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Q&A: Horror Maestro Mick Garris Revisits “PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING”

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We all know the story of the Bates Motel and it’s strange dark secrets. We also know about that shy, man-child living up in that big ole dark house high on the hill just behind the motel. But how much do we actually know about him; this introverted, somber, effete painfully meek odd man? Well, now, with BATES MOTEL, we may think we know Norman Bates in and out, but horror director Mick Garris had the pleasure of bringing Norman Bates’s back story to the small screen first with his vibrantly lit and nicely plotted film PSYCHO IV. He also remembers star Anthony Perkins’s complex nature and attitude towards the film, working with the likes of Olivia Hussey and Henry Thomas, and applying masterful artistic designs on a made-for-TV film…

FANGORIA: To revisit PSYCHO IV is to revisit an isolated era unlike any other, focusing on the silent repression that brought serial killer culture to the zeitgeist. In fact, the early ’90s seemed obsessed with movies that focused on serial killers: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MISERY, BASIC INSTINCT, to name just a few. Yet Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was one of the first films to really capture the essence of a very human monster in it’s character of Norman Bates. How do you see your film in relation to the aforementioned movies from the ’90s and do you think it being a sequel to PSYCHO gave it instant class?

MICK GARRIS: Well, a number in the title grants a production anything but class, to be honest.  But yes, I have a feeling that the zeitgeist was very much in a serial-killer mode. The turn of the ’90s was rife with the stories, and really, Norman Bates was the first so-called “serial killer” protagonist/antagonist in the movies.  Of course, Hitchcock himself had already told of history’s most infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, in THE LODGER, so he was in familiar territory, but PSYCHO IV was a very small-scale production at the time, so there wasn’t a lot to compare it to when we were making it; SILENCE OF THE LAMBS wouldn’t come out until after we’d already started shooting.

So mostly, we were working within the PSYCHO mantel more than trying to capture or ride a trend.  It was a great burden of responsibility to carry on the tale first told by one of cinema’s greatest artists, and I was a very young filmmaker, in age as well as in experience, who had a lot to prove.  I was more worried about not fucking it up than anything else.

FANGORIA: What was Anthony Perkins like to work with? Did he have very distinct ideas in his portrayal of Norman that he talked to you about before shooting?

GARRIS: Tony was a very complicated man, both personally and as an actor.  Of course, he had lots and lots of specific notions about who Norman is.  In the run of the making of the film sequels, it seemed that the treatment of Norman, after all the years of his iconography and being spoofed and satirized, it seemed that there was a tendency to lean towards “camp” in portraying him in the sequels, and I wanted to bring that down, and give him the complexity and danger that his character possessed in Hitchcock’s original.

Perkins had directed the third film in the canon, and it was very unsuccessful at the box office, as well as with critics.  He wanted to direct PSYCHO IV, but the studio wouldn’t let him, so he understandably had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when we started.  Here, he had the director of CRITTERS II taking a job that he wanted, and he tested me constantly, as well he deserved to.  He was tough for much of the shoot, and I was a bit cowed by him, to be honest, though we did have lots and lots of discussions, before and during the shoot, about who Norman was and what the movie was about.

You might call him “difficult” at times, but he just wanted to be sure that we were on the same wavelength, and that the history of PSYCHO and Norman were being respected.  By the end of the shoot, we really got along well, and when we finally screened it for him, appropriately enough at the Hichcock Theater at Universal, he could not have been more effusive in his praise.

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FANGORIA: Did you ever get the feeling that Anthony Perkins felt trapped by the role of Norman Bates in having to reprise the role for the fourth time?

GARRIS: Absolutely.  He owed a lot to the movie, but it totally changed the direction of his career forever. Before PSYCHO, he was a heartthrob, a leading man, handsome and charming, and even had a hit record out. He only played Norman officially four times, but that same character was imposed on him dozens of times under different names.

FANGORIA: C.C.H. Pounder is a great character actor, as is Warren Frost. What were they like to work with?

GARRIS: Absolutely great.  I haven’t yet had a chance to work with C.C.H. since then, but would love to.  She was amazing, gracious and talented and fun to be with.  We didn’t work with her long, as all of her scenes were played at the radio station, seated, for the most part.  But I love her. And Warren was terrific, as well.  We worked together again later, and he was always a peaceful and present and enthusiastic actor.  He is the father of Mark Frost, who, among other things, created TWIN PEAKS with David Lynch.

 

FANGORIA: How did John Landis come to be involved in the film?

GARRIS: John and I have been close friends for a long, long time.  My first movie job was as receptionist for the original STAR WARS, and my office was next to his when he was prepping ANIMAL HOUSE, and we’ve been friends ever since.  I was working with a division of Universal called MTE that specialized in producing content for cable TV.  I’d created a series for them called SHE-WOLF OF LONDON with Tom McLoughlin, and that’s the division that we did PSYCHO IV for.

John was friends with Ned Nalle, who was heading up that division, and they both talked about me being a good choice to do PSYCHO IV, and Landis talked to Tony Perkins about me doing it.  He and Tony were friends, and so we set up a lunch near the studio for me to meet with Tony… and Landis was there on my behalf.  It’s one of a lot of appearances John has made in my films, and in return, I’m in some of his, most notably as a zombie in THRILLER.

FANGORIA: The most exciting thing for me in this movie is the idea that we get to finally see Norman’s upbringing and what lead up to him killing his mother. Was this something that also excited you in taking on this project?

GARRIS: Absolutely; it was the most unique and exciting element of Joe Stefano’s wonderful script.  It was a great chance to do some wonderful period work in the film, which I had never done before.

FANGORIA: The film is rather violent, and the killing of the young girl early on is a perfect example of this. How much did the TV network let you get away with and how much influence did they have on the on screen bloodshed?

GARRIS: Well, the good news is that it was produced for Showtime, who, coincidentally, did MASTERS OF HORROR all those years later. So since it was pay TV and not broadcast, there were no advertisers or censorship issues that we had to worry about. Nobody wants to water down a PSYCHO tale.

FANGORIA: The film obviously deals with incest as a central theme and it is very graphic in it’s depiction and exploration. How did you feel about dealing with this kind of subject matter?

GARRIS: It’s funny, I think it’s one of the reasons I was hired to direct SLEEPWALKERS, which also had an incest theme at its core.  I like working with taboos, to be honest.  But I wanted to do it with some sensitivity, to see it working from the inside out, and not just to sensationalize it.  I wanted you to understand Norman’s conflicts, and not just to be repelled by them.  And imagine having the teasing of a mother as gorgeous as Olivia Hussey thrown into the mix of a very confused teenager; it just illustrated Norman’s complications more fully.

FANGORIA:  Each set piece has their own distinct look. The radio station is shot in cold blues, the home of Norman Bates is womb like and warm yet unnerving and the flashback sequences are clean and straightforward. Can you tell us about your take on the visual design of how these three set pieces were to be directed?

GARRIS: Well, first of all, I wanted the colors to be highly saturated, to set up an immediate contrast to the Hitchcock original.  I wanted to set it apart right up front, without dismissing the connection with the characters, the house, the motel, and all of the iconic imagery that we wanted to emphasize.

But yes, it was important that the radio station be very contained, almost claustrophobic and modern, with the blue light emphasizing the technological world of today.  Norman’s home was warmer, with a glow of nostalgia.  But there would be shocking intrusions of red, as when Norman cuts himself and bleeds into the sink. In the flashbacks especially, I wanted the colors to be heightened, almost a historical Technicolor richness to it, as I feel our memories are more colorful than reality.

There also needed to be a real sense of visual exaggeration.  And I wanted to place Norman into his own flashbacks at his own age at the time and as he was as he relived them, to place the modern Norman into his own memories.  That was a lot of fun. I just really wanted to give the language of cinema a real workout, which is not easy when it was shot in 24 days for television.

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FANGORIA:  What was it like shooting on the Universal lot at Mother’s house and the Bates hotel?

GARRIS: Well, it was Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, not Hollywood.  We were the first movie to be shot there in full, and I think it was more as an attraction for the new theme park than as a movie.  So though we worked with a lot of props and set dressing from the original film, the sets were all newly constructed from the old plans.  So it was an interesting combination of old and new, which we tried to make a theme of the film: memory and nostalgia in a more cold and brutal modern world. It was really great shooting almost an entire film on a studio lot, though, even though it was a brand-new studio.  It would have been amazing to shoot it on the original lot, however.

FANGORIA:  There are some beautiful poignant shots in the film that are elegantly executed while also paying homage to Hitchcock’s original classic. How did you go about designing these?

GARRIS: Well, my father was a painter who never made his living as an artist, and I like to work deeply on composition.  I watched PSYCHO a lot, but also as many of Hitchcock’s 50 other movies, as well, just for inspiration.  But I was learning my craft at the time, and as much as I wanted to draw from history, I also wanted to remove myself from the tyranny of the sequel where you either are too slavish to the original, or too eager to escape its bounds.  I wanted to give the camera the sense of vision that the Master did in the first film, but as a tip of the hat, not a guiding vision throughout.  I worked very closely with Rodney Charters, the Director of Photography, to give it as much richness of color and diversity of lenses as we could.

FANGORIA:  What was Henry Thomas like to work with? Did he take much advice from Anthony Perkins?

GARRIS: I love Henry, which is why I’ve worked with him so much… and not enough.  He was very sweet and shy, but I know he and Tony had long talks about Norman.  Tony was extremely encouraging to every actor.  They were amazing to see in the same frame.

FANGORIA:  Did you have some time outside of the shoot where you and Henry Thomas could discuss the role of young Norman Bates?

GARRIS: Well, we did that the first time I met him when we were looking to cast him.  I went to San Antonio, Texas, where he was living with his family at the time.  He was 18 then, and we had a great lunch; it was me and Henry and the producers.  Henry and I managed to get some time to talk together a bit in prep, and a lot on the set between shots.  He’s really smart and funny and talented.  A very unique and underused actor.

FANGORIA: Olivia Hussey gets to go to very dark places as Mrs. Bates. What was the most intense scene involving her? What was your approach to getting her to reach those high-energy hysterical moments?

GARRIS: Olivia was amazing to work with.  She had young kids at the time, and the things that Norma does to and with Norman horrified her.  But for such a sweet and somewhat agoraphobic actress, she was absolutely fearless.  One of the most intense scenes took place outside at the clothesline where she loses her temper with young Norman and starts beating him with the rug-beater. But because we were shooting in an amusement park, this incredibly intimate and intense scene had about 50 park visitors watching from behind police tape some 20 feet away!

Two other really memorable scenes of intensity were when she finally dresses Norman in a dress and lipstick, and when they roll on the floor and she feels his erection.  We spoke quietly before the scenes were shot, but she was quite still and quiet before going into the scenes and ramping up and letting go as fully as possible.  She really was perfect in the role, and playing a character nothing like we’d ever seen her do before.

FANGORIA:  What are you most proud of about the film?

GARRIS: Well, that it works,and  that it led to me being hired for SLEEPWALKERS because Stephen King liked it so much.  But for several other things: I love the performances and visual elements and mood and all, but more specifically, I am so happy that when Tony Perkins saw the film, he would not stop talking about how much he liked it, that he felt it was by far the best of the sequels.  I got a lovely note from Steven Spielberg about how much he liked and was impressed by the film, and all of those things mean a tremendous amount to me.

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About the author
Lee Gambin
Lee Gambin is a Melbourne, Australia based playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre essayist and journalist. He has been working as a writer for Fangoria magazine since 2008. He has worked in independent theatre for many years as well as Artistic Director of his own independent theatre company. His rock musical OH THE HORROR! was a major success in its initial workshop run in 2009. He has lectured for numerous film societies and film festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival. Gambin runs Cinemaniacs, a film society in Melbourne that present genre favorites. Gambin’s play KING OF BANGOR was published by Stephen King associative publishing house The Overlook Connection and MASSACRED BY MOTHER NATURE: EXPLORING THE NATURAL HORROR FILM, a film analysis book, is published by Midnight Marquee Press and has had widely positive reviews.
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