Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock" was one of last fall's most curious releases, a star-powered ode to one of filmdom's most beloved personalities that confounded expectations by refusing to be either self-serious or definitive. Hardly the tedious and mannered piece of Oscar bait that the season typically invites, "Hitchcock" was a fun and frothy portrait of the mythic filmmaker, imbued with the playful attitude of its namesake. In retrospect, hiring the guy who made "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" should have primed people for a different take on a familiar figure, but folks weren't entirely sure what to make of it on first blush. Of course, if a film about Hitchcock is to accurately reflect The Master of Suspense, it must never be fully appreciated in its own time.
In honor of the film's home video release, I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Gervasi, an affable and articulate guy who -- even over our brutal cell connection -- communicated a clear passion for all things Hitchcock, an enthusiasm that has somehow withstood the slog of shepherding a film of this scale into theaters and beyond. There was a bit of a lag between our voices, but I like to think that it added to the suspense of his answers.
This is David Ehrlich from Film.com, thanks so much for talking with us.
Sacha Gervasi (politely ignoring the fact I’ve introduced myself as if possessed by the One Ring): No problem, David! What’s up man, how are you?
I’m doing just fine. You sound far away.
Uh yeah, I’m sorry, I’m just in the middle of some craziness, but I’m very happy to talk to you. Can you hear me well enough?
Yeah, the connection sounds a little weak but we’ll do our best. Alright, well let’s get started. So... As we see in the film, Hitchcock famously reversed his stance on the music cues in the shower scene in “Psycho”, and I was curious: Was there anything in the making of your film that you were really stubborn about and really fought for and eventually relented, only to realize that you were wrong the whole time?
Uh yeah, multiple things. I have a genius editor called Pamela Martin, and Pamela is quite the brilliant editor, as I’m sure you know from films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Fighter”. There were at least three occasions when I was set on things and she pointed out my errors. And there were times when I might have been correct and we argued it out. I think, it was interesting because obviously the actual creative process mirrors often what we were seeing in the story, including the adversity of trying to get the film made, which in the environment today is so hard. Everyone wants to say no, and it’s sort of a miracle when any movie gets made at all, in particular character movies like this.
I think as a director you need to have brilliant collaborators who can see things you don’t, and I was fortunate that I had some amazing people to work with.
There’s another thing that Hitchcock does in the film that struck me, which is early in the film when he’s thinking about making “Psycho” the idea that infatuates him is when he says “What if someone really good made a horror picture.”
And here we are in 2013, and I find myself asking the same question all the time. So my question to you is, what do you think Hitchcock would have to say about the current state of horror films?
Well of course it’s all supposition, I have no idea, but I think part of him would be thrilled that... I think anyone who knows a little bit about cinema would be able to see quite easily that the violence you see in the shower scene directly tracks to the violence you see in “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Wild Bunch”, and then that goes to Tarantino... So I think he’d be very pleased at a certain level.
But that scene and the import of “Psycho” alone has lasted more than 60 years, I think he’d be thrilled. I think he’d be pleased giving that to the young directors, but I do think that it’s much easier to make a movie now, and that’s why there was something charmingly old-fashioned about this film. It was quite sad seeing the editing process that we do, it just doesn’t exist anymore. Movie studios probably aren’t outputting movies to film by the end of this year, so it was sort of a look at something... not only the editorial process, but even film itself is obsolete, so there’s something sort of bittersweet about that. But I don’t know, I think Hitchcock would appreciate, you know, movies like “Evil Dead.” I haven’t seen the new one, I mean like Sam Raimi, because I think he was all about movies that have a tremendous effect on an audience, and movies like that have and do.
Any way to make the audience feel something, regardless of how you do it, I suppose.
Exactly, and what you said about the beginning, the whole idea is that these movies were looked down on at the time as trash, so when you have a master filmmaker like Hitchcock elevate these things that are genre, you have a chance to make a really original and fresh and satisfying for an audience. So that was a badge for him, that he was able to bring a fantastic and very accomplished sensibility to something that people looked down on, and he always liked that idea of playing with people’s expectations.
I feel like in a way you were sort of taking a similarly unusual approach to biopics, and you know the film is much more interested in an honest Hitchcock than it is a factual Hitchcock. It’s a lot closer to the spirit of “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” than it is to the Ray Charles biopic, “Ray”. Do you feel like a straight-on approach to a biopic is limiting?
I don’t know, you know we sort of embraced that ironic, mischievous sense of humor that Hitchcock had that’s so quintessentially English. And we sort of took that tact with the film. The intention was never to make a never furtive, kind of serious biopic, that would have been quite boring and missing the point about Hitchcock. Which seems to have been lost... he was really sort of a surrealist, as well as being a master filmmaker, he was a performance artist, he was the first star director. He and Alma created this “Hitch” character. He used to say “I’m not an English snob, I just play one on television.” It was a chance to explore that persona. But it was definitely highly stylized and sort of surrealistic, because I think he was to a certain degree. The other real counterpoint to that was his relationship with Alma that most people don’t know about. The film isn’t really about Hitchcock or “Psycho,” it’s really about marriage, and how hard it is to creatively collaborate with someone you’re with.
It’s funny, because the Hitchcock film that it most reminded me at times was “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which is maybe not the film that someone would think of when they think of him.
Well I think what we were doing is that we wanted to do something a little unexpected, we knew people would have an idea as to what it should be. But we also wanted to tell a story for an audience and have fun with it -- that’s what Hitchcock did. Remember when he made these films, they werent’ considered high art, they were considered genre movies. A lot of critics looked down on Hitchcock for making these “crowd-pleasures,” because they thought that he wasn’t a serious filmmaker. You know, during his lifetime of course, with Truffaut and some of these other people coming over from France, he was obviously flattered, and according to those who interviewed him he was amused by all of this adulation, so he didn’t start off making high art, it’s in retrospect that these films are considered what they are. Remember, when “Vertigo” came out it was a commercial and critical flop, and now last year in the Sight & Sound poll it was voted the #1 film of all time. Again, there’s a big debate about that, you know “Kane,” but it’s funny how time changes things.
And now people take these things incredibly seriously. And I think he took it a lot less seriously than some people do. I think it would find it delicious that there’s a tremendous debate on what kind of a person was Hitchcock. Was he an evil monstrous sort of sadistic genius who attacked his actresses, or was he a surrealistic quiet... to me, he was sort of everything, and that’s the interesting thing about him.
The chief point of the movie was really to expose this incredible collaboration that was the closest of his life, which frankly most people don’t know about, and some people are frightened of. They want Hitchcock to be this cold forbidding genius, but Alma was a huge part of his life, and changed his life.
I think when you focus on... not in your film, but maybe in that other Hitchcock film that came out last year, when you focus on one element of somebody as complex as Hitchcock, it can be rather reductive. I was reading an interview with you when you said that “The Girl” made him look like Pol Pot, which I thought was hilarious. I think that by focusing on the relationship with Alma, you’re able to diversify his personality and explore that he wasn’t just one type of creature.
I think the question is what it means to have someone who was clearly very smart, and difficult to work with sometimes, but was obviously a loving husband and father. People want to put Hitchcock in a pigeonhole. They want to stereotype him and put a label on him, but I think what’s interesting about him is that he’s many things. And when showed facets that some people didn’t want to accept, but the fact is that Alma was who she was, you know? And I think that he was the first to give her the credit. There’s that great quote: "I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration," Hitchcock said. "First of the four is a film editor. The second is a scriptwriter. The third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as has ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville."
He was very open about acknowledging all of the roles that she played in his life, and it was only Alma who was so humble and didn’t want the limelight, and I think that’s so interesting. She recognized that Hitchcock was a genius, but that he couldn’t be seen... She very dutifully and elegantly tried to hide her role, and I think that was a story worth telling.
Do you think that there’s something inherently lonely about being a director? Where you’re on the set with hundreds of people and you’re surrounded by activity, but everyone is looking at you for answers...
Well I think the story is a very common one. I can’t tell you how many people have come out of the film and said “Oh my God, that is my life.” But I think it takes an extraordinary person to be there for someone who has to go through all that. At the same time, as they used to say in UCLA Film School, it’s a privilege to be mistreated in this fashion. Just the fact that you can work in the film industry and tell these stories is such an immense honor that there’s not really much to complain about. You have a chance to work with fabulous actors and tell stories that hopefully engage and entertain an audience, you’re sort of lucky to be able to do that, and of course it is working, but the fact that you’re lucky enough to tell stories for a living is hopefully something that never escapes you.
Well, I have one last question before I let you off the hook. So you came from a documentary background and this was really your first major opportunity to make a fiction film, you may have been in an impressionable position as a filmmaker, so I wonder if Hitchcock left any residue, any sort of indelible impression that you’re always going to have as part of your work from here on out?
Well I think any filmmaker, if you’re a fan of his work like I am, you’re affected by what he did. In a lot of cases with directors you have 3 or 4 great films, but with Hitchcock you have 11 or 12 masterful movies. And that’s a huge canon of work, and so I think that if anything the ability to find a great story across any genre, across thrillers and romances... all the types of things that he did. And the willingness to experiment! I mean here he is, 60 years old, willing to risk his own money on this crazy horror movie. I mean, no one wanted to make “Psycho,” so I think the key thing that I got from it is always be willing to take a huge risk. No matter what you do, people are going to have an opinion about it, but you have to always maintain your willingness to risk everything and keep going, and he did that. I know it was obviously hard when certain films that he loved like “Vertigo” were rejected by critics, but he kept going in spite of that, and it’s ironic that “Vertigo” is now seen the way it is, but it was really hard at the time.
But I think it’s that ferocious determination to keep going and follow your instincts and I think “Psycho” is the perfect example of that. He could have, coming off of “North by Northwest”, he could have done anything. You know, particularly those big movies, those lush riviera kind of epics with movie stars, but he felt like he was repeating himself and he wanted to take a risk, and people didn’t want him to. And I think it’s that kind of fortitude that I’ll walk away with.
"Hitchcock" is now available on DVD & Blu-ray, as well as on iTunes and other VOD services.