A filmmaker making his narrative directorial debut at the helm of one of Hollywood’s most talked about biopics in years? Sounds like a bit of a gamble. With Sacha Gervasi, though, it might have just been the right risk to take.
Before “Hitchcock,” which opens this weekend, Gervasi had only directed the music documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.” The film followed a pair of heavy metal rockers as they set out to record their 13th album and received across-the-board raves when it premiered at Sundance in January 2008. Gervasi laid his finances on the line to produce the project, which is greatly reminiscent of another visionary filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock.
Based on the book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” “Hitchcock” focuses on the taxing relationship between Alfred and his wife, Alma, during the creation of his groundbreaking motion picture in 1960. Featuring an all-star creative team, the film stars Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson.
The East Valley Tribune spoke with Gervasi on the phone last week to discuss the movie, his favorite Hitchcock film and what challenges he encountered taking on such a daunting, high-profile project.
So to begin with, how did you first get involved with “Hitchcock” and what drew you most to the project?
You know, what drew me most to it was, I had just made “Anvil” – a self-financed documentary where I pretty much risked everything I had just because I really wanted to connect with an audience and have my voice heard sort of uncluttered by anyone else, you know what I mean? Working in Hollywood, you’re apart of a big system so for me, “Anvil” was like a big declaration of independence but no one would give me the shot to do it. I sort of had to take all the money I made in the film business here and literally risk all of it on this documentary about head-bangers from Toronto, which is the most insane thing to do when you realize how commercial that concept is.
When I discovered this book – Stephen Rebello’s book and John McLaughlin’s script – part of it was about an artist who felt it was over, he felt he was too old, and yet, he was willing to risk everything he had to kind of feel young, alive and relevant again. Having had the “Anvil” experience, I at least had a small window into that kind of insanity that it must have taken to take that kind of risk, so I think I was attracted because I recognized it’s the story of an artist who just wanted to feel he was being heard, if that makes sense?
Beyond that, there were two things, though, beyond the personal things. I had no idea how hard it had been for Hitchcock to get “Psycho” made, I mean it was impossible, right? You would’ve thought that Hitchcock, after “Vertigo,” that he could have done anything, but the truth is they tried stopping him from making “Psycho” and he had to wager his own money. That was one thing, you know, that there’s this guy that’s this legendary artist and he’s an underdog. Everyone – not just the studios – but everyone that was around Hitchcock thought it was going to be a disaster.
You know, the common refrain around the Hitchcock set was “Don’t worry darling, there’s always the next one.” Everyone thought they were making a piece of (expletive) and I love the fact that this guy risked everything when there was no real reason apart from his own instinct to do it. Now, today, I think it stands as the most successful independent movie ever made. So that’s kind of a staggering achievement, let alone the cinematic achievement, which I was drawn to.
The other aspect of the story that really pulled me in was Helen Mirren playing Alma Reville, this woman who I’d heard about at film school but never really knew how much of a role she played. When you think of Hitchcock, that very first thing you think of is that shower scene and that music, and it was a revelation to me to discover that Alma had been the one that insisted that that music be put over the scene. Hitchcock, as you see in the film, argues with Alma about it. It was only because of his deep trust in his wife. She was the only one that he really trusted, in terms of taste and stuff like that.
When Alma insisted and argued passionately for something, Hitch knew in the back of his mind that she was probably right, even though he didn’t see it. Just for that alone, the music in that scene and Alma’s critical role in the decision to make that happen, I just thought it was a story worth telling. It’s like this woman behind the man, and in Hitch’s case, she was involved from script, casting – production she usually left him to do his thing – but dailies, edits, marketing, every aspect, she was involved in everything. You have to think over 36 years of all these films, her silent stamp is in there, and I think we wanted to tell that story against the backdrop of making this seminal film of Hitchcock.
That was important to us, to not do just the meticulous documentary-like recreation of the making of that film because I don’t know that Hitch would’ve wanted that. My feeling, my observation is that Hitchcock made movies for the audience and he would make a movie for the crowd, that’s who he made films for and I think we wanted to try to embrace the spirit of that, his dry, ironic sense of humor and make it an entertaining, fun experience that exposed this primal, critical relationship, but personal and creative for Hitchcock.
That was like a huge part of why I wanted to do the movie, I was drawn to it because it talked about marriage and how hard it is to sustain it over the long haul. It talked about acknowledging unseen, un-credited, unacknowledged partners who often play a critical role and it talked about what it means to be an artist. Even if you are a successful one, you can feel imprisoned by that success and feel like the world just wants you to repeat yourself over and over again. The fight against that was something that really appealed to me.
Had Anthony and Helen been attached to the movie before you signed on?
No, they hadn’t actually. The movie had sort of been around for about eight years. Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette had optioned Rebello’s book, got John McLaughlin to write what I thought was absolutely this terrific script, and they had another director and it had nearly come close. Helen was never really attached. She was spoken of, but she actually turned down the film twice. Tony flirted with it but it wasn’t really solid. When Tom and Alan decided to bring in Montecito (Pictures) to try and team up with them to get this movie finally made, I was very insistent that Tony and Helen were the only two actors that could do it. If they didn’t do it, there really was no point in making the film.
I think it was my passion for it and my specificity about making it a love story that really gave Tom Pollock, the producer, the confidence to roll the dice on a completely unknown, untested director. Even though I had done “Anvil,” there’s a big difference between a documentary and a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Even though I have to say, ‘Lips’ and Robb of “Anvil” were a bit more of a challenge. They were more of a handful.
At least with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, they’re iconic, incredible actors and there’s that great adage,“90 percent of filmmaking is casting.” I mean, once you had cast those actors, my job was really just to stand out of the way and let them find the intimacy, the nuance, the power, the complexity of that relationship and to record what they discovered. That’s basically what I did.
So for me, one of my favorite aspects of the film was its cinematography. Do you have a favorite shot or sequence that you’re especially proud of or enjoy?
Oh, how good is it! It’s amazing. I don’t know if you remember, but there are little things – like you know, for example, at the beach house. When Alma Reville and Whitfield Cook are having that moment and then suddenly, you hear the sound of a phone ringing, and then you cut back and you see the phone in the foreground, and then through the window, sort of out of focus. That is like Jeff Cronenweth genius.
He’s telling the story in a Hitchcockian way, but in a way that’s totally fitting to the moment. There were endless things you could see, by the way he used the steadicam, the way he swept down over the Paramount arches to discover the car when the Hitchcocks are first coming to Paramount, clearly just the idea of echoing “Sunset Boulevard” and films like that. The guy is just flipping genius.
I really think that shot of the phone is great, because the thing that Hitchcock did was put large objects in the foreground and follow them – we did that several times, and that particular shot was the one I was thinking of.
You previously said in an earlier interview that you were intrigued by the prospect of doing a love story about a man like Hitchcock, who displays little to no outward emotion. Could you elaborate some on that?
That’s the thing about Hitchcock, because his persona is so enigmatic. He portrays zero emotions so the prospect of doing a film which at least emotionally explored the complexity of that man, to me, was intriguing because he’s such an enigma. Unfairly, he’s been kind of categorized and pigeonholed as just a cinematic god. He’s been put up on that pedestal, or in other cases, been ripped down and turned into some sadistic monster. For us, I think the point was not to say the good or bad. Our point was to say that he’s both.
In “Hitchcock,” you see his darkness, you see the meanness with which he directs Janet Leigh, you see his unspeakable cruelty to Alma at the dinner table, and you see his craziness in the shower scene. We show the darkness – he’s dialoguing with a serial killer in his mind, for God’s sake – but we also showed some tenderness and humanity. I thought that was important: to not try and explain someone as good or bad, but to just try and suspend judgment for a moment and look at all the layers and aspects of a character and try and not have a judgment about it.
Also, to tell the story of this relationship in an entertaining way, hopefully, in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, whom frankly I believe would have wanted the movie about him to be fun. He was about audiences; he was not about critical theories class. He was a populist. I think Hitchcock told the story that one of the final movies he screened in his office at Paramount before he died was his favorite of the past few years. It was “Smokey and the Bandit.” I mean, Hitchcock wasn’t sitting there watching “Battleship Potemkin” over and over again, he was watching movies that people went to see and there was no shame in that for him.
Even “Psycho” was dismissed roundly at the time. I think Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it “a blot on an otherwise honorable career.” He got a lot of (expletive), but I think he was making movies for people to entertain them. I admired that he was principally an entertainer. Whether we succeeded or not is primarily up to people, but what we tried to do was make a film in that spirit for an audience that we felt was at least in some way true to him and was a bit more fair to him than the sensationalist or one-note portrayals of the way he’s been perceived.
Just to wrap things up, what would you say is your favorite Hitchcock film and why?
Well it’d have to be “Psycho,” although I obviously love “Vertigo,” too. You know, it’s…you feel it, man. What I love about “Vertigo” – let’s talk about that because they’re both great films, but “Vertigo” to me is one of his accidentally revealing films. You see the tenderness, the heartbreak, the warmth, the darkness and frustration. I felt his heart in that movie. We see the romantic side of Hitchcock in that film.
I just want to mention that in the context of the much wider debate. We know about the darkness, we know about the meanness to actresses, we know about all this stuff, but what we don’t know about is the man. I don’t think it takes away anything from his work. It just makes you realize that often the work and the man are two different things, and I think that’s a healthy debate to be having.