We’ve all done it. With a hairbrush microphone in front of a mirror audience, we’ve practiced our moment in the sun. We’ve dreamed of the day when our peers, our audience, our potential readers and the financially helpful media shine their light upon us as masters of our craft. If you’re like me, you’ve imagined even the unimaginable – an Olympic gold medal (completely uncoordinated), the Oscar for Best Actress (I’d rather be under a bus than on stage) or a Presidential Medal of Honor (fast approaching middle-aged and too pragmatic to play hero). Writers are, by our very nature, not spotlight people. We write the scripts for the front-and-centers even when they themselves are writers. Even if we aren’t there in person, we can scribe the self-deprecating humor, the genuine astonishment, the revelatory acceptance if only for someone else.
Winner for the Edgar for Lifetime Achievement in Mystery and Suspense – Alfred Hitchcock.
Good evening and welcome to our program. I could pretend to be surprised by my selection for lifetime achievement even in so august company. But I’m not. You see, this was like doing a who-done-it and making Charles Laughton the butler. I wouldn’t have been asked if I wasn’t going to win.
I became a writer at the age of five. I was sent along with a note to the chief of police, who read the note and promptly put me into a cell and locked the door for five minutes; and then let me out, saying, "That's what we do to naughty little boys, you see." What effect that had on me at the time I can't remember, but they say psychiatrically if you can discover the origins of this or that, it releases everything. Where was I to go from there? So I went where my world took me, to this moment, I suppose and as I am here, I will share what I have learned from my journey with the writers in this room.
Your story is all around you but it’s not easy. It will not come to you in whole cloth. You must reach out and take it. You mustn't let the characters take themselves where they want to go. They must come where you want to go. So it's really an inverted process. It is a bastard form of story-telling. But the kernel of them is there always. You look at your adoring uncle long enough, and you find something. I certainly did.
You must always remember that real people, the ones that fill your pages or your screen, are three-dimensional. You can't root for a hero who doesn't want to be a hero. So it's a negative thing. It comes under the heading that all villains are not black and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. It’s that contrast that makes character work. For example, look at Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. He’s the hero, right? He has risen to the challenge of exposing the killer. Well, the poor man. It's the climax of peeping tomism, isn't it? "Why did you do it?" he says. "If you hadn't been a peeping tom, I would have gotten away with it." Stewart can't answer. What can he say? He's caught. Caught with his plaster down. That’s a guy an audience can relate to because haven’t we all been caught with our plaster down a time or two or ten?
The stories that work, well, they reflect the audience, don’t they? Their values, their imagination, their sense of disbelief. When I came to America, the first thing I had to learn was that the audience were more questioning. I'll put it another way. Less avant-garde. In the first Man Who Knew Too Much, the characters jump around from one place to another--you're in a chapel, and you've got old ladies with guns--and one didn't care. One said, "An old lady with a gun, that's be amusing." There was more underlying humor, at least for me, and less logic. If the idea appealed to one, however outrageous it was, do it! They wouldn't go for that in America.
As writers, you have to remember your readers. They will travel the road you’ve laid before them if you place the stones honestly. I’m not just speaking of factual or scientific accuracy. I’m talking about good, old fashioned pragmatism. Always assume your readers are figuring out what they themselves would do in the shoes of your hero. Give them a chance to play along. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero had to be on the run not only from the criminals but also from the police. Why? The audience will wonder, "Why doesn't he go for the police?" Well, the police are after him, so he can't go to them, can he? Suddenly, the hero makes sense to the audience.
There’s no way to pretty up the circumstances, either. In The Man Who Knew Too Much I used a very famous incident, called the Sydney Street Siege. There were anarchists holed up in a house there, and they had to bring the soldiers out because the police couldn't handle it. Winston Churchill went down and directed operations. I had great difficulty getting that one on the screen because the censor wouldn't pass it. He called it a black spot on English police history. He said, "You can't have the soldiers." And I said, "Well, then we will have to have the police do the shooting." "No, you can't do that. The police don't carry firearms in England. If you want to do those Chicago things, we won't allow it here." Finally the censor relented and said I could do it if I had the police go to the local gunsmith and take out mixed guns and show that they're not familiar with the weapons. Silly. I ignored it, and I had a truck come up with a load of rifles. I knew the audience wouldn’t believe the lie no matter how politically correct. In many ways, you could say I have achieved in my lifetime by assuming there isn’t a dummy in the room.
I have also reached this position, not just as a storyteller, but as a working writer. A businessperson, if you will. I adapted as opportunities presented themselves. I had no intention of becoming a film director, you know. It was quite a surprise to me. Sir Michael Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock. At the time, I had been a script writer, and when I finished that job I became the art director or production designer. And I did that for several pictures, until one day Balcon said that the director (I worked with the same director all the time) didn't want me any more. I don't know what the reason was, some political reason. And it was then that Balcon said, "How would you like to become a director?" With that I became a director.
But all was not sweetness and light. Success was not a given. I may be receiving a lifetime achievement award now but let’s not forget too quickly that I’m the one who made Waltzes in Vienna in 1933. I was at my lowest ebb. A musical, and they really couldn't afford the music. An Alfred Hitchcock musical, no less. But I survived. I perservered. I put one word and then another on another page. When your batteries run dry, when you are out creatively, you have to go on. Perhaps that is my greatest achievement and my legacy. In Sabotage, ironically, the bomb should never have gone off. I know that now. Given another chance, and an unwillingness to cower before bad reviews, editorial purgatory or financial expectations unmet, I would choose otherwise. I would write a different story. And I would discover, that in learning, evolving, I am telling a better story. I may not know it then. I may only know it in retrospect. But if I am patient, and relentless in my craft, one day those decriers will come to me, as they may come to you if you endure, and offer their mea culpas for having lost faith in the art that is your storytelling. They may become your Gary Coopers who, having rejected the Robert Donat role in Foreign Correpondent, come to you and say "Well, I should have done that, shouldn't I?"
And so should you. Thank you very much.
And thank you for reading.
P.S. The quotations used here come from an interview Alfred Hitchcock gave to Peter Bogdanovich in 1963 just prior to the release of the Oscar-winning Marnie. The interview became part of an interactive exhibit by the Museum of Metropolitan Art in 1999 and can be found at http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1999/hitchcock/interview/index.html