One of the highlights of this holiday movie season is Hitchcock/Truffaut, a new documentary about the seminal 1966 book-length interview with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, conducted by the critic-turned-filmmaker Francois Truffaut. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Christmas Day. I recently spoke to director Kent Jones about the book and his new film.
I didn't know until I saw the Q&A after the Chicago International Film Festival screening that the English-language version of the book had been re-translated from the French. When you listened to all 27 hours of the original audio recordings, what were the most interesting discrepancies between what was printed and what was actually said?
I don't know for a fact. I mean, it's not something that I read, but it's obvious that it was re-translated back into English. Hitchcock himself was privately disappointed with that side of the book in the sense that his spontaneity was lost—the off-the-cuff side of their conversations, his sense of humor, his warmth is not really there. Truffaut did not really speak any English. Helen Scott was doing the on-the-spot translation and she did heroic work. Some of it she got wrong, some of it was worked on back in France by someone else after the fact, then Truffaut edited it, then it was re-translated back into English. I'm sure that's what it is. So the tone of it is kind of different. It feels very cut and dry. It feels exciting in a different way because they're taking you through the movies; it's got a particular pace. It's like Olivier Assayas says in the movie: It's not like Truffaut just did a book about Hitchcock. It's a real work.
When they were talking about Vertigo, Truffaut said that it was "more poetic than dramatic" and Hitchcock's response was mysterious. He said, "That's because it's about an emotional man." Truffaut didn't follow up on that but I really wanted Hitchcock to elaborate. I don't remember that being in the book. Was that in there?
If it is in the book, it reads like a stray remark as opposed to what it is. There are some things that Truffaut brings up like when Hitchcock says, "Well, daydreams, probably, that's probably me within myself..." when he's talking about the presence of dreams in his movies and the importance of them. It's not like he's going to elaborate. He's not saying it in a way that invites a follow-up. What he's conveying and the way that he says those things sort of [means] "We're touching on something that's very personal and I want to leave it that way." But he's acknowledging it. I don't think Truffaut loved Vertigo. His favorites were Notorious and Rear Window. I think that Vertigo for him was perhaps a little bit too dreamy.
One of the most notable aspects of your film is the fact that you only interviewed directors and not, say, scholars or critics. What was the logic behind this decision and what was your criteria in determining who your interview subjects were going to be?
When I was asked to make the movie and I accepted, I thought, what kind of movie do I want to make? It's 27 hours of audiotape. How am I going to do this? And then I thought, actually, what the book is is a discussion between two directors about filmmaking. So then I thought, what I want to do is open up the discussion and bring in other filmmakers. But I don't want to bring in filmmakers just because they're filmmakers. I want to have filmmakers with a connection to the book. Some of them I'm very, very close to: Marty [Scorsese], Olivier [Assayas] and Arnaud [Desplechin]. I know [David] Fincher pretty well, and James [Gray]. These are old relationships.
There were some other people that I asked who declined for different reasons. It was all very polite. I asked Jane Campion and she said, "Thank you very much for asking me. That's lovely. I don't think that I have one single thing to say about Alfred Hitchcock." Fair enough. I asked Brian DePalma, obviously, and he declined for a very good reason; he said, "I have to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah [Baumbach] and Jake [Paltrow]'s movie about me."
I didn't want experts and I didn't want actresses and actors and the remaining people left. I mean, I'm interested in what Bruce Dern thinks about Hitchcock but that's not the enterprise of the book. With the experts, again, it's taking you outside of the book; it brings the conversation into the present.
One of the consequences of having it be only interviews with directors is that it ends up being a gift to cinephiles because we're aware of who these people are. Even though they're only talking about Hitchcock, I feel like to a certain extent they're also talking about themselves: Desplechin has that great quote where he says the thing that makes Hitchcock tremble with fear is the same thing that makes him quiver with pleasure, and Desplechin always combines disparate tones in his own films. Richard Linklater talks about Hitchcock's use of time, which is his own great theme. Wes Anderson talks about Hitchcock's rigorous sense of control. And Fincher, who I think has more screen time than anybody, wonders how method actors would flourish under Hitchcock's "iron umbrella." Was that something you were aware of or had planned on or was it just a happy byproduct of making the film?
KJ: It's more of being on the wavelength that you're discussing. If people are talking about something and they're talking about it in a very general way, it's not that interesting. It's like when Fincher says, "If you think you can hide as a director, you're nuts." Well, if you think you can hide as a human being, you're nuts too. Same thing. When you're talking, if you think that you can talk in a way that's talking around stuff, you can [only] do it with people who aren't really paying attention. I don't know if Fincher has more screen time than everybody else, perhaps he does. He's very commanding and everything he says counts. And his generosity, the way that he shares what he knows about filmmaking and his observations and his feelings, is palpable. It's not in the movie but he said, "I get this a lot: Actors who are sort of like, 'Can I do that again? It didn't feel right?'" And he'll say, "Well, it looked right. So I'll take that." That's a hard thing for actors to accept—the fact that acting is important but it's not everything. And with Arnaud, same thing: He's talking about his own work. That's true.