Gus Van Sant: Return to Bates Motel

Director Gus Van Sant explains why he used the "Get Out of jail Free" card he won with Good will Hunting to make a new version of Psycho that's so much like the old version he refers to it not as a "remake" but as a "reproduction."


Driving into Universal Studios early one morning, I'm reminded of a cryptic bit of wisdom Alfred Hitchcock imparted to me nearly 20 years ago on this very same lot. The master director, then eightyish, philosophized, "The older you get, the stranger it all becomes." How right he was. Especially considering that I'm here to talk with director Gus Van Sant, who has just reshot Hitchcock's 1960 black-and-white masterpiece Psycho in color with a contemporary cast, but otherwise almost unchanged, on many of the same soundstages Hitchcock used. Does it get any stranger? Having written a book on the making of the original Psycho, I have a profound appreciation for this strangeness.

For those of you who weren't around to see Psycho the first time, and have never caught up with it, here are some hints about why Van Sant has some explaining to do. Psycho is cited by critics again and again as one of the best movies ever made, but its influence goes far beyond any mere technical or artistic brilliance. Psycho rocked worldwide audiences as the first movie in which the central character, played by a major star, got savagely bumped off in the first third of the story. It gleefully made major plot points of such screen taboos as transvestism, taxidermy, obsessive mother love, premarital lunch hour trysts in seedy hotels, and a flushing toilet. The movie's then-revolutionary violence pointed the way toward the bloodbaths in everything from Bonnie and Clyde to Scream. And because Hitchcock decreed that no ticket buyer could be admitted into the theater once the film began, Psycho influenced even the way we attend movies. It was that big a deal and more.

So why would anyone, especially Gus Van Sant, whose singular vision gave us films like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For and Good Will Hunting, remake a movie that is as close to perfect as a movie can get? As one equally offbeat director put it: "It will either turn out to be the smartest gambit Gus has ever pulled off, or it'll be a major blunder." Oddly enough, that's more or less what Psycho novelist Robert Bloch told Hitchcock after seeing a rough cut of the original movie.

STEPHEN REBELLO: I know you don't consider your movie a "remake" of the original. What is it then? GUS VAN SANT: It's a reproduction. That's our twist. That's what's new. We basically reproduced every shot from Hitchcock's movie and used the original Joseph Stefano script, with a few alterations. Our original concept was: "We shouldn't change anything. Everything should be the same." That's never been done before.

Q: And you've had this notion of "reproducing" Psycho for quite a while, I've heard.

A: For a long time it was just a one-liner, high-concept idea, probably the only one I've ever had. It was a reaction to the projects studios would talk with me about. After Drugstore Cowboy came out in 1989, Universal wasn't interested in doing My Own Private Idaho, but, like other studios, they talked with me about remake ideas. The reason to do remakes was all about marketing, like, "Why take a chance on developing a story nobody knows about when we can take something that's been made before--something we can all have opinions about?" But changing things generally screws remakes up, even when it's perfectly done. The essence is missing. You might as well make an original movie. So I said, "If you guys are going to be remaking things, you should redo Psycho without changing anything, because you don't need to. Just shoot it in color and have, for instance, Jack Nicholson play the detective and Timothy Hutton play Norman Bates." I'd had art school training in the '70s, the era of appropriation, ready-mades, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol. The idea is that the new piece is changed, but it's still the original piece as well. There was some of that in my "high concept."

Q: Film executives don't think like people from art school.

A: No, they weren't interested. And I wasn't rallying for it, but I kept thinking what a good idea it was. This past year, when Hollywood got excited about Good Will Hunting--every studio gets super-hyped, grabbing people off the Oscar tree--Universal and Brian Grazer wanted to rope me in, and I said to my agent: "Here's the idea. Psycho, don't change anything, film it in color, new cast." They said, "Yeah, let's do it." Suddenly I was using my "Get Out Of Jail Free" card for this project.

Q: Did anyone ask you why an individualistic director like yourself would want to "reproduce" another director's great movie?

A: It's never been done before. Isn't that a great reason to try it?

Q: How do you regard Psycho among Hitchcock's works?

A: It stands alone. It's almost like a play. For some movies, it's the way the stories are told that makes the movie great. Psycho is like Waiting for Godot. You can put anybody in the places of the characters, stage it indoors, outdoors, it's going to do its thing. The puzzle has been so worked out it almost wants to be redone. It's very much like an opera, something you should restage and celebrate.

Q: So what's next? James Cameron's Citizen Kane?

A: Hmm. Citizen Kane. Why not? I think it might be one of the films you could remake. There's nothing blasphemous or incorrect about doing it, because I'm not so sure that, outside our community of film obsessives, the public really knows what it is. It would be great to have a Citizen Kane by Martin Scorsese. It's a good thing to reestablish the importance of a work like Psycho or Citizen Kane. Why not redo in color a brilliant, successful film nobody's seeing because it's in black and white? In fact, Hitchcock's daughter, Pat, told me, "It sounds like one of Daddy's ideas."

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