This past January, Denver documentary filmmaker Alexandre Philippe struck gold. The brains behind pop-culture surveys including The People vs. George Lucas, Doc of the Dead and Paul, the Psychic Octopus premiered his cinematic deconstruction, 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene, at the Sundance Film Festival. He sold the film to IFC shortly thereafter and has since flown over 140,000 miles, appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, taught a master class with Guillermo del Toro in Spain and hosted a monthlong series on Turner Classic Movies. Yet to hear Philippe, he’s “still the same old guy, same old film nerd, passionate about cinema.”
78/52, produced by Robert Muratore and Kerry Roy, is a deep dive into the iconic shower scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 opus Psycho. The documentary is a full-length exploration of a three-minute scene that, as Philippe posits, changed Hollywood forever.
“I was raised on Hitchcock,” says Philippe. “From when I was five or six, I remember watching his films. My dad would watch Hitchcock and Columbo. Those are the two earliest childhood memories I have.”
For Philippe, 78/52 represents a natural extension of what he’s always done: watch films with his friends and geek out.
“At the age of twelve, I would show movies on VHS every Sunday to my parents and their friends, and I’d do these little series on Hitchcock or Spielberg, and I’d do an intro and Q&A," Philippe recalls. "It’s really funny to me that you fast-forward to thirty years later and I’m still doing the same thing.”
Philippe's success comes from many collaborations, including one with the production and post-production team at Denver's Milkhaus.
“I owe a lot to Chad [Herschberger], Cathy [Trekloff], Dave [Krahling] and all these guys who have worked tirelessly on all the films that we’ve made," Philippe says. "It took a lot of perseverance to get to where we are now.”
One of the biggest obstacles in making the film was the very concept itself. Despite the fact that he had been doing deconstructions like this most of his adult life, Philippe still had trouble convincing people that you could make a full-length about one three-minute scene.
“Very few people believed it was even possible," he says. “We had a couple of sizzle reels, and we did a thirty-minute deconstruction piece in rough format to show people and give them a sense of what we were trying to do, but people still wanted to see the finished film, which was really difficult," he elaborates. “Everything is shot green-screen to create the illusion that they [the interview subjects] are trapped inside the Bates Motel watching Psycho, and we’re watching them while they’re watching the film, and they’re also watching us. The movie is sort of designed as one big illusion, and that’s a very costly thing to do and to pull off successfully.”
If the rave reviews and the enthusiastic responses from the film-festival circuit are any indication, the illusion is a success.
Hitchcock clearly tapped into something primal in the shower scene, which still resonates with audiences roughly five decades after its initial release.
"The crazy thing is that after working on this for three years full-time, I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface," Philippe continues. “There’s still a lot to be discovered about this scene. So I’m working on a book now, and there might be another shower-scene film down the road.”
For Philippe, the passion runs deep. “I feel like this has been the first film where I can just completely be myself. It’s exactly the kind of film I want to make, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more passionate about making a film than this one. As a total film nerd, I really enjoy this process of discovering the minor details of that scene, and when you crack it open, you could really study it for the rest of your life and never get to the bottom of it. I fully believe that the scene is something that is completely endless.”
In July, Philippe got to see his and every other film geek’s dream come true when he co-hosted a month-long retrospective of Hitchcock’s work on Turner Classic Movies. “My manager called me and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna be on TCM?,' and I said, ‘Duh!’”
It wasn’t until he had started talking to the representatives at TCM that he realized the magnitude of the project.
“Initially I thought it was going to be a quick interview or something like that," Philippe says. "I didn’t really realize the scope of what they were trying to do. Eventually, it sunk in that they wanted me to be the co-host for an entire month, in prime time, and I was just blown away. I’m still having a hard time processing what happened.”
His big challenge was figuring out how to prepare for such an endeavor.
“I’m pretty versed in Hitchcock, but when it’s time to present 24 movies in prime time, you want to be on your game, so I had to do a lot of research, rewatch a lot of those films," Philippe continues. “At first it was daunting. You walk into that studio, and there are like twelve people there, and all of that. But Ben [Mankiewicz] is such a nice guy and so down to earth. From the moment I sat down with him, I felt at ease.”
Traveling thousands of miles and across time zones has taken a toll on Philippe. “I was sick as a dog," he says. "I had like a 102 fever and was shivering, and it was just nuts. The day before, I thought it wasn’t going to happen, I was feeling so sick, but somehow I managed to pull it together. I was not feeling well at all during the filming, but I think somehow your body goes, 'We’re gonna do this no matter what.'”
Despite being sick, it was still a dream come true for the filmmaker. “It was great fun, amazing, and a huge honor," he says. "I’m still cringing watching those intros. I wasn’t quite on my game. I was pretty sick. They did a good job, and hopefully I didn’t let them down.”
In recent years, the Denver area has become a hotbed of nonfiction filmmaking. From films like Chasing Coral to Casting JonBenet to many of Philippe’s films, nearly a dozen locally produced documentaries have premiered at top-tier festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca. How does Philippe explain this? “I think it just so happened that there were a bunch of people showing up at the same time," he muses. “You didn’t know it, but back in the day, we were good at this. And I think we just started helping each other out and working together.”
When asked if he’s ever thought about telling fictional stories, Philippe says, “For sure. We’ve been talking about that for a while. We’ve got scripts and ideas, probably a Western or a horror film.”
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For now, though, his schedule is full. He still has the U.K. premiere to attend along with several more festivals in Europe. Plus, he’s already started working on his next full-length doc and may even start another before the year is up. “I’ve got my hands full right now," he continues. “We’re trying to get some web series off the ground, and we're working on some shorts for the Criterion collection. There are only so many hours in the day, so we’ll have to see.”
As far as his new project goes, “It’s another doc that focuses on a scene – very, very different," he says. “It’s the chest-burster from Alien.”
Will it be similar to 78/52? “It’s a completely different approach," Philippe answers. "It’s going to be very stark. I’m not going to give away the technique, but the photography that Robert [Muratore] is doing right now and the stuff we’ve devised with Chad [Herschberger] is really stunning, and it’s going to take this idea from 78/52 to another level. I’m just stoked.”