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Hot Docs Interview 2017: Alexandre O. Philippe on “78/52”

The infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, “Psycho,” haunted my nightmares years before I actually saw it. As a kid, one of the first books on cinema I read cover to cover explored the history of Hollywood horror films, focusing primarily on the Universal monsters. A page toward the back briefly mentioned “Psycho” and included two film stills: one showed a depleted Marion Crane resting her back against a shower wall with her arm outstretched, and the other displayed the silhouette of a monstrous woman wielding an enormous bread knife. That image terrified me so deeply that I refused to sleep in the same room as that book. When I was finally old enough—and brave enough—to rent the film, I instantly became obsessed with it, and it wasn’t long before Alfred Hitchcock emerged as my all-time favorite filmmaker. I have seen many documentaries about the Master of Suspense, but as I said in yesterday’s Hot Docs dispatch, Alexandre O. Philippe’s “78/52” is “the most euphoric and provocative of them all.” Its title is a reference to the 78 shots that comprise the shower scene’s 52 seconds of screen time, and through a rigorous and splendidly entertaining examination of that scene, Philippe makes a convincing case for how it marked the moment when cinema lost its innocence. 

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Philippe could’ve easily spoken for several days with RogerEbert.com about Hitchcock, but we made the most of our forty minutes together, delving into the filmmaker’s recurring motifs, ingenious sleight of hand and timeless influence.

When did you first develop your obsession with Hitchcock?

Obsession is the right word to use, and it’s clear in the film that I’ve had it for a while. I was raised with Hitchcock. I began watching his films when I was probably five years old, so he’s always been part of the household and the conversation. Obviously, at that age, I wasn’t deconstructing his films, but I kept going back to them, and after you keep going enough times, you start wondering, “What’s going on here? Why am I revisiting this?” So you start looking at it a little closer and a little closer and then here you are.

Was there a particular scene that initially drew you toward giving his work a closer look?

It was certainly the final image in “Vertigo,” which I think is the most perfect movie that I have ever seen. At the center of that final image is a character who has been so beaten up by his creator—by Hitchcock, in a way—who makes him lose the love of his life not once but twice. On top of this, he loses her because he manages to overcome his character flaw, which is extraordinary. It goes against everything you’re taught in dramatic writing school. The character overcomes his or her flaw in order to achieve the story goal. But here, he overcomes the character flaw, and as a result, loses everything he ever wanted. It’s devastating. That image of him standing there proves that he has overcome his vertigo because he can look down, and then the film cuts to black. He could either throw himself over the edge and commit suicide, or he could go on with his life. It does not matter. He is a broken character, so what he does next is of no importance. Those are rare moments in cinema, and Hitchcock gave us so many.

Tell me about how you conceived of the film’s structure, which spends its first half contextualizing “Psycho” and the shower scene itself. 

The approach was actually quite simple. I wanted to have a structure that would mirror “Psycho.” In “Psycho,” you spend the first forty-some minutes essentially being set up for the shower scene, even though you don’t know it if you’re watching it for the first time. There is a fair amount of foreshadowing and you sense that something is coming, and then it happens. Anybody who is watching “78/52” obviously knows about the shower scene, so there is that expectation that we will eventually get to it. I wanted to spend that first forty-some minutes of my film setting you up for it—teasing you, promising you that we will get there and then around the forty-minute mark, we get into the scene’s deconstruction.

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Your film reminded me of Robert Kolker’s 2004 essay compilation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook, which examines the film from a variety of different angles. Did analyses like that enhance your own research?

I did a fair amount of research, but it’s funny—as much as I appreciate that kind of stuff, I don’t consider myself a scholar. I want to be accessible, and you could say that I did with that stuff what Hitchcock did with his source material. I read it and then I tossed it aside. Whatever effect it has on my narrative, I’ll allow it to happen, but it was very important for me to not make a film that was too heady. I wanted people who had never watched “Psycho” to be able to watch my film, enjoy it and then want to watch “Psycho” after that. To me, that’s the point of making the movie. Cinema is a cerebral exercise to a certain extent, but it is has to primarily be an emotional one, in my opinion. I think that’s what I love about Hitchcock is that he is so accessible, so primal, so visceral. Then if you want to make the effort to go through his work and peel all the layers, then it becomes really interesting, and that’s the fun.

How do you differentiate between academia and the impressions one has based on their own interpretations? Both Hitchcock and Kubrick invited viewers to read into their work, and this film is indicative of that. 

You can certainly always go too far in any sort of film criticism, and I think there’s a lot of film criticism that is very much guilty of that, but that’s also part of the fun. I think when you have minds at work like a Hitchcock or a Kubrick, who work at the top of their game, obviously a lot of it is conscious, but there are certain things that start happening that are magical. The filmmakers may not have been creating these things consciously, but they are the direct result of the genius being at work. It’s like how the more you work on your muscles or practice a sport, the more you just let it flow and then the magic really happens. I don’t think you can say everything is a conscious decision, but it’s undeniable that there are certain things happening. When you look not only at the layers of motifs in a movie like “Psycho,” but how those motifs play out in his entire body of work, you know that there is something there. The bird imagery is one example, in the way that “Psycho” very much becomes a set-up for “The Birds.” Was that fully conscious or not? Then you can go back to “Young and Innocent” in 1937 where you have seagulls that are shot in a way that is very reminiscent of “The Birds.” You see them next to a dead body on the beach. 

And then there’s the theater full of kids laughing at the death of an animated bird in 1936’s “Sabotage.”

That’s right! And in “To Catch a Thief,” Cary Grant is at the back of a bus and he’s sitting next to an old lady with two lovebirds in a cage. Then he turns to his left, and Alfred Hitchcock is sitting right next to him. Does this mean that Hitchcock, back in the ’30s, knew that he wanted to make a movie about birds thirty years later and he was going to tease you about it by continuously linking birds with the idea of danger and voyeurism until he hits you with “The Birds”? I think it’s a very reasonable question to ask.

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What was the process like of assembling your eclectic group of film buffs?

I obviously wanted to cast a wide net, from people who were involved in the film to people who knew the scene very intimately and had something very unique and important to say about it. I wanted to have older filmmakers—legends like Peter Bogdanovich and Walter Murch—while also having younger filmmakers, because I didn’t want to set the shower scene in amber. It’s still contemporary. People are still coming out to watch a movie about the scene, so it’s very much a part of the conversation and there’s still fascination for it. That mix of generations was very important. I also wanted it have a certain levity. I’m very fond of finding characters who have a quirkiness to them and who can bring humor to the picture, and that goes back to the idea that I didn’t want to make a scholarly film. Yeah, it’s a very nerdy film, there’s no question about it, but hopefully it’s fun and entertaining. That is the aim because if it is accessible, then I think people can go, “Wow, film studies can actually be pretty fun.” Hopefully it will encourage people to start watching movies differently. 

The interiors of the Bates Motel where you see the interview subjects were done on a green screen. They were all composited. I have a great postproduction house that has done all the Exhibit A pictures, and they were really great to work with. The idea of putting people in the motel was always there, but when we had our first three-way interview with Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Joshua Waller, they are all sitting on this couch. We couldn’t set them in the motel because it just didn’t make any sense. When it came time to decide who we would put in the Bates house, I obviously felt that Jamie Lee Curtis and Osgood Perkins deserved to be there. I also included Guillermo del Toro as a sort of nod to his own Bleak House. I hear he’s going to be at the Sitges Film Festival with me, and there might be an onstage conversation with him after my movie, so that could be really fun. 

When you were examining the shower scene shot-for-shot in the film’s second half, what were some of the revelations that you had about it?

Where do I begin? I’ve worked on that scene now for three years full-time, and I feel like I’m just starting to understand it. There is still so much about it that we don’t know. I’m actually starting to do interviews with people beyond the film itself. I think I am going to release a book of conversations about the shower scene, and I’m going to be interviewing people who are not necessarily filmmakers but choreographers and architects and poets and all these people who can look at it from different perspectives. It’s staggering how much there is to learn about it. It’s this pandora’s box that I’ve opened and there’s no end to it. Obviously I’m working on other films, but I feel like the shower scene is going to be a lifelong endeavor. I want to discover more about it, and I’m nowhere near done.

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What shocked me while watching the scene again was discovering the shot of Marion after the attack where you see her breasts in close-up. Her body is out of focus, save for her hand gripping the shower curtain, but you can clearly see that there are no laceration marks or blood, even though we just saw a knife plunging toward her chest. In that sense, the scene is a magic trick. 

That’s exactly right, and the tricks are so obvious if you think about them. The fact that the attacker's face is in shadow, for example. The scene is so visceral that nobody watching it for the first time goes, “Why couldn’t we see the face of this killer in a brightly lit bathroom?” You don’t think about it. The scene is expressionistic in a way that is in-your-face. It is so unreal that it almost belongs to the realm of a dream sequence. I think that is also why people were sort of confused when they first saw the scene, because it does feel like a dream. Wait a second, Janet Leigh’s dead? That can’t happen. Are we in someone’s dream right now? Surely she’s going to come back. 

When I interviewed Damien Chazelle about “Whiplash,” he spoke of how he and his editor watched “Raging Bull” as an inspiration for their visceral rehearsal sequences. In “78/52,” you show how “Raging Bull” was directly influenced by George Tomasini’s under-appreciated editing in “Psycho,” thus producing quite a cinematic ripple effect. You should interview Chazelle for your book.

That’s a really great idea. I think there is a bit of a misconception out there about the fact that Hitchcock knew everything before shooting, and was in complete control of every element. I think he let Tomasini cut the scene and a large amount of what we see was really the result of Tomasini putting that scene together. With the amount of footage that they had and knowing how much time they had to cut a scene like this, it is nothing short of phenomenal. I love the testimony from Amy Duddleston, who cut Gus Van Sant’s remake. “We shot it the same way, we cut it the same way, and it just didn’t work.” I’m still trying to wrap my head around the implications of that statement because what it suggests is there’s a magic in movies that goes beyond how you put the movie together. There is something very intangible about it, but that’s the beauty of it, and I think that Tomasini had a lot to do with that. There is a perfect flow to the cuts. If we had seen some of these shots just one frame earlier or too late, it would probably change the whole complexion of the scene. It’s so sad that you can’t even find a photo of Tomasini anywhere, and believe me, we looked. He is one of the great forgotten masters of Hollywood.

It’s amazing how with a single cut, he makes it look like Marion’s body is slamming against the shower wall.  

That was one of the discoveries that I had while making this film. I could’ve watched the scene a million times and not seen that. Justin Benson is a really good friend and a phenomenal editor, and when he brought that up, I got goosebumps.

Was Duddleston resistant to speak about the “Psycho” remake? 

No, she instantly said yes and was game. Gus unfortunately was not, which was too bad. I’ll say this as a big fan of Van Sant and not necessarily of that film: I’m really glad that the remake exists because it opens up a whole other discussion. Now that we have the technological means at our disposal, does that mean that we can make something better or at least as good as the original? No it doesn’t. The robotic camera move on Marion’s eye is a perfect example of that. You can see that because Van Sant has that freedom, he’s going to do a 360 degree spin with the camera, and guess what? It’s too much. It takes that image over the top, and it didn’t need to do that. The restrictions that they had at the time and the way that Hitchcock pushed them were an asset. What I love about the original are those little flaws. They had to resort to an optical, and try to make the shot look seamless. If you look closely at the moment where the camera pans from the bathroom to the newspaper, you can see that there’s actually a cut. Tomasini had to cut back to the shower head because Janet Leigh took a breath. Genuine imperfections are not something that you can replicate because they will come across as phony. Maybe that’s part of the reason why, as Amy said, it just didn’t work.

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Ryan Murphy’s recent miniseries, “Feud,” tackles the period just after “Psycho”’s release where Hollywood was scrambling to replicate the picture’s success. What are your thoughts regarding the film’s initial impact on Hollywood cinema?

The scene changed everything for better and for worse. It had a tremendously positive impact on what was possible to make, and it opened up brand new areas of technique and ideas to the medium, but it was also tremendously negative. Something became unleashed, and it started a trend. I don’t think Hitchcock was a misogynist, but I think the film led to a type of cinema that is misogynistic. Do we really need to see a beautiful, naked woman getting slashed over and over again? Slasher cinema may be my least favorite subgenre of horror because “Psycho” is the highpoint. Once you’ve seen that, it’s all diminishing returns in my opinion, and strangely enough, it encouraged filmmakers to become more and more graphic. I say “strangely enough” because I think the strength of the shower scene lies in the fact that it is so restrained. Aside from a breast that is out-of-focus, you don’t really see anything. Now we feel that since Hitchcock made this scene, we need to show more nudity, more violence, more blood, more guts and gore. I think the opposite is true. Part of what makes that scene work is you are putting it together in your mind, and not necessarily seeing it.

There’s no question Hitchcock had an unhealthy obsession with actresses, and his reported treatment of Tippi Hedren was abhorrent. But I don’t consider him a misogynistic filmmaker. Your heart aches for Marion Crane, and in my mind, the film makes important statements about female oppression. She is punished for inadvertently turning on Norman Bates.

I’m glad you’re bringing up the tragedy of Marion Crane because that was what I wanted Jon Hegel’s score to convey. We actually went to Estonia to record it with a string quartet, which produces a lonelier sound than a full string orchestra, and loneliness is obviously a very important theme. I wanted the score to underline the tragedy of Marion’s death, and I’m really proud of what Jon composed. At Sundance, I had a conversation with a lady in her 70s who saw “Psycho” in theaters, and she said that she was struck by how strong of a female character Marion was at the time, which is so true. Marion makes the decision to steal that money because she wants to be with the man she loves, and she makes the decision to stop at a motel at a time when women didn’t do that. Then she realizes that she has made a mistake. She decides to take a shower, wake up in the morning, drive back to Phoenix and return the money. Those are all extremely strong decisions to make, and if you look at the movies that were being made at the time, you didn’t have many female characters who were like that. 

We can talk all day about whether Hitchcock was misogynistic or not, but he had very strong women in his films. Teresa Wright in “Shadow of a Doubt” was remarkably strong as well, and there are several other examples. Was Hitchcock lustful? Probably. Was he voyeuristic? Yes. Did he have respect for women? I think absolutely. The stories about Tippi Hedren are beyond the scope of my film. It was very important for me to have a number of female voices in the film, because otherwise you end up watching the scene through a completely male gaze, and I think that’s extremely problematic if you go down that path. I wanted to have people like Illeana Douglas talk about the aspects of the scene that they find problematic. It was important to mention them, but at the same time, “78/52” is a celebration of what I still believe is the greatest scene in the history of movies. You could get into a deeper criticism of the scene, but I wanted to stay positive. That’s another discussion that can be had.

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Whenever we are faced with puritanical ideologies, this scene stands as a constant reminder of what can happen when we repress our demons.

Yes, this scene is important because it always forces us to have that discussion. We’ll always be going too far on one side and then go too far on the other. That’s what we do as humans, whether it’s culturally or politically or religiously. Those moments are crucially important because they make us talk and disagree and think and argue and come up with new ideas. So thank goodness for the shower scene. 

Has there ever been a more astonishing feat in the history of filmmaking than the back-to-back-to-back run of “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”? 

I don’t think there has. Probably the closest comparison would be Victor Fleming directing “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” in the same year. You could also add “The Birds” to that trio of Hitchcock films. For my money, “The Birds” is his last great film. It takes some serious risks—the fact that there is no music in it, it’s all basically sound design—and there are some extraordinary set-pieces in the film as well. 

I agree, though I think that “Marnie” is Hitchcock’s final masterpiece. It includes a rape scene that I believe was foreshadowed by the shower scene in “Psycho.” As Bogdanovich has said in multiple interviews, he left his first screening of “Psycho” feeling as if he “had been raped.”

That’s obviously a controversial statement, but I had to include it because it’s a pretty powerful way to put it. There’s a word that conveys what he meant in a way that is perhaps less offensive to people, and that would be “violated.” There is no question that the scene is a violation because the murder is directed very much at us as well. You could write a whole book or make a whole movie on the changing POV in the scene itself. You have the point of view of Marion, you have the point of view of Mother, you have external point of views, and then you have the point of view of God. Every single perspective switches that so that in a way, you are the murderer but you’re also the murdered, and then you are also God—meaning you are Hitch—at the same time. And you are the fly on the wall, who is the ultimate voyeur that Mother wouldn’t dare kill, as she says at the end. Mother is talking about us when she says, “I wouldn’t even hurt a fly,” but guess what? She did hurt us. Hitch hurt us—the voyeur. Mother’s final line is like a little nudge to the audience. What she’s really saying is, “I’ve hurt you, haven’t I? You’re not going to walk out of this movie the same, are you?” 


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