How did you start your career?
Well, I started writing fiction when I was 12, and journalism for high school and college papers, as well as writing music features and criticism for the local San Diego underground newspaper, THE SAN DIEGO DOOR, the same paper Cameron Crowe wrote for, and at the same time. I wrote about music and film for a while, also for a monthly magazine I published and edited called ARTHUR THE MAGAZINE. But I wrote several screenplays without success. I started working in publicity, specializing in the horror genre, for Avco Embassy Pictures, and later at Universal. I was doing "Making Of..." documentaries, when Steven Spielberg gave me my first screenwriting opportunity with AMAZING STORIES. While at AMAZING STORIES, Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney gave me the opportunity to write and direct a DISNEY SUNDAY MOVIE called FUZZBUCKET, which was my first paid directing job.
What led you to direct Psycho IV?
I had directed my first feature, CRITTERS 2, and they were looking for someone that both the studio, Universal, and Anthony Perkins would agree upon. Perkins wanted to direct it himself, as he had directed PSYCHO III; but that movie was not a financial or critical success, and they wouldn't let him. So it was very tender ground I was treading. PSYCHO IV was produced by a new unit of Universal that made films and series for cable TV, and I had helped create a series for them called SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, so they knew me. This unit was run by a guy named Ned Nalle, and he was very helpful in my being chosen. My friend John Landis was extremely helpful. He said very nice things to Tony Perkins about my work, leading to a lunch we had together with Tony and the producers, Les Mayfield and George Zaloom. And that lunch led to Tony agreeing to my coming on board.
Did you have any reservations or anxiety about directing a prequel of a classic film?
Of course. But I felt that some of the stigma had been eased by the fact that there had already been two sequels. Plus, this was being made by Showtime, which, at that time especially, had a very small audience. So it seemed like the best of all possible worlds. If people liked it, they'd talk about it: "hey, did you see PSYCHO IV? Great movie!" And if they didn't, well, nobody would notice. But we had Tony Perkins, a really good script by Joe Stefano, who wrote the original, Hilton Green was our executive producer, and he'd been Hitchcock's assistant director on the original. So it was the best of all situations at the time: everything but time and money. I also decided to make the most of the use of color, and to shoot it differently in every way that I could. Since the original was shot in black-and-white, the choice to shoot with an exaggerated sense of primary colors was made early on. Things like that were attempted throughout the process.
Are you a fan of the original Psycho?
A huge fan. I saw it at the drive-in with my family when I was very young (the Reseda drive-in, by the way, the same one in Bogdanovich's TARGETS). It was a very formative experience for me, and left its imprint on me that still remains implanted on my brain. I actually wrote about that really formative experience in a book that's an appreciation of Robert Bloch, in an essay called "Four in the Back".
What do you think Hitchcock would have thought about Psycho IV?
I have no way of knowing. Though I saw Hitchcock from afar a few times on the Universal lot shortly before he passed away, I never spoke to the man. However, the men who knew him best, Hilton Green and Tony Perkins both said several times during production and after it was completed that he really would have liked the movie. I can't say, but I'm glad they felt that way.
Describe the pre-production process on the film and how long was the shoot?
Fast and furious. I worked a little on the script with Joe, made a few tweaks with him, then charged into the design with Michael Hanan the production designer, quickly gathered a crew, and left for Florida. The shooting took 24 days; four 6-day weeks.
Of all the places in the world to film, why Orlando and not Universal City?
I think Universal planned for us to be as much a theme park attraction as a film production. They were on the verge of opening their Florida studio, and we were in production when it happened. A very weird experience, to say the least. So they wanted to bring attention to their new studio with something high-profile but low budget. Also, at that time, Florida was a place where they could work with a non-union crew as a right-to-work state.
Describe the filming at Universal Studios Florida
I don't remember which stage we shot on, but it was quite a great experience. They were working out the restaurants and all on the lot, and would charge something like 10% of the meal price while they rehearsed their wait and kitchen staff, so the crew got to eat well for next to nothing. In between big set-ups or on lunch break, we'd go on the rides they were getting ready for the public. It was a ghost town for the first half of the shoot, then filled with crowds for the second half, after the park had opened to the public. Some of it was not so much fun. I remember shooting a very emotional, difficult scene, out by the clothesline with Olivia blowing up at Henry in front of the Bates house, and fifty feet away, behind a strip of police tape, fifty to a hundred tourists were watching it all go down. Not so easy on the actors.
How was it working with Anthony Perkins?
An honor, an education, and very difficult and challenging, as well as a lot of fun. He had a great trove of stories of working with Hitchcock and Welles and others, and it was impossible not to learn from him. He was very intelligent and educated, but also very troubled and complex. He would get into long, drawn-out discussions in front of the crew, testing his director, making sure choices were not made "because it looks good", and seeing how deep the understanding of the story and process were. He could be very forceful, just shy of bullying, but also really appreciated helpful direction. I would have to say he was the most difficult and challenging actor I've every worked with, but he ended up going on and on about how happy he was with the film. That was gratifying.
Describe your on the set experiences with the cast and crew.
It all went so quickly there aren't really many stories to relate. It was a great crew; my first assistant director has gone on to become a major executive at Disney, the DP is on a big series, they were all really great and really enthusiastic. Many of them were recruited locally, as there was a big filmmaking community in Florida at the time. That talent pool has moved to different parts of the country since then. But it was a very happy, committed group.
Rodney Charters was D.P. and now he is doing 24... what were your impressions of him and his work?
I loved him, and used him on my next film, which was STEPHEN KING'S SLEEPWALKERS. I remember Spielberg liked his work on it so much that he signed Rodney's union application. He's a New Zealander by way of Toronto: very meticulous and imaginative, and very much into gadgets and technology. A very, very sweet and artistic guy, a real family man.
Why Showtime? Why not theatrical release?
As I said, PSYCHO III was not successful at the boxoffice, anywhere in the world, so the studio felt no compunction to follow with yet another numbered sequel. But for Showtime it was a high-profile title, and one that didn't require market testing and a ticket-buying public.
Was there buzz surrounding the film when you were making it?
It was made very much under the radar. Probably because they were shooting without the usual Hollywood union crew, even though it was shot in Florida (it was made under the usual Directors, Writers, and Actors guilds, though).
What kind of problems do you remember on the set? Any outtakes? Any memorable anecdotes?
Well, the main problem was shooting the swamp at night, where we recreated the sinking of the car from the first movie. It was unbelievably hot and humid, and it wasn't easy getting it all to work properly. We had a guy in a SCUBA outfit underwater working things from that end, and it was difficult to get everybody's rhythm correct. Also, when Norman is killing the first girl in mother's room, he really got taken over by the ferocity of it, plunging a real butcher knife into a paper bucket filled with blood that had a balsa-wood base, so that the knife blade would stick, as if in bones. He just kept hacking and hacking, and since there is no hilt on a butcher knife, it went sliding down the middle of his palm, slicing deep into his hand. I don't remember there being any scenes that were not used in the film.
Did Janet Leigh or any other Psycho cast members/crew members visit the set?
Janet did visit (I think she was there for the grand opening of the studio theme park midway through our production), as did Hitchcock's daughter, Pat.
Tell us your impressions of Hilton Green.
One of the nicest, most knowledgeable, supportive men in the business. My wife and I would call him Uncle Hilly, and I think he liked that. He was our link to Hitchcock and the original film. A really wonderful man.
Did you watch Psycho II and Psycho III to prepare for this film?
Of course. Although, to a certain extent, the storyline of PSYCHO IV ignores the mythology of the previous sequels, it was important to steep myself in the world of Norman Bates, including the two Robert Bloch novels.
Overall, what did you feel about the completed film?
I'm actually, if I may dare to say so, really happy with and proud of this film. I think it's much better than any movie with a IV in the title has a right to be. It also led to my being hired to direct SLEEPWALKERS, which has led to a long and great professional relationship with Stephen King.
Were any set pieces from the past films used?
Lots of them. Most of the set dressing from the Bates house was original. I remember that Mother's bed was the original, and had been insured for $100,000. There were walls and props and tons of stuff from the original. They even used the master to create the Candy Corn bags. Very authentic.
What are you up to now?
I'm working on a lot of film and television projects, but what's been taking up most of my time of late is the MASTERS OF HORROR anthology series, which I created and am executive producer, as well as writing and directing episodes. Coincidentally enough, it's on Showtime.
Return to the Interview Section of Psycho IV