No one now would believe the story of famed British director Alfred Hitchcock’s having to remortgage his Los Angeles home to finance 1960’s ‘Psycho’. Most famous for an iconic shower murder scene, which turned a generation of terrified young women onto baths, the film’s star Janet Leigh included, ‘Psycho’ proved not only ground-breaking but Hitchcock’s biggest hit to date.
Based on American journalist Stephen Rebello’s acclaimed 1990 book, ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’, ‘Hitchcock’ is Brit Sacha Gervasi’s Hollywood debut as a feature director.
Gervasi, 45, made sacrifices to create his earlier directorial project, 2008‘s ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’, the true story of two members of a Canadian rock band, their 15 minutes of fame in the ‘80s, and their years-long quest for at least 15 more.
The heart-warming documentary won myriad fans internationally, including Sir Anthony Hopkins. Long slated to play Hitchcock, Hopkins readily finalized his deal on discovering Gervasi was its director.
Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese had flirted with the project and you beat out many big name directors for the directing job. Why were you so passionate about getting it?
I loved Hitchcock so I read the book. I took classes with [famed film professor] Howard Suber at UCLA, and we studied Hitchcock. But it was also because of having made ‘Anvil’. I connected into a story about a guy who was willing to risk his reputation and all his money, just so he could connect viscerally with an audience. I understood that. ‘Anvil’was about a creative marriage, a collaboration, and so was this movie, the untold story of this incredible marriage.
Why did you want to direct ‘Hitchcock’?
I wanted to tell the story about Alfred and his wife Alma, the love story when everyone is expecting something different. It’s sort of the underdog thing because I think Hitchcock has been vilified or stereotyped at times. I loved the idea of confounding the stereotype, as it was with ‘Anvil’. It looked like those guys were loser head bangers but then you peel away the layers a bit and there’s a lot more there. That kind of thing.
Did your Britishness help do you think?
Absolutely. I understand the irony and the drollness and, being English in Hollywood of course, there was something I could connect into a lot easier than perhaps an American director might have.
You had lunch with Anthony Hopkins and he later agreed to play the role. How much convincing did he take?
I was nervous about meeting him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’ve seen ‘Anvil’ three times”. He’s an Anvil fan! I would never have thought it. He then asked how the band was doing and I said, “Why don’t we find out?” We called the lead singer, Lips, so Anthony Hopkins and Lips were on the phone having an awesome conversation - one was a Welsh acting genius, the other was a godfather of speed metal, but other than that, they were really the same guy. He was going “Lips, I love you!” and Lips was going, “Hannibal!” It was weird.
20 years ago you were in rehab in England when a special visitor arrived to address your group.
Yes, it was him. I reminded him about it after he said he would do the job and I think it just cemented his sense of, “I should do it”. Because clearly there is some kind of unusually magic connection between us. The idea that I was in a halfway house when he came and told us, “Anything is possible”, and then 20 years later one of the guys in that room is going to direct him in a movie, it’s kind of a magical story and I think that he felt that too.
Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins
Don’t you find it odd that Hopkins and Mirren (who plays Alma) have never worked together?
I know, it’s unusual. They have tried to several times and I think a couple of years ago, they were about to do something which fell apart at the last minute. It’s not that they didn’t want to try, and fortunately for us, this is the one in which they came together.
Did they screen-test together before you cast Mirren?
No, I didn’t need to see them together. I knew they were brilliant as individuals and I knew they would be brilliant together. The first day of rehearsal, they read one scene and it was brilliant. They were like a married couple. They felt like they had been together for years, on the very first day.
Can you talk about casting Scarlett Johansson?
We’d heard that she read it, and was maybe interested. We weren’t sure whether she could do it. She was coming over to my house and I said to Tony [Hopkins], “You’ve got to come over because we’ve got to try and convince Johansson to do it”. So he came over and we started rehearsing. We had all the pages out. The doorbell rang a bit early and my wife showed in Scarlett. We were just tidying up our stuff and sitting down to try to persuade her to do the movie, and she said, “Don’t stop, can I look at what you’re doing?” So the first meeting was actually a four-hour rehearsal. That’s the sort of energy around the film.
Was directing the film everything you hoped it would be?
It far exceeded my expectations, and my ability to process it. It was fantastic, a really great experience, and both harder, and easier than I expected. It felt sort of natural, but there were also challenges that you couldn’t have predicted. You are ultimately responsible for it, you have to try and keep the whole thing together. If it works, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, the buck stops with you. There was a lot of pressure. But I kind of enjoyed it.
What was harder and what easier?
I literally got some of the best actors in the world and so it was incredibly easy to direct them, because really what I did was create an environment in which they could perform and do their best. Then I sort of recorded the performances, so there was a certain simplicity to that. Difficult is always managing the moving pieces, getting certain shots. You are complicated by the environment you are in. For example, for the opening which happens in the rain, we had hundreds of extras in downtown LA. The thing I couldn’t have predicted, because we were in a rough neighbourhood, was homeless people calling out in the middle of your take: “What a load of shit!” and stuff like that. There’s nothing you can do.
What did you find out about Hitchcock in the book that you didn’t know before?
So many things, I found out how much he ate and how much it cost. He used to fly food in from Paris, I think it was $900 a trip, which back then was crazy. That’s about $10,000 in today’s money: extraordinary when you think about it.
Because a rival studio owns the rights to ‘Psycho’, you were unable to include any footage from the film. Blessing or curse?
It was a blessing, because it was about the untold. We are telling a different story, more of a companion piece. ‘Psycho’ is a work of genius, the last thing we wanted to do was comment on that. We wanted to do something that was an interesting view into this unknown relationship, set against that backdrop.
Do you have any director mentors?
I worked with Spielberg [who directed 2004’s ‘The Terminal’, a Gervasi script] and he was fantastic. I wasn’t there a lot, but when I was, he was amazing. Steve Zaillian is producing my next film, ‘My Dinner with Herve’ [about Gervasi’s real dinner with the late star of ‘Fantasy Island’, a late 70s TV show].
Was there a silly piece of advice from anyone in Hollywood which actually proved helpful?
Tom Hanks told me to change my clogs at lunchtime. And a great piece of advice from a director who shall remain nameless: “Never forget what they did to you, never show them that you remember”.
You removed your own cameo from the film (Gervasi played a reporter outside the first New York screening of ‘Psycho’). Were you a little upset not to make the cut?
No, I did it willingly. It was for the cause. I could not stand a cameo of myself, but Helen Mirren made me do it. I just thought it was ridiculously pretentious, but a fun thing for the crew so I did it. Thankfully I removed it from the film!