The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

A lightbulb in a glass of milk - Hitchcock's mind control

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As part of my self-education by learning from the greats, last night I watched a documentary about the conversation between the great directors Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut.

The book on which it is based has been passed around by directors for years as a sacred document (Martin Scorcese talked long about it in the documentary).

My wife, next to me on the sofa, was not impressed by one moment.

There's a scene from the classic thriller Suspicion where Cary Grant carries a glass of milk upstairs to his wife, Joan Fontaine, who thinks he might be trying to poison him.

To focus the audience on the glass of milk, Hitchcock does something extraordinary.

He puts a light bulb in it so that it gives off an eerie glow.

My wife thought it was a little childish.

It was an interesting comment. I think she meant that it was incredibly direct, saying, "Look, here is the glass of milk. It matters".

And the glowing milk does really focus the mind.

So much so that when I was checking up on the plot, I came across an article called "A Psychoanalysis of Milk: The Case of Alfred Hitchcock".

So, something so simple and clear it felt childlike but also so meaningful that it was the subject of an article in psychoanalytic literature.

What is going on?

Hitchcock was focussing his audience's mind on the single thing in that scene that he 100% knew was the most crucial moment to add drama.

To him, nothing was mundane...

For him, every second of film time was about keeping "the screen rectangle charged with emotion."

When you know what you are doing with your storytelling, you then have a choice.

You can emphasise the point in your story so clearly and precisely that the audience will have no doubt about what matters. If your audience doesn't notice the significant moment, then you have failed, and your story is weakened.

Hitchcock was criticised by some for his ruthless clarity. He even called actors cattle - to move around the screen to his will.

But to him, clarity was everything.

He had discovered how to control the audience's minds in his story as "The Master of Suspense", and nothing would stop him.

It's why a moment can feel childish or too clear, but so clear that it needs psychoanalysis to get to the root cause, if you can, as to why it has such an impact.

Where you stand on that amount of control in your documentary is up to you.

But there are some things you need to understand if you are going to get really good at this storytelling lark.

Your documentary has to have a point of view. You have to have something to say about your idea. Without it, you technically don't have a story at all.

That's right.

You need a perspective on your idea to have anything to say.

You aren't presenting an essay with multiple points of view. You are saying this is what happens in the world, which is why it is really interesting.

It's not about just knowing you have an amazing character or situation...

...what's next?

What's next is knowing how to tell your story.

The better you are at working with story, the better you are at being in control of every moment of your documentary.

As it comes together, those moments that just seem to work are moments that obviously are clearly saying something.

Getting to that level of control is what mastering storytelling is about.

If you are overwhelmed with material, that feeling will now fall away. It is literally like a weight falling from your back.

Things that you thought mattered no longer do. You don't feel you need to add everything to your documentary, only what helps you tell your story.

How you present your final film tonally is up to you. You have every tool at your disposal. You can be super direct; you can be more subtle.

Your film may be nothing like Hitchcock's or anyone else's. But what ends up on screen is what matters to you.

Hitchcock had almost painted himself into a corner with the level of control he exerted over his audience.

He knew it worked, and his audience loved him for it.

Later in his life, he had regrets.

He said that maybe he could have experimented a little with character development, with the nuance of the performance.

He wondered what it would have been like to improvise a little more.

Everyone has regrets.

The one thing you should not regret is not knowing how to create a great story.

Without that, you are not even at the starting line.‚Äč