William Blatty: Plainly speaking, I liked that script [first draft]. Billy Friedkin didn't. He objected to its cinematic trickery, its flashbacks, and the opening montage. He felt that in a film which depended on whether or not the audience believes that the bed really is levitating, only disaster could result from drawing attention to cinematic techniques and mechanics. I cautiously agreed. But I must say I was altogether unprepared for Billy's major criticism of my screenplay: "It isn't faithful enough to the novel."
Billy was serious. In fact, he was so fixated on the novel that when in my first-draft screenplay I changed Regan's sculpture from the bird it had been in the novel to a bear, Billy shrieked and demanded we go back to the bird. I asked him why, and he answered simply: "It's in the book." The unarguable problem, of course, was length, for a timing of the script disclosed that it would make at least a four-hour film. So, we set to work on trimming the script.
Billy wanted the sequences of events to be exactly as they were in the novel, and he tried to ensure this by refusing to work from my first-draft screenplay. Instead, he worked from his note-laden copy of the novel. Even where the changes I'd made in the dialogue were only slight, Billy would cringe and ask that I keep the dialogue exactly as it had been in the book. The first major casualty of the rewrite was the Karl and Elvira subplot which threw suspicion on Karl.
Out, too, went the lesser red herrings that pointed to Karras, and even to Sharon, as being somehow involved in the desecrations or in Dennings's death. Our reasoning was that by the time the film had been playing for a month, almost everyone in the audience would know from the outset that the butler didn't do it. Thus these subplots would not only add nothing to the forward movement of the plot but would doubtless frustrate and even antagonize an audience that would be approximately eighteen miles ahead of us.
Although I particularly hated to lose Karras as a suspect, along with such concomitant intriguing touches as the desecrator's fluent knowledge of Latin, I agreed with the necessity of the excisions. But it hurt. Another victim of the rewrite was the extent of Kinderman's role in the original plot. For if the audience knew from the outset that Regan was the killer, the police investigation would be devoid of both mystery and suspense. The character of Kinderman presented yet another problem; namely, a television series called "Columbo."
As any plagiarist would know, the novel was written long before Columbo debuted on TV. But the audience, we figured, would not be aware of this and would think that I'd copied my character from Columbo. Some of the other scenes we cut, I didn't miss. For example, the first-draft depiction of Karras actually functioning as a psychiatrist, as opposed to his merely being described as one. We compensated for this loss with the very brief scene in which Karras is seen deep in conversation with a troubled-looking priest.
We also dropped the scene in which reference is made to a spectroanalysis of the paint on Regan's sculpture. While filming at the Georgetown location, we replaced it with the brief scene in which Kinderman finds a large fragment of sculpted clay at the bottom of the treacherous steps beside the MacNeil house. Other less than monumental deletions included some lighter moments between Sharon and Chris; and a setup for the "help me" sequence, Chris's mention of an L and an M rising up on Regan's skin while she was under observation in the Barringer Clinic.
These trims, as I say, were very minor in terms of the film's impact. But the loss of other elements, whether in the script, on the set, or in the editing, still causes me to bleed varying quantities of blood. Some of these deletions and compressions - and our reasons for cutting them - are as follows, in an inverse order of importance:
1. The fuller exposition of Karras's crisis of faith in the scene where Dyer comforts him after his mother's death. Here, the problem was pace, as it was in the next point.
2. More fully developed interview/investigation scenes between Karras and the demon. Although these scenes contained very little action, I thought them suspenseful within the context of the supernatural detective story. These scenes provided verbal clues to the answer in terms of Regan's heightened intelligence, her language, and her pattern of association of ideas. And within these expanded scenes, the demon manifested - what shall we call it - personality?
In short, the demon was given an opportunity to be more complex, to be more than merely vulgar. But Billy and I finally agreed that preliminary encounters with the demon should be kept to a minimum, thus ensuring a greater impact for the exorcism scene. And, of course, the need to cut a good seventy pages from somewhere in the script was very persuasive.
3. A more gradual revelation of the onset of Regan's disorder. Here the cuts were made in the editing room rather than in the script. By the time I'd reworked the script it was down to 133 pages. After two hours, people get restless; their concentration falls apart. And so Billy eliminated most of the "gradual onset" scenes. Anyway, quite frankly, they were boring, and again we reasoned that the audience, knowing up front that Regan was possessed rather than physiologically or psychologically ill, would be thinking, "Let's get on with it."
4. The "beginning of a beautiful friendship" tag line between Kinderman and Dyer. By reprising Kinderman's playful discussion with Karras, I intended to suggest that Karras lived on through Dyer. I believed this suggestion of "carrying on" would provide a lift which the audience would need at that point. This scene was not a victim of the "two-hour" mandate, but was cut in the editing room by the unanimous vote of everyone (but me) who felt that the tag somehow took the ending past its station.
5. The demon's devasting psychological attacks on everyone in the household. These were implied by Merrin but never delivered in the final script. Billy felt that the exorcism scene should focus exclusively on the demon versus the two priests, and that therefore no one else should be present in the room.
So the demon's attacks on Chris for her divorce and for putting her career ahead of her child's welfare, and on Sharon for her sexual fantasies concerning Karras, and on Karl by disclosing the secret of his daughter's drug addiction, are all missing. And although Merrin is in the room, he is no longer subjected to the demon's attack on his fear of committing the sin of pride.
6. The clear understanding that the demon in Regan is the same one that Merrin had met - and bested - in a previous exorcism in Africa. The African exorcism reference remains in the film. But gone is the demon's crucial line to Merrin: "This time, you're going to lose." In the final draft, it was the first line uttered by the demon as Merrin entered the room for the exorcism. This, plus other hints, created an aura of vendetta, and further indicated that Regan's possession is a setup; that the target all along is Merrin - at least, as the demon has construed it.
Though another way of construing it - and my own - would be that Karras was the target and that the demon himself was being used as the crucible of Karras's salvation. This added an extra dimension to the exorcism, an underpinning that clarified the prologue in northern is reciting the Lord's Prayer. With respect to dramatic tension, he was right. I should have found another place to insert the line. I didn't. No excuse.
7. The scene in which Merrin and Karras converse in the hall. Here we had an explicit articulation of the theme that gave the film clarity and a definite moral weight: clarity because it focused the story on Karras and his problem of faith; and moral weight because it put the obscene and repellent elements of the film into the context of evil's primary attack on mankind: namely, the inducement of despair. Moreover, without it, we lost the observation that once a demon leaves a host's body, it never returns to it.
So after Karras has offered himself to the demon in place of Regan, his only remaining problem is how to prevent the demon from using his (Karras's) body to murder Regan and possibly others in the household. As the demon (in Karras) moves to Regan to strangle her, Karras opts to take the demon out of the window. And with Karras's death, we know that the demon cannot reenter Regan. Thus Karras's victory is complete. And we are allowed to feel glad; in fact, uplifted. The revised (and final) screen-play retained the bare bones of the hallway scene.
Billy Friedkin had no objection to the religious content of the story. Far from it. His opposition on show-stopper grounds was not an unreasonable one. And both in the script and on the set Billy did retain other touches of "message," as in the scene I wrote between Dyer and Chris at the end of the film in which Dyer starts her thinking about God as the only explanation of goodness in the world and also when Chris cries over Karras's medal and Dyer comforts her with "For him, it's the beginning."
In this ending in the script, Chris decides she will keep the medal, thus betokening medal because it simply didn't work, which nobody noticed until we were editing. And inasmuch as the scene had been shot in Georgetown, it wasn't practical to revise and redo it, for the Georgetown City Council had given us fits about permission to shoot in the first place. Even if permisson were given, it would have taken us weeks to get it. So the medal exchange was dropped.
In still another instance, on the night before filming a scene Billy called me to his hotel room. There I found with him, Ellen Burstyn (Chris), Lee J. Cobb (Kinderman), and Father William O'Malley, S.J., who played the part of Father Dyer. Billy had been rehearsing the scene with them, as was his custom the night before shooting. And he told me that the "good in the world" scene wasn't working; would I please listen and give him my opinion. The cast ran through the scene, coming apart at the place where Chris says "the devil keeps doing commercials."
There wasn't a doubt that the scene did not work. And in my opinion, no remedy was possible. For the problem, I was convinced, was Ellen Burstyn's powerful subconscious block on the subject of Satan's existence. She'd objected to the line some weeks before in New York, and I'd already rewritten it for her several times. So we scrapped the scene.
Billy also came up with the recently discovered arteriography technique for probing the brain, which turned into a very powerful scene in the film. And it was Billy's suggestion that we use Karras's visit to his mother, as in the novel. He understood this scene very well. Another moment that I think works beautifully is Karras's dream of his mother, which Billy at a very late date suggested we restore from the novel.
One final note. During the filming of the prologue on location in northern Iraq, by the ruins of Nineveh (which I did not attend), Billy Friedkin added a touch that has become comparable to the great "slab" controversy in 2001. This is Merrin's discovery of a Christian holy medal in the dig at the exact spot where an amulet of the demon Pazuzu will be found a moment after. The medal - or one just like it - is later worn by Karras's mother. And at the end of the film it is Karras who is wearing it. How did the medal get from northern Iraq to Damien Karras's neck?
Many people have asked me that question - and many critics have written about it in their reviews. Some have speculated that the finding of the medal beside the amulet is one of several symbolic foreshadowings of the coming conflict between Merrin and the demon, between good and evil. In fact, Billy's primary conscious reason for putting the medal there was simply to "add resonances" to the film. It certainly accomplished that objective.
But a much better question for reviewers to have asked is how a contemporary Christian medal got into an archaeological ruin from pre-Christian Nineveh in the first place. I also commend to their consideration the following: How could Merrin, a crack archaeologist, a character modeled on Teilhard de Chardin, fail to recognize a medal of St. Joseph when he sees it? I somehow doubt that we'll ever get an answer to this puzzle.
To read Blatty's complete description in much more detail, click here.