Arguably the most famous director in cinema history (and the auteur behind the recently crowned Greatest Movie of All Time), Alfred Hitchcock can’t be an easy subject for an on-screen biography. Beyond his larger-than-life persona, embodied by that famously corpulent silhouette, the man was also something of an enigma, an artist who preferred to devote his personality to thrilling audiences with the most popular entertainments of the day.
British-born director Sacha Gervasi has taken a shot at it with this week’s Hitchcock, which adapts — with some creative license — Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, while exploring the relationship between Hitch (played by Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), as he fights to make the thriller that would prove one of his biggest and most influential hits.
Gervasi, known for his hugely entertaining 2007 metal documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, called in to chat about Hitchcock, the challenge of taking on a movie icon, working with Hopkins, and separating the man from the mythology.
Read on for that interview, but first, he talks here about his five favorite films.
Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987; 93% Tomatometer)
Well I guess my first one has to be Withnail and I, the 1987 Bruce Robinson classic. You know, the plot is one that would get you laughed out of any Hollywood studio: Two unemployed actors go on a holiday, drinking, to one of their uncle’s cottages for the weekend; but it’s one of the most deeply rich, brilliant, tragicomic tales of male friendship. I actually remember seeing it when I was a kid, and walking out of the theater in London — and by the way, it did not do well at the time it was released; it was a tiny little film — but I remember thinking that I wanted to become a filmmaker after that.
The second one is that incredibly brilliant movie Betty Blue, which I love because it opens with that incredible lovemaking scene with Béatrice Dalle. There’s just something so vivid and luscious about it. It’s just so beautiful and sensual in every regard and I absolutely love the film. I saw it recently and it’s just as brilliant. And the incredible soundtrack, you know. It’s just as brilliant as when I first saw it. Withnail and I and Betty Blue were both in the same period; they were both seminal cinematic experiences for me.
The Sweet Smell of Success is, I think, one of the best — certainly one of the greatest New York films, for me — ever made. Alexander Mackendrick, great director. Unbelievable script. James Wong Howe, unbelievable camerawork. And Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster — to see those two going at it, and really, you know, the tragedy of corruption and how it infiltrates every aspect of peoples’ lives. There was something so deeply dark and cynical about it. But yeah, there’s this sort of tiny little germ of hope at the end of the film, as Susan walks off with the musician boyfriend that Hunsecker has tried to destroy, and you just feel like, you know, absolute power corrupts but not totally. Still, it has a vicious sting to it, that film. It really affected me.
Obviously Chinatown. Seeing Nicholson with his destroyed nose [laughs], as Polanski is slitting his nose by the reservoir and calling him “pussy cat,” and all that stuff; and him and Faye Dunaway, you know, it’s just extraordinary. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s one of the greatest screenplays ever written. I’m a huge Robert Towne fan, and a Polanski fan. And it was great on this movie — on Hitchcock — to work with John Huston’s son, Danny. He had some stories about his dad. [Laughs] That Noah Cross character [played by John Huston], I think is one of the darkest villains in cinematic history. Every little detail of that film, you know — whether it’s Gittes choosing the cheap bourbon at the beginning, rather than the expensive stuff; every single touch, I think, was masterful. It has such brilliance, and poise, and ultimately humanity to it. And again, it’s a story of power, of big city power and corruption and how power and privilege can destroy people and families. That’s a theme in Sweet Smell of Success as well.
The last one, for me, just in terms of comedy, is This is Spinal Tap. [Laughs] I mean, I love Spinal Tap. When I first saw it in 1984 I was the only person in the cinema at Swiss Cottage in London, and I didn’t know whether it was real or if it wasn’t. [Laughs] It was just so profoundly funny. I think it obviously inspired me personally, in a huge way. I would say that the movies that inspired Anvil! were a combination of Withnail and I and This is Spinal Tap. [Laughs]
That’s why Anvil! is so good, you see.
[Laughs] It really was those two movies I saw early on. I just love the pomposity and ridiculousness of being an artist and trying with absolutely no-one caring. [Laughs] There’s an inherent tragedy to it. It’s the same thing in Withnail and I, you know — the philosophical ridiculousness of it, of a thespian in crisis. No-one really cares. There’s something so deeply hard about being an artist, because most of the time no-one gives a sh-t. But there’s something very sort of tragic and uplifting and real about that. I think with Spinal Tap it also has the humor, you know — how these guys, who have grown up, are still basically children. That was something that I also responded to in Anvil! But you know, Spinal Tap — the original and best. There would have been no Anvil! without that film. The best part is having the two films play on double bills all over the world. [Laughs]
Did you ever meet those guys, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest?
Yeah, I did. I did, actually, and they were fantastic. They were very funny.
Now, did you know they were American actors when you first saw the movie? I didn’t.
I didn’t know it wasn’t real, but eventually I figured it out.
A lot of people were fooled, ’cause they made records and toured after that film.
Oh absolutely! Their second album, I believe, was called Break Like the Wind [laughs], which I think sums it up. And they had a video for a song called “Bitch School,” which I though was very funny.
They were genius.
They were genius. I just think it was ironic that I found the guys that were part of the reason that inspired movies like Spinal Tap — they were guys like Anvil. It was very similar, the Anvil story, to Spinal Tap — Anvil had songs like “Butterbutt Jerky” and “Whiteknuckle Shuffle.” You could never make it up. I remember being on the road with Anvil, as a roadie, in 1982, before Spinal Tap came out; so I was living that life, you know, as a young kid on the road with a rock band. So when [Spinal Tap] came out, it was like my holiday job was up there on screen.
So it’s no surprise that you thought Spinal Tap were real.
Exactly! I was the drum tech. I was the drum roadie for [Anvil’s] Robb Reiner. [Laughs] And again, the crazy magical connection between Anvil with Rob Reiner, obviously being the name of the director of Spinal Tap. So it’s like, it was just so meta. It was just very surreal. I’m still amazed to this day by that film.
Next, Gervasi talks about Hitchcock, how he approached the story of one of cinema’s most famous directors (and films), and working with Anthony Hopkins on the lead role.
Luke Goodsell: When you set out to do a movie like this, about one of the most famous — if not the most famous — directors of all time, what’s the most daunting aspect?
Sacha Gervasi: Well, I mean when you take on Hitchcock, at all — I mean, we were mostly telling the story of a relationship, but still, Hitchcock is the man — you know it’s gonna provoke some sort of controversy, because there were so many people talking about the book [Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho] and wanting it to be the film about the making of this movie [Psycho]. But that’s been done. That’s been done in the book, and Stephen Rebello himself was like, “I want a movie which is an entertainment for the audience.” So we made the conscious decision. I think we knew, though, that what we wanted to do — the intention of the film — was to pay tribute to not just this fiercely loyal and amazing wife [Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren], but also this brilliant artist in her own right, who stood by his side throughout 54 years of marriage and this incredible career. I think for us, you know, it was really important to shine a light on that relationship and that incredible artist. And really show a little peek behind the curtain, of how hard it must be to live with a genius like Alfred Hitchcock and to deal with his crap — and playing a huge role. So for us I think it was a lovely thing to do — to take nothing away from Hitchcock, but also to acknowledge the unseen contributions that often are made to some of the great artists that we know.
LG: As he’s characterized here, Hitchcock often comes across as a big kid — he’s playing pranks, there’s the scene where he puts the corpse in Vera Miles’ dressing room…
SG: Right, yeah.
LG: I’m curious as to how you and Anthony Hopkins approached Hitchcock, to try and flesh him out — because he was a very impenetrable persona.
SG: Well, yeah, because he was so impenetrable he became so fascinating. I think what we really needed to do was to kind of explore what might have been in his psychology as he shot these movies, you know. So for us it was really a dramatic exploration, because there’s clearly a big fantasy element in the movie — as there should be in making a movie about Hitch; he was so enigmatic and fascinating that we couldn’t really do a documentary about that.
LG: It’s inescapable in the performance that we see Anthony Hopkins and his own rich history as an actor — it’s like a synthesis of their personae.
SG: Absolutely, and we wanted that intentionally to happen. We knew it was “Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock.” We [originally] had a prosthetic that completely covered him up, but there was no point when you have one of the greatest actors in the world and he’s got a big rubber mask on his face.
LG: There’s also, of course, the connection with the killer Ed Gein inspiring both Psycho‘s Norman Bates and, later, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Did you and Anthony talk about that at all?
SG: Right, absolutely. I definitely think we discussed it on some level. I don’t remember it exactly but we definitely mentioned it.
LG: In your research for the film, was there something that surprised you about Hitchcock that you hadn’t known before?
SG: Yeah, the grocery bills.
SG: The amount he spent was extraordinary. When we went to the Academy and researched his life, we saw all his incredible grocery bills. We found out he was having the food flown in from France and England, and the wines — they had a vineyard in Northern California. I mean, they lived incredibly well — even though their house, at a certain level, was quite modest, the way they lived was quite lavish and extraordinary. You have to admire Hitchcock. He grew up the son of a green grocer, so very humble beginnings, and he reached a point in his life where he was famous and powerful and could do what he wanted, and he loved the finer things in life. So if you’re Alfred Hitchcock and you want to have your food flown in from Maxine’s of Paris, then goddammit you go ahead and do it. [Laughs] The wonderful indulgence of success.
LG: You mentioned working with Danny Huston before. Did he relate any grand tales of his dad? Did the family have any relationship with Hitchcock?
SG: I think they did. I mean, what Danny said to me the other day was growing up with John Huston, he was always aware of the difference between the man and the mythology — and I think that’s what we tried to do in this film, to say there is a difference between the two. Mythology is largely the projection of other people, of what they want someone to be and what they hope they are; and I think for us it was important to tell the story of a man — a contradictory, flawed, difficult human being. It’s not good or bad, you know. He was both. And I think that was the exciting part, to show the complexity of the man. To me that only deepens and enriches your interest in the work, because you’re watching these movies — these brilliant movies — over and over again going, “Who is this guy? What drove him?” And I think we explored that without ever being able to answer it, and that’s a good thing. It needs to be as mysterious as ever.
LG: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film?
SG: Yeah, Rear Window — because it’s unintentionally his most personal.
LG: That explains the many Rear Window references in your film.
SG: Yeah, there are about 10 references to other Hitchcock films in there.
LG: Were you conscious of maybe putting too many in, or did you just want as many as you could?
SG: We just put stuff in for fun, you know. Again, it’s a fun movie for an audience and we made that decision — and we’re really proud of it. That was really what we wanted, because remember — Hitchcock made movies for the audience, so we tried to be as fun as possible.
Hitchcock opens in a limited release engagement this week ahead of its nationwide expansion.