Alexandre O. Philippe (of Faith): on documenting pop culture first published by Little White Lies
“This is Bill Friedkin, day one, take one,” says the famous filmmaker, bringing his hands together, like a clapperboard, in front of the camera. In this opening scene to Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, we see a director calling the shots, play-acting at being precisely a director – but this documentary is very much the baby of another director, Alexandre O. Philippe. Besides a couple of fictive short films (Left, 2006; Inside, 2009; the experimental The Spot, 2008), Philippe has devoted himself to the documentary form, with features about the cultural impact of peculiar animals (Chick Flick: The Miracle Mike Story, 2003; The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, 2012), of fandom and genre niches (Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water, 2004; The People vs. George Lucas, 2010; Doc of the Dead, 2014), and most recently of individual films, or even of individual scenes from individual films (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, 2017; Memory: The Origins of Alien, 2019; and Leap of Faith).
What all Philippe’s documentaries – even the animal films – have in common, as he told me at the London Film Festival where he was presenting Leap of Faith, is “that they represent cultural moments…. I’m really interested in characters and events that affect us culturally, but specifically characters and events that we tend to dismiss as ‘pop culture’, and therefore not important. To me pop culture is extraordinarily important. If we don’t pay attention to pop culture, that means we’re not willing to look at ourselves in the mirror. For somebody to say, ‘Gangnam Style is just pop culture’ – well, if a billion people download it and want to watch it, I kind of want to understand why, and I think we should maybe all take a moment, and go, ‘This maybe might be as important as some of the other stuff that we’re talking about.’ I think it really depends a little bit on the topic, but to me it’s really about, is there something I can sink my teeth into? Is there something I can connect with? And I can connect with geeks, I can connect with people who are passionate about something that most people would find strange.”
It seemed natural for Philippe to shift to making film itself his subject. “I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture, I’ve always been a huge film geek anyway, ever since I was a kid, and so, to me, this idea that I’m essentially deconstructing moments in cinema that have become cultural moments, is something that in a way I was already doing as a kid, and was passionate about, so it makes complete sense that I would be doing this now as an adult.”
The difficulty in making documentaries about films is getting them to stand out from the crowd of ancillary materials found as extras on DVD and Blu-ray releases. Philippe is rightly insistent on the differences. “Not to knock on DVD bonus features, because some are great,” he says, “but the form and the content of my films are radically different to DVD bonus features. People say that Memory is not a ‘definitive behind-the-scenes Alien doc’. Well, I will say that it’s not a behind-the-scenes doc [or] a making-of doc at all. I mean, yes, it’s a film about Alien, for sure, but it’s fundamentally a film about ancient origins and the resonance of myth in our collective unconscious. So it’s about something deeper than Alien – it’s about how we connect with myth on the silver screen. So you tell me where you can find that on a DVD or Blu-ray bonus feature.”
“With 78/52, I wanted to create the illusion that I was going to take people on a journey to the Bates Motel, and focus the first half of the film, teasing the shower scene by essentially putting it in the context of its era, its historical, social, cultural significance, with the promise that you would get to the shower scene – but it is a two-act structure, and at roughly the 40-minute mark, just as in Psycho, you get to the shower scene, and then we get into full-on deconstruction mode. You tell me where you can find a feature-length extra about the Psycho shower scene very specifically, where all the interviews have been shot green screen and create the illusion that the people are trapped inside the Bates Motel watching Psycho, you know, watching them watching Psycho watching us.”
“Leap of Faith“, he continues, “goes to the heart of what I think William Friedkin is all about, which is grace notes, these ideas of faith and fate, his sacred stones – the stones in the Kyoto Zen garden [with which Leap of Faith ends], the stone steps in The Exorcist, the obelisk in 2001, which is why the film opens with those three stones. So there’s a poetic resonance here that I think is really beautiful and worth exploring, because there’s a mystery to art – and to me, that mystery is the kind of stuff that, again, you don’t find on DVD extras, but is the kind of stuff that I strive to explore. So there’s a fundamental sort of disconnect here, but I think that most people who see my films on the big screen get it: that there is a formal approach, that there is a way to treat content which, if you get into it, to me belongs in the realm of film essay. The production values of our films, I think, also speak for themselves.”
Though backed up with some very carefully selected corroborative footage, Leap of Faith is essentially formatted as a Friedkin master class. “I wanted it to be really about his process as a filmmaker,” says Philippe. “The way that I pitched it to him is that I wanted to use the Hitchcock/Truffaut model of interviews, but instead of going over his entire career, it was completely about The Exorcist, and we agreed right away that we were not going to talk about SFX, because that’s been obviously well-documented, and I’m not a technical guy. I’m very interested in influences, in art, in inspiration and ideas, and I think that’s what Leap of Faith is really about.”
Friedkin is a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate subject, and a compelling raconteur – and it turns out that, while he most certainly is not the director of this film, he was the one who initiated it. “We met in Sitges at the film festival,” Philippe says, “and he invited me to his table to tell me some stories about Hitchcock because he had heard a lot about 78/52. Then he requested a link, which I sent to him, and then he watched it right away, loved it, and basically said he wanted to invite me to lunch in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles three weeks later, the conversation shifted quickly to The Exorcist, and he started talking about his archives, and older stuff that he has that people hadn’t seen, and he said, ‘If you wanted, I’ll give you full access to my archives’, and I said, ‘What do you mean?’, and he said, ‘Why don’t you read my autobiography. If you find anything just let me know’. So that’s a classic Friedkin way of saying, ‘I want you to make a film.’ He knew how to bait, and that was that.”
Once on set for the six days of interviewing, Friedkin was happy to sit back and surrender the directing duties to Philippe. “He was lovely,” says Philippe. “Honestly I can say there was zero tension on the set. He has never questioned – it’s almost too easy, in a way – I would say the he really gave me carte blanche. I mean, the moment he had made that decision, which I think was an instinct thing for him literally within 30 seconds when we met – or five seconds – he’d probably figured it out. He completely went with it. A few times, he did ask me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Linda Blair or Max von Sydow or Ellen Burstyn?’ And I said no, I said, ‘It’s just you’, and at one point – it was really a funny response – he told me, ‘You know, two hours is really a long time to spend with just one old Jew.’ I was like, ‘Well, you’re pretty great.’ He never asked to look at anything, until the film was not just finished, but already accepted by Venice, and he sent me an e-mail that brought tears to my eyes, he really profoundly loved the film.”
Philippe has plans to build a bigger project from this masterclass format: “We’re developing it now as what will be the first of a series of films called The Process, where we basically apply the same model to Coppola and The Godfather, Jane Campion and The Piano, Scorsese and maybe The King of Comedy – but this idea of one director, one film, deep-diving into their process.” Philippe would also eventually like to make some non-documentary features, including a western (“I’m a huge fan of westerns”, he says) that he originally wrote for the stage.
Also on a western theme, but much closer to completion, is Philippe’s forthcoming documentary feature The Valley, “which”, he says, “is about Monument Valley in film, and very specifically it’s about the mythology of the West but actually, in the way that 78/52 is a film about editing, this one really is a film about framing. It’s about the way the Monuments have been framed by John Ford, specifically, but then also by others beyond John Ford, and how the elements within the frame over time have changed our perception, not just of Monument Valley but of the West, and not just of the West but of American history. It’s a fascinating place to me because you have two realities, you have the fake American West which people still go there to celebrate, but it’s also a very special place for the Navaho, its a place that carries a lot of significance, and it’s are a lot of people who have a very hard life – people who live in the Valley there. So it’s two sorts of completely incompatible Americans that essentially are juxtaposed in the same space. So that’s what I’m trying to say.”