CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Two things lured Academy Award winner William Friedkin into directing the 200th episode of CSI: an enduring friendship with William Petersen, and a fascination with all things underground. Friedkin and Petersen worked together in the former CSI star's breakthrough film, To Live and Die in L.A., which Friedkin wrote and directed. The two Chicago-area natives also teamed on a Showtime adaptation of Twelve Angry Men and the December 2007 CSI episode "Cockroaches," which aired about a year before Petersen left the show.

Friedkin, who explored drug cartels in The French Connection (for which he won his Oscar), demonic possession in The Exorcist, and leather bars in Cruising, embraced this week's CSI in part because of its focus on Lucha Libre — a style of masked wrestling rarely depicted outside of the Jack Black send-up Nacho Libre. We talked to Friedkin about why he's so drawn to subcultures — and why some of the films he most enjoyed making weren't his most successful. Despite its airing against the final episode of ER, he can probably expect a massive audience for Thursday night's CSI (airing at 9 pm/ET, on CBS).

TVGuide.com: What was it like working on CSI again, with William Petersen gone?
William Friedkin: Laurence Fishburne's just a great actor. He's just fantastic. And the rest of the people were all the same, except for the guest stars, who were all basically professional wrestlers, with a few exceptions. They were all Lucha Libre wrestlers.

It's a fascinating underground world. I'd like to say that very little is known about it, but if you'll go on the Internet you'll see 2.5 million hits or more on various Lucha Libre sites. Large parts of it are underground in the Spanish-speaking world, throughout South America and other Latin American countries, and then in Mexico and up here it's sort of underground. But a lot of people are aware of it and it's huge in the Hispanic neighborhoods here in Los Angeles. I went to some of the bouts that are in underground arenas and you'll see whole families there on a Sunday evening. They're not watching television, they're not going out to dinner, they're watching Lucha Libre.

And then I was able to mix it in with ... sort of Cuban voodoo. And there's a Cuban video scene that's very authentic. Cuban voodoo and Lucha Libre are kind of the undercurrent of the show. You don't see it every day on television.

TVGuide.com: Do you find it constricting to work in TV?
Friedkin: No. CSI is a wonderful working environment. First of all, they get 10 days to shoot basically 43 minutes. That's a lot of time. They have 10 days of preparation. They constantly rework the script and they're constantly trying to do something that's as good as it can be. They have a great crew. A lot of the guys on the crew are people I've worked with for years. Many of the years I worked with going back to The Boys in the Band and The French Connection and The Exorcist.

And when I come in, I'm encouraged to make it my own for that period. So I don't pay that much attention to what they've done in the way that they've lit the set or the way that they've mixed the soundtrack. I have a lot of freedom within the confines of what the show is and who's on it. ... Have you seen this episode? It sounds different and looks different. It does not look like your average CSI.  

TVGuide.com: Since Petersen remains an executive producer, did he come in and watch the filming? Did he seem like he was itching to get back in front of the camera?
Friedkin: He came down for two or three days, yeah. We're very close friends. I'm just crazy about him. I sort of discovered him, and we've stayed very close over the years and I'm not at all surprised by his success. He's one of the hardest working actors I know and when you consider that he left [CSI] at the very top to go back to Chicago to do plays — you know, his dedication to his craft is, to me, unprecedented. I've met a lot of people who started in theater and say they're going to do that and then they never do because the money's so good. You know what the money is on a television series [after] nine years? I imagine he could've eked it out for several more years. They love him in that role.

I think he'll do a few [more episodes] as he said he would. I think if they can craft some special stories for him... I think Jorja [Fox] will as well. But it was really a pleasure to work with the other guys. I love working with Marg [Helgenberger] and Paul [Guilfoyle] and George [Eads], Eric [Szmanda]. Liz Vassey I think is underused on that show. I think she's wonderful. I'll tell you, I've been on feature films where the actors aren't as prepared as they are on that show.

TVGuide.com: I've read that your favorite of your films is 1977's Sorcerer. Do you find that the films you most enjoy directing are the ones audiences most appreciate?
Friedkin: Not totally. I mean, Sorcerer's one of the films where I think I came as close to achieving what I had in mind as possible. It's far from a perfect film or even a great film, but it was very difficult to do... But I love To Live and Die in L.A. and also Jade. Those are films that I feel still very close to. And it's hard to say why. It was probably the whole experience of doing it. That's what I measure success by: How close did I come in achieving what I set out to do and how much fun was it to do?

TVGuide.com: When audiences don't get one of your films, what do you attribute it to?
Friedkin: My fault. I always make films with the audience in mind. And sometimes you can catch the zeitgeist and sometimes you don't. And very often you never know. ... I know that George Lucas had no idea that Star Wars was not only going to capture the zeitgeist but define it. He left the country before it came out. He was worried about the reaction, and rightly so, because every studio but one had turned it down. Every studio but one turned down the French Connection.  I never knew that that was going to be a huge success and win Academy Awards. It never occurred to me during the making of it.

TVGuide.com: And you never just think the audience wasn't ready for something?
Friedkin: No, not at all. The audience knows what they're ready for. They know damn well what they're ready for and what they want. If you don't give them that, they vote at the box office. I'm not going to say I think they're always right, but mostly they are.