Interview: Alexandre O. Philippe on “78/52”

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Alexandre O. Philippe is a practiced documentarian with a decided penchant for pop culture phenomena, especially films. In The People vs. George Lucas, he looked at the interaction between filmmakers and fans. In The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octupus, he commented on an octopus named Paul that correctly “predicted” eight consecutive World Cup matches. And in Doc of the Dead, he tackled all things zombies. Now, in 78/52, Philippe delves deep into one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema: The Shower Scene from Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho.

Cinema Axis’s Derek Jacobs reviewed the film as part of our coverage for the Hot Docs 2017 festival, and Mr. Philippe was kind enough to be interviewed about his newest film.


Derek Jacobs: The first thing that I’d like to ask you about 78/52 is the subject of the documentary. Where did this idea to delve so deep into Psycho and The Shower Scene come from? Why did it have to be this scene from this movie with this director?

Alexandre O. Philippe: Sure. Well, it really is The Scene, you know, with a capital “S”. I mean, it’s really the most significant two minutes in the history of movies. And, for me, Hitchock is most definitely a lifelong passion. Since I was a little kid I’ve been watching his films and then growing up starting to really think about what he was doing in his craft.

So, first of all I believe that the shower scene deserved to have a cinematic treatment. But also, I like to look at details and I think that the shower scene contains all of Hitchcock; you can see his fears, his obsessions, his moral universe contained within those two minutes. So, by looking at the shower scene you can look at Psycho and by looking at Psycho you can look at Hitchcock’s body of work and by looking at Hitchcock’s body of work you can start reflecting upon cinema as a whole. So it’s really using a detail to talk about much larger things

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Right, and you sort of just went in the reverse of how the film goes. Because it starts off broader, talking about cinema of the late ’50s and early ’60s, then delves more into at Hitchcock himself, and then Psycho itself, and then the scene and then you spend a lot more time on that. Was this kind of “drilling down” concept always what you wanted for the structure of the film?

AP: Yeah, so the structure is, in a nutshell, a mirror structure of Psycho. As we all know, the Shower Scene happens roughly 40 minutes into the film. In 78/52, the deconstruction of this scene happens roughly 40 minutes into the film. But because you’re watching a film about The Shower Scene, you’re expecting that at some point you’re going to get into it. So what I wanted to do was set the scene within a historical social cultural context at first so that the moment you get into the shot-by-shot deconstruction, all of that stuff can resonate at a different level.

With the proper context, everything clicks a little bit quicker.

AP: Exactly. But in terms of content you know that’s something that I was very specific about. Even though we obviously talk different scenes in Psycho and different movies and things that are even beyond the scope of Hitchcock, every moment has to relate to The Shower Scene in some way, as every moment has to pay off in the shots of the shower scene in some way down the road. So, that was very carefully designed.

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One of the things that I really loved about it was that you established the context by employing a lot of different people for your interviews. You have actors or fans just watching the movie, with the camera on them so it feels homey like we’re out talking movies with some famous people. But then you have some culture analysts talking about what was going on at the time, and you also have a lot of technical people; music people, cinematographers, directors – people who know the cool things to point to. That breadth is really impressive. Was it always the plan to grab as many experts as you could, or did it just sort of come together?

AP: Well, I always like to cast a wide net. First of all, there’s the usual suspects in the sense that there are certain people that I feel are obvious: Marli Renfro, Peter Bogdanovich. But, sometimes there’s happy surprises and the best interviews are not necessarily the ones you expect. And, for me, it’s a question of energy. The energy that the people have and the way these energies react is important. You look at Doc of the Dead and The People vs George Lucas and Paul the Psychic Octopus and all of those movies and how those interviews work together is extremely important. There are like five or six people we interviewed for this film that didn’t make the cut, and it has nothing to do with how insightful or interesting they were. There was some great stuff that just didn’t make it. And, it has nothing to do with how famous or not famous they are. It’s all about what is the chemistry, what is the content, and how does that flow together.

I also wanted to reach out to a lot of younger filmmakers to make the argument that the scene is just as dynamic and vibrant today. Eli Roth and Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah and Josh Waller and all these guys are just as important. And, this is not an essay about the scene; it’s something that people who haven’t even seen Psycho can sit down and enjoy. So it has to be accessible and entertaining, and I wanted to communicate the passion that I have for Hitchock and for being a film nerd to people who think that maybe that stuff is too didactic or difficult or inaccessible. But I think when they watch 78/52, they might think, “Hey, this is actually fun!”

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Yeah, I think you’ve been successful with that. It’s rare that you see film analysis in a film. Most of what you see is either written or presented in shorter pieces on YouTube or whatever. But, it’s rare that you get it in a cinematic flavor like you’ve done with 78/52.

You mentioned some happy surprises, so what was something that surprised you or that you learned? Either, something that you learned about the scene, or maybe a point of view that an interviewee gave that knocked you off your feet.

AP: Oh, gosh so much. It’s kind of a dream job for me. Not only do I love Hitchcock and love to discuss things, but when you talk to people like that, they’re going to show you things that are going to blow you away. You name it. From John Venzon talking about the four frames that were removed to give the impression that she is being slammed against the wall, to the casaba melon for the sound, to the rabbit hole of Susanna and the Elders. There’s the insights from Guillermo Del Toro and talking to Walter Murch for two hours about what editing does and what happens to your brain when you start watching these frames. Things like that are endlessly fascinating to me, and I could interview people about The Shower Scene until the end of my life and learn something new every day.

That’s pretty great, and I’m right with you on that one. Seeing how the language of cinema is developed and exploited to direct our eye a certain way or make us feel a certain thing is one of the reasons I do a lot of my writing or film analysis.

AP: Yeah, it’s fun. That’s the thing that I love to communicate. Hopefully this film will make cinephilia a little more contagious, more mainstream.

So, one of the things I noticed relatively quickly in the film is that you’re shooting some of the interviews with coverage. Can you tell me why you decided to do that?

AP: Yeah, well we only have two cameras going. First, it’s always a good idea in terms of the flow of the edit to have that. But, in this particular film, I wanted a camera for them to be looking in the lens. So we had a system that is essentially a form of teleprompter where they could see my reflection through an iPad on the lens, so I wasn’t actually facing them. But, the idea here has to do with voyeurism: they’re watching Psycho, we’re watching them watch Pyscho, and they’re also watching us, so that’s the general idea there.

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With the film opening in the US and Canada, what would you like people to pay extra attention to, and what would you like them to take from the film?

AP: Well, first of all I would like people to have a good ride, to have a good time. That’s really important, to let the film take them to the Bates’ Motel where everybody is “trapped” watching Psycho on their 1951 Zenith Porthole television, which also riffs on this motif of voyeurism. One of the things that I am really proud of is all of the post-production work, because we shot all of our interviews on green screen. And even if you watch the movie on a huge screen you cannot tell, so the compositing is really flawless. The way they’ve completed that illusion is really amazing. And it’s something that people don’t really think about when they watch the movie. I think people just kind of assume that we shot everything at the Bates Motel, and we didn’t. Which is cool. Mission Accomplished

Yeah, if they don’t notice, then you’ve done your job right.

AP: Exactly. But I think that’s a cool tidbit to know. As far as what I’d like people to take away from this, I think it’s that Alfred Hitchcock was a singular kind of genius. And, I’m certainly not suggesting that nothing was left to chance, I don’t think that’s true. There’s always things that go wrong in film making. But the thought that he put into his films, the level of details, is remarkable. And I think that is something that filmmakers today can learn a great deal from. So, in terms of a window into a singular creative genius and his creative process, hopefully this film delivers insight that is definitely new. And people who are huge Hitchcock fans who think they know everything about the shower scene will discover things in this film. And I hope they have fun with it.

Yeah, I think you’re going to get that type of reception and that people are really going to enjoy it.

AP: Well, I’ve been touring with the film for nine months, and it just blows me away. It’s really humbling to see how much people love it and people keep coming up to me to tell me how much they enjoy it. So, I can’t wait to give them a second serving because right now we’re working on a feature about the chestburster from Alien. And, that one will be very different, but I am so excited about it that it’s ridiculous, so that’s going to be really fun too.

Well, count me in for that one, I’m a huge fan of Alien. I’m sure that will be great. Thanks for spending time on an interview with me today.


78/52 opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox today.