Alfred Hitchcock was born in the 19th century but gave birth in the 20th century to the age of modern filmmaking. Famous for his wit, inventive appreciation of the macabre, and a firm belief that suspense involves bringing a victim out from the shadows into the light he crafted the kinds of movies that made you care about characters even while reaching for your cholesterol medication.
He also has a lot to teach. To fellow filmmakers and fans alike. Which is why we’ve chosen him as the first teacher in a new series of weekly articles where master movie-makers share their insights.
Throughout his life, Hitchcock was candid about his methods and philosophies (amongst other things he flung around freely). Here’s a bit of free film school from a true visionary.
Make Your Audience Suffer…
Perhaps one of his most famous quotations, Hitchcock also seemed to delight in that suffering. His work echoed a sentiment that putting people on the edge of their seats was the furthest back he wanted them.
The climaxes of Vertigo and others are strong examples, but consider flicks like Rope and Rear Window where he shows us the danger early and spends the entire film – an entire damned runtime – stewing in the possibility of getting caught or seeing a loved one murdered by a violent man. These are testaments to a intractable dedication to producing gooseflesh.
There’s no more invested audience than one that shares each emotional or physical threat with the character – and Hitchcock managed to do it without resorting to cheap tricks or sensationalism.
…But Give Them Pleasure
“The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
At the end of Rear Window, Hitchcock drops a spoonful of sugar in the form of a cascade of character wrap ups – Miss Lonelyhearts has a musician beau, the dancer sees her love return home, the couple who lost their dog has a new one, and Lisa (Grace Kelly) cheekily pretends to read a travel magazine next to her man played by Jimmy Stewart (who now humorously has one more broken leg than he began with).
That sugar comes after the heart attack of the rest of the movie. No matter how terrible he treats us, Hitchcock somehow manages a sweet, Hollywood ending. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Just make sure you don’t get stabbed when you walk out into it.
Know the Difference Between Mystery and Suspense
Be the Best Salesman of Your Films
Today, directors go on press junkets, give countless interviews and attempt to be ambassadors for the piece of art they worked hard to make. The marketing aspect has evolved over the years, but Hitchcock was never shy with his own projects, and often became the star of extended trailers. His famous cameo appearances helped with that.
One of the best is “A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock” where the frumpy old genius helped us plan our summer vacation by mocking outdoor activity and shilling for North By Northwest. It’s a solid hook for a movie that takes a trip all over the map.
Of course, he got away with it because he had a watchable presence, a dry humor, and a clean comic delivery. Trailers could use this level of creativity, although it seems clear that this lesson isn’t universal for all directors. David Fincher makes it a point to be involved heavily in the trailer process, but some filmmakers aren’t well-versed enough in what sells and why.
The real point is to be disarming while still advocating for your work. Maybe this exact scenario wouldn’t work for most, but the best modern example is Peter Jackson with his extensive video blogs of his productions. He’s grabbing a spotlight, letting fans in on the process and delivering the goods even before the movie has begun shooting. That’s salesmanship.
Don’t Fear the Pigeonhole
“I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”
A tongue in cheek comment to be sure, but Hitchcock was never afraid of his own living legacy. That’s mostly because he loved the movies he made, seeing himself as built for the genre. And, honestly, can you imagine Hitchcock making anything else? Even his comedy The Trouble With Harry is morbid and focused on a dead body. His solution for a sore throat? Cut it.
The guy loved dark humor.
His films managed to be a mixture of noir, comedy, suspense and blood. He was fine with being pigeonholed, but maybe that’s because his particular hole was rather large.
Meanwhile, who else would have loved a Cinderella movie from Hitchcock?
It Doesn’t Matter What the Movie is About
The emotional response. That’s what matters.
What Have We Learned
These tips may seem to focus on a particular style, but they speak wholly to storytelling at its core. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re working with or what kind of tale you want to tell (or enjoy), challenging your characters and your audience is an elegant way to get them involved. Don’t make things safe for yourself, for your characters or for the people seated in the dark ready to be entertained.
For more lessons from Hitchcock and comments on hearing his audience scream while writing, finishing his film before he starts a single take, and explaining how catastrophe can change a person, check out his legendary interview with Peter Bogdanovich (who might end up in this weekly series as well).
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