Starring Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, HBO’s The Girl tells the unnerving story of the director’s obsessive relationship with his leading lady, during the making of The Birds and Marnie, with stunning and spot-on performances from its two leads. As Hitchcock became obsessed with the impossible dream of winning the real woman’s love, her rejection of his misguided attempts only added to his obsession, putting both their careers and personal lives in jeopardy.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane) talked about what made him sign on to direct The Girl, how nervous he was about showing someone as revered as Hitchcock in this light, why they decided to shoot in Cape Town, the challenges of casting actors to play Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, breathing a sigh of relief over Tippi Hedren’s positive response to the film, and what makes him sign on to direct something. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JULIAN JARROLD: It was just sent to me, actually, as an earlier draft, some time ago. It was about the making of The Birds and Marnie, but the main thing was about this abusive relationship that took place. So, I attached myself and met with the writer (Gwyneth Hughes), and the writer had done a lot of research. She’d come over here and met Jim Brown, his First A.D., who’s sadly died since then, and Rita Riggs, the costumer, and Tippi [Hedren], and pieced it all together. So, I worked on the script awhile with her and BBC suddenly greenlit it in a panic because they wanted to do it this year. And then, HBO came in and it all happened very quickly, actually.
In taking on someone who’s considered one of the most creative minds in the history of cinema, did it make you a little nervous about showing him, in this light?
JARROLD: Yes, it did, a lot. In England, particularly, he’s revered. I’ve revered him, as well. But, I was always puzzled by some of the strangeness of where these ideas were coming from. What’s fascinating about this story is that you suddenly go, “Oh, I see!,” and you get an insight into that. So, I was nervous. One of the concerns I had, at the beginning, was that it’s not a black and white story. He behaved monstrously, but he’s not quite a monster. There’s a history of where he’s coming from. The great thing in casting Toby [Jones] was that he did give him a humanity, I think. It doesn’t excuse anything, of course, but it probably makes it creepier. Hopefully, it sustains the drama because you get a sense of where these things are coming from.
JARROLD: Yeah. Just on the Hitchcock side, he did behave monstrously, and I did want to explore exactly what that was about and hint at these extraordinarily strange romantic yearnings that he had, and the contradictions between him asking her to be sexually available and him being impotent. Those are very strange, unsettling things. So, I wanted to capture all those nuances, and the fact that it wasn’t just Hitchcock (Jones) and Tippi (Sienna Miller), it was this rather curious triangle of Hitchcock, Tippi and Alma (Imelda Staunton). With Tippi, I wanted to get the sense of it starting out very optimistic. He was the perfect teacher. He taught her about wine, he gave her clothes, and then he gradually just said, “No, you’re going to wear those clothes at home, as well,” and the pressure started to get more intense, as it went on. I wanted to portray Tippi in a realistic way and get an insight into why she put up with it, and also showing that dignity and strength, being able to resist it. All that was tricky. When Hitchcock said one thing, he was actually being quite vindictive and bullying with what he meant, even though he didn’t appear to be saying that. It’s only come out fairly recently because Tippi didn’t want to talk about it. It’s alluded to in the old biographies, but it’s really only recently that people have been prepared to talk about it. It’s very interesting, really. You didn’t talk about it. You just got on with it and suffered. In that respect, we’ve changed quite a lot.
JARROLD: Yes, I did with The Birds and Marnie. When you go back to Marnie, you see it in a completely different light. When you see the scene where Sean Connery is “raping” her, after seeing our film, it really puts things into perspective. It’s quite an intense performance from Tippi in Marnie, and you get tense, knowing where that’s coming from. It had these strange ideas of how her sexual frigidity could be cured. Hitchcock was using that almost as his own personal psychological case study for his life, and that was all fascinating. I wanted to direct it in a Hitchcockian way. I wanted to capture that glamour and that world of Hollywood. As the starting point for the audience to be taken into that world, it’s fascinating. I think we’re all fascinated by that. And then, you peel back the layers and see that there’s a darker side of that. The Vertigo story is quite almost semi-autobiographical, in the way that Hitchcock creates this blonde. In the film, the character loses his perfect blonde to somebody else, who she marries. Some people said that was Grace Kelly going off, and then he plucked this woman who was quite ordinary and turned her into this glamorous blonde, and that was Tippi. I think the key to his psychology was in that film. It was fun going back to all that. I also revisited Psycho and quite a few of the others.
Was it weird to film such a Hollywood story in Cape Town, South Africa?
JARROLD: Well, it certainly would have been harder in London, in the winter. There were two things. Their architecture is a little bit behind, and there are quite good ‘50s and ‘60s buildings, still preserved. We were very lucky to find this old studio that hadn’t really had much done to it. It was almost intact, so we just took it over. Also, I wanted the contrast of this intense blue sky and bright sunlight with the darkness of the subject matter and the claustrophobia of his office. That was very important, really. Shooting it in the real Hollywood, for a period film, is very, very difficult. So, Cape Town actually worked perfectly. We were lucky because we didn’t know if it was going to.
How challenging was the casting for this? Did you have to be concerned with resemblance, at all?
JARROLD: Well, we had endless discussions about it. My philosophy is always, “Let’s get the spirit of the character.” If people believe in it and the spirit of it, then it will work. If you try to do a look-alike and an impersonation, then that’s just not conducive to good drama. That was important because there are not many actors around who look like Hitchcock. As we got close to filming, we were like, “Well, he’s such a well-known, iconic figure, we’ve got to go somewhere down the road to that.” So, we went to prosthetics and built a fat suit. Toby put an immense amount of work into his voice and the way he walked and learning every little possible thing about Hitchcock. He used his four hours of make-up, every day, to get into character, so when he came onto set, he was Hitchcock. He didn’t talk to me like Toby. He was Hitchcock. We had two directors on set, which was tricky. But it was good, as well, because everybody felt like, “The master is here, so we better behave ourselves.” Casting is critical, but you never 100% know. I met lots of people, but Toby talked about it in such an interesting way. And the way he disappeared into the part of [Truman] Capote, just told me that he could transform himself. Fortunately, he did. To some extent, we filmed in story order, and it was great that we were able to do that.
JARROLD: It was, yeah, because she had to play Tippi, but she also had to play Melanie Daniels and Marnie. The really interesting moments, for me, were the moments after Hitchcock would yell, “Cut!,” and she’d go from her character back to Tippi. In quite a lot of the scenes, there was a moment where she’d have to wonder, “What is he doing to me?,” before the mask comes up again. So, it was about finding somebody who could do that. At first, she didn’t seem like the right person. But, I think the history that Sienna has had probably prepared her very well for this. I think she has an insight into the film business. She probably hasn’t had the success she deserves because she’s a really fine actress. I think she really enjoyed the challenge of finding this, and she was really able to do it. It’s a subtle performance. She went along with Hitchcock and smiled through the mask, but kept her dignity and strength while wavering occasionally. I went through lots of people for Tippi and it just came down to instinct. She was really up for it. And then, after I cast her, she said, “Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant.”
Once both Toby Jones and Sienna Miller were fully in character, did you ever have a moment where you felt like you were watching Hitchcock and Tippi, as opposed to actors?
JARROLD: Yeah, particularly in the scenes when Hitchcock was filming. There was something about the process of doing that. We actually did those scenes early on, and that’s when I knew, “Thank god, it’s going to work!” There were those little moments of chemistry between them.
JARROLD: That actually had a very dark ending. He did dismiss her, at the end, in real life. He just said, “Bye!” She’d been with him for years. Like with Alma, I think he needed this support network and Peggy was a gatekeeper for him. They attended to his needs. With Alma, particularly, she was the sounding board for his scripts and ideas. She’s an unsung part of his success. They were both committed cinephiles. Everything that mattered was about making films. Arguably, after Tippi, when the relationship with Alma soured, that was the beginning of the end. It’s interesting that Marnie was the last great film that he made. He screwed up Tippi’s career, but ironically, his career was never as good, either.
Is it nice to know that Tippi Hedren was pleased with the final result of this? Did it give you a sigh of relief?
JARROLD: It did, absolutely! As a director of something like this, you want to show the truth of people and sometimes that’s unflattering, or it’s not something that people want to see. But, it’s her story, as well, so it would be awful, if she’d seen it and said, “You just haven’t got that right, at all.” We were all on tender hooks about that. Sienna was texting her after the screening, and we were all waiting to hear the response. Fortunately, it went down well. I don’t know what Hitchcock would have thought of it. He’d probably criticize me for my direction.
JARROLD: I think there’s something about that insight into the Golden Age, with the glamour of Hollywood filmmaking. Now, it’s a much less innocent time. Hitchcock’s films were the high point of artificial cinema with the most glamorous looks. That’s just disappeared completely, as we’re into our more realistic mode of things. I think there’s perhaps a nostalgia for and a fascination with that. He might have behaved appalling, but he’s a fascinating, larger-than-life personality who just dominated. Perhaps we feel that now we don’t have such colorful characters. I don’t know. Perhaps we do. But certainly, there was no one quite like Hitchcock, who got into that position of power. Also, that kind of relationship has a universal quality, as well. It does speak to that beauty and beast myth. There’s a realistic side to that, and there’s a story side to that. There’s something in that type of relationship that we will always respond to. The thing about Hitchcock is that, however much one dissects him, he still manages to hang onto his mystery. You can never quite get to the bottom of him. He was such a complex, contradictory character.
Do you have any interest in seeing the movie about the making of Psycho with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock?
JARROLD: I don’t know, really. Maybe. As we started filming, we heard that they were doing that one. It’s interesting that suddenly there’s this interest in Hitchcock again. It’s funny because Hitchcock went out of fashion for quite a long period. I think it was the French that rescued him. Now, he’s completely revered. He’s everywhere.
With as much time as it takes to direct a film, what makes you decide to sign on to a project?
JARROLD: It’s interesting, the last three or four things have had this powerful, strong, complex, difficult relationship between a man and a woman in it, that’s slightly abusive sometimes. I think that is one of the things that attracts me. I’m not interested in doing a simple, straightforward action movie, unless they want to pay me lots of money. I’m looking for richness, complexity, and characters that have different layers and that you don’t really get bored of. There’s so much energy that’s needed, for every stage of the process, so I don’t want to do something that I’m bored by with characters that I don’t like or actors that aren’t going to surprise you. That’s what it is, for me.
Do you know what you’re going to do next?
JARROLD: There are a couple of American films that I’m talking to people about. It’s difficult to make the interesting feature films that don’t fit easily into a genre, even on modest budgets. It’s tough to get those films made, but I’d rather try to get those films made than compromise too much. Television does allow you to do more difficult, quirky subject matter, so that’s why I jump between the two.
The Girl can be viewed on HBO.