With the release of the superb documentary 78/52, focusing on the construction, and deconstruction, of the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Psycho, I had a chance to sit down and chat briefly with Alexandre O. Phillipe regarding that infamous and endlessly discussable scene and how you make a feature documentary about a single few moments. The interview below has been lightly edited for stucture and flow from a longer conversation we managed to have in two parts during the Hot Docs Film Festival back in May.
Kurt Halfyard: PSYCHO is a movie about voyeurism of sorts. Was it always there the idea that each of the interview subjects in the film would sit down and watch the scene, on camera as it were?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: That was an idea that came immediately when I wanted to make this film. I wanted to have that angle. Of course, you are instantly tripling the budget of the film, we had to shoot everything with green screens and build sets for the interior of the Bates Motel, a shot the exteriors and rain and all that stuff. It was a very complicated move to make. I think that it was the proper thing to do. The motif of voyeurism is key. I wanted to make a movie not just to make a movie about people watching Psycho and the shower scene, but I wanted us, the audience that they are watching them, watching Psycho.
From the get--go was very a very conscious decision to give 78/52 a structure that narrates Psycho. In Psycho there is the first 40 minutes of set-up, foreshadowing and build up. In 78/52 you know it is film about that scene, you have to set it into cultural and social context. There is that anticipation that we will get to that scene, and right around 40 minutes. We get into the deconstruction in it. Mirrors are very important in Psycho, so I wanted our film to be a mirror of that.
Also, it was very important to interview also a number of women for the film. Otherwise we are stuck in the male gaze. I wanted to make it clear that the shower scene had some negative ripple effects. A feminist criticism of the shower scene is a totally different film, but I hope the point has come across and has been made that there are some very questionable things that come across in the scene. In what it did to cinema and culture. Beyond that I did not want much deeper in that way. It has been pretty well documented in other places.
One thing I loved about the doc is how many editors (a job that has been traditionally populated by women) are involved. Editors are not the usual go-to crowd for talking heads. Did the project start with editors as the focus from the get-go?
Not with just editors, but they very involved from the get-go. That was always a very conscious thing to do, because that scene is so crucial in terms of its editing. We have a who's-who of editors in the film, Walter Murch being the holy grail. The shower scene is really an editing magic trick, it really is. It is one thing to do a magic trick in front of a live audience. To do it in film, was very revolutionary at the time.
One of the interesting coup’s you have in the film is the Marli Renfro, the body double for Janet Leigh in that scene. She is the only non-film expert in the film, but in a way, is the biggest expert because she was there. She is really delightful on screen. There are some insights that go beyond the books and films made on Hitchcock, about his obsessions and so forth. She is the only person in the film that was there. She was the eyewitness (with the possibly exception of Anthony Perkins’ son, Osgood) while everyone else is kind of a forensic expert.
Yea. She is the one. I am really glad we were able to put a spotlight on here. She is one of the forgotten heroes of the movie, and of the shower scene. There were obviously misconceptions that the entirety of the scene is Janet Leigh, where quite frankly the bulk of the shots are of Marli. Getting her participation is pretty special. She is a lovely lady, and almost 80 now.
She came to Sundance with us, and we shared a house and she was so excited. It was really weird because I’d wake up in the morning and hear the shower going, and think, that’s Marli Renfro in the shower right now. How bizarre is that? (*Laughs.*) It was very meta.
People have a way of over-simplifying each decade as it disappears in the rear view. And there is a chaste label put on the 1950s, despite that it was a very tumultuous decade. It was interesting to hear from both Marli and Leigh in the film that there was little modesty, more of a let's just get this done attitude, as the cover-up ‘wardrobe’ for the scene would keep washing away, obviously making it difficult to shoot in a conventional way.
The thing that is so amazing about that scene is either consciously or subconsciously felt that audiences were ready for something like this, even though there was nothing on the outside that audiences were ready for it. I think people like to maintain the illusion of the 1950s as chaste, even as Marco Calavita says in the film there were already a lot of little cracks, though.
Movies like Anatomy of a Murder but also, the first Playboy Club opened, the birth control pill, et cetera in 1960 and then Psycho pulls the rug out. Welcome to the 1960s, we are no longer in the previous era. It is the way things just added up.
What ever happened to the actual shower scene set?
Nobody knows what happened to it. It’s a mystery really. It was a very small set, a very cramped space. All that stuff has disappeared, in the same way that the outtakes, very sadly, were also destroyed. I would make another separate feature about the outtakes if I could, it would be an amazing to have that stuff.
There is also a kind of mystique about it all being gone and only left with the final scene.
Yes. But it does make me sad in my heart.
Was there any one guest speaker, a ‘White Whale’ kind of interview that you wanted but could not get for the film?
There are so many. I am still interviewing people for what will probably end up being a book. I was very heartbroken that David Lynch did not say yes. I would really have wanted to experience the scene from his perspective. It’s David Lynch.
I would have loved to have Quentin Tarantino because he doesn’t really like Hitchcock, which is very interesting to me. I am curious as how he feels about that scene even if he doesn’t like Hitchcock. Just to put Tarantino in front of it and take me through it, it would have been a fascinating thing to watch.
It’s also interestingly difficult to try articulate what you don’t like. It is easier to talk about what you love.
I’m never opposed to having detractors in the mix. I never actively sought them out, but Tarantino would have been the one.
This is your third movie about movies. Each of your previous films were more in terms of fan culture, STAR WARS with THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS, and zombies, in DOC OF THE DEAD. I hesitate to use the word upscale, but PSYCHO is more specific. I am curious to your thoughts on the differences between these three different subcultures.
There are clearly themes that start emerging. I am really fascinated by pop culture, I am fascinated by cinema. But I am particularly interested in those moments in cinema that change culture. The show scene is one of those, Night of the Living Dead is one of those, STAR WARS is one of those. We can keep going down that list. (*Laughs.*)
But one of the things that brings me great joy with 78/52 is, right before screening the film, is to ask the audience: Who has not seen Psycho before? There are always a few hands that go up. This brings me great joy because clearly that scene is something everyone has heard of. Who doesn’t know that scene? And there is a curiosity about it. And then I talk these people after the screening and they all say, Now I really want to watch Pscyho.
Do you think there are any other sequences in film history that can withstand that level of scrutiny?
Yes. Is there one that I am thinking of doing next? Yes. Can I tell you? No. (*Laughs.*)
Will you ever make available all the interviews in their unedited form, like a special feature. There is such an encouragement when watching a film like this to keep going deeper.
Sure. I know that Kinosmith and all the people distributing the film are actively thinking about doing a special home video release.
Danny Elfman and Amy Duddleston, the editor of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, appear in 78/52. What are your thoughts on that remake? So many films are remade, and this is a fact of life, but I cannot think of any other remake that has been so turned on and savaged in a critical and audience consensus as the Gus Van Sant remake of PSYCHO.
Let me put it this way. I am glad the film exists. I am glad that it exists because we can compare it to the original, and it becomes a very interesting thing to look at. Do I think it is a success? No, I do not. I think Gus Van Sant will tell you this.
I always go the sense that Gus Van Sant made this film as more of a personal experiment, or challenge, than an actual commercial venture.
I think it is an art project. It is really cool on that level. But I really love the moment in 78/52 when Amy says, we shot it the same way, we cut it the same way, and it just didn’t work. What this implies is that you cannot duplicate movie magic. Just the way we cannot repaint something.
How long now have we been trying to rekindle the Star Wars magic? Every film that comes out, people think this is the one that is just like The Empire Strikes Back. Guess what. It’s not. It is never going to happen. So I would be much more interested in the franchise taking serious risks, and learn to let go and be ok with some of it will be great and some won’t. And that is fine. The reason why Batman is so successful because he has been remixed so many times. Some of it is great, some of it is not. We’re of topic here, but Star Wars is the brand that you cannot break.
I am curious what you think of Miike Takashi’s AUDITION, which I feel like it is the real spiritual heir to PSYCHO. It’s got that ‘turn’ midway, where it shifts from one kind of film to another kind of film. Obviously Hitchcock’s working process and Miike’s work process are radically different in terms of speed.
Funny, he was on my list of people to interview. Asia was one of those things that the budget prevented. I think that is a really good example, thought, and I think Miike would have a lot of interesting things to say about Psycho.