Acclaimed filmmaker Alexandre O. Phillipe’s fascination with cinema has led him down his own impressive career path. Director of several cinematic essays that dive deep into the legacy of beloved horror classics, Phillipe is always able to bring classic cinema’s hidden details to light. 78/52 explores the history of one of the most famous death scenes in movie history while Memory: The Origins of Alien delves deep into the legacy of one of the scariest sci-fi movies ever made.
Phillipe’s newest exploration of cinema’s secrets, Leap of Faith, premieres on Shudder on November 19th. The film is a stylish, feature-length interview with the legendary William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, as well as an intimate portrait of a brilliant mind. Phillipe’s chamber documentary of sorts is beautiful, touching, and thoroughly engaging. Wicked Horror was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Phillipe. Read the interview below.
Wicked Horror: What made you so fascinated by the making of The Exorcist?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: You know, I wasn’t actually planning on making this film in the first place. It came out of an encounter with William Friedkin at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain back in 2017, and one thing led to the next, he invited me for lunch in Los Angeles three weeks later, and he ultimately gave me the opportunity to make this film. It’s one of those things as a cinephile and as a fan of his work and of The Exorcist…it’s just a dream come true, you know?
Wicked Horror: Yeah, that’s wonderful! Had Friedkin seen your other films when you first met?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: He watched 78/52, and he told me after we shot Leap of Faith that that was essentially the reason why he wanted me to make this film. He absolutely loved 78/52, which was a huge honor.
Wicked Horror: So in other words, Leap of Faith was kind of Friedkin’s idea?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: In a way, yeah. It’s very strange, the way it happened. He really sort of, uh, I wouldn’t say he lured me into it, but he definitely threw the bait in the water and I gladly took it.
Wicked Horror: How long did your interview with Friedkin last?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: 6 days.
Wicked Horror: 6 days, wow!
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Yeah, I mean it’s obviously the most in-depth interview about The Exorcist, maybe ever.
Wicked Horror: Since you had so much footage, how did you choose the best moments for the final product?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Well, it’s not about choosing the best moments, you know? It’s really about structuring the film. You have to go into it with a very clear structure and a very clear thematic approach, and that dictates what’s going to be included and excluded from the film.
Wicked Horror: Are you still in touch with Friedkin?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Yeah, yeah, absolutely! I check in on him, he checks in on me. I spoke with him yesterday. It’s always a pleasure to talk to him. He’s a wonderful man.
Wicked Horror: In Leap of Faith, Friedkin mentions Citizen Kane as an inspiration for his films. What film would you say is the biggest inspiration for your work?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Well, I’ve been a cinephile since I was a kid, and I draw my inspiration from multiple movies and filmmakers, but I always go back to Hitchcock. I think if I had to take one film with me on the proverbial desert island, it would be Vertigo. I think Vertigo is a perfect film for my money. Every time I watch it, I get something new out of it. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.
Wicked Horror: Definitely. What about the inspiration that speaks directly to your documentaries?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Each film that I make has a very different stylistic approach, and I think Leap of Faith was actually a complete departure from anything I’ve done before. I’ve never done a one on one before. I also approached it as a chamber documentary, because what I liked about The Exorcist is not the special effects, it’s how restrained it actually is. It’s the fact that everything takes place in that one room. It’s very contained. So to me, that approach, the very sort of bare-bones approach was something that appealed to me a great deal, and then also, musically. I talked about this a lot with Jon Hegel, my composer. The whole idea was, I wanted to have a single cello playing all the way through, which was essentially a musical counterpoint to William Friedkin and what he was saying. So it’s a very austere film, in a way, but I think The Exorcist is pretty austere as well.
Wicked Horror: It’s very interesting that you mention that you wanted Leap of Faith to be a chamber piece, because Friedkin says in the film that he sees The Exorcist as a chamber piece.
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Exactly. I think that’s what makes it so beautiful. To me, it’s really about creating a certain kind of echo and finding a way to bring to life the fundamental ideas of Friedkin’s filmmaking, which are faith, fate, and grace notes. We bring that to life visually in the final sequence, which of course, without giving anything away, is in Kyoto, Japan. I think it’s my favorite scene in Leap of Faith for sure. It might even be my favorite scene of any film that I’ve made because it really reveals so much about William Friedkin, not just as a filmmaker, but as a person.
Wicked Horror: That leads me to my next question, which is what caused you to end your film in Kyoto, Japan?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Friedkin’s Kyoto story came out during day 4 of our interview, completely out of the blue, and it took me by surprise. I mean, he started tearing up, talking about the Zen garden that he had seen fifty years ago, and when he launched into that monologue, I immediately knew that it had to be the end of the film because that’s the essence of William Friedkin, and I knew that I would have to go to Kyoto.
Wicked Horror: Just watching that scene made me want to visit that Zen garden, honestly.
Alexandre O. Phillipe: It’s really something, I’ll tell you. To go there, and to film there, after having talked to Friedkin about it, it was really special. I saw…I saw it. I experienced exactly what he was talking about. In fact, I called Friedkin from the Zen garden because I had to tell him that I was there. It’s just a very special place.
Wicked Horror: Do the films that you examine change drastically for you when deconstructing them in the way that you do?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Of course. I think with any great movie, or any great work of art period, it’s the more you look, the more you see. It’s endlessly fascinating to explore great works, like The Exorcist, because there’s always something new to discover.
Wicked Horror: You’ve been on a roll exploring the making of these horror classics. You’ve dug deep into Psycho, Alien, and now The Exorcist…do you think your next movie will also explore the legacy of another film, and if so, what film’s legacy do you want to explore next?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: I’m in production on two projects right now. One is about John Ford, Monument Valley, and the myth of the west. The other one is about The Wizard of Oz and the films of David Lynch.
Wicked Horror: Both of those are documentaries?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: Yeah, both of them are. Well, you know, I don’t really like the term documentary. I think of my work as more like films about films, or film essays in a way.
Wicked Horror: Towards the end of Leap of Faith, Friedkin asks the audience what they think happened during the death scene of Father Karras, what do you think happened?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: (laughs) Well, I mean, look, Friedkin himself still struggles with it, which I think is a fascinating thing to witness, quite frankly, but for me, it’s the ultimate act of sacrifice. Karras invites the demon inside of him to save this little girl whom he really has not even met. He only really knows her as the demon. He never gets to meet her as this beautiful, funny, kind, warm little girl, you know? And so, what a selfless act of sacrifice. I think that’s what Blatty was going for, but Friedkin is still struggling with that scene, because Karras still committed suicide, and according to the catholic faith, suicide is a sin, so Friedkin never really understood that moment. He still struggles with how he ended up directing that scene, which I think is a very refreshing thing to see from a filmmaker like William Friedkin.