Writing for Hitchcock: An Interview with Ed McBain
Novelist Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain) discusses his work
by Charles L. P. Silet
When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, 'It's in the script.' If he says, 'But what's my motivation?, ' I say, 'Your salary.'
-- Alfred Hitchcock
When Alfred Hitchcock started work on his film, The Birds (1963), he asked
critically-acclaimed New York novelist Evan Hunter (also known as crime writer
Ed McBain) to write the script. Hitchcock knew Hunter could work in the
Hollywood milieu from his contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the
director's long-running television show) as well as Hunter's other
screenplay adaptations of his best-selling novels. He later confided in
Hunter that he chose a famous novelist to write the screenplay for The
Birds to garner the critical respect and recognition that had eluded his
MysteryNet: When did you first meet Hitchcock?
Hunter: I met him after he had done "First Offense," which was a serious story of mine, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I didn't write the screenplay for that but it was based on my story. When I did write one it was based on a story by Robert Turner. It was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o'clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid's drunk and trying to get drunker and is obnoxious and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.
This may have been in Hitch's mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, "The Birds" involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there's no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some "artistic respectability" with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.
MysteryNet: Tell us a little bit about your experience of working with Hitchcock.
Hunter: Hitch told me on the phone that he had called my agent and asked if I would want to do The Birds. I'd had some stuff done on his television show, so I vaguely knew him. But I wasn't familiar with du Maurier's story, so I said "Let me read it." I read it and it sounded interesting and I accepted the job. But when I spoke with him he said "Forget the story now that you've read it, because all we're using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people." He said, "That's it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I'll have some and we'll talk further." In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.
MysteryNet: And as you worked you worked in tandem?
Hunter: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the girl was going to be-- that's Hollywood talk: "the girl;" it ain't my talk-- and "the boy" and figured out how we were going to get the story going. I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say "Tell me the story so far," and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That's the first bird attack.
I would think why is she going to all this trouble renting a boat when she could easily drive around? But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script. There are holes you could drive Mack trucks through in some thrillers. He said "In my films I'd like to think that if you'd reel it back you'd say, 'Oh, yeah, there it is.'" Nowadays of course we can do that through video replay.
MysteryNet: You said that you worked with other directors and often times the script gets so changed its hardly recognizable. How much of The Birds is really yours?
Hunter: Most of it is. The most noticeable deletion was not shooting the end of the script as I had written it. I had another ten pages of script that he did not shoot, or if he shot I never saw them. And the most noticeable addition was the scene where in an attempt to give the girl some depth at the birthday party for the children Rod Taylor takes her up on a hilltop and removes from one pocket of his jacket a martini shaker, and then from the other pocket two martini glasses and pours martinis for them. On this hilltop they start talking about her empty life.
It's a stupid scene and I don't know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, the day they were shooting it and I was on the set, he said "Evan, did you write this scene?" I read it and I said, "No," and he said, "We're shooting it this morning." I said "Well, let me talk to Hitch about it." I went to Hitch and said "This is a dumb scene, it's going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don't think it should be in the movie." And he looked me dead in the eye and he said "Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?"
MysteryNet: What was in the ending that you wrote?
Hunter: Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car's top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.
Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it's covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they're driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.
Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch's sister says, "Mitch do you think they'll be in San Francisco when we get there?" and he says, "I don't know, honey," and that's the last line of the movie.
MysteryNet: Why didn't Hitchcock shoot it that way?
Hunter: I think he was very tired by then, and this would have required a lot of work with the scene in the car where four characters are in a tight space and the camera is in with them watching the beaks and then the scene of the birds hovering and the birds following and the helicopter shots, animation, everything. It was just too much to do.
MysteryNet: What about the restaurant scene which you wrote in Connecticut and you shipped back to Hitchcock in Hollywood?
Hunter: I love that scene, that was like a one act play. Hitch called and he said I need something more. I don't know how we discovered where we would take them, the central characters, Melanie and Mitch, but once I knew it was a restaurant, The Tides, then I had the whole scene in place and it just wrote itself.
MysteryNet: It's a scene which sort of explains, or provides, a kind of logic, to explain the birds' behavior.
Hunter: That's right. It's really a scene of great confusion because nobody knows what the hell is happening. We made, if you'll forgive the expression, an "artistic" decision early on that we were never going to explain the bird attacks, never. Otherwise the film would become science fiction and we didn't want to do that.
MysteryNet: Was Hitchcock easy to work with?
Hunter: Oh yeah, I loved working with him. He was like the father anyone wished he would have. He was intelligent, he was world-traveled. He knew everybody, he was famous, he was a star in his own right. I don't know how many people would recognize Steven Spielberg if he walked into a restaurant, maybe in Hollywood, but I don't think they would in Iowa. But if Hitch walked in they'd damn well know him. He was a big, big star. One of the few directors I think who has ever had such a high profile.
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.
Under the pseudonym of Ed McBain, Evan Hunter is the author of the acclaimed 87th Precinct mystery series as well as the Mathew Hope mysteries