For a first time director to attract the attention of an icon of cinema is a heady experience. So imagine the feelings of Jennifer Kent, the Australian director of the new low budget, independent horror film The Babadook, when she saw this tweet from none other than William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist himself:

Since that first tweet, Friedkin has made beating the drums for The Babadook something of a personal cause celebre, continuing to champion it online and introducing a midnight screening last weekend at LA’s Vista Theater.

We spoke with William Friedkin by phone to find out how this little film had captured his attention.

HITFIX: How did you discover The Babadook?

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: Well (British film critic) Mark Kermode, who is a friend of mine, wrote about it, gave it a very good review. So I tried to see it and I didn’t see that it was playing anywhere.  It turns out that it was playing only at the Cinefamily and which is a great venue but they don’t really advertise.  It’s a film society. But I also found out that it was streaming.  So I saw it on my iPad. That’s the only way I’ve seen this film on my iPad with headphones.

Were you immediately blown away by it?

Yeah. It just pulled me right in. I thought it was fantastic, a great piece of work, an emotional film that transcends genre.  And so I would see it again on the big screen and I plan to but I was so excited about it and I’m such a fan of good work wherever it comes from that I wrote about it. I don’t know Jennifer Kent. I don’t know anybody at IFC Midnight. I’m not involved in any way. I have no stake in the film.

You’ve been agitating on Twitter for them to get into more theaters.

Well, I just wrote one Tweet about that.  And I understand that there’s an ad in today’s paper where they are expanding theaters.  They’ve gotten more theatrical bookings. I don’t know why they didn’t initially. I found out from some friends in France that the film had played over there in July and created no stir. Now a lot of that is because the distributors don’t have any money to do anything.  And so they put it out on video on demand or streaming as well.  And that’s what happened here.  The only place I could see this film was on streaming, on iTunes.  I was shocked to see that.  

You compared it to Psycho, Alien and Diabolique.

I don’t compare it.  I simply say that it’s in a class with the best horror films I’ve ever seen.

Those are films were enormous successes financially, seen by millions over the years.  Why do you think a film like this now is relegated to this indie circuit?

Well, it’s not made by a major studio. The other films were. Even Diabolique was made by a very successful French distributor who distributed it in America. But they had wide release possibilities which I take it IFC Midnight does not.  But Alien was a release by 20th Century Fox that spent a lot of money to distribute it.  Psycho was distributed by Paramount which spent a lot of money to distribute that.  So they had wide releases and were therefore, because they were good, had the opportunity to become more financially successful.  But I certainly don’t believe that financial success is the only judgment on a film.  And it’s only in recent years that people have elevated a film like Psycho to the status of a classic.  When it came out in 1960 it was pretty much roundly denounced as a scary film but not of much value.  Because in those days the horror genre was really sort of a rock bottom, you know, fringe thing. And Hitchcock himself had never made a film as violent or terrifying as that. He’s the master of suspense but not violence, certainly not horror. Most of his films you’d have to say are not horror films, they’re suspense films and thrillers.

For the director of The Exorcist to say you’ve never seen a more terrifying film, those are powerful words.  What made it so terrifying for you?

Well it’s the film itself, you know. It’s like recently the book that I wrote. (The Friedkin Connection).  It was asked for by Harvard by the Houghton Library of Harvard which is, you know, one of the two most distinguished libraries in the United States.  And they asked for my book for the permanent collection.  They have the original works of John Keats and Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt.  And my wife asked the director why they chose my book and she said, ‘Because I read it.’  And that’s why I am so enamored of The Babadook. Because I saw it.  There are no categorical reasons.  I think there are only three reasons it seems to me why most people go to see a film.  And that’s for an emotional response, mainly which is to laugh, to cry or to be scared.  And this delivers on the third.  There are not a lot of films that frighten me. There are a lot of films that I’ve seen that I know intend to frighten me, but not a lot that do. And the horror genre has certainly not really been elevated over the years.

What do you think of the state of the horror genre these days?

Mostly repetitive, sort of copies of something else. All the exorcism films, all the vampire films, you know, there’s very little original stuff out there. There are a few. There was a great one a few years ago called Let the Right One In, which I thought was marvelous. I also really liked The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity 1. I thought these were very unique films that delivered. But I think that for the most part they’re not of that caliber. They’re mostly repetitive; imitators.

What made Babadook unique to you?

I just told you that: I saw it and it works. It delivers on what it’s supposed to. It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions.  And you have to be completely shut down I think not to be at least very moved by it in a terrifying sense.

Like The Exorcist, to which it nods, The Babadook uses a child actor to terrifying effect.  What  can you say about directing children in horror films?

In many ways, it’s no different than directing an adult.  What an actor is working from and what a director helps an actor to accomplish comes from sense memory which means, you know, every actor has had experiences in their life that have made them laugh or cry or be scared.  And you try as a director to tap into those memories, those sense memories that will allow an actor to perform one of those emotions.  So that’s how I worked with Linda Blair.  It’s also how I worked with Gene Hackman, to produce a different set of emotions.

Is there a need to protect them from the terror that you’re creating around them?

With Linda Blair for example, I made it all a game for her.  She never fully understood what she was doing, you know. A lot of the references were way out of her knowledge or experience. But she did have knowledge and experience of having been terrified or angry or happy. And I got to know her very well, as I try to get to know all the actors I work with including Matthew McConaughey and figure out what are their touchstones, their experiences that would allow them to be free enough to express these emotions. And that’s what this woman who directed The Babadook has done very successfully not only with the child but with all the actors.

How often do you get actually scared by a film?

I don’t know.  But there are very few.  I mentioned three. There are a handful of others, not many.  The horror genre, you know, is so imitated it produces few original works.  I believe that Psycho is an original work.  There have been a lot of things that have followed in its wake that don’t have the same punch.  The same is true of Alien.  Alien actually scared me.  Really disturbed me, you know, made me jump in the theatre.  I think I might even have been more terrified of The Babadook had I seen it in a theater with an audience, but I didn’t.

What is the best way to watch a scary movie?

With a live audience in a theater. Cinema is really a group experience. It has to be. It’s like a play.  A screenplay is a play and it’s meant to be shown in a theater with an audience.

Does the fact that movies these days, such as this one, that even don’t get much of a release can find followings and develop audiences on iTunes and Netflix give you hope?

I think there’s a factor there.  There’s certainly a factor.  I mean, I’m not a big fan of releasing a film in theaters as well as streaming or video on demand or anything like that.  Not first runs.  I’m very happy to see films that have played theatrically come out on a streaming service or obviously Blu-Ray but I don’t think it’s a good idea for first runs. But that’s what they did with The Babadook and I think but for the fact that a bunch of people like Stephen King have come out and praised it will help it achieve a decent theatrical release.

One scene has what seems a very specific nod to The Exorcist.  How did you enjoy that?

I know what you’re talking about but, you know, what can I say. I don’t know Ms. Kent or what was in her mind. I don’t know. I don’t know if she ever saw The Exorcist. I can’t say that.  It appears that that scene is similar but, you know, there’s very little that’s new under the sun and certainly if it was meant as some nod to The Exorcist, I have no problem with it.  I think that might be one of the very few possible flaws in the film. That moment reaches further out for the supernatural when it appears that this story is largely very realistic or realistic with believable characters that we could meet in our own lives today, and that the effects in it are largely part of a woman’s breakdown and not necessarily the supernatural.  It’s very much about, you know, this overburdened mother falling apart.

Before we let you go, can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I don’t want to announce anything but I will shortly.  I can only tell you a couple of things in development.  I’m developing a television series based on Killer Joe and developing another series based on To Live and Die in LA with MGM.  And so that’s being written by Bobby Moresco who wrote Crash and Mystic River. And the Killer Joe pilot’s being written by Neil LaBute, the playwright.  And I’m also writing and planning to direct a film about three years in the life of Mae West. With Bette Midler playing Mae West, in the years 1926 through 29.  I’m writing the script and trying to direct it for HBO

Richard Rushfield is Editor in Chief of Hitfix (@richardrushfield)

Richard Rushfield is Editor in Chief of Hitfix