Words of the Week: The girl should be Grace but she is in Monaco being a Princess

Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, wrote the screenplay for the film `The Birds', starring Tippi Hedren, right. He discussed the movie - and Alfred Hitchcock - with Sheridan Morley, at the National Film Theatre

In August of 1961, my agent got a call from Hitchcock's office saying he wanted me to write the screenplay for The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. I read it and I said, "Yes, I'd love to do it". I would have said yes if he said: "Would you like to write a screenplay on the Bronx telephone directory?" He called that same day and explained to me that he did not want to do a movie about two inarticulate Cornish farmers in a cottage being attacked by birds. These weren't his kind of people. He further said: "I don't want to film ever again in England." He said: "So what we're doing, basically, we're throwing away everything but the title and the concept of birds attacking people. So bring out some ideas."

So I went out with two. One was that a murder had been committed and we would somehow relate the murder to this woman arriving. We always knew instinctively that it was to be a woman. We later learnt that women are more frightened of birds than men are. One of the ideas I brought out was that a murder had been committed and for some reason she was there in this town. Hitch shot that down.

He said that'll detract from our major story which is birds attacking people. Then I suggested that perhaps we could do a story about a new schoolteacher who comes to the town. Somehow bird attacks start after she arrives and the townspeople suspiciously and superstitiously relate this to her. Hitch said: "No, I don't like that either."

So we went from there. The schoolteacher has survived somewhat and the superstition and suspicion has survived somewhat, but the story is a very different one.

We're now faced only with birds attacking people. And this is what we did every morning in his office first at Paramount, and then Universal: discuss how are we going to do this?

Sheridan Morley: Was he aware of how he was going to get these bloody birds to swoop? Was it an animatronic area of discussion? Did you actually worry about how things would work?

Evan Hunter: He said: "Don't worry about it, you write it, I'll get it on the screen." As it turned out later down the road, he did not get it on the screen. But you know, this was before Star Wars technology.

There are so many brilliant things in the film that Hitch did that are extraordinary, that were not in the screenplay. The stuff he added was absolutely brilliant. The scene in the phone booth, where she's trapped, trying to get out; that's absolute inventiveness that came from the director on the set at the moment. The scene in the house where the birds are attacking - and we really see a bird - in all the other scenes, we see masses of birds hitting people, in the house we just hear the birds and we see one or two birds pecking at his hand when he's trying to close the window. It's a terrifying scene. Just the sound and the beaks pecking at the door: a frightening scene and true Hitchcock in the truest sense.

SM: I remember, with deep embarrassment, writing a review of it. In those days we all believed that films weren't about what they appear to be about and so we all said, "OK, it clearly isn't about birds". I remember, with deep embarrassment, deciding it was about McCarthyism. Because in those days everybody thought all films were about McCarthyism - ever since High Noon. After a while, I went to the film again and realised it actually was about birds.

EH: Well, not in my head. And not during the discussions when we were discussing the screenplay and working on it, Hitch used to come in every morning - let me explain the working procedure.

He would come in every morning and he would sit down in a big wing-back chair and his feet scarcely touching the floor and he was always dressed in a very dark blue suit and a tie and a white shirt and black shoes and black socks. And he would sit there and he would say: "Tell me the story so far." And in the beginning that was easy. But as it went on and I had to tell him the story from the beginning, it got to be a rather lengthy exercise and he would pick holes in the story so far, and say: "Why does she do this? Why does she do that?" There was never any doubt in our minds that a woman would be the lead. And as a matter of fact, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was writing for Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, and Hitch would have preferred that, too, but we got Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.

Why? Well, as Hitch put it, when we were talking about what he called "the girl", he said: "Well, the girl should be Grace, of course, but she's in Monaco being a princess, isn't she?" And then he said: "And for the man, Cary, of course, whoever or whatever he may turn out to be, Cary," he said. "But why should I give Cary 50 per cent of the picture?" He said: "There are only two stars in this picture - the Birds and me." And then he hesitated a moment and he said: "And, of course, you."

I first met Tippi at the studio. I'll do it from my point of view: I'm the camera - you came in here, and on this side were his executive offices with his secretaries and all that, and on this side were his private offices where we used to work each morning. One day I came in and his assistant said: "Hitch is in with someone." So I was waiting and the door opened to Hitch's office and he came out and walked down the hall and - I'm still the camera - down there stands Tippi Hedren in her favourite one of two poses from the movie. Hitch said: "That's Melanie." I looked and I said: "Who is she?" He said: "Tippi Hedren." I looked again, and I said: "What is she?" He explained that she had done hair commercials on television. I said: "Do you think she has the range to play the comic scenes that we need at the beginning and then the terror at the end?" He said: "Trust me, Evan." And I thought: "Oy! Go hide the silver."

Evan Hunter was taking part in the Murder Ink series of talks and films at London's National Film Theatre.

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