This week, we will focus on dramatic tension, suspense and the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Psycho, as well as the screenplay by Joseph Stefano. As you read the below opening scene in the script, notice how much attention is given to setting, tone and atmosphere. This is going to be your focus this week for your own script.
"PSYCHO" By Joseph Stefano Based on the novel by Robert Bloch REVISED December 1, 1959 FADE IN: EXT. PHOENIX, ARIZONA - (DAY) - HELICOPTER SHOT Above Midtown section of the city. It is early afternoon, a hot mid-summer day. The city is sun-sunblanched white and its drifted-up noises are muted in blanched their own echoes. We fly low, heading in a downtown direction, passing over traffic-clogged streets, parking lots, white business buildings, neatly patterned residential districts. As we approach downtown section, the character of the city begins to change. It is darker and shabby with age and industry. We see railroad tracks, smokestacks, wholesale fruit-and- vegetable markets, old municipal buildings, empty lots. vegetable The very geography seems to give us a climate of nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret. We fly lower and faster now, as if seeking out a specific location. A skinny, high old hotel comes into view. On its exposed brick side great painted letters advertise "Transients- Low Weekly Rates-Radio in Every Room." We pause long enough to establish the shoddy character of this hotel. Its open, curtainless windows, its silent resigned look so characteristic of such hole-and-corner hotels. We move forward with purposefulness and-toward a certain window. The sash is raised as high as it can go, but the shade is pulled down to three or four inches of the inside sill, as if the occupants of the room within wanted privacy but needed air. We are close now, so that only the lower half of the window frame is in shot. No sounds come from within the room. Suddenly, we tip downward, go to the narrow space between shade and sill, peep into the room. A young woman is stretched out on the mussed bed. She wears a full slip, stockings, no shoes. She lies in and attitude of physical relaxation, but her face, seen in the dimness of the room, betrays a certain inner-tension, worrisome conflicts. She is MARY CRANE, an tension, attractive girl nearing the end of her twenties and her rope. A man stands beside the bed, only the lower half of his figure visible. We hold on this tableau for a long moment, then start forward. As we pass under the window shade, CUT TO: INT. THE HOTEL ROOM - (DAY) A small room, a slow fan buzzing on a shelf above the narrow bed. A card of hotel rules is pasted on the mirror above the bureau. An unopened suitcase and a woman's large, straw open- top handbag are on the bureau. On the table beside the bed there are a container of Coco- Cola and an unwrapped, untouched egg-salad sandwich. There is no radio. The man standing by the bed, wearing only trousers, T-shirt and sox, is SAM LOOMIS, a good-looking, sensual shirt man with warm humorous eyes and a compelling smile. He is blotting his neck and face with a thin towel, and is staring down at Mary, a small sweet smile playing about his mouth. Mary keeps her face turned away from him. After a moment, Sam drops the towel, sits on the bed, leans over and takes Mary into his arms, kisses her long and warmly, holds her with a firm possessiveness. The kiss is disturbed and finally interrupted by the buzzing closeness of an inconsiderate fly. Sam smiles, pulls away enough to allow Mary to relax again against the pillow. He studies her, frowns at her unresponsiveness, then speaks in a low, intimate, playful voice. SAM Never did eat your lunch, did you. Mary looks at his smile, has to respond, pulls him to her, kisses him. Then, and without breaking the kiss, she swings her legs over the side of the bed, toe-searches around, finds her shoes, slips her feet into searches them. And finally pulls away and sits up. MARY I better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid. She rises, goes to the bureau, takes a pair of small earrings out of her bag, begins putting them on, not bothering or perhaps not wanting to look at herself in the mirror. Sam watches her, concerned but unable to inhibit his cheery, humorous good mood. Throughout remainder of this scene, they occupy themselves with dressing, hair-combing, etc. SAM Call your boss and tell him you're taking the rest of the afternoon off. It's Friday anyway... and hot. MARY (soft sarcasm) What do I do with my free afternoon, walk you to the airport? SAM (meaningfully) We could laze around here a while longer. MARY Checking out time is three P.M. Hotels of this sort aren't interested in you when you come in, but when your time's up... (a small anguish) Sam, I hate having to be with you in a place like this. SAM I've heard of married couples who deliberately spend occasional nights in cheap hotels. They say it... MARY (interrupting) When you're married you can do a lot of things deliberately. SAM You sure talk like a girl who's been married. MARY Sam! SAM I'm sorry, Mary. (after a moment) My old Dad used to say 'when you can't change a situation, laugh at it.' Nothing ridicules a thing like laughing at it. MARY I've lost my girlish laughter. SAM (observing) The only girlish thing you have lost. MARY (a meaningful quiet, then, with difficulty:) Sam. This is the last time. SAM For what? MARY This! Meeting you in secret so we can be... secretive! You come down here on business trips and we steal lunch hours and... I wish you wouldn't even come. SAM Okay. What do we do instead, write each other lurid love letters? MARY (about to argue, then turning away) I haven't time to argue. I'm a working girl. SAM And I'm a working man! We're a regular working-class tragedy! (he laughs) MARY It is tragic! Or it will be... if we go on meeting in shabby hotels whenever you can find a tax-deductible excuse for flying down deductible here... SAM (interrupting, seriously) You can't laugh at it, huh? MARY Can you? SAM Sure. It's like laughing through a broken jaw, but... He breaks off, his cheeriness dissolved, goes to the window, tries to raise the shade. It sticks. He pulls at it. It comes down entirely, and the hot sun glares into the room, revealing it in all its shabbiness and sordidness as if corroborating Mary's words and attitude. Sam kicks at the fallen shade, laughs in frustration, grabs on to his humor again. SAM And besides, when you say I make tax- deductible excuses you make me out a criminal. MARY (having to smile) You couldn't be a criminal if you committed a major crime. SAM I wish I were. Not an active criminal but... a nice guy with the conscience of a criminal. (goes close to mary, touches her) Next best thing to no conscience at all. MARY (pulling away) I have to go, Sam. SAM I can come down next week. MARY No. SAM Not even just to see you, to have lunch... in public? MARY We can see each other, we can even have dinner... but respectably, in my house with my mother's picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three! SAM And after the steak... do we send Sister to the movies and turn Mama's picture to the wall? MARY Sam! No! SAM (after a pause, simply) All right. She stares at him, surprised at his willingness to continue the affair on her terms, as girls are so often surprised when they discover men will continue to want them even after the sexual bait has been pulled in. Sam smiles reassuringly, places his hands gently on her arms, speaks with gentle and simple sincerity. SAM Mary, whenever it's possible, tax- deductible or not, I want to see deductible you. And under any conditions. (a smile) Even respectability. MARY You make respectability sound... disrespectful. SAM (brightly) I'm all for it! It requires patience and temperance and a lot of sweating- out... otherwise, though, it's only hard work. (a pause) But if I can see you, touch you even as simply as this... I won't mind. He moves away and again the weight of his pain and problems crushes away his good humor. There is a quiet moment. SAM I'm fed up with sweating for people who aren't there. I sweat to pay off my father's debts... and he's in his grave... I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she's living on the other side of the world somewhere. MARY (a smile) I pay, too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms. SAM A couple of years and the debts will be paid off. And if she ever re- marries, the alimony stops... and then... MARY I haven't even been married once yet! SAM Yeah, but when you do... you'll swing. MARY (smiling, then with a terrible urgency) Sam, let's go get married. SAM And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale. We'll have a lot of laughs. When I send my ex-wife her money, you can lick the stamps. MARY (a deep desperation) I'll lick the stamps. He looks at her, long, pulls her close, kisses her lightly, looks out the window and stares at the wide sky. SAM You know what I'd like? A clear, empty sky... and a plane, and us in it... and somewhere a private island for sale, where we can run around without our... shoes on. And the wherewithal to buy what I'd like. (he moves away, suddenly serious) Mary, you want to cut this off, go out and find yourself someone available. MARY I'm thinking of it. SAM (a cheerful shout) How can you even think a thing like that! MARY (picking up handbag, starting for door) Don't miss your plane. SAM Hey, we can leave together can't we? MARY (at door) I'm late... and you have to put your shoes on. Mary goes out quickly, closing door behind her. As Sam stares down at his shoeless feet,
Psycho | Film Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Writing Exercise: Opening with Dramatic Tension & Suspense
Using last week’s screenplay, create an opening setting paragraph or two that are ripe with dramatic tension and suspense. Use Psycho as a model of study for this. In Psycho, we open with “geography [that] seems to give us a climate of nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret.” What is going to happen? Hitchcock earned his nomenclature as the “master of suspense.” He knew how to use suspense to drive emotion and how suspense was a far better attention grabber than gore itself. The anticipation of danger is the key. Now, do it.
The son of a snowplow truck driver and a nurse, Kevin Del Principe grew up in Buffalo, New York. He first cut his teeth working as a schoolteacher while also producing plays and publishing poetry. He later moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing for film and to earn his MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Southern California. During his time at USC, Kevin was a finalist for Script Pipeline’s Student Screenwriting Competition. Since graduation, he continues to write, direct, produce, and teach. Kevin currently teaches screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. He specializes in short screenplay writing, creating online content, feature writing, and rewriting.