Interview: Psycho Screenwriter Joseph Stefano
The man who adapted Robert Block’s novel discusses his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film.
As told to Steve Biodrowski
Joseph Stefano has a long list of credits of various shapes and sizes (including his work as a songwriter), but he will always be fondly remembered by genre fans for two outstanding projects: he produced and wrote many episodes of the original version of the television show THE OUTER LIMITS, and he adapted the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock film PSYCHO from the novel by Robert Bloch. (Stefano’s screenplay was re-used, virtually word for word, in director Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of the film.)
Curiously, Stefano is not a devotee of horror and science-fiction, but he does have an interest in Freudian psychology, which he put to good use in his genre writing. Unfortunately, his success in that area somewhat typecast his as a writer of dark, horrific thrillers and science-fiction, leading to scripts for features like THE KINDRED and stints writing for television’s STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, SWAMP THING, and the revived OUTER LIMITS in the 1990s. Fortunately, he has managed to put some non-genre credits under his belt as well, including 1995’s TWO BITS, a nostalgic drama starring Al Pacino, which Stefano also produced.
In the 1990 interview below (conducted at the time of PSYCHO IV), the Joseph Stefano discusses his contribution to the PSYCHO series, both on the original Hitchcock film and on the 1990 “prequel” that explored the origins of Norman Bates’ neurosis.
When I start writing a movie, I ask myself three questions. Why am I beginning with a certain character? Why on this particular day in his or her life? What crisis will that character confront? Those were the questions on my mind that day in 1959 as I drove to Paramount to meet Hitchcock to discuss adapting Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Hitch didn’t want to talk to me — he hated meeting with people he might have to reject. As it turned out, someone, maybe his agent, insisted that he interview me.
I read the novel the night before our meeting but was unimpressed. With the exception of the ending, it’s a story that’s weak in writing and characterization. It starts with Norman and focuses on him too much. I was sure that no audience was going to like Norman enough to stay with him throughout an entire movie.
During that car ride, the idea suddenly struck me to begin with Marion, suggesting that the movie would be about a girl who steals $40,000. Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person – they would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the $40,000. When she dies, the audience would be the victim!
And that’s just how it worked. With so much early emphasis on Marion, no one dreams she’ll get killed. When it happens, people are blown away. It’s like Hitch and I were saying we’ve stolen your central character!
The idea excited Hitch. And I got the job. Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before! Hitch suggested a name actress to play Marion because the bigger the star the more unbelievable it would be that we would kill her. From there, the writing was easy. The only difficulty was switching the audience’s sympathies to Norman after Marion’s death. Bloch’s book treats him as a kind of reprobate. When I discussed this with Hitch, he said, “Put that out of your mind and picture Tony Perkins.” I knew then I could write the character.
Hitch wasn’t always patient, but he was helpful and generous; he answered my questions gladly. Before I’d even written a word, we spent four weeks brainstorming the story, especially the shower scene. We talked about having Saul Bass do storyboards, and planned how to film the murder without actually seeing the knife enter the flesh. We were mainly concerned about nudity — how much could be shown in 1959 and how much would convey, without being gratuitous, the terror of being attacked naked and wet.
Hitch was interested in what I had to offer, like one of my background ideas for Norman’s upbringing. I imagined a scene – which people will recognize from Psycho IV – here Norma is horsing around with his mother. When she notices he has an erection, she becomes rabid. To teach him once and for all that’s he’s not supposed to do that, she forces him to put on a dress, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet. The incident had no place in Psycho, but I told Hitch anyway, and he was fascinated – very curious about things of that nature, Freudian psychological backgrounds.
Hitch asked for only one change in my script: the scene when Marion is stopped by the policeman. I said it might be fun if the cop came on to her, and, of course, she’s terrified because she’s stolen the money. He liked the idea but felt we’d better get on with the suspense. He said, “Why don’t you try him more matter-of-fact.” I said, “How about if he’s menacing?” Hitch thought of putting the officer in dark glasses, which made the cop sinister rather than pleasant.
There was another scene I wrote which was cut for length. It’s where Marion’s sister and fiance become convinced that she’s dead. Taking place at the motel, it would have been a nice touch. The film’s editor, George Tomasini, added a few of his own, like the barely noticeable superimposition of a skull over Norman’s face at the end of the film.
When I signed on, Hitch didn’t know quite what to offer, so he asked my last job’s wage. I told him I’d been getting $1500 a week at Fox, and that’s what Hitch gave me. It was high for 1959, but I only got it for as long as I worked, which was eight weeks. Psycho was such a low-budget movie that almost everybody made scale. Even though the studio grossed a fortune at the box office, Bloch was paid only $6000 total for the rights to his novel and all subsequent options.
I haven’t seen him in years. When I won the Edgar Allen Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Psycho in 1960, he presented it to me. I wish Bloch still had the rights to Psycho because II and III wouldn’t have turned out so bad. Those films changed Norman from a sensitive and pitiful – if not sympathetic – villain into a laughable figure. Unfortunately, Perkins didn’t help to stop that transformation. Of course, I could never imagine anyone else playing Norman Bates since Tony gave so much to that character, like the stutter and the candy corn – and especially a timidity that can’t really be scripted.
Despite all that, Psycho III is a real tragedy — and I mean that as a movie. That dreadful piece all but buried Hitch’s original concept. Having that severed arm in Norman’s jacket was like something out of a slasher movie. Tony was against the idea, but Universal insisted.
Psycho 11 and III say, in effect, there’s no way to survive with a psychological problem. If you’ve got it, the law can keep you locked up because there’s no chance for cure. I thought, “Vile!” I don’t think l need that message. It’s just not true.
Unless a sequel could bring Norman out and show the effects of 20 years of therapy, I felt it would be nothing more than crass commercialism. When the studio put out floaters to see if I wanted to write Psycho II, I made my feelings clear: I could’ve done it a hundred times. After Psycho’s release, I was bombarded with requests to write similar movies which I refused because I didn’t feel any need to do it again. I’ve spent my career turning those imitations down.
I wasn’t approached for Psycho III because Tony worked with III’s writer, but I was invited to the set. I took up the invitation, and as my wife and I were leaving, I noticed a flat on which one of the crew had jokingly scrawled “Save for Psycho IV.” We laughed, and I said the only way to do it would be to make a prequel. When I was approached a couple of years later, that thought came back. Filming a prequel would be a good opportunity to delve into the past, not just for the occasional flashbacks but for the whole story.
At the same time, I realized a very strong contemporary narrative was needed. Without that, the movie would end with the shower sequence in Psycho. What other high point was there in Norman’s life? Clearly, I had to develop the present-day Norman, which pleased Tony and the producers, who wanted him to reappear.
Gearing up for Psycho IV, I decided to ignore the two sequels – like the business in II about Norman’s mother. Instead, I based my script on background material I’d had in my mind for over 30 years – information that couldn’t be in the original without giving the ending away. I wrote five drafts, making changes because of time and budget constraints. Thanks to the director Mick Garris, my vision was on screen almost intact.
In Psycho IV, the time is five years after III, and Norman is out of the hospital. He’s a married man, and he’s finally learned how to love somebody and have natural sex without killing his lover. But when Norman’s wife becomes pregnant, there’s a crisis. His fear that his illness will be passed on to a new generation prompts him to call into a radio talk show focusing on matricide. As the film progresses, he resorts to the only neurosis that ever worked for him.
The question might be asked why, if Norman is cured, does he revert back to his old ways? I think he explains when he says, “I’m cured, as I’ll ever be, but I’m still me.” No matter how cured we are of certain psychoses, we revert when the chips are down. The film couldn’t just be about Norman getting cured. It had to be about that cure coming undone.
As in the last two sequels, the producers have attempted to drum up a “don’t-tell-the-ending” campaign. I disagree with that policy because it sets up expectations for something that will not be there. It’s not like the original movie where you thought it was the mother committing the murders, but it was actually the son. I don’t think it’s possible to create the kind of shock today that we created in 1959. And I don’t even want to try.
So far, audience reaction has been good, and I’m pleased. With the exception of Variety, which called the movie “Psycho-babble,” the reviews have also been strong. Norman Bates has a crisis, but the resolution leaves everyone glowing – which is not the reaction you’d expect after seeing a Psycho movie.
People may be surprised at the ending I chose, but if you’ve done your homework, I think it will seem natural. Any other way would have been preposterous – just one more dreadful Psycho sequel. It will end as life would have it end.
–Copyright 1990 Steve Biodrowski