Beyond his droll persona and unparalleled legacy in cinema, Sir Alfred Hitchcock was also a man of mystery in keeping his personal life as secretive as one of his femme fatales. Loosely but lovingly adapted from Stephen Rebello’s exhaustive 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the buoyantly entertaining Hitchcock (not to be confused with HBO’s demonizing new biopic The Girl) is less a Tinseltown procedural than an imagined peek into Hitch’s complex relationship with Alma Reville, his wife and collaborator of more than half a century.
Starring Oscar-ready Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as the Hitchcocks, the film marks the narrative directorial debut of British journalist-turned-screenwriter Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal), previously best known for his heartbreakingly funny heavy-metal doc Anvil! The Story of Anvil. I chatted with Gervasi by phone about his warmhearted tribute to the Master and Missus of Suspense.
Based on the title of Rebello’s book alone, I expected more behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Psycho.
Rebello himself said: “The last thing I want is a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the way Psycho was made. That’s for a critical studies class.” We made the conscious decision to make a populist movie because that’s what Hitchcock did. He used to screen movies in his office, and the last movie he ever screened, according to [Hitchcock’s daughter] Patricia, was one of his favorites of the past few years, Smokey and the Bandit. The point is, he wasn’t screening Battleship Potemkin over and over again. He loved popular films, and he found it startling and surprising when Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma started taking him so incredibly seriously. Obviously, he was flattered, but he also found it funny.
You weren’t yet born when Norman Bates first went you-know-what. Did you feel any personal connection with Hitchcock before this film?
Growing up in England, everyone was aware of Hitchcock and incredibly proud because of his humble beginnings. He was the son of a Stratton greengrocer who had gone off to Hollywood and become this iconic character. Not only was he accorded the status of being one of the genius filmmakers of all time, he also invented the brand of being Hitchcock.
But I’d wager few of your countrymen knew about the woman behind the man. When I came to UCLA film school, one of Howard Suber’s opening classes was about the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. He showed us the shower scene. I hadn’t known then that [Bernard Herrmann’s] score was in there because of Alma Reville. Hitchcock was totally adamant that there should be no music, just running water. Alma said, “You’ve got to do it.” When she had a strong instinct, he went with it. One of the revelations of doing this movie was exposing the degree to which his wife had made a massive contribution. Also, there was the chance to explore a marriage 36 years in and talk about how hard that can be to sustain—the temptations, suspicions, and pressures that often exist between people who have been together for the long haul.
Not much is documented about Alma, and Hitchcock notoriously played things close to the vest. Where did you find the balance between detailed research and deductive guesswork? Rebello knows a lot about Alma, and we scoured the biographies, but we weren’t doing a documentary. We were imagining what must have gone on with a man who was notably obsessed with his leading ladies. What was it like to live with that? Stories abound of his intensity and occasional meanness, but for us, it was an opportunity to show another side to him. History tends to either deify or vilify him. In the same way, I dealt with that on Anvil! when people said, “Oh, it’s a documentary about heavy metal.” Well, it’s not. Hitchcock deserves the possibility that he may not have just been a monster or a genius.
Why didn’t Alma take more credit for her creative input? I think she recognized who her husband was, and she shied away from the limelight. Her joy and silent satisfaction was in collaborating with her husband, which she’d done back in England at the film studios when she was an editor and he was doing graphics and titles. Their love was infused with this obsession for film, so it was just her character. She was very selfless.
Most revelatory for me was how even a box office giant could be forced to start from scratch and self-finance the next film. Imagine someone like Hitchcock getting on in years at the time Psycho‘s happening, all these young filmmakers nipping at his heels. He’s feeling insulated and anesthetized by the massive success of North by Northwest and all these gigantic pieces of cake, as he’d call them. He wants to feel vital. I loved the idea of telling a story about an artist who, even at that point in his career, was willing to risk everything just to feel completely alive.
Scarlett Johansson plays a supporting role as Psycho star Janet Leigh, one of cinema’s “Hitchcock blondes.” Do you see these icy manipulators as some Freudian fantasy to be analyzed? Someone said to me recently, quite brilliantly, that if Alfred Hitchcock had sex a lot more regularly, we wouldn’t have all these beautiful films. [Laughs.] Clearly, the audience knows that he’s working his darkest shit out. Hitch didn’t see a therapist. We have a fantastical scene where he’s on a therapist’s couch dialoguing with serial killer Ed Gein, but his films were his therapy. Hitchcock is hanging out with Cary Grant and Farley Granger, but he must know he’s not one of them when he looks in the mirror. He’s able to create this world in which he can mold and have control over unobtainable, beautiful women. All that sublimated rage and sexual desire is part of why his films endure.
You mentioned Anvil! earlier. Have you kept in touch with those rascally underdogs? Dude! I just saw them in L.A. two days ago. It was brilliant! They’re doing so flipping well. They’re playing all over the world, making money from music, and having a blast. There’s actually a massive connection between the two films because both are about creative collaborations, about essentially married couples who have been together forever and drive each other insane. [Laughs.]
Hitchcock (Fox Searchlight) opens Nov. 23. See hitchcockthemovie.com for more details.