If you’ve ever hesitated before pulling back a shower curtain, odds are you owe that momentary fear to Alfred Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is one of the most pervasive cinematic sequences we have. The new documentary 78/52 explores both the structure of that scene and audience’s lasting love affair with that fateful stabbing. After the screening at Fantastic Fest I sat down to talk with director Alexandre O. Philippe about how he made a movie about a movie.
What made you want to jump into a documentary about the shower scene?
For me, Hitchcock has always been the master. He’s the man that I’ve looked up to my entire life. I watched his movies from a very young age. I knew that one day I would make a documentary about him. But the shower scene focus just came about organically.
The way that I work, is when an idea comes up and it keeps knocking at the back of my skull, there is a point where I need to pay attention to it. So then I talked to my producers about it. Five years ago I submitted my proposal. At the time we were still working on Doc of the Dead, and we had to let the idea go for a while. But then it came time to start focusing on the next film and this one, once again, came to the surface. Then we went for it.
Aesthetically this is a fairly stylized documentary. Did you have that vision for the film from the beginning?
The aesthetic of having everyone trapped inside the Bates Motel, watching Psycho, and we are watching them in return, came very early. That’s usually the way I work. The aesthetic of my films comes right away. Then we figure out a way to make it happen. In this particular case it was tricky because we had to shoot the opening scene at the Bates Motel. The interior of that motel is stripped, so we had to build the sets. We shot all of the interviews in front of a green screen. Some of our interviews are located inside the house, so we shot that in an old Victorian house.
The moment this aesthetic was in place, the budget of the movie tripled. For me it was worth it. It was important to create that illusion. And I’m glad that we stuck to our guns.
As you are talking about building sets and green screens, it doesn’t sound like you were shooting a typical documentary.
It’s almost like every shot in the film is either composite or animated. You also have the epic sequence with the story boards. There is a lot of heavy lifting from post-production there.
Chad Herschberger, James Durée, and the whole team at our post-production house did great work. I couldn’t be prouder of it.
Did any of your interviews for the film surprise you?
I think everything is surprising when you start delving into something like Psycho and the shower scene. People who are film buffs, filmmakers, and cinephiles themselves bring up references that are really surprising. I never thought I would talk about early Val Lewton, or Irreversible, or Ghost. Some of these movies you feel may have no connection whatsoever with the shower scene, yet they do.
That’s what is so interesting to me about picking the brain of people who are so knowledgeable about film and filmmakers themselves. They each have frames of reference that are different than yours. This is why I am not done talking about the shower scene. I want to keep talking to people, keep doing interviews. I’m probably going to write a book about it at some point, and I’m potentially working on a second film. It’s endless. It’s a journey of discovery.
Were there any interviews, or parts of interviews that never made it into the final cut that you really wish had made it?
I don’t know if there are any parts that I wished had made the final cut but didn’t. I always consciously make movies that will please an audience. As much as I would have loved to have a three hour movie about the shower scene, most people wouldn’t like that. As a result, there are a lot of things we had to cut out. You could easily make a ten hour film about the shower scene, but it wouldn’t be for the general public.
This movie is not just for cinephiles. It is not just for film buffs, or for people who are familiar with Hitchcock. I think this movie is accessible to people who have never watched Psycho in the first place. They have heard about the shower scene, and they can hear the music in their head, but they don’t know what the “big deal” is about it.
Fifty-seven years we are still talking about the shower scene. We are still seeing it in The Simpsons.
Were there any interviews that you wanted to get for 78/52 that fell through?
For me, the most disappointing was David Lynch. I really wanted to talk to him about the shower scene, but apparently he didn’t.
I know, I know! It was right after he was done with post-production for Twin Peaks. He was probably exhausted. Maybe if I try again in a few months he’ll be open to it. I don’t know. I can try again.
Also, Brian De Palma was not interested, which was disappointing. William Friedkin too.
There are always going to be people you can’t get. But that’s what you do - you try. And don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of the mix that we have. It’s a very strong cast. They work very well with each other. I think there is a fun dynamic, which is something I work hard towards achieving.
You’ve got a diverse group of interview subjects, but they all show such passion for the topic. Did you have to work to get them jazzed up or excited on camera?
It is certainly possible that my excitement for the shower scene got them excited. But if their excitement wasn’t there in the first place, it would not have come across. I’m grateful that they were all so into it and I didn’t have to work very hard to get them excited.
If you were going to choose any other scene from cinema’s history to make another documentary about, what scene would you choose?
Funny you should ask that, because we start shooting tomorrow! It is the chest-burster from Alien. It is cool to announce that here because you can feel the energy. It’s going to be stylized, but a very different film.
Are all of the interview subjects going to be on the ship, talking about the chest-burster?
We’ll see. I’m not going to give it away. We are going to go back - all the way back - to Greek mythology with this one. The film is going to start in Greece. You’ll see.