Below is a transcript of a lecture Hitchcock gave on March 30, 1939 at Radio City Music Hall, New York City. The lecture was organized by The Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University.
I have some notes here that are mixed up with a letter from my mother, and I am trying to sort them out. First of all, before we go into melodrama and suspense, about which Mr. Abbott asked me to speak to you, I wish to talk about the method one invariably uses in designing a motion picture script.
When I am given a subject, probably a book, play, or an original, I like to see it on one sheet of foolscap. That is to say, have the story, in its barest bones, just laid out on a sheet of foolscap paper. You might call it the steelwork, or just the barest bones, as I said before. Now you do not have to write down very much, maybe just that a man meets a woman at a certain place, and something else happens. In the briefest possible way, this thing should be laid out on a piece of paper.
From that, of course, we start to build the treatment of that story--the characterizations, the narrative, and even the detail, until we have probably a hundred pages of complete narrative without dialogue. But I do not mean narrative in the abstract, the practical side of what is going to appear on the screen. I always try to avoid having in the treatment anything that is not really visual. In dialogue we indicate it by saying, for instance, that the man goes to the sideboard, pours himself out a drink, and tells the woman that something or other is going to happen to him. We indicate it in the treatment, and this is very full and practically the complete film on paper, in terms of action and movement.
The particular reason why I prefer to do that is because I don't like to kid myself. I do not like to let myself think that there is more in it than there really is, because I believe that one should build up. That is why I prefer to start with the broad narrative, and then from that, develop into this full treatment--but purely cinematic treatment. You must not go into anything like a short story, or anything descriptive, like "with half-strangled cries" and that sort of thing. You just want the actual movement or action, and then indicate the dialogue.
Dialogue is the next phase, and that depends on how much time one has. Once the story line is decided upon and one has a dialogue writer in, one usually deals with it sequence by sequence. After the first sequence, we call the dialogue writer in and hand it to him. While he has the first sequence, we start the first sequence in treatment, and build up as we go along. Finally we have a whole pile of material which is treatment, and a whole pile of material which is dialogue.
From the stage we go into the shooting script by assembling the dialogue and the treatment. We keep building it even further, and adding to it. We do not do this in a mechanical way, but put up as many ideas as we possibly can. Finally we have a shooting script of the whole thing. Then we cast it, shoot it, and finally it is shown.
A member of the audience sees that film, and probably after seeing it goes home and tells his wife about it. She wants to know what it was like, so he tells her that it was about a man who met a girl--and whatever he tells his wife is what you should have had on the piece of paper in the very beginning. That is the complete cycle that I like to aim for, as far as possible, and that is the process one works on in designing a motion picture script.
Now to talk about melodrama, you know, of course, that melodrama was the original mainstay of motion pictures material, on account of its obvious physical action and physical situation. After all, the words "motion pictures" means action and movement. Melodrama lends itself very much--perhaps more than before the talkies came in; more than anything else, I mean.
You know we had the early chase films, and we had those French pictures where a man used to run around Paris. He was on a bicycle and knocked people over as he went along. Are there any of these films in the museum?
Mr. Abbott: yes
Of course, in those days, and even up to the coming of the talking picture, the characters were pretty well cardboard figures. One advantage that the talking picture has given us is that it allowed us to delineate character a little more, through the medium of dialogue. The talking picture has given us more character, and obviously, in the long run, that is what we are going to rely upon.
There has been a tendency, I feel, in the past, in this development of character, to rely upon the dialogue, only, to do it. We have lost what has been--to me, at least--the biggest enjoyment in motion pictures, and that is action and movement. What I am trying to aim for is a combination of these two elements, character and action.
The difficulty is, I feel, that the two rhythms are entirely different things; I mean the rhythm and pace of action and the rhythm and pace of dialogue. The problem is to try and blend these two things together. I am still trying it, and I have not entirely solved the problem, but eventually, I imagine, it will be solved. The field of the future motion picture story has obviously got to come from character, and where the difficulty comes is that character controls the situation.