Behind ‘Hitchcock’ and Beyond with Director Sacha Gervasi

“I enjoy[ed] playing [Alfred Hitchcock] with this untried director, Sacha Gervasi. He was one of the reasons I wanted to do it; he’d never work[ed] with actors before, and I think that’s all the more [motivation]. He had such confidence in himself. His enthusiasm was palpable.” Praise-laden words courtesy of Anthony Hopkins (via satellite during a press conference last week), the legendary actor’s assessment of the filmmaker speaks volumes.

And he’s not the only one pleased with the experience of making Hitchcock. Indeed, Gervasi is said to have fostered a fun atmosphere for all on set, at least according to actress Toni Collette, who plays Peggy Robertson, trusty assistant to Hopkins’ Hitchcock. “It felt light and free and focused,” said she of the environment.

Known for producing and directing the award-winning documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil and for writing scripts for The Big Tease and The Terminal, this Fox Searchlight flick, which opens today in limited release and nationwide next month, is Gervasi’s narrative directorial debut.

A love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Hitchcock conveys to viewers the bond, sometimes tenuous and sometimes tender, between Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville. Instrumental to both the happiness of the man and the success of the movie Psycho, Reville, portrayed by Helen Mirren, at long last receives the recognition she so sorely deserves.

Gervasi spent some time with us last week discussing this, along with Hopkins’ hijinks, the challenges that accompanied making this movie, and how permanently playing percussion for the band Bush wasn’t ever really in the cards.

So, there’s already a bit of Oscar buzz…
Who the hell knows? My mother’s behind it all.

[Laughs] So, why did this story need to be told?
[Hitchcock is] an iconic filmmaker. He’s a brilliant genius, one of the greatest directors of all time. What people don’t know is how important his wife was. Not just as his marriage partner, but also as someone who worked with him. She worked on the script, on casting, consult[ed] during production and was very involved in the editing process. I felt it was an interesting, unexpected, unusual story. A strange kind of love story. You picture Alfred Hitchcock and don’t imagine him listening to anyone. Well, he listened to one person and it happened to be his wife.

What did it take for you to get on board?
I’m fascinated with stories about creative marriages and creative partnerships. I had to convince them to give me the job, which was a big deal, because there were far more qualified directors in line for the job. But, you know, Tom Pollock and Ivan Reitman, producers of this film, really loved [my documentary film] Anvil, so I was given the job, against the[ir] better judgment. [Laughs] And then I met Tony Hopkins. I was very nervous, because he had to say yes. The first thing he said to me was, "I’ve seen Anvil three times." So, he was on board immediately. Then, once Tony was in, we had to persuade Helen [Mirren], and eventually the movie got made. So, it was very fortuitous, the whole thing.

Any funny stories from on set?
Oh my god. Tony loved to shock people, just like Hitchcock did. He would get in his Hitchcock outfit and ask, "Is someone new coming to the set?" Then, [when] someone new would appear, he would take great delight in tapping them on the shoulder and going, "Good evening." He would make people jump, like, five feet in the air. It was pretty funny.

In the film, were there any ad-libbed or improvised parts?
I think there were a few. For example, the [scene where] Tony is directing Janet Leigh and he goes into this sort of frenzy and then the film burns, you see a wide shot of Hitchcock walking behind the screen in profile. That was an accident. Tony was actually going to get coffee. I’d already called cut, but we were [still] filming and Tony was walking across the set. It ended up in the movie. So, that’s a perfect example of something that was not intended.

Did any of the performances surprise you?
All of them. You never know what’s going to happen until the camera’s running. Tony Hopkins and Helen Mirren didn’t “audition.” None of the actors, frankly. So, you’re always surprised.

What did you find to be the biggest challenge?
We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have much time. We shot it in 35 days for a relatively low budget. The biggest challenge was getting everything we needed to get within the day that we had to get it.

Sounds like a parallel to Psycho.
Yeah, it was roughly the same schedule. It was shot in the same time. It was very interesting.

Did your wife fix your movie for you, too? [Laughs]
Yeah, she told me to do [Hitchcock] in the first place!

I thought you didn’t need convincing!
When I first read [the script], I wasn’t sure. Then she told me the Alfred and Alma story, because she was fascinated with it. So, she was a huge reason why I actually did it, because she thought it was a great story.

Indeed! So, how did you prepare?
I drank a lot of coffee. [Laughs] I did a ton of research. We had Stephen Rebello’s book, numerous biographies, numerous accounts. Even Janet Leigh wrote a book about her experience making Psycho. We read everything to try and acquaint ourselves. So, a lot of it was research, a lot of it was working with my team and trying to create those sets and trying to create the feeling.

Two scenes stand out to me especially: when Alma gives Alfred a talking to and when he’s privately conducting the score to the shower scene outside the theater…
That was a tiny line in the script, but it was really Tony. He’s a classical musician, so it’s really all Hopkins.

What was the most fun scene to shoot?
I would say that was one of the most fun. Going between the audience and him was tremendous fun.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Probably the opening of North by Northwest. We had rain and umbrellas and crane shots and hundreds of extras. As we were shooting, there would be homeless people screaming out, What are you doing? We had street people of downtown L.A. ruining our takes, so it was complicated in that environment to try to make it work.

What was the impetus to bring Gein into Alfred’s present?
We wanted to find a fictional way to get inside Hitch’s mind. I thought it was funny that the most notorious serial killer of all time would be [Hitchcock’s] only friend and his shrink [in the film]. So, there’s a certain irony to it, which I hope the audience embraces. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s “Hitchcockian.”

With all of this said, what are your thoughts on Hitchcock?
There’s been a lot of debate about Hitchcock [the man]. I think what we’re saying [in this film] is that he wasn’t good or bad. He was both. He’s such a fascinating, rich character. The reason we’re interested is because [his] films are so extraordinary. I hope [Hitchcock] provokes curiosity in Hitchcock. It was great having young people come to the screenings, now going and looking at Hitchcock movies. That’s a great byproduct of what we’ve done that we weren’t really anticipating. Plus, the relationship story. Giving Alma her due. If nothing else, the film is about that. Acknowledging the unacknowledged partner. Singing the song of someone who wasn’t seeking the limelight, but yet who made such a vital and valuable contribution.

You’re from the U.K., you shot in L.A. and now you’re in New York. Stance on NYC?
I love New York. I mean, I used to live here. So, for me, it’s like coming home.

Lastly, you once played drums in the band Bush. What would you be doing today if you weren’t working in film? Might you have been a rock star?
I’d probably be in rehab. [Laughs] I have no idea. I still speak with Gavin [Rossdale]. We’re really good friends. I’ve known him since I was five, so the idea of being his drummer…it was fun for a moment, but I think I had other things in mind. That being said, I loved being in that band. But, I don’t know. It wasn’t really my destiny.

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