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Tribute to Hitchcock: Janet Leigh Discusses "Psycho."

Actress Janet Leigh talks about working in Alfred Hitchcock's most infamous film "Psycho". She starred as Marion Crane who was Norman Bates kills in the infamous shower scene. Leigh wrote about the film in the 1995 book "Psycho: Janet Leigh Behind the Scenes of The Classic Thriller" Also The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) next month will feature the exhibit "Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette".


Other segments from the episode on March 10, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 10, 1999: Interview with Janet Leigh; Interview with Evan Hunter.


Date: MARCH 10, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031003NP.217
Head: Janet Leigh
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Alfred Hitchcock was born a hundred years ago. This year his centenary is being celebrated with new books, movies and retrospectives. The most shocking of Hitchcock's thrillers was "Psycho." It was shocking that the main character, played by my guest Janet Leigh, would be murdered long before the movie ended. Shocking that she was stabbed repeatedly while taking a shower, and shocking that the killer was the vulnerable but psychotic motel owner Norman Bates.

The screenplay by Joseph Stefano was based on a novel by Robert Bloch. Janet Leigh wrote a 1995 book about the making of "Psycho." Before we meet her let's hear a scene from "Psycho," after her character Marion has arrived at the Bates motel.

She's stolen money and is feeling very guilty about it. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, has invited her into his parlor for a sandwich. He has described his problems with his invalid, seemingly mad mother. Marion has suggested that he put his mother in an institution.


ANTHONY PERKINS, ACTOR, PORTRAYING THE CHARACTER NORMAN BATES: Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? No laughing and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you. My mother, there? But she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds

JANET LEIGH, ACTRESS, PORTRAYING THE CHARACTER MARION CRANE: I am sorry. I only felt -- it seemed she's hurting you. I meant well.

PERKINS: People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues and shake their heads and suggest oh so very delicately. Of course I've suggested it myself but I hate to even think about it.

She needs me. It's not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?

LEIGH: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough. Thank you.

PERKINS: Thank you, Norman.

LEIGH: Norman.

GROSS: Now what was your reaction when you read that your character was killed halfway through the story?




LEIGH: But -- but -- but when Mr. Hithcock explained that he wasn't going to go into the entire history of this gentleman because it was just too much. That he was going to concentrate on Mary and the discovery of Mary. And -- you know, in other words it would revolve around her. So I knew it was going to be a short part. I didn't know it would even be as long as it turned out to be.

Which was due to Mr. Stefano's take on it, because it was interesting to me that when I interviewed Mr. Stefano about -- in regard to the book -- he said that when he first met with Mr. Hitchcock he had said, I really don't like Norman Bates very much. I mean he was unattractive, you know, and he's -- he's just not something I want to write about.

He said but what interested me was that if you start the movie with the girl and get the audience into her life and her problems and her traumas and bring her then to Norman Bates. Then, especially with Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates, then you have lured the audience into a situation where they think it's going to be, "oh yeah, well know there's two guys and which one is she going to go for?"

And that's your typical kind of little rap to the blue ribbon package. And of course then the tragedy becomes even more shocking, and of course Mr. Hitchcock saw the value of this. And Mr. Stefano said to me that he -- Hitch leaned over and there was this gleam in his eye and he said, "oh, yes! And we'll get a star to play her!" So that it would be even more of a shock.

GROSS: Well -- and it was. I mean, it was shocking for audiences when you were killed and when this motel owner, who you seemed to kind of pity if anything, turned out to really be a monster.

LEIGH: Right. Well, that's why he was so -- you know, Tony Perkins was just so brilliant because almost you wanted to mother him in a way. You know, you felt sorry and yet he had that undertone where there would be a spark of something that would set him off, and you could see that there was -- it wasn't quite right and yet you could never identify what was wrong. And that's why it was so beautifully done by him.

GROSS: Your character is a kind of ambiguous figure in that she seems to be a really nice and decent person yet she steals all this money in the hopes of giving her fiance enough money to actually marry her. I mean, her boyfriend enough money to actually marry her because he says he just doesn't have enough money to go through with it.

And right before she's murdered she has decided that she's going to go back and give back the money and, you know, start clean all over again.

LEIGH: Right. Right.

GROSS: But what did Hitchcock tell you about what he wanted you to think of the character and the psychology behind the character?

LEIGH: Actually, he said to me prior to the beginning of the shoot -- he should me the sets. He showed me his little, you know, miniature dolls and little camera and how he moved it and what he was going to do.

And he said, "I really will give you -- you sort of have carte blanche to do with Marion what you see in her and what you want to do and what you want to bring out in her. If you need any help in terms of motivation for my necessary move I'm there for you. Or if I feel that your take on Marion is so far off that it's upsetting to the picture, obviously I will be there to direct you and steer you."

He said, "otherwise, let's see what you bring to her." Which was wonderful because my feeling -- see, Mr. Hitchcock always had this dual personality in so much of his pictures and especially in "Psycho." The split personality. The degree of good and evil is different in each person.

And I took that -- I took Marion as a decent person tempted, frustrated, desperate.

GROSS: My guest is Janet Leigh and she has written a book about the making of "Psycho." Now let's get to the shower scene. There were about suffer 70 different set up shots in the shower scene?

LEIGH: Yes, it was 70 plus.

GROSS: Uh-huh. How did Hitchcock explain what he wanted from you in that seen -- in the overview, before getting in to each shot every day that you were doing a new shot? But what was the big kind of overview that he gave you before the whole sequence began?

LEIGH: Well, the overview was the actual drawings of each shot. I mean...

GROSS: ...he shared those with you?

LEIGH: Oh, of course. He put them all out on a board so that everyone -- the cast and crew -- could see how what was proceeding. And Saul Bass drew all the various angles that he and Hitchcock had decided upon. And so he showed us the overhead shots. He showed us this shot. He shows the close-up there. He showed us -- you know, it was all planned.

It was like, you know, those books where you flip quickly and you get the story and -- or the image -- the picture image. Well, he had all that right out in front of you.

GROSS: So every time you did a shot you knew exactly where the camera was looking. You knew if the camera was looking at your navel or looking at your head.

LEIGH: Of course. Yeah.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

LEIGH: Because if it was looking at my navel I could wear a bra and pants. I mean, in other words, I dressed according to where the shot was. Or undressed according to where the shot was.

GROSS: Now say that camera was looking at your navel, did you feel well, I don't have to particularly act in this shot. My face doesn't need to express anything because the camera won't see it.

LEIGH: That's not exactly true because it's amazing how your body has a tone -- has, I don't know, a reaction to it. I can't explain it, but if you're just bland your body is going to be bland. But if you're feeling, you know, the terror and the effect of the blows and whenever your body shows that. I don't think that you can, you know, sort of separate it.

GROSS: Now what kind of knife was Anthony Perkins using?

LEIGH: A big long butcher knife. That's all I know.

GROSS: Was it a retracting knife?

LEIGH: No. No. It didn't retract. It wasn't steel, however. I mean, it looked like steel but believe me it wasn't. Because what people forget is that we could not show penetration of a weapon. So you could never see the weapon -- the knife going in. So you couldn't use a retractable knife. I mean, it had no purpose.

What you saw was you saw the knife go back and lunge forward and then you showed the shot of either, you know, the shoulder or the tum or the thigh or whatever. And you, in your mind, imagined it going in there. But you -- and then you saw it pull back. And then you saw it go again.

But you never saw it enter the body because it's not -- it was not allowed.

GROSS: Now what did you do -- what did you think about to get that look of horror on your face when Tony Perkins pulls back the shower curtain and is there with his knife? Was just being in the moment with Tony Perkins enough or did you think of other things beyond that?

LEIGH: I think that just -- it wasn't always Tony Perkins doing that with the knife, you know. He had different people doing it.

GROSS: With stand-ins?

LEIGH: Stand-in. Somebody -- a woman at one point. So that the audience could never get a fix on the character. I mean, they all had the same clothes and wig and everything on, but different people were in different shots so that the audience could never kind of get a glimmer of who it might be.

GROSS: Oh, so you mean even on screen we weren't always seeing Anthony Perkins.

LEIGH: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. He wasn't even there. He was in New York rehearsing a play I think.

GROSS: That's very sneaky.

LEIGH: Yes, of course, but that's Mr. Hitchcock. And because if the same person did it all the time there was a possibility, slim, but still a possibility that perhaps the audience might guess it. So by having different people of around the same stature play it and do the scene, the audience was never able to, you know, be long enough to say, "oh, that's" -- couldn't do it.

And the -- I didn't really need a lot of other thoughts in my head because when that shower curtain goes back and you look at this figure, which is exactly what they did in the thing, you know, I mean, that's pretty frightening. I didn't have any trouble with that.

GROSS: My guest is Janet Leigh. We'll talk more about the making of "Psycho" after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Janet Leigh. We're talking about the making of "Psycho."

Now you were doing the shower scene so although you weren't completely nude you weren't exactly clothed either. You write that you wore moleskin.

LEIGH: Right.

GROSS: Around your privates. Yeah.

LEIGH: In the full shots where you wanted the body outline, right? I wore moleskin over, you know, where I should.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

LEIGH: And that was, I think, the roughest -- well, one of the roughest things about that sequence because, as you know, it's a nude colored, almost soft suede-like or something on the outside. And then it's adhesive, obviously, on the inside.

And, you know, taking it on and off was very -- on tender skin -- it was painful.

GROSS: You know, you must have felt particularly vulnerable because here you are in the shower, you know, knowing that this actor with a big knife is going to be coming at you. But also you've got these crew guys looking at you from on top and from the sides making you feel, I'm sure, more vulnerable.

Were you able to use that vulnerability knowing that the crew was looking at you when you were mostly naked? Could you work with that and use that for your facial expressions?

LEIGH: Well, I think you use everything -- every tool available for whatever you're trying to portray. Certainly, I always noticed that during the shower sequence that everybody seemed to have a lot of assistants.


It was a closed set, but there were more people than I remembered being on that set. I mean, I think each electrician had sort of two assistants, and each grip had two assistants.

And one time -- one of the most difficult scenes, technically and also for me, was at the end when she falls forward and grabs the shower curtain and goes over the tub. Her head is kind of against that tub.

And he starts on a close-up of the eye and pulls back into a long shot. Now, we did it several times. We were in the 20 takes, I don't know which won, 24 or 5 or something or other. And because it wasn't automatic focus it was hand-focused, it was very difficult technical shot for the camera operator who had to do the focusing as we pulled back.

And it was hard for me because of trying to just have a non-live look in your eye because -- well, that's another story. I couldn't wear contact lenses -- not enough time. So it was just a hard shot.

And around -- I don't know, the 24th or fifth, somewhere in there, everything seemed to be going well. But the steam from the hot water had started to sort of melt the adhesive on the moleskin. And I could feel it pulling away from my bosom. And now, I knew that camera wise it would never show, but the guys upstairs on the rafters -- the electricians up there -- the gaffers -- they were going to get a peak.

And I thought to myself, well, what do I do? I feel it pulling away. The shot is going well. I don't want to do this shot again. And it's nothing they haven't seen before so I just said let it rip. And because -- and that was the shot that they printed.

GROSS: How long did you have to stay there without blinking and, you know, having your eye look dead?

LEIGH: Yeah, well, there was a point where the camera was far enough away that they couldn't tell whether I blinked or not. And he snapped a finger. I don't know in seconds how long actually, but it seemed forever to me. And the awful thing was that the water was still dripping down my face and it tickled.

You know how when you have the drops coming down your face. And it would tickle, and I couldn't react to it obviously. And again, my head was -- when I fell, I landed in this position where I was squashed against this tub. And it was so uncomfortable. That's why I just said I don't want to do the shot again if I don't have to.

GROSS: Janet Leigh is my guest, and she's written a book about the making of "Psycho." What was your reaction the first time you saw the final cut of that scene?

LEIGH: I didn't see that scene separately. I saw the entire picture. But I have to tell you that I screamed -- I screamed bloody murder. I mean, I really did even though I read the script. I'd done the show. I knew what was happening and I was still here. It just blew me away.

GROSS: So you mean it was more frightening to watch the scene than it was to shoot it?


GROSS: Why do you think that is?

LEIGH: Well, because in shooting it, don't forget, you wait maybe two hours while they're setting up the shot. And of course the emotion is there when you're doing scene, but then you relax again for another hour while they do the next set up.

In the actual seeing of it you saw the staccato. You saw the beat of the scene. You saw the mounting tenseness and the mounting, you know,, desperation and that's where it hits you -- and the music. Seeing that altogether, that was what made it emphatic is putting all the editing together and the music.

Because otherwise, you know, it was spread out over seven days. This way I saw in what? Forty-five seconds. And it was terrifying to me. It's the truth that I never realized in my life before how vulnerable one is in a shower. And I don't take showers, that's the truth.

Because you are completely defenseless. I mean, one, you can't hear because the water's running. Two, unless you, you know, have different kind of curtains which I'm sure afterwards I know they did. But at that time you couldn't see out because of the curtain. And you're naked, you're defenseless. And it just terrified me.

GROSS: So it's been only baths since the making of "Psycho?"

LEIGH: Exactly. And if there is no other way -- I mean, if wherever I happen to be only has a shower is with the door -- a shower is never closed. The bathroom is very wet. And I'm always facing the door and there is something by my side that I could grab if I had to.

GROSS: Janet Leigh will talk more about starring in "Psycho" in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year marks the centenary of Alfred Hitchcock's birth. We're celebrating with two people who worked closely with him. Let's get back to our interview with Janet Leigh who started in the thriller "Psycho," and wrote a 1995 book about the making of the to film.

Alfred Hitchcock didn't want anyone in the audience to know that your character, Marion, was going to be killed or that Anthony Perkins was really the mother. You know, that he was impersonating his mother. So what did Hitchcock do to make sure that you and the other actors didn't inadvertently give away any of this information?

LEIGH: We did not go on tour for this picture, Mr. Hitchcock did. If you remember the classic, now, teaser for the movie you never saw us really. You saw Mr. Hitchcock taking you through the motel and the various places saying, "oh, well, we don't to talk about what happened there."

I mean, it's a classic teaser. And he went on tour around the world. We never gave an interview. He was afraid that we might just let it out. And I don't know if you remember in the book the story of how it came -- because again, this was a first.

Except for road show pictures where you would have the matinee at 2:30 and an evening one at 7:30 like "Gone with the Wind" or something like that, most movies just ran continuously. And you could come in at any time...

GROSS: ...right. And in fact the bywords of moviegoers were, "this is where we came in."

LEIGH: Exactly.

GROSS: Because you'd come in in the middle of the movie and you'd stay until that point came around again in the next showing, and then you'd leave.

LEIGH: That's right. And what happened was he was sitting with his assistant and he said you know -- he said, this stars Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins. What if somebody should come in in the middle of the picture and keeps looking for Janet Leigh and she's not there? That's going to be very strange.

So he said there's only one thing to do. He said we can't let anybody in after the picture starts. Well, there was heck to pay because the theater owners just -- I mean, they couldn't believe that that was a rule.

And actually the day it opened Barney Bowband (ph), who was head of Paramount who distributed picture, got calls from theater owners all over the country saying, look, it's a 9:00 show, it's half full and there's a line outside. What do you mean? I'm going to let them in. And Barney said, you better read the fine print. You can't do it.

Well, of course, once they realized, they used this. I mean, finally when people realized that they couldn't get in until the picture -- once the picture started -- there were lines. People went crazy. The theater managers used that. In the rain they had umbrellas for people, and everybody tried everything. So it was revolutionary.

GROSS: Right. Now after the movie was completed Hitchcock said to you that he could never direct you again. Why not?

LEIGH: That broke my heart. But I understood. This was after the movie had made such an impact. I mean, it just had made such a tremendous impact all over the world. And it was not right after the movie, so it was maybe six months later.

And we were -- I don't remember where we were -- at a dinner party or something. And he said, "you know old girl we can never work together again." And I thought -- I almost started to cry because I thought what did I do? And he said, "because the impact of "Psycho" and Marion Crane is so identified with Hitchcock -- "Psycho" -- Marion Crane -- Janet Leigh.

He said, anything you and I did, the first thought would be oh, she played Marion Crane with Hitchcock which would destroy whatever character you were trying to play then. And I realized he's right. I mean, the first impulse would be, oh, they're together again and your mind would go to "Psycho." And instead of concentrating on the movie that was at hand.

GROSS: Did you see the recent remake of "Psycho" with Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn?

LEIGH: No, I have not seen it.

GROSS: Did you intentionally stay away?


GROSS: How come?

LEIGH: If I saw it I'd have to have an opinion.

GROSS: And it's more diplomatic not to.



LEIGH: Because whatever I would say would be taken the wrong way. I had one experience where I was asked prior to its opening if I would go to the opening. And I had said, no, of course not. And what I meant was why I would I go to their opening and detract from their picture? I mean, it would have to be a split kind of thing.

GROSS: Right.

LEIGH: And so that was my meaning by it. Well, it came out -- headlines -- "Janet Leigh won't go see the new `Psycho.' She's so upset." And I thought, you know what, Janet? You better just shutup and not open your mouth because whatever you say has to be taken the wrong way. I mean, if I like it I'm disloyal. If I don't like it I'm bitter. So I just thought you know what? If I don't see it I can't have an opinion and I can't get in trouble.

GROSS: Well Janet Leigh, thank you so much for sharing some of your memories of "Psycho" with us.

LEIGH: It was fun.

GROSS: Janet Leigh starred in "Psycho" and wrote a book about the making of the film.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Janet Leigh
High: Actress Janet Leigh talks about working in Alfred Hitchcock's most infamous film "Psycho." She starred as Marion Crane who was killed by Norman Bates in the infamous shower scene. Leigh wrote about the film in the 1995 book "Psycho: Janet Leigh Behind the Scenes of The Classic Thriller." Next month the Museum of Modern Art will feature the exhibit "Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Alfred Hitchcock; Janet Leigh

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Janet Leigh

Date: MARCH 10, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031004NP.217
Head: Evan Hunter
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40



TERRY GROSS, HOST: Pretty scary. Birds turn against people and attack them, pecking them to death. That's the premise of the Hitchcock thriller "The Birds." The screenplay was written by my guest Evan Hunter, who also wrote the novel "Blackboard Jungle" which was adapted into the film of the same name.

You may also know Hunter by his pen name, Ed McBain, under which he writes the "87th Precinct" mystery novels. His screenplay for "The Birds" was adapted from a novella by Daphne DeMaurier about an English farmer and his wife who are attacked in their cottage.

I spoke with Hunter about working with Hitchcock. Hunter said writing the adaptation was difficult.

EVAN HUNTER, SCREENWRITER, "THE BIRDS;" CRIME NOVELIST, "THE BIG BAD CITY": Well, I wasn't so much worried about how the birds would perform because I figured that was his job not mine -- directing "The Birds."

But if we stuck to the original premise of these two people in the cottage who, in the story as I recall, spoke to each other mainly in grunts and long pauses. There would be a lot of lapsed time on the screen.

GROSS: Right. Now what was the climax in the novel and what did you think of the climax?

HUNTER: The climax was the scene that survived. One of the few -- the only scene that survived the story where the finches come down the chimney into the cottage.

GROSS: Hitchcock told you that he wanted to get rid of everything in the novella except the title and the idea of birds attacking. Did he have a similar reaction to the novella that you did, that there really wasn't much their that would adapt into a film?

HUNTER: I think he had other reasons for not wanting to keep it the way it was. He liked to deal -- in all of his movies he dealt with more sophisticated people who were intelligent and quick speaking and almost glib. And he didn't have that opportunity with these characters.

So in a sense our reactions were the same in that respect. But he also did not want to shoot ever again in England, he told me. He never wanted to go back to England and shoot there. So he wanted to transfer the entire story to the United States someplace.

And we chose the San Francisco location because -- or he chose it actually -- because he had luck with -- I guess it was "The Trouble with Harry" or "Suspicion" or one of them that was shot up there in Petaluma in the chicken country -- up around San Francisco.

And he looked upon omens and little superstitious things. Like he had great luck with "Rebecca," which is why he bought "The Birds," you know. And he had luck shooting around the San Francisco area so he wanted to back to shoot there.

GROSS: Now you say in your book, "Me and Hitch," that you wanted to do "The Birds" as a screwball comedy that suddenly turns terrifying.

HUNTER: Yeah, that idea came later. We went with several notions of -- I remember one of my ideas was to come out and have her a schoolteacher -- the new school marm in this little town of Bodega Bay.

And an inbred hostility from the natives against the newcomer -- the big city girl from San Francisco. And this was one of the ideas that was shot down. She survived, of course, as Annie in the screenplay and in the movie. But not as the lead character.

One of the ideas he had was that she was a newspaper reporter coming up from San Francisco to examine -- to look into some reported bird attacks. And is went by the by, but it survived as her father being the publisher of a newspaper.

We kept flipping around looking for a handle on it, and then one idea -- one day I was on my lunch hour and when I came back I said to Hitch, why do we do a screwball comedy and suddenly it turns to terror. We have a bird attack in the middle of some nonsense. And we know we're serious here. We're talking about bird attacks. And he liked that idea very much and that's what we went with.

GROSS: Do you feel that that was a successful idea?

HUNTER: Yeah, I thought it was a successful idea, but I'm not so good -- I'm not so sure how successful it turned out to be in execution. It was a very difficult premise to bring off to begin with. And I think it required enormous skill all along the way, and perhaps I had not the skills -- I know Hitch had the skills because he dealt with comedy very often in the past.

But I don't think he ever dealt with merging comedy with terror. And of course it takes a great deal of skill on the part of the performers.

GROSS: Yeah well, Hitchcock I think had wanted Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Did you write with them in mind.

HUNTER: Mmm-hmm. Yes. There was no question. They were at the forefronts of both of our minds while we were talking the script. A Grace Kelly-Cary Grant team. And of course it was impossible because Grace was already in Monaco, as Hitch said, "being a Princess, you know." And Cary Grant wanted 50 percent of the picture, and Hitch would never give him anything like that.

GROSS: So how did you end up with Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor instead?

HUNTER: I don't know how Rod Taylor was hired. I know one day I was standing in the corridor there outside Hitch's office talking to one of the secretaries or his assistant, I forget whom. And he came out of his private office and the door to the office was opened, and he walked down the hall to me and I could look down the hallway and there was this tall glacial blond standing there.

And he whispered, "there's Melanie." And I whispered back, "who is she?" And he said, "she was doing hair commercials" or shampoo commercials or whatever he said. And I said, "well, do you think she can play Melanie because it's a difficult part?" And he said, "trust me, Evan. Trust me." And that was Melanie.

GROSS: Well, did you think Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor were good choices?

HUNTER: I never got -- I never saw, in rehearsals and in the filming and on the set, the sort of chemistry that you need for screwball comedy. You know, screwball comedy has to be people who are cute and are angry at each other from minute one, but we know they're desperately in love with each other and will get together by the end.

Screwball comedy is, "I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on Earth!" And of course we know she's going to marry him one day. But I never got that feeling between the two of them that either one of them would have married each other if indeed they were the last people on Earth.

GROSS: Now when you were working with Hitchcock on the screenplay did you talk a lot about why the birds were attacking?

HUNTER: It came up frequently because we didn't want to make the movie a science-fiction film. We could have said, "well, you know, the birds are attacking because there's a strain of `Virus 217' going around and this is probably from another planet." Or any such nonsense as that.

And at the same time we didn't want it to seem as if we hadn't thought of it. As if we hadn't thought why are these birds attacking, you know. Why the creative forces behind the picture hadn't once thought to ask this question of themselves. So it was a dodgy situation.

And we did a scene -- I did a scene in the screenplay where they try to figure out why the birds are doing this. And they succeed only in frightening themselves, but what they do come up with is the notion that there is a collective intelligence behind it.

That these birds are not acting in isolated little groups, but that it's all the birds. It's all the birds attacking mankind for whatever reason. We never explain why, but at least we do explain that there is a unified force here and not some stragglers.

GROSS: What happened to that theme?

HUNTER: On the cutting room floor. I don't think he ever -- wait, did he shoot that one? Yes, he did shoot it. He shot it and it did not survive the final cut.

GROSS: Now was Hitchcock concerned when you were writing the story about how he was going to technically pull off the bird scenes?

HUNTER: Never. I once asked him in one of our meetings, "how far can I go with this, Hitch?" And he said, "go wherever you want and let me worry about it. You put it on paper and I'll get it on film. And I think he really believed that.

You know, you must remember this was in 1961. And we did not have "Star Wars" technology, which is unfortunate because we would have had them screaming out of the theater, I promise you. But we did not have it.

And I don't think he realized when he made that promise to me that how difficult it was going to be to deal with birds. And to deal with animation. And to deal with puppetry, and all the other little gimmicks he used to create the illusion of reality.

It was interesting because the most real thing in the movie, to me anyway, were the birds. Not the people. The people, in a way, were the puppets and the hand puppets that were biting the people seemed real. It was a strange irony.

GROSS: How many -- what percentage of the birds would you say were puppets and animation, and how much of the birds was real?

HUNTER: I'm trying -- I can't assign percentages to it, I can only give you absolute examples. The scene where the birds are attacking the town where the gas station catches on fire and the bird -- and we cut to way above the gas station. We see the birds flying in formation like a flight of fighter planes.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

HUNTER: Those were animated. One of the most frightening scenes in the film is where Rod Taylor is trying to pull the shudder closed and tie it with a chord and a bird is picking at his hand. That was a puppet. Some of the birds in the scene where the children are running away from the school.

GROSS: Yeah.

HUNTER: And the birds are on the children's backs and they're trying to get them off and they're going at them. Those were mechanical birds that the children were operating from little buzzers and things inside their clothing.

The scene where the swifts come down the chimney, that was all double exposure. They shot -- we shot the people running around the room flapping their hands in the air and then the birds were added on to that later on. Like that.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for "The Birds." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Before Evan Hunter tells us more about writing the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds," let's hear a scene from the film. The townspeople are gathered in a restaurant after a bird attack on the school.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Now maybe we're all getting a little carried away by this. Admittedly, a few birds did act strange but that's no reason to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I keep telling you, this isn't a few birds. These are gulls, crows...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: ...I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened we wouldn't have a chance. How could we possibly hope to fight them?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We couldn't. You're right. You're right, Mrs. Bundy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Is something wrong out here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: We're fighting a war, Sam.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: A war? Against who?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I'm glad you all think this is so amusing. It frightened the children half out of their wits.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: If the young lady said she saw the attack at a school why don't you believe it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What attack? Who attacked the school?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Birds did. Crows. You're all sitting around here debating. What do you want them to do next? Crash through that window?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Sssh. Put on your coat. Why don't you all go home. Lock your doors and windows. What's the fastest way to San Francisco?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The freeway, ma'am.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm going out that way, lady. You can follow me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Well, then let's leave now.

GROSS: Do you feel that you learned things about building suspense by working on "The Birds" with Hitchcock?

HUNTER: Yeah, he was very good on suspense and he was very good on detail. It was amazing. I'd be in the middle of discussing a scene with him and he would say out of the blue, "well, how long has she been in San Francisco? How long has she been in Bodega Bay?"

And I would say, "well, I don't know. Two days." And he'd say, "has she called her father? And I'd say, "what?" He said, "has she called her father?" I said, "no, she hasn't." He said, "well, don't you think she should call her father. Tell him where she is?" And I said, "sure. It's easy to do a phone call to papa."

Or things like -- I'll remember this always. When I described the scene to him where she goes up to the attic. I don't know if you recall the movie where there's been a big bird attack on a house and there all sitting around and Mitch is asleep in the chair and she's asleep in the other chair.

And she hears a sound and she looks up. She leans over and says, "Mitch." And he doesn't hear her because he's asleep. And she grabs a flashlight and goes to investigate. And I'm describing the scene to him -- and this to me by the way -- it didn't turn out to be this in the film itself, but in the screenplay when she opens the door to that attic there's every bird imaginable to mankind in that room.

I mean, there are hawks. There are eagles. There are sea gulls. There are -- anything you can imagine is in that room when she starts -- when her eyes pan that room we see all the birds in the universe in that room, and we know right at that moment that this is a unified attack against human beings and not something we're playing around with here in Bodega Bay.

It didn't turn out that way. In the film, he just used crows and sea gulls But I describe the scene to him and she goes up the stairs and she -- and she hesitates and then she opens the door and all these birds are in there. And he was silent for a while then he said, "let me see if I have this correctly, Evan." And I said, "yeah."

And he said, "she's -- there's been this massive bird attack on the house." I said, "yes, there has." He said, "and now she hears a sound and Mitch is asleep so she doesn't want to wake him up. So she goes to investigate by herself. Have I got that correct?" I said, "yes."

He says, "well, is the girl daft?"


I said, "well..." I realized he had me. And he said, "we'll take the curse off it. We'll have her first go into the kitchen and spot the lovebirds in the cage and this makes her feel a bit more complacent about it. And then we'll have her, along the way, open some other doors and she'll see that everything is OK and we'll lull the audience until she opens that the final door, and boom, there are all the birds."

GROSS: Can you think of an example of a scene that Hitchcock added that you hadn't written?

HUNTER: Yes. Well, there were many in the film. For example, the scene where Melanie is trapped in the phone booth.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

HUNTER: This is not in the screenplay at all. Not at all. The scene ends -- I don't know, the birds are chasing the children and everybody is running from the town. But it was Hitch who put her in that phone booth.

And Hitch who had all the birds smashing into the phone booth picking up the metaphor of she being a bird in a gilded cage from the beginning of the film. And now she's back in the gilded cage in the phone booth. You know, it was wonderful imagery and scary as hell when they're battering the walls of that thing. You think they're going to get her.

GROSS: The other nice thing about a phone booth is that she's enclosed but it's also a transparent enclosure so you can see her through the glass.

HUNTER: And you can see everything that's happening. And you see people running. And the one guy with blood all over his face always trying to want to get in the phone booth. So it was a brilliant scene, and not at all in the screenplay.

GROSS: Now did you enjoy working with Hitchcock?

HUNTER: Oh yeah. Oh, he was wonderful. He was like -- he was like the father every boy wished he could have. I think he was approximately twice my age while we were working on the film. And in good health and good spirits and felt -- told me many many times that he felt he was entering the golden age of making films -- his golden age of making films.

He had just come off the success of "Psycho," you have to understand, and was looking forward to "Birds" being an even bigger success. And -- but he was humorous. He was anecdotal. He was generous -- with his time and with his patience. You know, I was a new kid on the block out there in many many respects, and he was -- he took me under his wing. Not to use a metaphor.

GROSS: Never attacked you.


Evan Hunter wrote the screenplay for "The Birds" and is the author of the book, "Me and Hitch."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Evan Hunter
High: Crime novelist Evan Hunter talks about writing the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "The Birds." In 1997, he wrote "Me and Hitch" detailing his working relationship with Hitchcock. He is the author of "The Blackboard Jungle" and "Privileged Conversation." Under the pseudonym Ed McBain, he is the author of a series of mystery novels for which he won the British Crime Writers Associations highest award, the Diamond Dagger; and the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. His latest McBain novel is "The Big Bad City."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Alfred Hitchcock; Evan Hunter

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Evan Hunter
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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