When it opens Nov. 23, Fox Searchlight’s “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, will join a ‘frenzy,’ if you will, of new attention focused on the British master of suspense, including the HBO/BBC co-production “The Girl” and a year-long London celebration by the British Film Institute of Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre going back to the silent film era.
The world premiere of “Hitchcock” has also been chosen to open the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on Nov. 1.
But it’s not as if everyone rushed in at once — the Fox project, which features Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and re-creates the famous shower scene in “Psycho” – has been in the works for more than ten years, its producers told us during a visit to the set.
Hopkins plays Hitchcock at 60, and Mirren is his wife, Alma Reville, in a feature that focuses on their love story at a time when Hitch is confronting some of his darker impulses – while also mortgaging their house to finance “Psycho,” a controversial project that Paramount refused to back.
After optioning the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” by Stephen Rebello, producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette say they “knocked on every door in Hollywood, and met with more than 25 directors,” including Steven Spielberg and Stephen Frears. After many peaks and valleys, the break finally came when Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock's Montecito Films got involved and hired Sacha Gervasi (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”) to direct.
Gervasi wanted to express Hitch’s morbid voyeurism via a fascination with the deeds of Ed Gein, the real-life killer who inspired the cross-dressing protagonist of “Psycho.” He has Hitch engage in imaginary dialogues with Gein in the film. “We explore the darker recesses of his mind,” said Gervasi during a break from filming last May. “There was an immense amount of psychological stuff he’s repressed that he was working out in his films.”
Hitchcock also sought to reinvent himself at a time when he worried he was losing his relevance and edge, explained Gervasi. “’Psycho’ was seen as this pulpy, trashy drive-in material, and people thought Hitchcock was debasing himself, but that’s what intrigued him,” said the British-born filmmaker. “He thought if you elevated the genre, you could do something interesting, and he was daring himself to take risks again.”Quite a bit of the movie is devoted to the making of “Psycho” – which posed a challenge since the visual rights to the iconic Psycho House and Bates Motel are owned by Universal Studios – where they are part of the studio tour – and the Fox production was not granted use of them. “Those exteriors aren’t part our storytelling, but we’re inside those locations,” said Barnette, explaining that the shower scene was done on a set, and the haunted mansion he refers to as “the Gein house” was found in Santa Clarita.
On the last day of filming, May 31, the filmmakers invited press to a location in downtown Los Angeles where the 1960 opening of “Psycho” was being staged – complete with marquee and original movie posters – at the vintage Palace Theater on Broadway. Lines of folks in fedoras and pillbox hats and other natty fashions of the era queued up in the ticket line and gawked as a vintage Rolls Royce pulled up. Out got Hopkins as the well-dressed film impresario, his convex body shape and jowly profile unmistakable, his arm slung protectively around Mirren.
The refurbished 1911 vaudeville theater he entered was standing in for the DeMille Theater in Manhattan, one of two movie houses where “Psycho” actually premiered in an opening Hitch had to finance on his own dime. Hopkins, who keeps admirably fit, wore a 60-pound stomach pad. The night before, the producers said, he’d filmed one of his key scenes, in which (out of sequence) he watches the reaction of the audience while the movie unspools and realizes, to his enormous relief, that his late-in-life gamble has succeeded. “He brings such vulnerability and loneliness and humanity to this,” says Thayer of Hopkins’ performance.
Industry watchers will be intrigued to see that Hitch’s agent, the late Lew Wasserman, who was a notorious avoider of publicity, has a significant role in the film. “He was there to support his client whether he believed in the project or not,” said Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man,” “Lincoln”) who portrays the uber-agent whose MCA eventually took over Universal.
The production also has a coup in its casting of James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins, since his resemblance and uncanny impression of the gangly actor who played Norman Bates are so persuasive, that Hopkins, he said, “burst out laughing” during his audition and said, “Why are we looking at anyone else?”
“Nowadays,” said D’Arcy, “we expect the nice guy to turn out to be a psychotic lunatic at the end. But in 1960, nobody did – and that’s what made it so shocking.”