Alfred Hitchcock at the AFI Seminar roundtable (18/Aug/1972)
Alfred Hitchock was interviewed at the AFI's Center for Advanced Film Studies' University Advisory Committee Seminar on August 18, 1972.
In "Sabotage", when somebody suddenly kills Oscar Homolka, there's a film about a bird called "Who Killed Cock Robin?" being shown. In "Psycho", Tony Perkins stuffs birds and also his mother, and in "The Birds", in the crosscut shot of the mother grabbing at the son and also the girlfriend grabbing at the son, he's surrounded by all these birds. I'm wondering if there is a connection you make between birds and women.
- I don't know. I think women are referred to as chicks, aren't they? That's the only connection I can think of at the moment. In "Who Killed Cock Robin?" you see, they ran a small movie house and Sylvia Sidney's little brother had been killed, so it seemed necessary to comment on it by using the cinema. The Disney cartoon "Who Killed Cock Robin?" seemed to lend itself to that association. It's a personal thing with me to utilize the setting and the circumstances, and relate them to the situation.
Could you elaborate on how you use the setting and the circumstance in this way?
- It really is a matter of utilizing your material to the fullest dramatic extent. For example, in "Rear Window", James Stewart is a photographer, so naturally he fends off his attacker with the use of photographic material, such as a flashgun. That's only because it is indigenous to him. As far as I possibly can, I always insist on using those elements that belong to the character and involve them in the actions of the story. In "North by Northwest", Cary Grant is trapped in an auction room. He can't get out except one way, and that is bidding, crazy bidding, and he gets himself thrown out. But the essential point is that he is in an auction room and you must use the auction room. Now, in that same film there was a final sequence on the faces at Mount Rushmore. Due to the objections of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures over the faces. We were told very definitely that you could only have the figures slide down between the heads. They said this is the shrine of democracy. What I wanted to do, and was prevented from doing, was to have Cary Grant slide down Lincoln's nose and hide in the nostril. Then I wanted Cary Grant to have a sneezing fit. That is a typical example of utilizing your material to the fullest. This is a personal thing with me. As often as I can I incorporate, down to the last detail, the elements of the scene into the film.
This reminds me a little of the opening of "I Confess". In order to get to the window, where we see the murdered man, you have all the street signs. Do you also do this kind of thing with geography?
- Yes, any use you can put it to. What we were doing in that opening was using the street signs which said, "Direction, direction." They point and point, and it was a way of leading the audience right to the dead body.
In "The Man Who Knew Too Much" you open in the back of the bus. Could you describe what you were doing in terms of the audience?
- I think that was the introduction of the character. There are moments where you have to use a certain amount of footage to introduce the character. In that particular case you don't just introduce them by small talk. You have a little boy wondering and accidentally pulling the veil off. You need some piece of action that would be interesting to look at rather than just "This is John Smith, this is his wife and this is his son." In other words, it's like all exposition — it's a pill that has to be sugarcoated. You are telling the audience something, giving them some piece of information, but it must appear to be something else.
You indicated in the Truffaut book that if you don't give the audience the who, what, where and when — the journalistic musts — that it interferes with the suspense and the emotional process. They will intellectually be trying to figure it out anyway.
- Let's say that you set up a suspense scene and you happen to have two characters who look the same. You're going to have the audience say, "Which man is that? No, it's the other man." You are going to distract them from their emotions. Keeping their mind on one thing involves many things, such as clarification, locale, who is who, making sure the characters are not wearing the same suit. There are many elements that you have to clarify so that you leave room only for the emotions.
You open quite a few of your films with an exterior shot that cuts in closer and closer to a window. Examples of this would be "Shadow of a Doubt", "Psycho" and "I Confess". I wonder what you think of when you use that opening every once in a while.
- I think the main value of it is that you orient your audience to the locale. If you open on a window then you've got the audience wondering. In my particular genre of work there is a great confusion between the words mystery and suspense — the two things are miles apart. Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunit, while suspense is essentially an emotional process. You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information. I dare say you have seen many films which have mysterious goings-on. You don't know what is going on, why the man is doing this or that. You are about a third of the way through the film before you realize what it is all about. To me that is completely wasted footage because there is no emotion to it.
So on your own terms have you never made a mystery?
- No, and I have made only one whodunit, and that was many years ago. Before the five-second revelation at the end of a whodunit there is no emotion from the audience. When you are reading a book you are terribly tempted to turn to the last page all the time, but that is merely an emotion of curiosity. The mystery form has no particular appeal to me because it is merely a fact of mystifying an audience, which I don't think is enough.
I was thinking of "Under Capricorn". At the end it is revealed that Margaret Leighton has been fostering Lady Henrietta's alcoholism all along. We learn things we didn't know before. It's almost as if we have been watching a mystery, but we didn't know it was a mystery.
- Well, you can apply that to "Psycho" as well. There you have a revelation at the end, but that is merely a momentary thing. It doesn't alter the fact that you've been through a lot of suspense wondering when the figure is going to strike.
Are there different kinds of suspense?
- Yes. Anxiety, the simplest form of suspense, is being in the taxi on the way to the airport. Will you make it in time? But if you are in a taxi and the police car is chasing you, that is a fear. So the circumstances will change the nature of the suspense.
Could you elaborate on the idea of giving the audience information in a suspense film?
- Let's take a very simple, childish example. Four people are sitting around a table, talking about baseball. Five minutes of it, very dull. Suddenly a bomb goes off, blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene. Tell the audience there is a bomb under the table and it will go off in five minutes. Well, the emotion of the audience is very different. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital because the audience is saying: "Don't be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball, there's a bomb under there." You've got the audience working. You can't expect the audience to go into any kind of emotion without giving them some information. In Sabotage I was guilty of making an error, but I've never made it since — the bomb doesn't go off. If you do this, then you've worked that audience into a state and they will be angry if you don't provide them with some relief. Naturally there's a limit. If you stretch it out too long, they start to giggle. They'll relieve the tension themselves. They'll do it for you if you don't do it for them.
Chaplin always said you show the banana peel first, and then you cut to the man approaching it.
- Well, in that case, I think you are quite right. If it's the man wearing the top hat who is walking toward the manhole, the nicest shot you could do would be to put the camera on the ground, have the manhole in the foreground, and see the man approaching the hole wearing the top hat. The next cut ought to be the head and shoulders of the man. You dolly with him and he drops out of the picture. You don't have to go back to the manhole anymore. He walks along and suddenly whoomp, he goes! To complete this, if you want satisfaction, you should now cut down to the manhole. He is lying there bleeding, the blood is pouring from his head. A policeman looks down and calls an ambulance. He's lifted up and taken to the hospital. The wife is brought to the bedside, and they say, "I'm afraid there is no hope." There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.
How do you translate the emotion of fear to the screen?
- There are many ways of doing it. When I gave the example of the bomb, I was specifically talking about suspense, not so much fear itself. Fear comes after suspense. In other words, the main constituent of suspense is fear. For example, people will go to a fairground and pay money to go into the haunted house because they want to scare themselves. A mother, when she holds a three-month-old baby in her arms, says "Boo!" — though why I really don't know. When the child grows up and goes on the swing it gives itself a different kind of fear. And then later on he has money to go on the roller coaster and pays to be scared, providing, as I explained, the relief — providing they can get off or come out of the haunted house giggling.
You say that you must have that as part of your picture?
- If you have the suspense, if you create the fear, you've got to relieve it. In other words, in a picture like "Psycho", you need a climax after a lot of suspense and fear. Anthony Perkins comes in dressed as a woman with the knife and you have to stop it there. Let's assume you didn't and he came and he stabbed the next girl to death. Where do you stop? You've got to let the people out sometime.
In a scene that is not classically suspenseful but where you must have a certain amount of information and exposition, what do you look for to make that scene play?
- Well, the exposition should be dealt with before you start, and set to one side of the picture.
In "North by Northwest" there is a scene in the FBI building. It is the first time we see Leo G. Carroll, where you let us on to the fact that George Kaplan doesn't exist and Roger Thornhill is substituting for him. It's a scene of pure exposition that sets up the audience for a good solid hour before any further exposition is required. How do you feel about shooting scenes like that?
- Well, these scenes are a must, but don't forget that it does not come at the opening of the picture. It's when it comes at the opening of the picture that it is difficult. But that scene came at a point when you were accounting for a number of bizarre events that involved an average man.
Is it important that Cary Grant is an advertising man in "North by Northwest"?
- Well, in that he is an average man, yes. As a professional, you see, he is not a detective, not a criminal. He is Everyman. That helps involve the audience much more easily than if he was unique. I have never been interested in making films about professional criminals or detectives. I much prefer to take average men, because I think the audience can get involved more easily.
I wonder if he is an "average man." Just how average is his personality and his relationships with his wives and his mother, for example?
- Yes, but he is so preoccupied in getting himself out of the mess he is in that he forgets about his mother for a minute and the wives and anything else. Those particular elements would apply much more to a psychological story than they would a chase story.
In "North by Northwest", why did you select those particular characters, and what was their value?
- First of all, you have available to you a film star by the name of Cary Grant. Don't lose sight of that element. You are actually playing a character, but you are also playing the personality of Cary Grant. The value of having Cary Grant, the film star, is that the audience gets a little more emotion out of Cary Grant than they would from an unknown, because there is identification. There are many members of the audience who like Cary Grant, whether they know about the character he is playing or not.
Talking about Cary Grant, I feel that it was a mistake that he was not the murderer in "Suspicion".
- I thought so, but I wasn't in charge at that time. I had to more or less conform. I was loaned out to RKO by Selznick and they had the whole thing set up. The whole subject of the film is the woman's mind — is my husband a murderer or not? The ending, on which I had to compromise, was that he was not. But the real ending that I had for the film was that he brings his wife a fatal glass of milk. She knows that she is going to be killed, so she writes a letter to her mother: "I'm in love with him, I don't want to live anymore, he's going to kill me, but society should be protected." Folds the letter up, leaves it by the bed. She says, "Would you mind mailing that for me?" She drinks the milk; he watches her die. Last shot of the picture is Cary Grant whistling very cheerfully, going to the mailbox and popping in the letter. But that was heresy, to do that to Cary Grant in those days.
What is your idea about what a heroine should be?
- Well, in the first place, I've never been very keen on women who hang their sex around their neck like baubles. I think it should be discovered. It's more interesting to discover the sex in a woman than it is to have it thrown at you, like a Marilyn Monroe or those types. To me they are rather vulgar and obvious. I think it is much more interesting in the course of the storytelling to discover the sex, even though the woman may look like a schoolteacher. Anything could happen to you with a woman like that in a taxi.
You have spoken about the difficulty of finding the right material. How do you know when you've got the right material?
- Yes, it is very difficult. It would depend upon which direction you were going. You may be making a psychological murder story or a chase story. I make many, many different kinds of pictures. I have no particular preference, to be quite honest. I am not interested in content at all. I don't give a damn what the film is about. I am more interested in how to handle the material so as to create an emotion in the audience. I find too many people are interested in the content. If you were painting a still life of some apples on a plate, it's like you'd be worrying whether the apples were sweet or sour. Who cares? I don't care myself. But a lot of films, of course, live on content.
But aren't there any general rules about what makes appropriate material? For instance, you've had problems with writers who wouldn't give you what you wanted.
- Well, I have had problems with writers because I find that I am teaching them cinematics all the time. You have to remember that with a lot of writers you have to go by what is written on the page. I have no interest in that. As the director, I have that white rectangle to fill with a succession of images, one following the other. That's what makes a film. I have no interest in pictures that I call "photographs of people talking." These have nothing to do with cinema whatsoever. When you stick up a camera and photograph a group of people, and pick up the close-ups and two-shots, I think that is a bore. I'm not saying you've got to make every film without dialogue, because you have to have dialogue. The only thing wrong with silent films is that no sound ever came out of the mouths. But at least it told a story visually and pictorially.
- So many films are an extension of the theater. I've made them. But if I pick a subject like "Dial M for Murder", well hell, I don't even have to come to the studio. I could phone that one in, because there is nothing for me to do. Years ago I made a movie of Sean O'Casey's play "Juno and the Paycock". I couldn't for the life of me figure out what to do with it, except photograph it in one room with the Irish players. The film was very successful, and I was ashamed to read those laudatory notices for which I had done nothing except photograph the Irish players doing their job.
Are you saying that when you see the material, you can visualize the entire movement of the film?
- Yes, definitely.
The whole film?
- Beginning to end.
Is this kind of visual response innately within you or is it something that came through being an art director?
- I think one of the biggest problems that we have in our business is the inability of people to visualize. What I am about to say is hearsay, but I remember Selznick, the producer, when he was talking about Irving Thalberg, the great name in our business. Selznick used to say, "Thalberg is great with a finished picture." When you examine those words, they mean that the man lacked any visual sense. The visual, to me, is a vital element in the cinema and I don't think it is studied enough. Go back to the early days, back to Chaplin. He once made a short film called The Pilgrim. The opening shot was the outside of a prison gate. A guard came out and posted a Wanted notice. Next cut: a very tall, thin man coming out of a river, having had a swim. He finds that his clothes are missing and have been replaced with a convict's uniform. Next cut: a railroad station, and coming toward the camera dressed as a parson with the pants too long is Chaplin. Now there are three pieces of film, and look at the amount of story they told. These are the things that I think are so essential, especially when you send your film into a foreign country — Japan, Italy or wherever. If you send a film which, as I mentioned earlier, is "photographs of people talking" all the way through, and that gets to a foreign country with subtitles underneath, the poor audience will spend the entire evening reading. They won't have time to look at the pictures.
You say you don't like the notion of filming theater, but a lot of your films do fall into acts that peak at certain points.
- I think that is true, because in order to sustain an audience's interest you have to give them a series of climaxes. Otherwise you have to have a very powerful yarn to hold them from the beginning to the end. In a sense it's almost like what we used to call the well-made play, which is out of date now. That ran into three acts: proposition, argument and resolution.
Do you have rehearsals with your actors? Do you talk about characters with them? ‘‘‘
- Yes, privately in the dressing room. Not demonstrably so.
Is that before production?
You don't rehearse the scene?
- No. With dialogue scenes, a duo can be rehearsed, but if you've got very competent actors you can let them go off on their own.
Do you ever use improvisation on the set?
- Certainly not. I will improvise in the office. That's the place to improvise, long before you go onto a stage. Why, improvising on the set is like a composer composing with a full orchestra in front of him and saying, "Flute, will you give me a note?" And he gives him an A, and the composer puts it down. This shows how stupid the process is.
If you previsualize all of your films, what kind of joy do you get out of directing?
- I don't, I'd just as soon not do it. The moment the script is finished and the film is visualized, that is the end of the creative part as far as I'm concerned. I'd just as soon not shoot the picture.
Why don't you let someone else shoot the picture after you've got that joy out of it?
- They might screw it up.
Do you really feel that most of your creative work is done before the cameras have begun to roll?
- All of it. Everything. I don't understand why we have to experiment with film. Everything should be done on paper. A musician has to do it. A composer puts a lot of dots down and beautiful music comes out. I think students must be taught to visualize, they have to learn there is a rectangle up there and it has to be filled. Personally I never look through the camera. What for? To find out whether the camera is lying? I only consider that screen up there, and the whole film to me should be on paper from beginning to end — shot by shot, cut by cut — and each cut should mean something. It's not a matter of just letting the student do it one way or the other. There's only one thing. If you're composing music, you don't have alternatives, you have only one way to do it. And that's what should be taught to these young filmmakers. After all, a litterateur doesn't write three or four sentences and then choose which one is the best later on. He writes the one sentence in his novel; he assembles his words.
- What is cinema? The assembly of pieces of film to create an idea. Each cut joined one to the other goes by on the screen and has an emotional impact upon an audience. I remember working at UFA in 1924, where they were making "The Last Laugh" with Emil Jannings. This film is to me the prime example of expressing a story even without titles. If you look at "The Last Laugh" today, you'll find the whole story is told visually, from beginning to end. It's the visual that has to be taught, the fundamentals of the medium. It is the only new art of the twentieth century, but it is essentially a visual art. And that's what has to be taught. Not by guessing and wondering how it will come out. Film students ought to be taught to know whatever they put down on paper will come out in a certain way.
Have you storyboarded all your films?
- Sometimes, but not always. You can storyboard key scenes. You would storyboard, for example, the shower scene in "Psycho". Actually, there were seventy-eight setups and it took forty-five seconds on the screen. First of all, the leading lady was a bit squeamish about revealing herself, so I had to get a nude stand-in. It was made up of all those tiny pieces of film because the knife never touched the body at any time. Just an illusionary thing.
So you did the storyboarding beforehand, but it changed in the editing?
- Oh, we tightened it up and got the tempo going. Sure.
Once you have this picture visualized, how much do you change, other than casting?
- Not too much. You see, it is very essential that you know ahead of time something of the orchestration. In other words, image size. What I mean by orchestration is this. Take the close-up. Sometimes you see films cut such that the close-up comes in early, and by the time you really need it, it has lost its effect because you've already used it. It's like in music — the brass sounding loud before you need it. Now, I'll give you an example where a juxtaposition of the image size is very important. One of the biggest effects in "Psycho" was where the detective enters the house and goes up the stairs. The shots were storyboarded to make sure there was enough contrast of sizes within the cuts. There is a very violent murder to start with, another one less violent — and more frightening.
- Then, as the film goes on, there is no more violence. But in the mind of the audience, and in the anticipation of it, it is all there. Here is the shot of the detective, a simple shot going up the stairs. He reaches the top stairs, the next cut is the camera as high as it can go, it was on the ceiling, you see the figure run out, raised knife, it comes down — bang! — the biggest head you can put on the screen. But that big head has no impact unless the previous shot had been so far away. So don't go putting a closeup where you don't need it, because later on you will need it. That is where your orchestration comes in, where you design the setup. That's why you can't just guess these things on the set.
Have you ever shot masters and then two-shots followed by close-ups?
- No, never. By shooting that way you're bound to the objective, you see, whereas I'm a believer in the subjective — playing a scene from the point of view of an individual. But if you do your master and then you go in close, that's like theater to me. It's like sitting in the orchestra looking at a play, purely objectively, whereas we have the power in film to get right into the mind of a character. I'll give you an example. "Rear Window" is strictly pure cinema. You do a close-up of James Stewart. He looks. You go back to him and he reacts. So you set up a mental process. You can't do that by doing a master shot and these various individual shots.
What you are saying is that you orchestrate every shot in the film, the size of the image, things like that?
- As far as possible. Color balance, too. Any element that you've got. Sound definitely plays a part. Mind you, I didn't say you'd get the perfect picture, but you should strive as much as possible.
What work have you left for your editor?
- None. This is the point. It seems to me an extraordinary thing — I hope there are no cutters present — that you have, say, six million dollars of film and it might get into the hands of a very indifferent editor. That's a problem.
In "Psycho", I understood why you cut to the close-up of Martin Balsam after he's just been stabbed from the high angle. What intrigues me is why you introduced him in such a strange way. When we first see him in the hardware store he's brought right into the camera. We've never seen him before and therefore I wonder why you used the close-up.
- You bring him in like that because you are bringing in a new possible menace.
I have the feeling I could recognize a shot from your films if I saw it out of context. I wonder if you could comment on the placing of the camera.
- Well, I think it is mainly a matter of the interest in the composition. I have a horror of what I call the passport photograph: shooting straight in. It's dull, it's not interesting, and a slight variation on that is not so much the desire to get anything in the way of sharp angles, low or high or what have you, but merely to avoid the standard level shots.
Very often we think of your staging in depth. Does this represent anything thematic in your approach, to use a longer lens even in depth staging?
- If you use a wide-angle lens, of course, you naturally change your perspective considerably. As a matter of fact, if you use a short-focus lens, say a one hundred millimeter, you foreshorten. The standard view is about a fifty millimeter — that would give you what the eye sees.
Is your tendency to stage with the formal fifty millimeter?
- Yes, sure. Otherwise you make a room look too big and you send the back wall too far away. If you use a wide-angle lens, you make the set much bigger than it really is.
Does this have something to do with the emotional quality, the fact that you would stick with the normal perspective?
- No, it would depend. You see, sometimes you get involved with the whole question of the depth of focus. There is a whole group of people who think everything should be sharp in front and equally sharp at a distance, which in actual fact is almost impossible in real life. I remember at Paramount, when they first introduced VistaVision.* They did their first test out in the desert. They were making a film with Martin and Lewis, and when the front office saw the first results they were overwhelmed and ecstatic that a hand in the foreground was sharp as a figure half a mile away. And what the hell that's got to do with picture making, I don't know, but they were delighted. They all thought this was a wonderful system.
- Of course, what the camera department failed to tell them was that if you shoot in the desert you have to stop down to a pinhole and it will make everything sharp, including five miles away. But the camera department was afraid to tell them, so they let them think it was VistaVision. I was doing this picture To Catch a Thief at the time and I remember the head of the studio, who shall be nameless, comes to me and says, "Look, in these close-ups of yours everything's blurred. That's not VistaVision." I said, "So? The audience is not going to look around Grace Kelly's head, they are going to look at the head we've got on the screen." "Yes, but in VistaVision everything is sharp." So the camera department secretly went around to each cameraman on the lot and told them to pile up more light to make everything sharp, so as to continue to deceive the front office.
In terms of proportions within the image, do you also try to create contrast by using close-ups cut with more distant shots?
- I think that comes automatically — the distance of the figures, you see. That's why I think barroom brawls in Westerns are always a bore, because one man hits the other, the table collapses, and he falls back over the bar. If they would only do a few big close-ups here and there, it would be much more exciting, instead of looking at it from a distance. But you see, they make a mistake, they think it creates a greater air of reality by seeing it at a distance, and in fact they are doing the wrong thing.
Could you talk about the problem of getting a set the way you want it?
- Yes. One of the biggest problems is the atmosphere of a set. We have a very strange system in this industry, that the man called the art director leaves the set the moment it is painted and finished but not dressed, not even the carpet. And the new man, called the set dresser, walks on, and he is the man who reads the script and then proceeds to dress the set. He goes out and picks furniture and carpets; he goes into the prop room, gets ornaments and paintings. This man is in charge of what is the most vital element of the décor: the atmosphere. Instead of being a set dresser he should be almost a writer because he ought to know the character of the person who lives in that room. But he doesn't, and that is why you see so many films that have an artificial look. It is because they are very badly dressed. And the only way I have ever gotten around it is to hire a photographer with a color still camera. In "Vertigo", James Stewart was playing a retired detective who had gone to law school and who lived in San Francisco. So I said to the photographer, "Go to San Francisco, find out where a retired detective lives, make sure he went to law school, and go in and photograph his house. Get all the detail and bring it back and dress the set that way."
- Very often scripts are written and then the location manager is called in and he tries to find some location that fits the script. I don't believe in that. I think you should go to the location first and then put it in the script. Now, years ago I did a film with Thornton Wilder called "Shadow of a Doubt". It was set in a small town in Northern California. We went up there and stayed a week before a line was written. But you see, in our business, the way it's run today, a writer is given a book and he's to go off and write it. This writer thinks he's done a wonderful thing when he writes "close-up," but it's ridiculous and stupid. It is a bad system because strictly speaking a writer should be given a treatment written by the director. I usually work with the writer on the treatment. Now, when I say treatment, it is really a description of the film. It describes exactly what is coming on that screen. There are indications of shots in it and so forth. Then you give that to the writer and let him go off.
- When you think of the ridiculous things that go on in our business, when you read that a writer has sold his book and has been engaged to write the screenplay, what is he? Is he a screenplay writer or is he a novelist? He can't be both. And I've had that experience. I've said, "Have I got to take this man?" And they've said, "Yes, he's part of the deal."
If you care so much about the authenticity of the sets, in making it look real or feel real on the set, why do you use rear-screen projection that looks fake?
- That's a decision that you have to make quite often. It depends. If you are shooting a long dialogue scene and you go outside and shoot it in an open car in the street, you've got to dub the whole scene because of the external sounds. Now, you've got to do that or you can do the best back projection you can get. It can be well done, and it can be badly done. At least then you can let the players have the comfort of being able to play the scene naturally and spontaneously.
Wouldn't they be playing it naturally and spontaneously if they were driving the car?
- Yes, but I think they'd be distracted. They'd be distracted by traffic, the guy driving the car. There have been a lot of pictures made that way, with the camera strapped on the front and the windshield taken off, but you do run the risk of having to re-dub the whole thing. When you're dubbing a long dialogue scene, you're not going to get the necessary emotion into it. That's the risk you run.
In "Vertigo", where they're climbing up the stairs in the tower, there is a very strange effect.
- That effect took thirty years to get. It really did. When I was making "Rebecca", I had a scene where Joan Fontaine is supposed to faint. I explained to Selznick I wanted to get the effect of her looking and everything seeming to go far away. Where I got the idea from was at the Royal Chelsea Arts Ball in London on New Year's Eve. I remembered at a certain time during the evening everything seemed to go far away. And I asked for this effect and they said they couldn't do it. I tried again about five years later. For Vertigo they tried different effects, and finally it was arrived at by a combination of a dolly shot and a zoom lens crossing each other. Dollying in and zooming out. When the head of special effects came to me, I said how much was it going to cost. He said fifty thousand dollars to put a camera high and take it up and zoom it, because of the enormous rig. I said, "But there is no one in the set." Why didn't they make a miniature and lay it on its side? "Oh, I hadn't thought of that." So they did it, and it cost nineteen thousand dollars.
Showing pieces of film to create violence as opposed to actually depicting violence is something you've used in "Psycho", the end of "Rear Window", and "Torn Curtain".
- There's no question that for any kind of violence you want to portray on the screen, that's the way it can be done best. Let me see if I can give you a comparison. If you stand in a field and you see a train going by half a mile away, you look at it and it speeds by. Now go within six feet of the train going by — think of the difference in its effect. So what you are doing is you are taking the audience right close up into the scene, and the montage of the various effects gets the audience involved. That's its purpose. It becomes much more powerful than if you sit back and look. Say you are at a boxing match and you are eight to ten rows back. Well, you get a very different effect if you are in the first row, looking up under those ropes. When these two fellows are slugging each other, you get splashed almost. In Psycho, once that figure comes in and starts to stab, you're in it. Oh, you're absolutely in it.
Could we return to the discussion of structure? With the last few films you've made, your pictures have seemed to divide up into almost two stories: "Topaz", "Psycho", "The Birds", through "Torn Curtain" perhaps less so. I wonder if you could explain to us what your fascination is with this device, the double story?
- If you take a picture like "The Birds", you'll find the personal story is a rather thin one because, traditionally, it's an event story, like the early H. G. Wells stories, like "The War of the Worlds". In all Wells' famous stories, the personal story is very, very secondary to the events, otherwise you wouldn't get the effect. Whether it is Martians or what have you, they take it over and almost swamp the personal story. So in that type of picture the personal would tend to be on the thin side.
But is there a definite reason, in terms of dealing with the audience, of starting with this kind of story?
- Well, the first thing is that you have to remember the audience goes in anticipating something. They've read about it in the ads, so it's a question of how much of the lightweight story you put in the picture in the beginning. I believe it was Fellini who said, "Hitchcock made them wait for the birds to come on. I wouldn't have the nerve to do that." But I think it is a matter of figuring it out and then gradually, one bird just hitting the girl. And the gradual slow build-up.
Did the film "The War of the Worlds" influence your thinking?
- No. The film of "The War of the Worlds" is rather vague in my mind. I once had breakfast with H. G. Wells. We were discussing "The War of the Worlds" and I was talking about making it into a picture, and he said in his high, piping voice: "Oh no, you couldn't do that today. I'd have to invent all new devices." So it didn't relate to "The Birds" at all.
Could you tell me about training the birds for "The Birds"?
- Well, we had a bird trainer, and he was able to train a certain number of seagulls, and I think about thirty or forty well-trained ravens and crows. Of course a lot of it was double and triple printing. In fact, the last shot in "The Birds" was composed of sixteen separate pieces of film.
Are any of those birds stuffed?
- No. We rented five hundred ducks and sprayed them gray. We started off with chickens, but the neck movement gave them away.
When the seagulls attack at the windows, were you throwing them at the windows?
- Oh, yes. We had men on ladders, and the gulls were trained to be thrown and land on the flat table top nearby the camera. And for the little girl with a gull at the birthday party we built a little platform on her shoulder and a gull was put there, but its beak was bound. The girl had a little wire, and as she ran up the dunes she was told to pull her hand up and down so that you got the effect of its pecking.
In the shots where you throw a seagull at a window, why would you use a trained seagull instead of a wild one?
- Well, because the wild one may go halfway there and say, "Where the hell am I going?" and turn around and come back. I don't trust them.
Is there a film of yours that you really feel is the best use of music that you've ever had?
- I can't think of one off-hand.
What about the sort of sweeping lyrical moment in "Vertigo", under the green neon lights?
- You see, here you had a man who was really a necrophile, hence the green light. He was waiting for the girl to complete her hair and everything, and he was in love with a dead woman. So you want to help that, and the music helped it, because he was going to bed with a dead woman.
You would say that the music did more than simply repeat the image.
- It, shall we say, intensified his necrophilia.
I notice in "Torn Curtain" that you use suspense to discover something which all of a sudden is revealed before the maximum tension has been developed. In other words, we learn that Paul Newman is, in fact, not defecting very early. You're forgetting another value. What will the girl say when she finds out?
- I'll give you a specific example. In "Vertigo", it was the end of the book before it's revealed that it is one and the same woman. I decided halfway through to blow the whole thing, tell the audience the truth and not wait until the end. People were horrified. "What are you doing? Giving it all away?" I replied that if I didn't, I'm starting another story. Jimmy Stewart has lost one woman. She's dead, she's gone, he was crazy about her, and she even drove him into a nursing home. Now he sees a girl on the street, he sees some resemblance, and he gets hold of her, gets into her room. From that point on in the book, he endeavored to change the girl back into the image of the dead woman he wanted to renew. The reason I gave the whole thing away was to give additional values. First, we know who she is. Added value — what will Stewart do when he finds out? We know something that he doesn't know. Now there is an element of suspense. Second, does the girl resist him? If you haven't told the audience who she really is, you won't understand her behavior — why she doesn't want to wear a gray suit, why she doesn't want her hair made blond.
Do you differentiate between fear and horror?
- Well, horror is really an extreme of fear. It's as far as you can go.
Many of your films operate almost like dreams or nightmares.
- They are. That's the theory of it. That's why a picture like "North by Northwest" is a nightmare, but it behooves you to be realistic, because when you have a nightmare and you are being led to the electric chair, it is so vivid that you are glad when you wake up.
When you said the theory of it, do you think of it that way?
- No, but I think it is very vital that the detail be accurate — however bizarre the situation may be — as part of the nightmare.
And what are your ends in putting nightmares on the screen? What do you want to do to the audience?
- Give them pleasure, the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.