Interview: Alexandre O. Philippe on "78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene"
The most famous shower scene of all time gets a feature-length documentary.
The sudden pull of the curtain; the terrifying silhouette and massive kitchen knife; the screeching score, and the blood circling the drain. The shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is stamped in movie lovers’ collective memory as one of the most recognizable moments in cinematic history. The new documentary 78/52 delves into the structure, history, and impact of the infamous scene, comprised of a mind-boggling 78 shots in only 52 seconds. Fandor sat down with director Alexandre O. Philippe to discuss the film, Hitchcock, and the movie moments that define our lives. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first develop an interest in Hitchcock?
I was exposed to him from a very young age, when I was probably five or six. There were two things [my dad] liked to watch over and over again: Hitchcock movies and Columbo. I was also really into horror films, but Hitchcock was kind of a go-to. I really enjoyed watching his movies whenever they would show up on television. At the age of 12 I had this “salon” series where every Sunday I would pick a Hitchcock film to play for my parents and their friends. I would do a little intro, and then we’d do a Q&A, 12-year-old me and the adults. But, as I grew up and eventually became a filmmaker, I realized that there was a lot more there. There was a reason why I kept coming back to those films because there was something really profound happening, and he is such an amazing craftsman, so thoughtful about everything he does and about provoking a certain reaction or emotion from his audience. Everything is really thought through in a Hitchcock film. So, as a result of that, he is a constant source of inspiration for me. There’s a reason why he’s the most written-about filmmaker of all time. It’s probably because he was the greatest. There are still books being written about him and films coming out about him all the time. It’s really cool that he lived and that he gave us that body of work.
Where does Psycho and the shower scene come in? Do you remember the first time you saw it?
That’s the weird thing; I don’t have a first memory, quite frankly, of any Hitchcock film because they’ve always sort of been around, and it kind of disappoints me because I would love to have that first memory. But Psycho is so great. For me, it was never this sort of impulse about Psycho. It was always about the shower scene, because really it is the most important two minutes in the history of movies, period. It deserved a really cinematic treatment.
What are some of the other most important cinematic experiences that you’ve had?
I’ll give you three. One was a bit of a trauma: I walked in on my parents watching Eyes Without a Face when I was probably about three. I remember those images just traumatizing me, and then when I grew up I kept having this image but I didn’t know where it was from, and then I finally watched the film, probably in my late 20s and I went “Whoa, fuck, that’s the scene. That’s the movie.” That was a pretty strong moment. Then there’s Empire Strikes Back. I was in a theater in Switzerland with my mom and during the “I am your father” scene, I distinctly remember standing up in the theater, completely shocked and devastated, and turning to my mom as though she had the answers, but she didn’t have the answers. I was seven or eight and had to wait three years for the next Star Wars movie, which is like half your life at that point, and all you have are the Star Wars action figures. So I spent three years coming up with scenarios and speculating over what the next one was going to be about. That’s the magic of Star Wars: it made you very hands on, so that was a very strong, profound experience. And then there’s Scanners. It’s a funny story because I was raised in Geneva, Switzerland, and my best friend at the time was Sophia Loren’s son. We’d hang out all the time and watch movies and have sleepovers and he’d bring movies from America that we didn’t have in Switzerland. He was also a huge horror buff, and I remember that Scanners was a big thing. Well, Scanners and Night of the Living Dead were two big things for us, but Scanners, specifically. We’re watching it on VHS and then, of course, we’d go through the head bursting scene frame-by-frame trying to figure out, “How did they do that?”
And that’s the kind of stuff that makes you want to make movies…
Yes, completely. I mean, never in a million years did I imagine I would be a filmmaker one day. In my teens I wanted to be a professional golfer, and then became a golfer somehow, and then ended up going back to college. Then I thought I was going to be a playwright, and then I thought I was going to be a screenwriter. It’s been a really weird journey for me to be here. It’s pretty humbling. Now I’ve been making movies for 12 years, and now I have to make movies. I have no choice. It’s not a desire; it’s a need.
What was the three-year process like to complete this film?
The problem is that it was such an ambitious approach, and because it was so expensive and because it was the first feature ever made about a single scene, there were a lot of people who didn’t really believe that we could pull this off. I think the question was always, “How can you make a film about one scene?” And my issue was really the opposite. It’s not, “Can I make a 90-minute film about the shower scene?” It’s more like, “How can I keep it down to 90 minutes.” That’s always been my dilemma.
What was the process like of gathering your eclectic group of interviewees? Were there any people who you really wanted to be in the film but couldn’t get?
It’s an organic process, and of course you go for the obvious ones. You go for the one person that’s left alive, and that’s Marli Renfro (Janet Leigh’s body double). I definitely wanted to have some filmmakers like Walter Murch and Peter Bogdanovich, some people who are icons. But also having younger filmmakers and women was very, very important. So you cast a wide net and you go through your contacts and connections and little by little you put together a cast and there are people who right away say yes, and some people you have to work on, and some people say no. Unfortunately David Lynch didn’t want to. Brian De Palma and Gus Van Sant said no. But we have such an amazing cast, who have great chemistry, and that’s what I’m always looking for. Once you have that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how recognizable they are or not.
What would tell younger generations is so essential about Hitchcock?
I think you can easily make the argument that cinema wouldn’t be cinema the way we know it without Hitchcock. The hardest thing to do as a storyteller, whether you write novels or whether you make movies or plays or whatever the case may be, is to be accessible on a first viewing or first reading, and then to provide this endless sort of layered narrative that you can go back to again and again and learn something new each time. There are very few people who can do that, and Hitchcock is the best at it. And I think during his time he was mistaken or really dismissed as a pure entertainer and not really given his due as the genius that he was. Also, in terms of thinking about the craft and what kind of reaction you’re trying to provoke from the audience, what kind of emotion you want them to feel—to this day I believe there is no other filmmaker more thoughtful about his technique in order to provoke a particular reaction or emotion than Hitchcock. So it’s essential to study Hitchcock. There is no way around it in our landscape and, in fact, there’s nothing dated about his films. Sure, they can look old, but when you start thinking about what he’s doing, Vertigo is still ahead of its time. Nowadays you’re looking at Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead and all these great shows and it’s this big thing when all these characters that you love suddenly die, and people get upset and you’re like, wait a minute- Hitchcock did it 57 years ago with Psycho. He deserves our respect because he broke new ground in storytelling, and also technically in filmmaking in ways that have profoundly affected cinema. He deserves our attention more now than ever.
Are there any other scenes that you consider so seminal that you could make a film about them?
Yeah. In fact, I’m working on one right now: it’s the chestburster scene from Alien. You know, John Hurt. We actually just started shooting a couple of days ago. We’re going to go to London and Spain, we have a lot of interviews there, and then there’ll be Los Angeles. I’m hoping to release it in 2019. It’s going to be really cool, completely different stylistically and in terms of approach. It’s going to be bolder.
Objectively, after the shower scene, what would you say are top scenes in movie history?
Obviously the chestburster would be one of them. I think that the crop duster in North by Northwest. Then there’s the Rocky montage, the opening of Touch of Evil, the shootout in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Copacabana steadicam scene in Goodfellas—all of those. In fact, we’re in the process of pitching a series on great film scenes and with most of those I think you can do 50-minute or hour-long episodes. There are very few that you can do a full feature, but we have a list of, like 35 great scenes that we’d want to explore, so, knock on wood, we’ll get that one off the ground.