Freezing sets, pea soup projectile vomiting, gunshots, and other secrets behind William Friedkin's The Exorcist

William Friedkin, the esteemed director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, died today at age 87. Released in 1973, The Exorcist is a masterpiece of fright films and the first horror movie to be nominated for "best picture" Academy Award. When the film was released on Blu-ray in 2010, it was accompanied by the above documentary made from behind-the-scenes hand-held camera footage that had sat for decades in the garage of cinematographer Owen Roizman.

"Seeing what went on all those years ago has reminded me that this truly was, as we have been saying for so many years, the greatest magic act ever filmed," said Linda Blair at the documentary's release. "What Billy Friedkin did on that set was magic. That's what I always tell people; there's simply no other way to describe it."

From a 2010 article in The Independent:

The documentary tells how sometimes, just before cameras rolled, Friedkin would fire guns, so that his stars looked startled. At other times, he'd slap the actors across the face to make them appear angry. That directorial tactic prompted actress Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan's mother, to describe him "a maniac". Before every take of the film, he would meanwhile insist on playing unsettling music on loudspeakers.

Friedkin also required his entire set to be refrigerated, so that viewers would be able to see the breath of characters freeze during exorcism scenes. "Today, doing that would be a piece of cake, right?" he says. "Today they can make you believe that the Titanic is sinking." Back then, it was a hugely expensive and uncomfortable operation. In Roizman's behind-the-scenes footage, you therefore see crew-members creeping about the set in 1970s ski jackets, while Burstyn and Linda Blair, who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Regan, snivel miserably in the cold[…]

For the scene where she vomits, an artificial device was strapped onto Blair's chin, and which used a hidden tube to fire a jet of green liquid, made by mixing of pea soup and porridge. Today, most of Friedkin's other techniques also seem extraordinarily outmoded. To shoot scenes at the angles he desired (in an era that predated "steadycam" devices), he required staff to erect a bewildering array of pulleys and wires, which the cameramen would simply be dangled from. To make the bed, on which Regan sits for much of the second half of the film, rock violently, his crew installed a Heath Robinson-style mechanism powered by four men who stood backstage pumping levers.