What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.
The pictures of Alfred Hitchcock were usually complicated to pull off. He always tried to break new grounds, his camera work was sophisticated and often required creative tricks to get the wanted effects.
How did he work? How did he come up with ideas for his movies? How did he interact with writers, actors and producers? Did he do field work himself?
Keep reading to find answers to all these questions and more.
Hitchcock's habit was to know what his next project will be when he puts finishing touches to his current one, at the latest. He wasn't a workaholic that got into projects one after another (a common trait among old school directors), but still wanted to know what he's up against next.
Another thing of the Hollywood past was hunting for novels to secure rights to its big screen adaptations. Nowadays, studios do the same with franchises (comic books being the most popular type). Back around mid 1950s, novels were seen as low-risk investments. If we know they enjoyed the book, even if they won't enjoy the picture, they will probably pay for the tickets to see it.
Hitchcock was no exception and most of his movies were adapted from novels. Sometimes, he was offered a specific adaptation, sometimes he himself suggested one, or downright personally contacted the writer to try and strike a deal.
After securing the material, planning was next on the to-do list. This was Alfred's favorite part and on many occasions he said that if there would be an option to not make a movie at all, if the planning would suffice, he would be very happy. No working with actors, no studio negotiations, no setting up tricky camera work etc.
He still had a lot of fun with all the following chores, as people who worked with him could testify, but not as much as he would be having while working on the next project already.
That favorite ritual of his was almost always taking place at home. Hitch was a very intelligent human being and a creative problem solver in every environment, but home was when he was the most concentrated and when the brainstorming was the most fruitful for him.
Working alongside the director was his wife Alma Reville. Sometimes, they planned things together, drawing sketches, battling plot discrepancies. Other times, he did those things alone, but almost always asked his wife for opinion before considering major things done.
Hitchcock's workflow involved a 'third Hitchcock'. The term represents a third person that Hitch and Alma chose. That someone spent a lot of time together with the couple, working very closely with them. They trusted their third Hitchcocks professionally, and to some extent opened up personally in front of them (although never fully).
Most Hitchcock projects were worked on by that triangle. Third Hitchcocks were expendable, they changed every few movies, but the system was always active.
This private brainstorming could take some time, as the idea was to plan everything to the point where later the only thing that is left is to execute what has been decided. Hitchcock saw improvising and solving problems in the middle of work as a sign of slopiness and refrained from it.
The extent of his pre-planning was so big that he even considered things like food. Preparing for a dinner scene, he would ask himself the question: 'what kind of food would this person eat and have access to?'
Many people who worked with Alfred were stunned when they saw how little freedom there is for them to do on the set. This, of course, was a bone of contention for method actors (Wiki), who were used to second-guessing behavior of their characters and bringing changes, because many of them saw their roles as their responsibility entirely. Not writer's, not director's.
Hitch was repulsed by method acting and hated working with actors who go by it. And most of all, he hated when they came on set with their coaches and mentors.
One of the first things done after deciding on the material was finding locations to shoot open air scenes in. Hitchcock liked to participate, which is normal for beginning directors, but when he got famous, he could have people doing it for him. He didn't, and instead wanted to do it personally.
When picturesque landscapes were needed, things were easy. On the other hand, there were movies like Shadow of a Doubt, where the whole city was researched and scouted for a location. How did people dress there? What did the average interior of a family house there look like? It had to be credible and seem real-life. Alfred was notorious for getting into absurd details to get all those facts straight before filming.
Similarly, as the movie Lifeboat dealt with castaways hanging on for dear life on the sea, Hitch wanted real-life stories to take inspiration from. He contacted United States Merchant Marine and asked for some examples. They were very receptive and showered him with many interesting reports.
When the scouting was taking place outside the country, the director liked to take his wife with him and combine job with pleasure, engaging in scouting slash sightseeing! First such trips the two had before they even were a couple.
As for selection, Hitchcock liked the obvious and characteristic. He understood and respected the power of the most iconic destinations, like Paris' Eiffel Tower, or New York's Statue of Liberty. He liked playing association games, like in Foreign Correspondent when an interesting spy scene takes place in Netherlands, so windmill and an open field is used - a setting easily coming to mind when thinking about that country.
Nowadays, such practices would of course be summed up as cheesy and cliche, but back in the day they were a breath of fresh air and were helping to glue the audience to projector screens.
In some places, your surname had to be 'Hitchcock' to get a free pass for filming, and even that didn't give you freedom to choose what your actors do. In North by Northwest, for example, the U.S. government was very stubborn in negotiations about the Mount Rushmore scene. As it was an important national sculpture, the director was not permited any foolishness with it serving as background. This stopped his few pretty crazy ideas from materializing.
Finally, as much as he capitalized on those kinds of associations, most of the time the director was saving his best scenes for the studio lot, where everything was under his full control.
Budget was always taken into consideration. In that regard, Hitchcock was like a professional accountant, which helped in getting the most out of his movies.
On one side, he often bargained for maximum budget, trying to push the studios for as big commitment as possible. On the other hand, whatever money he got access to, even if those were millions of dollars, he was always looking at ways to cut corners and save money to cover more expenses.
To avoid unwanted surprises, Hitch often ordered multiple takes of each scene, some completely different than the main ones, just to collect dust on a slim chance that maybe the default option will end up not wanted and something else will be required.
One thing Hitch wasn't swift and decisive with were story ends. They were Alfred's Achilles' heel. Knowing that it's one of the most critical things in a movie, he often over-analyzed different decisions, not knowing which one to stick with, changing his mind every five minutes.
For smaller scenes, multiple takes were often recorded to have them ready for later. Sometimes, one version seemed good, but later changes made it look out of place. Alternate takes to the rescue!
In the big Hollywood productions, actors were always the main selling points. Getting a good cast was always critical for producers, even if it required spending 90% of the budget. If Hitchcock would decide to stay in the UK, with his reputation he probably could choose the actors he wanted every time.
In the United States, high-budget projects needed these high-profile names to increase the chances of box office success. Producers and studios had their demands, which had to be respected.
Alfred always pushed for as much independence as he could, but many times he had to capitulate to studio demands. He usually didn't mind them paying for expensive actor fees, as he was aware of another benefit of having them on his set. The audience identified themselves with familiar and likeable faces, which caused them to engage in a story more.
Coming to work under Hitchcock, actors who liked to have everything set up for them and were confident in their abilities were enjoying dream gigs. Things just couldn't get smoother.
On the other hand, people who were used to being corrected were regularly confused at the beginning of filming. At least from time to time, most directors come to lightly tap the cast on the shoulder when everything goes ok, or ask to do something different when they perform not to the boss' liking.
With Hitch, it was nothing like that. When an actor did good, the director just gave him space to continue doing a good job.
Many actors were used to getting some form of feedback, so they got confused. Actors with low confidence in their abilities were especially susceptible. "Why is he not saying anything? Am I doing THAT bad?". In reality, it was the other way around. When the directions stopped coming from the master of suspense, that meant that the actor hit a sweet spot.
Hitchcock was always eager for those moments, as he preferred not to have to deal with actors at all. He enjoyed guiding camera work, thinking of creative ways to get the best takes and solve various other types of issues. Working with actors, not so much.
Even the best actors who performed well could not relax though. The moment they started messing up even slightly, the director, who may had seemed completely consumed by something else was suddenly back with corrections. His friendly character was usually filling the sets with jokes and pranks, but when someone underperformed for too long, Hitchcock could be brutal!
John Gielgud was one of the unfortunate. Working under the director in Secret Agent (where he played Richard Ashenden) was a horrible experience and the actor appeared on the set every day almost shaking from stress.
Scary picture as it was, most actors were pleasantly surprised when realizing that the numerous rumors about the director being ultra strict and rough with his cast were turning out to be just that - rumors. For proof of that, look no further than to what people were his best friends.
Hitch's inner circle included actors like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, whom he befriended at work. And those weren't just temporary friends who were sitted next to him on parties for commercial reasons and forcing their smiles for pictures together. Both Grant and Bergman stood by him until his last days, even tolerating his late life unjustified outbursts. They were his true friends without a doubt.
As for the story material, Hitchcock's main male actors were very often given roles of wronged men running from the law, while desperately trying to clear their name and find the real culprit. Movies with that theme: Frenzy, I Confess, North by Northwest, Saboteur, Spellbound, Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, To Catch a Thief and Young and Innocent.
Well aware of the drawing powers of romance between the main male and main female characters (women always loved those, especially), the director often introduced them to his movies, even if the scripts were based on novels in which no such things were taking place.
At times, it felt forced compared to the originals (and many of Hitch's movies were based on great books), so people familiar with source materials sometimes disliked and criticized Alfred's adaptations.
Actresses were preferred. Hitch liked to flirt, but always half-serious and not to the point when things get awkward. Being a disciplined professional at work, he would never go too far and risk creating relationship craters which could be devastating to the end-products. Generally, he was friendlier and more communicative with the female cast.
He gave more thoughts and guidance to supporting cast than most directors. The way he saw it, background characters in popular movies were often under-developed, taking away from the credibility of the scenes, which lowered immersion. He liked to give that little extra thought to how his secondary characters behaved and how he can bring them to the foreground, even if only for a moment, to spice up the story.
With age, the director became less communicative with actors, which was a consequence of him being less communicative with people in general. He stopped enjoying dialogue scenes that much and cut away whatever speeches he felt are not necessary.
Hitchcock's writers had a lot of freedom when it comes to the story, and did not have to work as hard as one might think.
Most of his films were novel or play adaptations. Strong spine was already in place the day they arrived. Also, Alfred himself was a writer. Just like his wife Alma's precise input is unknown, so was his. But we know he did a lot of work for sure.
Some of the writers confessed that while brainstorming ideas with the director, they felt more like assistant writers. Not only was Hitch extremely creative and often taking charge of things, but Alma served as a filter through which every more important detail had to go through. Without her approval, different solutions had to be found.
Writers often became the Third Hitchcocks and got personally close with the married couple, but were disposable and after a movie or two they were usually gone.
They had to know what they are getting into. The director had a very unique style, sense of humor etc. so in his mind writers couldn't just come and instantly start working with him if they don't know what Alfred Hitchcock is all about.
So, before beginning to work, he always made sure that they have seen some of his films. If they didn't, he had the studio organize private projections for them.
One thing they certainly enjoyed was the freedom of expression under the director. If they had a crazy idea that they didn't know how people might react to, or were afraid censors are going to raise concerns about a specific scene, he was always telling them not to worry and write what they feel is good.
Censorship issues of Hitchcock are subject for a large article, or even a small book. He was an expert on sneaking in unorthodox scenes, which nobody has seen anywhere else before him, so those kinds of battles were nothing new to him. Hitch was also well aware that what is considered faux pas today may be groundbreaking tomorrow, so he was always willing to make risks. As a result, writers had a green light on most things.
Finally, Alfred learned to express his ideas when still making silent movies, so he learned to communicate with pictures rather than with words. While Hollywood in the Golden Age had mostly movies which almost entirely revolved around lengthy conversations, his films were more about things happening.
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, he made it pretty clear:
When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. Therefore, writers had considerably less dialogues to write.
It would be very hard to go through Hitchcock movies and try to find one piece of clothing that is out of place.
The director was completely obsessed with articulating every detail of his movies to perfection. With the effort he was willing to put into clothes, it sometimes might have looked like what the actors are wearing is more important than what they are saying.
Everything had its purpose. The amount of details required was so big that Hitch needed a professional to take care of things. To satisfy this need, he formed a lifelong relationship with Hollywood's greatest film costume designer Edith Head. She worked for many Hitchcock movies.
Head was very impressed with the director, particularly with how specific and organized he was. Out of all the people she worked with in Hollywood, she said, Alfred was the one with most detailed demands. This made her work much easier, because ideas and prototypes didn't have to bounce back and forth like with most of her partners.
This led some actresses to feel like fashion models, or Barbie dolls. Often first things that they heard from the director were ideas for how they need to be dressed for this, or that scene.
Alma Reville surely came a winner from this relationship too - she was a priority customer on Head's list and had clothes personally designed by Edith ready in weeks whereas many others had to wait forever, as the high profile clientele was coming through doors and windows.
- One difference between the UK and American cinema in Hitchcock's times was that in England directors were the alpha and omega, while in United States they were just guns hired by the producers to do the job (that started changing with the arrival of brands such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). When Alfred started working in USA, it was a cold shower. He decided to fight it to retain his freedoms, and because his movies were so successful, he managed to keep many of his privileges.
- The director loved experimenting and was always looking for ways to do stuff the way it hasn't been done before. His career is filled with failed attempts of all kinds - technical, conceptual, you name it. He never minded though and tried again and again until he got a satisfying result.
- A control freak on the set, he was surprisingly bad at controlling his own emotions, particularly in the early stages of production when everything was still 'uncertain'. He tried to hide it, but many people saw the enormous panic and eyes filled with the feeling of unavoidable impending doom.
- Hitch was never a fan of classical music accompanying scores all the time, which was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s. For his U.S. debut Rebecca, he had to budge and music was playing for 95% of the picture, but later he took charge and reorganized things sonically. In Lifeboat, for example, the soundtrack mainly constituted of natural sounds. The Birds had no music at all, even in the most important scenes - another rarity at the time.
- Known to be drinking before work. Often to the point of being light-headed, but never to the point of being drunk.
- The fascination with crime was an integral part of the XXth century Great Britain, and Hitch was equally affected. Even long past his move to the United States, he regularly read newspapers hoping to find crime inspiration for his future pictures.
- The director was always ordering filming of a lot of spare takes to have large pool of material to work with. His ideas were often so complicated and unorthodox that for outsiders it was like a code, possible to break only by Hitch.
- For filler scenes, he often outsourced the filming work to young and inexperienced outsiders to cut costs.