Interview with Alexandre O. Philippe
Director of "78/52" (USA)
KVIFF - Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2017 - Out of the Past
Name: Miha Veingerl
C. Photo Credit: 78/52 (2017)
When a filmmaker describes his film as geeky, then you know you are in for a special ride. Alexandre O. Philippe, a chronicler of pop culture, decided to make a film not only about one filmmaker, or one film, but about one scene. The documentary 78/52 tackled the shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), invited an illustrious group to analyse it – Elijah Wood, Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro, Walter Murch, Gary Rydstrom...
Nisimazine spoke with him about motels, mysteries and melons.
Alfred Hitchcock is probably one of the few filmmaker's filmmakers. Would you agree?
Alexandre O. Philippe: He's an endless source of discovery. I think it's because he was so intensely focused on his craft and on figuring out how to provoke the kind of emotions he wanted to provoke from the audience. As a result, you have movies that are extraordinarily complex, even though they are very accessible. I think that this is the greatest artistry of Hitchcock in my opinion. You can enjoy his movies already the first time, but the more you watch at them, the deeper you go, the more you find.
He is famous for what he called pure cinema, a purely visual type of storytelling. Even in his silent films, there are a lot less dialogue cards than in an average silent movie. The shower scene really excited him, because he saw an opportunity to create a very powerful cinematic moment without a single line of dialogue.
The title of your film refers to 78 cuts in the 52 seconds of the shower scene, right?
AOP: 78 setups and 52 cuts. I know,a lot of people have trouble with this title. Even my producers.
When did you immerse yourself in Hitchcock's cinema?
AOP: I was watching his films when I was five or six years old. From an early age, I really wanted to start studying them. At the age of 12 I was doing events with my parents and their friends. We would watch Hitchcock's movies on VHS and I would do a little intro, then we talked about the film afterwards.
You introduce his oeuvre and leitmotifs to us, before going into the precise analysis of the shower scene.
AOP: I think that you have to establish why the scene matters. The idea was also to actually mirror the structure of Psycho, where the shower scene shows up around 40 minutes into the film. In 78/52 you know that the film is about the shower scene, so it's about setting it up with a historical, cultural, social context. And then roughly 40 minutes into 78/52 you get to the scene.
Why did you decide to make a re-enactment at the beginning?
AOP: I wanted to start with the foreshadowing of the shower scene. You have the car very slowly coming up over the hill towards you – to me is the mother coming up from behind the curtain. Then you cut to the hubcap that is sort of spinning, so that is the drain. And then we dissolve into the circular side-view mirror, where you see her reflection and that's the eye. There's very subtle sound of water as well...
The idea of 78/52 was also that I wanted to have the interviewees to essentially create this impression of being trapped inside Bates Motel, watching Psycho. In order for this to happen, I wanted to create a journey, to take the viewer to the Motel.
The interviewees in the film are actually watching the film on a circular screen, right?
AOP: Yes, it's a peephole. This particular television is actually a 1951 Zenith porthole television. My director of photography found it online and the moment I saw it I knew we have to get it.
So, they are basically playing Norman watching the scene?
AOP: Exactly. I really wanted to create this feeling that we are watching them as they are watching the film. But they are also watching us, right? They are looking straight into the camera, but also at us. It's definitely playing with this idea of voyeurism in a very circular way.
How did you pick the interviewees?
AOP: It was kind of an organic process. Obviously, I wanted to talk to Hitchcock experts, established filmmakers as well as younger ones, editors, women... And it's a good mix.
I found it fascinating to hear an art historian explaining the painting on Norman's wall. You can’t find this story in writing.
AOP: You really can't. I worked pretty hard on that and I really wanted to try and get to the bottom of it.
Just as with the Casaba melon. It's been written that he picked that melon, without explaining why. So, I actually found 27 different varieties of melons. We stabbed each one and recorded everything. It was really striking that this particular melon sounded so different from the others. Then you realise that Hitchcock did nothing at random, not on that level. We went to Gary Rydstrom, the winner of seven Academy Awards for sound, and he confirmed that it was a very distinct sound.
So, you didn't find this particular information anywhere and just did the research yourself?
AOP: Well, you have to bring something new to the folder. There's obviously a number of things in the film that the people who really know Psycho will be familiar with. But I still believe very strongly that the scene deserves to have a cinematic treatment. The scene has many mysteries and secrets.
Take Marli Renfro's story. Some people know that there was a body double but many people assume that she was not actually in the scene because Janet Leigh went on record saying that every shot in the film is of her. I wanted to prove that this was not the case.
Wasn't there actually a murder mystery regarding Marli Renfro?
AOP: Yes. Funny coincidence, because when I started this film, I'd read that she was dead. So, I didn't even try to find her, but there was a Hollywood editor who put me in touch with her. I was really very lucky. There is a book written about that murder mystery, by Robert Graysmith, who also wrote Zodiac, directed later by David Fincher.
You used Psycho’s trailer in your film in almost full capacity.
AOP: You can look at it as the foreshadowing of the film, but it is also a work of misdirection. When the curtain is pulled open, it's Vera Miles in there, not Janet Leigh. Even though he's kind of telling you what happens, he's not telling you what happens. It's so bold to give so much away and yet he knew what he was doing because he managed to still shock the audiences at that time. It's brilliant. And it's a six-minute trailer, really more of a short film.
Who do you think was most responsible for the success of the shower scene, besides Hitchcock?
AOP: I don't want to grade them but you can certainly argue that without the editor George Tomasini, the composer Bernard Herrmannand the storyboard artist Saul Bass the scene wouldn't be what it is.
Do you think that the audience needs to know much more about Hitchcock and Psycho?
AOP: I'm actually working on a book right now and I want to make more movies on Hitchcock. I have a number of different angles I want to explore. There's a lot more to be done and people are going to keep doing this because it's fun. And because the audience wants more.