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Films in Review (1996) - An interview with Joseph Stefano




Joseph Stefano, producer of "The Outer Limits" and screenplay writer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," is interviewed. He discusses his involvement with "Psycho," his relationship with Hitchcock and other screenplays he's written.


You might think that the man who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and produced the legendary TV series The Outer Limits (1963-64) grew up watching one sci-fi horror film after another. Yet Joseph Stefano, like James Cagney, started as a song-and-dance man in South Philadelphia, nurtured on celluloid dreams of Astaire and Rogers, Gershwin and Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein. "I liked scary movies, too," he admits, "but I wasn't fond of pictures like The Cat and the Canary (1939) that added too much comedy. If you're going to scare me, scare me."

Born in 1922, Stefano performed in musical theater throughout his youth, and moved to New York to follow his dream. At the age of 24, he wrote the music, lyrics, and book and staged It's Your Move, an off-Broadway production, continued writing songs, and segued into writing for such early TV shows as Ted Mack's Amateur Hour. After watching an episode of a one-hour anthology drama, says Stefano, "I literally spoke the old cliche--I can do that]" He wrote a "spec" teleplay, The Black Orchid, which bypassed the small screen when it was instead turned into a successful 1959 movie starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.

While he's best known for Psycho and The Outer Limits, Stefano also wrote the underrated psychological thriller The Naked Edge (1961), as well as Eye of the Cat (1969 The Kindred (1987), Blackout (1989), Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), and his labor of love, the Al Pacino drama Two Bits (1995), a personal film based on Stefano's Cinema Paradiso memories of his South Philadelphia boyhood during the Depression.

We met Joseph Stefano when he and his charming wife Marilyn attended a screening of our independent feature Men Lie. The interview took place in their beautiful home Villa de Stefano (also the name of his production company), high atop a Beverly Hills canyon.

Films In Review: How did you get involved with Psycho?

Joseph Stefano: Ned Brown and Elliott Kastner were my agents at MCA. Elliott told me that Hitchcock had bought a book and he was looking for a write and Elliot and Ned had decided I should write the screenplay] Hitchcock said no, he was better off when he worked with writers he knew. He just kept saying no and they just kept saying yes. They even got Kay Brown, the famous agent who had discovered Gone With The Wind and Rebecca for Selznick, to go to work on him. Finally, Hitch agreed to meet with me. I had the feeling that nothing was going to come of it but it was sure going to be nice to meet with Alfred Hitchcock. They sent me the book and it was Psycho (by Robert Bloch). I was very disappointed because it wasn't my idea of a Hitchcock movie. It wasn't North by Northwest, or To Catch a Thief, or Vertigo. I didn't know what it was. It certainly wasn't a Hitchcock picture. I didn't like the character of Norman Bates. He wasn't anybody I'd want to spend a whole movie with. In the book he was a peeping Tom who wore thick glasses and drank a lot. It starts with him talking to his mother and we get the background of how she ruined his life, then this woman shows up at the motel, registers, he spies on her, and his mother kills her. So I drove to Paramount thinking, well, we can talk about Vertigo]

But the strangest thing happened on the way to the meeting. I got this thought, what if the movie was about this girl getting killed in the shower, about which the author had said very little. Perhaps murder was becoming too commonplace. It was almost as if we were talking about the facts of a murder rather than the victim. I felt the victim was getting lost. By the time I reached the studio, I had conceived the first 18 minutes of Psycho.

I went in, met Hitchcock, talked pleasantries a few minutes, and then asked him, "Why are you making this movie?" "Well," he said, "There's a company called American International and they're making very inexpensive films that go on to make tons of money for everybody. They're very cheap, but they're not very good--what would happen if we made a movie like that but did it well." What he was really saying was "What if Hitchcock made a low budget movie? Wouldn't it be a better movie?"

When he said he could make it for under a million dollars, my dreams of Grace Kelly and Technicolor went out the window] He asked me what I thought of the book and I told him I didn't like Norman Bates. I said I would do the film about an ordinary working girl having a love affair with a man who can't marry her cause he's deep in debt. They shack up in a hotel room on her lunch hour and that's pretty much what their relationship has come down to. I proceeded to describe what happens, how she gets the cash and makes the mistake of her life. She decides to steal it. I kept talking to Hitchcock about Marion Crane. There was no expression on his face, he was just listening, and finally, like 15 minutes late I said, "She's in the shower and this woman comes in and stabs he kills her. She's dead. And you've got this strange, lonely man who had tried to be nice to her, and after that we've got the audience."

He said, "That's interesting. If we do it that way we can get a star to play the part and then kill her. The audience would be shocked. They wouldn't even know if she was really dead." Because you never killed a star in those days, let alone halfway through the movie.

In the book the whole story of Norman killing his mother and becoming her is explained as supposition. I told Hitch I would bring in a scene with a psychiatrist explaining it scientifically. So that was the meeting. Ned Brown was with me and he went back inside to talk to Hitch, presumably about some other business. Ned came out and said "You got it."

FIR: How did that feel?

JS: It was really strange. I had already seen the movie in my head, and here I was going to meet with Hitchcock every day and see what he thought about, and spell it out with the man who was going to put it on film ultimately and get all his input into it. Unless you write a spec screenplay, this is how you ought to make a movie. You should be involved with the director from the word go. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I don't know if I've learned a hell of a lot more since what I learned from him.

I can never thank Hitchcock enough, because he was the most generous man. I would say, "I'd like to see Vertigo." He'd set it up, I'd go watch it in the screening room, come back to his office and we'd spend four or five hours talking about it. He never got bored, he never said, "You're annoying me." He loved it really. He'd tell me the things he liked about it and the mistakes he had made, why he'd made them. I don't know where you can get that kind of education in the film business no matter who it is, to be talking to a man whose work you know--I'd seen just about every movie he'd made.

FIR: What did you ask him about Vertigo?

JS: I asked why did he pick that particular moment to let the audience know that Jimmy Stewart's with the same girl. He said, "Because the movie was getting very boring. If I had tried to keep them in the dark much longer I would have lost the audience so at that point I decided to make the audience one of us and let them in on the joke."

FIR: How did you get along with him?

JS: He loved my ideas and I think he was kind of fascinated by me. I don't think he had met anybody like me who had come from South Philly, had been in musical theater, had been in analysis. It was a very different world from his and it interested him--and he didn't hesitate to ask me very personal questions]

FIR: How did the writing progress from there?

JS: After we had been talking about two weeks, Hitch and his wife Alma Reville were leaving on a trip for a week. He asked me if I'd write the first scene in the hotel room. It seemed strange to me because I hadn't intended to write until we had laid out the whole picture. When he came back, I gave him the scene, and he took it home. The next day he said to me, "Alma loved it."

FIR: They had a very close creative relationship.

JS: Hitchcock just couldn't say, "I loved it]" I mean, he was Hitch] Then his assistant Peggy Robertson said something nice about it and I knew I was in solid and had hit the tone of the movie. We then worked about three more weeks laying it out. I usually used a stenographer's notebook although I rarely took any notes. In all the weeks that I worked with him I only took about a page and a half of notes. The rest of it was in my head. I've always felt that if I couldn't remember something, it wasn't worth remembering. I wrote most of Psycho at home, at night.

FIR: People forget today, in the wake of so many imitations, how many taboos Psycho broke--the opening with the leading lady in a brassiere, killing her off so quickly, the shower scene, even showing a toilet for the first time in a Hollywood movie.

JS: We were making such demands on the picture. I remember wanting to show Marion ripping up the paper and flushing it down the toilet. Hitchcock asked me, "Why do you want to see all that?" I told him, "To begin to unglue the audience." It was unsettling, first because you'd never seen a toilet being flushed in a Hollywood movie and it also distracted you from thinking these may be the last moments of her life. You don't know what's going to happen to her. When she got in the shower I wanted you to think, "Great, we're getting to see a girl in the shower." I really don't think anybody knew someone was going to come in and kill her with a knife. It blew everybody's mind.

FIR: What was it like the first time you saw Psycho?

JS: Hitchcock wouldn't allow any advance screenings. Marilyn and I had about ten people here at the house, then we went to the theater. I bought the tickets, and saw people coming out with these amazing looks on their faces. It was like people had been waiting 30 years for this movie, that was the way they acted. Inside, the audience was yelling at Vera Miles, "Don't go up there]" I'd never heard that in a movie. I still meet people who tell me they won't take a shower because of that picture]

FIR: Was there anything cut from your script?

JS: Hitchcock shot the first draft. After they did the production boards he said it was two pages too long, and he had to cut a scene. We argued in a polite way about cutting a scene I liked very much. It was the only scene that could be cut because it was the only scene that didn't affect the story. It was purely a character scene between John Gavin and Vera Miles, a moment of grief when he realizes "my lover is dead," and she realizes "my sister is dead." As a writer, I felt I owed these characters that.

FIR: There was an innovative promotion for the picture with a great trailer hosted by Hitchcock himself.

JS: That trailer was written by James Allardice, who wrote the intros on The Alfred Hitchcock Show. It went back to how do we tell people to see this movie without telling them what it's about. Hitch was already a star from his TV show, he was in your living room every week, and he was very funny. His name was bigger than any movie star's.

FIR: Did you ever talk to him about writing other projects?

JS: In my agreement, we had one more picture to do. He was going to do The Birds (1963). I told him I didn't like the Daphne du Maurier short story on which it was based. He said maybe what he needed was a novelist because there was no story, just a notion, So he got Evan Hunter to write the script. Then Hitch called me and said Grace Kelly wanted to do another movie. He had a book called Marnie (by Winston Graham), and she liked it and I liked it. I started work on it. It was much more difficult psychologically than Psycho, in ways that I don't think Hitch understood. We were having a problem with whether the husband or the psychologist was the male star. That's the problem with the book. I did a treatment in a week and gave it to him. He loved it, the whole opening--he loved women stealing things] He then called me and told me Grace Kelly changed her mind. He was crushed and very angry. There were a lot of actresses I could think of off the top of my head who could play this fantastically. But he said, "I don't think so. Let's put it away and see what comes up later." By the time he was done with The Birds he had Tippi Hedren and had decided that she was going to be his new Grace Kelly and she would do Marnie (1964). By this time I was producing The Outer Limits and was not available. I'm not sure that he wasn't a little annoyed with me that I wasn't available for Marnie. He got Jay Presson Allen to write it, and her solution--which I didn't agree with--was to make the husband and the psychologist one character. I would have fought that to the death.

FIR: Some of Hitchcock's best movies had triangles--Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason in North by Northwest; Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains in Notorious.

JS: He loved that setup. He loved the strong nocturnally attractive man, the cool gorgeous woman, and the handsome smartass man. He talked about other movies that he wanted to make that had the same thing. Obviously, Jay Presson Allen felt strongly enough that she could convince Hitchcock to give up that setup.

FIR: The Hitchcock biographies talk about his demand for fierce loyalty.

JS: I don't know if it was that as much as an inability to stand frustration. I'd look at him and think, he's had his way as far back as I can remember, he's always done his own movies. He never got stuck in a studio deal he didn't want, he's been this wonderful stranger who graced our shores since Rebecca (1940), and after that it was his world, continually. I understood his feeling that "Now we're going to do Marnie and where's Joe? And he owes me this picture and he's already started work on it." But he had shelved it, so legally I was free to go on to other work. Unfortunately, it wasn't a situation where I was on another screenplay and I'd be gone a few weeks. It was a TV series. We had just gone into production and I was locked in for the first year. I felt bad because I liked Marnie and felt it would have been a wonderful movie to do. When I saw it, I didn't like what was done with that character, but I liked a lot of the strange weird things he did do in the picture.

I think some light went out in his ambition, in his fight. His films after Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie seemed to me like he was doing them because everybody wanted him to make a picture. Not like he wanted to make a movie He seemed to be missing the bite he had in Psycho and Marnie. As soon as you started doubting his wisdom his tendency was to kind of turn you off. He didn't say you had to agree with him but if you disagreed with him, please go in another room. That was kind of the way he lived his life. He really didn't listen to anyone except Alma and MCA president Lew Wasserman. Later on, Hitch had another story, something he'd read in England years before and I said, "Let's make it]" but we could never dovetail into it. I could never get him to do it. If Alma or Lew Wasserman had wanted him to make it he would have done it. Lew appeared at his office every day without fail for five minutes. He'd come in, I'd be sitting there, and they'd talk about stocks. Then Lew would say, "OK, fellas, have a nice day" and leave.

FIR: You followed Psycho with The Naked Edge (1961).

JS: It was based on a book called Last Train to Babylon. It was going to be a Gary Cooper movie to be shot in England, but the novel was totally American--Babylon was Babylon, Long Island. The story involved a bag of letters that gets stolen. Seven years later it's found and the letters are delivered. A woman (Deborah Kerr) gets a letter, a blackmail threat concerning her husband. But nothing had ever happened. This letter hadn't been received seven years ago, so what happened? That was the most interesting aspect of the movie to me, how the wife begins to build suspicion in her own mind simply because her husband can't answer certain questions and we don't know either.

Michael Anderson was the director. He was excellent, with a sure hand. I told him in an early meeting that I'd like to write the movie so it could be done with straight cuts.

FIR: That was unusual. Most movies were scene, fade out, scene, fade out.

JS: Michael loved the idea and it was shot that way. But Cooper was very ill and Michael said there was one point we couldn't make a move that would let the audience know that the action would take place in the next few seconds--it would have been too physically demanding for Coop. So we used a fast fade because it looked less like a film technique than a dissolve. It was an interesting experiment. Audiences weren't used to that, but soon everybody was doing it.

FIR: The Naked Edge was Cooper's last movie.

JS: He died right after the shoot. United Artists was concerned about selling it to audiences, so they marketed it as "From the man who wrote Psycho." I don't think that was necessarily good for the film.

FIR: Did Cooper have input into the script?

JS: No, but I met with him once at the Polo Lounge. It was really wonderful. I started to talk to him about his character, and Coop said, "Good, good, interesting. Just don't leave me alone on that screen." I'll never forget that line.

FIR: The original Outer Limits was a ground-breaking series.

JS: Leslie Stevens had the idea. He was an old friend of mine from New York days. He had a show on ABC called Stoney Burke, and they wanted him to do another series. He told them he had a science fiction anthology. They weren't hot about it but they were giving him his head. They asked him who he'd get for the show, and Leslie mentioned my name. I'd been meeting with Dan Melnick, then the head of programming, about doing a series.

Leslie had already written the pilot script and wanted me to produce it. My deal was to produce it, co-own it, and write four scripts. I felt the next thing I wanted to do was produce, not direct, so it seemed a wonderful career move The weird thing was I really didn't like science fiction. It interested me, but it never really arrested me. I felt that the science fiction I had seen, like The Next Voice You Hear (1950), never really scared me, so I felt The Outer Limits should be scary.

The pilot was "The Galaxy Being" with Cliff Robertson, the one where the creature comes out of the television set. I went to the cutting room, exerted my right as producer, and started re-assembling things to make it scarier, and Leslie said, "Do it." When we took the show to New York, the network guys were flabbergasted. They were sitting two rows ahead of the guy who had written Psycho and they immediately made the connection that it was going to be a scary show. It had a monster in it and that's what they wanted, a monster a week. I got to do Gothic kinds of stories, which I thought Psycho was. Things like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre struck a chord in me.

FIR: The show wasn't kiddie stuff.

JS: But the kids loved it. The mail started coming in, letters from ten-year-olds saying, "I like the show because the monsters are nice sometimes." Their mothers probably called them monsters at home so they were identifying with the monsters]

FIR: You had great casts--Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, Donald Pleasence, Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

JS: I wrote my four scripts during the wait to get into production, then we went into production and I realized I could suddenly say to the casting director, "See if Sidney Blackmer is available," these wonderful actors I had seen as a kid. Sometimes the report would come back that the actor had died, but usually they were around and they loved it. It was one week's work. I would send the script to people I didn't think would do an Outer Limits and they'd say, "I'll do it if I can play the monster." A lot of people started out on that show including Martin Sheen and writer Robert Towne.

FIR: Who were some of the directors on The Outer Limits?

JS: We had one of the most tragically underrated directors in the business, Gerd Oswald. I liked him so much that I arranged it so he would direct every episode that I wrote. I thought he was sensational. His work is the best of The Outer Limits. We also had Leonard Horn who did very good work, and Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds), who had started in the silent era.

It was a difficult show to do. We had six days to shoot it. We had continual budget problems because I was always looking for effects that were costing money, and constantly looking for ways to do them for less money. Directors who weren't hip to what we were doing, which you could tell the first day, tended not to be asked back.

I wound up writing 12 scripts instead of four because when you're producing a show and the script comes in and you're not happy with it, you do it yourself. I wrote most of my scripts at home on the weekends. Come Friday night I'd put paper in the typewriter, write "Fade in," and make it up as I went along. It was a glorious period creatively. I was in the cutting room until 2 a.m. We had the run of the entire MGM backlot. I would drive around the lot and come up with stories based on a particular building. We shot all the interiors at the KCTV studios on Sunset Boulevard.

I was in a creative frenzy where I had the most ideal situation. I could write what I wanted and I had a way of masking what I was really saying. I could say all the things I wanted to say through science fiction. For example, "The Invisibles" was about what, to me, was a real danger, an organization in this country called the CIA. This was in 1963. When I wrote that script the network was very disturbed but they didn't know why, and I wasn't about to say what was scaring them.

Personally, I consider The Outer Limits the centerpiece of my career, I really do. I consider it some of the best writing I've ever done.

FIR: Two Bits (1995) is an intensely personal film, based on your childhood in South Philadelphia going to the movies.

JS: I just lived for the movies. That's what Two Bits is about--going to the movies, in every sense, in every metaphor that you want to use.

FIR: When did you write it?

JS: I wrote a draft of Two Bits in the early 60's then I just got so far away from it. I wrote Eye of the Cat (1969), which was originally a script for The Outer Limits that I was not allowed to do, so I turned it into screenplay. Once in a while people would read Two Bits. It was so different from what I was known for, but I don't know, I just wasn't willing to make that movie. Finally, in the late 70's, I took it out one day and read it, and started rewriting it. I took out things that I considered excesses, things that I no longer needed to do as a writer, cut the script way down, and that script I felt should be made. But I didn't want to give up any authority, I wanted to be in control of it.

There was always a lot of action around the script--it became almost an underground script. But I only wanted to make it with someone who felt the same way about it as me. When I met Arthur Cohn — producer or the Oscar-winning The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Black and White in Color — I felt it was almost pre-destined.

The demands of the picture made it a very hard struggle. I had it in my contract that I had to agree on the director and stars. It had to be shot in the summer, it had to be shot in the East, preferably Philadelphia, where it was eventually filmed. It was hard to find the right director. A lot of big name directors loved it, but didn't want to make a "small" film. You had to start pre-production in March, but if you got a director the previous summer, you might lose him. So you had to get a director in December. We just kept missing it. Somebody would want to do it and then they'd be pulled off by an option they had with another company. We talked to Martin Ritt, John Schlesinger, a lot of directors. From the beginning we had the script and the money and you tend to think if you have that you've got it.

FIR: James Foley wound up directing.

JS: When Jamie's name came up, I didn't know him, but I had seen Glengarry Glen Ross. I kept wondering why I was so drawn to a movie about which I liked nothing. I didn't like the characters, I didn't like the story, I didn't like what the writer was saying. I'm not saying it badly written; it's the subject matter I don't like. I felt what Jamie had done was use the material to suck me into it. I saw his other films and was very impressed by him. He said words that will endear a director to any writer's heart: "I wouldn't change a word." Unless John Ford said that to you, you knew it would be a different movie]

FIR: How did Al Pacino get involved?

JS: I had always felt that Pacino should play Grandpa, regardless of his age or anything else. I thought he was one of the best actors I've ever seen. The script came to him through Jamie, who had just directed him in Glengarry, and through Anna Strasberg, Lee Strasberg's widow, who has a lot of input in what he does. Everybody started insisting to him that he should do this movie. He has some close advisers whose word he goes by and they all said do it.

I think Pacino is like a shark--if he can't act he can't breathe. That's a sensational thing for an actor because he's never going to stop growing. If you read the script, there's nothing to suggest Al Pacino. You might think Anthony Quinn, Brando even. But I'm happy and proud to say Pacino loved the script. He had the same reaction as Jamie--he didn't want to change anything. It wound up with my having to argue to make a couple of dialogue changes that I wanted.

FIR: Besides the financial rewards, have things gotten better for the screenwriter in Hollywood?

JS: The one thing that stands out to me after 35 years in Hollywood is the feeling among many producers that the writer must be controlled. I don't know if that's out of fear or disrespect. The mentality that decided in the old days that a writer had to come into the studio and write so many pages a day still operates in other ways. It's ironic, because it's all about the material.

The authors wish to thank Johnny "Cha Cha" Ciarcia for his help in arranging this interview.