Alfred Hitchcock
National Film Theatre interview


date: 1969

interviewer: Bryan Forbes

main topics: workflow, unused ideas

link to video: Youtube


Alfred Hitchcock: These steps were terribly awkward coming down, one had to step them one by one and it reminded me of the old lady, who was walking with one foot on the pavement and one foot on the road. And they said to her: "why are you walking like that?" "Oh, I thought I was lame".

Bryan Forbes: This is obviously going to be my absolute downfall, this interview, so I approach you really as depressed area's David Frost, mr Hitchcock. I don't want to ask you any of the questions that I'm sure have bored you over the years, or I'll try to avoid them anyway. What interests me to start the ball rolling: I'm fascinated by writers' diaries, by writers' notebooks. And therefore, as a fellow director, I'm fascinated at the point where you feel yourself committed. Is it in the script? Is it the first day? Is it long before the script? Where do you think it all starts for you?

Well, for me it all starts with basic material first. Now, the question when you have, well say basic material, you may have a novel, you may have a play, you can have an original idea, you can have just a couple of sentences. And from that, the film begins. Now, I work very closely with the writer, and begin to construct the film on paper. From the very beginning, when we're roughly shaping the whole shape of the film and begin from the beginning. And you end up, well say a hundred pages, or maybe even more, of narrative, which is a very bad reading for the litterateur. And I mean there are no descriptions of any kind, no, for example, "he wondered" - which you can't photograph.

And no camera plans, right?

Not at that stage. It's as though you were looking at the film on screen and the sound was turned off. And therefore, to me this is the first stage. Now, the reason for it is this: it is to urge one, to drive one, to make one work purely in the visual, and not rely upon words at all. Because I'm still a purist, and I do believe that film being the newest art of the 20th century is a series of images projected on a screen, and this succession of images creates ideas, which in turn create emotion - just like in literature words put together create sentences.

At that stage, do you think in black and white, or is your preference color? I mean, do you find yourself thinking in terms of black and white images?

Not at all, no. The color is part of the structure. In other words, you restrain color, bring it in when it's necessary, but don't orchestrate it so loudly that later on you may use it in a word, to mix metaphors a moment you've exploded your gunpowder.

There was something behind that question, because, if I may be so bold, I thought there was only one of your films which slips to mind, which I think would have been better in black and white, and that was The Birds. I don't know why, this is only a personal preference. I would have preferred to have seen that film in black and white. I wondered why you should opted for color?

Strangely enough you should ask that. I opted for color, because the birds were black and white, so that the faces of the people involved would be separated from the birds.

My question was really more technical, because I've felt that the technique of the birds, the phony birds would perhaps be less obvious to me if it been in black and white. That was the only thing that I felt...

Well, we've actually used real birds. The mechanical birds were not used at all.

But there were one, or two wooden ones, or stationary ones, weren't there?

We hoped that it deceived the eye, but that was purely a matter of quantity rather than quality.

When you say you start with a script... I know my own case, the amount of... stillborn children has... how many times do you think in your career, have you started off with what hopefully you thought that something was going to excite you and then later you had to abandon it?

Oh, many times. In the last two years, I abandoned two projects. The point is, you get so far and you realize: it's not gonna work out. So it's better to lose $150.000, or $200.000 than two million. Just dump it and let it go.

I've often found myself, and perhaps you've had the same experience, that although we dump things, certain things remain and continue to just stay and we pull them out of a drawer of our subconscious later and use them again in a different context. Does that happen to you?

No, it doesn't happen to me. The only thing that I pigeonhole, are certain ideas that belong to a certain genre of picture. The adventure film, for example. You store up an idea, you put it away, and one day it will come out. For example, in a picture like North by Northwest, I've waited about 15 years to put Mount Rushmore on the screen. So you keep it back in your mind. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out because you're storing the scene up and are having the pleasure of anticipating the use of it, and the Department of the Interior steps in and says: "you mustn't have any character climb in over the faces of the presidents". You ask "why not?" and they say: "oh, because this is a shrine of democracy. You must only have your characters sliding or chasing between the heads". And I was completely defeated, because I had a lovely idea, or that's what I thought, of Cary Grant sliding down Lincoln's nose, and then hiding in his nostrils. And the man in search of him is in the vicinity, but unfortunately Cary Grant hiding in the nostril begins to sneeze. And I was never allowed to do it!

[woman in the audience] Have you ever been tempted to step outside the thriller limitation and do something completely different. Or is it the limitation the attraction for you?

It's not for me, it's the public, you see? If I may do, for example, a musical, the public will wander: when will the moment come when one of the chorus girls will drop dead and what from?

[man in the audience] Apart from self-satisfaction, what is your basic motive for making the films that you do make?

Money. There's an old expression which says: all work and no play makes Jack (edit: "...a dull boy" - an old proverb which means that if a person only works, he or she becomes dull and so does his or her life).

[another man] Mr Hitchcock, you said that you have in your mental back drawer a series of bizarre locations, or backdrops. Which ones would you most like to use in your films if you had the opportunity to do so?

Well, I once had an idea that I would like to open a film, say a Covent Garden Opera (edit: Royal Opera House), or the Metropolitan or Teatro alla Scala in Milan and Maria Callas is on the stage singing an aria, and her head is tilted upwards, and she sees in a box way up a man approach the back of another man and stab him. She is just reaching her high note and the high note turns to a scream and it's the highest note she has ever sung in her life. The result of which is she gets a huge round of applause! I don't know the rest.

[Forbes] Make that one for me, I'd buy that. [another woman in the audience is to ask a question] Mr Hitchcock, I wanted to know, as I was scared stiff by Psycho, what frightens you?

Policemen frighten me. Not the...

[Forbes] Not English policemen, surely?

Oh, the worst! Because they're so polite.

Mr Hitchcock, you seem to have a very nice sense of humor, which you obviously had before you established yourself as a thriller director. How come you've never had any comedies?

But every film I make is a comedy!

[some man] Mr Hitchcock, could you tell us when you first had the idea of appearing in all of your films? I think it started with the Lodger. And could you tell us why? Because I don't know of any other filmmaker that does it.

In those early days, we ran out of actors. That's really true.

Have you ever bothered to join equity?

No, but I think they pay a standing for me.

Are they? Are they after you?

Oh yes, surely.

[some woman] Mr Hitchcock, which of your films gave you the most personal satisfaction and why?

Well, probably two films. The first one was a picture called Shadow of a Doubt, which I wrote with Thornton Wilder. This was one of those rare occasions when suspense and melodrama combined well with character. It was shot in the original town and at that time they were shooting an awful lot on the backlot. So it had a freshness. The other film is Rear Window, because to me that's probably the most cinematic film one has made. Most people don't really recognize this, because the man is in one room and in one position, but nevertheless it's the montage and the cutting of what he sees and its effect on him that creates the whole atmosphere and drama of the film. In other words, the visual is transferred to emotional ideas and that film lends itself to that.

[Forbes] Would you say mr Hitchcock it would be a fair comment to say that your films have never really been concerned with social consciousness?

That's true. Sam Goldwyn once said: messages are for Western Union.

I don't think the applause is actually well-placed, because not all films that fall into that category were necessary bad films, and Goldwyn was getting a cheap laugh, really, which has echoed down the years. What I meant was, a subject came my way, which was an American subject. And it would seem to me, on the face of it, the idea is suited for you. It's a true life thing, it's called Witness to a Killing and it's based on that New York murder, where 56 people saw a girl stabbed to death in the street and did nothing about it. Would that sort of subject attract you at all?

Yes, except that this is an objective approach and it would be very hard to get the audience involved in it. It would be objective from the audience's point of view. They would be examining the behavior pattern of the people who witnessed it. Therefore, the comment would be: can you imagine how irresponsible people are when it comes to being involved? They'd rather not be involved. But the comment would come from the onlooker, rather than provide them with any particular emotion.

Do you get any of your ideas, or stories from headlines?

Sometimes. I made a picture Wronged Man once. It was a recount of an actual case of wrongful arrest. I shot it in actual places where everything occured, I even was allowed to photograph the trial in the same courtroom. But the judge sitting beside me is a technical advisor and the people kept coming up to me and whispering, saying: "the judge is wrong!" We had to wait until the judge went out of the court.

[some woman] What do you think of a current trend in the cinema towards nudity and frank love scenes, and how would it affect you in your future and in your filmmaking? [Forbes adds] Or your own appearances?

You mean in the nude?

Yes. When can we expect your first nude appearance?

Never. I think that's a passing phase. After all, how far can you go with nudity, or sexual relations? It would seem that we're all waiting for that zooming to a close up of a sexual act. But how close can we get to it? Once you've reached that point, then where do you go? And after all, it makes no difference for me, because that scene I've already done. I did it in the end of a picture called North by Northwest, where I show Cary Grant's close up with a girl and then I cut to the phallic train entering the tunnel!