Monday, 6 December 2021

John Michael Hayes: On Writing Rear Window

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, the screenplay for Rear Window was Hayes’ first project with a major director. A keen writer of dialogue, Hayes quickly understood that because Hitchcock grew up in silent films, he had a tendency to rely on the camera as much as possible. He later recalled: ‘I caught some of that spirit. Hitchcock taught me about how to tell a story with the camera and tell it silently.’

Rear Window (1954) is an enthralling Hitchcockian filmic study of human obsession and voyeurism. This cinematic masterpiece was shot entirely on a single set constructed at Paramount Studios - a realistic courtyard comprised of 32 apartments at a fictitious Manhattan address. Each of the other tenants provides an astute commentary on marriage and a comprehensive survey of male/female relations, while the protagonist observes them via his'rear window.' The camera angles are mostly from the protagonist's apartment, which means that the film spectator (in a dark theatre) sees the tenants of the other flats almost exclusively via his eyes - sharing in his voyeuristic surveillance. 

Parallel to the crime-thriller theme of mysterious apartment neighbours is the struggle of the passively observant and immobile protagonist (James Stewart), a magazine photographer who is impotently confined to a wheelchair while recuperating in his Greenwich Village apartment and fearful of marriage's imprisoning effects. Confined by his plaster cast, he fights to overcome his ambivalence and unwillingness to marry his high-fashion model fiancee-girlfriend (Grace Kelly).

Rear Window grows into an immersive universe, and Alfred Hitchcock brilliantly places us in it to the point that we are compelled to participate in the film’s narrative. We are, in a sense, accomplices in the protagonist’s voyeurism. 

Working with his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Robert Burks, Hitchcock moves the camera gracefully and purposefully through the play area he has created. The camera catches items with intent and a clarity that goes beyond merely creating the sense of being in the area; it creates the sensation of being right there with Stewart, staring out into the courtyard. 

You also get a sense of the genuine core of visual filmmaking, as his ability to suggest and even persuade the audience is imprinted on us by what he thinks vital. Hitchcock establishes practically all of Stewart's biography in a wordless tour of his room as our protagonist sleeps.

Hitchcock builds suspense incrementally via various changes in perspective, time of day, and persons entering and exiting the building. Our one point of contact is Stewart, who is confined to a wheelchair.

The primary focus of Rear Window is a horrific mystery thriller that unfolds in a methodical manner that is unsettling in part because Hitchcock has condensed everything into a limited area. Additionally, he has disabled his protagonist, and the outsiders continuously urge us to second guess or reconsider our preconceptions, whether it's Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jefferies' police officer pal (Wendell Corey), or his best friend Lisa. Each character stands in opposition to Jefferies at various points while also serving as a sounding board for his implausible notions that begin to show some resemblance to reality. We have the opportunity to be a part of it all. 

As with Vertigo four years later, there is an unsettling sensation that Hitchcock is tapping into some of humanity's fundamental urges to watch and spy on others for pleasure without consequence or vulnerability.

The critic Chris Wehner takes up this idea in a 2002 interview with John Michael Hayes in which he discusses the writing of Rear Window. It provides a fascinating insight into Hayes’ working methods and his relationship with the great director:

Rear Window is considered to be Hitchcock’s most ‘cinematic‘ picture. At times it had to communicate a lot to the audience without a word ever being spoken. This isn’t surprising as Hitchcock started directing in 1922, during the silent era, making several silent films. By 1954, the year Rear Window was released he had clearly mastered the art of directing. However, before he could unleash his visual brilliance there had to be a great script from which to allow such a great movie to be made.

Think of the drawbacks to the story. First, the protagonist is bound to a wheelchair and is most of the time a reactive participant who is essentially isolated. Second, the antagonist doesn’t say more than a dozen words (at least that we hear), and isn’t confrontational with the protagonist until the very end. Hitchcock often said, ‘the better the villain, the better the picture.’ The obstacles placed in the protagonist’s way were rooted in circumstance and happenstance – nothing placed by the antagonist. Thirdly, the entire movie takes place in an apartment and what is seen from the window. What might at first be seen as limitations were most likely viewed as cinematic possibilities and challenges that Hitchcock could not refuse.

John Michael Hayes’ screenplay was based on Cornell Woolrich’s original 1942 short story ‘It Had to Be Murder’. He was assigned to write the script after one meeting with Hitchcock.

Hitchcock didn’t sign on to direct the picture until after reading a thirteen page treatment by playwright Joshua Logan. Logan’s work laid the foundation from which Hayes wrote his treatment.

The short story lacked several important details which were added to the screenplay. It did not have a strong female character, or love interest, and Logan keenly injected that into the narrative. But, for the most part, it stuck closely to the source material. Logan’s treatment opens with New York City and Jefferies (the name is spelled ‘Jeffries‘ in Woolrich’s story and Logan’s treatment), who’s isolated in his apartment due to a broken leg in a cast. Logan created Trink, a love interest for Jeff, who is later renamed Lisa by Hayes. Also, in Logan’s treatment, Jeff is a sports writer, which is later changed to a photographer by Hayes. As in the final movie, Logan’s treatment has Jeff’s love interest go into the killer’s (Thorwald) apartment where she is discovered. The killer later comes after Jefferies when he is alone. But before he can kill Jefferies he is himself killed. Which, of course, was changed by Hayes.

Logan’s treatment clearly laid the foundation for Hayes to build on, but it had several problems and lacked numerous elements that Hitchcock and Hayes would add to strengthen the story: story elements, richer characters, more conflict, and better visuals.

Hayes constructed a convincing narrative with richly drawn characters and keenly raised the emotion and drama by injecting well placed conflict. Hayes knew that everything hinged on Jefferies’ character. He had to build a sympathetic protagonist the audience would absolutely love spending time with in order for the movie to work. He fleshed out Jefferies’ background, his relationship with Lisa, and his own internal conflict and emotional resolve. The result is a classic Thriller.

Tell me about your first meeting with Hitchcock.
I was given a copy of the Woolrich story by my agent, and was told to meet with Hitchcock later that week for dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My job was simple: Read the Woolrich piece, and be prepared to discuss it in great detail and length. It was not unlike preparing for the most important book report of one’s life.

The meeting itself was a near fiasco. It felt much more like a personal test of endurance than anything resembling a story conference. Hitchcock arrived late and, with time to sit and worry over his arrival, I had a couple of drinks, which I wasn’t entirely used to. Upon his arrival, we had a feast for the ages, along with copious amounts of alcohol.

Plied by the liquor, I rambled on for much too long about Hitchcock’s prior films. And I wasn’t entirely complimentary. Hitchcock appeared to listen, but once the meal itself was finished he abruptly left. And we had never even spoken about Rear Window at all. Later, after returning home, my wife asked how the meeting went. I told her we’d better start packing our bags, as I felt quite strongly that my opportunity with Hitchcock had vanished along with any future career I had envisioned in the industry.

Amazingly, upon reporting for work on Monday, I was told that Hitchcock immensely enjoyed our dinner and that I was to be hired immediately.

When you started working on a story in outline or treatment form, did you start with characterizations, plot, situations, structure, or what?
In crafting any story, you need to go into it holding dearly a clear understanding of where it is you want to end up. If you delve into a script with no clear concept of how you want it to end, you’ll flounder while looking for ways out of the problems you’ve brought upon your own script. In other words, any lack of direction in regards to your ending directly affects the entire script itself. You’ll spend days trying to re-vamp problems you’ve created by not having a clear direction from the get-go.

In Rear Window there isn’t your typical strong villain and the protagonist is bound to a wheelchair, so how difficult was it to maintain a level of tension and suspense? 
Having non-typical characters was of no real hindrance to the establishment of tension and suspense. In reality, there was a lot to work with. With a non-typical villain, you had the built-in opportunity to engage the characters in a ‘It couldn’t be him. Could it? He’s just a regular fellow’ form of banter, just as much as having the protagonist limited in his physical actions helped the suspense of, ‘How in the world is he going to defend himself, if need be?’ Writers sometimes habitually overdo it in how their characters move, act, and depict themselves. Grand flourish in a villain works for Bond movies, I suppose, but, in the world you and I live in, true villains don’t act as such. At least not on any level you or I may have experienced. There’s a form of everyday villainy that is largely forgotten now in cinema. And that’s what audiences can align best with –what it is they see and know in everyday life.

You really fleshed out Cornell Woolrich’s short story by adding the love story and fully developing Jefferies’ character, among other things, which were not in the book. Was this your idea or Hitchcock’s? 
The idea of adding the Fremont character was mine, and it was based upon my wife, Mel, who was in fact a high fashion model herself. The love interest is a requirement, or at least it was at the time and place in which the story was crafted. My opinion was, and still is, that we all fall very hard in love sooner or later, and can clearly relate to the concept of peril brought upon those that we strongly care about. As well as the simple fact that having a headstrong, yet imperiled, female character could add a great bounty to the story. As for Jefferies, it was necessary simply due to the relative brevity of the original work. That much was clearly visible by all from the beginning of the project.

While you were writing the treatment and script for Rear Window, how involved was Hitchcock? 
Early on he was still working on Dial M for Murder. One of the greatest assets of working with Hitchcock was that he essentially left you, the writer, alone to do your work. Once I completed the work expected of me, Hitchcock and I would then literally pore over the material almost shot by shot. That was primarily his biggest involvement at that stage of development – after I had completed the first expectations of my task. Unlike a lot of other directors and producers, he didn’t bother you constantly for pages in order to summarily reject them.

What were the best and worst things about working with Hitchcock? 
The best part of working with Hitchcock was the autonomy to do the job you were hired to do without interference, as I’ve mentioned above. The worst part was his distinct stinginess in being able to offer credit where credit was due. It was of paramount importance for him to be seen as a one-man show, but that just simply wasn’t the truth, at least not in my experience.

Looking back on how the two of you parted ways, what do you suppose it was? 
What it was is exceptionally simple: He wasn’t for a moment willing to allow anyone to believe he couldn’t do it all on his own. I believe in application of credit where credit is due – if you’ve earned it, you need to be respected, regarded, and properly credited for it. At times in our work together, Hitchcock wasn’t willing to allow that...

– From ‘Chris Wehner: Interview with Rear Window scribe John Michael Hayes’ (Screenwriter’s Monthly, Dec. 2002)


Monday, 29 November 2021

A Letter from David Mamet II

Homicide (Directed by David Mamet)

This is the second part of writer and director David Mamet’s letter to the writing staff of CBS’s The Unit in which he discusses the task of the dramatist: 

How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading “Bob and Sue discuss…” is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another “as you know”, that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.

Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in Bel Air and hire someone to live there for you.

Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing - *literally*. What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.

If you pretend the characters can't speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.

If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition, indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium – telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.

I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself “Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is “No” write it again or throw it out. If you’ve got any questions, call me up.

Love, Dave Mamet

Santa Monica 19 Oct 05

(It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)