Stephen Rebello: In Hollywood with Alfred Hitchcock - Interview
Posted on 17 April 2013.
By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*)
Best-known for being the last person to interview filmmaker extraordinaire Alfred Hitchcock, Portuguese-American writer Stephen Rebello is also known for his own movies, books, interviews and articles. His writing career began in the late 1970’s when Rebello, on an extended trip to Los Angeles (during a break from his work as a Clinical Social Worker at a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, Massachusetts), got to interview Alfred Hitchcock, one of his all time heroes. This led to the “The Real Paper,” his interview with Hitchcock published in 1980, the year of his death.
After the whirlwind success of the Hitchcock interview, Rebello relocated from Boston to Santa Monica, CA, and changed his career from clinical practice to freelance writer, working for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Esquire, GQ, and Playboy. At this time, he published a book-length study entitled, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’.
His other books include Reel Art – Great Posters from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen (with Richard C. Allen) and Bad Movies We Love, co-written with Edward Margulies.
At the end of 2012, a feature film adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho was released by Montecito Picture Company, staring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlet Johansen.
Born in Fall River and raised in Somerset, MA, Rebello is a third generation Portuguese-American who had the movie business in his blood. His father, Arthur, was among those who created construction materials for the mechanical whale in director John Huston’s film version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck.
For this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Stephen Rebello answers questions about his writing, his upbringing, and the movie business.
Q: As the son of third generation Portuguese-American immigrant parents, what Portuguese festas, rituals or celebrations did you participate in as a child?
A: I was so lucky to grow up in a town, Somerset, in Massachusetts with a strong Portuguese presence. I felt very close to my maternal grandparents, Isabel and Manuel, who were thoroughly Portuguese in their language, thought, dress, diet, moods, love of music and more. They lived in this large, three-story home in southern New England overlooking the water; an aunt, uncle and cousin lived on the second floor and another aunt, uncle and cousin lived on the third floor. Our large extended family spent a lot of time together traveling, eating, and laughing. Because my grandfather and an uncle played the mandolin, we sang fado. But we also sang everything under the sun. I don’t even have to close my eyes to conjure the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen as she made fresh malassadas, pastéis de nata, chouriço and linguiça. I loved the massa sovada she always made, especially at Easter with an egg in the middle. My cousins and I would play outside and in the kitchen while she fried, cooked and baked, listening to a local radio station that every day, for an hour or two, played Portuguese music and reported the news and local goings-on in Portuguese. Right outside the gate of my grandparent’s house, my grandmother and aunts would meet the fish vendor and buy fish, mussels and quahog, crab fresh off the cart. One day, a freak thunderstorm erupted and I remember running through the house watching my grandmother and aunts throw sheets and towels over the mirrors so that the devil’s face wouldn’t be reflected in them. I recall older women, widows I only saw wearing black, even though they’d lost their husbands many years ago. And there were festas for this saint or that holiday. They lasted for days on end, but I always loved them because of the rituals – the parade processions, the band playing something mournful and the tables full of food. My grandmother’s house and my parent’s house were always filled with people, get-togethers, and celebrations. It was fantastic to me. To some of my friends, the closeness of my family was magical. . . I’m about to be overcome by saudade.
Q: Do you have a favorite Portuguese saying?
A:Both my mother and grandmother were as beautiful as they were wise, big-hearted, funny and bursting with turbulent life. Both had a saying, “You don’t like it? Don’t eat it.” It was an expression of tough love I took to mean, “This is what life gives you. Take it or leave it.” It was also a way of saying that we should live our lives and let others live theirs as they wish to. My mother used to say something that translates in English – something like – you only know what you have once you’ve lost it. I lost my mother when I was in my teens, and I was an only child. The impact was devastating. So her words have always had a special poignancy ever since. I appreciate every moment of every day.
Q: Your nonfiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho has been called by reviewer Gary Johnson “one of the best books ever written about the making of a movie” can you tell our readers how the book came about?
A: Having movie-loving parents, by osmosis I grew up loving music, the arts, books, and films. My parents never restricted what I read, saw or listened to. They trusted me. Incidentally, as a kid, foreign films from De Sica, Fellini, Visconti and Pietro Germi resonated more deeply in me than most American films. Actors like Jean Gabin, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri, Massimo Girotti, Raf Vallone – those magnificent, character-filled faces, the size and depth of their emotions, their sensuality and brio reminded me of the people in my family and of people we saw in the streets, in church, all around us. I was a professional singer as a young boy and always very much an individualist.
The need to push boundaries, and to follow my restless nature, made the wide world beyond my hometown alluring. I earned degrees in literature and psychology, became a clinical social worker and private therapist in Boston, Massachusetts. After a few years, I thought I might take a year off before working more intensely on a Harvard doctorate in psychology.
Instead, I went to California, moved there, and began writing for national magazines with a lot of success. As a next step, my fascination for Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant films compelled me to research and write a kind of “you-are-there” book about the creation of what is his most famous, if not best film. It was a thrilling, life-changing experience to track down and interview almost everyone who actually worked with Hitchcock on Psycho and on other films of his movies. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho has been so incredibly well received by critics and the public and is now selling well in a dozen countries. If anything, the reputation of the book has grown and grown. So, it’s especially humbling and gratifying to be praised for such a labor of love.
Q: I am in awe of your accomplishments and you yourself have interviewed heavy-hitters like Chuck Yeager, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Steven Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Jerry Bruckheimer, Eva Mendes, Clive Owen, Demi Moore, Drew Barrymore, Tom Cruise, Denis Leary, Robert Downey Jr, Rosario Dawson and Scarlett Johansson. Who was your favorite subject to interview and why?
A: Thank you so much. I have so many favorite subjects for so many reasons. Since you brought up Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, I have to say that it was fantastic to interview Hitchcock himself in his suite of offices on the Universal lot. Such a complex, contradictory man, shy, playful, easily offended, funny, touching and, intimidating. Obviously, a master filmmaker who loved to teach. He was not a man who suffered fools, I can tell you. Not only was I lucky that he genuinely seemed to like me, but I was also the last journalist to whom he gave an interview. He died just a few months after. What’s been interesting and unique, too, is my experience of having interviewed celebrities at different times in their lives, sometimes five and ten years apart. To experience the changes in them, some not for the better, is stunning.
Q: Your career is varied and impressive, from working as a writer at Disney for animated films, to three books for Disney Hyperion based on the art of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. What do you remember most about your time at Disney?
A: There’s a sense of history I feel being on that studio lot. The Disney books – at least two of them, anyway – were joyful experiences. As for working on story development on several Disney animated films, I loved working with such idiosyncratic, creative people of all ages, some of whose experiences, with Walt Disney, stretched back to their working together on films like Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp. I have to say that it was my first time in a working environment where I felt like I could be fired at any second. I thrived on the challenge. I hope to work again with them on another film project or two. We’ll see.
Q: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho recently became a movie, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, and Scarlett Johansson. What differences were there between your book and the movie adaptation?
A: The book is almost a documentary film in print form, a strictly factual account, with lots of first-person recollections and no dramatic license taken, but told in a compelling, entertaining, page-turning style. I was also hired to write three or four drafts of the screenplay and lots of revisions of specific scenes and moments. Much of the material I unearthed for the first time in the book was so rich, funny, revealing and unique that I knew that readers would miss certain ‘scenes’ and ‘characters’ if they weren’t in the movie based upon it. So, I developed them dramatically and thematically in very visual film terms. I tried valiantly to get that material – its tone, scope and seriousness into the screenplay. It was like rolling a boulder uphill with a straw. Films are a collaborative medium, and a director makes a movie his or her own. I sorely miss many of the scenes I wrote that focused on how Hitchcock’s genius, his contradictions, his demons played out on the set while he was filming Psycho. Apparently, many critics and audience members had also been expecting and hoping for many more of those kinds of scenes in Hitchcock.
Q: To my knowledge, the only American film, where Portuguese-Americans figure prominently, is the early Julia Roberts vehicle Mystic Pizza. If you were to write the screenplay for a quintessential Portuguese-American immigrant story, what would the plot be?
A: There’s also a romantic comedy from 2002 called Passionada, set in New Bedford, Massachusetts, about a Portuguese widow played by Sofia Milos, her suitor played by Jason Isaacs and her family, but it didn’t feel very authentically Portuguese to me. A few years ago in Fall River, Massachusetts, the city in which I was born but not raised, there was a showing of Below the Hill. The 1963 movie was filmed entirely in Fall River and starred actors from the local Little Theater group.
For some years now, I hoped to do a novel and screenplay based on some of my family’s experiences. I hadn’t felt ready to face some of the issues involved, but now I do. I once had a long business lunch in Manhattan, with my literary agent at the time, to discuss my ideas for the characters, their needs, wants, their journey and where they end up. My agent, a tough, elegant old New Yorker, listened intently. When I was finished, he said, “It’s wonderful and obviously comes from a very deep place. Why do the characters have to be Portuguese-Americans? Nobody really knows what or who Portuguese people are. Could they be Spanish or Italian?” Of course, he would have been outraged and offended, had I said something similarly dismissive about his own culture. I saw it as just indicator of how the Portuguese have been marginalized and viewed as insignificant and less-than. As you can imagine, that person is no longer my agent.
Q: What do you think are the major themes or markers for the Portuguese-American story?
A: I feel the weight of the sacrifices made by my mother and father, how very hard they both worked and struggled to give me bigger opportunities and the chance to explore wider vistas than they had.
Family and the culture are major themes for those of us living this Portuguese-American journey. So, too, is the struggle to reconcile the life in ‘the old country’ with the new life in America. What do we lose or gain by jumping into the proverbial melting pot? The women in my family are remarkable. Strong, powerful, resilient – easily the equals of the men they married, whether or not those men ever realized it. I’m not even sure my mother and aunts realized how extraordinary they were and are, but I witnessed their coming to terms with the assimilation process, and the changing roles of men and women in many varied and more or less successful ways. That’s another reason why I’m excited to see many Portuguese and Portuguese-American women coming to the fore and sharing their wealth of experience and taking their power. I’ve also always been interested in the dialogue between the Portuguese community and the larger community, let alone the world community. I strongly remember the prejudice and marginalization I was shown in my schools and community because of my heritage. I feel that deep in my bones and my soul to this day.
Q: Have you spent time in Portugal?
A: I’ve spent time in Lisbon, Sintra, Cascais, Estoril, Castelo Branco and the Azores, but never enough. I’m enriched every time I go. My understanding of myself, the culture and even – in some ways – of my family grows stronger. The more I return, the more the mysteries of Portugal deepen, too. Some inner voice tells me that I will live there one day.
Q: What part of Portugal is your family from?
A: Both my maternal grandparents came from the Azorean island of São Miguel. My father was distant with his family, although I know that his mother was French and his father, whom I never met, was from Portugal. His memories of them were all painful. So, I stayed away from the topic. As a kid, I was told about life on the island of São Miguel by my avo, who dressed and groomed so meticulously and strutted with such a proud gait, that he was always called by people in our town, “Prefeito,” the mayor. He always spoke of the green of São Miguel, a green unlike anything else on earth. The very first time I saw The Wizard of Oz in color, I imagined the green of those rolling fields and the Emerald City as a preview of São Miguel. From the time I was a baby, I have also always been drawn to large bodies of water and to islands, let alone to books, films, plays and films set on and around islands. It isn’t difficult to trace why.
Q: What have you worked the hardest to achieve in your writing?
A: Simplicity. Honesty. Clarity. The struggle continues. When Hitchcock, the film loosely based on my book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho opened in theaters around the world, many of the critics singled-out a particular scene in which the gifted screenwriter and film editor Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, ferociously tells her husband Hitchcock what it is like for her to live in the shadow of a self-centered genius. It’s a war cry and a valedictory for the selfless, for those who don’t get singled-out for praise, for those who help others to shine. When I wrote that speech, it came out in a long explosive rush of energy, pain, raw emotion and truth.
Q: Has anything surprised you about your creative life? Like something you did not expect? A twist or turn you did not or could not have predicted?
A: I could never have predicted that I would have such a satisfying career as a therapist before being able to move with such fluidity and success to an equally satisfying career as a magazine writer and book author. In one phase of my career, I was always interacting with people; in another, I became solitary. Both suited me, oddly. It’s incredible that part of my current reality is that I’m working on scripts for new film and TV projects and being asked by so many interesting movers and shakers, “What do you want to do next?” I continue to be lucky and grateful.
Q: In an elevator how would you describe the work you do?
A: I would probably paraphrase Oscar Wilde and say, ‘I tell people the truth, but in an entertaining enough way so they won’t kill me.”
Q: What frustrates you in your writing?
A: In my work, I am most frustrated by the agonizing shortfall between inspiration and intention and the execution. In the bigger picture, I’m frustrated by a lot of things that include, off the top of my head, willful stupidity, bigotry, literal thinking, zealots and intolerance.
Q: Do you wait for a muse to inspire you, or do you sit down and “force” the work to come?
A: I can’t afford the luxury of waiting for a muse to come whisper sweet brilliant nothings in my ear. I sit down in office every morning quite early and get down to it. I do the work and put in the hours. I grant myself permission to be terrible and to fail miserably. I find that very freeing. When I’m at my best, I forget time. I forget to take breaks. I forget to eat.
Q: Do you think there is such a thing as Portuguese-American literature (as a separate canon?). Like, for example, Cuban-American literature?
A: We have unique preoccupations and themes, certainly, and I value and honor them. But more and more, I see and embrace the commonalities of human experience.
Q: Who are your favorite Portuguese-American or Portuguese writers? Can you share a significant line or passage and explain its importance?
A: Saramago, a master, springs to mind first for me. Whether it’s three of my favorite works, Blindness, The Stone Raft, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, his writing never fails to move me. The ruthless beauty of that language, those long, loping sentences that rise and fall like the sea, his lacerating wit and the skepticism with which he views religion and society. The Double is in some ways a problematic work but it has a funny, nasty unmistakable Hitchcock feel to it.
I wish Hitchcock and Saramago had collaborated on a film. In college, a lover introduced me to Eça de Queirós. I began with Os Maias and that swept me away then and still does. I need to revisit it because it’s time for me to wrap all that craziness and drama around me again. I’m fairly new to Gonçalo M. Tavares but, after liking Jerusalém so much, I’m looking forward to reading Joseph Walser’s Machine, which I recently bought. I love his collision of words and images. I could praise lines and images of these writers forever, so let me choose just one because guns, anger, lunacy and violence are everywhere these days. Tavares writes how “a single bullet weighs more than ten thousand words.” It’s compact, perfect.
Q: Do you speak Portuguese?
A: I understand more than I speak. I can order meals in Portuguese. I can get directions. The rudimentary words are fine; more intricate matters of the intellect, heart and soul, they’re beyond me. Growing up, I got much of my Portuguese from my grandmother. When I first used some of those words and phrases in Portugal, I got some very interesting reactions. The kindest people informed me that there were no such words. My grandmother had misheard them or just invented them, it seems. My parents only spoke Portuguese rarely, usually when they wanted to say something adult – which of course made me listen all the more intently. One of my greatest moments, recently, was when I opened several boxes of books from my agent of newly published foreign language editions of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. All of them gave me a rush but finding a stack of copies of Alfred Hitchcock e os Bastidores de Psicose gave me a real thrill.
Q: How has being Portuguese shaped your life as a writer?
A: Indelibly. I grew up hearing the language from vendors in shops around us, in the big family parties at my grandparent’s house, on the radio and when my family played records in Portuguese, mandolin music and Amália Rodrigues mostly. Sometimes I’d pick up Portuguese-sounding words during mass at church. My family had lots of friends and our homes were always full of boisterous, warm people big appetites for life, but the appetite didn’t necessarily extend to a love for travel or for experiences beyond the neighborhood. I fought against what I saw as a kind of insularity.
I often felt ‘other.’ Perhaps my sense of melancholy and nostalgia are typically Portuguese, as is my tendency to be disorganized in my workspace, no matter how hard I try to get and keep my house in order. I like to think that I share with other Portuguese people a sense of decency and fairness, pride, certainly a love of laughter, food and music. But I also have a strong sense of privacy, a need for solitude. What else? My attraction to living near the sea, the seductive pull of falling asleep and waking to the sounds of the ocean and, of course, my cynicism — these strike me as cultural traits. Recently, a friend recited a litany of things that were going wrong with her day and when she said, “What else could possibly go wrong today?” I said: “Wait.”
Q: If there is one passage or line in your work that you would like to be remembered by, what would it be?
A: I haven’t written it yet. Until I do, Alma Reville’s big tell-off speech in Hitchcock pleases me. There’s something else of mine that I like in the same film when Hitchcock hands Alma a copy of the novel Psycho and Alma reads aloud a very grisly passage and coolly responds, “Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical.” Helen Mirren delivered the line so beautifully. But a friend recently reminded me that I’d made the same wisecrack decades ago. Someone asked what I thought of The Sorrow and the Pity right after a group of us staggered out of a Boston movie theater having just seen Ophuls’ two-part documentary about the French resistance movie and Nazi collaborators. We were all so morose that I felt the mood needed lightening. Being a wise-ass, I cracked a joke. Who knew that the same joke would come out, all these years later; in dialogue in a screenplay for a character I loved so much? But to answer your question, I’ll just say that more lines and passages – and better, I hope – are to come.
Q: What do you think writers can do to enhance communication between North America and Portugal?
A: Aside from traditional avenues readings like “Kale Soup For the Soul” and cultural exchanges, I am eager to see how we can continue to build bridges through social media and newer technologies. I’d love to see Skype or newer technologies used to facilitate regularly scheduled conversations, well-advertised conversations between North Americans and Portuguese people on social issues, politics, the arts, human interactions and culture. I also want to see us blend realistically portrayed Portuguese and Portuguese-American characters in international films, plays, novels, short stories and television shows.
Q: In the Americas, there is much talk about labels. If pressed, how would you label yourself as far as ethnicity?
A: I think classifications are important to the extent that we are a minority group in a huge country. It’s important that we make our voices heard and that we leave mark on the landscape, providing images of Portuguese and Portuguese-American lives for each other and for those who come after us. We need to provide a context. It’s important when the chef of Manhattan’s The Stanton Social, Chris Santos, identifies himself on the popular TV show “Chopped” as being Portuguese. People should know that Meredith Vieira or Nelly Furtado or Keanu Reeves are of Portuguese heritage or that Tom Hanks’ mother was Portuguese. I don’t like labels. I think they’re limiting. But I never hesitate to mention in interviews that I am of Portuguese (and French) ancestry.
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has received literary fellowships from Canto Mundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie