Why did Gus Van Sant decide to remake ''Psycho''? -- The director's decision to duplicate the classic raises eyebrows and causes a stir

By Benjamin Svetkey
December 04, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

History repeats itself. But here on the set of Psycho — where history is being clocked to the second — it doesn’t always repeat itself quite quickly enough.

Inside a soundstage on the Universal lot — the very same backlot on which Alfred Hitchcock shot the original Psycho nearly 40 years ago — director Gus Van Sant sits slumped in a canvas chair, staring blankly into a video monitor. He’s filming the scene at the end of the movie when the psychiatrist reveals Norman Bates’ embarrassing oedipal problem — ”Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all” — while the captured serial killer shivers in his cell across the hall, mentally morphing into his dead mom. Turns out Robert Forster is delivering his monologue too slowly: 7 minutes, 12 seconds. The actor who played the shrink in the 1960 version, Simon Oakland, finished in five minutes flat. This won’t do at all.

”The timing is important,” Van Sant explains. ”If there’s a big difference in the timing, then everything starts to, you know, change.”

And he’ll have none of that. After all, the whole point of this heavily hyped (and much-mocked) production is not to change a thing, to reshoot the film exactly the way Hitchcock did the first time. Scene for scene, line for line, stab wound for stab wound. ”It’s more of a replica than a remake,” Van Sant continues as Forster (who had less trouble timing his lines in last year’s Jackie Brown) studies his predecessor’s performance on a nearby DVD player. ”It’s almost like we’re doing a forgery. Like we’re making a copy of the Mona Lisa or the statue of David.”

Of course, there are differences. Anne Heche (Six Days, Seven Nights) now hits the showers instead of Janet Leigh; Viggo Mortensen (A Perfect Murder) takes over from John Gavin as her can’t-commit boyfriend; Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights) replaces Vera Miles as her sister; William H. Macy (Fargo) steps into Martin Balsam’s role as the private detective; and Vince Vaughn (Clay Pigeons) borrows a bit of Anthony Perkins’ stutter to play the mother of all horror-movie slashers (”But I don’t really mimic his performance — I make the character my own,” the actor promises).

Van Sant has made a few other alterations as well: This time, he’s filming all that drain-swirling blood in living color (”Certain audiences can’t take black and white,” he says), and he’s modernized the script for the ’90s (the —40,000 Leigh stole has been inflation adjusted to $400,000; the antique word aspic has been updated to Jell-O). Extremely anal-retentive Hitchcock fans may also notice a few modifications in the shower scene — more on that later — along with a couple of other don’t-blink tweaks in later spots.

But for the most part, the new Psycho is the same as the old Psycho. Or at least close enough to leave half of Hollywood wondering if perhaps a certain Oscar-nominated director may need some psychiatric counseling of his own. If nobody has ever attempted anything like this before, it’s because nobody has ever thought of a sane reason to try. So from the moment Van Sant announced his plans to counterfeit Hitchcock’s masterpiece, one obvious question has been looming over the production: Why?

”Well,” answers the director, his demeanor so deadpan you’re tempted to check for a pulse, ”I guess I thought it would be fun.”

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