Renowned director Gus Van Sant is responsible for Good Will Hunting (1997) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), but he is also the man behind 1998's infamous Psycho remake. The film stars Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as Marion Crane, and it's almost a scene-for-scene replica of Hitchcock's 1960 adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel.
Hollywood directors often take big swings to make something truly epic. Production companies put a lot on the line when agreeing to a film that challenges their assumptions about their paying audience. When these long shots work out, they're game-changing, but when a director has a big miss, it can be a major setback. Van Sant's Psycho did not return the promised profits, and it instead became a $60 million tribute to one of Hitchcock's best movies. Why then, did Universal Pictures agree to make this film? And what was Van Sant's goal going into production?
The reason Van Sant was able to get this expensive remake off the ground: his Academy Award win for Good Will Hunting in 1997. While that film was a surprise box-office success, Psycho was a commercial and critical failure. Still, it has managed to garner a reputation among fans of serial killer movies and, in some circles, its infamy lends it a cult following.
Van Sant Wanted To Explore The Difference Between A Remake And Sequel
Director Gus Van Sant is an experimental filmmaker. He's fascinated by the concept of making a successful film that simultaneously holds up the integrity of the art. He told Marc Maron that Psycho came about as a result of his curiosity toward how studios manufacture success:
I think the process of [making Psycho] 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 Thought Remaking 'Psycho' Would Be An Innovative Experiment
Van Sant's version of Psycho is the closest he's come to making a film that exists purely for the experimentation. His appropriation of Hitchcock's classic thriller shares a similar cultural commentary to Warhol's popularized re-stylizations of ready-made works of art. Van Sant commented that he wasn't aiming to adapt an already well-done film in his image. He thought it would be interesting to take Hitchcock's script and simply do it again. He told Marc Maron:
When I did Drugstore Cowboy, I was all of a sudden meeting with the heads of studios because they knew that actors would work with me, therefore if they got me on their movie they could get the actor that they wanted. 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.
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."
Van Sant Was A Fan Of Hitchcock's Original Film And Was Re-Creating Scenes As Early As 1979
Slashfilm reports Van Sant was re-creating Hitchcock's infamous shower scene as early 1979, as he was working with the experimental theater group called Our Lady of Laughter. Van Sant filmed a shampoo commercial featuring a wife being pierced by her husband similarly to the way Marion gets surprised by Norman in the motel shower. The commercial is a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's - aside from the dialogue and how it ends with a title card that reads "Psycho Shampoo."
Almost a decade later, Van Sant began imagining remaking the whole film rather than one scene. He told Entertainment Weekly:
Whenever I went to [Universal Studios] there was always some guy with a list of old B-movies they wanted to remake. So in reaction to that, I suggested they find a really good movie and not change anything. I thought it would be an interesting pop piece. But they seemed sort of befuddled by the idea.
Van Sant Hired Actors Who Had Mutual Enthusiasm For The Project
It wasn't only Van Sant who was fascinated with the idea of recreating Psycho from the ground up, the actors who appeared in the film all paid homage to their predecessors. Robert Forster is the 1998 counterpart to actor Simon Oakland who plays Dr. Fred Richman, the psychiatrist at the end of the film who delivers the exposition about Norman's circumstances.
Forster defended Van Sant's film by comparing it to classic productions often performed as they were originally, with little to no modernization. He said, "They don't change Hamlet whenever some new company puts on a production."