The career of indie veteran Gus Van Sant is one that ranges from crowd-pleasing Oscar-winners and divisive arthouse fare to the occasional commercial and critical flop, but for many, the director’s most baffling venture will always be the 1998 Psycho.
This shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock horror classic was widely disparaged as a shockingly redundant work that paled in comparison to the original by just about every measure. For better or worse, however, Van Sant’s Psycho was never actually intended to function as a conventionally thrilling hair-raiser, but rather as a bold experiment conducted in response to a sequel- and remake-happy ‘90s Hollywood.
In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, the director took listeners through the thought process behind the box office bomb.
“I think the process of doing it was the learning, it wasn’t necessarily the result. It wasn’t really about learning about Hitchcock, it was more that during the 90s the joke about the executives was that they would rather make a sequel than they would an original piece, because there was less risk. They would rather continue a story that’s already known in the public, and they were really searching for some way to do that.”
Van Sant first pitched his idea to Universal Pictures after the critical success of 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, and as partial as the major studios are to dusting off the classics, many felt that the director’s Psycho proposal was a remake too far.
“During one of the meetings, Casey Silver at Universal brought in all of his vice presidents, and one guy was head of the library, and he said, ‘In the library we have old films that you could remake, we have scripts that haven’t been made yet that you could make,’ and it just reminded me of that thing that they wanted to do, which is remake something. And I said, ‘What you guys haven’t done is try to take a hit and remake it exactly. Rather than remake it and put a new spin on it, just remake it for real,’ because I’d never seen that done yet as an experiment. The whole thing seemed experimental to me anyway so I thought why not, and they laughed, they thought it was silly, ridiculous, absurd, and they left—they said, ‘We won’t be doing that.’”
But alas, after 1997’s Good Will Hunting managed to take home two Academy Awards and received a further seven nominations, Universal finally gave Psycho the go-ahead. While there remained some sceptics who warned Van Sant not to go through with the project, the director chose to pay these doubters no mind for the sake of his experiment in imitation.
“Then I had to make the decision whether I really wanted to do it, and I was talking to Danny Elfman who I wanted to do the score, because he was so good at doing Bernard Hermann-style scores. He said, ‘You know they’ll kill you if you make this,’ he knew. And I said, ‘Who will kill me?’ and he said, ‘Everyone. The critics. Everybody that loves Psycho will kill you,’ and I said, ‘Yeah but Danny this is an experiment, this is not about who’s gonna get killed. This is about just doing it.’ And I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter if they kill me,’ and then later when I got killed it hurt.”
Sure enough, critics slaughtered the movie like a guest at the Bates Motel, while audiences stayed away in droves. Nonetheless, Van Sant stands firm that there’s still some value to his $60 million study.
“So it didn’t work. But the idea was whether or not you could remake something and it would repeat the box office. That was the sort of weird science experiment… It’s more important now I think, because people like yourself will ask questions about it. It’s more alive now than it was back when it failed, just with the art world or the modern world.”
So, does any of this context make the 1998 Psycho a good movie? Most would answer that question with a firm ‘no,’ but it could certainly be argued that the unusual intent behind this infamous remake helps make this a fairly interesting film in theory, even if it’s still not something you’d actually want to sit down with and watch.