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Finding the Humor, Darkness and Craziness of Alfred Hitchcock

by Sean Au
Contributor
Wednesday Nov 21, 2012
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For a career that spans over six decades in two continents, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in movie history. In its recent poll of film critics for the greatest films of all time, the British Film Institute’s publication Sight & Sound crowned Hitchcock’s 1958 "Vertigo" as #1, knocking off Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane" (the winner for nearly half-a-century).

But, as Richard Brody points out in this week’s New Yorker, that vote for "Vertigo" was one that re-affirmed "classic Hollywood." By contrast, he continued, "’Psycho,’ in its dark and sordid extravagance, remains utterly contemporary, in its subject as well as in its production."

The making of "Psycho" is the subject of "Hitchcock," Sacha Gervasi’s new biopic, which features Anthony Hopkins as the legendary director and Helen Mirren as his wife and unsung collaborator Alma Reville. (The film is based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.")


Gervasi’s film opens in 1959 with Hitchcock was at the apex of his career, having just scored a critical and box office hit with "North By Northwest." While looking for his next project, Hitchcock was fascinated with the Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and the Robert Bloch’s novel "Psycho," which was inspired by Gein’s perverse crimes with elements of sex, transvestism and incest.

Hitchcock owed Paramount a final film on his contract. Throughout the 1950s the director had a number of his greatest successes ("Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief"), as well as his most celebrated failure ("Vertigo") with the studio. They wanted another glossy thriller along the lines of "North by Northwest" (which Hitchcock made for MGM). Instead he offered them "Psycho," - a low-budget, black-and-white shocker that appeared to be the kind of movie better suited for American-International Pictures. To get Paramount to agree to the film, he budgeted it for a modest $800,000, with plans to use the techniques he learned from his recent foray into television production. (By contrast, "North by Northwest" cost more than $3,000,000.)

Still, even with Hitchcock trimming the costs, Paramount refused, finding Bloch’s novel too sensational. To finance the film, the director mortgaged his house.


That incident is included in Gervasi’s smartly layered biopic, which follows Hitchcock’s process from coming across Bloch’s novel (and buying every copy to keep its ending a surprise) through casting, filming and editing. What gives the film bite is the revelation of how much input had come from Reville, played by Mirren, in arguably her best role since her Oscar-winning "The Queen." She came up with the notion of killing the leading lady off after a half-hour; had a hand in the casting of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates; made the sensible choices of cutting down household expenses as the couple decided to self-finance the movie; took over the helm of the film shoot when Hitchcock fell ill; and even assisted in salvaging the film when the rough cut disappointed studio executives. The film also suggests that Reville insisted that Bernard Hermann’s piercing music be used in the shower sequence when Hitchcock was adamant that the sequence be silent.

Director Gervasi learned that despite all the pressure surrounding "Psycho," the couple led a life filled with laughter. Dry humor punctuates the movie even in its tense moments, rendering it as close to comedy as it can get. Anthony Hopkins melts into the role of Alfred Hitchcock, displaying a human and vulnerable side behind a self-assured profile. Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles), James D’Arcy (as Anthony Perkins), Toni Colette (as Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson), Danny Huston, Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Wincott round up the excellent ensemble cast.


In his review for the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy comments "’Hitchcock’ might be a work of fantasy and speculations as much as it is history and biography, but as an interpretation of a major talent’s inner life and imagination, it’s undeniably lively and provocative." And Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman writes that Hopkins and Mirren "create a vital portrait of a unique showbiz marriage.

And, when it comes to how the Master of Suspense bucked the system to get ’Psycho’ made, ’Hitchcock’ serves up a slice of cinema history so compelling it nails a reality beyond the details. My favorite moment is surely an invention: the director in the lobby during ’Psycho’s’ premiere, ’’conducting’’ the orchestral rhythms of the shower scene - and the audience’s screams. It’s a perfect summation of why he was the ultimate filmmaker."

EDGE sat down with Director Sacha Gervasi about his portrait of the "Master of Suspense" - Alfred Hitchcock.


EDGE: Which aspects of Alfred Hitchcock do you want the audience to see?

Sacha Gervasi: There have been many portrayals of Alfred Hitchcock over the years. People so often want to categorize Hitchcock. He has been vilified. He has been deified. What we are saying is: is he an evil monster? At times, he probably was. Is he an unbelievably creative genius? Of course, he was. Is he tender? Is he romantic all that time? He was that too. People want to go: he’s good, he’s bad. The truth is, the point to our film is to say he is a complex, contradictory human being. There are many different aspects. In our film, what we wanted to do is to stay true to the spirit of Hitchcock. Do it with a tongue-in-cheek comedic style a la ’Hitchcock Presents’ but also to show the darkness.

In the scene at the dinner table, when he destroys his wife’s treatment, which she has co-written. He calls it "stillborn." It is so immensely cruel. When he directs Janet Leigh (in the shower sequence), he is so mean. He is suspicious of his wife, and to get the reaction he wants from his actress, you see him take his personal life and put it into his work. And (when filming) the shower scene, (he’s seen in a state of) unbridled homicidal rage. He is completely out of control, frustrated and crazy. Throughout the film he is dialoguing with a serial killer in his imagination (the real-life Ed Gein). So you have real darkness in this film as well as real light. For us, it is about showing that.

When we were putting together the relationship with Janet Leigh, Scarlett Johansson called Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh’s daughter, who is very encouraging of the portrayal of the relationship between Janet Leigh and Hitchcock. According to Janet Leigh, it was an immensely warm one. Curtis provided letters and photos so Scarlett could research the role.

Similarly, Eva Marie Saint, who is still around, absolutely loved her relationship with Hitchcock. Kim Novak had a tough time on ’Vertigo,’ but she said recently it is unfortunate that Hitchcock is not around to defend himself that so many people are saying such negative things. Just one person who may say something that is incorrect, four more people would be saying the opposite thing. All I’m asking people to do is to have a balance, fair view of clearly someone who is, at times, mean and monstrous, but also was this genius filmmaker who had tremendous tenderness and light.


EDGE: What kind of a director is Hitchcock?

Sacha Gervasi: I look at his movie ’Vertigo.’ To me, that is his most revealing of Hitchcock’s soul. The tender yearning, the darkness, the frustration. It is not by coincidence. It has just been voted the number one film of all time by Sight & Sound. We want to show that side of things. We want to show the humor, the darkness, the craziness but also the fact that Hitchcock, I believe, would have wanted a movie about himself to be for an audience. That is who he made films for.

EDGE: What is your research process like?


Sacha Gervasi: A lot of it was talking to a lot of real people and reading everything that is possible to read about it. We did that, but to me, the focus has to be the love story. I was less interested in the making of ’Psycho.’ That has to be the backdrop. That is perhaps the thing that I brought to it. I work with the actors in that context. The thing about Hitchcock is that he is so provocative. A lot of people have their agenda. They want it to be a certain thing. We have a few people who want it to be a reconstruction of ’Psycho.’ We deliberately made the choice not to do that.


EDGE: Your film has, at its core, a love story.

Sacha Gervasi: That relationship with Alma Reville had to be highlighted. Her role in Hitchcock’s creative genius is massive.

This woman here was the only person he listened to, the only person he trusted. For us, it is the wider story of unacknowledged partners, of people who deserved recognition but haven’t got it.

EDGE: The film also studies Hitchcock’s psychology in making ’Psycho.’

Sacha Gervasi: For Alfred Hitchcock, the seemingly all powerful director, no one wanted to make ’Psycho!’ He put his own money into it! I find that was an amazing story, but he had to risk his own money to do this, about $800,000. It was a massive risk on a movie that everyone dismissed as a bargain basement drive-in movie for kids, but he believed in it and he went for it. You’ve got to think, how much courage does it take for a 60-year old, mega-director, who is corseted by his own success. He wanted to shock the audience with ’Psycho’ but he also wanted to shock himself. For me, it was a story of a risk taker, about an artist who is willing to risk everything in order to feel young and relevant again. It is about marriage, how hard it can be to sustain over the long haul. It is about acknowledging partners, all within this fun Hitchcock tongue-in-cheek type style. It is going to be provocative and to arouse feeling.

EDGE: In the film, you have Hitchcock in an imaginary relationship with Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the inspiration for the novel "Psycho." How did this come about?

Sacha Gervasi: There is also another element of the story that is clearly fantastical. He is dialoguing with a serial killer. Clearly that is not fact-based. We hope that the audience understands that this is a movie, it is not a documentary. This is entertainment designed for an audience. So we tried to stay as authentic as we can and we hope a smart audience also understands that we are dramatizing a film.


EDGE: How much of the Alma’s relationship with Whitfield Cook was true?

Sacha Gervasi: I think Whitfield Cook was really a close friend with the Hitchcocks. We also know that if you read the autobiographies out there, we are not saying there was an affair, but we know that there was a relationship. We knew that they really collaborated. There really was a script for "Taxi to Dubrovnik" which we really got a copy of. It was absolutely horrible. [laughs] I would not say that, it is just that it was really pulpy; I would not say it is the greatest thing ever. There are several stories about it. Some of the stories maintain that there was actually a full-fledged love affair between Alma and Whitfield. We do not even say that.

There is another account where were it not for a fateful call from Hitchcock himself, the relationship was about to be consummated. So all we are saying is there may have been a moment where it crossed her mind, the phone rings, and if you see the look on Alma’s face, she goes, ’what the fuck am I doing?’ So there’s no affair, but what we are suggesting is that she may have been human. Faced with this man’s incredible magnificent selfishness and self-obsession, his obsession with these women (the famous Hitchcock blonds), that suddenly there is this courtier who wants his work made by Hitchcock again. What we are saying is maybe it crossed her mind.

EDGE: How would you compare between directing ’Anvil,’ a documentary about the rock band and your first dramatic feature ’Hitchcock?’

Sacha Gervasi: I have to say Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren were a lot easier to deal with than Lips (singer) and Robb (drums) of Anvil. [laughs] It is completely crazy. Everyone was saying it was a huge leap. It was to a certain degree but I work as a writer and have been on a lot of film sets and I worked with a lot of actors. It was not as much of a crazy leap as some people thought. I thought it was much easier.

When you are hiring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson and the cast, and David Fincher’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, and literally the best people in the world for it. Most of your job is done! My job is really not to fuck it up, [laughs] to show up and let these people do their jobs. My job is to watch these great people work and record it. It was a lot simpler than it might look on paper. The trick was getting them to agree to do it but they trusted me. Also, they both responded really well to ’Anvil.’ Both of them felt it in their souls. I don’t think if they didn’t feel that energy they would have done this film.


EDGE: How did you get this impressive cast?

Sacha Gervasi: As someone who is a young, first-time narrative filmmaker, I was incredibly nervous to meet Anthony Hopkins the first time. I got to meet him in Beverly Hills. The first thing he said was that he has seen ’Anvil’ three times. I put him immediately on the phone with Lips of Anvil and it was the same energy, both as crazy as each other. From that moment on, I said the love story is the most important thing. It was incredibly important to me that there is an emotional core to this film. And that it was also fun in the style of Hitchcock. He was totally on board with that.

Then I went to meet Helen and I pitched to her. The fact that Anthony Hopkins was already in and she really wanted to work with him, that was a huge part of it. Everything went crazy!

EDGE: It appeared to be a challenging task.

Sacha Gervasi: If you look at Helen Mirren, I think has done probably her best work since ’The Queen.’ I have grown up seeing them (Hopkins and Mirren) on stage and on screen. In the bedroom scene (where Hitchcock demands Alma’s full support), I wanted to create that theatrical feeling of being in the front row watching Helen Mirren. The camera stays on her, we have that very visceral connection and she just gave that speech so brilliantly. I just wanted to thrust you into a real experience with her and I think that is why that scene is one of the strongest in the movie because of that.

I think they have done some of the best work in years. I feel really proud of it. I was telling a story that no one knows, about this great artist who risked everything. I risked all my own money on ’Anvil.’ I knew what that felt like.


EDGE: In your research process, did you find something new you did not know about Hitchcock before?

Sacha Gervasi: Oh yes, many things. We got all the bills of the Hitchcocks at their Bel Air house, so we see how much they spent on electricity. You know, he was having foie gras flown in from Paris. There was a guy called Jean-Claude who was a maitre d’ of Maxim’s. He would call him up every second week and go, ’Jean-Claude, send me five kilograms.’ It would be put on a flight from Paris to London and it would be flown by courier from New York to Los Angeles. It was thousands a month for the wine and foie gras to be flown in! They had the drivers and the gardeners. They lived like emperors and empresses over there in Bel Air.

Even though the house looks quite modest, when they re-did the kitchen, that was the first modern kitchen in L.A., I think the bill was like $50,000, which at that time was an astronomical amount, to have the whole thing redone and have all the stuff flown in from Europe. They had this vineyard in Northern California. He was trying to get them to grow great wine but it never lived up to the wine he had flown in from Europe. The income tax and how much money he spent, the guy was spending so much money!


"Hitchcock" opens in theaters Nov. 23, 2012.


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