Thursday, 16 February 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: On Making ‘The Birds’

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Following on from my previous post on the Alfred Hitchcock retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1963. The exhibition culminated with the American premiere of Hitchcock’s recently completed ‘The Birds’. As part of the retrospective, Peter Bogdanovich conducted an extensive interview with Alfred Hitchcock about his career. The interview concluded with Hitchcock discussing the making of ‘The Birds’, his preparations for his next film ‘Marnie’ and some unrealized projects:

In The Birds, as in a lot of your films, you take ordinary, basically average people, and put them into extraordinary situations.

This is for audience identification. In The Birds, there is a very light beginning, girl meets boy, and then she walks right into a complicated situation: the boy’s mother’s unnatural relationship to him, and the school teacher who’s carrying a torch for him. This girl, who is just a fly-by-night, a playgirl, comes up against reality for the first time. That transmits itself into a catastrophe, and the girl’s transition takes place.

What do you feel the picture is really about?

Generally speaking, that people are too complacent. The girl represents complacency. But I believe that when people rise to the occasion, when catastrophe comes, they are all right. The mother panics because she starts off being so strong, but she is not strong, it is a facade: she has been substituting her son for her husband. She is the weak character in the story. But the girl shows that people can be strong when they face up to the situation. It’s like the people in London, during the wartime air raids.

Isn’t the film also a vision of Judgment Day?

Yes, it is. And we don’t know how they are going to come out. Certainly, the mother was scared to the end. The girl was brave enough to face the birds and try to beat them off. But as a group they were the victims of Judgment Day. For the ordinary public – they got away to San Francisco – but I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge – covered in birds.


How did you come to choose The Birds as a vehicle?

I felt that after Psycho people would expect something to top it before going on to something else. I’ve noticed that in other ‘catastrophe’ films, such as On the Beach, the personal stories were never really part of it at all. I remember a film called The Pride and the Passion which was about pulling that huge gun. Well, they stopped every night to have a bit of personal story; then the next morning they went back to the gun again. It was terribly devised, no integration at all. They don’t realize that people are still living, emoting, while pushing the gun. That was one of the things I made up my mind to avoid in The Birds. I deliberately started off with light, ordinary, inconsequential behavior. I even compromised by the nature of the opening titles, making them ominous. I wanted to use very light, simple Chinese paintings of birds – delicate little drawings. I didn’t because I felt people might get impatient, having seen the advertising campaign and ask, ‘When are the birds coming on?’ That’s why I give them a sock now and again – the bird against the door, bang! Birds up on the wires, the bird that bites the girl. But I felt it was vital to get to know the people, the mother especially, she’s the key figure. And we must take our time, get absorbed in the atmosphere before the birds come. Once more, it is fantasy. But everything had to be as real as possible, the surroundings, the settings, the people. And the birds themselves had to be domestic birds – no vultures, no wild birds of any kind.

Aren’t there a lot of trick-shots in the picture?

Had to be. There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.

How do you feel, on the whole, about using trick-effects and process-shots?

It is a means to an end. You must arrive at it somehow. A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible’. So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this – just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.

Marnie (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
What will Marnie be like?

It is the story of a girl who doesn’t know who she is. She is a psychotic, a compulsive thief, and afraid of sex, and in the end she finds out why. In terms of style, it will be a bit like Notorious

Marnie is a thief, but evidently we are in sympathy with her. How is this achieved?

This comes under the heading of rooting for the evildoer to succeed – because in all of us we have that eleventh commandment nagging us: ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ The average person looking at someone doing evil or wrong wants the person to get away with it. There’s something that makes them say, ‘Look out! Look out! They’re coming!’ I think it’s the most amazing instinct – doesn’t matter how evil it is, you know. Can’t go as far as murder, but anything up to that point. The audience can’t bear the suspense of the person being discovered. ‘Hurry up! Quick! You’re going to be caught!’

[Bogdanovich concludes by listing several ‘unrealized projects’, Frances Iles’ 1931 novel ‘Malice Afterthought’, David Duncan’s story ‘The Bramble Bush’, which Hitchcock worked on during 1953-54, ‘Life of a City’, and Ernest Raymond’s ‘We, the Accused’, based on the Crippen case. Hitchcock commented on the last two projects.]

Life of a City

This is something I’ve wanted to do since 1928. I want to do it in terms of what lies behind the face of a city – what makes it tick – in other words, backstage of a city. But it’s so enormous that it is practically impossible to get the story right. Two or three people had a go at it for me but all failed. It must be done in terms of personalities and people, and with my techniques, everything would have to be used dramatically.

We, the Accused

This was the story of a man who murdered his wife, ran off with his secretary, and was arrested on board ship, in about 1910. It is almost the definitive case of murder, trial and execution. It would be a very long picture, with detailed characterization, but I’m afraid it’s terribly downbeat – and the man is middle-aged – so it wouldn’t be very commercial. And you would have to spend some money on it.

– Alfred Hitchcock: 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich at MoMA.org


No comments:

Post a Comment