Stephen Rebello proves his Hitchcock

 

HITCHCOCK WRITER

By Gary Murray

There are very few people I can truly say that I envy. Stephen Rebello is one of those.  As a young man, he got the last interview with Alfred Hitchcock.    Eventually he turned the interview into a book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.  That book has been turned into a major motion picture Hitchcock. Recently he was in Dallas to discuss his work and the film.  When he talks of Hitchcock, he often slips into the present tense, thinking that the man is still with us.

 

Why Hitchcock?

I was always fascinated by him.  I just felt his films had an emotional impact upon me.  I thought that they were immaculately filmed.  I have always thought that his use of sound and editing (were superb).  He told me once that he cast actors because of architecture, the structure of the actors face and body would dictate the architecture of the set.  It was something that I felt but could not articulate–those actors belong in that world.  He had such a mastery of the medium.  He also made movies that were popular with people.  Audiences all over the world responded to in similar ways.  And he was unpretentious about himself and his work.  He had a great sense of humor.  I think it takes a kind of grace to be a great talent and a great genius and to still be a populist and a man of the people.   So I just admire him.

 

Since you did the last interview with Hitchcock, what were your thoughts of the man?

He was a formidable gentleman.  He had a way about him that said ‘I am somebody, I am an authority, I’m a genius, I’m an expert.’  But he also had this humanity that I responded to immediately and a vulnerability that I certainly responded to.  He was enormously gentle and kind.  He was very playful toward me   He flirted with people, not in a sexual way. 

He wanted to see what I was made of and he played a stunt on me.  I was made to sit in a specific chair in his outer office.  His secretary said he was in with his barber for his daily haircut and shave and they opened the door slightly enough for me to see Mr. Hitchcock with his head tilted back and a straight edge razor over his neck.  Then the door slammed.  A few minutes later I was ushered into the office.  I was enormously flattered that he cared enough to stage a prank for me.  He also did it to see what I was made of, to see if it would throw me.  “Let’s knock the snooty Harvard kid off his pins” and it didn’t.  I was delighted by it, charmed and grateful.  He saw that I walked in with a chin tilted high and a certain sense of myself, a certain attitude that he really responded to. He played with me through the entire interview. I am grateful because he could have thrown me out or given me no time or given me stock, standard, pat answers.  He didn’t do that. 

He was fresh and funny and gave me an idea for a movie that I am going to do.  How much more grateful could I be to someone like that?  He told me the entire story of a movie that he wanted to make that I knew he couldn’t.  His mind was so fresh and sharp but his body was just failing him.  But he told me the story entirely in images and I saw the movie that he wanted to make which he was going to do with Catherine Deneuve and Sean Connery.  It was an incredible experience and because of that interview that was published around the world, I suddenly had a bit of a calling card as a journalist.  That led to my meeting many, many people in the Hitchcock universe who filled in the blanks for me about what kind of man he was.  That led to writing the book Hitchcock and the making of Psycho.  And that led to being so creatively entrenched in the making of Hitchcock the movie. 

How could I not be grateful?   I’d be grateful to him alone for the enormous pleasure he gave me at the movies and on Blu-ray and on video.  I feel like he has been a guardian angel in my life.  None of that should have happened considering that I lived in Massachusetts, that I certainly wasn’t from a wealthy family and I had no connection to Hollywood.  Hitchcock sort of put his hand on me and I’m very grateful.

Many people did not believe that Psycho was not the right move after North by Northwest. What was their reaction after the film was released and it became such a hit?

I think it is tough for people to admit that they didn’t see everything coming.  The real decision makers at Paramount were long gone by the time I wrote the book.  Sadly, I would have loved to have heard from them and how they might have spun that.  It was very clear from reading the telegrams that came to Mr. Hitchcock when the movie was making money hand over fist and the critics were hating it–yet audiences were lined around the block.  Paramount wanted to release it in two theaters in New York.  They thought if it doesn’t do any business, we’ll cut our losses.  Nobody got it but the audience.  The telegrams were all about “We knew you were going to do it”, “Of course, another Hitchcock triumph”. These were the same people who left his circle because of Psycho

People who literally left the inner circle because of how repulsed and disgusted they were by the very idea that he was going to touch this unclean material and they all came back.  Nobody knew except Robert Block who wrote the novel.  He is never given credit for creating Norman Bates. 

As I make a point in the book, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.  Everyone wants to take credit for his success, even right now today.  That is just human nature.  If this Hitchcock movie were not pleasing audiences, I’m sure that there would be certain people who would want to distance themselves from it but people seem to be embracing it.  So, I am very grateful.

 

Psycho was a giant departure for the man who was known for making certain kinds of thrillers.  Was Psycho to break out of that type-casting as a director?

Everybody thinks they are re-inventing the wheel, everybody thinks that you are the one who can do it.  I don’t think contemporary directors are as typecast as Hitchcock was. I think Hitchcock specialized in many genres but many people think of him in only one way.  If you are of a certain age, you think of him as a man who directed horror movies.  I don’t understand that but I understand why some people do.  If you are of another age you might think of him as a man who made really glossy elegant romantic thrillers with beautiful people and beautiful settings.  Nothing really terrible happened to those people but you sweated it out during the course of the movie. 

There are many versions of Hitchcock.  Someone will say to me, “Your movie is not the Hitchcock I know” I say “Which Hitchcock do you know and how do you know him?  Did you spend any time with him? Or what films did you see to inform that view?” 

Actually, he was many things, he was a chameleon.  He reinvented himself certainly with Psycho.   He felt he had to because everyone thought Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and James Stewart.  He felt done with that and felt that he had to go another direction.  They were going to nail him into a coffin and that was it.  He was going to be that old guy who makes movies that we can expect. 

I don’t think David Fincher is typecast.  He can do The Social Network, he can do Zodiac.  The Coen Brothers can do and go wherever they please.  The rules of the road have changed.  What is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie?  For me, pretty great but they are not the same movies and they are challenging movies every time.  But they are different animals. 

I think the times have changed, thank goodness.  I wish there were a contemporary Hitchcock.  I wish there were someone who had that unique magnetic odd personality who could also make spectacular movies.  I love showman and that era of showman whether it was William Castle or DeMille or Hitchcock–people who were larger than life almost as large as the movies themselves.

 

In the book Alma Reville is a very minor character but in the film she is almost the biggest character.  Why the change?

The book Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho was largely dependent on what the people around Hitchcock told me at the time about the making of that specific film.  I tried and succeeded in helping people be ‘flies on the wall’ during the making of the film that was shot very quickly and inexpensively and nobody thought we’d still be talking about it.

I apologize about downplaying Alma in the book because I was under a misconception.  I was under the impression that everyone knew how important she was to every one of his films.  So with the film I wanted to correct that.  So it was a course correction on my part. 

There was another reason.  When I was a kid I saw Alma standing in the shadows, literally watching him and being very gracious with the crowds.  I saw an enormously sharp woman.  I felt that if we blind-folded her, she could tell you what everyone in the room was wearing and what was wrong with what they were wearing.  How she would have re-dressed them. 

Just enormously smart with a bird-like intuitive person, accustomed to and being more comfortable in the shadows except at home and on set where she knew stuff.  She had been in the business before he was and he was beholden to her.  He was almost on bended knee to her as a movie maker, as an editor and a screenwriter. 

As an audience surrogate, she was truly a genius.  She knew exactly what an audience would or might not respond to.  She was a referee and a coach.  She would get between him and Bernard Herrmann. She was so charming and so brilliant.  Hitchcock, to his credit, knew when something was good.  Without Alma, I’m not sure if they would have duked it out and walked away knowing they were right and the movie suffering for it.      

When we were going to make the film and when a number of producers came to me, it was imperative for me that the story not just be interesting to me and to film buffs and student’s who love, admire & immolate Hitchcock, but it needed to be an audience movie.  If not, we would be violating Hitchcock’s rule.  You need to engage the emotions of an audience. 

I wanted there to be a beating heart in the movie and Alma was that.  She was his course correction; she was the one who slapped him on the cheek when he was being that puckish little boy.  I think she made him a better man.  She made him a better film maker.   Alma is given very short shrift in the book and I wanted to make sure that that was addressed. 

 

How involved were you in creating the screenplay for the film?

John McLaughlin wrote the first and several drafts of Hitchcock.  John laid down the template for the structure.  He came up with the fantasy way of getting into the mind of Hitchcock and the notion of beginning the film with an Alfred Hitchcock Presents was all John.  People get involved in different ways.  I did three or four drafts of the screenplay but the Writer’s Guild did not elect to give me credit for the screenplay and all credit to John because he got there first.  That screenplay is not that book and that is John.  Sasha Gervasi, the director, worked on the screenplay and that is what happens in the movies—everybody would have screenplay credit.  But John should have the screenplay credit and I’m good with that.  But I had a lot of input in a lot of those lines.  I did some dialogue polishes but it is John’s screenplay.

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