Friday, June 26, 2020
While the production of Psycho went relatively smoothly, post production did not. Paramount Pictures was never fully supportive of the film and didn’t provide a defense when the Hayes Office objected to certain scenes in the film. Hitchcock had to deal with them himself, though he seemed to relish the challenge. When he was asked to cut down the signature scene where the homicidal “Mother Bates” kills Marion Crane in the shower, Alfred merely waited a couple days, then resubmitted the film with no changes, claiming he had cut it down. They approved the film as is.
Faced with a studio that didn’t want to promote or release the film, Alfred took the unusual step of actively putting himself into the picture’s advertisements, admonishing audiences to be on time to watch the film and requiring theaters to not allow stragglers into the auditorium. It was a promotion more suited to a William Castle cheapie than a film directed by a living legend.
When Psycho was unleashed on the world, the initial critical responses were mixed. Some critics saw the artistry behind the film, while others got lost in the gore of the shower scene. Regardless of what the critics thought, audiences went wild. The film was made for about $800,000. With Universal’s “embellishments” made to woo Hitchcock, the budget might have barely hit $1 Million. The film ended up grossing $15,000,000. It was an enormous success and cemented Sir Alfred’s place atop the list of legendary directors. Universal’s extra expenses resulted in them successfully wooing Sir Alfred Hitchcock to their lot, where he would happily stay for the rest of his life.
Even today, Norman Bates’ ominous house and motel stand on the Universal backlot, attracting millions of guests from around the world to its legendary tour. Not too shabby for a film that no studio wanted to make.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
When Alfred Hitchcock swept onto the Universal lot, he was the talk of the town. The lot was mostly being used for television productions at the time and a major motion picture from a big name director was big news. Since Universal’s Lew Wasserman was eager to make Hitchcock feel at home on the lot, the production was a dream.
Strangely enough, even a young Jerry Mathers lent the production a hand or two. In his spare time, he would bike over to the Psycho set and assist in the production of the film’s most gruesome prop- Mrs. Bates herself.
While the production was a breeze, the path forward would be rockier. Paramount, not Universal, would be responsible for promoting the film and they were not too thrilled about the gruesome, violent film.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
When we last left our story, Alfred Hitchcock had finally come to an agreement with Paramount that would permit him to make Psycho. Two of his concessions were to use his lower cost television crew and the cheaper Universal backlot to make the picture. It’s hard to believe now, but back in the 1950s (and for most of its life up until then) Universal Pictures always seemed just a few steps from insolvency. Founder Carl Laemmle never seemed to be able to jumpstart the studio’s finances into anything that could be described as stable. Long dead by the 1950s, his inability to stabilize the studio’s finances still haunted the company.
Enter Lew Wasserman, a Hollywood mogul on the make. His MCA company was a super agency that represented a who’s who of Hollywood Stars. At the time, MCA could represent talent, package pre-negotiated deals that it could sell to studios and distribute television programming, but it was not permitted to run its own studio due to anti-trust laws. The collapse of the studio system had hit Hollywood hard and many famed backlots were being bulldozed to make way for new development. When Lew had heard that Universal Pictures was looking to sell off parts of its lot, he quickly saw an opportunity. If everyone else was selling off parts of their studio lots, studio space would be at a premium. This could be an amazing opportunity. Lew bought the studio lot and leased parts of it back to Universal Pictures. The other parts were rented out to other studios and used by some of MCA’s television partners.
Lew and Hitch
So what does this have to do with Psycho? Well, by 1960, Lew Wasserman has bigger plans for MCA. If the laws were changed to allow an agency to own a studio, he wanted to snap up Universal Pictures, reuniting it with its storied lot. Lew wanted to finally lift the ghost of Universal’s past by bringing in A-List talent. And Hitchcock was the literal definition of an A-Lister. If Universal could lure him in, it would be quite a coup and a signal that Universal Pictures was a force to be reckoned with. Lew could hardly believe that Paramount had essentially driven Hitchcock right to his front door.
Mother Bates was a bad housekeeper...
While Hitchcock’s production was already saving money at Universal’s “rack rates”, Lew encouraged his staff to go all out. Every available resource was to be made available to Hitchcock and Psycho. He also encouraged the various departments to embellish things for Hitchcock. Lew wanted his staff to give maximum effort for minimal cost. The gambit worked. Frustrated by Paramount and amazed by Universal, Hitchcock made plans to flee Paramount the first chance he got. Universal Studios would be his new home.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Paramount Pictures was certain of it; Alfred Hitchcock had gone mad. As one of the studios that had rejected Psycho when its author directly offered it to them, they couldn’t believe that one of their most bankable directors was insisting that they turn the unfilmable book into a motion picture. It wasn’t so much that he’d asked them but that he was so insistent about it.
The top executives wondered if they were missing something. They saw a book that was too exploitative, too grisly and too crude. It seemed a more suitable project for the likes of exploitative film producer William Castle. Hitchcock, however, was insistent. He would forgo his usual directing salary for a piece of the gross. Paramount refused. Hitchcock promised that he would make the film for a fraction of his bigger pictures. Paramount still refused.
What Paramount didn’t realize was that their profitable director was having a midlife crisis of sorts. He felt that his suspenseful films were becoming too tame, too predictable. He wanted to set a trailblazing path that others would follow and he believed he hadn’t done that in years. Psycho would be his chance to become an innovator again.
Eventually, Paramount acquiesced. Hitchcock would film the picture on the Universal Studios backlot, which was considered a bargain basement studio at the time. He would use his much cheaper Alfred Hitchcock Presents Crew. And he would film it in black and white. Paramount would only have to distribute and promote the film. It was important for Alfred to get approval from Paramount, because he couldn’t make a film elsewhere and he felt that waiting until a more favorable Paramount executive came on board or for his contract to expire would allow someone else to snap up the property. This would be his chance to be ahead of the game yet again.
Monday, June 22, 2020
Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful and iconic film was arguably Psycho. The suspenseful film ended up inspiring almost every horror film that came afterwards.
By 1959, Alfred Hitchcock had become a much sought after director. He had a hit television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and had directed some of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1950’s. Signed to Paramount Pictures, he had final cut on all of his pictures and could make most any film he wanted. In 1959, the film he most wanted to make was Psycho.
Psycho, by Robert Bloch, was inspired by the grisly serial killer Ed Gein. Gein committed numerous grisly murders, cutting off the body parts of his victims and using their skin to make macabre “leather” products. Gein’s crimes shocked and horrified the world. Bloch, inspired by the crimes, chose to write a book about a young man who hid unspeakable secrets and was isolated from the world. Bloch was certain that Hollywood would be interested in adapting his book into a motion picture and shopped it around Tinseltown.
Hollywood’s response, however, was to declare the book unfilmable. Bloch was rejected by every single studio, though the book landed in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary who thought her boss might be interested in it. It turned out that he was. Hitchcock immediately optioned the book and began making plans to adapt it for the big screen. Unfortunately for him, getting the picture made would be an uphill battle.
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Saturday, June 20, 2020
Friday, June 19, 2020
Warner Brothers was undoubtedly shocked when it saw the first cut of Gremlins. The slightly scary family film they thought they were getting was a full fledged horror picture with comedic touches. The licensees were definitely not going to be happy. While director Joe Dante didn’t have final cut on the film, he answered to Steven Spielberg and his production company and the only restriction placed on them was to bring in a PG film. Warner Brothers could have pressured Spielberg, but he was a hot commodity and they were loathe to make him mad. The last chance they had to get a less violent film was in the hands of the MPAA. If they gave it an R, Spielberg would have no choice but to order the picture be recut.
The MPAA provided no help in that regard. The film was given a PG. The picture went out on the same weekend as Ghostbusters and it was most likely seen as the more family friendly film released that weekend. The studio’s promotion and marketing had put the adorable Gizmo front and center. That’s why many people were shocked at some of the films’ violent scenes. That controversy, however, did little to dampen enthusiasm for the film. It was a monster success and its merchandise flew off the shelves.
The negative reaction to the violence in this and another Spielberg produced film- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom- led to a re-evaluation of the ratings system and resulted in the creation of a new rating- PG-13- that could be used for films deemed too intense for those younger than 13 years of age but not quite deserving of an R.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
While Joe Dante was making his horror film, Warner Brothers set about finding licensees who would be willing to produce merchandise tied to Gremlins. When the licensees saw the cute Gizmo, they lined up to slap him on just about anything.
Even toilet paper.
When Spielberg’s mega hit E.T. hit theaters there was not much merchandise on store shelves. Universal and toy manufacturers rushed to remedy this problem, though much of the merchandise was produced after the initial craze began to subside. E.T. had been a hard sell to licensees before the film was released because he wasn’t seen as being particularly cute. That was a mistake since his merchandise still sold quite well once it was produced. Nobody was willing to pass up the opportunity this time, especially since Gizmo was so adorable.
While some of the licensees did have some reservations about the actual gremlin character designs, they still went forward with putting them on merchandise. It probably wouldn’t be too risky- after all, how scary could a film with little Gizmo be?
Warner Brothers would not be caught off-guard when it came to merchandise. Kids would be able to march out of the theaters and into the stores to get instant gratification, taking a plush Gizmo (or two) home with them. Warner Brothers would be caught off-guard by the anger over the violence in the film, however. The controversy would lead to big changes in Hollywood.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
As pre-production began on Gremlins, it almost seemed as though everyone believed they were making a different film. Director Joe Dante and the cast were making a horror picture that was slightly comedic. Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment seemed to believe the film was more of a comedy with horror elements. As for Warner Brothers, they saw the adorable Gizmo and saw a family film with some scary elements in it.
While it might seem bizarre that the three groups had gotten such different ideas about the film, it’s not so farfetched when one considers the script. It didn’t spend too much time vividly describing the horror elements. Warner Brothers was especially calm since Steven Spielberg had eliminated the most gruesome death scene that would have taken place in a McDonald’s and decreed that Gizmo would remain alive and a hero until the end. They just assumed that Dante would stage the scary scenes with a soft touch and wouldn’t provide too many production notes or supervision because they didn’t want to annoy Spielberg. These assumptions would stir up a wasp nest of controversy later on.
Strangely enough, the decision that caused the most controversy at Warner Brothers was the casting of Phoebe Cates. Perhaps in an early sign that the studio misunderstood what kind of picture they were getting, they protested her casting because she had starred in more “adult” pictures. Spielberg insisted on her being in the picture so the studio relented. Relative newcomer Zach Galligan was chosen due to his chemistry with Ms. Cates. The rest of the cast was filled with Showbiz veterans like Hoyt Axton and Polly Holliday who added a veneer of respectability to the production. Joe Dante was pleased that he had some seasoned veterans in the cast; their presence would make some of the more complex special effects scenes go smoother than they might have otherwise with a less experienced cast.
Amusingly, the original plan was to use trained monkeys in costumes to portray Gizmo and the Gremlins. Early tests were disastrous; the monkeys went berserk. The setback added to the film’s cost as expensive animatronics would have to be used. The finicky animatronics bedeviled the crew. The most troublesome animatronic of all was Gizmo, who frequently broke down and caused delays. The scene in which the gremlins attack Gizmo was added to the picture as an inside joke. The crew got to let out some frustration on the Gizmo animatronic.
While production was underway, Warner Brothers was preparing a promotion and merchandising package for the family friendly movie it thought it was getting. The diverging visions of the film would be on a collision course that would ignite controversy in Hollywood and beyond.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
Chris Columbus was surprised when his story about cute little critters who turn into menacing monsters was picked up by none other than Steven Spielberg. Spielberg saw the project as being one of the most inventive ideas that had come across his desk in, well, ever. He snapped up the movie rights and began the process of setting it up at his new production company- Amblin Entertainment. Chris Columbus would have to wait, however, as Spielberg had used up some of his cred earned with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind by making the box office failure 1941. Spielberg would eventually earn it all back by making E.T. After E.T. became a box office sensation, Steven Spielberg could make any film he wanted anywhere he wanted to make it. Warner Brothers would eagerly snap up Gremlins.
Joe Dante had directed The Howling, which had been seen as a novel, low budget horror film. His career, however, had seen better days by the time Steven Spielberg chose him to guide Gremlins forward as the film’s director. While Spielberg mostly liked the script, he did have a few problems with it- it was originally much darker and violent. Spielberg wanted that toned down. Originally the main cute character- Gizmo- was supposed to turn into an evil gremlin like the others. Spielberg didn’t think that was a good idea. Joe Dante had originally thought that the film could be a low budget horror film but quickly saw that the complexity of the creatures and the vision that Steven Spielberg had for the film would make it much bigger and much more expensive than he thought it would be when he signed on.Would he be up to the challenge? Stay tuned!
Monday, June 15, 2020
It was an unlikely hit film; premiering the same weekend as Ghostbusters, the film Gremlins was overlooked by most industry types despite its pedigree. Produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Spielberg favorite Joe Dante and written by Chris Columbus, the film didn’t quite fit into a neat and tidy box. Not quite a comedy and not quite a horror film, the movie seemed to be about a cute little creature named Gizmo.
The idea of gremlins came out of World War II. “Gremlins” were the personification of random malfunctions that took place in military equipment. These gremlins were the mythical creatures Roald Dahl and Walt Disney had considered making a film about them back then, but the idea was shelved with only a book getting released. By the late 1970’s, the stories about gremlins had been long forgotten. Chris Columbus, meanwhile, was trying to make his way in Hollywood. Inspired by the mice who infested his loft nightly, he wrote a screenplay about these imagined creatures beginning life as cute and cuddly animals who turned into horrific creatures. Columbus never intended for his script to become an actual film. He wrote it as a spec script meant to show Hollywood that he could write an entertaining screenplay. Little would he know that his script would become a huge franchise and one of the biggest films of the 1980’s.
Friday, June 12, 2020
As Back to the Future got closer to its release, there was a lot of stress to go around. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had a lot riding on the picture. Zemeckis was afraid that he would not be trusted with another big project if the movie bombed. Michael J. Fox’s career was on the rise, but a failed project could undermine his career before it really started. Oddly enough, the studio that was footing the bill had the least to lose. While the project went overbudget, it wasn’t by a crazy amount. Even if Back to the Future lost every penny the studio spent on it, it still wouldn’t make a dent in the massive profits brought in by E.T. Making Back to the Future would keep Steven Spielberg happy and that’s all that mattered to Universal Pictures.
Of course, Back to the Future was a phenomenon. It made Michael J. Fox a superstar. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale could now walk into any studio they wished (without Steven Spielberg) and make any project they wanted. Universal had a massive hit, bigger than even it had expected or hoped for. The studio’s famed tour would now make a point of driving past the film’s sets. “Mockingbird Square” so named after being used in the classic film To Kill A Mockingbird, became forever known as “Courthouse Square” after it stood in for Hill Valley in Back to the Future.
Universal Pictures obviously wanted a sequel. Zemeckis and Gale wanted to complete their trilogy on their own terms. Thus they required Universal to approve both part two and part three to go into production at the same time. It was an unprecedented request that was wholeheartedly approved by Universal Pictures.
The film inspired a slew of spinoffs, including an attraction built at Universal Studios theme parks around the world. While the attractions have been replaced, the film still has a large presence at Universal Studios Hollywood, where it was filmed.
In recent years, the film’s fans have further embraced it, with its 30th Anniversary garnering much attention and interest. The film might have had a rocky beginning and an even rockier production, but it was the one in a million film that rose above all that to become a classic blockbuster. The wise words spoken by Doc Brown in the end could have been inspired by the film’s rocky production. What could have been an epic failure became an epic success.
“It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”
- Doc Brown