John McLaughlin
“You think of Hitchcock and you think of someone who can do whatever he wants…You can't imagine someone going to Leonardo da Vinci and saying, ‘No more portraits of ladies in veils.’”
A Psycho in the Making
Hitchcock’s John McLaughlin channels the voice of the master of suspense during the legendary director’s struggle to make one of the greatest films of all-time.

Written by Rob Feld

(November 30, 2012)

John McLaughlin started his adult life as a pre-veterinary student at Purdue University before transferring schools and taking on a degree in mathematics. An ad in Rolling Stone for NYU film school caught his attention, however, and he soon followed it to New York. It didn’t take him long to realize that, with the cost of a student film reaching $30,000, he couldn’t afford to direct, so he focused on screenwriting.

McLaughlin remembers, at that time, if you were willing to write for a few hundred dollars, someone might give you a chance. He met actor-director-producer Bob Balaban, who hired McLaughlin as an assistant and to rewrite The Last Good Time. From there, similarly low-paying gigs came his way, building slowly toward near destitution for McLaughlin and his family, until the surprising day his agent sold a script for $700,000. He decided not to move into his in-laws’ garage.

Considering his educational beginnings, it seems appropriate that McLaughlin’s work resists pigeon-holing. Since his first big payday, McLaughlin has penned a myriad of scripts for both film and television, including the stylish Carnivale, the broad comedy, Man of the House, and Darren Aronofsky’s dark Black Swan. His script Seven Holes for Air was also recently adapted by Bill Paxton into a graphic novel, now available on iTunes and Kindle.

With his long-in-the-making but latest produced effort, Hitchcock, McLaughlin’s voice continues to expand. The story of the legendary master of suspense follows Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) efforts to finance and make Psycho, while battling his demons as an aging artist and the eye of his underappreciated wife and creative partner, Alma (Helen Mirren), strays.

In its tone, the script balances Hitchcock’s charm and wit with some of his darker obsessions, seeing Hitch simultaneously as loving husband, petulant child, playful teammate, fetishizing voyeur, and deep explorer of human pathology. It’s a rich tightrope McLaughlin walks with engaging and enjoyable aplomb.

Photo: ©2012 Fox Searchlight
Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock.

How did Hitchcock come to you?

[From] two producers who wanted to make a film about Hitchcock, Tom Thayer, who I’d worked with before, and Alan Barnette. They wanted to have a book so they could stay attached as producers and had the bright idea of not trying to do the whole story like other bio pics, which was a great idea. They brought Stephen Rebello’s book to me, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Over the years we mostly we enhanced the love story, then, toward the end, all the great rewrites Sacha [Gervasi, the film’s director] did himself to bring it into focus.

How do you deal with portraying real and sometimes iconic characters where an audience is bringing so much into the movie?

The good thing is we had Steve Rebello, who knew a lot of stuff he couldn't put in the book, which he was willing to share. You try and get in your head the idea of someone as a human being. You want to include the iconic stuff, but you want to humanize them. When Hitchcock was making Psycho, he was sifting Ed Gein [the character on which Norman Bates was based] through his own mind, through the things that drive him personally. Essentially, I was doing the same thing. I can only imagine what it's like to be Hitchcock, but I know I’m a human being, that I have troubles, and maybe I'm an aging artist and things aren't going well, and you just try and make it human and not fall into a trap that a lot of biographies do, which is only using quotes from people, or things they wrote in letters. If you can get inside their character then you can write dialogue for them.

You’ve written scripts about Harry Houdini and Charles Lindbergh; is there a point where you get comfortable owning the characters?

Yes. That's exactly it. You have to not worry about what people will think. I could worry all day about someone suing me, or saying, “Hey, he never said that!” But I've got to try and live in a person's mind for little while, which is fun to do. It is a responsibility and is full of pitfalls.

You’ve written a good bit of dark material. Is that where you were originally going with the film?

Hitchcock is light and fun, but dark too. It could have ended up darker. I probably had it a little darker to start out, and through the years it got a little bit brighter. Sacha is a bundle of energy, and full of charm and buoyancy. I, obviously, am not. So that comes across. When you're figuring out Hitchcock, you look at his movies and figure that's what he was like. He was the one in control.

I imagine Hitchcock's wit would have been a great sandbox to play in.

He's so droll. It was a lot of fun, I have to confess. And Anthony Hopkins did such a great job, it was so much better than I imagined.

What sort of research did you do for that?

Just getting the voice. Using quotes is a danger. I see movies, and you can tell the quote from a letter and an interview. People speak differently. So I try not to get bogged down by that. I read the Rebello book, I watched all the Hitchcock movies, all the Hitchcock interviews that I could, and his show. I'm old enough to remember seeing him on Merv Griffin, hawking Frenzy and Family Plot. I had a good idea of what he was like, and I had Stephen, who I could call if I needed anything. Stephen went through the scripts and suggested changes – the only thing I did that I knew wasn't true, was put Hitchcock and Alma in twin beds. Rebello said, “They weren't in twin beds! They were at one time, but they weren't at that period.” But to me it was important because Hitchcock is making this movie while being censored, and yet he's living the standard life that the censor would love. They've got the twin beds, and it puts this distance between them. I thought it was great, and it comes off great in the movie, the way Sasha shot it. But Hitchcok and Alma were actually in a queen-size bed. Rebello knew everything.

When did the idea of having Hitchcock in dialogue with Ed Gein come in?

I wanted Ed Gein in there right away, and I wanted to bring each of them into the other's world. I probably had more Ed Gein than finally wound up there. There were people in the project who didn't want any of him there, and there were people like me who would've loved to have had the life of Ed Gein, with Hitchcock there with Ed the whole time. Sacha did a great job formulating what the balance should be. It makes it jaunty because it's about the creative process, and how you come to things. It's good to look at the original event.

So why this particular segment of Hitchcock's life, centered around making Psycho?

You think of Hitchcock and you think of someone who can do whatever he wants. All of a sudden he wanted to do something and they said, “No, I don't think so.” You can't imagine someone going to Leonardo da Vinci and saying, “No more portraits of ladies in veils. That's it for you.” That was appealing to me. Also what was appealing to me, which didn't really make it into the movie, was that after Psycho was done and everyone loved it, it made Hitchcock mad. Why does everyone love this instead of the other stuff? You always have that dissatisfaction with everything you do. I do, anyway. So I can relate to that.

Tell me about drawing Hitchcock out through the character of his wife. It's as much her story as Hitchcock’s. Was it more challenging to get into her because there's less material on her?

I think it was, but I'm married. I’ll see the movie and my wife will be looking over at me like, “Um-hm.” We all bounce these projects off our spouses. My wife reads all this crap I have to write. She has to hear all the complaining and bitterness and craziness, and she has to see me tearing out my hair. She is a big part of it, and then she's not here in the fine hotel suite in the Parker Meridien, enjoying the squared pineapples. She doesn't get any of the credit, and I know that from my experience, and especially from Alma’s, where I know from what I read that she worked on all of Hitchcock’s stuff. She really was his partner. I'm not Hitchcock. I can only imagine, but it's something I've experienced to a small degree. Of course, Sacha has his own wife, and when he worked on their relationship in his drafts it really showed.

You decided to bookend the movie with Hitchcock intros, like he did on his TV show. Was that always there or did you find out later? Or was it just too hard to resist doing?

That was always there. The opening was the same. Sacha changed the end bookend and made it funnier and better – but there was always an end piece with Hitchcock. It's what I wanted to do and surprisingly enough, they kept it. In watching those shows, they can be about dark, terrible things. But you know you’ve got this impish guy in the beginning, and he's funny, complaining about the sponsors, and you know he's going to be back at the end. In that way, you know he's taking you on this journey, and you're going to be okay. In this movie, you know Hitchcock is there, he's going to say, “Come on!” and you're going to come on this journey. You're always aware that he's watching you watching him. At the end, he comes back and says, “You are watching me, and that's what happened, and it was fine.” It's a different kind of experience, and there are few people who have ever been able to do that – Hitchcock, Rod Serling, Orson Welles – where you want to go on the journey with them, and you're happy to see them again when they return.