Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. It’s awards season, so you’re going to see a couple of after-the-fact interviews from me. First up is Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi and it’s quite an interesting chat. We cover a lot of interesting ground, from striking the balance of fact vs fiction to Jamie Lee Curtis’ embracing of Scarlett Johansson playing her mother and talk of where a sequel would go.
As you’ll see below, I’m totally now a big Hollywood producer because of my brilliant thoughts on what a sequel to Hitchcock should be. When that sweet, sweet studio money train comes pulling into the station I’m going to be rich, y’all!
Seriously, though, it’s a fun chat and Gervasi had an obvious passion for the man, his work and the very talented team he pulled together for this film.
Enjoy the interview!
Quint: My first exposure to Alfred Hitchcock was through Alfred Hitchcock Presents reruns. That show was on constant rotation when I was a kid…
Sacha Gervasi: And they still are now, man! I was watching Chiller TV the other day and there he is! Crazy.
Quint: I think me having such deep and fond memories of Alfred Hitchcock Presents really helped me dive right into your movie because you bookend it just like it was an episode of the show, with Hitch addressing the viewer with a wry bit of dark humor.
Sacha Gervasi: I think that was important, you know. That was obviously a conscious choice that we made. Stephen Rebello’s book (Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho), which I think is one of the most brilliant exhaustive studies of the making of a film, is amazing. You get everything, like how it took 7 days to shoot the shower scene, the nuance of the different dummy heads for Mrs. Bates and all that type of detail that I love. Stephen was like, “Look, if we make a film, I want to do an emotional, entertaining movie in the spirit of Hitchcock. He wouldn’t have wanted the film about him to be dull.”
John McLaughlin did a terrific job on the script. It’s funny and tender and also tense, at times. What we wanted to do was embrace that spirit and not lose the humor. There’s real darkness in the film. You’ve got Ed Gein throwing a woman’s body in a tub and going, “I’m going to get the knives,” in (Hitchcock’s) mind. It’s pretty fucked up, right?
That had to be there because that’s also true about Hitchcock. The meanness, the darkness, all the stuff that made him very difficult to be around… but we didn’t want to lose that lightness. We wanted to remind the audiences that he was an entertainer. He entertained for the people! The last movie he screened in his office was Smokey and the Bandit! You can imagine the entertainment value he got when all these generous, but polo-necked Frenchmen started showing up in the ‘60s. (in a French accent) “Alfred, why did you juxtapose the lifeboat with the fog? What were you saying?” He was obviously massively flattered for being appreciated and for people to be reading so much into his work and being passionate about it, but I think there was part of him that probably thought that was funny. He never forgot he was a populist and we wanted to stay true to that.
So, there’s two things going on in the film. There’s the real life struggle that Hitchcock had to make Psycho and there’s also an emotional exploration of what might have been in his psyche, so we’re having several levels of stuff going on with the idea that it’s all hopefully entertaining.
Quint: Something that I think is a really interesting choice is how you portrayed Hitchcock himself as a voyeur. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it, because it’s a director’s job to watch from the shadows…
Sacha Gervasi: Absolutely.
Quint: But I like the echoes you have of Hitchcock’s real life mirroring the fictional film he was making, like how he had the Norman Bates peephole in his office.
Sacha Gervasi: We extrapolated, but a lot of the stuff that was in there happened. For example, we had two producers on the film: Alan Barnette, one of the original producers who had been with the film for years, and Tom Pollock. Alan Barnette was on the lot at Universal and he was taken to see Hitch’s office where there was a peephole. Tom Pollock ran Universal for 12 years. He saw the peephole!
The point is, that peephole was in his office. That’s a great jumping off point to then go in and say, “Well, what the fuck was it there for? What was he looking at?” Look, all of his movies are about voyeurism, clearly. What we tried to do was take the essence of truth and build on that, in a hopefully entertaining and cinematic way. At the end of the day, that was probably very close to what actually happened. I mean, we know he was obsessed with these women, with sex, death and murder and these wonderful POV shots, which we echo when he’s in the kitchen with Alma and we go in on her neck as she’s crunching the vegetables. It’s like we’re in his mind.
That’s why the work endures. It’s so rich and clearly so bizarrely personal. That’s why we’re still talking about it 52 years later. It was a really fun process to find the balance between the real stuff and the fantasy stuff and sort of throw it up and see how people respond to it.
Quint: I’m a huge fan of character actors and you nabbed some big ones for this movie. Kurtwood Smith…
Sacha Gervasi: Kurtwood! Yes! We got Kurtwood and Michael Stuhlbarg. By the way, there are also the lesser known actors that people don’t really know yet. I have a group of actors and what we do is when we get a script that either one of the actors is going to do or I’m going to direct and they come over to my house, we all have dinner and we sit all around (and go over the script). A lot of the actors in that group are in the movie.
Kai Lennox, who you may remember from Boogie Nights and he was in Beginners last year, he plays Hilton Green, the first A.D. Currie Graham, who is this hilarious comedy actor, is the one who says, “Well thank God we’ve got Cinderfella for the holidays.” He’s one of those actors. Wally Langham, from Larry Sanders and CSI, he’s one of those actors, too and he comes in plays Saul Bass very briefly in the movie.
What I’m saying is I’ve got these great actors that I fucking love and I’ve tried to put the people I love in, from the top roles to the smallest roles.
Quint: You decided early on that you wanted to make the movie about Alfred and Alma, with the making of Psycho as the backdrop to their story. As a fan, were you ever tempted to divert more of the focus to the making of the movie? Like, “Maybe we should try to squeeze in Martin Balsam?”
Sacha Gervasi: I tried to find the balance and in the end what I found is that emotionally you’re locked into that relationship and those characters. As a fan, though, I had all these scenes which I took out. I had this whole thing about the prop dummy heads for Mrs. Bates. You had these guys coming up with all these different Mrs. Bates dummies and you had all the shit that was going on about how they actually filmed that shot of Balsam going down the stairs and how long it took… I could have made a whole other movie just of that.
Quint: You should do a sequel that’s not a sequel, but that’s happening at the exact same time as the events in Hitchcock, but focused on the ins and outs of the actual production.
Sacha Gervasi: That’s a brilliant idea!
Quint: You could follow James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins during the filming.
Sacha Gervasi: What do you think of that? That’s actually a really fucking good idea. That could be really interesting, man. Seriously! In other words, we’d basically just go back to the Rebello book and just take all of those key episodes and instead of Psycho being in the background of the relationship, the relationship pops up against (the making of Psycho). That’s fucking brilliant!
Quint: Do it!
Sacha Gervasi: That’s such a great idea. Quint, do you want to be a producer?
Quint: Sure! Let’s do it!
Sacha Gervasi: (laughs) I just want you to know we’re all getting paid shit!
Quint: That’s fine, as long as I get to hang out with Tony Hopkins we’re all good.
Sacha Gervasi: No problem! By the way, he’d love that. He’d think that was a brilliant idea.
Quint: Just seeing how good James D’Arcy’s Perkins is in the movie and how good Scarlett Johansson is as Janet Leigh…
Sacha Gervasi: Everyone comes up to me and says, “I really wanted more Perkins.” If we could follow him for the whole movie… But also, it’s a good sign. When people come out of a movie and they want more, that’s a good thing. Maybe we’ll deliver it to them! I’m totally serious! This is kind of a brilliant idea. It’s the flip side, we just flip it around the other way. Quint! Not just an interviewer, but also perhaps producer of… What do we call it? Hitchcock 2: This Time It’s Techy?
Quint: It depends on who the focus is going to be, really.
Sacha Gervasi: If you’re saying we should follow Scarlett and follow Perkins, we should also follow the actual technical making of the film. (claps hands) Here’s what we can do! The Psycho (shower) scene took seven days to shoot, do you realize the movie could take place just over those seven days? Why don’t we just do the shower scene with all the other shit that goes on around it!
Quint: Yes! We can get to know the poor stand-in that had to have her face painted black so the camera didn’t pick up any detail of Mother’s face…
Sacha Gervasi: Her name was Margo (Epper). We had a whole scene with Hitch and Margo that I wanted to do, but again… it was another movie. It was this movie! It was a very funny scene that John wrote. Janet Leigh’s body double is standing there naked and Jack, the cameraman, is coming up and measuring for the lens of the camera. She’s standing there stark naked and Hitchcock is talking to Margo very casually, saying “So, Margo, have you ever sampled any of the fine dry Rieslings?” and she says, “If Safeway doesn’t have it, I don’t buy it.” It’s this bizarre little dinner party chat that goes on while Hitchcock is standing there next to a naked woman and holding a tape to her breasts. So, that could be in the movie…
Quint: And you can finally get your Mrs. Bates heads in there, too.
Sacha Gervasi: Exactly! The corpse dummy head thing went on for years. He got really upset! I think there were, like, fifteen of them. That’s a brilliant idea…
Quint: The way it could really work is if you have overlapping moments from Hitchcock, but seen through the actor’s point of view. Kind of like Back to the Future II, when Marty goes back to 1955 and sees the events from the first film from a different angle.
Sacha Gervasi: This is genius, Quint! And then you could show both films together! God, that’s brilliant! Alright. Listen, I’m available.
Quint: (laughs) Well, let me know when all the paperwork is settled!
Sacha Gervasi: You never know, man! You never know.
Quint: I’m fascinated with behind the scenes stuff. Listen, I’m not a massive fan of The Artist, but I love what The Artist has wrought. I love that there’s now a lot of behind-the-scenes of Old Hollywood films that have come in the wake of the movie, like Hitchcock and the upcoming Walt Disney/PL Travers movie starring Tom Hanks…
Sacha Gervasi: Saving Mr. Banks, yeah.
Quint: Ed Wood, Sunset Boulevard… I just love movies about the making of movies.
Sacha Gervasi: Did you notice Jeff Cronenweth’s brilliant thing… When The Hitchcocks arrive at Paramount for the first time and we swing down off the Paramount (entrance), you realize Jeff is doing Sunset Boulevard! That’s the Sunset Boulevard shot. There’s constant reference to film history in there for the buffs who look.
There are also these tiny performance things that Tony does, like the scene at the pool when he says “Remember when we were young? I want to feel that freedom again.” There are two things in that scene that I think are indicative of how brilliant the performance is. One, as Alma’s getting out of the pool, he takes the flap of his jacket and he throws it across his belly. The other thing is, when he says, “I want to feel that freedom again,” for the first time you hear his cockney accent. The truth of his background, being the son of a greengrocer and poulterer, his working class roots come through just a tiny bit in the voice. I love those little touches that people don’t necessarily notice, but they’re there. I would urge the people to come back and look at the film again and look at these little things that are in there because I think there’s a lot of richness there.
Quint: Before we wrap up, we should talk a little about Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. She’s really very good in the movie and seemed to throw herself into the role. Could you talk a little about working with her on the film?
Sacha Gervasi: I was rehearsing with Tony Hopkins at my house, he was working on the script with me. Scarlett was going to come over and tell us whether she wanted to work on the movie or not. It was the first meeting.
She came over and we stopped working and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, we’re just working on (the movie).” She said, “Can I see?” We were working on the peephole scene, just figuring out how to do it, and she said, “Why don’t I do this?” It was a meeting about whether or not she would do the movie that turned into a rehearsal. Immediately. And she just went for it.
Within a week she phoned me up and said, “Listen, I’ve spoken with Jamie Lee Curtis, I’ve read all of Janet Leigh’s books,” because you know she wrote novels…
Quint: I’m actually in the middle of reading her Making Of Psycho book right now.
Sacha Gervasi: Right. She also wrote three fiction novels and Scarlett read them all!
Quint: In a week!
Sacha Gervasi: Yeah! She did all the research, she had been in touch with Jamie Lee, Jamie Lee was so thrilled to have the chance to have Scarlett play her mother that she shared personal memorabilia and photos and home movies and I thought that was incredibly generous of her.
I think it was important (to Jamie Lee), from what Scarlett told me, that that relationship between Janet Leigh and Hitchcock be represented for what it was. Yes, it was tough during the shooting. Yes, the shower scene was intense. Yes, he was mean and crazy and difficult at times. All directors are when they’re under pressure.
Quint: Except for you, of course. (laughs)
Sacha Gervasi: I was crazy! But what I’m saying is that she felt that despite all that their relationship was really warm and tender. You’ll notice, if you go back, that Janet Leigh only had wonderful things to say about Hitchcock, for the whole of her life! Similarly, Eva Marie Saint still to this day. Similarly, Kim Novak.
Quint: I remember Eva Marie Saint coming out after the Tippi Hedren stuff.
Sacha Gervasi: That’s right. They were like, “Okay, that may have happened. No disrespect, the last thing we’d want to say to you is that you didn’t have a horrible experience… but that was not the experience for most, if not all of the other leading ladies who worked with Hitchcock.”
I think part of the point of our film is to say, “Look, whatever happened in that situation was that situation, but it wasn’t the whole story.” I think on the vast subject of Hitchcock and the complexity and contradiction of his character there is more to say than that episode that happened in The Birds. Again, I wasn’t there and clearly it was traumatic and one wouldn’t wish that on their worst enemy, but at the same time there were many other sides to Hitch and I think we shouldn’t judge a man on one particular episode, we should judge him on his whole life.
That’s what I hope people bring from the film. It’s not an easy “he was good/he was bad.” He was both! He’s human! He was this creative genius and it brings up this debate about the difference between the man and the work. I don’t know if you’ve had this, but I have idols in film and I won’t say who they are, but I’ve met them and have been so disappointed because you realize the work is not the man. In Hitchcock’s case, I think it was actually very close, but the point being he’s still a man. That’s why he’s so rich and fascinating to talk about.
And that’s the interview. As you now know, I’m kind of a big deal producer, so I’ve sold off most of my earthly goods, packed up my cat and my most treasured geek collectibles and am waiting for that Hitchcock 2 paperwork to come in. Any day now… any day now…