With awards season in full swing, and Hitchcock having just received a nomination for Best Actress (Helen Mirren) for the Golden Globe Awards, Collider was invited to chat with director Sacha Gervasi recently. During the interview about the film and its exploration of the little known romantic and creative relationship between Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife, Alma Reville (Mirren), the filmmaker talked about intentionally keeping a level of fantasy to the story, the unexpected decision to focus on Alma’s creative contribution to Hitchcock’s career more than the man himself, his first exposure to the films of Hitchcock, how the test screening process affected the finished product, and the handful of deleted scenes that he can put on the DVD. He also talked about his next film, My Dinner with Hervé, based on when he interviewed Hervé Villechaize (with Peter Dinklage set to play the French actor) in the final days before his suicide. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
SACHA GERVASI: Yeah, it’s a movie. It’s fantastical, but it’s also referencing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where he would address the camera. For us, it was a direct reference to the TV show, which most Americans know. In England, it’s known quite differently. We were referencing that persona that he created. Also, it’s to let the audience know that it’s surreal and fantastical. It has elements of fantasy to it. We’re telling you immediately that this is not some sincere, earnest, intense biopic. Hopefully, it’s an entertaining movie.
The thing that I think is interesting is that Hitchcock’s work, over time, has acquired the status of master works, but at the time, the critics dismissed his movies as a nice bit of fun, and as genre movies. He really made movies for the audience, so we tried to embrace that spirit. I think that was a conscious decision. We knew it would provoke feeling, but we’re thrilled that we did that. Everyone knows about the actresses and all the stuff that happened with Tippi Hedren. That’s the known view of him, as this more than slightly difficult, slightly sadistic, crazed, obsessive, neurotic director. What people didn’t know was that his greatest collaborator really was his wife.
For me, it was a chance to tell a story that people didn’t know, and I always like that. Of course, when you’re doing something that’s unexpected, people are going to have a very specific point of view about it, but I think it’s all good to have a healthy debate about who Hitchcock was and what that means to people. He means a lot of different things to a lot of different people because the films are so great. If the movies were not great, no one would be bothering to show any interest.
GERVASI: In a strange way, I wasn’t really taking on Hitchcock. I wasn’t trying to answer those riddles. All I was trying to do was shine a light on an unexpected part of his life that most people don’t know. Some people know of the existence of Alma, but even fans don’t really know how involved she was. For us, it was a chance to tell that story. And it was really an emotional relationship story, which is what I did in Anvil. I essentially told a story of a creative marriage, over a long period of time, and this is very similar, although the films are completely different. I love the idea of creative collaboration. I love the idea of exploring marriages, particularly ones that are in process for a long time. This is not a romantic story. There’s some romance in it, but at times, it’s incredibly tough. Hitchcock was not exactly wonderful to his wife. That’s what it’s about. What Helen and Tony responded to was the fact that it’s a story about long-term relationships, as well as the specific one with Alfred and Alma.
What was your courting process in getting Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren to say yes to doing these roles?
GERVASI: I think that they both knew about the project. Helen had passed on it twice, and Tony had played footsy with it for years, when there was another director. I directed this documentary, Anvil, which people really loved, so I met with him. The first thing Tony said to me was, “I’ve seen Anvil three times, and I love it.” At that point, I knew there was a sense that maybe he wanted to give it a go. He said, “You’re totally crazy, and I’m in!” When we met to me, Tony said, “This is not going to be the story of the making of a great movie, is it?” I said, “As a back-drop, yeah, but it’s really this relationship story.” We made a decision to make a different kind of movie than the one that people had anticipated. To me, there was no emotion in showing how shots were done of a great movie that stands alone. First of all, the movie never would have gotten made. And second of all, there wasn’t really much emotional drama to it. The untold story was the one of their relationship, and that’s what we decided to focus on. Tony and Helen and I really wanted to tell that story because it was something different.
GERVASI: When I saw Psycho, when I was really young. I had a film club at my school, that I started with one other person. The first three movies that we had, in the first month, were Don’t Look Now, Easy Rider and Psycho. I would show them on a 16mm projector at school. We would go down to Soho and pick up the prints, and it was really cool. I just remember how disturbing it was, seeing Psycho at the age of 14 or 15. It was pretty crazy! And I didn’t watch it again for years after that because it was so traumatizing. Obviously, growing up in England, he’s so iconic. Anyone who had any interest in film was completely fascinated with him, as I was. And then, going to UCLA and really studying him in Howard Suber’s film structure class. Howard has been teaching there for about 48 years, and he’s taught everyone from Paul Schrader to Francis Coppola to Alexander Payne. I was always a fan of Hitchcock and his films, and what struck me was, with some filmmakers, there’s maybe two or three master works, but Hitchcock has 10 or 12, depending on what your personal preferences are. He was able to do really commercial genre movies, but also different things, as well. Vertigo is a really personal, original movie. There was a huge range, and I love that about him. He was able to constantly reinvent, and Psycho was part of that reinvention.
Did delving so deeply into Hitchcock for this film, change your perspective of him, at all?
GERVASI: The movie is an exploration of what might have been in his mind while he was making this film and what might have been happening. We weren’t in the bedroom with a tape machine, recording what went on with his life. Having read Stephen Rebello’s book and all the other biographies, we had a sense of who she was and what was going on. We did what all movies do, which is take what we knew of the facts and then dramatize what we imagined to be true. What was fun for us was the chance to tell this completely untold story of Alma. It was wonderful when Hitchcock’s granddaughter, a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, said that she was grateful that finally her grandmother was getting her due. That was the primary intention of the movie. In a strange way, the movie was as much about Alma as it really was about Hitchcock, which was unexpected, but good.
GERVASI: We did, actually.
How did those reactions shape or change the film?
GERVASI: We started shooting earlier this year, so we didn’t really have much time. We started shooting April 13, and we tested it by the end of August. It went incredibly well. The audience was really receptive to it. We got a few useful things out of it, but generally it was more about, “Was it funny? Were people laughing or not? Were people emotional or not?” And they absolutely were. We did some fine tuning, absolutely. We really only tested the movie once and it was a fantastic experience. I mean, it was traumatizing and horrible. It was like the end of the movie itself, where they were standing outside the doors. It’s a horrible, horrible process. It’s helpful when it goes well, and less helpful when it doesn’t. In our case, the audience responded incredibly well.
We recently screened it at CAA, which is a tough room, and there was applause for Helen’s speech. People are feeling it. People coming into the movie without a preconception of what it should or should be, or who don’t have a judgement about it and are genuinely open, if they allow themselves to have a good time, they generally seem to have a good time. I think it’s striking a chord with any better halves, or any husbands or wives of someone. For every great, brilliant, important person, whether they’re a lawyer or a filmmaker, there’s someone who has to listen to all their shit at midnight and is there giving support. That’s an important thing that’s come out of the film, and I think that’s why Helen Mirren wanted to play the role. She genuinely recognized that, in her own life, having also been married to a director. At a certain point, 20 years ago, no one knew who Helen Mirren was. She came here to L.A. and had the experience of being at all these parties with people literally elbowing her aside to get to her husband. That speech of hers gets applause because it’s Alma Reville, but it’s also Helen Mirren, speaking from her own experience.
GERVASI: There were a few scenes, yeah. But, I’m allowed to keep them for a surprised, right? We didn’t have much time, so we had to be very specific about what we shot. We dropped maybe four or five scenes and moved quite a lot of things around, but we generally had a pretty good ratio of what we shot to what’s in the film.
Are you going to do the Hervé Villechaize film, My Dinner with Hervé, next?
GERVASI: Yeah, I think I’m doing it next. I’m hoping that it’s coming together. It’s based on a true story of my interview with him, six days before he committed suicide. I’m hoping to put that together.
What was it about him that interested you?
GERVASI: I don’t know. I was sent to do an interview with him, and I was told to do 500 words and that it would be a jokey thing. He ended up pulling a knife on me and saying he wasn’t done talking. I spent three days with him, and it turned out to be his final interview. That become my first script, My Dinner with Hervé, and now I’m going to direct it.
And you’ve cast Peter Dinklage?
GERVASI: That’s right, and he’s great. It’s a really unusual story. I’m always drawn to these quite exotic, eccentric characters, whether it’s Anvil or Hervé or even Hitchcock. I love those types of people. You don’t really know them, but then you peel it away and realize they’re not that dissimilar.
Hitchcock is now playing in theaters.