Some of the most hauntingly scary movies are those set in an ordinary environment, with some seemingly harmless person or thing inexplicably veering off course. As frightening as a film like Jaws was, we already knew sharks were dangerous and we could feel safe by not going in the water, effectively controlling our own environment. But with The Birds, there was no place to hide. These perfectly ordinary creatures we see every day, who we barely pay attention to, suddenly turned the world upside-down. I don’t know about you, but it left me suspiciously eyeing every last blue jay.
According to Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, the director had trouble locating his next project; following the success of Psycho, he felt everyone expected so much of him. Hitchcock finally found The Birds, written by Daphne du Maurier, the same author who penned Rebecca and Jamaica Inn.
Du Maurier was accused of plagiarizing both Rebecca and The Birds.
The director first asked Production Designer, Robert Boyle to read the novel to see if he thought they could make a story of it. His intention was to use it for his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” The television series ran from 1955 to 1965 and is on Time Magazine’s list of The All Time Best 100 Television Shows.
Hitchcock then brought in Screenwriter Evan Hunter (Strangers When We Meet, Fuzz) aka author Ed McBain (Cop Hater, 87th Precinct), telling Hunter they were using only the novel’s title and idea (rather than strictly basing the story on the book). They were able to find enough newspaper articles about unexplained attacks to feel confident that the film situation could actually occur.
Technically, The Birds was one of the hardest Hitchcock films to make. Illustrator, Harold Michelson (Dick Tracy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) had to draw out the whole movie and continuity sketches. Hitchcock’s main thrust in his work was preparation and he often said he was bored shooting the film; he enjoyed seeing the whole movie in his head, beforehand.
At the time, bluescreen (layering images) was the common technique used in film. Hitchcock felt it was not to the level he wanted—bluescreen often left so-called “blue flame” or “blue halo” at the edges (of an object or person). It was decided to use Disney’s “sodium traveling matte process” aka sodium vapor process, a method of combining foregrounds and backgrounds in an optical printer, post-production. This method was not used often, as the equipment was very cumbersome; today, such issues are solved with computers.
The crew sat in San Francisco dumps for months filming birds.
When she was discovered by Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren had been modeling for about 11 years. Her career had been waning and she was doing commercials. There was one ad that aired every day for a month during the “Today” show; a producer saw the commercial and decided to find out who she was.
Tippi Hedren is mother to Melanie Griffiths and Antonio Banderas’ mother-in-law. Melanie and Tippi starred together in Pacific Heights.
Hedren got a call to meet with executives on Friday the 13th (1961). She had several meetings with executives and an agent, with no one willing to divulge the director or film for which she was being considered. She was finally told it was Hitchcock and met with the director for dinner; they didn’t discuss film, but rather food, travel and wine. Hedren believed she was being courted for Hitchcock’s television show.
The lead actress was put through several elaborate screen tests for which Hitchcock served as her drama coach. A custom wardrobe was made for Hedren and she did parts from Rebecca, Notorious and To Catch a Thief alongside leading man, Martin Balsam (Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cape Fear [both versions], All the President’s Men, St. Elmo’s Fire). Finally, Hitchcock invited her to dinner with his wife and executive, Lew Wasserman. The director placed in front of Hedren a “beautifully wrapped package from Gump’s San Fransico;” inside was a gold and pearl bird pin. After Hitchcock told her they wanted her to play Melanie in The Birds, the actress said everyone got teary, including Wasserman.
Actor, Rod Taylor (Inglourious Basterds, A Time to Die, The Time Machine) said he got a call out of the blue from Hitchcock. Taylor felt he didn’t show the director any respect (called him “Alfred”) and said all the wrong things (“I hope the birds won’t overshadow the actors.”), but that Hitchcock liked that about him.
Daughter, Patricia said that Hitchcock hated location shooting, that he always said he couldn’t get the right light, there was too much noise and film always had to be re-dubbed. Whenever he could, he’d shoot in the studio.
Saying that Hitchcock loved subtle jokes, Hedren related that the scene where Melanie is walking, someone whistles at her and she turns and smiles, is taken directly from the commercial in which the director first saw Tippi.
Hitchcock’s cameo was as a dog walker. He loved the dogs and fed them “better than most people;” he’d go to the butcher and have the finest cut of meat ground.
Screenwriter, Evan Hunter said he was trying to find a hook—a way to get audiences into the movie—when he came up with the idea of a screwball comedy. He thought it would be effective to have two mismatched characters meet in a cute way, striking comic sparks and go from that point to terror.
There were no pre-rehearsals. Tippi met Rod when they were ready to film; they had chemistry right away and became best friends.
Background shooting was done at Bodega Bay and the house was on Bodega Head (CA).
Albert Whitlock (The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Earthquake, The Hindenberg, David Lynch’s Dune and “Star Trek” ) did all the film’s matte paintings. Whitlock won Academy Awards for his work on Earthquake and The Hindenberg.
Hitchcock would constantly run silent films, saying that if you could follow a movie without sound, get emotion, feel suspense, then it’s a good movie. He also felt close-ups were very important and did them at the studio. For the seagull attack on Tippi, there was an elaborate setup with a blood tube hidden in her hairdo. A fake bird was sent down a wire, at the exact moment it reached her hair, the prop man pushed a plunger that made air and blood burst up through the one un-hair-sprayed part of her hair. Here’s a funny interview where Hitchcock himself explains; he also explains a MacGuffin:
Veronica Cartwright (Alien, The Witches of Eastwick, Kinsey) had her 13th birthday on set. Hitchcock drew her a self-caricature, signed it and wrote, “To Veronica, the woman I love.” She had it framed and still has it.
The head bird trainer, Ray Berwick was described as “a cowboy with birds.” The individually trained birds could never be released, as they had been trained to do “bad things.” Birds were often tied to people and meat was put near the camera lenses to get seagulls to fly at the camera. The ASPCA was on set every day and an aviary set up to treat injured birds. For scenes with the birds in the house, the entire house was netted to keep the birds from flying away.
For the scene outside the schoolhouse, Evan Hunter asked his own kids for a song that they would sing; they gave him “Risseldy, Rosseldy.” Hunter got a call that the song wasn’t long enough to cover the scene so he had to write extra stanzas. He still gets royalties from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).
A treadmill was brought into the studio for the close shots of Tippi running with all the children; both Tippi and Veronica spoke of how dangerous it was with all the people running. If one person went down, there was a domino effect.
Artist Harold Michelson did the perspective shot from above the gas station fire. On top of a mountain (where the Universal theme park is now) and shot down toward parking lot. Using a giant frame of glass, he outlined an area where people could run, then Albert Whitlock painted the surrounding scene. The perspective film was taken out, then put back into the camera with Whitlock’s painting. They had to make it look like birds were underneath so they separately filmed flying birds, then rotoscoped (hand painted) in the birds.
Tippi Hedren said the phone booth was supposed to be made of shatterproof glass, but when the fake seagull came down the wire and crashed into it, glass exploder all over her.
For a scene of birds on the roof of a schoolhouse, Production Designer, Robert Boyle had the idea of attaching little magnets to the feet of birds, thinking that if the birds sat on the metal gutter, they couldn’t fly off. He waited on the roof ridge, Hitchcock called for action, then Boyle immediately heard, “Cut!” When Boyle went to look, all the birds were hanging upside down—they’d try to fly and fallen that way.
In order to have similar reactions from all the actors when birds attacked the house (the visuals/bird sounds were added to film later), Hitchcock brought in drums. The pounding drums were played louder and louder, building up real anxiety in the actors and eliciting similar reactions. To smash through the doors, hammers with fake bird heads attached and puppets were used.
Cary Grant came on set to see Hitchcock and said to Tippi, “I think you’re the bravest lady I’ve ever met”. Birds were held to Tippi by rubber bands hooked through her dress. Nearing exhaustion and after being scratched (close to her eye) toward the end of filming, Hedren pulled off birds and said, “That’s enough!” The actress said she didn’t remember driving home that night or back to the set the next morning. Hedren fell asleep and when the make-up man came in, he couldn’t wake her. Suffering from exhaustion, Tippi had to spend several days in the hospital. The scene with Rod Taylor carrying Melanie downstairs after the attack is not Hedren, but rather a double.
When her post-attack make-up was done, Tippi said she looked at herself in a mirror, then went outside and threw up.
Hitchcock said he used 371 trick shots in the film, with the last shot being the most difficult. It was broken into three panels, used several pieces of film and matte paintings.
One alternate ending featured the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds. The original ending had the car driving away, seeing the town in ruins with dead birds everywhere, cars in flames and a final attack on the car before Melanie and Mitch got away. Evan Hunter said it would have taken a month to film that version.
Hunter felt it would have been unbearable to have a musical score added to the film. Sound designer, Bernard Hermann (Psycho, Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest) worked with Hitchcock on the electrical score, which manipulated bird noises to sound musical.
You can be sure Cindy Davis will have her eye out for Michael Myers while trick-or-treating with her kids tonight.