up with a new partner John Vukovich
(John Pankow) and tries to take out a well-established Los Angeles
counterfeiter, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).
None of this cast was well known at the time, but all have gone on to
great acclaim since. Friedkin often credits the "movie god" for the good
fortune he's had in making movies, and he does so again here. "I've been
totally indebted to the movie god. He's brought me actors I'd never
The two cops go undercover and manage to strike a deal with Masters,
but the department won't approve the drop money they need to clinch the
deal and snatch the bad guy. So the cops do the next best thing: they
stage a daring robbery that ends in a harrowing chase scene -- driving
against traffic on a five-lane Los Angeles freeway.
"I went down to the San Pedro area," he says, "where the freeways are
massive and full of trucks, and I saw all these trucks and the whole
freeway was like one long parking lot. I imagined what would happen if
you went against that."
Though the chase looks very elaborate, Friedkin says that it was shot
very quickly and as simply as possible. "There might have been ten or
twelve [stunt] drivers in that shot. We were like a guerilla unit. We
would come and go, fast."
Friedkin also shot in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los
Angeles, places that no film crew had previously gone. But the director
understood the etiquette of the situation and knew what to do.
"There's always a 'barn boss.' There's always some guy who runs the
neighborhood. You go to that guy and you hire people from the
neighborhood to be in the scenes, and you're OK. You have to go out and
make peace with the barn bosses."
As tough as Friedkin's shoots can be, he's even tougher in the
editing room. He insists on never viewing a "rough cut," which is
usually based on the original script. Friedkin feels that the movie has
moved to a new stage by then and finds its own shape while in the
Consider the film's one deleted scene -- made from a VHS master --
showing an excellent moment between Vukovich and his ex-wife (Tracy
Swope). Vukovich is concerned with how far his partner has gone to catch
Masters and he goes to her in the middle of the night, slightly drunk
and in tears.
"I love that scene," Friedkin says. "I felt at the time it was one of
the best scenes I ever worked on. But in the editing room, somehow or
other the film didn't want it."
This Oscar-winning director of tough cop movies finds that he can
best describe the editing process by comparing it to knitting. Yes,
"I used to really enjoy it, but I don't have the patience for it
now," Friedkin says. "Once stitch at a time. Knit one, pearl two.
Sometimes I have an editing sequence in mind, but sometimes I just shoot
what I think is interesting. But when I get into the cutting room, it's
a whole different world."
"The film begins to speak to you. It starts to tell you what it is
and what it isn't. I would single out The French Connection
especially. I started out cutting them a certain way, and they started
to assert their own personality. I cut nine scenes out of French
Connection. It was like the film was rejecting a foreign body. It
turns out that they were all structural scenes, like scaffolding. They
helped me and the actors during the shoot, but they weren't needed."
As a final detail, Friedkin set To Live and Die in L.A. over
the course of the holiday season right through the end of December and
the beginning of January, and yet no sign of holiday decoration or
celebration ever comes up at any point.
"It was one of the small ironies we built in," he says. For the
printed text that appears on the screen, Friedkin used different
typefaces, to indicate a variety of personality. Some look like personal
journal entries, and some are typed as if on a report.
"Those are in the days that we just put things in and hoped people
would catch them," he says. "We don't do that anymore."
November 21, 2003