If there is a shortlist of the most important directors in movie history, a Mt. Rushmore if you will, Alfred Hitchcock always lands on it. The "Master of Suspense" made movies spanning from the 1930s through the 1960s and he was so deft, so skillful, that they hold up very well even today.
But you probably already know how great Hitch is, either because you've seen a few of his masterworks, or because you've been around the earth long enough to hear his name.
While we can watch and study Alfred Hitchcock movies, we can't get the commentary track, blog, podcast interviews, or masterclasses from him. His insights and tips are buried in older publications. While Hitchcock/Truffaut is required reading for anyone studying film, there are countless insights and practical tips Hitch provided outside of that one volume.
We're presenting a bunch of them here with some added context for you to enjoy.
Stop watching other people's films
"...I have my own methods; but I am human, and every time I see someone else's films I may be tempted to try their methods instead of my own. Theirs seem so logical. I do it, and I fail. Their methods may be good, but not for me. The second reason is that I may unconsciously crib their stuff. An idea, a lighting effect, a way of doing something that is characteristic of some other director may attract me, and I might unconsciously employ it in my next picture. There it would look ridiculous because it is not characteristic of me. Therefore I consider it best to leave other people's films alone."
FromThe Man Who Made The 39 Steps: Pen Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock by Norah Baring, 1935.
What better way to start off getting advice from a great filmmaker than with advice not to lean on other filmmakers.
We could all... ALL... do well to heed Hitch's words here. Somewhere along the way, this idea of "great artists steal", proliferated often by Quentin Tarantino among others, became the mainstream. Being "soaked" in cinema and unconsciously informed by the work of others is... a good thing.
Not to Hitchcock! Hitchcock wants you to avoid being too influenced by what others are doing. Can you just do it your way? Can you discover what your way is?
In the modern cultural landscape, we are absolutely starving for this. It may be hard to sell it in this marketplace, but it is sure refreshing when we see it.
Edit prior to shooting
A lot of the tips we cull from major filmmakers both past and present are hard to apply to the lower budget, scrappier production. But actually, this next one is perfect for that type of project.
"The films I make are edited prior to shooting. In other words, I don't guess at what we are going to put on the screen and shoot a lot of material and then see how it works out in the cutting room. I like to have a completely preconceived idea as to how the film is to be cut, and I shoot it accordingly. With regard to sound, it depends on what I have written in the script. Like cuts, sound effects should be in one's mind before one starts the picture so they can be incorporated into the script and included as we go along."
From Alfred Hitchcock's Working Credo by Gerald Pratley, 1950
Many of the big directors of Hitchcock's era thought this way, most notable in this method was also John Ford—one big reason being, these guys didn't want to let the studios and the producers make a different movie than the one they were planning and shooting. They took over some control.
But there were also economic reasons. You simply burn less stock if you don't need tons of coverage, and tons of takes.
In the modern-day, a filmmaker can shoot forever. The digital space has changed all that.
But... as an exercise in being specific... in telling the story in your head... in prepping... maybe it makes sense to try and shoot the way Hitchcock suggests. Maybe it saves you in other ways... i.e. you can make your days faster. It's worth considering.
It's all in the cut
We've written about the Kuleshov effect before and its importance, but Hitch summarizes it here nicely as the key building block to visual narrative.
"We must not forget the basis of cinema is the way two pieces of film are joined together to make a common effect. It is the essence of the subjective element of filmmaking. An actor looks at an object and you cut to that object, which makes another piece of film. When you join it to the actor's look it makes a complete scene."
From Alfred Hitchcock's Working Credo by Gerald Pratley, 1950
Never forget the power you wield with every cut. Seems simple, seems like a given... but if you ignore that power you forget how much you craft the story, and the meaning, just by choosing when you cut and what you cut to. That is the way the story is told. Not through words.
The trouble with... actors...
We'd be remiss if we didn't include Hitch laying out his full views on the on-screen talent...
"When they aren't cows they're children: that is something else I've often said. And everyone knows that there are good children, bad children, and stupid children. The majority of actors, though, are stupid children. They're always quarreling, and they give themselves a lot of airs. The less I see of them, the happier I am. I had much less trouble directing fifteen hundred crows than one single actor. I've always said Walt Disney has the right idea. His actors are made of paper; when he doesn't like them he can tear them up."
From Hitchcock by Ian Cameron and V.F. Perkins, 1963
Tell us how you really feel, Alfred. It is KIND of fun to see a celebrated genius just lay it all out there, risk the negative response and not care. We live in an era where no filmmaker on any level in their right mind would say something like that. Probably for the best. But still fascinating to hear.
Creating the right kind of bad emotions
Hitchcock liked to push buttons and create reactions IN the audience. But he had to be very careful in how he did it. He learned a tough lesson:
"...It's the satisfaction of temporary pain. It is the same thing when people endure the agonies of a suspense film. When it's all over they are relieved. I once committed a grave error in having a bomb from which I extracted a great deal of suspense. I had the thing go off and kill someone, which I never should have done because they needed the relief from their suspense. Bad technique. Never repeated it."
From Alfred Hitchcock on His Films by Huw Wheldon, 1964
When Hitchcock was reminded that having the bomb go off might be closer to reality he asserted,
"That's probably true. I don't think many people want reality, whether it is in the theater or a film. It must look real, but it must never be real, because reality is something none of us can stand at any time."
Hitchcock always prioritized the emotional experience of the audience. How they added the visual pieces together, and how they interpreted them. He did not care about messaging, plot, or even content. He cared about conjuring emotions and creating a compelling, and unsettling, experience.
Hitchcock's pure cinema
"I believe in giving [an audience] all the information and then in making them sweat. It's no good devising a film only to satisfy yourself. The subject doesn't count either. You get your satisfaction through your style of treatment. I'm not interested in content. It disturbs me very much when people criticize my films because of their content. It's like looking at a still life and saying, 'I wonder whether those apples are sweet or sour.' Cinema is form. I see many good films that contain very fine dialogue. I don't deprecate these films, but to me, they're not pure cinema. Trying to make them cinema some directors find odd angles to shoot from, but they still only produce what I call 'photographs of people talking.'"
From Alfred Hitchcock by Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972
What started out here as an answer about whether or not he makes films for himself became a statement of Hitchcock's cinematic credo. He did not want to take photographs of people talking. It's something he mentioned many times over the years, as well as his notion of content vs. form.
And this brings us to the reason Hitchcock has such enduring success and application. Because form came before "content", he prioritized creating an experience for the audience. He even made up a silly word to describe plot... something he saw as entirely secondary. Yep, we're talking about "MacGuffin."
The plot is always secondary to Hitchcock even in films that seemed to have such perfectly tight plots. His focus was on creating an experience, not on what the experience was about. The papers in the dossier, the uranium, the bomb under the table... the "content" or the taste of the apple in the still life... all of it was just a vehicle for experience.
To Hitchcock, a shot or angle is used for a reason, to help create meaning through editing. He loves using and referencing examples of the Kuleshov effect. He referenced Rear Window many times as his best work for pure cinema. It's a shot of a man looking, shots of what he sees, then a shot of the man's reaction. That sequencing is pure cinema. The choice of the shot between the shots of the man (Jimmy Stewart in this case) is what creates the meaning in the audience's mind.
These excerpts were pulled from 'Alfred Hitchcock Interviews' Edited by Sidney Gottlieb