No matter what kind of movie fan you are – you know about the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1962). It’s iconic. Iconic enough to warrant a new documentary all about it. Enter filmmaker and documentarian, Alexandre O. Philippe. Philippe digs deep into everything about Hitchcock’s fixation on this particular passage, from the creating the storyboards to finding the body-double. The footage and behind-the-scenes stills are bolstered by an interesting array of insiders and modern-day filmmakers.
We caught up with Philippe to ask him about his own obsession with Hitchcock’s obsession and how 78/52 (review) was made.
Dread Central: Why make a whole movie about just one scene?
Alexandre O. Philippe: First, it’s obviously a passion for Hitchcock and his work and his craft. But really I think a bit of an obsession with this scene, which is the most extraordinary, complex, two minutes in the history of movies. I think it’s two minutes that you can crack open and go down the rabbit hole as it were and never get to the bottom of it. It’s an endless source of fascination I think. There’s just so much to learn from it. It’s a way to look at Hitchcock, you know, by really focusing on the details. I think in that scene you can see everything – his fears, his obsessions, his moral universe, his desire to achieve the greatest cinematic trick in the history of movies, which is pretty much what he achieved with this scene. So by looking in the details you can have a better picture of the whole.
DC: Do you worry that you’re dissecting it to the point of demystification?
AOP: No. I wanted to treat this piece of work as something that remains full of secrets and mysteries still fifty-seven years later. I think hardcore Hitchcock fans, hardcore cinephiles will still find these things inscrutable. Whether it’s why did Hitchcock pick the casaba melon for the sound of the knife striking the flesh. Why the painting of Susanna and the Elders on the wall that Norman Bates removes to peep at Marion Crane. Was Marli Renfro, the body double that we got to interview, was she, did she actually have a more important role in that particular scene than previously thought. So there’s definitely new stuff for hardcore fans but I think, even people who don’t consider themselves cinephiles but are just curious. People who may not have even watched Psycho in the first place, I think will have an enjoyable time. And I think the film was very much designed to appeal to the general public and to be accessible.
DC: When did you first see Psycho? Was it as a child?
AOP: I was exposed to Hitchcock’s movies at a very young age and I’m talking like five or six years old, my dad was watching them, and strangely enough because they were always around, I don’t have this first memory of watching Psycho. I don’t have a first memory of watching any Hitchcock film as a matter of fact, which is really weird. I do have certain scenes or moments that have affected me deeply, that almost borderline traumatised me as a kid – I thinking about Eyes Without a Face, I’m thinking about Scanners, I’m thinking about Night of the Living Dead. There were certain images that I remember watching from a very, very early age. But Hitchcock, no. Hitchcock was always around. I’ve always had a real comfort level with him. I’ve always wanted to revisit his films, even when I was very young. And then growing up and becoming a film maker became really interested in his craft. How does he achieves the impact. How does he create this emotional rollercoaster ride. It’s fascinating to study how he does what he does.
DC: One thing I really loved about 78/52 was how deeply you dug, and especially in finding Janet Leigh’s body double and getting her story.
AOP: It was actually really serendipitous because if you do a bit of research, there is a kind of urban legend out there that Marli was actually assassinated. So I actually thought she wasn’t alive. It was a Hollywood editor who contacted me and said have you been in touch with Marli? Well no, because she’s dead! And she said well, actually no she’s not and I know her very well and would be happy to put you in touch. So that was one of the things that really completely changed the movie. She’s an amazing lady, she’s so much fun, just so many amazing stories to tell. And so, to be able to set the record straight on that front because she’s not very well know. I mean as a matter of fact, Janet Leigh went on record saying yeah, there was a body double but then every shot in the shower scene is her. And, as it turns out, it’s not true. Marli had a very important part to play in the shower scene. Basically, every shot that you see, that you don’t see Janet’s face, is Marli. It was quite a discovery and oh my gosh I had a million questions for her of course.
DC: You should do a spin-off documentary about her. When she was talking about being a Playboy bunny and all that, I thought: ‘Ooh, I want to know more!’
AOP: We might. She’s very fun and full of energy and obviously we’re exploring other things right now, but who knows. Maybe we’ll do another piece with Marli down the road. I just know that I really, really enjoy being around her, she has great, great energy.
DC: You have so many interviewees – everyone from Hitchcock’s granddaughter to Eli Roth. How do you narrow them down?
AOP: You want to cast a wide net to a certain extent because at the end of the day, you never really know whether the usual suspects are going to be the best interviews or not. And sometimes actually you get the vibes – it’s not always the people you expect that will give you the best. But certainly Hitchcock experts, obviously editors, people who were involved with this scene, that was easy. There was only Marli [from that era] who was still alive. But also I wanted to reach out to a number of women. I think it’s extremely important when you’re making a movie about Hitchcock, especially Psycho, to have a strong female presence. And editors. The scene is very much a master class in screen editing and I think they’re the forgotten heroes of Hollywood and film making. And so to have the opportunity to meet Walter Murch, Chris Innis, Bob Murawski, Jeff Ford, and all these amazing people, John Venzon, Amy Duddleston, it really added a whole other dimension to the film and to hear them talk about what Hitchcock is doing – look at the cuts! It’s amazing how much you learn. For me it was like sitting through a master class day after day after day. It’s just so much fun.
DC: Was there any hesitation to get screen time in your documentary about the Psycho remake? I mean, not many people liked it…
AOP: I think I really had to, and… I mean, look, I can’t say that I’m a big fan either, but I’m really glad that it exists because it makes you think about movie magic. That it’s not something that you can sort of recapture. Even with a great film maker with, more advanced equipment with, knowledge of the scene and a great crew. It’s not possible to recapture the genius of something like this. And that in a way is kind of reassuring and cool because if we could just recreate everything at will, then it begs the question, did the original really have that genius, if it’s something that can be duplicated or replicated. So I think it’s a really cool thing that it exists. I think what Amy Duddleston did, the editor of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, said on camera, ‘we shot it the same way, we cut it the same way and it just didn’t work.’ I think it’s one of those actually mind-blowing moments of ‘wow’. It’s really, really interesting – it’s actually really cool that she said that.
DC: Have you seen the TV series “Bates Motel”?
AOP: I have not, actually. And I think that part of the reason for this is, I spent so much time in that shower, so to speak, everyday – I just never really went there. But I’m obviously well aware of it, I hear it’s very good. I will watch it at some point down the road. I think I need to just get over my shower scene for now – I’m being a little facetious here because I love that scene and there are moments where it is hard to be constantly in touch with it. It’s a hard thing to watch over and over and over again. But if I let it go for a few days, I get excited about it again. But in the series, I hear they did something very interesting with Rhianna as Marion Crane in the shower.
DC: What’s next for you?
AOP: We actually started working on a feature doc about another scene, believe it or not. It is the infamous chest burster from Ridley Scott’s Alien! So that’s what we’re working on right now. And then we’re also doing some shorts for the Criterion Collection, which will be released probably very soon and all kinds of other projects that are in various stages of development and hoping that we’ll start shooting them early next year, so we’re going to be busy for a while.
78/52 features interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, and more, including Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Anthony Perkins’ son, Osgood Perkins. Philippe wrote the script, which breaks down the scene that became a template for how to terrorize a movie audience with a combination of imagery and suggestion.
The film is out in the US and it hits UK cinemas today, November 3rd.