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PSYCHO: Adapting the Screenplay

Writer Joseph Stefano on working with Alfred Hitchock.

By Edward Gross     February 28, 2000

The enduring power of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, is evident by its inclusion in Fandom's top 100 genre films, its placement on American Film Institute's top 100 films list and by the fact that Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake was virtually ignored by EVERYONE.
As the 1950s came to a close, Hitchcock had already been deemed the film world's Master of Suspense. His latest production had been NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a big-budget tongue-in-cheek spy thriller starring Cary Grant that had more than a passing influence on the soon to begin James Bond film series. Yet despite that film's success, the director decided that he wanted to prove that one didn't need a large budget and spectacle to score with audiences. As a result, he locked his creative eye on Robert Bloch's PSYCHO based on the real-life Ed Gein murders which he thought could be shot quickly and inexpensively.
The search for the appropriate writer to adapt Bloch's novel eventually led to Joseph Stefano, who had come to Hollywood with the desire to work with established directors, this after having collaborated with Martin Ritt on the very successful THE BLACK ORCHID. Feeling that he needed to learn a lot more about movies, he went to his agents with a list of ten directors and told them to give him a call when a deal to work with one of them came up.
'I was fully prepared to go back to New York if I had to,' says Stefano, who went on to co-create THE OUTER LIMITS and write PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING. 'The first one was a possibility of William Wyler on a remake of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR; only this time he was going to do it as written. I talked to him about it, but I didn't want to do it with Lillian Hellman looking over my shoulder. Then there was Otto Preminger, who had a project I just didn't like, and the third was Hitchcock. My agents really worked very hard to get him to meet with me on a project he was about to do, and finally he said, 'Well, alright, give him the book; we'll get together and talk.''
The book, of course, was PSYCHO, which told the tale of ultimate mama's boy Norman Bates, who had a penchant for dressing up as his late mother Norma and hacking to death anyone who came between her 'relationship' with her son. 'I was kind of disappointed, frankly,' admits Stefano. 'When I put Hitchcock on the list, I was thinking more of the kind of thing that he was well known for. I met with him and told him that I didn't like the character of Norman Bates. The other thing that bothered me about it is that a woman gets killed, and the rest of the book has to do with this killing. I didn't even know who she was, and I wasn't interested in her as written. He said, 'What do you think if you wrote the Bates character so that Tony Perkins could play it?' I said, 'Of course, you're beginning to talk sense....''
Hitchcock's intent to cast Perkins excited the screenwriter, and from there he came up with the idea of starting the movie with Marion Crane in the hotel room with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, getting to know her. The assumption was that the audience would feel some empathy if they had a sense of who this woman was. 'I didn't want to do a murder story,' he says. 'I felt that I would really like to feel some grief about this person, and Hitch agreed. The only thing he'd tell you about a script is that he didn't like it. In my experience, he rarely interfered at all. He felt that that's your job, and you're getting paid for it.'
He details that their early conversations consisted of laying out what was to happen in the film, camera angles and things that would never be in the script. Hitchcock never, according to Stefano, discussed characterization, dialogue or anything of a similar ilk. 'He didn't have much respect for writers after the fact,' Stefano smiles. 'He rarely mentioned them in interviews, so that he came off as the only person who had anything to do with the film. He really felt that by the time you reached the point that you could do a movie with him, you ought to be able to do it. This is the difference from other directors who think they can write better than you if only they had the time.'
After deciding on how to open the film, it was mutually agreed to expand upon Marion's theft of $40,000 from her real estate boss which had been referred to in the novel, but never seen. A week later, Hitchcock went out of town and told Stefano to write the first scene. 'I was entirely aware that this was an audition,' he says, 'and that it had better please him or I might be off the picture. I wrote the scene in the hotel room; he liked it; and we were sailing. Finally, after talking for a few weeks, I went home and wrote the script the script that he shot.'
While Hitchcock began assembling his cast and crew, Stefano set about writing the rest of the screenplay, much to the director's approval. 'First of all,' the screenwriter explains, 'I loved the story and I liked the structure of the book. What I hated was the characters. It was kind of dime novelish, and I don't think it was intended to be much more than that. I just felt that if I could give the characters some depth, and really get to work on who they were and what was happening, it would work. About a third of the way through the book I knew what was going on: that Mother was dead. I thought, 'Oh, God, I can't let that happen in the screenplay.' It would be even harder because it was visual. One of the main ways I avoided thatand it cost a lot of money for the production, but Hitch thought it was worth itwas the scene where Martin Balsam as Arbogast gets killed. I said that if we were high above the shot and the 'mother' runs out of the room and stabs him, it will look like the director wanted to do an overhead shot rather than making people wonder why they're not seeing this woman. In other words, if we just saw her feet and the hem of her dress, I would wonder why you're not showing the rest of her. Then of course I would begin to suspect that something was wrong, but by going all the way up, I think it worked.'
He also believes that by making Norman Bates a sympathetic character, it would throw suspicion off of him, which is precisely the way that Perkins portrayed the role. 'It just worked out very well,' Stefano sighs in mock relief. 'When I finished the script, the only thing that Hitch asked me to rewrite was one scene which he felt needed more tension. The scene where the cop wakes up Marion who has fallen asleep in her car. Originally, I had kind of a flirtatious cop, who was coming on to her, which was unnerving but wasn't scaring her. He said, 'Maybe there's a more suspenseful way to go with it.' So we talked about it for a while, and made the changes to the cop with the dark glasses. He probably liked that kind of cop much better, and the cute flirtatious cop wasn't his idea of the law at all.'
He adds that there was also an additional sequence cut out for time. 'It was a very short scene that got lost in the trimming,' Stefano reveals. 'It's a scene in one of the motel rooms between Sam and Marion's sister, Lila. A little passage between them in which Sam expresses his grief over having lost Marion. It was, to me, a very important scene, because at no time does anybody shed any tears. This was a very touching moment, and I wish they had left it in. I don't think the time element was that important. It wasn't like a TV movie where you really have to be on the mark. But I think that, again, shows a lot about Hitchcock. If he was going to cut a scene, it wasn't going to be anything that had any suspense or fear in it. But that was my only complaint.'
At the same time, he admits that he was ultimately quite surprised by the impact that the film would have on audiences. 'Hitchcock and I both had a bizarre sense of humor,' he says. 'We thought it was great fun. We really had a good time. Psychologically, I think it may have been a way for the both of us to take a step back away from the horror that was going on. When I saw that first rough cut, I thought, 'Jesus, this thing's got a little more power than I anticipated.' That was in rough cut without the music, so by the time I saw the answer print, I thought, 'Oh, lord, what have we done?' I wasn't at all surprised that it was a fantastic hit. Hitch, strangely enough, was a little surprised. He thought it would make money, but he certainly had no sense of how it was going to affect his feature films, because it really did affect everything he did thereafter. In a strange way, he was almost trying to top PSYCHO. He never got back to that nice leisurely sort of going from one movie to another that he had done before that. If you look at the pictures he made, they were beginning to get dark. Along around VERTIGO, he was pulled down into a darkness, which didn't bloom again until, I felt, PSYCHO. That's just my own estimation of where he was mentally at the time.'
Mentally, PSYCHO had quite an impact on audiences as well. Many women were actually afraid to take a shower by themselves after watching Janet Leigh stabbed to death during the course of the film, and the power of the movie redefined the horror genre. As filmmaker Tom Holland, whose credits would include the screenplay for 1982's PSYCHO II, offers, 'I don't think anybody picked up a knife and graphically did somebody in until Hitchcock got Janet Leigh in the shower. I think that sort of set everybody's mind working. They took it a lot farther, God knows. The serial murders, the non-storyline murders, may have started with HALLOWEEN, but I don't think the graphic killings would have been possible without Hitchcock opening up to a whole new emotional level in PSYCHO.'
The appeal as it is of the Norman Bates character is a difficult one to capture in words, though Stefano, like everyone else involved with the films, certainly has his own theories. 'I think that the appeal is that Norman appears to be a terribly put upon individual like you and me,' he closes. 'But he turns out to be capable of taking care of his problems in the most violent way UNLIKE you and me. I think that as a result, we identify with him as somebody that everybody else seems to be picking on. He's very much the kid in school who got picked on, and then turned out to be capable of things that the people who picked on him were unable to do. All of those bullies could not commit murder. And I think the natural human condition is a kind of inbred respect for people who are able to take a human life. We hate it; we don't want it to be our life or our loved ones; and we think it's terrible. The thought of serial killers running around and killing all of these people is sickening, and you can't believe we're living in such a world. Yet there's this part of us, this picked-on part of us, that says, 'I wish I could do that.' I think Norman is that kind of killer. He is really sympathetic, whereas the killer in the average slasher film wears a mask. Those films are all about the victims, whereas PSYCHO is a horror story about the killer. We usually do these movies about the victims, and the killer basically remains a shadowy figure. In PSYCHO you've got a killer who steps into the light and is the star of the movie.'

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