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Hitchcock's Presence
Hitchcock's presence haunted the Psycho production-and was a constant specter hanging over Gus Van Sant

Hitchcock's presence haunted the Psycho production-and was a constant specter hanging over Gus Van Sant. Van Sant had determined early on that he wanted to plan out the same shots that Hitchcock used, as well as emulate the master's blocking and even his 37-day shooting schedule. Most vitally, Van Sant wanted to achieve, in his own fashion, what Hitchcock had set out to do with all his most suspenseful films-to use the camera in such a way that the audience feels the movie-in throat, rib cage, solar plexus-more than watches it. Hitchcock wanted his audiences to have a sort of virtual complicity in the crimes of his characters-and he let no one off the hook or the edges of their seats. For Van Sant, capturing this quality was paramount to the recreation.

This called for intense preparation, which was another part of Hitchcock's filmmaking style Van Sant wound up channeling. Hitchcock once said that he felt that 95% of the work on a motion picture should be completed before the cast hit the soundstage. The director meticulously planned each and every shot to the point where the entire movie had been played out, sans actor's ad libs, in his head long before production began.

Now Van Sant was faced with a similar task. He carefully reviewed and timed out each scene of the original Psycho on a DVD player to keep in perfect sync. "It was painstaking but it had its own rewards and fascination," says Van Sant of the process. "In a couple of scenes, we went completely off the original page and made our own editorial interpretation. But 95% of everything was shot according to the original."

He continues: "I was very much of the opinion that the original worked and that the only thing that should change was adding color and updating the characters. The characterizations are obviously different because it's different people playing the roles, and the lighting is different because we're using a different type of film. But I wanted to keep the timing and blocking as close as possible. I figured if we have everything else close to the original, then we could begin to play around a little bit."

Van Sant did change the opening shot from the original-but in keeping with Hitchcock's original desires, Hitchcock had wanted to achieve the shot-of a cheap motel in Phoenix-via a helicopter flying through the city streets. At the time, the technology for helicopter shots was newly invented, and the scene didn't come off. But Van Sant had the opportunity to go back and recreate it according to Hitchcock's vision.

"Today, this sort of a shot is pretty common. So we just did what they had been planning to do in 1960. Our shot is a really nice shot," says Van Sant. "It's very sort of peaceful and dreamy."

Ironically, Hitchcock's own inventive use of film technology, including such techniques as rear-screen projection and the use of matte photography, were so ahead of their time that Van Sant found it was a constant challenge to reproduce some of Psycho's most perfectly rendered shots. Notes Van Sant: "Hitchcock was ground-breaking enough to manipulate the technology to carry off shots in his day that are still difficult and expensive for us today."

Although digital effects have largely usurped traditional rear-screen projection in today's features, Van Sant used the technique for the early driving sequences just as Hitchcock had-but he used the very latest in rear-screen technology, employing state-of-the art projectors and special camera m


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