Open Letter to Friedkin

Jeffrey Wells to William Friedkin: The French Connection was obviously your film when you were developing, shooting and cutting it, and certainly your film when you were promoting it in ’71. And you were most responsible for winning the Best Picture Oscar, clearly. But those days are over, pal, and while you may feel some form of residual parental ownership rights today, you’re out of line. At least as far as revisionist futzing rights are concerned.

Frame capture from David Lean’s revised version of Lawrence of Arabia.

Whatever your attorney has told you or the contracts may say, you do not own The French Connection, Mr. Freidkin — the moviegoing public does. The fans who’ve been watching and worshipping this film for the last 38 years do. Your ownership rights went out the window, sir, once that legendary New York crime film became a huge hit, and they sure as shit were null and void after it won the Best Picture Oscar of 1971. And you can’t just stroll into a post-production house on Highland or Seward and re-visualize it and put out a snow-bleachy version on Blu-ray and say, “This is it — the best version of this film ever made!”

Well, you can because you have. But you have no legitimacy in doing so.

I’m referring to what cinematographer Owen Roizman strongly stated last week, which is that you’ve desecrated The French Connection with a new high-contrasty, snow-grained, color-bleeding, verging-on-monochrome digital transfer that is now watchable on Blu-ray.

The word on the street is that you intend to do the same thing to The Exorcist down the road. I got the idea from listening to you speak the night before last that if you had a chance you’d probably do the same to upcoming remasters of Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A..

I’m writing to tell you, sir, that this has to stop because in the eyes of the Movie Gods you haven’t the right to do this, despite what your pallies at Fox Home Video and others in the film-cultivating community may have told you.

You can’t mangle what belongs to the public and to history, Mr. Freidkin. Art belongs to the artist until he or she creates it, and then it belongs to the world. Period. That means forever. That means no retroactive whimsical messing-around rights can kick in. And that means no Greedo-shoots-first revisionism of any kind unless the intention is to try and bring genuine (i.e., nonrevisionist) improvement to the original vision. Richer, fuller, crisper, cleaner…fine. But no “atrocious” and “horrifying” revisions.

That means if Pablo Picasso comes back from the grave he can’t go to Spain and decide that “Guernica” works better in color because he had a recent vision in heaven that painting it in black and white in 1937 was the wrong way to go. That means that the ghost of David Lean can’t come back to earth and decide to reimagine and remaster Lawrence of Arabia as a black-and-white period movie in the vein of John Ford‘s The Lost Patrol (1934).

The same thing goes for The Exorcist, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in LA.. You don’t have the right because they’re not your films, buster. You made them, obviously, but they have a life and a culture and a spirit of their own now. And I am telling you, speaking for myself and I suspect for many others, to back off and leave those movies alone. I mean it. Stand aside, sheath your sword, holster your pistol and find some other way to be creative.

You can do what you can to improve the appearance of these films on DVD, Blu-ray and hi-def digital downloads feeds. You can help to make sure they look precisely as they did when they were shown as brand-new prints in first-run theatres, or help make them look even sharper and cleaner and more vivid than they did back then if you so choose, but that’s all.

Otherwise you’re a brilliant and accomplished filmmaker, and an excellent fellow to discuss the ins and outs of the movie business with. And Bug deserved more attention and acclaim than it got. And all hail Michael Shannon!

  • erniesouchak

    I agree 100% with the sentiments you’ve expressed, and Fox, as the owner of the film, should never have allowed Friedkin to do this. It’s like David Fincher deciding he always wanted “Seven” to be pastel, and the studio allowing him to alter it that way.

  • Rich S.

    I’m glad Jeffrey is a respected film journalist. Otherwise, this would sound just like a fanboy writing a letter to George Lucas for raping his childhood. But he is, so it doesn’t. Much.

  • Mark

    I don’t think Friedkin would understand this letter. To her him tell it, he’s not reimagining anything, and tried to deliver the movie he saw through the lens at the time. There’s quite a disconnect between that belief, and your contention that he actually added grain and softened the color. He may be full of shit, but i don’t think he’s being coy. He sounds sincere in his belief.

    I also don’t think he’d approve of all the ‘sirs’ and ‘busters'; but that’s just me.

  • Glenn Kenny

    I personally can’t wait for Jeff to start going door-to-door with this.

  • RMBurnett


    Just look at those burnt-out, almost solarized highlights across Hackman’s face. They just didn’t shoot movies to look like this in the early seventies.

    Now, I think a case could be made Friedkin’s done something interesting with this transfer of the film, but not at the expense of the film as it looked when it was made. Give the print to Lowry Digital and let them give it the Bond treatment…I mean, have you seen the Blu Ray of THUNDERBALL? The picture is so tasty I want to lick it…

  • btwnproductions

    He also played around with CRUISING, but perhaps it wasn’t as dramatic a futzing. No ome speaks for that one, though.

  • Mr. Muckle

    I think this is far too simplistic, Jeff. You’re a journalist and a blogger and you deal with words. Words are the same whether they’re read on an iPhone, printed in a newspaper, or handwritten on a scrap of toilet paper. There is 100% one-to-one reproducible sample-accuracy. On the other hand, for example, I do some photography. I spent money on a high-grade monitor, Photoshop, etc., calibrated the hell out of the thing, and edit and diddle with the photos until they look good to me. Then maybe I send them out somewhere on the internet and someone looks at them on a cheapo Dell, or (god forbid) a Gateway laptop. ;-) And the result is, THEY’RE NOT THE SAME.

    So, unless you can mandate the quality of everyone’s playback equipment and environment, be it HDTV or movie theater, the end result is not remotely the same from place to place. Innumerable variables enter into the final experience. This imperfection is one of the realities of working in the visual or music recording fields. An iPod is not the same as an audiophile stereo.

    Therefore, I don’t know why you should make such a fuss about this. The point is whether the ideas and emotions come across, not whether “pixel perfection” is achieved. For you, the lack of pixel perfection apparently gets in the way of that communication, but I suggest that you got the idea and emotion of The French Connection long ago, possibly in some low-rent movie theater or on TV, and now you’re just reducing the issue to that of an archivist’s fetish. In the not even very much bigger picture, this simply DOES NOT MATTER.

  • actionman

    This entire argument is based on various OPINIONS on how The French Connection looks the best. OPINIONS. Wells says the transfer blows, Poland says it’s amazing. Friedkin loves what he’s done, Roizman hates what has happened. Opinions are like assholes — everyone’s got one.

    I do give Jeff credit for speaking his mind passionately about something he so clearly thinks is a serious film-related issue.

    I say Friedkin should do WHATEVER HE CAN to get a widescreen transfer of Sorcerer out on DVD.

  • Krillian

    Here here.

  • maxfm

    I essentially agree, and damn, Sorcerer needs an appropriate Blu-Ray release like…yesterday.

    However, when, sir, did Wells morph into Keith Olbermann? If this letter was visual, sir, Wells would be turning to another camera angle after every paragraph like Herr Olbermann does during one of his commentaries/sermons/rants.

    Finally: Michael Shannon — Shotgun Stories.

  • Glenn Kenny

    In case everyone’s wondering how it works, folks: when Lowry Digital removes every last speck of grain from “Sunset Boulevard” and polishes the film up to be as shiny as the fender on a new Rolls, and Billy Wilder’s dead, and has no say, but Wells is absolutely positive Wilder would have wanted it that way, well, then the Movie Gods are in their heaven and all’s right with the world. And when Friedkin tinkers with his own work as he sees fit and Wells doesn’t like the result, well, then it’s a desecration, the Movie Gods are displeased, and Wells gets to have some prime Howard Beale moments. Q.E.D.

    How’s that for tap-dancing, sir?

  • Gaydos

    Kudos to Jeff and Muckle you’re wrong. Picture this: they’ve shot a few days of the film and Billy shows Owen a wonderful new “process” he’s discovered to make Owen’s images look “better.” Owen says “drop dead” and walks.

    Owen has artistic rights and they’ve been pissed on. This is nasty ego nonsense and an insult to the guy what brought Billy to the dance. Make it a video extra if you want, labeled as an experiment, but as a standalone version of the classic? Absurd. But worse, it’s an abuse of power. Imagine that, in Hollywood of all places.

  • Kyle_D

    This is still a couple spots down the netflix queue, so it’ll be a couple weeks before I can legitimately post an opinion on this. From all the screenshots I’ve looked at, some scenes actually look okay while others look like the color has been sloppily painted on by hand like they used to do in silent film. The santa suit looks especially vomitous. I’d love to listen to Wells go head to head in an interview with Friedkin over this. At the very least, Wells wouldn’t be a pushover like that Aradillas guy.

    I’d also love to see someone with broad readership publicly call out Vitorrio Storaro for choosing to unilaterally crop his scope films on video to a bullshit 2:1 aspect ratio because of his newfound love of that shape. I’ve heard Apocalypse Now is being prepped for Blu-ray release, and I’m hoping against hope that they release at a full 2.35:1 without the sides lopped off like all the DVD releases. That Horror needs to stop.

  • rr3333

    Again, I dont understand what the big deal is! 10 columns on Friedkin’s ‘Butchering’.

    Just watch the dvd and dont bother with the blu-ray.

  • Krazy Eyes

    I just want knowing wether the scene where the dead horse gets beaten is still in the Blu-ray version.

  • Glenn Kenny

    @ Kyle: Just so you know, “that Aradillas guy” asked Wells on his show. I sent Wells the number. Wells never called.

  • Gordie Lachance

    For the life of me, I can’t fathom what all this hubbub is about.

    The only way Friedkin will be able to re-touch Exorcist or any other film is if French Connection is a big seller, which would mean that most consumers don’t share or don’t care about Jeff’s viewpoint.

    And that’s that. There’s no such thing as artistic integrity. There is only commerce and the marketplace.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Glenn is right. I could have chimed in, but I was too lazy, scattered and disorganized to do so.

  • Mr. Muckle

    I don’t see where I’m wrong, gaydos.

    1) The playback equipment is infinitely variable and uncontrollable.

    2) Owen, the DP, was a hired hand and has no rights over the product or subsequent revisions, no? If he does have rights, then he can exercise them. If someone who does have rights fucks with his preferences, tough titties. What else is new?

    3) What matters, except to damnfool archivists, is whether the work communicates. It communicated in crappy theaters in the first place, it can communicate in other venues and forms, too (but not to everyone, of course).

    4) The film was never sacred in the first place, so it cannot possibly be “desecrated” in any way. Jeff’s memories of the sacrosanct version are as idiosyncratic as anyone else’s memories.

    5) I couldn’t care less.

    All these things are true, therefore I am not wrong.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Good on you, Jeff. But hell, the way this debate is refusing to die, you may get another shot yet.

    Gordie’s point about the marketplace is spot-on; n the Friedkin interview, he himself admitted that economic factors could prevent him from carrying out his plans to redo “The Exorcist.” Reason enough for some to hope for a continued recession, maybe.

  • Kyle_D

    @Glenn Kenny: Was Wells invited to the interview, or just the post-interview discussion between yourself and Aradillas? My main frustration with that interview was that Aradillas allowed Friedkin to frame what he did for the Blu-ray as a clean-up/restoration, and not a revision. It was only in the second half of that show, once Friedkin was off the line, that the debate over revisionism was discussed. Aradillas is obviously passionate and well-versed in film, but he just doesn’t have the interviewing demeanor to challenge someone as bullheaded as Friedkin. For better or worse, Wells regularly demonstrates the requisite bluster.

  • Kyle_D

    Didn’t see Jeff’s last comment before I posted.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Jeff was asked in on the post-interview-interview. Although I think everyone involved, except maybe Friedkin, would have been delighted to be able to arrange a direct Wells/Friedkin faceoff of sorts. That wasn’t in the cards for the prior episode. But who’s to say what the future could bring. Although, in this case, probably not.

  • Mike

    I wonder what Mr. Hackman thinks of this whole situation. Has he publicly commented on it?

  • rr3333

    Why couldnt Fox include the original print as a supplement?

  • DavidF

    I haven’t seen the new version but I 100% understand why it’s a travesty, but I still disagree with the meat of Jeff’s argument here.

    To go to ernie’s comment up top, Fincher did re-time Se7en when it came out on DVD, I’m pretty sure.

    The closest parallel is probably Lucas who, rather famously, explained that he doesn’t have to paint his house green just because that’s what everyone else thinks he should do.

    Now, he didn’t have a pissed-off DOP to contend with but I think the main issue with what Lucas did wasn’t the SE’s per se, but rather that he intended to remove the original movies from circulation. THAT, I agree, he does not have a right to do.

    Darabont produced a b/w The Mist, Spielberg revisited ET, Coppola put out Redux – but the originals were always retained. That’s the key here – and it sounds like Friedkin is being a bit of a prick about it, which hardly sounds atypical.

  • Cadavra

    SOUTH PARK once did an episode in which the kids went after Spielberg and Lucas for tinkering with their classics. Maybe it’s time for a sequel.

    And I agree with RR. Had the “original” version been included as well, we might still be having this discussion, but with very little of its vehemence.

  • Gaydos
  • Mr. Muckle

    Gaydos: You’re ignoring my more salient points, but I’ll address yours. Cinematographers and DPs already get credit, AS cinematographers and DPs. They are collaborators, but still employees under direction. What director would accept any other arrangement? Not a good one. Yaysoos dios, what inflated self-regard those guys have. “Co-authors!”

    If you want control, then get it in writing, otherwise the guy who did get it in writing will have it. That’s the real world. How could it work any other way? There’s no flaming argument to be had here.

    I might not like the Blu-ray transfer myself, but I’ve already seen the movie more than once and I got what it has to say. Wells argues that the film belongs in some way to “him” rather than Friedkin, or whomever owns it legally. But he doesn’t have that in writing, does he.

    Friedkin has eyes. I see no reason not to allow him to put out a version that he likes. If that doesn’t fly with Wells’ sensibilities, then maybe Jeff didn’t understand the film correctly in the first place.

  • D.Z.

    David: Lucas might have been able to get away with that argument if he didn’t later complain about Sony releasing optional colorized versions of The Three Stooges.

  • plastiqueelephant

    Directors can do the hell what they want with their films in my book. All I know is that I hate everything I make with a burning intensity and the sense of having made catastrophic mistakes mars my ability to feel positive at all about things which are a major part of my life. I can understand the desire to go back and try and repaint them and make them interesting to the director again. Audiences can take it or leave it. I leave Apocalypse Now Redux but I don’t begrudge FFC his right to have done it one little bit.

  • Mr. Muckle

    Listen to Friedkin talk about this:

    Jeff and those who agree with his opinion about this simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Listen to Friedkin talk about this:

    I don’t know Friedkin very well personally, but in this chat he is a pathological side-stepper and essence-avoider of a very skillful order. The man knows exactly what this discussion is supposed to be about and he doesn’t even mention it. He doesn’t even case a glancing eye in the direction of the way this movie looks on Blu-ray now. And Aradillas, a pathetic go-alonger and suck-upper, doesn’t say a thing to Friedkin about this. And Mr. Muckle (choke) admires Friedkin for being an artful dodger….God! I rest my case.

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    Directors can do the hell what they want with their films in my book. All I know is that I hate everything I make with a burning intensity and the sense of having made catastrophic mistakes mars my ability to feel positive at all about things which are a major part of my life. I can understand the desire to go back and try and repaint them and make them interesting to the director again. Audiences can take it or leave it. I leave Apocalypse Now Redux but I don’t begrudge FFC his right to have done it one little software

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