Friday, 3 September 2021

Writing ‘Psycho’: Interview with Joseph Stefano

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock began pre-production on his forty-seventh picture, it was evident that he was no longer surrounded by the familiar certainties of recent productions. Gone were his long-term associates, high production values, major stars and established screenwriters of the calibre of Samuel Taylor (Vertigo) and Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest). Out of necessity Psycho would mark a significant break with Hitchcock's movie-making past and alert Hollywood that, at sixty years old, Hitchcock was still capable of producing work that was both shocking and innovative.

Adapted from Robert Bloch’s potboiler novel, Psycho was loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Edward Gein. Hitchcock was disappointed by the first draft screenplay from tyro screenwriter James P. Cavanagh, so Hollywood agency MCA suggested to Hitchcock another young client, Joseph Stefano, a thirty-eight-year-old former lyricist-composer. Described by critic Stephen Rebello as ‘exuberantly cocky, volatile, and streetwise, Stefano, who had only owned a television for two years, had harbored no writing aspirations outside of music. Then, he had watched a live telecast of Playhouse 90, at the time a leading showcase for promising playwrights, directors, and actors, and thought; “I can do that.”’

After writing a one-hour teleplay, within two weeks, he had a deal with producer Carlo Ponti and won respectable notices for his first produced screenplay The Black Orchid, a Mafia soap opera, starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. He also won awards for his own Playhouse 90 script, Made in Japan, also a relationship story. 

Bemused by how quickly things happened, Stefano was offered a seven-year contract at Twentieth Century–Fox, and so abandoned his music career and moved to Hollywood. 

Screenwriter James P. Cavanagh was originally tasked with writing Psycho. The original draft submitted to Hitchcock was deemed "dull," perhaps due to the novel's gore and violence, but more likely it’s lack of originality.

Script-writing duties eventually passed to Stefano, who subsequently altered some portions of the original narrative that greatly appealed to Hitchcock. Stefano begins the film with Marion, whom he believes helped him get the job: 

“The idea excited Hitch. And I got the job. Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before! Hitch suggested a name actress to play Marion because the bigger the star  the more unbelievable it would be that we would kill her. From there, the writing was easy. The only difficulty was switching the audience’s sympathies to Norman after Marion’s death.”

Marion, like the sinister Norman Bates, is portrayed by Stefano as a woman trapped in her own existence. Stefano continued by stating that the novel made it tough to empathise with Norman after Mary (Marion) was dead and gone — Bloch's Norman Bates was middle-aged, overweight, wore glasses, and drank – a stereotypically evil character. Stefano recognised that Norman's appearance and behaviour would have to shift to one of mildness, even deference, in order to maintain the audience's interest and sympathies. 

In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Stefano discussed the process of adapting Bloch’s novel and working with the legendary master of suspense:

CS: In his famous interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock explained that ‘Psycho’ was undertaken as a personal and professional challenge: ‘Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?’ Others have suggested that Hitchcock also wanted to ‘out do’ at the box office all those popular, low budget horror films of the late fifties like the ones produced by William Castle and Roger Corman while, at the same time, making a more intelligent and astonishing film in the vein of Clouzot’s ‘Les Diaboliques’. Were these objectives clear to you when you first became involved with the project in 1959?

JS: In our very first meeting, Hitchcock told me that he’d been impressed by a company called American International which was making movies for less than $200,000 apiece, and he was especially impressed with what the films were doing at the box office. His very words to me at the time were, ‘What if somebody good did one?’ In putting it that way, he wasn’t criticizing American International and the other low-budget production companies; he was just issuing a challenge to himself. Since he was already set up as a production company at Universal for his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was in the perfect position to attempt such a project. So right from the beginning, every single consideration was guided by his idea of doing ‘a low-budget movie’ – not really to prove anything, but simply to make a lot of money. Hitchcock’s movies had always made astonishing amounts of money, but he felt that they were beginning to cost far too much to make. North by Northwest, which he made right before Psycho, starred Cary Grant and had a huge budget, and Hitchcock felt that he wasn’t being appropriately rewarded financially for what he was doing. So he decided that a low-budget success would change all that.

When you first became involved with the project and read Robert Bloch’s novel ‘Psycho’, you clearly disliked the fictional Norman Bates. He was an unpleasant, obese, and balding drunk not to mention his other problems. And you felt it was crucial to make him more sympathetic in the movie. You also felt the same way about the Mary character, later renamed Marion. Did Hitchcock agree with these changes from the start?

Absolutely. My take on how to adapt this book into a movie, which I explained to Hitch in our first meeting, was that it should be about a girl who’s in a dead-end love affair with a man who has serious financial problems. She loves him, but she doesn’t want things to continue as they are – shacking up in cheap hotel rooms over her lunch hour whenever he can get to town. So I described to Hitch what this woman was going through in her sordid life when a wealthy, smarmy man unexpectedly walks into her office at the bank and hands her $60,000 in cash to deposit. And the temptation is just too much for Marion as she later realizes in the parlor scene with Norman. As she says to Norman, we all dig our own little traps, and when she made the decision not to deposit the money, she sealed her fate. It’s a true moment of impulsive madness, but quite different from Norman Bates’s madness. Norman’s madness is a ‘convenient’ madness which works to keep him out of trouble, and which also works to prevent him from confronting his ghosts. Marion’s madness is more like one of those moments when somebody bumps into you on an elevator and you go temporarily mad. Marion irrationally thinks, at that moment, that she can solve all her problems by taking the money, packing her suitcase, and going to her lover and saying, ‘Look, everything’s O.K. now’, which is, of course, insane.

Since you wanted the film to begin with Marion unlike the novel which begins with Norman you conceived and wrote for Hitchcock the opening sequence in which a wide angle shot pans over the Phoenix skyline, gradually moves down to a seedy hotel, enters through one of the windows, and finally finds two lovers concluding their lunch break assignation. I understand that Hitchcock was very pleased with the sequence, but that, unaccustomed to praising writers, he used his wife, Alma, as a ploy to let you know how he felt?

Yes, the notion of starting with Marion was my idea. And before I wrote it, I described to Hitchcock how the film would begin from a POV moving over the city, then descending into a hotel room and revealing two people shacking up during lunch hour. Hitchcock liked the idea very much, and he also liked the idea that it was initially a movie about Marion. Eventually, of course, Marion was going to be killed and taken away from the audience, and then the film would encourage the viewers to sympathize with Norman – who would turn out to be the very person who’d actually killed her. So the film, as I’d initially conceived it, had a kind of structural trick going for it that the book didn’t have, and Hitch liked it very much. At the time, he was scheduled to take a two-week cruise with his wife, and he asked me to write the opening while he was gone. As soon as he got back, he took it home and read it, and the next day we had a meeting, and he said that ‘Alma loved it’. It just wasn’t his way to say it directly.

Subsequent to this, you had several weeks of story conferences with Hitchcock. Could you describe what happened at those meetings?

Strangely enough, we rarely talked about Psycho at all, but he always gave me the feeling that he somehow knew that I was going to write a good script which he could shoot effectively. This, of course, is the rarest gift that a producer or director can give to a writer: total confidence. So in our meetings, we rarely talked about anything specifically relating to the film. I still have my steno notebook from those meetings with maybe three pages of little odds and ends: notions that I had, or something Hitch might mention about something he didn’t like, so I’d make a note of it. But most of the time, we talked about other things. He was extremely interesting, and he was a wonderful person to work with. I was in analysis at the time, and I would go to his office directly from the couch and tell him all about it. He was very interested, and he seemed delighted that I was, I guess, a different kind of animal than he’d worked with before. I was very informal and very expressive, and he seemed to enjoy that.

If, in any of those meetings, Hitchcock ever seemed distracted or disinterested, I would ask him to show me a movie, and when it was over, I’d ask him two-hours worth of questions, and he’d explain everything – even draw diagrams of things. It was quite unbelievable. I remember once asking him why he told the audience the truth about Madeleine halfway through Vertigo, and he explained that there was nowhere else for the audience to go because they would have gotten bored if he didn’t reveal the truth. And that was Hitchcock’s greatest bugaboo: boredom. It was about the only thing that he was really afraid of, and I made a note of it. The whole experience was incredible. There was no place else in the world I could have gotten a better education about filmmaking. Yet, despite all that he taught me, Hitch never interfered with me as a writer. He was perfectly willing to tell me everything I wanted to know, but he clearly felt that the writing was my job. A lot of directors don’t do that, but he had every confidence that I’d come in with a good script.

Was it the opening that gave him such confidence in your abilities? After all, you were a young writer at the time, a former songwriter, with only one feature film, ‘The Black Orchid’ – a family drama about Italian Americans to your credit.

I think so. Fortunately, at our first meeting, he discovered that I had a sense of humor. I know he was a bit concerned about meeting me because he thought The Black Orchid was ‘kitchen sink’ drama, and the only other thing I’d done was a Playhouse 90 – Made in Japan – which had to do with the racial intolerance surrounding a young soldier who gets involved with a Japanese girl in occupied Japan. I guess Hitch thought it was kind of ‘heavy’, and he actually resisted meeting me at first. This was because Hitchcock hated to say ‘no’ to anybody. I later made the mistake of asking him to do something that he didn’t want to do, and I was sorry afterwards. I asked him to look at a film that a friend of mine had made, and it was very awkward. His feeling was, ‘What if I don’t like it?’ He’d rather leave town than tell someone, even an absolute stranger, that he didn’t like his movie. When I realized this, I resolved things and pressed on with the script.

When you began on the full script, were you writing it with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in mind?

Tony Perkins, yes, but Janet Leigh wasn’t locked in yet. Hitch had Perkins in mind mainly because Tony owed Paramount a picture and his price for the picture was much less than his normal rate. In one of our earliest discussions, when I was complaining about the Norman Bates character in the novel, Hitch let me go on for a while, and then finally he said, ‘We can get Tony Perkins.’ And I was delighted. I’d just seen Tony in New York during the final run-through of Look Homeward Angel, and when Hitchcock told me that Tony was Bates, I had this powerful image of Perkins on stage, and said to myself, ‘That’s Norman Bates! That’s exactly who I want it to be!’

Did you ever read the earlier screen adaptation done by James Cavanagh, which Hitchcock didn’t like?

No. I never read that screenplay. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even aware that it existed. The general Hollywood policy at the time was that the studio was supposed to inform the writer’s agent that there’d been an earlier script. But very often, back then, the agent wouldn’t tell the writer, and that’s what happened in this case. Only much later, when somebody at Universal told me about it, did I learn there was an earlier version.

Did you know of William Pinkard’s Paramount memo that described the novel as ‘impossible’ for film adaptation?

Not at the time, but he was right. The novel opens with Norman having a dialogue with his ‘mother’, and there’s no way to shoot that unless you want to show that he’s talking to a corpse. So the novel couldn’t have been adapted as it was, not without major changes.

Did you ever look into the real life case of Edward Gein which, in outline, was far more shocking than either the novel or the eventual movie?

At the time I wrote Psycho, I didn’t know there was such a person. I didn’t find out until a couple of years later when William Friedkin told me about it. He had collected all kinds of information about the real case, and he took me into his office at Universal and showed me. I had no idea that Bloch had loosely based his novel on a real person.

What did you think of the odd structural challenges of the story, particularly the peculiarity you mentioned earlier: the murder of the main character before the film’s half over, and the subsequent shift from Marion’s situation to Norman’s problems?

When I first read the book, I didn’t have any definite thoughts about how to deal with this. All I knew is that by page three or so, it was clear to me that I couldn’t start the movie like the novel. Then on my way over to meet Hitchcock, the idea of making it into a movie about Marion Crane came to me, so I pitched it that way to Hitchcock, and I think that he instantly appreciated that I was solving the big problem with the book. I believe that every audience wants to grab onto somebody almost from the first frame; they want to care about someone. In this film, it was going to be this young woman who steals the $60,000 and then is killed unexpectedly. That was the shocker. My hope was that in the scene between Marion and Norman in the back parlor at the motel everything would be set up right for the audience to deal with the loss. During the parlor scene, when Marion learns about Norman’s life, she gets a renewed perspective on herself. She sees this pathetic guy who’s stuck in something he can’t get out of, and she realizes that she’s also in a similar situation. But she remains sympathetic to Norman, and the audience needs to feel the same way. The scene has to properly prepare the audience to like this pathetic guy because they’re going to lose Marion very soon and unexpectedly.

In the real world, murders happen all the time, and nobody seems to give much of a damn about the victim, and that’s why I felt it was important for the audience to like Marion and sympathize with her before she dies. Then, in the middle of the shock of her death, the audience needs to shift its sympathies to Norman who, we believe, knows that his mother committed the murder. What a horrendous situation for a young man to be in! So the audience, which already kind of likes him from the scene in the parlor – for his shyness and so on – is hopefully prepared to shift its loyalties to Norman. And it worked. If the audience could have gotten on screen and helped Norman get rid of the body, they would have done so. When the car stops sinking in the bog, there was often an audible gasp in the audience because they didn’t want him to get caught. I think that’s the most magical moment in the movie for Tony Perkins as an actor because of the way he stood there and chewed on that candy corn waiting for the car to go down. It was terrific. You just knew there were a lot of other cars down there!

You developed a great deal of personal sympathy for Marion as a woman motivated by love who finally realizes that she can’t buy happiness, especially with stolen money. Did you feel, as Janet Leigh did, that Marion loved Sam more than he loved her?

Janet Leigh thought that?


Well, that’s right. I wanted it clear that Sam loves to come down to Phoenix and see Marion and have sex with her. But he doesn’t seem to think that anything more than that is absolutely necessary. This was not such a strange thought for a man, even in 1959: ‘Shouldn’t we both be happy? We’re having sex after all’. But I don’t feel that Marion stole the money just for Sam; I think she felt she was in a desperate situation, and her sense of morality was giving her ulcers. She didn’t think she could go on shacking up anymore – having sex on her lunch hour in sleazy hotels where the people didn’t care about her when she checked in, but they wanted her to check out on time. Marion felt disposable and demeaned, and when the chance came, she tried to do something about it.

In the Truffaut interview, Hitchcock described the first part of the movie as a ‘red herring’ as a way of distracting the audience’s ‘attention in order to heighten the murder’. He found the film a ‘very interesting construction’ and felt that the ‘game with the audience was fascinating’. Did he really approach the film in that way?

Well, that’s certainly true in the sense that Hitchcock felt that everything one does is a game. And he also loved theatricality. He always wanted to stimulate his audiences, and he clearly liked cinematic tricks as so many of his films have shown. He especially liked Vertigo because there was a great trick in it, yet, at the same time, I don’t think that he was unaware of the psychological or emotional aspects of whatever he was filming. But with a number of his films before Psycho, like To Catch a Thief, for example, there’s not much characterization involved, with the astounding exception of Vertigo. He’d gotten into what I call his ‘marshmallow Technicolor’ period in which the characters acted just like the movie stars portraying them. They were big, lush movies – a pleasure to watch – and you could sense the good time they all had making them, but there wasn’t much depth. Then just before Psycho, with North by Northwest, Hitchcock got back to his strengths again. He put a man in such a harrowing situation that it would make you scream if you were in it, and then made the man work through it somehow. In a way, this is what Marion was also trying to do. She was trying to work through this awful situation she was in, but she just happened to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. So Psycho had both the Hitchcock tricks as well as the depth of some of his earlier films.

One of the many themes in ‘Psycho’ is voyeurism, most clearly portrayed by Norman’s looking through his peephole as Marion undresses for the shower. Many critics feel that the film is not only an indictment of voyeurism in general, but a specific indictment of the voyeurism of movie viewers what Hitchcock called ‘Peeping Tom audiences’. The film seems to manipulate the viewer into rooting for a thief hoping she’ll escape from the policeman, for example and then shifts the viewer’s allegiance to the seemingly pathetic soul who covers up her murder going so far, as you’ve mentioned, to hope that the car with Marion’s corpse will sink completely into the swamp. The film’s clever manipulation of audience identification seems to make the viewer unusually involved and even complicit in the main characters’ guilt. How do you feel about all this?

That’s true right up until the murder, but then the audience, amazingly, forgets completely about Marion. One reason that we’re so quick to nullify the victim is because we can’t stand the thought of the death and loss, so the best thing to do is turn our attention elsewhere. I became even more aware of this after the film was made, and I watched it with a general audience. Despite our previous concern for Marion, we don’t want to worry about her dead body, and we’re ready to move on. In a more general sense, I think a fundamental essence of watching films is voyeuristic because we intrude so deeply into the characters’ lives – while sitting in the dark. It’s not necessarily sexual, although it can be, but its power to involve us with the characters is incredible. The very first movie that I can recall seeing was Greta Garbo’s version of Anna Karenina where she dies at the end. As a child, I was horribly upset because I thought that Garbo had actually died, so my mother had to explain that she was just pretending to die. That helped a lot, but I was still greatly affected. The intimate situations that we watch movie characters deal with are utterly personal, and the more personal, the more successful the film. Hitchcock clearly understood this basis aspect of film, and he knew how to exploit it.

In adapting the novel, you made quite a few significant changes beginning the film in Phoenix, eliminating Norman’s interest in the occult, showing the shower murder in detail, substituting the telling piece of ripped paper for an earring, having ‘Mother’ confront the insurance detective at the top of the stairs rather than at the front door, and so on. I’d like to ask you about a few others. One was using the voice overs to let the audience know what Marion was thinking as she was driving away from Phoenix.

One day, when we were talking about the film, I said to Hitch, ‘It’s a shame that we don’t have time to show what’s happened back in Phoenix’, and he said, ‘Yes, it would really be something to show how they’re all reacting back in the city’. So I thought, what if we did it – what if I wrote those scenes as Marion might have imagined them. This was especially enjoyable because Marion could give her own characterizations of the people she left behind – like the wealthy guy who made a pass at her who she now imagines is saying that he’ll get his revenge on ‘her fine soft flesh’, and so on. Of course, it’s something we all do. We leave a party, and we wonder what they’re saying about us now that we’re gone – a kind of fantasizing. So I wrote up those scenes, then cut down the dialogue, and then we used them as voice-overs. For Psycho, as I always do, I wrote many scenes which didn’t appear in the final screenplay, and, in this case, they turned out to be especially useful.

In the later parts of the novel, there’s clearly a romance blossoming between Marion’s lover, Sam, and her sister, Lila, but it’s not really there in the movie?

Yes, I felt that would be distracting, but I also didn’t want to do that to Marion. I didn’t want to show Sam meeting with her, loving her on whatever level he loved her, having sex with her, and then, as soon as she’s killed, just turning around and saying, ‘I wonder if there are any more like her at home?’ I felt it was too cheap and crappy, and I always appreciated the fact that neither Vera Miles nor John Gavin ever gave any indication of a romantic attraction in their performances. Even though it wasn’t actually in the script, actors could still project it anyway – with a look or gesture. But Vera and John didn’t, and I was very grateful. Ironically, the only scene that Hitch cut from the screenplay was a three-minute scene in one of the motel rooms between the sister and the lover where they finally realize that Marion’s really dead. They’ve both lost somebody very important in their lives, and it’s a moving scene, but Hitch felt that it slowed the narrative down too much for the audience. I don’t think he would cut that scene today.

At the very end of the movie, the psychiatrist attempts to explain Norman’s condition, whereas in the novel, Sam and Lila speculate on Norman’s problems.

Yes, I didn’t feel that they would know enough to explain things properly. Not only weren’t they aware of many things, but where would they get all the technical information? On the other hand, I felt it was absolutely necessary to have things explained to the audience. I never believed the film should end with Norman weeping in the cellar, and the audience going, ‘Oh, it’s Norman!’ Then blackout, ‘The End’. The audience, I believe, would feel cheated and unresolved, so I had the film shift quickly to the authorities. I also didn’t want Sam and Lila driving off in his truck and talking things over because I wanted to keep the audience within the world of the crimes, and the subsequent legalities as well, in order to help them resolve their feelings.

But that scene, as you know, is probably the most criticized aspect of a movie that’s generally considered an overall masterpiece. How do you feel about that now?

My own opinion is that the problem with the scene is the way it was performed by the very actor that I recommended for the part! Simon Oakland orated the scene which wasn’t at all how I’d envisioned the psychiatrist explaining things. My feeling was that the police had already given this doctor all the facts, and that he’d talked to Norman, and that he’d put it all together. But Simon did stuff that was a little too broad for the role, and Hitch was always afraid that the scene was what he called a ‘hat grabber’. But I disagreed. No one was going to grab his hat. Everyone wanted to know what happened. It just needed to be performed a bit more naturally.

I read somewhere that Hitchcock required only one sequence rewritten from your original screenplay and that was making the highway cop less flirtatious and more threatening?

Yes, I originally had him as a sort of charming guy who was coming on to Marion. Hitch originally liked the idea, but then he felt it wasn’t right for this particular movie because he needed the cop to be more threatening. And he was right because we needed the audience to feel frightened that the cop would pull Marion in and catch her with the stolen money. The irony, of course, is that later you realize that you were frightened about something that would have saved her life.

One of the great peculiarities of the script is that Marion goes through with the car transfer even though she knows the policeman is watching her. The English critic Robin Wood suggests the reason is that Marion, in her theft of the $60,000, has lost control of herself that she’s gone a ‘little mad’ as Norman puts it later. Is that correct?

Absolutely. I also used it as a way to show that, at this point at least, absolutely nothing can stop Marion from proceeding with things. If she can’t stop the transaction of the car when a cop is watching her, then she clearly doesn’t have the sense to get into her car and drive back to Phoenix. At that point in her flight, Marion should have turned around, gone home, and deposited the money where it was supposed to be. But she can’t. She’s lost control. She can only dig herself in deeper and deeper.

After her talk with Norman about the ‘traps’ that human beings get caught in, Marion finally decides to undo what she’s done, drive back to Phoenix, and return the stolen money. Then she goes to her motel room and symbolically washes away her guilt in the purifying, baptismal waters of the shower. In the Truffaut interview, the French director asked Hitchcock, ‘What was it that attracted you to the novel?’ and Hitchcock replied, ‘I think that the thing that appealed to me and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue. That was about all’. But there’s very little detail about the shower murder in the novel.

That’s right, there’s just a few lines at the end of the third chapter. Mary, the Marion character, is in the shower, the door opens, a butcher knife appears, and it cuts off her head. That last part was especially appalling and unbelievable – the murderer cutting off her head. If Bloch had said, ‘stabbed her and stabbed her and stabbed her’, I would have been sickened enough by it, but to cut off her head was way too much, not to mention unlikely, since I’m sure it isn’t very easy to cut off someone’s head with a single blow.

The shower scene is one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history, and it’s probably been analyzed more times than the famous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence from Battleship Potemkin. On the set, Hitchcock broke from his fast paced, low budget schedule, and spent seven full days shooting this single scene, using over seventy camera setups for forty five seconds on the screen. Were you aware, while you were writing the script, of the attention that would be paid to this one scene by the director?

Naturally, I knew that it was a crucial scene in the movie, but I also knew that there was no way that I could actually write out in the screenplay everything that we wanted to show on the screen. So Hitchcock and I, despite his usual reticence about discussing the picture, talked about the shower scene at great length, especially the absolute terror of being naked and wet when you’re suddenly attacked, completely helpless, and unable to defend yourself. Nevertheless, despite all our discussions, when I actually watched the scene being shot I was amazed that Hitch was doing so many setups. The original shooting schedule gave no indication of a seven-day shoot, and everything had been carefully arranged by Hitchcock to make it look like a single afternoon of filming. Naturally, there was a great deal of secrecy surrounding the scene, and Hitch didn’t want anybody to know a damn thing about it – or the rest of the movie for that matter. Very early on, he’d told me point blank that he didn’t want me to discuss the picture with anyone. Not exactly in those words, but his meaning was clear. So when people would say, ‘I hear you’re writing a movie for Hitchcock?’ I’d have to say, ‘Well, it’s not really settled yet’, or something evasive like that.

Since you were on the set almost every day of shooting, I wonder if you could resolve a few long standing questions about that famous scene? For example, did Saul Bass, who did the storyboards for the scene, actually direct any of it?

I truly don’t understand that bizarre story. In all honestly, Saul Bass’s claim that he directed the shower scene is the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard about the making of Psycho. We all knew, of course, that he’d been assigned to design the storyboards, which he did and did well. So maybe in some peculiar way, he came to believe that by doing the storyboards, he’d somehow ‘directed’ the scene, which is, of course, nonsense. I was there every day for seven days, and Hitchcock directed every shot. Ironically, one of my favorite memories of the making of the film is Hitch standing next to the shower calmly directing the naked model that he’d brought in so Janet Leigh wouldn’t have to perform in the nude.

Were any shots of the body double, Marli Renfro, used in the final cut?

I’m not sure. I don’t think that there’s anything shown in the scene that couldn’t have been Janet Leigh. It seems to me that we were on Janet’s face and shoulders most of the time in the scene, so I’m not quite sure where the model is – if she’s there at all.

Does the knife actually touch the flesh? Hitchcock told Truffaut and many others that ‘the knife never touched the body’, but Donald Spoto, in ‘The Darker Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock’, claims that one of Hitchcock’s two important additions to the Bass layout was ‘the quick shot of the knife entering the woman’s abdomen’. The film itself seems to bear out Spoto’s contention.

I don’t know, but I never saw that kind of special effect shot being done on the set. I know there’s definitely a shot in the film where it looks like the knife touches and penetrates, but I’m not sure. I don’t think Hitch would have been satisfied with a retractable knife or a fake torso. He certainly wasn’t shy about artificial things, but I don’t think he would have done it for this particular scene.

Despite the unforgettable horror of Marion’s murder and some critics’ musings about its abject meaninglessness, the scene seems to have two important meanings for someone with Hitchcock’s Jesuit training. One is that Marion has been punished for her crime in the very way that she imagined earlier in the car with her ‘fine soft flesh’. Second, and more important, is that Marion dies repentant of her crime and seemingly purified which makes her even more sympathetic to the audience and heightens her terrible tragedy. How do you feel about that?

Yes, that’s true. During her talk with Norman in the parlor, Marion realizes how trapped the young man is, and she decides to escape her own predicament, and I think that’s why the audience cares so much about her. At the time I wrote the screenplay, I was very upset by all the supposedly ‘meaningless’ murders that were happening in our society, and I couldn’t bring myself to see how any murder of a human being could be meaningless. As for Hitchcock’s attitudes, I must admit that I’ve never really thought about it before, but Hitchcock and I definitely came from similar religious backgrounds. I was raised a Catholic, and although I’d left the faith, so to speak, we both had a similar moral sense, and, for both of us, it seemed much more terrible – and affecting – for someone to be killed after she’s finally gotten back on the right track and washed herself clean.

I wonder if we could also talk about the other classic scene of terror in the movie: the death of the detective?

Hitch and I had quite a few long talks about that scene too, since it’s so crucial that the audience continues to believe that ‘mother’ is mother. In the novel, ‘mother’ comes down the stairs and kills the detective at the front door. So I suggested that we reverse things and follow Marty Balsam up the stairs and then keep the camera rising up to a high crane shot before ‘mother’ comes out at the top of the stairs. Then things would happen so fast that the audience would think that they’d actually seen the old woman as she stabs the detective and knock him down the stairs. And Hitch liked the idea very much, and he felt that it would work, but he was worried because it would cost him about $25,000 to build the crane into the set. In the end, he finally decided to do it, and the scene was very successful. Many people who saw the finished picture were absolutely convinced that they’d seen Norman’s mother in the scene, but, of course, they only saw the top of her head.

Along with these powerful moments of terror, the film is full of many themes and key images that delineate the characters for example, the notion of secrets (everyone has one), voyeurism, the stuffed birds, and the countless mirrors. Late in the film, when Lila is exploring Norman’s room, a number of specific details help define Norman’s character. One is a book with a blank cover which Lila opens up and stares at just before the film cuts away from her face. One critic has wondered if it’s a ‘family album’, but in the novel, it’s a book with ‘almost pathologically pornographic’ illustrations. Was this dropped in deference to the more sympathetic portrayal of Norman in the film, or was it just too hard to relay to the audience?

Well, I wanted the audience to see Norman as a suffocated young man who constantly seeks sexual stimulation, but I didn’t want it to come from pathological pornography – maybe just pictures of women in corsets or something like that. So it was definitely muted from the novel. Another detail in that same scene is the record of Beethoven’s Eroica, which Hitchcock got very excited about. He felt it was a very telling detail. There was, I can remember, a lot of tightrope walking in constructing that scene in screenplay format. I needed to quickly convey a few things about Norman that were further indications that something was quite wrong, but it couldn’t be spelled out or overdone.

After the film was edited by George Tomasini and scored with the masterful music of Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock was apparently worried about ‘Psycho’s commercial possibilities and even considered cutting it down to an hour for his television show. Were you aware of this at the time?

No, I never heard him say anything like that. As a matter of fact, when he showed me the first rough cut, I was quite disturbed, and he patted my knee and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a rough cut’. It looked terrible – like all rough cuts look – but this was only the second one I’d ever seen, and the editor had put in absolutely everything. There were tremendously long pauses, and all kinds of crap that was gone by the next time I saw it. When I did see the second cut, I knew it was a good movie, but a ‘good movie’ in the sense that Laura was a good movie: just one of those dark movies that it’s nice to have in your credits.

Despite some initial panning by a number of film reviewers, ‘Psycho’ proved to be an enormous success with audiences eventually turning an investment of $800,000 into over $20 million in profits. But in the wake of the film, many people felt that the career of the film’s star, Anthony Perkins, was greatly damaged by the inevitable stereotyping. Did this happen to you as well?

Absolutely, throughout the sixties and seventies, I was always being offered the ‘new’ Psycho, and I seldom had a chance to write other kinds of pictures. I guess the size of the reaction to that kind of movie is just too huge. It blocks out everything else. Then I also made my own mistake, if any of this can be called a mistake, by becoming a producer and writer for The Outer Limits not long after Psycho. That put the final nail in the coffin. I remember a few years later, I was able to write a movie for CBS called A Death of Innocence with Shelley Winters about a woman who discovers that her daughter, who’s been charged with murder, really is guilty. It was a deep, heartfelt kind of movie, and about two days after it was aired, I went to a meeting at CBS on some other matter, and everyone there was talking about the fact that the ratings for the movie were fantastic and that everybody thought it was wonderful picture. Then someone said something nice about the script, and I said, ‘Thank you’. But the man looked at me strangely, so I said that I’d written the screenplay, and he said, almost reflexively, ‘No, you didn’t’. It was quite a blow to realize that even when I’d done something completely different from Psycho – and very successfully – people still couldn’t accept it. I really didn’t know that people in the industry still had such narrow mind-sets. It was like the casting of the studio movies in the thirties and the forties – where the character actors always did the same thing in every picture. Well, that was how Hollywood continually stereotyped certain established screenwriters.

Aside from ‘Psycho’, you also wrote the original treatment for ‘Marnie’ when Grace Kelly was still involved in the project. But then Hitchcock did ‘The Birds’, and you began producing and writing the very popular television show ‘The Outer Limits’. Is that why you were unable to do the script for ‘Marnie’?

Yes, Hitch put it on the shelf when Kelly dropped out, and when he decided to use Tippi Hedren, he called me up, but I was in production on The Outer Limits, and there was no way I could get out of it. So Hitchcock went ahead with Jay Presson Allen, and I was very disappointed that she made some key changes from the book which I’m surprised Hitchcock went along with. His original fascination with that book was the triangle among the young woman who steals, her husband, and her psychiatrist. But Allen unfortunately decided to combine the two male characters into one. Nevertheless, I still like the film quite a bit.

In discussing Alfred Hitchcock for Janet Leigh’s 1995 book about the making of ‘Psycho’, you said of the director, ‘I don’t think he ever recovered from ‘Psycho’’. Why do you feel this way?

I think he felt that, in a strange way, he’d made a movie that trapped him inside his TV persona. I don’t know this to be a fact, but it’s just how I see it. Audiences loved him on the TV show, and they wanted more Psycho. So he decided to make The Birds, but I felt that the birds themselves were not a good enough killer. Since I still had a two-picture deal with Hitchcock, I turned down the assignment for The Birds, and he picked a novelist to do it. Marnie was the picture I wanted to write, but he had to postpone it after Grace Kelly backed out of it. He was very angry about that at the time. I never saw him so pissed off at anyone. He was very hurt, and that’s the worst kind of pissed off to be when you hurt, too.

What do you make of Hitchcock’s numerous remarks that ‘Psycho’ was made in ‘fun’. He said that ‘You have to remember that “Psycho” was made with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me, it’s a fun picture. The process through which we take the audience, you see, [is] rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground’. What do you make of that? The humorous ‘Psycho’ trailer seems to reinforce the idea.

That trailer was written by the same guy who wrote all Hitchcock’s intros for the TV show. Hitch liked this persona so much because the public liked it, and it made him a star. The truth is, Hitch was not very well treated by the Hollywood establishment, even though he’d clearly found a niche for himself, so he greatly enjoyed the public’s adulation – and he wasn’t about to give it up. So he did the tongue-in-cheek trailer for Psycho, just liked he did with the TV productions. It was all part of Hitchcock trapping himself within his television persona, but the movie itself is another matter. He might have had fun making it, but he took it seriously.

Speaking of humor, is it true that Hitchcock received a letter from a man complaining that his daughter wouldn’t take a bath after seeing ‘Les Diaboliques’ and wouldn’t take a shower after seeing ‘Psycho’, so Hitchcock suggested that the man have his daughter ‘dry cleaned’?

I’ve heard the story! But I’m not sure if it’s true.

Does it sound like Hitchcock?

It definitely sounds like him, but I can’t picture him actually responding to the letter. But who knows?

Despite Hitchcock’s well known sense of humor, ‘Psycho’ clearly represents a significant shift in the vision of his films. It’s definitely a much darker vision where violence is shown in all its horror and where sexuality is implied in an unprecedented manner. There have been many theories as to why this happened when it did some critics have even suggested that it was the result of his difficulties with some of his leading ladies but you once suggested that it was really the result of the famous director’s struggle to deal with his own mortality. Could you discuss this?

Yes. The year before he made Psycho, both Hitch and his wife had been quite ill, and he’d had a very serious surgery and lost a lot of weight. At the time we were working on Psycho, he hardly looked like the Hitchcock that we’re all familiar with. It’s very possible that this affected his overall vision, but, at the same time, I’ve always felt that his primary motive for making Psycho was the desire to make a successful, low-budget movie in which he could share heavily in the profits. Despite all his success, Hitchcock had money problems, and he wanted to feel more financially secure.

Whatever Hitchcock’s motives, critics have compared ‘Psycho’ with the ‘Oresteia’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Crime and Punishment’, and Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’. Richard Schickel has described the film as ‘one of the crucial cultural artifacts of this era,’ and Donald Spoto has called it ‘one of the great works of modern American art’. Why do you think that this low budget, unpretentious masterpiece of cinematic horror continually inspires such serious commentary?

I really don’t know. I think it might have been a case of timing. It might have appealed to the public so much because they felt that it was saying something no one else had articulated yet. Important pieces often become so because they say something that no one else has managed to express. With Psycho, it might have been a heightened sense of mortality, societal violence, and moral responsibility. It was very unsettling to an audience to see a film where the star – one they’d come to care for – suddenly is killed halfway through the picture. Just a few years after the film came out, Americans were astonished and horrified by the much-publicized death of Kitty Genovese in New York City where she was attacked, yelled out for help, and nobody did anything – even though many people heard her chilling, desperate cries. It was very upsetting, and it made everyone reconsider violence in our society and our responses to it. Maybe Psycho did something similar to audiences. Maybe it touched a nerve – and still does. I think the film aroused in the audience some of the guilt we would all later face when we heard about Kitty Genovese and wondered what we would have done if we’d heard her calls for help. Maybe Psycho makes us think about similar things, even subconsciously, ‘I heard the girl screaming for help, and I didn’t do anything. Then I saw him bury the car, and I didn’t do anything. And then I didn’t think about her very much anymore – even though she was a human being and one I cared for’. Maybe the public was ready for that in 1960. All I know is that people still feel compelled to talk to me about that film, especially Marion’s death in the shower. And not only do they talk about it, but they seem to need to talk about it. It’s necessary somehow, and maybe that’s what we’re all responding to.

– ‘Creative Screenwriting – Interview with Joseph Stefano’. (


Thursday, 26 August 2021

Writing with Luis Buñuel

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Directed by Luis Buñuel)

The range of Jean-Claude Carriere’s collaborations over nearly six decades is extraordinary: Jesús Franco (The Diabolical Dr. Z), Louis Malle (Viva Maria!, The Thief of Paris, May Fools), Jacques Deray (La piscine, Borsalino, The Outside Man, Le gang), Christian de Chalonge (The Wedding Ring, in which Carrière stars alongside Anna Karina), Marco Ferreri (Love to Eternity), Patrice Chéreau (The Flesh of the Orchid), Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, Circle of Deceit, Swann in Love, The Ogre), Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself, Passion), Daniel Vigne (The Return of Martin Guerre), Andrzej Wajda (Danton, The Possessed), Nagisa Oshima (Max mon amour), Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac), Héctor Babenco (At Play in the Fields of the Lord), Wayne Wang (Chinese Box), and Philippe Garrel (In the Shadow of Women, Lover for a Day, The Salt of Tears).

All the while, Carrière carried on writing novels and working in the theater, and he considered his friendship and professional relationship with the legendary Peter Brook as vital as the one he had with Buñuel. With Brook he worked on theatrical productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, while their mounting of The Mahabharata, a nine-hour play based on the Sanskrit epic was a landmark achievement. 

As a screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere collaborated with Luis Bunuel on six film classics including The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie and Belle Du Jour. Here he describes their unique way of working:

Buñuel had a type of surreal, I would say, tendency, or inclination and I did as well. We were never rational. When he made An Andalusian Dog, his first film with Salvador Dali they had one rule. The rule was that when one of them proposed an idea the other had three seconds, no more, to say yes or no. They didn't want the brain to intervene. They wanted an instinctive reaction coming, hopefully, from their subconscious.

We used this process often although it was not easy. When you propose something you always want to explain your reasons for why you proposed this or that. And that must be - you know - put aside. It is a very difficult way of working. It requires a very alert mind to constantly be creative and invent and find new things to propose - all without becoming exhausted. Gradually, step by step you discover, and I'm quoting Buñuel here, that the human imagination is a muscle that can be trained and developed like memory. It is one of the faculties of the brain that knows no limits. If I learned one thing from Buñuel, that would be it.

In an interview with the BFI, Carriere explains his working methods on their final collaboration on Buñuel’s memoirs My Last Sigh (1982).

“He couldn’t work any more – he was 79 or 80. When I proposed that we write a book about him he refused, so to convince him I wrote one of the chapters, just as if I were Buñuel himself. When he read it, he said, ‘I think I wrote it!’ And I said, Well, in a way you did’, because from talking to him so much I knew his character and his history. So then we started to work exactly as if it were a script: working together in the morning, talking, then me alone in the afternoon, writing. The imagination is a seamless capacity of the mind. But it is also a sort of muscle.”

An obituary piece in, tells the story of Carriere’s first encounter with Luis Buñuel. 

It was in Cannes, and Buñuel, already in his early sixties, was looking for a young collaborator for his next project, an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid. His producer had tipped him off to a promising talent who, in his early thirties, had already written a novel (Lizard, 1957), worked with Jacques Tati, and made an Oscar-winning short film with Pierre Etaix, Happy Anniversary (1962).

Buñuel approached Carrière and asked, seemingly out of the blue, “Do you drink wine?” Carrière immediately sensed that this was a make-or-break question. Not only did he drink wine, Carrière was happy to report, he made it. He’d been raised by a family of vintners in southwestern France. That first lunch together went so well that Carrière skipped out on the festival and headed straight home to bone up on his Mirbeau. Within a few weeks, he and Buñuel had launched a collaboration that would produce six features as well as Buñuel’s 1982 autobiography, My Last Sigh, which, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New York Times, “may be quite simply the loveliest testament ever left by a film director.”

Carrière had been captivated by movies since he was a child, and as a teenaged student in Lyon, he ran a film club. “I was very stirred up at the age of twenty by Los Olvidados and Él,” he told Jason Weis in the International Herald Tribune in 1983, referring to two of Buñuel’s films from the early 1950s. “Buñuel is clearly a greater man than Picasso,” he added. “You have to go all the way back to Goya to find a figure of that importance. That is, Picasso is a great painter, but he’s only a painter. You can write books, make films, without ever thinking of Picasso. But whatever you do, in the Spanish world, whether you’re a novelist, painter, filmmaker of course, man of theater—at a given moment you’re going to meet up with Buñuel.”

At the outset, Carrière’s admiration for the director got in the way of their work together. Buñuel insisted that his writing partner stop approving of every idea he floated. He had to learn how to say no. Buñuel introduced a working method he’d picked up from the Surrealists, the veto. One partner proposes an idea and the other has mere seconds to deliver a thumbs up or down. “Once somebody says ‘No,’ the other one had no right to discuss,” Carrière explained to Colleen Kelsey in Interview in 2015. “He was looking for the first instinctive reaction of his partner without any reasoning. When you start reasoning, you can justify anything. But when you give a very immediate and instinctive reaction, you cannot . . . It’s a very beautiful way of working; one trusts the other.”

In Belle de jour (1967), their second collaboration, Catherine Deneuve plays Séverine, a housewife who lives out her sexual fantasies at an upscale bordello. For Melissa Anderson, this is Buñuel’s “most intricate character study—but of a protagonist who resists definition; the heroine, frequently trussed up and mussed up, retains an odd, opaque dignity in her debauchery.” Deneuve’s Séverine is an “exquisite blank slate lost in her own masochistic fantasies and onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected.” Buñuel and Carrière’s films are never defined by character because “psychology is enemy number one,” as Carrière told Weis. “Because it paralyzes and limits.”

In 2019, on the occasion of a Carrière retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Lawrence Garcia surveyed the filmography for the Notebook. Regarding his work with Buñuel, Garcia found that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which the dinner plans of six middle-class friends are interrupted over and again, is “the ideal instance of the pair’s collaborations, while The Phantom of Liberty [1974], though its stock has risen since its original run, tests the desirability of their methods in pure, uncut form.” With That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Carrière and Buñuel “craft a fine career-capper.