By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Continuing our talk with Alexandre O. Philippe, director of 78/52, the new documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and its iconic shower scene, now in select theaters and on VOD as an IFC Midnight release.
The film goes beyond the shower scene to examine the impact of PSYCHO as a whole. Did you originally intend to be that expansive, or did you start with the shower scene and the subject got broader from there?
Well, if you watch it carefully, this was something I worked very hard at… Of course, you can’t talk about the shower scene without talking about PSYCHO, and you can’t talk about PSYCHO without talking about Hitchcock, and you can’t talk about Hitchcock without talking about other films that influenced him, or films that he influenced, and so on. But everything in 78/52 was very carefully designed to be always, always, always about the shower scene. The first half is really about setting it up, about putting that scene in context—the historical context, the social context, the cultural context of the time, the cinema of the time, all that stuff—so when it gets into the deconstruction of the scene itself, all of that will start resonating.
In that sense, I wanted to create a narrative structure that was a mirror image of PSYCHO. In PSYCHO, the shower scene doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film, but it is foreshadowed. Even if don’t necessarily know that it’s going to happen, you sense that something is going to happen. So the first 40 minutes of 78/52 are about setting up the shower scene—promising it, in a way—and you know that at some point we’re going to get to it. And roughly 40 minutes into 78/52, we get into the deconstruction of that scene. All of that was very conscious.
What was the greatest revelation or discovery for you in the course of making 78/52?
You know, there were so many, and I’m still making discoveries now. I’m still interviewing people about this scene, and it goes on and on. One of the really cool things has to be getting Marli Renfro [Janet Leigh’s body double], and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was in that scene. That has never been proven before, in a sense, especially considering that Janet Leigh went on the record saying, “Yeah, there was a body double, but all the shots are mine.” That’s a great reveal.
You mentioned you’re still interviewing people; do you think you might put out an expanded edition down the line?
I’m actually interested these days in interviewing people who are not necessarily filmmakers, but artists who work in different media—from architects to poets to choreographers—to look at the shower scene from a completely different and fresh perspective. Whether it’s going to be a book, whether it’s going to be another movie down the road, I don’t know yet. I just know that my work is not done [laughs]. I’m going to keep doing this for a while—among other things. That’s not my entire focus, of course!
On the flip side of that, did you have to cut any good stuff that we might see in disc special features down the line?
Yeah, yeah! Obviously, it depends on our distributor, but we are having that conversation. They realize and understand that there’s an opportunity for this film to be a true collector’s item, with all kinds of special features. My guess is that the DVD or Blu-ray will come out in early 2018, and I’m certainly willing to work with the distributors to give them as much bonus material as humanly possible. When you consider that we had a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Walter Murch, or a three-and-a-half-hour interview with Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah—these really in-depth conversations—and we ended up having five or six minutes of each in the film, that’s where you go, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much more that could have been included.”
But I don’t regret that; I mean, sure, I could have made a 10-hour film about the shower scene, but I don’t think that’s a movie anybody would have wanted to watch. You have to respect the fact that when you make a film, and people pay their $10 or $15 or whatever, you’re asking them to sit in a dark theater for 90 minutes to watch this thing you created, and it’s a very different commitment you’re asking for than, say, if you’re an artist and showing in a museum, and if people don’t like your painting, they can move on to the next one. In film, you’re stuck [laughs], so I try very hard to make movies that do not overextend their welcome.
What is the one thing that you think PSYCHO and the shower scene can still teach filmmakers today?
There are a million things, but if there’s one that I think filmmakers, especially horror filmmakers, could learn from today, it’s that restraint is a pretty great thing. It’s a funny word to use, in a way, when you talk about the shower scene, because you could argue that there’s nothing restrained about it. But Hitchcock was able to convey a sense of murder without showing much. I mean, do we really need blood and guts all the time? It does depend on the kind of horror film you make; if it’s something like Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE, then yeah, it’s supposed to be about that, and the more gore, the funnier it gets.
But I believe we’ve now reached a point of diminishing returns in horror filmmaking, where people are just trying to get more and more shocking and gory and over-the-top. But when you look at PSYCHO, there’s an elegance there, and a meaning that very few horror movies—in fact, very few movies—ever achieve. There was one film recently that pleased me a great deal—THE WITCH. It was phenomenal, in the sense that it’s so restrained, and there are moments when you expect this horrible, gory thing is going to happen, and in fact it’s the exact opposite, but it’s even more chilling, you know? That’s a lovely thing. I would like to see more films like that. But I think we’re in a golden age of horror; there are always going to be bad films being made, but I’m pleased to see films like THE WITCH coming out, because there’s a sense that there’s a new generation of filmmakers now who are starting to pay attention again to the masters and how they handled the craft.