I sat down to write a post about "Airplane!" last night but Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" was on. This counts as a rockin' Friday in Scriptwranglerville.
It's a tremendous movie, and you can't watch it without thinking that modern day horror movies are basically cheating with all the gore and torture and ever more traumatizing visuals. I guess audiences expect it, and they're delivering. I just wish you could make movies like "The Birds" now. They're a lot harder. Maybe you need to be a genius like Hitchcock. But you get a lot deeper into a viewer's consciousness with his approach.
The first thing that struck me is just how long it takes to get into the horror material. The first real attack doesn't occur until fifty minutes into the film -- almost halfway. You almost forget you're watching a horror film because there's this really delightful little love story with in the (still) delightful little town of Bodega Bay. Tippi Hedren's character is one of those perfect balancing acts. She hot. She's rich. She's proud. She's sort of a Paris Hilton of 1963, only she's not as dumb as a martini in a Mexican restaurant. And the only thing she wants more than the smart ass she saw in the bird store is to show that she's smarter than him. Doesn't sound much like a horror movie, does it?
But it is. The ONLY reason it works as a horror movie is that Hitchcock exploits some strong ideas about story. He exploits his conceit.
Conceit here has nothing to do with "conceited". It means a storyteller's strategy. The conceit behind the Birds is that birds are omnipresent, and aren't normally threatening. But maybe there's something about US, humans. And if the birds were to band together, perhaps we wouldn't be at the top of the food chain for long.
"Exploiting the conceit" is very much a nuts-and-bolts issue for a screenwriter. In t he first fifty minutes, bird activity interrupts the activity, and brings the scene to a neat conclusion, or forms a nice bridge between scenes. It's always on the periphery, but it always improves the pacing. And it builds suspense.
Hitchcock also exploits his characters. Tippi Hedren is a walking story. She's just about the only woman alive who could come into a strange town, ask the name and address of the resident town bachelor #1 and his 10-year-old sister, then get these suspicious small town types to actually help her secretly delivering a gift of lovebirds. She gets his jilted ex-girlfriend to give her a bed for the night so she can continue the seduction. She doesn't need dialogue.
He exploits the location. Hitchcock wrote the script very much with Bodega Bay in mind. He knew that a car can move across the circular bay faster than a boat. He knew the geography. He probably knew what it looked like from the bird's eye view.
He exploits the camera. Lovely shots from the bird's eye view every time the humans are trapped inside a building. How else could you capture the idea that windows are no longer a way to see -- they're a point of entry?
Hitchcock once said, "After the script is written and the dialogue added, we're ready to shoot." Dialogue was added. It's not how he thought through his story. He could have, but then we wouldn't still be watching it. Dialogue is the least powerful tool in the screenwriter's toolbox. It's the most malleable element of a script. Choosing your conceit, and building your locations, characters, and visuals will get you miles further.