Friday, 8 November 2013

FSF #11 - Directing Masterclass: Alfred Hitchcock


After our mammoth Halloween two-parter, Film School Friday took a break for the holidays. I'm sure the worldwide increase in suicide rates was purely coincidental but just in case, don't fret; school is back in session and what's more, we've returned with a brand new feature. Our acting masterclass with Matthew McConaughey was a huge hit - one whole comment! - so I've decided to open the feature out to film makers.

HitchbirdsFor our first directing masterclass, I knew I had to pick one of the greats and who better than the Master of Suspense, the King of Cameos, the Patron Saint of Diabetes? That's right kids. We're talking Hitchcock, so shave your head, stock up on cakes and get your binoculars out as we learn how to direct the perfect Hitchcock film.

FSF #11 - Directing Masterclass: Alfred Hitchcock

As one of the most famous directors of all time, Hitchcock made over fifty films throughout his career, so if you want to attain his level of fame, then file the divorce papers and put the kids up for adoption. Time is no longer your friend and neither are salty treats.

Extraordinary Circumstances

But where do you start? Many of Hitchcock's most successful films focused on the plight of the ordinary man and how he copes when thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Priests who hear confessions of murder, strangers who plot murder on trains, men who are falsely accused of robbery... all of these were featured in Hitchcock movies that were huge hits upon their release. Unfortunately, the general public have become less... sophisticated since Hitchcock's time, so if you want to be like Hitch and relate to the common man these days, you're going to have to dumb things down a bit. Why don't you make a film about a police officer who runs out of petrol only three blocks away from the doughnut shop... five minutes from closing time!? I can just see it now. The tension, the suspense...I'm sure Cary Grant would have left his fifth wife for a role like that!
Mistaken Identity

Many of Hitchcock's protagonists struggled with their identities so make sure yours do too. Now I'm not saying you have to go scale Mount Rushmore just to prove your identity like old Roger Thornhill, but a confused central character is a must. Let's take the doughnut loving cop as an example here. Imagine he's finally made it to the doughnut shop with just two minutes to go, but the woman serving him looks remarkably like his dead wife and is even dressed up in the exact same grey dress that she plunged to her death in. I hear Kim Novak is still knocking about but at eighty years old, you may want to consider a new leading lady for the part. What about Paris Hilton? I've heard she's looking to make it on the big screen and lord knows she has experience being filmed.

Charm Their Pants Off

Hitch was fascinated by the evil that lurks inside us all and he often chose to explore this through characters who appeared charming on the outside, but were in fact deranged sociopaths just below the surface.  From The Lady Vanishes to Dial M For Murder, Hitchcock's films are inundated with these disturbing characters, so their inclusion is a must if you're going to pay tribute to his work. The most famous psycho of course is Norman Bates, the murderous proprietor of the Bates Motel, so let's use him as a template in our own Hitchcockian film (That's a word right?). So the dead wife look-a-like/doughnut shop worker is chatting away to the policeman as he finishes his snack, flirting outrageously, but unbeknownst to her, the charismatic law enforcer is in fact wearing his dead mothers clothes underneath his uniform. Why? Because he's more insane than a box of Miley Cyrus's, that's why!


If you believe the stories, Hitchcock was a pretty lecherous kind of guy, womanising on the side while his wife Alma suffered in silence. It may not be a coincidence then that being a pervert - or a voyeur as film critics would have it - is actually pretty key to many of Hitch's most successful films. Now how can we include voyeurism in our scenario?... Ok, hear me out;  While the doughnut shop worker and the crazy policeman are chatting over a cup of coffee, a professional photographer/pervert who's recently hurt his leg perving is sat in a window across the street, watching their private conversation through binoculars. Sounds ridiculous I know but trust me, it all comes together in the end.
The Perfect Murder

Was Hitchcock a psychopath himself? It's hard to say, but the big guy sure did enjoy murder and how better to explore it than through the safety of a camera lens? Many of his movies featured characters obsessed with the perfect murder, from homosexual college students to rich socialites and as you may have guessed, our budding movie pitch will too. The friendly neighbourhood policeman has now flipped the shops sign around to closed, unaware that he's being watched from just across the street. Meanwhile, our blonde doughnut shop worker is oblivious to all of this and is now cleaning the last of the tables. Just as she turns to say goodnight to the cop, he suddenly appears from behind and proceeds to choke her to death with what's left of the doughnut batter... It may not be the perfect murder but it sure is ironic in a 'this isn't really ironic Alanis Morissette' kind of way.

Location, Location, Location!

Whether he was being artistic or cheap, Hitchcock had a thing for setting films in just one location. Rope built up unbearable tension using just one setting and Lifeboat was extremely memorable for its claustrophobic feel so let's try and keep that in mind while we continue our own plot. The murder has been committed but while the policeman hides the body in a vat of doughnut batter, our concerned citizen from across the street has called the police. The voyeur keeps watching as just moments later, the killer policeman answers a call on his radio... for the murder he's just committed! Shocking right? But it gets worse. The murderer then looks up, directly at our observer! He knows he's there...somehow! It's so tense, I can't bear it!

Get A Stair Lift

Have you noticed how almost every Hitchcock film seems to feature someone falling over? Whether they tumble down old staircases or from the top of bell towers, Hitchcock's characters are clumsier than drunk toddlers ice skating. This is one motif that must be honored if we're to pay tribute to the Master of Suspense so where were we? Ah yes, so the murderer has just realised he's being watched and our observer is understandably freaked out. In an attempt to ring the police again, our injured voyeur slips on the telephone wire and tumbles down the... you guessed it, stairs. Just as he scrambles for the phone, the front door handle begins to turn...

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the vast majority of Hitchcock's cameo appearances but did you know that in most of these, he appears holding a musical instrument? In Strangers On A Train, the Master of Suspense struggles to lift a double bass case onto the aforementioned train while in Spellbound, Hitch can briefly be seen walking out of a hotel elevator carrying a violin case. Now how can we cram our very own cameo into the climax of our film pitch?... So the door opens and yes, it's the deranged policeman from the doughnut shop! How did he get in? Who knows. How did he know which home to break into? No idea. What's important though is that our observer is done for unless he can somehow get away. Lucky for us then that his friendly next door neighbor chose that exact moment to check on his injured friend. While the policeman grapples with this new arrival, our voyeur crawls over to his empty cello case and smashes it round the back of the policeman's legs, knocking him down just as the emergency forces arrive (Oh yeah, the policeman set off an alarm when he broke into the building. Keep up!).

But what about our cameo? How do we get the Master of Suspense into this future Oscar winning film? Well, as the police take the intruder away, a large rotund man walks by with his dog, carrying a violin case. In the shadows, his profile seems remarkably familiar... Yes, you've guessed it. Hitchcock's countenance has been superimposed onto the dog's face. Audiences sure won't see that coming. If you're feeling really adventurous, the dog could even give the viewers a little wink, smoking a cigar. What do you reckon?

So you've made a Hitchcock film even better than the Master himself. What next? Well, aside from dealing with all the relentless attention from fans and critics alike, you've obviously got to make some time to read and comment on the next edition of Film School Friday! What are we going to learn about next week I hear you scream? How to become an anime hero obviously! Trust me, there is a tenuous link in there somewhere and you'll find out exactly what it is if you come back next week. Pinky promise.

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