Back in 1966, at the height of his career, French filmmaker François Truffaut sat down with his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, and interviewed him about every film he’d ever made. That interview was transcribed into a book called “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” And if you’re a filmmaker, you have read it.
Now there’s a documentary about the making of that book, and about the impact it had on directors like Martin Scorcese and Wes Anderson — both of whom appear in the film, along with many others. It’s called “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” and it’s directed by Kent Jones. When Rico spoke to Jones this week, he asked when he first encountered the book.
Kent Jones: Well, in my movie, David Fincher talks about reading it as a boy, and going over it again and again. And that was pretty much my experience too. I was, like, 12. And I don’t remember whether I bought it or whether somebody gave it to me, but it was something that I had with me at all times.
Rico Gagliano: It’s interesting, because I encountered it as a young person too. It’s a pretty heady book for someone of that age. To what do you ascribe its draw to people of that age?
Kent Jones: Well, first of all, it’s got a lot of pictures.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true. By Philippe Halsman, one of the great photographers.
Kent Jones: …By Philippe Halsman, and also a lot of stills from movies. So when you’re that age, if somebody says, “Hey, you should read a book!” You’d be like, “Great, where are the pictures?!?”
That’s one thing. A lot of pictures. But also, I think it’s not just Truffaut doing a book about Hitchcock. It’s much more than that. He devoted as much time to this book as he did to, like, two movies. So he really constructed something that moves like a movie. I think it’s a very unusual book in that way.
Rico Gagliano: You feel the interview moves like a narrative?
Kent Jones: I do. The editing has been done for concision, rhythm, unity. It’s got a pace that’s quite different from a [typical] book-length interview between a critic and a filmmaker.
Rico Gagliano: You mentioned that it was edited. One of the things that I love about this film is that you actually hear outtakes from the original interview tapes of Hitchcock and Truffaut joking around… There’s a point where Hitch is heard giving direction to Philippe Halsman about how to photograph them…. What is your favorite of that stuff, the stuff that doesn’t appear in the book?
Kent Jones: Well, first of all, just the tone of the conversation is really different from the book. Hitchcock, he’s much warmer than he appears to be in the book. That moment that you’re talking about is when Halsman comes in and, you know, they do the posed photographs. I love those moments.
Rico Gagliano: At the beginning of the movie there’s a quote from Truffaut that when he would tell interviewers, early on in his career, that Hitchcock was his favorite filmmaker, everybody seemed surprised. Why do you think that is? Why were people surprised?
Kent Jones: Because in the United States they were used to seeing him as like a master entertainer, the master of suspense.
Rico Gagliano: Hitchcock.
Kent Jones: Yeah. The guy who did cameos, the guy who could deliver shocks and thrills on a Saturday night, and then you’d forget it. So you know, “Alfred Hitchcock? He’s your favorite director? You, François Truffaut?!? The man who made ‘Jules and Jim’?”
“Yes.” And so he decided, “OK, I need to do a book.” And he had a goal in mind, and that goal was to prove to people, and show them really, that Hitchcock was a great artist and that he was foundational to the art of cinema.
Rico Gagliano: Something we now all take for granted of course.
Rico Gagliano: And actually, your movie really kind of uses the book as a jumping point to discuss the movies of Hitchcock with the help of interviews with a lot of filmmakers. I was struck by how many of them have very strong memories, or were very strongly influenced by, Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho.” Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kent Jones: Yeah, I mean the thing about “Psycho” is that people know “Psycho” — they know what happens 35 minutes into the movie, the shower scene — but still, the shock of it, when you’re watching it, remains. And that is that you are set up for something that is completely obliterated.
A woman steals money. She drives away, and you’re just thinking about the money. You know, is she going to return the money? It’s always there: “What’s she going to do? Is she going to return the money?” And then suddenly, boom, that’s all gone.
Rico Gagliano: Yes. Spoiler alert: She’s killed! The first half hour of the movie is setting up a story that cannot be paid off, because she’s killed.
Kent Jones: Exactly. That’s right, and you know Peter Bogdanovich, in my film, describes the uncanny experience of sitting there and watching that movie for the first time, without knowing what was going to happen. And he said the audience was just dumbfounded.
Rico Gagliano: And Scorsese implies, basically, that it set up all filmmaking of the ’60s.
Kent Jones: Yeah, filmmaking of the ’60s, but also setting the tone for the ’60s. And the shocks that were to come. Without knowing it. I mean it’s not like Hitchcock is saying, “I sense that the ’60s are going to be bad. I want to set up a movie that’s going to prepare people for it.” Not quite.
But then, things are in the air. Things happen. You know, he was catching something. The same year Michelangelo Antonioni made “L’Avventura,” and the heroine in that film disappears very early on too.
Rico Gagliano: That’s interesting, though. That suddenly, it’s almost like filmmakers are aware that things are not as linear as they used to be.
Kent Jones: Well, things were impermanent, and subject to just changing and being obliterated. And “Psycho” really opened the door for a lot of things in movies.
Rico Gagliano: So you’ve delved into Truffaut’s book. You have spoken to all these filmmakers. What do you think is the essence of what compels them all to return to Hitchcock’s movies again and again? What is the power of these films?
Kent Jones: He’s made movies that go so deep that they touch on things that are unnameable. The end of “Vertigo,” I wouldn’t even know how to characterize it. What starts maybe as a suspense movie on paper becomes something very, very different. I mean he goes where very few artists go. And I don’t just mean movie makers. I mean all the arts.