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Ernest Lehman - quotes

Quotations relating to Ernest Lehman...

Film Pre-Production

Well, I went to [Hitchcock's] house every day for about three weeks, and I realized that every time I brought up the subject of Mary Deare, he would change the subject. So, I began to suspect that he didn't know any more about how to do the picture than I did. Finally, I went to his house one morning and said, "I've got bad news for you, Hitch. You'll have to get another writer. I don't know how to write this picture." And he said, "Don't be silly, Ernie. We'll do something else." And I said, "But what'll we tell MGM?" And he said, "We won't tell them a thing." And that's how it evolved.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you'd gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera's dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there's a completed car, all built, and it's driven off the assembly line, and there's a dead body in the backseat ... It was intriguing, but it had no place in the picture.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes some of the ideas Hitchcock came up with for the "North by Northwest"...

Then Hitch told me another [idea for the screenplay]: there's a speech being made at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the speaker suddenly stops. He's irritated, and he says he's not going to continue until the delegate from Brazil wakes up. So a UN page goes over to the man, taps him on the shoulder, and the delegate falls over dead. But he'd been doodling — and that's the only clue to the murder — and his doodling is a sketch of the antlers of moose. So I said, "Well, that's intriguing — now we've got the United Nations, and Detroit, and what might seem like a reference to northern Canada." And Hitch said that he'd always wanted to do a scene at Lake Louise where a family is having a reunion — a get-together — and a twelve-year-old girl takes a gun out of a baby carriage and shoots someone. I realize that all these ideas sound very peculiar and unrelated, but I took them all down and thought about them.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

Just like he'd said, "I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory," [Hitchcock] said, "I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore." And I thought, "Hey, I really like that idea." And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, "Who's chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?" and "How do they get there?" and "Why?" And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie. There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves — and wondering how long the charade would go on.

The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn't know how to write the script. I'd never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out — or, at least, the first sixty-five pages — and then Hitch went off to make "Vertigo". So I'd sit there in my lonely office, and many times I'd go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged. And several times I tried to quit while he was away, but my agent wouldn't let me, saying, "You've already quit 'The Wreck of the Mary Deare', you can't quit this one too." So I was kind of trapped into doing it.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes the two week long research trip he made whilst writing the screenplay...

Well, even though I'd traveled on the 20th Century when I was a New Yorker — and I certainly knew Grand Central Station and all that — I decided to take a trip on the 20th Century Limited just in case something useful stuck in my mind. So, I got off at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, went to the Ambassador East Hotel, and checked things out. Then, I took the bullet train to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and started climbing Mount Rushmore. I wanted to climb to the top and see what was up there. But it was an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Halfway up, I looked down and thought, "God, I'm just a screenwriter. What the hell am I doing up here? One slip and I'm dead!" So, I gave the Polaroid camera to the forest ranger, and I told him to go up to the top and take photos of everything.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes how he overcame his writer's block to finish the script...

So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I'm sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they're all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn't like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, "God, what'll they say about me upstairs?" and Hitch would say, "Don't worry, I'll tell them it's all my fault. I'll tell them I should've been able to help you, but I couldn't — or something like that."

Then we went to his office — it was about six o'clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him." So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That's the way it works sometimes: you've got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I'd completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him," he didn't miss a beat and responded, "Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren't in the Underground." And I said, "Yes, but these are fake bullets. That'll convince Vandamm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she's a fugitive, he'll decide to take her on the plane." And, instantly, I had the whole last act.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

One day, Hitch said to me, "I've always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere — where there's absolutely nothing. You're out in the open, and there's nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there's nothing there but this one man standing all alone — because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot." Then Hitch continued, "Suddenly, a tornado comes along and..." "But Hitch," I interrupted, "how do the villains create a tornado?" and he had no idea. So I wondered, "What if a plane comes out of the sky?" And he liked it immediately, and he said, "Yes, it's a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby." So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that's how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It's strange, isn't it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes how "North by Northwest" came about...

I walked in one day and said: "I give up. You've got to get yourself a new writer. I don't know how to do this picture." He said, "Don't be silly. We get along so well together. We'll just do something else." I said, "Well, what do we tell MGM?" He said, "We won't tell them."

One day Hitch said to me: "I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore." I said, "I like that", and I made some little notes on that. And then one day Hitch said: "I always wanted to do a scene where somebody is addressing the United Nations and says: 'I refuse to continue until the delegate from Peru wakes up.'" So an usher goes over and taps the delegate from Peru and he falls over. He's dead. And I sat in my office trying to construct a story which began at the United Nations and that was the genesis. I said, "I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit sophistication glamour action and lots of changes of locale." That's when I started writing.

I created the first 65 pages of the screenplay sent them off to Hitch and I have a beautiful four-page handwritten letter from Hitchcock which is in my scrapbook telling me how much he liked the first 65 pages. That's priceless. So he went to the powers that be at MGM and spun about 20 percent of a movie, because that's about all we had. He looked at his watch and said: "Well, gentlemen, I have a meeting now, and I'll see you at the preview." They were thrilled. They felt they were gonna get two Hitchcock pictures instead of one. It was typical of him.

I had absolutely nothing for the final act of the picture. I found myself in the second week of not having written a single page. I said, "Hitch, we're in trouble". He said, "I'll be right down". I didn't know why we were in Mt. Rushmore, and I told him my dilemma. I suddenly heard myself saying: "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him." Where did that come from? The right brain. The right brain keeps working all the time.

After the success of ''Frenzy'', my father decided to do an adaptation of ''The Rainbird Pattern'', a book by British novelist Victor Canning. The story of the book was very different from the film. It was set in the English countryside, not on the West Coast. And Madame Blanche had real psychic powers. But most importantly, the overall tone of the book was very dark. The film was carefully designed and prepared, and Ernest Lehman, who had worked on ''North by Northwest'', was brought in. Everything was important in a Hitchcock picture. He paid attention to all the details. That's why he liked to work with the same people on his films.

Film Production

I'd be standing on Madison Avenue watching Hitch shoot the opening scene of the picture and a movie critic named Hollis Alpert came along. He said, "Ernie, what are you doing here watching Alfred Hitchcock shoot his picture?" I said, "He isn't shooting his picture. He's shooting my picture."

Hitch took me to dinner and he suddenly got very serious. He said, "Ernie, you know, we're not making a movie. We're constructing an organ the kind of organ that you see in a theater. And we press this chord and now the audience laughs. And we press that chord, and they gasp. And we press these notes, and they chuckle." He said, "Someday we won't have to make the movie. We'll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theater."

Hitch shut down the picture for a whole day because he couldn't figure out something I had written for which there was no explanation. There's a raking shot in the LaSalle Street Station of phone booths. In one of them is Leonard and the camera slowly dollies over to another phone booth and there's Eve on the other phone and he's obviously giving her instructions. It suddenly dawned on him "how did he know the telephone number?" "Where's Ernie?" "In Europe." And he shut down until somehow he came up with an answer that satisfied him and he continued shooting.

Lehman describing the crop duster scene...

Nothing happens for almost eight minutes and it still holds your attention.

Lehman describing the crop duster scene...

Cary Grant rushes into the cornfield and ducks down on the ground and the plane loosens this poisonous crop-dusting powder all over him and he's gasping for breath and he rushes towards a car which is coming from afar and the camera follows him as he goes toward the car and he waves and the car refuses to stop. The next day, Hitch discovered that Peggy Robertson his script supervisor had forgotten to make sure that Cary was covered with crop dust in the shot where he runs across the field toward the car. And she burst into tears. She was hysterical. Hitch had to shoot the whole scene over again.