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GFF23: Interview with My Name is Alfred Hitchcock director Mark Cousins




Prolific filmmaker Mark Cousins is back with two films at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. First up is My Name is Alfred Hitchcock which sees Cousins step into the master of suspense’s shoes and imagine how he would deconstruct his own work, with impressionist Alistair McGowan providing Hitch’s voice for the narration. His second work, The March on Rome, uses Mussolini propaganda film A Noi! as the entry point for an examination of Italian fascism and its far reaching consequences.


The following interview focuses solely on My Name is Alfred Hitchcock.


AM. For those who are yet to watch the film: when you have such broad taste, why did you choose to make a film about the much-studied Hitchcock?


MC. Exactly, I didn’t want to make a film about Hitchcock, because there had been so many books and so many films. But, it was during lockdown, and my producer said, “It’s a hundred years since the first Hitchcock film, would you consider?” As soon as he said that, I had an idea of how to do it. I was sort of cursing myself, because I thought, ‘what if I do it as if he has come from the dead, talking himself?’ That was within seconds, and I thought, ‘Well I’ve never seen that before – him talking through his own work’. I thought maybe I could do something original, you have to always try to do something original! So I said to my producer, “Look, I’ll start watching through his films, in order, from the very first one”. And I took this particular notebook [produces a hefty leather-bound notebook] and I started scribbling, and the scribbles went on and on, and on, and on… And halfway through the first film I thought, ‘Yes, I can do this’. I can look at some themes that are well-known like escape and desire, but I can also look at ones that really interest me like loneliness and particularly fulfilment. We think of Hitchcock as somebody who looks at the disruptive aspects of desire, how desire is a kind of self-sabotage. But also what if he was interested in satisfaction? So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’.


AM. You have done these kind of impersonations before, with Eisenstein, and Welles, how and why do you like to create these pseudo-personalities? How do you get into that headspace, and what do you find fulfilling in doing that?


MC. The big thing for me as a filmmaker, most filmmakers who make non-fiction stuff think you shouldn’t use a voiceover, and I love voiceover! I think it is super creative. But if you are using a voiceover, you have to ask, who is speaking? From where? When? And why? The standard is this objective male voice who is delivering information. In none of my films, even though my voice is in a lot of them, in none of them am I the objective male lecturer. There is always something intimate I think, or trying to be lyrical, or poetic there. But what if the person speaking is Hitchcock himself? That interests me. It interests me as a creative person. How do I get inside the head of Hitchcock or Eisenstein? How would they say something? What were their ideas? Once you step into their shoes it becomes electrifying, and sort of – this sounds kind of wanky – but you slightly forget who you are. And you are really trying to think from their point of view. That is such a lot of fun creatively to do. It also can be revealing, cause also when you are speaking in the first person, you are excluding a lot of things as well as including lots of things, and that brings your film alive.


AM. So there is you doing the impersonation with the writing, directing and storytelling, and you have also brought in Alistair McGowan to do the impression of Hitchcock. Can you talk about your relationship with him, and how you created the character between the two of you, and at what part of the process he came in at?


MC. I wrote the script, and I knew this film would only work if we got a really good actor to do the voice of Hitchcock. I’m friends with Simon Callow, the great actor, and I said to him, “Who could do Hitchcock?” And I thought he would say that he could, but he said that the best ear in the business is Alistair McGowan. Of course I knew his work and was a big fan of his, so we sent the script to his agent and we didn’t hear anything for a long time. And then I got a message on my phone and it was like Hitchcock was speaking to me. It was so precise - not only accurate, there is a difference between an impersonation and acting – I went to meet Alistair and we went into the recording studio the same day, and he really acted. I thought he brought my script to life, all the little funny bits and chuckles to himself. It is a long script at two hours and he hardly stumbled the whole way through, almost no stumbles. Wonderful to watch! Hitchcock was from Leytonstone, near London and he lived in California, and at one point he said, “A little bit more Leytonstone, or a little bit less?” He could dial up one aspect of the voice or dial it down again. Wow! I could do zero of that. It is fascinating to work with people who are naturally gifted at something, and he really is so.

With the character I gave him almost no notes. We sat and had a cup of tea beforehand and said that it should feel playful, this is certainly not an academic film, it should feel playful, and he just got a little bit of mirth in his voice that I really enjoyed the whole way through. I was in a room next door listening on my headphones and I was laughing at times which was definitely a good sign.


AM. There is a part in the film where you give him a note, where he, as Hitchcock, is going through word choice, was that ad-libbing or?


MC. No, that was written into the script. I just wanted to rough it up a little bit there.


AM. There are a few injections that felt like that, in the still images of Hitchcock you must play another image over it, is that you walking back and forward in front of the light, hinting that you are there?


MC. It isn’t, that is a graphic effect. I said to our graphic designer that I wanted almost no movement but just a slight movement in the eye. So they moved the light a little bit just to seem like it is reflecting in Hitchcock’s eye, but it’s not me. The other thing the graphic designer did, I asked him - most of the photographs are narrower than they are tall, and of course my movie screen is 16:9, a lot of the images are expanded by the graphic designer which is quite nice. When Hitchcock is standing looking over a balcony in the Alps most of the left of the picture is fake, and when he is sitting on the rolls of carpet the left and the right is just added. Little things like that are fun to do, we did some of that in the Orson Welles film, but I like the graphics to be almost invisible, hardly there at all.


AM. One of the most interesting things for me was that you splice in some modern day footage, I’m talking less so about the monuments and the murals – we know why they are there, but the images of the young people that it seems like Hitchcock is talking to, I was wondering what your thought process was in using them? And having them look down the camera?


MC. The first thing I want to say about that is that the entire film was made in lockdown so I didn’t shoot those two scenes that you are referring to, the girl in the sort of mustard coloured top and the guy on his phone, unfortunately that was stock footage that I had to buy in. I spent days looking for the right image. I knew I wanted someone to look into camera and challenge Hitchcock in a way. So I couldn’t shoot that cause of lockdown. What I needed there was a sense of the 21st century, Hitchcock died in the 80s, but what if he was here now? How would he update his imagination? I wanted those young people to be square on, and for him to consider what does a young person feel like now? I usually hate those speeded up shots but I used one with the guy on the phone because I wanted Hitchcock to refer to the sense that everyday life has sped up in some ways. So that is what they are there for, the kind of challenge of youth. Hitchcock had a very contemporary imagination I would say.


AM. And for those who have seen the film how did you decide where to draw the line? Before the film some people might say, how is he going to get another two hours out of Hitchcock? And by the end they will be saying how is there not another ten hours?


MC. It was a little bit longer. What I did for each chapter was I made a lunchbox like this, [he raises a small plastic container crammed full with a series of note laden cards] so this is the ‘fulfilment’ sandwich box. In there are all the little bits that I wanted to talk about fulfilment. I have another box here called ‘outtakes’, and there are probably another forty minutes in there. But I just thought two-hours-forty is far too long and people will hate me. Maybe for the extra or making-of I might do that. I know two hours is a long time and some people will feel that exhausting but I wanted it to be watchable in a single event and to sort of build. I wanted it to feel symphonic in a way, there is one theme and then a different theme, and the music changes - by Donna McKevitt. It is at the outer edge of how long it should be I think. I know some people would think I should take twenty minutes out of it, but I’m only going to make one film about Hitchcock, I’m never going to make another film about him, so give it a bit of welly!


AM. Can you give us an insight into the outtakes box?


MC. Okay, I’m going to open it up. So I’ve got notes about Frenzy, ‘Far more photographic integrity than Topaz’. Oh yeah, I watched Frenzy after Topaz, Topaz is terrible. Some of the dialogue in Frenzy is terrible, so I’ve got a line here at thirteen-minutes-thirty, someone dies and in the pub they say “good juicy sex murders”. I was going to put that in but I thought that tells us nothing so its not in. ‘Topaz – looks like TV’, so I was going to talk about how he regretted how it looked, but I didn’t want to spend too much time on it cause it is sort of rubbish. So its filled with those marginal points I could have made with more time.


AM. You play up subjectivity a lot in this film, is that a reaction to anything or is it how you’ve always liked to work - I saw you get frustrated with the recent David Bowie documentary being called ‘not really a documentary’ because it places less emphasis on facts – why do you put so much emphasis on your own voice do you think?


MC. I’ve never believed that documentary has to be a factual medium. Documentary is not one genre, it is a range of genres - you’ve got the observational film, the music film, the campaigning film, the archive film, the propaganda film, the essay film… Some of them use voice and some of them don’t. Documentary uses voice the way a poem uses voice, or the way a musical uses dance, it is one of the creative tools in the box. So I have always been interested in trying to use that creative tool in particular. I am really interested in the sort of tension, the desire you could say, between image and voice. That kind of desire, that spark that jumps between them, that is something that electrifies both for me. Subjectivity is not a word I would personally use because that implies that there are the objective docs which are factual, and there are the ones which are less so, and I definitely don’t split them in that way. I would call my films lyric-prose, it is that tonality that I am interested in.


Tickets are available for My Name is Alfred Hitchcock and The March on Rome at Glasgow Film Festival: Glasgow Film Festival | Glasgow Film Theatre

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