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James Gray recalls beautiful final meeting with filmmaker William Friedkin: 'A wellspring of soul'

The 'Ad Astra' director took a trip down memory lane and his meeting with the iconic filmmaker whose contribution to film and honest personality left a mark on him.

James Gray recalls beautiful final meeting with filmmaker William Friedkin: 'A wellspring of soul'
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | (L) Mike Coppola | (R) Chad Buchanan

Behind every filmmaker, there is a figure who inspired them to pursue their passion and make movies. For director James Gray, William Friedkin happens to be one of those inspirational personalities. In a lengthy and emotionally charged tribute published by The Hollywood Reporter, Gray took a trip down memory lane to reveal his first and final encounters with Friedkin and dish out the little-known details about the "Jade" director, who passed away on August 7, 2023.

Image Source:  William Friedkin speaks onstage at the screening of “The Exorcist” during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for TCM)
Image Source: William Friedkin speaks onstage at the screening of “The Exorcist” during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 15, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for TCM)

The "Ad Astra" director recalled how he had become familiar with Friedkin and his work when he was 12 years old. He came across a collectible of a film by the iconic director titled "Sorcerer" in a movie memorabilia joint on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, which he considered "a mysterious and wonderful piece of art!" However, the first film that Gray saw of Friedkin was called "The French Connection."

"It hit me like a ton of bricks. Nothing about it resembled anything I'd seen before. The picture looked like one of those raw documentaries one might catch on PBS," Gray wrote while describing his experience.

As the now-54-year-old director came to admire Friedkin's films, he followed up by watching many more of his directorial works. "I became an unregenerate Friedkinophile and hunted down every interview and fact I could about the filmmaker and his work. His personal history is well-documented now, and his autobiography, the vastly entertaining 'The Friedkin Connection,' serves as a fine recounting of his extraordinary life," Gray wrote about the late director he admired while growing up.



 

Gray was fortunate enough to get acquainted with the cinema legend through his line of work and they got close enough to let Gray call him "Billy" as well. "I was always surprised by his kindness. I wasn't as close to him as I should have been; he was so warm and welcoming, always inviting me to reach out. But I confess to being intimidated by his intellect, afraid at times to call. His opinions were his, and he loved to stir things up," he further added, per the outlet.

Image Source: William Friedkin poses with his 'Leono d'Oro alla Carriera' prize at the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony during the 70th Venice International Film Festival on August 29, 2013 in Venice, Italy.. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Image Source: William Friedkin poses with his 'Leono d'Oro alla Carriera' prize at the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony during the 70th Venice International Film Festival on August 29, 2013, in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

But their last encounter was something Gray could never forget. "The last time I saw him was a few months ago, for dinner at his and Sherry's beautiful home. It was a characteristically lovely evening. But maybe I sensed unconsciously that I might not see him again. At some point during dessert, I blurted out an embarrassingly direct 'I love you.' He looked at me for a moment and I thought I might get a sarcastic joke in response. Instead, he touched my hand and replied, 'I love you too, James,'" Gray recounted.



 

"I was moved to tears. All of the humor and unsentimental toughness and darkness were part of him, yes. But it wasn't the whole picture and beneath it all was a tremendous wellspring of soul and sensitivity. Of course, it had to be — it's there, in the work. It was the man. William Friedkin was genuine, sui generis and vital. He was a giant," he added at the end of the beautifully articulated tribute.



 

Friedkin was known for his grimy thrillers and social dramas that occasionally courted controversy throughout his career. Some of his early and notable successes, which still hold to this date, are his films "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," which were released in 1971 and 1973, respectively. He also directed the highly controversial cult classic "Cruising," which starred Al Pacino. Friedkin will forever be remembered in the film industry as an iconoclast who was one of the revolutionary figures of New Hollywood, as reported by The New York Times.

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