When you’re a movie lover (or a film critic), examining movies in-depth is something you do every single time you watch a movie, but never has a single scene from a movie been dissected and scrutinized as thoroughly as Alexandre Philippe’s new documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene does.
As one can expect from that title, Philippe focuses exclusively on the 52 seconds in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death in her motel shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho. Most people would agree that the film is a masterpiece within the thriller genre, but that one scene has shocked so many who’ve seen it, while also being imitated and parodied at length.
Philippe got dozens of filmmakers and actors and editors and composers to evaluate and talk about that one specific scene, including the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, composer Danny Elfman, and more. There’s even an actress with close connections to Janet Leigh who spoke about Psycho and the shower scene on camera for the first time.
The Tracking Board spoke with Philippe a few weeks back to find out what went into making the nerdiest doc imaginable (and that’s even compared to Philippe’s earlier film The People vs. George Lucas).
What got you going on this? Was it just an interest and love of Psycho and wanting to explore that scene or was there something more?
Yeah, it was really a love of Hitchcock, a passion that I’ve had forever really, since I was a little kid. It’s just one of those projects that I just had to go do it. I really believed that the scene deserved a cinematic treatment. I like this idea of making cinephilia accessible and fun and entertaining and engaging for people who don’t necessarily see themselves as cinephiles, and at the same time, obviously, provide new stuff for people who are or consider themselves … hardcore Hitchcock experts or cinephiles themselves.
I’m sure that Psycho is taught in most film schools and classes, but not to this degree and with this amount of expertise. When did you decide to do this? How did you even start it? Did you just watch that scene on repeat 100 times?
Well, I mean, I had already done that for many, many years. In fact, teaching Hitchcock, doing master classes, doing sort of live deconstructions of his films. It’s something that I really sort of enjoyed doing. But it was a very clear structure that I had in mind. In fact, the structure of 78/52 to mirror the structure of Psycho, in the sense that, in Psycho the shower scene happens roughly 40 minutes into the film. So, I wanted to dedicate the first 40 some minutes of 78/52 to establishing the importance of this scene within the structure of a historical, social, cultural context. All this time, you’re expecting the scene to show up, and then roughly 40 minutes into 78/52 you get into it the deconstruction of the scene. So that was was a very conscious sort of exercise, and it had to be scripted very, very carefully.
What was the first interview you ended up doing for the movie?
So the very first actually was Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double. She was the very, very first interview and, in fact, the same day we also had Stephen Rebello, who was the author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, so it was a pretty great first day.
How’d you find her?
It was a Hollywood editor who contacted me out of the blue and said, “Have you talked to Marli?” There was an urban legend out there that she’s actually not alive, that she was murdered, so so I said, “Well, I did some research and I think she’s dead.” And he said, “No, no, no, she’s around and I know her very well and I’d be happy to put you in touch.” So that’s how it happened. I’m very grateful that he put me in touch with her because she really transforms the film. In many ways, it’s really her story. It’s about her, you know.
Were you assembling the film as you went along or did you just do a lot of interviews and then deal with editing?
It’s both, you know. You interview, you review, you assemble, you continue to interview. You refine, you disassemble and you reassemble. It’s a very organic process as long as you know the story you’re trying to tell and as long as you’re clear on your structure. At least, you have a method that you have to fill or else you lose yourself in the woods.
When you start talking to the filmmakers, was it one of those cases where you talked to someone and then they would say, “Oh, you need to talk to so-and-so”? Did they help get more people involved?
Yeah, but I always like to cast a wide net because expertise is one thing, but the right energy and the right amount of passion is also another one. It was very important for me to get people like SpectraVision, Eli Roth, and a number people that I feel have this great … like Bob Murawski, who’s Sam Raimi’s editor, has this just amazing energy and almost comes back as a comic relief sometimes in the film. Again, it’s very easy to cross the line and to get too dry and academic with a topic like this. For me, I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m asking people to go in a dark theater for 90 minutes. I think the covenant is that, if I’m asking them to do that, I want to make sure that I provide an experience where they feel like when they walk out, hopefully they’re thinking, “Gosh, I wish I had another 10 or 15 minutes of this,” instead of, “Oh my God, I wish this ended 30 minutes earlier.” So I try my best to make the film as entertaining as possible. I think the melon sequence would be an example. The length that we went to, to make this an entertaining film.
What was the longest rough cut of the movie you had before you started whitling it down?
It was initially I think 125 minutes, so not too bad, but again because we had a real plan of action. As I like to say, I could easily make a 3 or 4 or 10-hour film about the shower scene. It’s just not something that the general public would want to watch. First of all, in terms of our budget, but also creatively, we kind of wanted to limit ourselves to 90 minutes. We didn’t want to go beyond that.
I know Guillermo del Toro could probably talk at least 90 minutes on any subject. I know a few of them were actually watching the scene, while you were getting reactions. How many of them were doing that and how many of them just going by memory?
There was always two parts to the interview. The first part was basically one on one interview, obviously, asking all the questions I had to ask for this specific person, the second part, I would put them in front of the scene and give them control. So they’d watch it on a laptop and they’d have a way to stop and pause it and go back, and they would sort of comment on the scene, and we would sometimes go over and over and over again, and they would comment on different aspects of the filmmaking. That’s when I almost gave them the control over the interview process. It was like , “Show me what you see.” It was particularly fun with editors.
Who originally distributed Psycho? Was it Universal?
Well, it was Universal. It was produced by Paramount.
So did you get any help from them, since you had to get the rights to show the scene?
No. No, no, no. It’s a fair use movie, so it’s 100% fair use, so there’s no licensing involved in this film. That said, Universal were very helpful. Obviously, we had to work with them to film the opening at the Bates Motel and all of that. I have nothing but great things to say about them, they were very, very helpful and supportive.
You mentioned the editors and you also have Danny Elfman talking about the music one of the most famous musical cues that I know has been used by the Simpsons and other places. Do you have a music background or some way to be able to communicate with them other than your own experiences working with editors or composers?
Whenever you talk to people who are extremely good technically about what they do, I feel that my role as an interviewer and ultimately as a filmmaker is to find a way to process that information, not in a technical way, but in a way that is going to resonate with people who don’t know anything necessarily about it. Danny Elfman was actually pretty great because he is not technical. He told me that right away. He says, “Don’t ask me tricky questions about the technique of Bernard Herrmann, because I won’t be able to answer that.”
Really? That’s surprising because he’s a musician.
No, he’s really not … I mean he certainly doesn’t consider himself one, but see, that’s the thing. I’m not saying his music is not intricate, and I don’t think he’s saying that. I think he’s saying that he’s not a technical guy. Just the way that if you ask me technical questions about exposures and f-stops and all of that stuff, I can’t help you there. I can certainly communicate to my director of photography the look that I want. I’m not a technical guy, but I can certainly, working with the right people, translate that into something that works. I don’t know if that answers the question.
No, it does, but I know there are certain intricacies to editing and music where the viewer might not know what they’re talking about.
Exactly. I mean, you look at some scholarly essays on the score by Bernard Herrmann in the shower scene, and it’s stuff that quite frankly, it’s almost like reading Chinese. I’m sure somebody with a musical background will understand that stuff, but it goes right over my head. There were certain questions that I had prepared for Danny Elfman based on my research, and I can’t remember what they were, but he was like, “I can’t answer that. That’s not my realm, you’ve got to talk to a music scholar.” As far as his insight on why this particular score matters, was unbelievable. What’s so great about Bernard Herrmann, so many things, but it’s borderline not music, it’s sound design at this point. The score for the film is just glorious, it’s unbelievable stuff. I mean it’s one of the best of all time.
Were there any interviews you got where you wish you could run the whole interview either on the DVD or somewhere else?
No, no, I mean, you can’t. That’s what bonus features are for.
I was wondering about whether there maybe was 10 minutes with Danny Elfman that would work on their own merits.
Well, again, I feel like if you were to watch say like my entire interview with Walter Murch, which is probably two hours long, if you’re interested in film, you’re gonna have an amazing two hours. It’s like a master class, but again, within the context of 78/52, there’s only so much. There’s probably five minutes of Walter Murch, if that. 95% of the interview is unused. He has amazing. Amazing thoughts and insight that I’d love to reveal at some point, just not within the context of the film.
I’d also like to talk about working with your cinematographer to get the very specific look you chose for the movie.
Yeah, the motif of voyeurism, which is obviously central to Psycho is really important to me, and I wanted to sort of create this universe where our interviewees, they’re trapped inside the Bates house watching Psycho, and we’re watching them as they watch Psycho, and they’re also watching us. So in order to create this, we shot all of our interviews over a green screen, and then we built a set for the interior of the motel, and obviously replaced all the backgrounds, and the interiors of the house were actually shot inside a Victorian Mansion in Denver. And then as far as the television is concerned, actually, it was Robert, my DP who found it. We were looking for old sort of period television, and he found this amazing 1951 Zenith portable, and come on, they’re not just watching Psycho, they’re watching Psycho through a peephole essentially. So when I saw that, I was sold. It was on craigslist, we had to send some friends actually, to drive 3 hours to some small town in California to get this incredibly heavy television and bring it back.
Were you able to actually to screen things on the television set?
No, no, no, I mean, when you watch them watching the scene. They’re actually looking at in on a laptop. All the environments were green screen, everything was replaced.
How long did it take to make this movie? What was it like from the very beginning to when you finished it for Sundance?
Close to three years. It was long. It was a long process, yeah. It’s a lot of work these things, but also because we didn’t have the full budget right away and there were a lot of other things I was dealing with, there were a lot of difficulties. I think people really struggled or didn’t think that it would be … or at least they doubted that it would be possible to make a film about a scene. So there were a lot of people who were like, “Wow, this sounds amazing, but come back to us when the movie’s done.” That’s not helpful when you’re trying to make a film. You’re like, “Well actually, we kind of need your money now.”I kept telling people, “Look, my issue is not if I can make a 90-minute film? It’s how can I keep it down to 90 minutes.” It’s the reverse problem, and I kept saying that it’s the vastest topic I’ve ever dealt with and that includes Star Wars. (Note: This refers to Philippe’s earlier film The People vs. George Lucas.) The shower scene, I think, is far more vast and complex and interesting than the entire Star Wars universe, and you can quote me on that. Hopefully, people now understand, and so hopefully it’ll be easier to make the next one.
I assume you cut together interviews before you did any of the CG or any of the stuff like the visual effects that you’ve done.
Oh, of course, yeah. You have to have a total picture lock before you do all the compositing because that’s an extremely time consuming and expensive process.
There were two interviews, one which you included, one which wasn’t included that I was surprised by. Want to try to guess which one I was surprised you got and which one I was surprised you didn’t? (a couple guesses later) No, I thought it was amazing that you were able to get Jamie Lee Curtis. She has never talked about her mother and that movie, as far as I know.
Well, she said no initially, and what happened is that then it was announced that she was essentially paying homage to the shower scene in Scream Queens, and my producer went back to her people and said, “C’mon, she’s doing it now, clearly she’s interested, you know, in her mother’s legacy, are you quite sure she doesn’t want to be in this?” So they said yes. So that was cool. The timing was perfect. As far as people that I didn’t get, I’m sure you’re going to say, Brian De Palma.
That’s a good one, but I was thinking of Gus Van Zant, who directed that shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.
Well, it’s not shot for shot, it’s mostly shot for shot. I mean we tried. He just doesn’t want to talk about it. I even told him. I said, “Look, I don’t want to talk about your Psycho. I’m happy to just talk about Hitchcock.”
What about Brian De Palma? Did you want to get him as well?
Yeah, yeah, he actually said he was really not interested. Can’t get everybody. But I’ll tell you, I was more crushed by David Lynch. I really wanted Lynch, and Tarantino, who actually doesn’t like Hitchcock. I think they would have been amazing.
Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Have you had ideas over the years?
Well not only do we have an idea; we’ve started shooting. We’re actually making a feature about the chest-burster from Alien.
Just the one scene again?
Yep, just the one scene, but it’s a very, very different treatment, very different approach. I’m beyond excited about that. I mean we’re going so deep into that one, and I’m super-excited. There are other projects. There’s a film about Monument Valley in cinema that I’m hoping we can start shooting either late this year or early next year. We’ve also been working quite hard on an animation documentary hybrid as well.
I think the chest burster is a great idea because that was another scene that caused people to say, “Holy sh*t!” when they first saw Alien without knowing about it.
Oh and there’s so much there. There’s so much there. It’s one of those scenes that is really fun to get into.
Sadly we lost Harry Dean Stanton. Was he one of the people you were hoping to talk to?
Of course, yeah. I mean, yes and no, It’s interesting, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been making docs now for 13 years, that there was a time up until very recently, where I would get very, very upset if I didn’t get somebody.
I’m a journalist. Believe me, I know the feeling.
In a strange way, yes, of course, I want to get Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott or whatever, but I feel like if Ridley Scott says “no,” I’m still gonna make a damn good movie about the chest-burster. I would love to have him of course, it would be amazing, but look, I made a film about George Lucas without George Lucas. I’ve made a film about Hitchcock without Hitchcock. I’m sure can make a film about Ridley Scott without Ridley Scott.
(Although I’m sure everyone would rather see you in the movie, Sir Ridley, so please do it if and when you get asked!)
78/52 is now playing in select cities and On Demand.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor