How They Write A Script: John Michael Hayes

May 2nd, 2012 by

Alfred Hitchcock worked with several great writers, one of them being John Michael Hayes, who wrote the screenplays forRear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After he and Hitchcock had a falling out, Hayes went on to write numerous other movies such as Peyton Place (1957), Butterfield 8 (1960), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and Judith (1966).

Here are excerpts from “Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s”, edited by Patrick McGilligan.


I had worked on a radio show called Suspense, which was a half-hour drama. Then I worked on The Adventures of Sam Spade and a number of other radio detective shows. He used to listen to them. He heard my name all the time. That’s really what got him interested in me, because I doubt if he had gone to see War Arrow or Red Ball Express or anything else. So he inquired about me. It turned out we had the same agency, MCA, but we were in different departments. He gave me a tryout, and it stuck. He needed a writer for Rear Window, so I went from B movies to A movies overnight.


Paramount found Rear Window. Hitch had left Warner Brothers and was looking for a home. And Paramount said if he could get a screenplay out of a Cornell Woolrich story, they would make a deal with him. They gave him a collection called After-Dinner Story, by William Irish [Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1936], a pen name of Cornell Woolrich. Out of about five or six stories, he liked “Rear Window” and brought me in on it. There was no girl in the original. I created the part. Hitch had done Dial M for Murder [1954] with Grace Kelly, and she was beautiful in that film; but there was no life, no sparkle there. He asked me what we should do with her for Rear Window, so I spent time with her for about a week. My wife, Mel, was a successful fashion model, so I gave Grace my wife’s occupation in the film. The way the character posed, the dialogue—it reflected actual incidents in our life.

That was my first A picture with a big director, and I was so keyed up. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have, because I was worried about everything. Yet it turned out well. We worked beautifully together.


I like to write dialogue. It’s one of my skills, character and dialogue. Hitchcock, of course, grew up in silent films, and all those directors who did silent films have a tendency to rely on the camera as much as they can. And I caught some of that spirit. Hitchcock taught me about how to tell a story with the camera and tell it silently.

We used a long camera movement to open Rear Window. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, in the scene at Albert Hall with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart, we had written some dialogue in case we needed it, but we didn’t intend to use it if we didn’t have to. Hitch, with his mastery, felt that without dialogue this whole final sequence where the assassination is about to take place—of a central figure from some nameless country—would be stronger. We discovered we didn’t need the dialogue at all. But we wrote it protectively.

I think suggestion is better. I’d rather say things through a literary device that’s interesting than just say it out flat. So much of my dialogue is indirect, with layers of meaning, sub-rosa meanings. It’s more challenging to write that way, and people remember the lines. Frequently, people came up to me for autographs, and they quote some of those lines from my Hitchcock movies.


His whole life was motion pictures; there didn’t seem to be much else in it. He just loved what he was doing, and he transmitted that feeling to you, rather than hovering over you like a giant genius. He was encouraging. He used to say, “It’s only a movie. Don’t worry about it, just do your best, and let the public decide.” Hitch was humorous and relaxed on the set. We’d go to dinner or lunch, but in no sense was I his personal confidant. He used to go over his early pictures and tell me how he had solved problems.

I think the worst fight we ever had was over the ending of To Catch a Thief. We had different ideas. I wrote twenty-seven different endings and still don’t like the one that was used. We had a couple of slam-bang script fights. Still, we got along fine until I got too much press.

When we went to Paris for the premiere of To Catch a Thief, I was getting mentioned everywhere—they value writers in Paris—so I was promptly banned from all public relations events. If I was mentioned in the fourth paragraph of a story, that was okay but not in the first or second. I was becoming known for my dialogue and characterizations. They even talked about “the Hitchcock-Hayes fall schedule” in either Variety or the Hollywood Reporter.

When you show up in the same sentence—Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes—that was more than he could bear. He wanted to be the total creator: Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitch was so unkind about giving credit.

In an interview he did with Francois Truffaut years later for example, Hitch tried to make it seem as if he had written the screenplay for Rear Window. I heard about that too late; I tried to contact Truffaut, but he had died. I did a sixty-five-page treatment of Rear Window that Jimmy Stewart committed to, that Paramount committed to. I had met with Hitch once or twice. He had nothing to do with the writing.

I was nominated for an Oscar. When I won the Edgar Allen Poe Award [for Rear Window ], the first time it was ever given for a movie, I showed Hitch the ceramic statuette, and he said, “You know, they make toilet bowls out of the same material.” Then he almost pushed it off the end of a table.

Hitchcock’s advisers asked him when his pictures got into trouble—on The Birds [1963] and Marnie [1964] and Torn Curtain [1966] and Topaz [1969]—to bring me back. But he never would, because it was an admission that he needed me, and he’d never do that. Those pictures didn’t have the characterizations, the believability. They didn’t have the fun. The films we made together, people call it his golden period. It was a tragedy. We were a great team.


I just felt comfortable with the material. I tried to tell the story of the difficulty adolescents have passing through that invisible pane of glass as they become adults. I examined the turmoil they go through, especially in the town of Peyton Place. I was sympathetic to these young people. The first draft was nearly three hundred pages, and it took eight drafts to finally boil it down. I had little bits of my own philosophy woven in—I always do that. I drew on my own experience of living in two small New Hampshire towns. It was not an alien land to me. I could see the town in my mind. I could feel it.

The hard part, of course, was to get over the censorship hurdles; we had to imply things. Everybody had read the book, so we couldn’t disappoint them—without offending the censors and without offending the other countries in which it would be seen. Getting the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency seal was probably the most difficult thing. People felt it was a book that couldn’t be made into a picture. We had to make it acceptable but entertaining and good. And the Legion didn’t change a line. The man in charge, Monsignor Biddle, told me, “John Michael, you’ve done it!” He was a jolly fellow, reminded me of Barry Fitzgerald.

We thought Vermont would be easy to film in. We knew a lot of officials in the Vermont Development Commission. However, the book was very scandalous. It shocked the whole world. It had been banned in Boston and every Catholic country. Despite that, it sold ten million copies—at that time, more than Gone with the Wind. A Vermont legislator stood up and pledged to pass a law against having Peyton Place filmed in his state. It was also kept out of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. For a while, we thought we’d have to do it in Oregon or Washington. But we contacted Senator Margaret Chase Smith in Maine. She got word to Governor Edmund Muskie, and he loved the idea. He told us, “Maine is yours!”


Hitchcock and Mark Robson were the easiest directors. They were amiable and easy to get along with. Wyler and Hathaway were not. They wanted their viewpoint told instead of yours. I don’t know why they hired me and paid me all that money and then insisted I do it their way. We had many script fights.

Wyler was the most difficult director ever. He would not let you sit down and really write. Every ten pages, you had to turn them in, discuss, analyze them sentence by sentence, word by word. You could never get into—at least I couldn’t—a creative flow. You kept getting interrupted. We did rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, which was ridiculous.

I had a similar problem with Henry Hathaway. He wanted to be part of every page. I prefer to start a screenplay and go through the whole first draft in one fell swoop. To get all the emotion, color, drama, melodrama, purple prose, and everything else that I can put into a story. Because I know that, during subsequent script conferences with the director and the stars, many things get leeched out of it. So I want to put as much as I can into the first draft. I, therefore, have to be given my head, instead of writing a few pages and then having a conference, and writing a few pages and having another conference. It ends up that you don’t write the kind of picture you want to write, and the director never gets a chance to see what you can do, because he’s imposing his will on you constantly. When I argued with Henry Hathaway about Nevada Smith, I inevitably lost. But at least you’ve got to put up a good fight.

In the case of Mark Robson, I did Peyton Place completely before he read it. And, therefore, our conferences were concerned with cutting it down and trimming it and making it workable, rather than have him participate in the creative aspect of writing it.

As for Hitchcock, he let me write on my own, and then we conferred afterwards. We had some conferences, but he didn’t go over pages. We’d sit and discuss the thing in general. I’d do a first draft and a second draft; then, we would do a shooting script, and that’s when he would break up the story into shots, specific camera angles. He’d draw sketches. If I had a film with two hundred shots in it on my first or second draft, we’d end up with six hundred, because he broke it down into every single camera angle. Hitch did not like to make changes. When we finished setting up the shots before the picture was started, he’d say. “The picture is made now. All we have to do is sit on the set and make sure they follow what we’ve worked out here.”

Hitch would never change the script unless the writer agreed to it. Too many directors think just because they’re a director they know how to write, and they don’t. On The Carpetbaggers and Where Love Has Gone, Edward Dmytryk was tempted to come in with dialogue and write long speeches. Those directors who write on location and change things are the bane of writers, because you don’t see what mistakes they’re making until it’s too late. You just can’t improve off the cuff on the set, because you upset the whole build of the emotions and the texture of the picture. On location, things happen weatherwise or otherwise. But you work hard to get the script tight and right. Tampering with it is very dangerous, especially in a suspense story.

With an important director who has a long track record of hits and awards, it’s hard to stand up for your viewpoint. Directors have a tendency to fall back on things that they’re used to which are safe. If they hire a talented writer, they should let him write it and then discuss the directorial changes. That’s the difficulty of working with extremely successful, older, talented, even brilliant directors.

I remember once telling Willie Wyler that he was wrong about something, and he took me around his office and he showed me every award he’d won—and he had many—and he read all the inscriptions. It must have taken him thirty minutes. Then he said, “Now tell me I’m wrong. What does all this mean?” And I said, “Well, those were things you’ve done in the past. I think you’re wrong now.”


I was offered an absolutely monumental sum of money, half a million dollars, by the man who owns the rights, Sheldon Abenal of the American Play Company in New York. That money would help me in my old age. Hitch only paid me fifteen thousand dollars for the original Rear Window. You would either have to cast new people or set it in modern times, pick it up with their children or something. Tentatively, I was going to keep it in the same time period.

I don’t know. Some pictures have a magic that’s almost indefinable. Grace is gone. Hitch is gone. Jimmy’s too frail. Wendell Corey’s gone. Raymond Burr is dead. We couldn’t recapture that kind of innocence. What could it possibly be?

But I’ve done a story, just in case.

NOTE: Hayes died November 18, 2008. Here is my post in honor of him.

[Originally posted October 2, 2009]

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