Released in 1971, The French Connection is an action film based on Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction novel of the same name. With a slew of Academy Awards and inclusion in the American Film Institute’s list of best films, it’s considered to be one of the best American motion pictures ever made, setting the bar for similar films in the neo-noir genre. Let’s take a look behind the scenes into everything that went into making The French Connection.
There Were Real Detectives In The Film
The French Connection, an adaptation of Robin Moore’s book, follows the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso during one of the biggest narcotics busts in American history during the 1960s.
When making the film, director William Friedkin kept Egan and Grosso on set as technical advisors. Egan, the basis for “Popeye” Doyle, plays Doyle and Russo’s supervisor, Walt Simonson, and Grosso plays Clyde Klein, one of the two federal agents assigned to the case.
The Film Was Almost Turned Down By Every Studio
In early 1969, producer Philip D’Antoni set up The French Connection with National General Pictures, assuming that the deal was done. Unfortunately, the deal fell through after D’Antoni mentioned that the budget would be around $4.5 million. This resulted in the studio dropping the project and D’Antoni and Friedkin were back on the hunt.
According to Friedkin, “This film was turned down twice by literally every studio in town.” However, David Brown and Dick Zanuck of 20th Century Fox gave the film a chance. Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, Zanuck and Brown had been let go from the studio.
Gene Hackman Was Not The First Choice
When it came to casting the role of detective “Popeye” Doyle, D’Antoni and Brown were initially leaning toward Gene Hackman, after seeing him in films such as I Never Sang for My Father. However, director William Friedkin was not enthusiastic, stating “I instantly thought it was a bad idea.”
Furthermore, the film’s police advisors, such as Grosso, also didn’t believe that Hackman was the right match, and were more in favor of Rod Taylor who thought they looked the most like Popeye. However, realizing that they might lose the film without casting Hackman, they decided to take a chance on him, resulting in Hackman winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1972.
They Tried To Give The Film A Documentary Feel
Trying to stay true to the novel, Friedkin wanted the film to feel like a documentary crew was following two detectives working the streets of New York. To achieve this, the production team searched for the most authentic locations possible and rarely choreographed the film’s shots.
According to Friedkin, “In order to do that, from time to time, I would not rehearse the actors and the camera crew together […] I rehearsed them separately.” This made it so the camera operators didn’t know what would happen during a given scene and would have to follow the actors in real-time.
The Iconic Car Chase Was Done Without Permits
One of the most memorable scenes from the film is arguably the high-intensity car chase scene in which Popeye Doyle peruses Nicoli, Charnier’s chief enforcer. When writing the scene, D’Antoni made it clear that he wanted this chase to top the one in his previous film, Bullitt.
This resulted in them agreeing that the scene shouldn’t involve two cars, but a car and a train. To get permission to shoot the chase, Friedkin gave a New York transit official “$40,000 and a one way trip to Jamaica” because he knew he’d lose his job. The rest of the scene, however, shot without permission and permits with the help of off-duty police officers clearing the streets.
The Word “Poughkeepsie” Is Used In Real Interrogations
In keeping with the film’s documentary feel, much of the dialogue was improvised. Also, having technical police advisers Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso on set allowed for real police phrases to be squeezed into some scenes.
According to Friedkin and Grosso, Popeye’s famous line “Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” comes straight from Egan and Grosso’s actual police work. Supposedly, they would use the word “Poughkeepsie” as a tactic to confuse subjects during interrogations.
Hackman And Friedkin Didn’t Always Get Along
Considering that Friedkin didn’t want Hackman on the film in the first place, it’s unsurprising that they didn’t always get along. To get Hackman to act as Popeye Doyle the way Friedkin envisioned, he would pester him on a daily basis.
According to Friedkin, “I decided to make myself [Hackman’s] antagonist, and I had to light a fire under him every day.” On some occasions, the actor would get so fed up working with Friedkin that he’d walk off of the set for the day.
The Car Chase Almost Didn’t Happen
The car chase scene in The French Connection was shot over the course of five weeks and involved cars, trains, and a schedule that worked around New York rush hour. However, after filming, Friedkin didn’t think it was that exciting.
The next day, Friedkin got in the car with stunt driver Bill Hickman, mounting one camera in the passenger seat, and operated another from the back seat. Hickman proceeded to drive 26 blocks under the Stillwell Avenue L tracks at 90 miles an hour, proving that the footage would be exciting enough.
William Friedkin Still Doesn’t Understand The Ending
Another one of the film’s most iconic moments is the ending. Although the cops manage to catch almost everyone involved in the narcotics shipment, that isn’t enough for Doyle. He continues to pursue Charnier into an abandoned building and is so jumpy that he almost shoots Russo. He then proceeds to shoot at a dark figure only to discover that it was one of the two federal agents working with him on the case.
Still in pursuit, Doyle heads into the darkness when we hear one final shot. The title card claims that Doyle never shot Charnier, so who did he shoot? On the ending, Friedkin admits that he doesn’t exactly know what it means, either.
Gene Hackman Had A Hard Time Playing Popeye Doyle
Even though Hackman did an incredible job in his portrayal of Popeye Doyle, he admitted that it was difficult playing a cop who was so “insensitive.” Already playing a hard character, Hackman had even more issues with the numerous racial slurs his character would say.
Hackman commented that “I just had to kind of suck it up and do the dialogue.” Apparently, he would go out of his way to try and make the character redeemable and had to be reminded not to.
The Title Was Almost Changed
In post-production, when the film was nearly finished, Fox’s promotional department sent a memo claiming that they had the intention to change the title.
In the documentary The Poughkeepsie Shuffle, D’Antoni doesn’t explain why the studio changed their mind and decided to keep the name, but he did mention that other possible names for the movie were Doyle and Popeye. Luckily, they stayed with The French Connection.
Fernando Rey Was Cast Because Of An Accident
When casting for the film, Friedkin relied on Robert Weiner, who brought Roy Scheider, who was cast without even auditioning. When it came time to cast the villain Alain Charnier, Friedkin went to Weiner and said that he wanted the French actor from the film Belle de Jour, who he thought was Fernando Rey.
The French actor agreed to play the role; however, when Friedkin picked him up at the airport, he realized he was thinking of the wrong actor. The person he assumed was the correct actor was Francisco Rabal, although Rey turned out to be the perfect fit in the end.
William Friedkin Doesn’t Like The Book
Robin Moore’s book of the same title found its way into the hands of producer Philip D’Antoni, who had just finished his first feature film, Bullitt. D’Antoni then took the novel to William Friedkin, who was known for his work as a documentary director. After D’Antoni and Friedkin went to New York to meet Egan and Grosso, Friedkin saw some promise in making the film.
However, he went on to admit that he never finished reading the book. He commented, “I never read Robin Moore’s book […] I tried to. I don’t know how many pages I got through, not many. I couldn’t read it, I couldn’t follow it.”
There Was A Real Car Accident
During the car chase sequence, there is an accident that occurs at the intersection of Stillwell Ave. and 86th St. However, if the accident looks very realistic, it’s because it was completely real and unplanned. It involved a stunt driver and a regular New Yorker who was on his way to work.
Unaware that a car chase was being filmed in his neighborhood, he drove about like business as usual, until he was eventually hit. The producers later paid the bill for the repairs to his car.
Friedkin Participated In Real Busts
Before filming the day-to-day lives of two narcotics agents in New York City, Friedkin wanted to know what it was really like. So, he participated in frequent ride-alongs with Egan and Grosso.
According to Friedkin, “In fact, the scene where they come in, bust up a bar and grab all the stuff, I saw that three, four nights a week.” He would take situations that he saw in real life and include them in the movie to make the film as realistic as possible.
No Storyboards Were Used
Although using storyboards is a common practice for most filmmakers, it was not a strategy that was used when making The French Connection. Friedkin would wait until he got on location and would then work with his director of photography to see which would be the best way to shoot a scene.
Friedkin explained, “We work it out usually on a location scout well in advance, and then we go out and shoot it that way.”
They Didn’t Use Very Many Takes
Most of the shots in the film were done after just one or two takes, with a few of them being completed in three. There was also no dolly used during production, and tracking shots were done by putting a camera operator in a wheelchair.
Unfortunately, the production encountered a series of issues and went $300,000 past its $1.5 million budget. Friedkin once noted that “Today, you couldn’t make this film for less than 20 times what it cost,” and that most modern directors would have ended up using a lot of CGI.
Hackman Didn’t Use A Stunt Driver
During the car chase, Hackman did all of the driving himself, and the car wasn’t attached to any kind of safety equipment. It was just Gene Hackman behind the wheel, tearing through the streets of New York.
Friedkin made it clear that the car they were using for the chase could hit speeds around 90 miles per hour and that the train could only go 50 miles per hour, making the scene entirely feasible.
They Really Dressed Up As Santa Claus
The scene where Doyle and Russo chase down a dealer while Doyle is in a Santa Claus suit isn’t total fiction. It was a real tactic used by police advisers Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso after they realized they were being recognized as police officers far too quickly.
So, one Christmas, Egan had the idea to dress up as Santa Claus. When he saw a deal go down, he would start singing “Jingle Bells,” which signaled his partner to make the arrest.
Eddie Egan Had Some Legal Troubles
After working on the film, detective Eddie Egan made the decision to retire from the NYPD and pursue a career in Hollywood. However, the NYPD pressed charges against him, claiming minor errors in reporting and handling evidence. During Egan’s trial, director William Friedkin testified on his behalf.
Nevertheless, Egan was dismissed from the police department just hours before retiring, and his pension was taken away. Luckily for Egan, the decision was later appealed in court and reversed.