To say documentarian Alexandre Philippe is a Hitchcock fan is an understatement. Idolizing the Master of Suspense since childhood, Philippe has translated that interest into an incisive documentary about a key facet of Hitchcock’s career, the shower scene in the 1960 film Psycho. Philippe’s film, 78/52, looks at the shower scene from every conceivable angle, and maybe a few you never thought to think about before. He sat down with The Young Folks to talk about working on the Psycho sets, his interest in Hitchcock, and why he has more than enough love for the director to make another film on him.
Alfred Hitchcock is such a ubiquitous figure, everyone’s written about him, so the obvious question is why make a movie about Psycho and the shower scene?
It’s really an obsession for me. I’ve been studying Hitchcock and his craft for a long time, as long as I can remember almost. I felt that this particular scene really needed a cinematic treatment. I like this idea of making cinephilia accessible and entertaining to people who don’t necessarily consider themselves cinephiles. There’s this misconception out there that once you start getting into the details of film it’s geeky; there’s no question it’s a geeky endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be dry or something that’s only reserved for certain kinds of people.
The thing that makes me happy is to see that I always have people coming to the screenings who have never watched Psycho, who are just curious about the shower scene because they’re familiar with it. If they haven’t seen it they can hear the music and they’re curious about why are we still talking about this scene 57 years later? To me it’s always important that [the film is] accessible to people who are not cinephiles, but will also provide new insight for people who are the most hardcore of film geeks and Hitchcock fans. There are all kinds of new things that are provided – the melons, Susanna and the Elders, Marli Renfro, the body double and her contribution to the shower scene is brand new in the context of this film. Even people who are hardcore Hitchcock fans and experts will find something new to learn.
Is it strange to you to hear people say they’ve never seen Psycho?
I think it’s fine. We live in a pop culture environment now where there’s so much stuff to consume, it’s completely overwhelming. There are a gazillion movies and shows I feel I should have watched and I just don’t have the time. You can only pick certain battles, and you’ll lose the war because you can never watch everything that’s out there, and it’s only gonna get worse over time. I’m not entirely surprised. It’s certainly a great classic movie but you have to understand, here we are 57 years later, so the younger generation – especially people who don’t go to film school – aren’t necessarily exposed to Psycho, yet they’re aware of it and that’s a step in the right direction. It’s really cool.
I really enjoy talking to people who have never seen it because I ask them, “Okay, if you’ve never seen Psycho you know the shower scene, right?” And they always say, “Yeah.” And I say, “But you’ve never seen the shower scene?” And they go, “No.” And I say, “Well can you hear the music in your head?” And they’ll say, “Yeah.” That’s an amazing thing. How does that happen? How do they connect the dots? How does this happen culturally? I can’t think of another scene in the history of movies that actually does that.
Yeah, sure, that’s a good point, but you know there’s no Jaws without Psycho, in terms of the score.
You’ve been a Hitchcock fan since childhood. Can you give some background on how you came to discover him?
I remember watching his films, gosh I was probably five or six years old. My dad was, I wouldn’t call him a cinephile but he was always into movies. There were two things he really liked to watch: Hitchcock and Columbo, so I’ve very versed in both. As I grew up I kept revisiting [Hitchcock’s] films and always having a great watching his films because he’s such an entertainer, learning things along the way. When I became a filmmaker he’s always been my go-to. This is someone who was so in tune with what he was doing and so thoughtful about his craft, and how to create an emotion, a very specific emotion from his audience. There’s endless amount of information and lessons to learn from him.
Do you remember the first Hitchcock film you ever saw?
No, that’s the thing that’s weird. It’s weird because I’ll never have that first memory of watching the shower scene [in Psycho]. I do have a first memory of watching at least parts of Eyes Without a Face, which really freaked me out and I basically walked in on my parents watching it; I think I was probably three or something. I kept having these images but I didn’t know what film it was. When I finally watched Eyes Without a Face, which was probably in my early 30s or late 20s, it just hit me like a truck. I said, “Oh my God, that’s the movie that freaked me out all this time!” That was a bit of a traumatic experience. But I’ve never had a traumatic experience with Hitchcock. It’s more like those are movies that were part of the household, they were always around.
I love what you do in the documentary by avoiding the typical talking heads and looking at the cultural significance of the movie. What was the appeal in not doing a straight chronological look at the scene?
I almost don’t like the word “documentary,” particularly in the context of this film. It is a documentary but it’s really a film about film. The moment you say documentary people have this idea that you’re going to be potentially lectured at. I wanted to pay cinematic tribute to that scene and the whole concept of creating the illusion that the interviewers are trapped inside the Bates Motel watching Psycho and we’re watching them watch Psycho while they watch us that came very quickly. Usually the style of my films is a raw, visceral gut thing that in the early stages of development I come up with. I usually stick with that. What that meant was we had to shoot an opening at the Bates Motel on the Universal lot. We had to shoot all of our interviews over green screen and build a set for the interior of the motel. There’s a lot of heavy lifting which is not traditional documentary filmmaking, but I’m really glad we stuck to our guns and committed to this technique because it makes it more of an homage to the scene.
Watching the interview subjects talk about the film as they watch it is like a great DVD commentary. Was that something you always planned on?
There were essentially two parts of the interview process. The first part was the traditional interview which wasn’t entirely traditional because we used the device of mirrors where they could see my reflection in the lens to create the illusion that they’re watching us and looking directly at the lens. It’s a poor man’s version of Errol Morris’ Interrotron that we used. The second part of the interview was I’d put them in front of the scene; they’re watching it on a laptop and I’d give them control over the scene so they could go through it, pause it, go back, do whatever they needed. I essentially handed over the reins and [told them] “just show me what you see. Comment on the scene any way that you want, anything is fair game.” That is a fun process, to get all these amazing people deconstructing that scene from their perspective.
What was it like working on the actual Bates Motel set?
It was amazing! Obviously we only dealt with the exteriors because the rooms are stripped. It was a night shoot, we shot from sundown to sunup. It definitely gave me chills. It was pretty special. But you’re also making sure you get all the shots and we’re dealing with rain machines and a vintage car that decided at three in the morning that the windshield wipers wouldn’t work. You’re dealing with all that stuff. It was intense but I’m really pleased with the way it looks.
Fans who watch this might recall your previous film, The People Versus George Lucas. As a filmmaker yourself what’s the appeal in telling stories about other filmmakers?
I’m obviously a geek and also a cinephile. I’m really interested in making films about film. The People Versus George Lucas is a very different film. 78/52 is a purer expression of what I’m really capable of, not just myself but our entire team. You look at all the work my DP and editors [did], and all the compositing work. We put a lot into that film, but I want to make more films like this that really focus on minute aspects of the cinema. We just started our new project right now and we’re gonna do this for awhile.
You’ve mentioned that the shower scene still holds “many secrets” 57 years later. Is there a particular secret you’d love an answer to?
It has so many it’s almost mindblowing to me that I can watch that scene every week and there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t find something new, or something I want to explore about it because it touches upon so many topics and so many possibilities. Now I’m starting to actually interview people about the scene who aren’t filmmakers, choreographers, poets, architects. When you start looking at the scene from the perspective of different kinds of artists it takes on a whole new perspective and meaning. I’m working on a book right now about the shower scene. I might make another film a few years from now about the shower scene. It’s going to be a lifelong thing for me.
I’m surprised you can still get in the shower with all the immersion you’ve done on the topic.
I love a good shower! I’d take two a day if I could.
You focus on so much in just 90 minutes, whether it’s the casaba melons or Bernard Herrmann’s score. Was there anything you wanted to focus on but couldn’t for the sake of time or clarity?
There are so many things. Our initial cut was 125 minutes and that was way too long. It got too geeky. That’s why you have to remove yourself from the process because I look at the scene and I could easily watch a 3, 4, 5-hour film about the shower scene, but I’m not making the film for myself but for an audience; not just an audience but an audience who aren’t just cinephiles. I wanted to make the film accessible so I felt very strongly that 90-minutes would be a cap. Anything that was too over-the-top geeky we had to remove, so we went from 125-minutes down to 91 and that length felt tight and the feedback we’re getting from most people is “Oh gosh we could have done with another 10, 15 minutes of this” and that’s what you want to hear.
Might there be a director’s cut in the future? Pun intended.
I think this is the director’s cut. If I’m going to tackle the shower scene again, which I will, then it would be another movie and a completely different kind of film. But give me a few years because I’m moving on to other things right now, but I will circle back to the shower scene; I’ll make a film called “The Shower Scene Variations,” that’s my title for it and that’s all I’ll say about it.
Other than Psycho what are your favorite Hitchcock films?
For me the greatest film of all time is Vertigo. It’s interesting to me that it’s finally – even though I don’t believe in rankings – suddenly it’s being recognized as the greatest film of all time, whatever that means. It is for me, that doesn’t mean that it is, but I can’t think of a more perfect movie. Strangers on a Train, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, all these are extraordinarily important films. It’s also worth taking a look at his silent films, gems like The Ring or The Farmer’s Wife which is a straight comedy, amazing film. The Lodger, of course. You’re talking about a body of work that runs so deep that you can absolutely lose yourself in the work of Mr. Hitchcock and have an amazing time.
78/52 is in theaters now.