Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Psycho Shower Scene!

We know that Hitchcock’s purpose in his very famous shower scene in Psycho was to shock us with not only the event of the murder itself but also the brutality of Mary’s murder. He dramatically switches the pace of the scene from the slow entrance of the dark figure to the quick cuts of the murder. (In one of my books, it was said that Hitchcock used 78 cuts in 45 seconds.) It’s as though Hitchcock’s exaggerated use of cutting was an intentional reference to the cutting of poor Mary.

In any case, the slow entrance and quick cuts is still a very effective cinematic jolt to an audience.

In the December 1, 1959,
revised draft by Joseph Stephano, the shower scene is (by today's standards) ridiculously overwritten.

Here’s a portion:

The noise of the shower drowns out any sound. The door is then slowly and carefully closed. And we see the shadow of a woman fall across the shower curtain. Mary's back is turned to the curtain. The white brightness of the bathroom is almost blinding.

Suddenly we see the hand reach up, grasp the shower curtain, rip it aside.



As she turns in response to the feel and SOUND of the shower curtain being torn aside. A look of pure horror erupts in her face. A low terrible groan begins to rise up out of her throat. A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife. The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness.


An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film. Over it the brief gulps of screaming. And then silence. And then the dreadful thump as Mary's body falls in the tub.


The blank whiteness, the blur of the shower water, the hand pulling the shower curtain back. We catch one flicker of a glimpse of the murderer. A woman, her face contorted with madness, her head wild with hair, as if she were wearing a fright-wig. And then we see only the curtain, closed across the tub, and hear the rush of the shower water. Above the shower-bar we see the bathroom door open again and after a moment we HEAR the SOUND of the front door slamming.

Here’s my question: using today’s industry standard format, wouldn’t Hitchcock’s famous shower scene be a SERIES OF SHOTS?

We know from our good friend,
Dave Trottier, that a MONTAGE is a single concept set to music but a SERIES OF SHOTS is an assembly of quick cuts that leads to a heightened dramatic moment.

If we're to rewrite this scene, perhaps it'd look something like this:

...she turns her back to the bathroom.

A figure quietly enters and walks toward Mary. The shadow of an old woman materializes on the shower curtain.


A) The figure rips aside the curtain and raises a knife.

B) Mary turns and screams.

C) The figure stabs Mary.

D) She tries to defend herself.

E) The figure stabs her again and again.

E) Blood pours onto the bathtub.

F) The silence of Mary's dying face.

G) The old woman leaves.


Mary falls against the bathroom wall and slides down...

This cleaner, simpler version implies the camera direction, as well as the slow build-up of tension and sudden quick cuts, without having to write camera angles or “we see.” (It also implies, without having to write it out, that we don’t really see this old woman's face.)

Too often newbies and pros alike opt for big fat chunky paragraphs in important scenes because they think that fewer words somehow means “talentless writer” when, in fact, fewer words is the strength of a screenplay. And simple techniques like a MONTAGE or a SERIES OF SHOTS can be really exciting on the page for a big scene like this.

Your thoughts?


Just Jake said...

Applying modern script technique to films of old is like comparing modern athletes to their counterparts of the twenties and thirties. The era isn't the same. And since there's been some really poor attempts at making remakes of old films, I'd just as soon not do it, as I prefer the old to the new because it worked for the time...Hitchcock's technique certainly got the effect he desired.

Besides, I'm sure we've both seen "wordy" scenes in modern scripts which have worked and no one would suggest that technique would be better served by being sparse.

What works works, doesn't matter what era it is.

Anonymous said...

Good analogy HH - esp since all today's athletes seem to take 'performance enhancers' to beat records (ho ho)

RC said...

fewer words totally works for something like this with the quick cuts and speed of the section of screenplay.

Ann said...

Knowing nothing about screenwriting, I'd still think the original one would get splattered against the wall of any major motion picture studio these days.

Nice clean-up, MM.

Mystery Man said...

HH - Bring it on! Hehehe... I didn't mean to give the impression that I'm trying to rewrite old scripts, but only to say "if you wanted to write a scene like that today, how would you do it, because you cannot follow (format-wise) the way they did it back in 1959." The portion of Stephano's scene was maybe half of what he wrote. It went on and on. You can't write like that today.

Bells - Traitor. Hehehe... I'm SO kidding.

RC - Thanks so much!

Ann - I'm very clean and buttoned-up. You'd be impressed. Hehehe...

Mim said...

Another important lesson on why it's so important to convey tone, rather than trying to visually describe each and every detail.

The director is going to interpret the scene within the context of the story in his own visual style. Some inexperienced writers get hung up on where they think the camera ought to be, and describe the scene as if they were watching it on the screen in the theater.

The point of this scene is to shock. The writer tried one way. Hitchcock found another.

Don't forget that your re-write, MM, had the benefit of hindsight. You already know how Hitchcock interpreted that scene. But the lesson is just as valid. What tone do you want to set? What arrangement of words is the best way to set that tone?

Good insight.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post - but really, isn't more about the preferences of modern day readers (for single sentence descriptions) than anything to do with story? I mean, the scene is the same, it's still great, right?

Back in the fifties, screenplays were written as literary material, often by novelists themselves, and it wouldn't be wordy in a book. As long as the action and intent of the written words is clear, why not?

BTW, have you read the screenplay of THE MATRIX - I read a published copy (which could be different from the shooting script handed in) and it was loaded with long paragraghs and heavy, descriptive words.

Same with JACOB'S LADDER, which is much 9 years older (and I did read an original of that) and the script is no less cool or great because of the paragraphs.

I mean, isn't good writing simply good writing, whether it employs one sentence descriptions or ten?

Mystery Man said...

Hey Joshua!

Hope things went well for you in the Big Apple. Those are great questions. I have a number of reactions, and please feel free to tell me how you feel about them.

A - Screenwriting’s a specialized (and technical) form of writing where the format is designed to (hopefully) create one page equaling one minute of screentime, and thus, writers cannot indulge in novel-like paragraphs.

B – I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of specs by pros and amateurs alike. (I’m steadily approaching 100 reviews on TriggerStreet). Excessive fat in the action lines piss me off. I don’t want my time wasted, and we, as writers, shouldn’t waste anyone else’s time either. Too often writers focus too much on overly descriptive prose in the action lines (thinking that that’s the key to getting a sale) when, in fact, the emphasis should be on everything else – story, action, characters, and dialogue. THAT is what sells. WHAT happens in that scene is what's important and not necessarily excessive descriptions about HOW we see it. (I’ve heard that some execs don’t even read action lines.) Scenes are not made great by long-winded, needlessly descriptive action paragraphs. They are made great by the compelling story. It’s the story and characters that sell, not the action lines. I completely agreed with Mernit’s recent “Vonnegut for Screenwriters” article, in which he said that action lines should be sparse and serve one of two functions – action or reveal character. That’s it.

C – Pro readers have to read a billion scripts because there are something like 20,000 screenwriters trying to break in.

D – It can only help an aspiring writer to show in a script a mastery of industry standard format, as outlined in Dave Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible (the newer 4th edition) who said that action paragraphs should be 4 lines or fewer.

E – Once you establish yourself as a pro screenwriter who has “closed” scripts for big productions, you can break rules and experiment - a little. Until that day, master the craft by being lean and mean. And as far as I’m concerned, once you’re a pro, you should continue to try to master the craft by being lean and mean.


Mystery Man said...

Mim - Thanks so much for your comment, particularly the one about hindsight, which is absolutely true. I know it's weird. I'm trying to look forward by looking back, ya know. But I love looking at those old scripts, because I think there are lessons like this one that we can really draw from. Of course they were experimenting and not sure how to work the scene. But how could we take that approach in our scripts today? I say, a very simple SERIES OF SHOTS would be perfect.


Anonymous said...

Things are great out here! Looks like I may be coming out to LA again, soon, so we'll see.

So I know it's a specialized technical form of writing, but my point is that the previous Pyscho script was that also, and still achieved what it set out to be. A great screenplay.

I mean, your line:

"They are made great by the compelling story. "

I couldn't agree with more, I simply think that people think too much about format and not enough about story, but maybe that's me.

I mean, granted, the form has evolved, but my question is, out of all the scripts you've read, have you read one that was filled with dense format errors and still kicked ass?

Anonymous said...

Shoot, remind me to email you about triggerstreet someday . . .

Anonymous said...

Me again,

I remembered also that many execs don't read action directions, and I just realized, there's a bit of a catch-22 as well - because if there's too much dialogue, it's too talky, and too much action description, they won't know what the hell's going on, don't you think?


Mystery Man said...

Joshua - Well, there are a number of scripts I love that are very "talky" because they were adaptations of plays - 12 Angry Men, Odd Couple, Glengary Glenn Ross, etc. I didn't mind all that talk. Offhand, I can't think of a case where someone wrote excessive descriptions in the action lines that I thought helped a film. I need to look at the Matrix again and Jacob's Ladder. Thanks for mentioning those.

Some of those execs are given coverage sheets that explain the story and tell them what to think, which must be nice. Hehehe...


Mystery Man said...

Can I make another point on this topic? (Well, I guess so. This is MY blog, after all.)

A spec full of big honking descriptive action paragraphs is always a red fleg to me that this writer's compensating for "not enough story." In truth, when you have a big juicy story with a lot of moving parts going on, you just don't have the time or space to dick around with the action lines. You have to hit and run, because you've got to get this story in under 120 pages or fewer.


Laura Deerfield said...

While the point is well taken insofar as you demonstrate how a modern scene should be written, taking a Hitchcock screenplay and relating it to a spec is tricky because of Hitchcock's working method. (At least as I understand it - I may be incorrect.)

Hitchcock didn't start with a script. He started with storyboarding. And only when he had sat down with the writer and they had worked out every single shot in the film on storyboards, did he send the writer off to create a script that matched the boards... and he was notorious for sticking closely to his storyboards, and insisting that the shots match precisely.

So in truth, this scene as written WAS this writer's interpretation of Hitchcock's shots. Thus we have very specific image descriptions, and some of what seems over-description is simply trying to capture the specificity of what Hitchcock had already decided to film.

Here, take a look:

As she turns in response to the feel and SOUND of the shower curtain being torn aside.

A look of pure horror erupts in her face. A low terrible groan begins to rise up out of her throat.

A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife.

The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness.

That matches very well to the scene - it's just in longer paragraphs.

Ann said...

I'm very clean and buttoned-up. You'd be impressed. Hehehe...

You know, it just hit me that in the last scene of this novella I'm writing, the hero is dressed like "you" in your profile pic. Next thing you know, I'll be dreaming about you. Quelle horreur!

s.warren said...

I like the way you've translated the scene, but I think I'd probably go one better and leave out the series of shots slug. It's not really needed with what's already on the page. I think the prose, by itself, works just fine. No need for the extra bit of direction.

Mystery Man said...

Laura - Thanks so much for that, especially Hitchcock's notorious techniques. I'm certainly not trying to say that what Stephano did was wrong, except to have a discussion about contemporary techniques - if we wanted to incorporate something like that into our specs today, how would we do it? Is this not by definition a series of shots? I think it is and would be great fun to experience in specs. And I guess my big point is that these kinds of techniques are there to enhance our scripts and give us the freedom to delve into true cinematic storytelling, and yet, so many seem so reluctant to embrace them.

I could be wrong, but I don't think we saw these:

"A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife."

"The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness."

ann - You haven't dreamed of me yet? Aww....

s.warren - Thanks for that. A small paragraph isn't as engaging, if you ask me, and if you were to list each action on a separate line without the Series of Shots, it looks a bit like your padding the script. At least by using a Series of Shots, you're conveying to everyone what it is you're trying to accomplish - a slow build-up and quick cuts. I think it's great.




Mim said...

"Screenwriting’s a specialized (and technical) form of writing..."

I love this. Too often people forget that screenwriting is very technical. It's a special blend of technical and creative writing and the art is in knowing where one leaves off and the other begins.

I tell people a lot in my reviews that the script is a BLUEPRINT of the story that the film-making team will use to BUILD the film. If the blueprint isn't sound, the construction crew will not have the information they need to build a good finished product.

Ann said...

*lightbulb moment*

Mim, you're wonderful! I've always thought the best analogy to storytelling was architecture. Most buildings contain the same structure, and have for thousands of years. A tiki hut and a cathedral employ the same Roman arch. The difference is what you do with it. And it's the same with stories.

Today you made me see that while my prose is the artistic skin on the structure of a novel, the film is the artistic skin on a screenplay (mostly, anyway).

Of course, your building materials have to glitter with promise to attract the producers, no? Makes me think of all those pics of the Empire State Building under construction. They're so exciting, and so filled with that promise.

Very cool and helps me understand why ya'll are so fascinated with writing screenplays.

Ann said...

Oops, I meant vault, not arch.

GimmeABreak said...

I'm not ignoring you. I just don't feel like fighting any more today. ;-)

Ann said...

I could be wrong, but I don't think we saw these:

"A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife."

"The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness."

We saw a hand holding an enormous BUTCHER knife, but no, the flint didn't shatter the screen. Also, I don't remember a growl in Mary's chest. I did see this recently. Honest! And truthfully, I don't recall her making a sound. Her face, and the horrid music, said it all. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Psycho is on my top ten.

Mim said...

No sound other than the sound of the water and then the music once the stabbing starts.

Ann said...

Thanks, Mim. I'm never sure whether I'm going insane. Or not.

Ann said...

And I guess my big point is that these kinds of techniques are there to enhance our scripts and give us the freedom to delve into true cinematic storytelling, and yet, so many seem so reluctant to embrace them.

You hit an artery here, my friend. This is one of my favorite soapboxes and one you can find me ranting on regularly in Unk's archives.

Writer's, because of their iconoclastic tendencies, see "rules" and "structure" as bad things that inhibit creativity. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Think about what made you creative in the first place. What was it? Baby, it was rules.

Even in your diapers you had your own way. Played with your sister's Barbies, or cars. Whatever your sex was, you saw beyond it. Resisted it.

But then you grew up, and you began to realize that some of these rules weren't bullshit. Some of them were nature and if you didn't play by them, you died.

So you dissected them. You found the ones you could skirt. But some of them, you couldn't skirt. Some of them were hard and fast. Still, you rebelled. There had to be a better way...

It's this thinking that led to creativity. Even if there's NOT another way, you want to find one. What if? WHAT IF??

Your world is fluid, not static. Things change. People evolve and grow. Someday...someday.

THAT's the world of the artist. BUT, if you want to speak to others, the ones who aren't like you. If you want to share their food and their world--the same one you're tied to--then you have to conform in some way.

Working within a framework gives you that security. Your culture built this framework. It's existed thousands of years because it works. If you live within it, you'll survive.

But it's BIG. There's plenty of room to mess around. You don't have to talk with anyone you don't like, or anyone who doesn't support your vision.


But, it's necessary. It protects you from going off into the wilds and dying.

~Ann, who's said enough.

Mystery Man said...

Pat - No worries. I've been skirting this world too long without being challenged. It's good for the mind.

Mim & Ann - Those were superb posts. I loved every word. Thanks so much.

Ahh, what a day!

-MM, who is going to bed.

Carl S said...

Mim said: "Another important lesson on why it's so important to convey tone, rather than trying to visually describe each and every detail."

preach, sister, preach!

Anonymous said...

For me, I think it comes down to just exactly who you think your audience is for what you're writing.

And then be right.

If you're writing completely in the dark about your audience, it probably behooves your to adhere rather closely to the generally accepted standards of screenplays.

However, verbose or lean, a spec script has basically got to sell itself to just one person, so there's a rather wide variance when it comes what works, or not.

The technicals need to sell the credibility of the story, but it's the story (characters, dialogue, et all) that needs to leave the imprint.

Adherence to format is essentially about establishing credibility.

I'm currently working with a guy who's a terrible screenwriter, but a decent to really good storyteller. My job is to take what he writes and make it work as a story intended to be told on film.

The bottomline is as Hollywood Hack noted, "What works works."

Mystery Man said...

Surely, even the great Matt Spira would agree that by today's standards the old shower scene should not be written that way and would appreciate the idea of a way to have a lean, mean, exciting execution of a big scene like this in a spec.

I have to admit, I've been surprised by all of these comments. We all say we believe in lean specs, we tell fellow writes to use fewer words and avoid overwriting scenes, etc, but when someone comes along with a suggestion about a lean execution for accomplishing a very specific style of cinematic storytelling, everyone's reaction seems to be to reject it.


Anonymous said...

Ah MM,

You've read my scripts, and you know my style is pretty damned lean.

Oerhaps the most interesting review of THE MINE (by Ted Frothingham) I ever received took me severely to task for being TOO lean. (And for the record, I like and respect Ted quite a bit.)

So, yeah if it was *me* writing such a scene, my execution of it would look A LOT more like yours than the original.

I was really making a tangential point: Perhaps sometimes in our endless quest to improve what we do, we overly worry about the trees instead of the forest.

Having done more and more work this year with the folks who translate scripts into films, and more and more work of essentially editing the writing of those people, I continue to be struck by the truism that a script is simply a blueprint.

While this doesn't in any way, shape or form negate your (absolutely correct) imperative that "everything" counts in a script (and boy have I taken your imperative to heart), it does free me up from *overly* worrying about format.

Afterall, a script could present a scene as either:

1) They fuck...


2) An extended description of how they make love...

...And the end result on film could be exactly the same thing.

As much as perhaps our egos would like to tell us otherwise, a script is not the end product.


GimmeABreak said...

I'm coming into this late but since I work with a lot of building contractors, I take exception to "the screenplay is a blueprint" analogy. Blueprints/construction documents are detailed drawings with itemized specifics. I see a SP as more of a series of rough pencil sketches (like an old-fashioned coloring book) designed to give the director an idea about what the writer sees in his/her mind's eye. Let the buyer and his minions pick out the crayons and color inside or outside the lines as they see fit.

Anonymous said...

The key in this pivotal scene is to find a lasting impression. I dislike your list of the action, which gives me no lasting impression. Forgive me. I suppose you weren't trying to write the scene, just outline it.

The "overwritten" version is okay, but not great. Leigh's screams, her dying naked, and blood flowing down the drain, are juxtaposed nicely with the slashing in the film, but are completely missing from the screenplay. The screenwriter is having trouble conveying violent imagery. The writing needs to emphasize Mary's struggle to live even though she is being stabbed to death, and then giving up. That change from struggling to not struggling was the scariest part of that movie.

Note that screenplays to Hitchcock's movies might all be heavily overwritten because he worked with screenwriters to compose individual scenes while the writers were still facing the blank page, so to speak.

For instance, Vertigo includes a lot of (yes, excessive) directing details because Hitchcock discussed in detail how each scene would look with reference to the places he, the screewriter (Samuel Taylor), and the "location scout" had visited. These discussions happened before the second script to Vertigo was written. The first one was deemed an inadequate mess. I got all this by watching Vertigo with the commentary on and reading the script(still only 128 pages even though it is filled with directions and detail).

If Hitchcock worked with the screenwriter before Psycho had been written (I suspect he did so because the mention of slashing the bright silver screen seems to indicate the writer knew the movie would be in black and white), the screenplay would contain a lot of detail. In fact, the screenplays of Hitchcock films might not be indicative of common professional writing practice circa 1960.

Anonymous said...

her name is Marion

Anonymous said...

its Marion dear, not mary


Anonymous said...

From the shot of the dark figure coming from behind the curtain to the panning that goes from marion's lying in the floor to the newspaper, there are only 43 cuts or 44 shots. I just counted them by setting the dvd on slow motion. You're wrong, there are not 78 shots.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Marion Crane & in the scene ther are 57 shots and 25 in the stabbing section itself.

Biravin said...

I like showers