By the early ’60s the work of director Alfred Hitchcock was revered by filmmakers in the French New Wave. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut sung his praises and wrote about his films in the well regarded magazine of film criticism, Cahiers du cinéma. Meanwhile American critics weren’t catching on in the same way. Sure, Hitchcock was popular, but they weren’t writing serious praise of his works. By 1962 Truffaut took the next logical step in his fandom and sent a letter to the “master of suspense” requesting they meet for an interview to be published. Hitchcock expressed equal interest in meeting with Truffaut, who by that point had directed three films, with the 400 Blows among them.
The resulting book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, ultimately changed the perception of the director for many American critics and has become a necessary resource for filmmakers. Filmmaker and critic Kent Jones explores the legendary interaction in his HBO doc Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which he also speaks with directors (Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson to name a few) about the impact the book has had on their work as well as their perspective on Hitchcock’s films.
We spoke with Jones about the legend of Hitchcock and how Truffaut’s book continues to influence future generations of filmmakers.
What’s your personal experience with Truffaut’s book Hitchcock?
I was 12 and I think I went to a bookstore and bought it — I was just getting interested in film. My experience with the book was David Fincher’s experience with the book. As he tells it in the movie, that could have been me talking. I just poured over it and looked at those photo montages over and over again and the patterns. There are a lot of books about film and a lot of them are very good but this is one of the few indispensable film books, which is something Bob Balaban says in the narration. It’s not just a piece of rhetoric, it’s true. Indispensable to me, indispensable to a lot of people.
And what drove you to want to explore the book more and talk to other directors about the impact it had on them?
Somebody asked me if I was interested in making the movie based on the pitch and I just jumped at it. I make films when I feel like there is something to make a film about. I made a film about Val Lewton [Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows] — it’s not just because I love Val Lewton’s films, it’s that the story of Val Lewton is very immutable and it’s sad, because he died very young. When Marty Scorsese and I made a film together about [Elia] Kazan [A Letter to Elia] it took years to make. It’s a very simple movie but it took that time to find the story. With this, I knew those pieces already and I knew that the relationship between Hitchcock and Truffaut already was very interesting. So it is a question of me loving Hitchcock’s films, and loving many of Truffaut’s films as well, and knowing the history and loving that and wanting to show that. But then also there are a lot of great filmmakers and a lot of great interviews with filmmakers out there but none of them necessarily add up to a great movie. Right away I knew there was something between them in those exchanges that’s very touching and emotional.
For many filmmakers this book is like their bible. But for the casual film fan, do you find that they have the same knowledge that this interaction occurred? Or will this documentary be really enlightening for them?
That’s why I made the movie the way I did, with a certain amount of historical grounding, because I can’t assume that everybody is going to know the history and how Truffaut came out of that. And people aren’t necessarily going to know the book, so there’s basic historical grounding that’s in the movie. I felt that was very important. I didn’t want to make a movie that was just for people that know. I want people who are going to get excited who don’t know and for people who know to get excited in a different way. I think the historical grounding that’s in there is a minimal part of the movie in one sense but in another sense it’s very entertaining and interesting.
How did you select the filmmakers you wanted to talk to and include?
I didn’t want people to just sit on camera and mouth platitudes about how great Alfred Hitchcock is. I wanted people who would be able to think through and speak extemporaneously and respond to my questions. And I wanted to be able to build on questions from the answers I got from people from interview to interview so that I can deal with running themes. Most of the people in the movie are people I know. Some of them are people that I know very well. Marty Scorsese and Olivier Assayas are close friends. Marty and I have known each other for 25 years, Olivier almost as long. I know David Fincher very well and the thing is we know each other because we were able to talk about things on a common level. I know David because when Zodiac came out it was dumped by the studio and I said I really wanted to do an event with David and the film at Lincoln Center because I think this is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. James Gray and I know each other very well and talk about things a lot. So in many cases, particularly in the case of Marty, there are people that I’m in an ongoing conversation with, so what happens on camera is an extension of that.
There are other people that I went to who, for perfectly compelling reasons, didn’t want to do it. Brian De Palma had the best reason of all, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were making a movie about him and it actually begins with a hook from Vertigo, so he wanted to save his thoughts about Hitchcock for that. And Kathryn Bigelow said she was very shy and that’s okay. I’m really happy with the people who are in it and when I asked David, David is somebody who knows movies really well but I don’t hear him talking about older movies the way Marty and James do. So when I asked him, I was prepared for him to say no. I asked him if he knew the book and he’s like, “Well, not that well. I’ve only read it a couple hundred times.” That was great.
It’s interesting how this book changed the perception American critics had of Hitchcock. Without the book do you think there would have been the same level of change in how critics viewed his films?
Oh yeah, sure. The French were certainly taking Hitchcock seriously but the book really cemented the idea of Hitchcock as an artist, in the English language particularly. In the French language I think that was already there. That book though, in the English language, made a huge impact in the sense of separating Hitchcock’s public persona — he had a public persona and it was a very brilliant idea on his part, it gave him a certain power within the industry to be able to protect himself as an artist. He was a popular entertainer, he was a great artist whose dialogue with his audience was integral to his art. It’s true of a lot of filmmakers, more than we tend to think, but in his case it was writ large. The book did change the perception because it shifted the weight from the popular entertainer part to the artist part.
With the various filmmakers you talked to, did they bring an unexpected interpretation to the book, or the work of Hitchcock and Truffaut, that surprised you?
Every single one of them said something that surprised me. When Arnaud Desplechin says he’s trying for the things he fears and the things he loves. And at a certain point what makes him quiver with desire and what makes him quiver with fear, they become one in the same. They’re indistinguishable. It’s absolutely on target and I don’t think I’ve heard anybody put it quite that way before. I think that when Marty is talking about the particular angle of the eyes in Topaz when they’re asking him, “Does the word Topaz mean anything to you?” and the angle on his eyes covers them a little. You can see his eyes but the angle is high. You can see him in the physical action of lying, that’s a nuts and bolts thing that’s also a very close observation of filmmaking and how a very small but important distinction is made in storytelling. Also when James Gray is talking about why you don’t see Kim Novak’s point of view when she’s looking at the painting in Vertigo is absolutely on target. And I think that a lot of the things that David Fincher says — he has a perspective unlike anyone else’s. So that’s what I’m looking for with these guys and that’s what I got. Surprises.
Do you have nostalgia for the films of Hitchcock and Truffaut? What aspect of those movies do you wish you saw in films today?
There’s a lot of movie making now that, on the one hand, is designed to look like it’s been grabbed, where the camera is hand held by choice, shot and edited that way. Also I think where action sequences are put together now in such a way — and this has been going on for 20 years now — where you are supposed to be disorientated. Where you’re supposed to feel that you’ve been churned into a blender or the explosion in a confetti factory. That’s very different from what Hitchcock says or what Brian De Palma says. You have to know where you are, you have to establish the geography. Don’t use an establishing shot until you need it emotionally. For impact save it, be economical. For a different reason that’s a thing that’s not really present in movies anymore.
On the other hand I don’t have nostalgia for it as I have a regard for it, these movies that I love. Most of which aren’t made now. On the other hand movies that are made now, we have, just a random example, Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the great filmmakers in the history of the medium. And he has a very different relationship to the act of movie making, it’s quite different from Hitchcock and part of it has to do with what we’re talking about in the movie, the change in acting. As Marty says, the shift in the center of gravity for the actor. But then at the same time Paul and Gray and Fincher, these are people who understand the value, they know film history and they’ve learned from it.
Hitchcock/Truffaut premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, August 8