Plenty of screenwriters go on to direct films, but Sacha Gervasi took a different route than most. Gervasi making a name for himself writing several major features, including The Terminal with Tom Hanks and Henry’s Crime with Keanu Reeves, but he stepped away to spend two years making a documentary about the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil, who Gervasi roadied for when he was a teenager. In 2008, Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil became a surprise hit, earning rave reviews and respectable box office returns, as well as kick-starting the band’s career. Four years later, Gervasi is back in the director’s chair with a very different kind of project. Hitchcock is a drama drawn from real life, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the great British director as he struggles against studio bosses, financiers, and censors to make one of his greatest films, Psycho. Hitchcock also offers a portrait of the sometimes troubled man behind his public persona, as well as the ups and downs of his marriage to screenwriter Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren. As Gervasi gears up for Hitchcock’s release, he took a few minutes to speak with AllMovie about directing two Academy Award-winning actors for the first time, the differences and similarities between documentary and scripted filmmaking, how the Master of Suspense impacted his work, and how Anthony Hopkins met the lead singer of Anvil.
AllMovie: This was your first time directing a scripted film. You have a background in screenwriting, and you directed the documentary about Anvil, but this is your first dramatic project. How did you get involved with Hitchcock?
Gervasi: It was directly related to Anvil, actually, because the producers of the film, Tom Pollock and Ivan Reitman, were both huge fans of my documentary Anvil. When they were casting around for directors to do the movie, Tom Pollock in particular told me to come in and throw my hat in the ring. I was a huge Hitchcock fan growing up, and I was lucky to get in the room, frankly, because there were 26 directors that they interviewed—very esteemed, successful, top-top notch directors. But I was the wild card, 26 on the list. And I went in and Tom Pollock very kindly said, “You know, we love Anvil, great to talk to you, you’re probably not going to get the job.” There’s something wonderfully liberating when someone tells you you’re not going to get something! I had nothing to lose, so I pitched my heart out, and an hour and a half later, Pollock and Reitman said, “You should direct the movie.” So then it was all about Anthony Hopkins—he had to sign off, of course. I was intensely nervous to meet him, as one would be. I met him, and the very first thing he said to me was he’d seen Anvil three times! It’s so funny in life…you do this crazy documentary, you self-finance and release it, you really think no one’s going to see it at all, and then Anthony Hopkins and Tom Pollock and Ivan Reitman are all huge fans of the film, and that’s really why it happened. I think they just had a gut instinct that I might bring something different and fresh to it.
AllMovie: This begs the question: is Anthony Hopkins a secret metal head?
Gervasi: He actually is! You know what’s really bizarre, the first thing he asked when he said he’d seen the film was, “How is the band doing?” Because obviously since seeing the film, he wanted to know if it had helped them. And it had. We’d just had an extraordinary experience where AC/DC asked them to open for them at Giants Stadium, and I was standing at the side of the stage while 50,000 people were chanting “Anvil!” I told Tony the story and he loved it, and then we called up Lips, the lead singer, and they got on the phone. It was extraordinary! Anthony Hopkins and Lips had a great lunchtime chat together, and they’re like kindred spirits. They’re like the same person, and I find that reassuring to know! I think that’s when I kind of knew this might work. Tony was really taken with (Anvil), he just loved the whole thing. I wouldn’t say he was a metal head, but he’s absolutely an Anvil fan.
AllMovie: How does directing a scripted drama differ from directing a documentary?
Gervasi: It’s obviously different, but as a screenwriter, having worked in Hollywood for several years and worked on a lot of big movies, sometimes uncredited, I’ve been on a lot of sets and I’ve watched a lot of directors work, so I think I picked things up along the way. When it came to the point of me doing it on this one, I had some references, some kind of experience just in watching others who were really amazing do it, and I think I picked up a few things along the way. It is different than directing a documentary; the documentary was made over two years, this was shot over two months.
Obviously the time pressure is completely different. But there is a common thread in both, which is whether you’re directing a narrative drama or a documentary, you’re looking for the human truth, whether it’s in a performance or something you’re filming for a documentary.
You’re looking for that bit of the story that’s going to resonate with an audience. It definitely tested me, because never having directed a scripted thing before, it was all new, and I absolutely knew I was going to make mistakes. But I also got lucky in that I was able to surround myself with some of the very best people in the business: not only the actors, but camera, costumes, production designer. I had some of the best people working today on the crew. And I think that made it much easier. As much as they say casting is 90 percent of everything, the same is true not just of the actors, but of the crew.
And if you have the best people around, it really gives you a chance to focus on what you’re good at, which is the story and the emotion and working with the actors, and everyone else was there to support it in an incredible way.
AllMovie: You mentioned that Anthony Hopkins had to sign off on you as director, and you have a pretty high-powered cast for this film: Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johansson, and Toni Collette. Was it intimidating working with so many great names when you’d never directed actors before?
Gervasi: It works both ways. On paper, it’s intimidating. And there was a moment where I remember being in rehearsal with Anthony and Helen for the first time, and on day two I plopped up the courage to make a suggestion to Helen. I said, “Would you try it this way,” or “Stand over here,” or whatever I said, and she did it and it was actually better, and Helen said, “Good, that’s good.” I remember that moment, thinking in the back of my mind, “It’s just me and Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in this room, and I cannot believe that I’m here, and they’re listening to me. What’s wrong with them?” (Laughs) It was a very surreal moment! I was a bit like, “What the hell’s going on? How does this happen?” But you have those moments where you step outside yourself and think, “Oh my God, I’m directing two Academy Award-winning actors.” And then there’s also just doing the job.
You’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to keep the whole thing together. As director, you’re ultimately responsible whether the film works or it doesn’t, so you have to recognize that. I was really focused on doing my job as well as I could, and not thinking about what it meant or what I was doing.
AllMovie: You mentioned you were a big Hitchcock fan. Did you try to keep anything about his work in mind while making the movie? Did you draw from that?
Gervasi: Absolutely. For the Hitchcock buffs, there are eight specific Hitchcock references in there. No one person has found all of them yet, but they’re all in there. We tried within the context of telling the story, if there were opportunities, to really visually reference Hitchcock in some way that worked without it being too arch or knowing. In a couple of places, we did it very subtly, to the point where real Hitchcock fans only have noticed it if I point it out to them. Obviously, the opening at the premiere, that shot barreling down through the rain on the umbrellas, that’s from Foreign Correspondent. And then, for example, when Hitch answers the phone, he’s calling his wife and she picks up thinking it’s Wit, and then we cut back to him with the phone cord around his neck, the reverse shot, obviously that’s Dial M for Murder. So I’ve given you two of the eight! But there are six more in there. It was fun to do that, because we didn’t draw too much attention to it. In fact, it’s only if you really take the time to look that you’ll notice.
AllMovie: Did you see it as an additional challenge that a number of the characters in the film are already well known to the audience and they have pre-conceived notions about them? Such as Hitchcock himself, Janet Leigh, and Anthony Perkins?
Gervasi: Everyone knows Hitchcock. He’s so iconic looking and he’s so specific that any actor playing him is immediately going to be compared to him. But we were never trying to do an impersonation. Tony and I discussed it, but everyone knew it was Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock, channeling him as much as anything, capturing the spirit. Obviously we wanted to get the physical resemblance as much as we could get it, but the second make-up test we did, we did a prosthetic that looked <I>exactly</I> like Alfred Hitchcock. The problem was, it was like a mask, and Tony was buried under that. You didn’t know it was Anthony Hopkins. The point for us was to stay true to the mischievous, droll Hitchcockian style. And it was OK to wink to the audience and say, “Look, it’s Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock.” That was part of the fun of it. With people like Anthony Perkins, played by James D’Arcy, he just walked in in character, and he was brilliant. People who are seeing that performance are really remarking on how eerily reminiscent he is of Perkins. In fact, someone who knew him very well was at the Academy screening on Sunday, and they said, “I knew (Perkins), and that guy was <I>exactly</I> like him.” And of course, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, they’re very close in one sense. But I think the audience understands that it’s a movie. We want to get close, but I think they recognize that we’re trying to find an actor to play the role, rather than an impersonator, that’s a very different kettle of fish. But I think in certain circumstances, we came incredibly close.
AllMovie: Actually, one of the things I liked about Hopkins’ performance is that he did a marvelous job capturing the cadence of Hitchcock’s speech without struggling to sound like him. He got the rhythms of it right, and that’s what brought it over for me.
Gervasi: That was the important thing. Again, it’s giving a sense of the character, because we’re not trying to replicate the iconic guy that everyone knows at all. We’re doing Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock, and that’s the important thing, we’re letting the audience know that right up front. And what he does with these seminal, iconic figures that he plays, whether it’s Nixon or Adolph Hitler or Picasso or C.S. Lewis, he becomes these people. That’s what’s extraordinary about the fact that we got so lucky that he wanted to do it. Because I told the producers, “If you don’t get Hopkins to do it, I wouldn’t bother doing the film.” And I think I was right. I didn’t want to make the movie with anyone else, I didn’t think it could be done. I didn’t think you could have an actor who understood the humor or the British-ness and the dark irony in the way Hopkins clearly does.
AllMovie: You’ve worked extensively as a screenwriter in the past, but oddly enough, while this is the first time you’re directing a dramatic project, it’s one you didn’t write. Having been a screenwriter, did that change your approach to the script?
Gervasi: I think it’s part of the process. The great thing about having worked as a screenwriter is you have a sense of story, so I was able to bring out certain things or emphasize certain things in the script that really helped give the movie the voice that it has.
Stephen Rebello did an absolutely brilliant job on the book (“Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”), John J. McLaughlin did a brilliant job on the script, and then we got to work, me and the actors, and I think we really took it the final distance and tailor-made it for us, for the film I wanted to make and also for the performances they wanted to give. It was a very collaborative workshop-type situation by the time we were in rehearsal and preparing to actually shoot.
AllMovie: Hitchcock focuses on Alfred Hitchcock during the making of Psycho. If you had your druthers, are there any other movies whose production you think would be the basis of a good movie?
Gervasi: I don’t know if I’d want to repeat myself! (Laughs) For me, as much as this was about the unknown story of Alfred Hitchcock risking pretty much everything he had, including his reputation, to make this crazy movie everyone thought was going to be a disaster, it was really about the relationship between Alfred and Alma. That to me was the heart and soul of the film, and Psycho was almost the backdrop, the excuse for us to tell that story in a very specific way.
We wanted to not just tell the specific making-of story, but also something about marriage and how hard it can be to sustain over the long haul. And how in creative collaborations, there’s one partner who sort of stays in the shadows, in this case Alma, but whose contribution is incomparable. It was a really unique opportunity; this wasn’t so much about the making of a movie as much as it was about an unexpected love story in a context that I think was pretty original.
But I never say never, so who knows? Maybe we can do “The Making of Hitchcock.” Judd Nelson is Anthony Hopkins!
In fact, we got a very funny review the other day, we had this enthusiastic email from someone who’d seen it at BAFTA in London, and it said, “This movie is incredible! Unbelievable performances!
Albert Finney and Helen Mirren are incredible!” (Laughs.) And I wrote back and I said, “It’s so incredible! This is how good Albert Finney is—it almost seems as if he’s playing Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock!”
AllMovie: Was there anything about Hitchcock that you didn’t know that you learned while making the movie?
Gervasi: Many things. In the course of researching it, we went to the Academy and we got all of his personal, private papers, and one of the things we got was his grocery bills. He would have food flown in on a regular basis from London and from Paris! And the bills were in the thousands in 1959. I mean, the foie gras, the Chateau Margaux, the English specialties and treats, cakes and stuff like that. It was unbelievable! The guy was like an emperor! Calling up Paris and having foie gras put on a flight from Paris to London, London to New York, New York to California. It was a three-day ordeal in 1959, like $1,000. That’s like $10,000 a week today. I marveled at the amount of fine delicatessen treats that one man could consume. That was kind of a revelation! But I loved that about him. He was able to celebrate and enjoy his success. He could do it: he was Alfred Hitchcock, so he could have foie gras flown in from Paris. You have to go, “Good for him!”