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Max von Sydow in "The Exorcist." WARNER BROS. 1973.

Director William Friedkin never actually intends to make provocative films. But take one look at the Oscar winner's illustrious 50-year career, and it becomes clear that his canon is full of titles that triggered visceral reactions in audiences.

In his illuminating and fascinating memoir, "The Friedkin Connection," the Chicago native known for bringing to the screen a vomiting, foul-mouthed 14-year-old girl who did very bad things with a crucifix rockets us through his roller-coaster career.

Max von Sydow in "The Exorcist." WARNER BROS. 1973.
Max von Sydow in "The Exorcist." WARNER BROS. 1973.

With great candor and insight, the 77-year-old writes as vividly and clearly as he directs movies. He immerses us in the intense process of making movies, ranging from 1973's "The Exorcist" to 2012's "Killer Joe," starring Matthew McConaughey in a film that was slapped with a kiss-of-death NC-17 rating and is based on a Tracy Letts play. He also reveals how "Citizen Kane" inspired him and why most of his films often have a documentary feel.

Speaking from New York before jetting off to the Bay Area for a May 4 appearance in San Jose at a screening of his underrated 1977 film "Sorcerer" for the Camera Cinema Club and then a May 8 speaking engagement in conjunction with the San Francisco International Film Festival, where he'll screen "To Live and Die in L.A.," Friedkin says it's never been his goal to rattle audiences.

"I don't set out to do that," the Oscar-winning director of 1971's "The French Connection," says. "I just try to set out to make films about things that interest me."

But stir things up he did.

When he brought author William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" to the screen, reports of people fainting in theaters made headlines. But Peter Blatty's best-seller -- inspired by a 1949 American case of a 14-year-old being possessed -- was never meant by its creators to be an outright horror film.

"We never intended it to be that," he said. "But I certainly recognize that that's how most people who have seen it perceive it. So what can I do? I mean I can't run around and say, 'By the way, it's not a horror film.'

"I've accepted that all over the world, the public perception is that it's a horror film. But that's not what the writer or I ever intended."

Unlike later Friedkin projects, no cuts were required to get "The Exorcist" its R rating.

"I was surprised," Friedkin recalls. "The studio did expect it to get an X rating then, as did I. But it was the first ratings board, and it was extremely liberal. Its goal was not to censor films but to inform parents what was in the content of the film, so parents could decide whether they wanted their children to see it or not."

Book jacket for "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir." (HarperCollins)
Book jacket for "The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir." (HarperCollins)

The ratings board has become more conservative since. His controversial 1980 thriller "Cruising" faced numerous cuts. The thriller starred Al Pacino as an undercover detective who embeds himself into New York's gay S&M scene to pinpoint a serial killer. It required many edits to avoid the dreaded X rating.

Friedkin wasn't surprised "Cruising" met with resistance, since he realized that what he shot wouldn't get past the ratings board.

That excised footage piqued the interest of actor James Franco, and it's the subject of his film "Interior. Leather Bar," which screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film speculates on what wound up on the cutting room floor. While developing the movie, Franco contacted Friedkin.

"I saw it," Friedkin says. "He sent it to me on my iPad. I don't get it.

"I don't know really what he had in mind with it. Perhaps he does. I did speak with him while he was working on it. He wanted to know what the missing footage from 'Cruising' was, and I said: 'I thought you were making a film about what the missing footage was.' And he sort of laughed on the phone and he said: 'Yeah, but I'm not sure what it was.'"

When it was released, "Cruising" was roundly slammed by gay rights groups who staged protests at screenings, saying it was homophobic. But like many of Friedkin's works -- including "Sorcerer," which will screen in a new digital print at this summer's Venice Film Festival -- it has led many to revisit and re-evaluate it. (The Venice Film Festival will also honor him with its lifetime achievement award.)

Friedkin says "Cruising" came out during a very uncertain time when there was more violence directed at gay people, a mysterious disease was starting to spread and the culture wasn't nearly as welcoming. "Sorcerer," on the other hand, came out close to the release date of a little film called "Star Wars," which took the world by stormtroopers.

"'Star Wars' completely changed what people think about a movie," Friedkin said. "And that's the template that's still followed today. It was a real game changer."

Blockbuster films don't particularly interest Friedkin much. Take "Iron Man 3," for example.

"I don't need to see 'Iron Man 3,''' he said. "I think it's mostly for much younger people -- who seem to enjoy it. I don't deny that it has a high entertainment quotient, but it isn't for me.

"I just don't want to sit around for over two hours watching a superhero fly in the air and rid the world of all the bad guys."

'THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION: A MEMOIR'

By William Friedkin
$29.99, HarperCollins