In Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” Anthony Hopkins plays the legendary director and Helen Mirren his wife and often unacknowledged collaborative partner. On the surface, the film is about the making of “Psycho” — and great fun is there to be had with recreating some of the key moments of that movie, including a shower scene with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh — but even more so, the film is a love story (about both the married couple who made the film possible by mortgaging their home and their mutual love of film). The director and cast were in New York to premiere and promote the picture (read our review of the film here), and over the course of the weekend, they shared some of the behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like on set and the reaction they’ve had so far from Hitchcock’s actual contemporaries.
1) Director Sacha Gervasi made a Hitchcock-like cameo — kind of.
Given Alfred Hitchcock‘s penchant for sneaking into the frame of his own movies, did “Hitchcock” director Sacha Gervasi feel a similar temptation? “I wasn’t going to do a cameo, but everyone wanted me to, just for fun,” he told The Playlist. “Helen Mirren said, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ ”
So on the last night of the shoot, he found a moment that could work. Hitch is at the opening night of “Psycho” at one of the few movie theaters in the country that would agree to carry it, which ordinarily would have spelled the movie’s early death, but the director has turned the limited availability into a plus — controlling the showings in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia as a “special presentation” (see below). He hyped the scares into rumors of possible riots, ordered extra security, and prevented late admission at a time when people often strolled into theaters midway through a film, only to stay for part of the next showing to catch up, and this new policy required people to pay attention for the first time to when a movie would start.
The stunt worked (and affected how we see movies today), the night was a triumph, and Gervasi thought his part could be as one of the moviegoers coming out of the theater. “It’s the final night, at four in the morning, and I went off and changed into a hat and this ridiculous blue suit with a yellow tie, and Toni Collette and Helen Mirren laughed their asses off. Toni said, ‘You look like a third-rate bookkeeper from Brighton!’ She laughed in my face! And I was like, ‘Mirren, Mirren on the wall, you made me do this!’ But after that, I was like, ‘Fuck this cameo.’ “
Gervasi cut most of the footage of himself out, but couldn’t get it all. “No one can see me,” he said. “I mean, you can see me, but you have to look really, really hard.” Ultimately, he felt against putting it in there because “I’m not Hitchcock, you know. I’m just doing a film about him.”
2) Alma Reville had a bigger part in Hitchcock’s work than previously acknowledged.
Gervasi studied Hitchcock in film school, but even he was unaware until he read Steve Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” and John McLaughlin’s screenplay adaptation of the extent of the contributions Hitch’s wife, Alma Reville, made. “And by God, she did a lot,” Gervasi exclaimed. “She was mentioned in [Howard Stuber‘s class on structure at UCLA], but she was in the background, so I was surprised at this relationship and this unbelievable story. I did not know how crucial it was, the role Alma played.”
Reville, who started as a rewind girl in the cutting room at Twickenham Film Studios, became a film editor at the London Film Company and then Famous Players-Lasky, where she first met Hitchcock. He asked her to edit “Woman to Woman,” for which he was the AD, and over time, she became his film editor, continuity editor, writer (often providing revisions for the screenwriter of record), and overall sounding board. She’s credited as a writer on such films as “Shadow of a Doubt,” although as Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” makes clear, she didn’t always get the writing credits she deserved, at least not in the case of “Psycho.” She offered her opinions on every stage of the process, critiquing the story, casting, and editing, and as seen in “Hitchcock,” even stepping in to direct on the days he was sick. She insisted on using Bernard Hermann’s music in the “Psycho” shower scene, which Hitchcock was going to take it out, and she famously caught a shot of Janet Leigh either swallowing or blinking (history has it both ways) after her character was supposed to be dead.
“I thought it spoke volumes that the only daughter of Alfred Hitchcock [Patricia] choose to write a book not about her father, but her mother,” said Helen Mirren, referring to “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man.” “She said she wanted to bring her mother out of the shadows and put her in her rightful place in the spotlight.”
Mirren said her “only way into the character” was through this book, to learn Alma’s “fierceness, her energy, her love of Hitch, and her love of film,” because she was limited by a lack of photographs and film about the woman herself. “Very few people knew what she looked like,” Mirren said. “She’s not an image people are familiar with.” Her big regret, she said, was that she’s not “tiny and birdlike,” as Alma was usually described. “She was under five foot, and he was this huge guy, and she was the only one who could control him, this fierce, amazing little woman,” Mirren said, “and I couldn’t do that, because I’m not tiny. I couldn’t even attempt to go there. I suppose I could have plastic surgery to take me down a foot, but that’s a little too much commitment!”
3) Some of the actors were aided by the relatives of their real-life counterparts.
Alfred and Alma‘s daughter Patricia Hitchcock was in “Psycho,” but now at age 84 and reportedly unwell, she was unable to help with the production of “Hitchcock.” Other living relatives of folks from the film, however, obliged. Scarlett Johansson, who plays Janet Leigh, got an assist from Janet’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis. “I had such a nice back-and-forth with her, and I got to pick her brain. It might be strange to have someone playing your mother, so I reached out to say I had every intention of honoring her mother and she was very gracious and just had wonderful things to say, which I knew would be the case.”
Jessica Biel, who plays Vera Miles, went to the source to try to do the same. Miles was not interested in speaking to the actress playing her, but her grandson Jordan Essoe was “very interested.” (And before you get any ideas, Biel laughed, “He’s married!”) “He’s very nice and respectable and highly protective of his grandmother,” Biel said. “She’s not interested in having a public life. He was unsure of me at first, but I picked his brain for hours. He’s probably the best historian on her career and who she was at the time.”
Biel said that her goal was not to do an impersonation or to recreate Miles fully, because that would be “impossible.” “So I grasped a facet of who she could have been, who she was as a woman, as an actor, in relation to Hitchcock,” she said. “She didn’t want to be a star. She wanted to be a respected actor, and that helped me with what she was doing on set, how she felt about being there, so recently after the ‘Vertigo‘ experience,” in which she had to drop out of the film because she was pregnant, causing a strain in her relationship with the director. “She had a grace and a massive intelligence, and that is what I was going for. I hope it worked!”
4) Those who worked with and knew Hitchcock say they’re satisfied with the portrayal.
Marshall Schlom, who is now 84, worked as the script supervisor on “Psycho” as his second film, and when he visited the set of “Hitchcock,” he got misty-eyed. “He said, ‘You guys have given me my memories back,’ ” Gervasi recalled. Time and again, those who worked with the master of suspense have given their thumbs up to “Hitchcock,” that the film got it right. “Schlom said he had to admit he was apprehensive, but we got the spirit of the man,” Gervasi said. And it’s not just Schlom — Gervasi also got positive feedback at screenings from the assistant director of “Topaz” and the key grip of “Family Plot.” “The people who knew he was complex and crazy and recognized this human being that we’ve had in this film, and say we captured the mischief, the warmth, and insanity of the man they worked with every day, that’s been really satisfying,” Gervasi said. “That’s the most moving thing, hearing that from the people who were there.”
This is in sharp contrast to the recent portrayal of Hitchcock in “The Girl,” which was a lot darker, and relied on Tippi Hedren’s sexual harassment at the hands of the director during the making of “The Birds” and “Marnie.” “For us, the important thing we wanted to show was not just the darkness,” Gervasi said. “We didn’t want to be judgmental of him. Often he’s been deified, he’s been vilified, and in answering the question, ‘Was he good? Was he bad?’ perhaps he was both. That doesn’t settle well for people because it’s unresolved. He was complicated, and that’s what we’re trying to say. We’re trying to explore who he might have been.”
5) Despite the positive feedback, Anthony Hopkins was insecure about his performance.
Anthony Hopkins tried to avoid the video monitors when he was on set, because he didn’t want to see himself acting as Hitchcock. Of course, because he sat in the makeup chair for an hour to get the chin prosthetics and makeup in place, he knew what he looked like, but he didn’t want to watch himself on screen. “I think it was because he was so frightened that if he found himself wanting, he would not be able to do the next scene,” Helen Mirren said. “So he would never review it, never check it. He would have been devastated and unable to continue.”
Despite his efforts, Hopkins did see himself on the video playback once. “I saw just one look, and I couldn’t see anymore,” he said, “because I wasn’t sure that I’d got it right. My insecurity was so deep that I just wanted to go and run away to Tierra del Fuego, or somewhere like that.” Mirren said that Hopkins’ work is “so tiny and subtle and minimalist,” despite the makeup and fat suit, that she was “completely unaware of the fact that he was wearing anything. He became my husband Hitch.”
Gervasi credits Hopkins with many of the film’s subtle moments, such as when Hitch gives just the teensiest amount of physical affection to Alma in two scenes, one of which he touches the side of her face and another when he touches her shoulder. “It was his idea to stage Alma’s sitting on the bed, when they’re not looking at each other,” the director said. “And with incredible restraint, he barely touches her, because he has the frustration of not being able to quite express himself. He says, ‘You deserve better,’ and he gently touches her shoulder, and that was it. It was the most brilliant of instincts.”
Gervasi said it was also Hopkins’ idea to insert the slightest amount of Cockney accent in Hitch’s poolside speech to Alma about wanting to make “Psycho” so he could feel the freedom of making films like he did when he was younger. “The accent he put on for his ‘Hitchcock Presents‘ shows when he became known as ‘the great Alfred Hitchcock’ I think was for the benefit of American audiences, so they must have thought he sounded like this high-born aristocrat, which he wasn’t,” Hopkins said. “And I’m sure in his domestic life, he spoke just like he would have done 30 years before, 40 years before, when he lived as a young man in London.”
“The tiniest bit of Cockney comes through,” Gervasi noted, “because he’s really this working class guy. Those little brilliant touches are what make it so rich. I think it’s one of the best performances he’s given in fucking years.”
“Hitchcock” opens in limited release on Friday, November 23rd.