When presenting a feature film focusing on the life of one of the most renowned filmmakers of all time, there is certainly an element of pressure on any director taking on such a task – yet for Sacha Gervasi, it’s a project he looked to revel in, and we caught up with the British filmmaker ahead of the release of Hitchcock – hitting our screens this coming Friday.
Gervasi, whose only previous work is that of rock documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, admits that his low-key debut was in fact the deciding factor in persuading both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren to get on board, as he also tells us of his delight at working alongside such a cast, also consisting of Scarlett Johansson. He also discusses the importance of Alma Reville, and his next project…
Hitchcock is your first narrative film after the Anvil documentary – was this something you always intended on doing?
I was obviously going to direct a narrative film after Anvil, but the unexpected thing was Hitchcock. I was a huge fun, I had studied Hitchcock at film school but was a fan even before that. Then this book and script came along and it was just stuff that I didn’t know about, I didn’t realise that Hitchcock had put in his own money to make Psycho, because I had just assumed like most people that Alfred Hitchcock could have done anything. I just found it fascinating that a guy coming off the massive success of North by Northwest, was able to take such a huge risk, all his money and reputation just so that he could feel like he was relevant and young again, and I found that story fascinating. The only thing is, you know, you knew all about his obvious brilliance, you knew about the obsessive, compulsive, neurotic side of him, and his mostly complex relationships with actresses, but what you didn’t know was the Alma story, that was the thing that really surprised me. I knew of her existence, but I had no idea really that his greatest collaborator was his wife.
So for you personally, was entering in to this project born out of a love from Hitchcock movies?
Yeah it was born out of a love for Alfred Hitchcock movies, and it was born out of a desire to tell a story that no-one knew about; this fascinating, creative collaboration and relationship. It’s connected to Anvil too, because that was about a marriage, a creative collaboration of sorts, so I felt that there were some similarities. Ultimately, I just made the movie that I wanted to see, that’s how I do it. Obviously, the prospect of working with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren was also really compelling.
It is a terrific cast – tell us about Hopkins casting, was there ever anybody else in mind?
No, it really just him and the movie couldn’t have been made without both of them. I met him, and I was very nervous as one would be meeting Anthony Hopkins for the first time – particularly as a director who hadn’t done anything yet, apart from this documentary. But the first thing Anthony said to me was that he’d seen Anvil three times, and that to me was hilarious. He asked me how the band were doing, so I called up the lead singer ‘Lips’ and I put them on the phone and they were like long-lost friends. After about 15 minutes I thought, this is looking good, and then by the end of the lunch, Tony said “I think you’re a complete nutcase – I’m in” and then I had to go and get Helen Mirren, and shockingly as her husband Tony Hackford had made music documentaries they’d watched Anvil, and she loved it too – so I had no idea that these two acting giants were fans of my little heavy metal documentary, but they were and that was really the reason why I was able to do the film.
It is your first big feature film in a sense, you must have just been thrilled to have the likes of Hopkins, Mirren and of course Scarlett Johansson on board. A real stellar cast.
It was an amazing cast, and to credit it appropriately, I got Tony and Helen and then – obviously the cast were fascinated with the subject – but the chance to work with some of the greatest acting talents around, was very compelling to Scarlett, and Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg, and Danny Huston and Jessica Biel, it was an amazing group.
In terms of humanising Hitchcock, was that quite difficult given he seems to be a man clouded in mystery, as someone who didn’t let many people in. Especially for those who weren’t alive during his career – he’s something of a mythical figure.
Well I think he has become this mythological figure over time, and I don’t know if we attempted to humanise him, because obviously a lot of stuff we just imagined what it must have been like to be making this film and gambling everything. What must it have been like living with him? I think we were just exploring another side of his nature because clearly the domineering, obsessive controlling director aspect has been explored to a certain level, but clearly he’s a human being, so what was he feeling as well? I think we were just exploring what might have been in his mind at that time, because surely it must have been a pretty intense time for him.
So how much research was done into his life? Did you go back as far as his childhood, and how did you find out about his marriage?
The key source was really the Stephen Rebello book which was about making Psycho, but then there is this wonderful book by Pat Hitchcock, his daughter, about her mother. As Helen Mirren says, the notable thing about the only daughter of Alfred and Alma, is that she chose to write a book about her mother. That was really revealing as it showed another side to this man that we knew in a very specific way, and so we did tons of research and there were several books that we read, obviously the Patrick McGilligan, and a number of other books. Of course you acquaint yourself with as many facts as possible, and then you go off and extrapolate from them what might have been going on – and I think for us it was really interesting to make it Alma’s movie, because that’s what the unexpected story is that no-one knows.
Despite being loyal to Alfred and Alma from a factual sense, this is a movie and there are surrealistic elements as well…
Well obviously there’s a scene in the movie when Hitch is dialoguing with Ed Gein, the serial killer, so is this based on a true story? Well I have to say, so you know, Ed Gein was not Hitchcock’s shrink [laughs] There were clearly fantastical elements to the story, and like any movie we imagined what must have been going on, or what could have been going on between those two and it’s fascinating. You know, what was it like to live with someone like Alfred Hitchcock? With his obsessions with these actresses, what was it like for Alma? How did she cope? You know, I think they are legitimate questions and we enjoyed – Tony, Helen and I – exploring the dimensions of that.
You do strike a really perfect balance between the professional Hitchcock with the making of Psycho, and then his marriage and home life with Alma – was it difficult to find that middle ground and split the emphasis fairly?
Absolutely, it was tough to find the balance. When you’re exploring Hitchcock there are always going to be so many people with specific ideas of what it should be, and we knew we were doing something a little bit different and that would provoke a huge amount of feeling – which it has. But at the same time, we thought it was an important part of Hitchcock’s genius, that it added to his incredible reputation, to show that like most great directors, he had someone that he listened to. Most directors actually do, whether they admit it or not. If you’re Alfred Hitchcock there aren’t that many people around that you can trust, but Alma was someone who always told him the truth and she had a tremendously keen sense of what the audience wanted, she was brilliant on script and she was a terrific writer and editor – so it was fascinating for us to tell that story, while at the same time showing him making this film. The focus of it was less for making Psycho, and more for the relationship, because the making of Psycho you can get in books and documentaries, but what you couldn’t get is an exploration of this relationship.
Do you feel a pressure in telling this story, knowing there is this die-hard Hitchcock collective out there, who will be scanning over your movie with a fine-toothed comb?
Yeah absolutely. I think that we felt a tremendous love for Hitchcock, and of course people are going to have opinions about it, but I think it’s good to have a discussion about it, and for people to be passionate about the subject – which they should be as his films are so brilliant. But I am also a Hitchcock fan, and I wanted to explore something that people haven’t.
It must have been brilliant, as an already established fan of his work, to learn about all of this yourself?
Absolutely, I mean, I was fascinated with the character, with him, I think his films are so good. With most filmmakers considered great, there are three or four masterpieces, and with Hitchcock there are 10 or 12. When you have a genius with such a dynamic range of brilliant work, you’re fascinated with who that man is. You look at a film like Vertigo and you wonder who was the man behind the camera? As Vertigo is such a personal film in a way, so from my point of view it was just interesting to explore him, for the rich, enigmatic character that he is. I was interested in exploring what might have been in his mind. After making the film he is even more of a mystery than he was before, but that’s a good thing.
This strikes me as a film that isn’t only for Hitchcock fans, but for those not so familiar with his work. Are you hoping that upon seeing this, it could persuade people to go out and explore some of his titles?
I hope so, and that is a great thing that we’ve heard when showing the film. People who are seeing the film are now going back and watching Hitchcock movies, which is great. Particularly Psycho, but other films too. All these kids, 16/17 years old, in the States have been coming to the film and discovering a world and director they didn’t know much about before, and now they’re going back to his movies, and that is one of the most brilliantly unexpected things that is happening. I hope that is a result of it actually, if Hitchcock is part of one of the things that brings people to see those movies than we can feel really good about it.
You seem to have taken a quite Hitchcockian approach yourself, there are some voyeuristic camera angles – particularly on Alma – and Mirren is effectively taking on the role of the typical Hitchcock muse. Was this is a deliberate attempt to pay homage to him?
Absolutely. What we wanted to do was try and embrace the spirit of Hitchcock and make a film for Hitchcockians. Remember, Hitchcock was a populist, most of his films at the time were fun bits of genre film making but not that relevant, and it’s only really over time they have acquired the status that they have, understandably and deservedly. The reality is, we wanted to have that sense of mischief and fun and apply that Hitchcockian spirit to the film itself about him and his wife – and hopefully that is something that he would have found entertaining.
And finally, your next project is My Dinner with Herve. Can you tell us about that?
That is actually based on an actual interview I did with Herve Villechaize in 1993, and a week later he committed suicide, so I had the last interview with him. So the movie is based on that experience, and takes place over one night between an English journalist and Herve, from Fantasy Island, so that was quite surreal. But we’re still putting it together and it isn’t definitely happening yet, but I hope it is.