It was a bit of a surprise to me when Sacha Gervasi was chosen to helm Fox Searchlight's adaptation of Stephen Rebello's nonfiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. The journalist and screenwriter had only one directorial effort to his credit, and that was the heralded documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, which caught up with a long forgotten but seminal heavy metal band.
While I had enjoyed his first film, it seemed like a major leap from an indie doc to a docudrama about one of cinema's most iconic directors starring such prestigious performers as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren. However, when I sat down with Gervasi last weekend to discuss his first narrative feature Hitchcock, it was immediately clear to me how he landed the job.
For one, Gervasi is intensely charismatic. His high energy and warm humor can be felt throughout Hitchcock, and as he spoke a mile a minute about the legendary filmmaker, film, and Alma Reville the influential figure it pulls from the shadows, his enthusiasm was positively infectious. When I asked him casually how his day of press was going, Gervasi smiled broadly and exclaimed, " I'm having a fucking good time!" From that moment, I knew he and I would get along famously.
I really enjoyed the movie. I'm a big Hitchcock fan, and I was pleasantly surprised at how funny it is.
Well that was sort of the point, you know, was to make a film that’s funny and hopefully has some heart to it in the Hitchcock style. That was really the big deal.
It reminded me a lot of his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
I think the beginning [which alludes to the TV series] was really an entry point, because we were very conscious of making a film for an audience as he did. You know, Stephen Rebello who wrote the original book [Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Pyscho]—the original book is different than the film; it's about the making of Psycho. It's a very detailed, meticulous account of the production, what happened, how it worked. But we made—and Stephen Rebello said—I want to make a movie for the audience from this. Because to adapt this book is a documentary, and that's not what we wanted to do. And I think it's important for people to know that that the book, it served as the sort of text when we were doing the Psycho stuff it was the text that we sort of referred to and we got our information from. But the movie is something different. It's a love story, and the thing—it's a little bit in Rebello's [book] but much more in John's [J. McLaughlin] script—but the movie is about this relationship. And you know it's about—if nothing else—it's shining a light on this incredible woman Alma Reville who played such a significant part in his life. Not just personally, but also as his collaborator.
I was actually really impressed because I didn't know much about Alma before seeing the film—
Neither did I, and I studied Hitchcock at UCLA under Howard Suber. She's mentioned. We know she's in the life, but I didn't know until I got into the story and started doing my research how involved she wa
casting, script, editing. Mostly in production she would leave him alone, but for pretty much every other part—marketing—every aspect of the process she was involved, and made some pretty huge decisions.
Why do you think it is that we don't know more about her contributions?
Well, I think that's partly her choice. She was wonderfully humble. I think she had a very healthy ego. She recognized that Alfred Hitchcock was who he was. I think together they created this quite brilliant, iconic brand. The person you see on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it's an invention. It's a character that Hitchcock is playing. The truth is that he comes from very humble beginnings in England: working class family, Edwardian Catholic upbringing, the son of a shopkeeper. And yet on Alfred Hitchcock Presents he seems like some sort of English aristocrat. You know, he was playing that character, that's not who he was. And I think she was the sort of co-author of this character because they knew how to—they were really smart. And I think also she didn't want the attention; she was happy to be in the background, supporting Alfred. She recognized that he was the genius and her intention was just to help him, and make his genius films a little more genius. But I think part of it is that she didn't seek the limelight. She would deliberately stand behind him. She liked remaining in the shadows, and I think that's why I wanted to tell her story to sort of give her a bit of credit because I think she was wonderfully humble.
From Anvil to Alma, you seem compelled to draw attention to artists whose influence goes unrecognized by the public. Is there anything in particular that you want people to know about Alma?
I think as a woman at the time. We're talking about a particular period where women had a specific role: stay in the kitchen, cook a brilliant dinner, be the wife, you're there to serve the husband sort of thing. And I think that she was a fucking genius in her own way! You know, with editing, with script, with all these things. And I think that what I wanted to say was, here was a woman who was the perfect wife, who did do all these things—she loved doing the entertaining—but yet don't be fooled! You know what I mean? There's always more to people than meets the eye. Just like with Anvil, where you might write them off as sad losers from Toronto but their story is pretty fucking inspirational. And I think that if you take a minute and peel away the layers, there's often more there than you think at first.
What's interesting is for her as a woman at the time, the ways she contributes to his films are the ways that—like you said—don't detract from his grandeur, and ways in which women were able to get involved in the industry in editing, in screenwriting—
Correct, and obviously that's why so many women at the time were editors because it was a very easy [industry job to be considered for] and were often the best editors, like an example of Scorsese and Schoonmaker today. You've got great women editors. I had a great woman editor editing my movie, Pamela Martin who [also] edited The Fighter and Little Miss Sunshine. I totally agree with you. But at the same time, this is not to underestimate their contribution. And I think Alma's contribution—even in so far as the Psycho music is concerned—is really huge, where she insisted that Hitchcock listen to Bernie's cue.
It's impossible to imagine the shower scene without that music!
That's what I'm saying, and Alma was a huge part of the decision to put it in because Hitchcock was adamant, "It's the sound of screams, it's the sound of running water. It's a montage. No music." And they had this drag down all out fight for a week! And Alma was the referee, and finally she said—Hermann's first cue was sort of jazzy—she said go do something new. And he came back with the now landmark cue. And she made Hitchcock listen to it; he had already decided that there wasn't going to be music [there].
It's really fascinating to imagine that our image of Hitchcock is not just him. Of course it's a front and an image, but it's also something the two of them built together. I'm wondering how much this will impact how we think about other filmmakers, like people who favor the auteur theory like to think of a filmmaker's style as deriving from just this one person—
But I want to be really clear. Let's take nothing away from Hitchcock. He was the genius; she knew that. What I'm saying is often with a great artist or a great genius, there's somewhere lurking in the shadows sometimes a great partner, whose able to really say the right thing, do the right thing, and sometimes who can make the critical difference between something being okay and something being great. It's not to say his work was just about his collaboration with Alma, his work was about Alfred Hitchcock, but the collaboration with Alma in addition to that I think was significant. We're just shining a light on that. And yeah, hopefully there is some debate. But look, Hitchcock is such and emotive, controversial subject because people have specific relationships to him. Certain critics for example, they are very invested in him being a certain way because they have very strong feelings about it. And what I'm saying, I'm challenging that, and I'm saying, "He wasn't a cinematic god whose every thing that he did was brilliant." That's not the case! And neither was he this evil monster who just destroyed actresses and attacked women regularly. I mean, who knows what happened but what I will say is that the picture is a lot more complicated. It's an oversimplification to say, "he's a god" or "he's a monster," or whatever. He's just a filmmaker. To me, looking into the life of the genius filmmaker enriches the work. It makes you see things differently. And the reason there is this conversation is because the work is so darn good! I mean, we're not talking about two or three masterworks. We're talking about 10 or 12! That's very rare. We're talking about Kubrick, Hitchcock—you know there's very few directors who are able to produce this level of genius as consistently and this range of films! You know, he makes a drama in a lifeboat, he makes a drama with one shot. He does "the first Bond film" as it was called recently, North by Northwest. He makes a lush Riviera epic. He makes psychological thrillers, he makes Psycho. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and yet he's written off at the time as a genre guy.
Absolutely! And the point being that Psycho was dismissed as a flimsy piece of trash, it was killed [by critics initially] and now it's a masterwork! And I think it's sort of important for people to not put anyone up on a pedestal so it blinds them to the truth that this guy is brilliant but not in quite the way you thought.
Basically making this movie revealed to you the complexities of Hitchcock.
Absolutely! The complexities, the nuance, the contradiction. And people want to rush to he's good, he's bad. He's both! Like why do people have a problem with that? I don’t understand why people can't [accept that] those two things live side by side. Because that's the truth. I think that when people are invested in him being a certain way they just get incredibly inflexible. They get angry if anything challenges their point of view.
It's almost like Santa Claus, where everybody has their idea of him. And how dare you defy—
How dare define it! Well, we're not defining it, that's the whole point! We're just saying there's more there. There's warmth and tenderness. You look at a film like Vertigo, that's such a tender, romantic film. I mean, it's tragic too, but you feel the heart of the man who made it. And I'm saying that's part of the picture too! The obsession, the neuroses, the meanness, the kind of bullying of actresses. We're saying all that happened. Let's say it's all true. But what I'm saying is there's also this crucial component of the man himself. And somehow people just don't want to see that.
I was really impressed by that because there's certainly an attempt to pay homage to Hitchcock's style, but then your film has a really definite sense of warmth. Like the scene where he is like comfort food eating. I mean, we can connect to Hitchcock.
Absolutely, it's a universal thing. I mean, he's upset and he's pounding the foie gras.
We all do that! Who doesn't?
(Smiling) Who doesn't pound the foie gras? I mean obviously, I do it less expensively. I might go to Starbucks and get some donuts.
How did you strike a balance between capturing the sense of Hitchcock films and then also expressing your own style?
Well, I was interested in telling the unknown story of Alfred and Alma principally. And also I was interested in showing aspects of Hitchcock's character which are contradictory like the darkness—he's mean to his wife over treatment, he's unspeakably cruel, he's out of control in the shower scene, he's driving Janet Leigh, he's really lascivious and funneling his personal shit into eliciting this performance [from her]. But then there's he's really sweet and funny and tender as well. I wanted to put it all together, and it doesn't sit well together in one sense, that's good to me because I like that it's sort of slightly uncomfortable because he was! Everyone whose seen this film recently who has worked with him, we've had so many people come up—like Diana Baker who was in Marnie--came up to me at a screening and she said—as did Marshall Schlom, the script supervisor on Psycho--they said, "For so long he's been portrayed in the very specific way. And finally this movie captures the mischief, the warmth, and the craziness of the man that I worked with every day." And that to me is the ultimate tribute from the people who knew and worked with him who felt that in one sense he's been cast. He's been cast in a certain way. And whether it's Anvil or Hitchcock, or whatever it is, I think it's important for some people to take the time to just peel away the layers a little. Look a bit deeper and realize that people are not that different. Even in terms of great artists, they may be in one sense cursed or blessed with great talent depending on how you look at it, but it's important I think for people to just recognize that pretty much everyone is a flawed contradictory human being. And that there are different measures of good and bad and what's wrong with that?
Part of it seems to be that your film makes quite plain that yes, he may have had all of these dark elements to him but clearly he had to have been charismatic to attract people the way he did.
Yeah, and also the stories you hear about the actresses, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, yes, they had tough times shooting, and he was difficult and demanding. But they had a great relationship with him. He changed their lives and that's how they feel about it. I think it's important to have more of a balanced view and to avoid sensationalism. And I think it's very easy to [favor sensationalism] with Hitchcock because he was sensational.
What do you think Hitchcock would make of horror movies today?
I think he'd be absolutely pleased. I think you look at the Psycho scene in there, the way we see the blood in that scene and then you trace the lineage directly to the violence that you see in The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde, and that violence goes to Tarantino and that violence goes to Saw and Hostel. So there's a direct lineage, and I think he'd be rather pleased and proud and rather sickeningly satisfied. You know, because he enjoyed a joke, Hitchcock. He had a very dark, cold, ironic sense of humor. I think he would think it was fantastic. I think he would think here we are 52 years later still talking about [Psycho]. As far as he's concerned, mission accomplished, I think.