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Mount Rushmore, South Dakota - quotes

Quotations relating to Mount Rushmore and it's appearance in North by Northwest (1959)...

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)

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 the two week long research trip he made whilst writing the screenplay

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)
Lehman describes how he overcame his writer's block to finish the script

Due to the objection of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots ... We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy.

Hitchcock talking about the Mount Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest".

The main problem in the Mount Rushmore sequence was to make it believable that two people could climb down the face of Mount Rushmore — it couldn't be done, but we had to make it look believable. So, we went up to Mount Rushmore, climbed up the back and found that on the top of each one of the heads there was a huge iron ring, with a cable and bosun's chair... We then lowered down each face and photographed in every direction possible every 10 feet and those became the backgrounds.

Boyle describes the technical difficulties of the Mount Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest".

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.

Lehman describes how "North by Northwest" came about

The [Mount Rushmore] set was largely a very safe place, but once the man who was to catch me if anything happened looked away as I slipped and fell several feet, scraping my arm badly — an injury we used in the final film. I hung from a cliff that appeared to be miles high but was only a few yards from a scaffold below. Cary saved me from a ledge that appeared to drop straight down. Actually, it was on a 45-degree angle. I couldn't have fallen if I wanted to. It looks dangerous, but really it was just a lot of fun.