8 Essential Filmmaking Lessons from "Hitchcock/Truffaut"
HBO recently released Kent Jones’ documentary about a famous dialogue that occurred in 1962 between the young French New Wave director Francois Truffaut and his filmmaking idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Their conversation would later be converted into a book that would become an essential part of any cinema lover’s library. While the documentary is an enlightening account of this historical meeting, it also provides filmmakers with lessons from two of the medium's greatest artists. While there are endless lessons to glean from "Hitchcock/Truffaut," here are eight that I found to be very enlightening.
1. You should probably own a copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”
Wes Anderson, David Fincher, James Gray, Paul Schrader, Oliver Assayas, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorsese, and more all speak adoringly about this book, and these are just the filmmakers who made it on to the documentary. If any one of these great filmmakers gives advice, it would be wise to listen. When everyone on this list gives the same recommendation, it should probably be considered an essential text for any filmmaker. Plus, you can find a copy for only fifteen dollars, so it’s a pretty inexpensive way to get an education on filmmaking.
2. “Plausibility for the sake of plausibility doesn’t help.” - Alfred Hitchcock
At one point in their conversation, Hitchcock addressed critics who felt that his films lacked plausibility. He responded by saying, “Logic is dull.” It doesn't necessarily make sense that a villain would choose to carry out a single assassination via airplane, but that's what makes it disorienting and, in turn, suspenseful. Focusing on a plausible action would only make the villains more predictable. In an age where internet commentary constantly reminds us what does and doesn’t “make sense,” it’s important to remember that we as storytellers owe our audience a good story, not necessarily a logical one.
3. Mastering suspense isn’t always about fear.
When we think of Hitchcock as a master of suspense, we usually think of the terrifying suspense of “Psycho” or “The Birds,” but Hitchcock believed that suspense could and should be exercised in as many different scenarios as possible. He used the example of a man proposing to a woman. If done right, the audience should have to wait for the woman’s response in a way that makes them examine the scene for clues as to what her answer might be. This is a moment of suspense, and creating suspense in the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary, keeps your audience engaged. The clip below is a different Hitchcock proposal scene than the one used in the documentary, but the technique is still on full display.
4. Don’t skimp on the bird’s eye view.
Placing the camera above the action does much more than establish a scene, and no one knew this better than Alfred Hitchcock. Cutting to a bird’s eye view to show a murder, like Hitchcock does in “Psycho,” shocks the audience because it presents an unexpected shift in perspective. Bring in a bird’s eye view in the middle of a catastrophe, like Hitchcock does in “The Birds,” makes the characters seem small an ineffectual. Finally, showing a character lie from a bird’s eye view, like Hitchcock does in Topaz, presents God-like position of judgement onto that character. Watch out for the sudden shift in perspective at 1:26 in the clip below.
5. Movies are visual. Treat your film like it’s silent.
This is a classic film school piece of advice, but it can’t not be mentioned in a conversation about Alfred Hitchcock, because he was a filmmaker who started by making silent films and transitioned his visual talents to the talkies. If you’re communicating your story visually, then your audience is more engaged. Need inspiration? YouTube has a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films available for free.
6. Blandness can be necessary.
Good storytelling isn’t about shocking and awing your audience constantly. Knowing when to keep your story bland can be a great way to trick your audience into believing that they know what is about to happen. In “Psycho,” Hitchcock purposefully kept the beginning of the movie bland so that, when the killer is introduced halfway into the film, the audience is completely unprepared for it and the scare is maximized.
Compare the overall tone of this scene early in the film...
... With this scene later in the film (also another great example of the bird's eye view).
7. Light defines your image.
Hitchcock says it so eloquently in the interview, “There’s no such thing as a face. It doesn’t exist until the light hits it… There’s no such thing as a line, it’s just light and shade.” I can’t think of a better way to communicate the importance of light in filmmaking. It’s as creatively free and essential as any other part of the film. Need an example? Hitchcock once put a light inside a glass of milk so that it would keep the audience’s attention while Cary Grant carried it up a flight of stairs.
8. Always remember the time.
In the documentary, David Fincher refers to directing as "editing behavior over time." He notes that it's the director’s job to make slow moments fast and fast moments slow, and praises Hitchcock for being a master of this element of storytelling. It's important to never forget how slight tweaking in editing and dialogue, without even changing the speed of the playback, can slow down or speed up the audience's perception of time. With the right process, filmmakers can turn a split-second moment into a huge climactic event or turn a lifetime of experiences into a brief sigh. There are too many nuances of time manipulation in filmmaking to cover in one blog post, but for now, enjoy how a simple passing of a key between CAry Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" is elongated for dramatic effect.