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Take One (1966) - I Wish I Didn't Have to Shoot the Picture: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock

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I Wish I Didn't Have to Shoot the Picture: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock

by BUDGE CRAWLEY, FLETCHER MARKLE, AND GERALD PRATLEY


How have you managed to find the same challenge, stimulus, the inspiration? How do you continue to find something new and worthwhile to do as you go from picture to picture?

Well, I think that the main problem one has, in my particular field, is the avoidance of the cliché. You see, audiences now — with television, and having films for fifty years — are now highly educated in all forms of mayhem, crime: They're all experts — the public I mean. I was talking to a judge while I was making a film called The Wrong Man and he said that he wished they could have trials without juries, because juries were becoming — what is the word — something of a nuisance. They all want to know from the witness — if there's a police officer on the stand, they want to know, "What about the fingerprints, what about this, what about that?" They're all experts. So one has to recognize that you do have an audience today — with the increased facilities of communication, of television, films, paperbacks, and everything else — you have to be aware of this competition and meet it.

To give you an example of avoiding the cliché: I made a movie called North by Northwest and I had occasion to use a situation (which is a very old-fashioned one) of sending a man — in this case Cary Grant — to an appointed place: He's what they call "put on the spot." And there, probably, to be shot at. Now, the convention of this situation has been done many times: He is stood under the street lamp at night in a pool of light, waiting, very sinister surroundings, the cobbles are all washed by the recent rain — you've seen that in many pictures — then we cut to a window and a face peers furtively out, then you cut to the bottom of the wall and a black cat slithers along, then you wait for the limousine to arrive. This is what we've been used to seeing. So, I decided, "I won't do it that way"; I would do it in bright sunlight, not a nook or a cranny or a corner of refuge for our victim. Now we have a situation where the audience are wondering. A mad tension. And it's not going to come out of a dark corner. So, not only do you give them suspense, but you give them mystery as well. He's alone and then a man arrives across the other side of the road, and he crosses to talk to him and this man suddenly says, "Look, there's a crop duster over there, dusting the field where there are no crops." Now, that's the first thing that you give to the audience: this sinister, mysterious comment. But, before it can be discussed, you put the man on the bus and he drives off, so you and Cary Grant are now — because you are identified with him — left alone. And then suddenly the airplane comes down and shoots at him all over the place.... So there you see an example of the very question you ask, "How do you keep up, how do you change?" Only by rejecting the obvious and then, out of that, you will find new ways to do the same thing.

You've been described, Mr. Hitchcock, not only as the master of the horror film, but also as master of preplanned production techniques.... How much improvisation is there in your films and would you talk to us about your methods of filmmaking?

Well, in the first place I agree that you can improvise and should improvise, but I think it should be done in an office, where there are no electricians waiting and no actors waiting, and you can improvise all you want — ahead of time. Sometimes, I compare it with a composer who is trying to write a piece of music with a full orchestra in front of him. Can you imagine him saying, "Flute, give me that note again will you. Thank you, flute," and he writes it down.... A painter has his canvas and he uses his charcoal sketch and he goes to work on that canvas with a preconceived idea. I'm sure he doesn't guess it as he goes along. So, I am not in approval of the improvisation on the studio stage, while the actor is on the phone about his next picture and all that kind of stuff.

Mr. Hitchcock, how have you been able to resist, over fifty years of direction, the temptation to look through the camera?

I don't look through the camera. Looking through the camera has nothing to do with it. The ultimate end of what you're doing is on a rectangular screen of varying proportions — wide ones, tall ones, all those kinds of screens — but, nevertheless, what are you doing? You're using the rectangle, like a painter, but the whole art of the motion picture is a succession of composed images, rapidly going through a machine, creating ideas. The average public do not, or are not, aware of "cutting" as we know it, and yet that is the pure orchestration of the motion-picture form. So, therefore, looking through a camera has absolutely nothing to do with it at all. It's the rectangle where the composition arrives. I would say, if I looked through a camera, having asked for a certain composition of a given set-up, it would be as though I distrusted the cameraman and he was a liar, and I'm testing him out.

What about other directors?

I don't know anything about other directors; maybe I'm a snob in that direction. And I've never seen other directors at work; I never have. I've heard about them: They tell me they dress up for directing. I've always worn the same blue suit everywhere.

What about seeing your rushes or your dailies? We hear that you pay little attention to them. Is this correct?

Yes, it is correct, because I go and check them up after about four or five days, but I don't rush the same evening to see, "Has it come out?" That would be like going to the local camera shop to see the snaps and make sure nobody has moved.

Mr. Hitchcock, what about your editing methods? When do you start to edit your films, and are you able to edit them right through to the very end without anyone else interfering with it?

Well I — following what I -have said — do shoot a precut picture. In other words, every piece of film is designed to perform a function. So therefore, literally, the only type of editing that I do is to tighten up. If a man's coming through the door, going into the room, then you just pull that together by just snippets. But actual creative work in the cutting, for me, is nonexistent, because it is designed ahead of time — precut, which it should be. You don't agree with me, huh?

Oh yes.

Oh.

Have you ever used a shot that, perhaps, might have been shot by accident on the set in a film of yours — that wasn't preplanned?

Oh no, I don't think so. For example, in the film Psycho, I did a murder in the shower. I spent seven days on that — seventy-eight cuts for forty-five seconds of film. That meant you got pieces of film no bigger than two or three frames. And that was shot with the head of the leading lady; I had a nude girl — we shot a lot of her struggles — but more than that, what people don't realize in a situation like this, you had censor problems, so you had bare breasts to cover. So in order to measure this out, I had some parts of the scene shot in slow motion, so the girl moved like that to struggle and the arm covers the breasts there — which could never have been done had you shot it quickly because you couldn't measure it out.

Have you been up to date, shall we say, in your new film Torn Curtain? Do you have any love scenes in this which ... uh ...

Oh yes, I have Julie Andrews and Newman in bed together discussing their wedding day. Although I must say — here's an example in this film, in this particular scene, of the avoidance of the cliche. I got so bored with seeing those English films with the nude couple in bed and that constant shot over the bare shoulder of the man, which is just covering the breasts of the girl — it's such a bore and so unimaginative that I took the trouble in the opening of Torn Curtain to show a ship in a Norwegian fjord and on board is an international convention of nuclear physicists, and I have turned the heat off on the ship. I have made the heat go wrong. The reason I did that was because I wanted all the people in the dining room to be wrapped in coats and freezing to death having their lunch. And then I go down below and show our couple in bed, covered with blankets, covered in topcoats, and you barely see them at all. For some inexplicable reason, my sense of propriety in this matter didn't seem to meet the approval of the Legion of Decency; they complained that there were premarital occupations going on, and I don't understand why they said that because I can't see a thing.

Is the smallest period involved in production the shooting period?

Oh yes. I wish I didn't have to shoot the picture. When I've gone through the script and created the picture on paper, for me the creative job is done and the rest is just a bore.... I think, to me, the great art of the motion picture is by means of imagery and montage to create an emotion in the audience and, therefore, the content is a means to an end. In other words, I would choose a story that would help toward that end rather than just photograph a story without any technique.

Would you approve of a film which involved only technique and no story?

Oh yes, you have to have story because, you see, you need shape. You see, the nearest art form to the motion picture is, I think, the short story. It's the only form where you ask the audience to sit down and read it in one sitting.

In the film, you ask the audience to stay in one seat for two hours. Therefore, you need a shape of the story that has a rising curve of interest. You know, Bernard Shaw once tried to figure out how long an act of a play would be based on the endurance of the human bladder. And that is our fundamental problem when we devise a film. We do ask a person to sit there for two hours and therefore the shape and story-shape comes into it considerably because, as you get toward the end when they, your audience, might begin to be — shall we say — physically distracted, you must increase the interest on the screen to take their minds off this kind of thing.

It's generally considered that films of mystery are best in black and white, yet you've photographed Torn Curtain in color. What have you been able to do with the color process and the photography which perhaps aids the mood you're trying to achieve?

Well, when they talk about black and white, you remember that black and white itself is unreal basically. After all, we see color everywhere. The camera will photograph whatever you give it. If you want to give it a black and white set — a woman in a black dress and a white blouse, there'll only be one thing in color; that'll be her face, the rest will all be black and white so that you can create the same thing in your own way. In Torn Curtain, we decided that after we leave Copenhagen, which is the last location in the picture before we go to. East Germany, to go grey everywhere — grey and beige — so we have a mood, a depressed mood, a sinister mood, in the general tones of all the sets and they're all painted grey for that purpose. So you see black and white or color really don't have any relationship. The only reason I made a picture like Psycho in black and white is because of the amount of blood.

Mr. Hitchcock, you're sixty-five and you directed The Lady Vanishes about '37. Do you find that it is just as easy now, in directing a picture like Torn Curtain, to keep up your enthusiasm as it was in the days when you were shooting The Lady Vanishes, and if not, why not?

Yes, you have to do that. After all, the most enjoyable part of making a picture is in that little office, with the writer, when we are discussing the story-lines and what we're going to put on the screen, searching for freshness and so forth, and also always that lovely moment when we say, "Wouldn't it be fun to kill him this way."

... The big difference is that I do not let the writer go off on his own and just write a script that I will interpret. I stay involved with him and get him involved in the direction of the picture. So he becomes more than a writer; he becomes part maker of the picture, because the picture is being made.

If you were going to be murdered, how would you choose to have it done?

Well, there are many nice ways: Eating is a good one.

Mr. Hitchcock, we have talked tonight a great deal about the technique of making motion pictures, we often hear a great deal said about the art of making motion pictures. Could you close by telling us just exactly where does the art come in. Is art technique or does the technique become art?

Well, I think that the art is in its basic form. The motion picture was the newest art form of the twentieth century and that is, its purest form, montage — pieces of film put together, shall we say, artfully, and creating ideas. But, you see, unfortunately, it's so little practiced today. We see so many films that are merely an extension of the theater: They are photographs of people saying lines and so forth. So I regret that enough films are not made using the pure art form.