Friday, 6 January 2023

Writing for Hitchcock: Interview with Ed McBain

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock started work on his film, The Birds (1963), he asked critically-acclaimed New York novelist Evan Hunter (also known as crime writer Ed McBain) to write the script. Hitchcock knew Hunter could work in the Hollywood milieu from his contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the director’s long-running television show) as well as Hunter’s other screenplay adaptations of his best-selling novels. He later confided in Hunter that he chose a famous novelist to write the screenplay for The Birds to garner the critical respect and recognition that had eluded his other films.

The following interview with Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) was conducted by Charles L.P. Silet courtesy of MysteryNet.

MysteryNet: When did you first meet Hitchcock?

Hunter: I met him after he had done First Offense, which was a serious story of mine, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I didn’t write the screenplay for that but it was based on my story. When I did write one it was based on a story by Robert Turner. It was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and is obnoxious and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.


MysteryNet: Tell us a little bit about your experience of working with Hitchcock.

Hunter: Hitch told me on the phone that he had called my agent and asked if I would want to do The Birds. I’d had some stuff done on his television show, so I vaguely knew him. But I wasn’t familiar with du Maurier’s story, so I said ‘Let me read it.’ I read it and it sounded interesting and I accepted the job. But when I spoke with him he said ‘Forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.

MysteryNet: And as you worked you worked in tandem?

Hunter: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the girl was going to be – that’s Hollywood talk: ‘the girl;’ it ain’t my talk – and ‘the boy’ and figured out how we were going to get the story going. I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack.

I would think why is she going to all this trouble renting a boat when she could easily drive around? But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script. There are holes you could drive Mack trucks through in some thrillers. He said ‘In my films I’d like to think that if you’d reel it back you’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, there it is.’ Nowadays of course we can do that through video replay.


MysteryNet: You said that you worked with other directors and often times the script gets so changed it’s hardly recognizable. How much of The Birds is really yours?

Hunter: Most of it is. The most noticeable deletion was not shooting the end of the script as I had written it. I had another ten pages of script that he did not shoot, or if he shot I never saw them. And the most noticeable addition was the scene where in an attempt to give the girl some depth at the birthday party for the children Rod Taylor takes her up on a hilltop and removes from one pocket of his jacket a martini shaker, and then from the other pocket two martini glasses and pours martinis for them. On this hilltop they start talking about her empty life.

It’s a stupid scene and I don’t know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, the day they were shooting it and I was on the set, he said ‘Evan, did you write this scene?’ I read it and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘We’re shooting it this morning.’ I said ‘Well, let me talk to Hitch about it.’ I went to Hitch and said ‘This is a dumb scene, it’s going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don’t think it should be in the movie.’ And he looked me dead in the eye and he said ‘Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?’

MysteryNet: What was in the ending that you wrote?

Hunter: Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.


Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.

MysteryNet: Why didn’t Hitchcock shoot it that way?

Hunter: I think he was very tired by then, and this would have required a lot of work with the scene in the car where four characters are in a tight space and the camera is in with them watching the beaks and then the scene of the birds hovering and the birds following and the helicopter shots, animation, everything. It was just too much to do.


MysteryNet: What about the restaurant scene which you wrote in Connecticut and you shipped back to Hitchcock in Hollywood?

Hunter: I love that scene, that was like a one act play. Hitch called and he said I need something more. I don’t know how we discovered where we would take them, the central characters, Melanie and Mitch, but once I knew it was a restaurant, ‘The Tides’, then I had the whole scene in place and it just wrote itself.

MysteryNet: It’s a scene which sort of explains, or provides, a kind of logic, to explain the birds’ behavior.

Hunter: That’s right. It’s really a scene of great confusion because nobody knows what the hell is happening. We made, if you’ll forgive the expression, an ‘artistic’ decision early on that we were never going to explain the bird attacks, never. Otherwise the film would become science fiction and we didn’t want to do that.

MysteryNet: Was Hitchcock easy to work with?

Hunter: Oh yeah, I loved working with him. He was like the father anyone wished he would have. He was intelligent, he was world-traveled. He knew everybody, he was famous, he was a star in his own right. I don’t know how many people would recognize Steven Spielberg if he walked into a restaurant, maybe in Hollywood, but I don’t think they would in Iowa. But if Hitch walked in they’d damn well know him. He was a big, big star. One of the few directors I think who has ever had such a high profile.



– Charles L.P. Silet: ‘Writing For Hitchcock: An Interview with Ed McBain’. Original article here


Friday, 2 December 2022

Jim Jarmusch Talks The Vampiric Charms Of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Only Lovers Left Alive (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)

‘Iconoclastic filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been living outside of the mainstream for his entire career, so it’s perhaps only fitting that for his 11th feature-length film, Only Lovers Left Alive, the writer/director turns his attentions to the outsiders that live in shadows.’

Eve is mentored by John Hurt's Kit Marlowe, another bloodsucker who is still upset by Shakespeare's successful accreditation of his own work. Kit supplies Eve with O-Negative human blood, the very finest of the best. While Eve lingers at late-night caf├ęs, oblivious to the obnoxious locals, Adam has established a home in Detroit. He is a melancholic musician who has let his immortal depression to devour his entire life. He lacks a mentor, but he does have some "friends" that assist him in times of need. Jeffery Wright portrays the doctor who provides the blood, while Anton Yelchin portrays Ian, the musician friend who provides everything else. From the start, it's plainly evident that, despite the film's vampire theme, this is not a standard horror film. Indeed, Jarmusch opts not to address the more obvious and frightening aspects of what we've come to understand about a vampire's life. Anyone familiar with Jarmusch's work will not be startled by that submission. The film's speed is a reflection of the characters' lifestyles. As is the case with much of his prior work, this is a slow-burner that focuses on the romanticism of art, music, literature, and love. Rather than portraying vampires as monsters, Jarmusch gives their personalities more gravitas and eloquence. He makes an attempt to deconstruct the inescapable loneliness and the depressing routine of immortality. Adam and Eve are now tortured souls eking out an existence among a new generation of zombies (as they refer to humans). Is this a not-so-subtle way for Jim Jarmusch to convey the message that all humans are actually sheep? Are we modern-day slaves to all modern consumptions? That contemporary culture has devolved into brain-dead zombies? That is how it feels, isn't it? He's also posing the issue, "Is it possible to feel alone when your essence is permanently tied to another's?" Jarmusch would return to a similar style six years later in another "horror" picture, 'The Dead Don't Die,' starring Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny. He continues to employ the same sluggish structure. Although the latter had a little more charm and subtle humour, it lacked Jarmusch's trademark flowery elegance.

The following excerpt is from an interview from Indiewire in 2014 with writer-director Jim Jarmusch prior to the release of his vampire-genre film Only Lovers Left Alive.

Vampires seems like an unlikely subject for you given their position in pop-culture right now. What drew you to them?

I just like genres, it’s one that I’ve always liked. I really like the whole history of vampire films that are more the kind of marginal, the less conventional ones. Starting with Vampyr by Carl Dreyer in the ‘30s, and many, many interesting films – Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe, then in the ‘80s The Hunger with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. I liked George Romero’s film Martin a lot, Katheryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Clair Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers. I loved Let The Right One In—that was from like five, six years ago, beautiful.


That’s a good list of films.

Yeah, I’ve always loved all of those films, that type of approach. Rather than the sort of more obvious one and I wanted to make a love story for quite a long time. It’s had different variances to it, but somehow it got merged maybe eight years ago into my vampire film. So, I wanted to make a love story that involved vampires. Why, I can’t really tell you… It interests me. And I like genres too sometimes because they imply a kind of metaphoric element. Just by the fact that they are a genre. So you can work within [that genre] and do something different inside of that frame. So, that always appeals to me, or not always, but in the case of the few films where I’ve referred to genres, there’s something attractive there for me too.

I imagine the ideas of immortality and all that they entail were an appeal as well?

The possibility of having a historical overview was really interesting to me, because there’s a point where [Mia Wasikowska’s character] calls them snobs, when they’re throwing her out of their house, which on a certain level they are. It’s important it’s in the film, in a way. But who wouldn’t be considered a snob if you’d been alive for a thousand yeas and had all of this knowledge and accumulated experience? That’s ten, twenty times as much as any normal person. The idea of seeing history in a timeline by having lived through it, but from the margins, from the shadows: observing it half in secret is very interesting to me. I’ve always been drawn to outsider type of characters, so what more perfect shadowy inhabitants of the margins are there, than vampires? Who are not undead monsters, by the way, they’re humans that have been transformed and now have the possibility of immortality, but are reliant, like junkies, on blood.


One of the themes that struck me, presented from Adam’s [Tom Hiddleston] perspective is the decay of civilization, and the decay of culture.

Adam is a kind of romantic character. He maybe is a bit flawed in a way, whereas [Tilda Swinton’s character] Eve is very happy to just have a consciousness and be in awe of all the things, phenomenal logical things in the world, or in the world of ideas.

Adam, I mean, I carefully layered in that he was a friend of the romantic poets or hung out with Byron and Shelley and Scott. I really think of him as a tortured romantic. Is he really going to kill himself? I don’t know, maybe he’s just a drama queen, I’m not sure. But just the fact that it would occur to him, that kind of dramatic action is very insightful somehow.

He’s hurt by things he sees people do that he doesn’t understand or why does the world acts the way it does—what I like to think of as an operating system. Out of all of the potential operating systems we could have, why is it this one? It’s a system based on greed and power, manipulation, subjugation and colonialism, which obviously isn’t good. I have a sort of closeness to Adam on that level of, “Wow, I find that very kind of sad,” and him it really bothers him. That’s part of his character, that he’s an emotional, complex creature that is affected by these things. Eve has certainly been affected by them too. I think she’s a bit more resilient and maybe she’s just more centered as a person. They’re a bit different. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.


Is it meant to have any commentary on males and females? Adam being flawed and insecure and Eve being a more divine figure?

That’s interesting that you say that because to me what was most inspiring for me to make this film was the last book by Mark Twain, The Diaries of Adam and Eve. That’s why I named them Adam and Eve, not the direct Biblical thing, but via Mark Twain. That book is very funny, beautiful and kind of slight. It’s just diary entries of Adam and Eve’s vastly different perceptions of the world, via the fact that she’s female and he’s male. It’s a hilarious book and it really inspired me to want to make a film with two characters named Adam and Eve that sort of represented on some level the sun and the moon, but certainly very different perceptions of things.

So that was a big inspiration. It’s not even referred to in the film, the book. But it’s very important for me as a background for this.

There’s a temptation to see Adam as a surrogate for you; because of your similar taste and the similar artistic heroes on his wall…

Certainly there is, but it’s a bit reductive because I think there are qualities Adam has that I don’t have. And qualities that Eve has that I hope I have, or would aspire to have: that sense of wonder of the world and everyday there’s something else you could learn that you didn’t know before. But it’s very hard for me to analyze that because it’s not a self portrait in any intentional conscious way and yet there’s a lot of personal things in there that I would agree with them. So it’s hard to know those things.

It’s funny my friend Claire Denis had a Q&A after her film, Bastards, at the New York Film Festival a few months ago and someone asked her why she killed this character and she said, “I didn’t kill them, the other character did. I didn’t do it.”


You operate that way then. The story takes the characters where they want to go.

Yeah, when you make these films they do walk on their own after a certain point. Often when I’m writing dialogue in a script, it’s always whatever’s on paper for me is a sketch until you film it. But often they’re just talking and I am just writing it down. It’s not like I’m making them say words. I feel like I’m just transcribing what they’re saying. So there’s a funny disconnect where I can’t analyze, but to me it’s not autobiographical in any way. Of course I placed a lot of things I believe in, or even the photos on the wall, some of them are even my friends.

Those portraits on the wall I had five or six times as many people originally. The art department said, “Look after a certain point you have to clear all these images, so after a certain point we’ll just stop, we have enough, don’t worry.” But I could have kept feeding them more and more and more. I could still be giving them names of people I admire from the history of humans.

– Rodrigo Perez Interviews Jim Jarmusch. Full article via Indiewire here