Timing is everything. You can spend years toiling away on a film production, perfecting the casting, the shoot, and the grinding edit. You prepare to release the film, then realize that it’s opening in theaters one month after a cultural phenom known as Star Wars.
That’s what happened to poor William Friedkin when he attempted to release his South American thriller Sorcerer in June 1977. At the time, no filmmaker was hotter. Friedkin was coming off of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). He assembled a team around Roy Scheider to play outcasts hired to transport a load of unstable dynamite through the jungles of South America in beaten-up old trucks. Sorcerer had some obstacles to overcome during production, but none were anywhere near as massive as the 800-pound gorilla that was Star Wars, plopping down in theaters and changing the landscape for the types of films audiences now wanted to see.
In a conversation with Vanity Fair, as Sorcerer prepares for a limited-theater re-release and Blu-ray distribution, William Friedkin explained how George Lucas’ Star Wars instantly changed the game for the entire industry:
That film changed the zeitgeist. I’d say 80 percent of American films today are all offshoots of Star Wars. If Star Wars had failed, you would not have the kind of films that are popular today. Hollywood has given over completely to the comic-book and video-game heroes, and rightly so because they are successful, the audience wants them. But that hunger, that desire, was tapped by Star Wars."
What I didn’t realize is that William Friedkin actually had the opportunity to back Star Wars during pre-production, and totally passed because he didn’t see the potential in George Lucas’ vision. The way Friedkin tells it, they were offered Star Wars after virtually every major studio passed on it. He says:
Francis [Coppola] brought us the script of Star Wars and Peter [Bogdanovich] and I looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is this? Who’s going to direct this?’ And he said, ‘George [Lucas].’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I couldn’t believe George could pull it off, and I was wrong."
So much name-dropping in that humble admittance. And now, we’re left to wonder at how different Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope might have been if George Lucas had to take script and production notes from geniuses like William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich.
Sorcerer is making its way back to limited theaters, and is available on a remastered Blu-ray disc starting today. Catch the trailer below. It’s a fantastic thriller.