Before “Jaws” was even a dream the hundreds of birds found in Bodega Bay were not the usual subject of horror films. Certainly the film animals that inhabited horror films were not intelligent with an ability to act in unison. Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance wove those disparate themes together for his groundbreaking horror film, “The Birds.”
In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock needed a remote coastal location for his next film. He had already shot one movie in the area: the 1942 thriller, “Shadow of a Doubt,” filmed in Santa Rosa. He needed a spot that would give him clear shots of sky, without interference from trees and mountains.
“The Birds” is based on a short story by Daphne DuMaurier. Essentially a mood piece, DuMaurier’s story chronicles the struggles of a farmer and his family when murderous birds attack their English seashore village. Screenwriter Evan Hunter, whose credits include “The Blackboard Jungle” and “Last Summer,” changed the location to the California coast. The story immediately suggested a myriad of cinematic possibilities that stirred Hitchcock’s creative instincts.
Financed by his successful television show and filmed with equipment borrowed from the Revue Studio, “The Birds” debuted as Hitchcock’s first horror/fantasy film. It has come to be known as a precursor to modern horror movies and marks the first time cinematic animals acted in an organized attack on humans.
Hitchcock picked the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay to serve as the setting for his thriller featuring TippiHedren, Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and, of course, the birds. At the time, the special effects utilized were enough to thrill and frighten young and old, and the film continues to affect modern day viewers. Mechanical and live-trained birds were used in the film, along with optically altered film overlay of flying birds. The film took almost three years to complete before it was released in 1963.
Hitchcock chose the Bodega Bay area for the foggy weather and skyline, which at that time was subdued and open. When the time came for shooting, however, Hitchcock despaired at the clear and sunny skies.
“It’s a color film,” he said, “and I wanted it dark and gloomy. Now we’ll have to subdue the color in the film lab.”
The ancient Potter School had already been condemned and abandoned as a schoolhouse when Hitchcock discovered it in Bodega. Film crews shored up and rebuilt it for the filming. With the exception of the gazebo featured in the party scene, the school is the only original building used in the film that still stands to this day. Huge papiermâché ravens were placed on every available surface. Great flocks of these imitation actors were wired to flap their wings for effect.
The schoolhouse is a private residence now, though it has been used as a bed and breakfast in the intervening years. The public is welcome to view the outside of the schoolhouse. It is, however, privately owned and may not be entered at this time.
The schoolteacher’s house next to the school was a facade built by the film crew for the filming. When birds kill Suzanne Pleshette character, the Bodega Catholic Church can be seen in the film for a moment. A famous photograph by Ansel Adams has made the church well known beyond its appearance in “The Birds.”
Scouting around for a house that would do for the main characters, Hitchcock picked an abandoned bay side home owned by Rose Gaffney, a feisty local rancher who had just achieved local notoriety in a successful crusade against PG&E’s proposed nuclear power plant. Gaffney’s friend, Don Howe of Salmon Creek recalls, “A limousine pulled up to Rose Gaffney’s house, and a messenger said that Mr. Hitchcock would like to speak to her.”
Gaffney’s reply was simple and blunt: “who?”
The crew essentially built a different house around Gaffney’s as well as some outbuildings. Its manicured yard appeared almost instantaneously when the crew rolled out the lawn and planted daffodils in full bloom. In the ‘60’s, the road out to Bodega Head was unpaved past Mason’s Marina. A dock was built for star Tippi Hedren to land her rented boat when she crossed the harbor to “Mitch’s house.”
Unfortunately, these structures burned down in the late sixties. They stood at the current location of the entrance to University of California Bodega Marine Laboratory dormitories.
The Tides Wharf Restaurant and parking lot in Bodega Bay were used for the gas station, cafe and boat dock scenes. (The gas station was blown up on a studio lot.) The Tides complex has been expanded and remodeled several times since then. When the 1960’s owner of The Tides, Mitch Zankich, allowed Hitchcock to use the restaurant in “The Birds” he made three stipulations: the town in the movie would be called “Bodega Bay;” the male lead played by Rod Taylor would be named “Mitch;” and Zankich would receive a “speaking part.”
If you’re listening at the right moment, you can here him say those immortal words: “What happened, Mitch?”
In the years following the film’s release, whenever the film was aired on television, The Tides called in extra staff the following day to accommodate the curious. Local Hazel Mitchell worked as a Tides waitress during the filming and waited on the famous director — who only wanted “green beans and filet of sole and nothing else, Miss” – as well as the stars of the film. The waitress in the movie bears an uncanny resemblance to a youthful Hazel.
The other farmhouse where the farmer is killed in his home by birds was filmed at a ranch in Valley Ford. The scene that took place there was a typical example of Hitchcock’s genius: when Jessica Tandy – after having discovered the farmer’s body – drove off from the farm at breakneck speed, her panic was beautifully expressed in visual terms by the dust that flew up from the road. At the beginning of the scene, however, when she arrived there, the dust didn’t fly up, because for that show Hitchcock had the road watered down. The original farmhouse is gone but the trees and driveway are the same. It was private then and remains so.
In one of the opening scenes, Tippi Hedren is driving into Bodega Bay on a winding scenic road above the town. Bay Hill Road can be found entering Highway One both north and south of town. At the north end, drive up about a mile until you can safely turn around, come back and park alongside the road and have a look. It’s almost the very same scene that was filmed over 30 years ago.
Almost all of the inside scenes were recreated very specifically from the original buildings and shot on sound stages at Universal Studios. The exterior shots were filmed on location. Many of the aerial and faraway shots were painted mattes amplifying the size of the town.
Nearly 40 years later, the Visitor Center in Bodega Bay receives thousands of Hitchcock fans every year, hoping for a glimpse of some scenery from the movie that continues to frighten the world.