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HITCHCOCK

Prowling The Archives
Using Stephen Rebello's book and John J. McLaughlin's screenplay as his foundation, Sacha Gervasi set off on his own driven journey of research, scouring archives to ferret out everything he could - and intuit that which he could not -- about Hitchcock and Alma's relationship. Hitchcock himself gave few clues to his private life, but his films were so viscerally lit with the most intimate human emotions - jealousy, suspicion, envy and desire - there was always little doubt more was going on than met the eye. Hitchcock once said, "Film should be stronger than reason." Gervasi wanted to take the same underground approach to understanding the director's human side.

"We don't really know that much about Hitchcock," Gervasi notes. "He had this incredibly developed, very articulate persona that was very droll and dry, yet he would never really give anything away. He was incredibly enigmatic. He betrayed nothing, so what intrigued me was to see if I could take someone who really didn't give out emotions and create an emotional film about him."

Gervasi's research led him to believe that in 1959, having just premiered their sleekest and highest grossing comic thriller yet, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock and Alma were at a crossroads. "I think Hitchcock was ready to jolt himself awake. He didn't want to do NORTH BY NORTHWEST over and over again. He called these movies 'pieces of cake': incredibly lush, romantic films with dashing movie stars. He wanted to feel alive again, and that led him to PSYCHO."

But Alma was in a different place. "When we join her in the story, Alma is feeling a little underappreciated by her husband. His obsessive compulsive desire to complete this film against all the odds leads him to be a bit selfish," the director explains. "But in the course of the story, Alfred realizes he's got this incredible, magnificent jewel of a woman, and a partner who he must acknowledge and rely on, even if in his own very restrained and unsentimental way."

He goes on: "To me, that's what makes this such a very powerful love story. I think we all have at certain times woken up and said of someone, 'my God, this person has stood by me through all my rubbish and all my selfishness and how blind I've been.' This story might involve a very famous filmmaker and a very famous film, but is very real and human."

To get to that real and human place, however, Gervasi eschewed the sentiment from which Hitchcock himself recoiled. He struck instead a coyly irreverent, playful tone that takes pleasure in the director's notable foibles and in his imperturbable, but often revealing, repartee with Alma.

"I think what I hooked into was having a sense of fun. The thing that I love about Hitchcock is the way he approached life, death, sex, mothers and murders all with a kind of drollness. So that was the spirit with which we approached this material," he explains. "We had an opportunity to shine a light on the idea of partnership, on how hard it is to be married, on how hard it is to express yourself. But I think you don't always have to be serious to be profound. And sometimes through comedy and lightness, you can really touch upon deeper things."

PSYCHO -- a film that ultimately impacted almost the entirety of pop culture -- provided another fun piece of the puzzle for Gervasi. When Hitchcock set out to make the film, he had pretty much done it all in his 46 features that ran the gamut from light-hearted comedy to technical tour-de-forces to haunting, seductive psycho-dramas. He'd even had a top-rated television series with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . ." But he still insisted upon "recharging the batteries," as he put it, and doing something completely different.

As Hitchcock put it, "style is self-plagiarism." Hitchcock wanted to surprise and shock the audience in ways they didn't see coming - and he wanted to shake up a film world that was now full of young up and coming directors. PSYCHO would take Hitchcock to the limit. It would push him to explore new depths of psychological terror, to self-finance, to fight the censors and to re-think the standard release patterns. And yet, with Alma's help writing and editing, it would accomplish all that.

Says Gervasi of PSYCHO's legacy: "The film deals with primal, preternatural things that exist in all human beings. We all have parent issues, we all struggle with good and bad, we all fear death. The film explores this darker side of human nature. Add into that Anthony Perkins stabbing people in a dress and you've got matinee idols, transvestitism, murder and mysterious hotels. All those things combined just make it a bloody entertaining film. 52 years later, it's still electrifying people. "

Alfred

To play perhaps the most instantly recognizable filmmaker of all time, the team behind HITCHCOCK thought there was no one better for the job than Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is perhaps best known for his own unforgettably dark turn as a manipulative psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, who helped in the capture of a sophisticated, modernday relation to Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. But his prolific roster of roles -- from THE ELEPHANT MAN and REMAINS OF THE DAY to NIXON and SHADOWLANDS -- reveals a broad versatility to embody the most complex personalities.

"I've always been fascinated by Hitchcock," said Hopkins. "My first professional job was in the theatre in 1960 in Manchester and I remember going to the movies and PSYCHO was playing in Manchester. I went to see the movie on a Sunday night in October 1960 and I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. It was maybe the greatest movie I've seen up to that point in my life. REAR WINDOW and PSYCHO are my two favorite movies."

Gervasi notes that he wasn't looking at all for some kind of uncanny physical resemblance to Hitchcock, but rather, for someone who could bring forth something more subtle and vital: the humanity running beneath his well-known genius, quirks and cutting humor. "We didn't want someone to just impersonate Hitchcock, that was important from the beginning," Gervasi explains. "It was really about revealing the spirit of the man and Anthony Hopkins is a master of doing that with iconic characters, from Richard Nixon to Pablo Picasso to CS Lewis. When you see him as Hitchcock, it takes a moment to adjust to it, but his power as an actor is so deep that, within a few sentences, you become completely embedded in Tony Hopkins' version of Hitchcock. There are very few actors in the world capable of doing that. He was really the only actor who I felt could pull it off. In fact, I told the producers that if we couldn't get him we shouldn't bother making the movie at all."

Hopkins agrees that his performance exists on a razor-thin line, one that had to balance the idea of illuminating Hitchcock without doubling him. "I wouldn't say 'I become Hitchcock'. I don't do that, because I'd go mad," Hopkins muses. "You can't become anyone, but you just try to find a way to balance it so as to not make a caricature. I felt Sacha had unlocked the story that no one else had previously done."

Hopkins says his preparation for the role goes way back to 1960 when he himself first saw PSYCHO as a young actor in England and became a Hitchcock fan for life. He continued following his films, and even met Hitchcock briefly, but it was reading the HITCHCOCK script that brought him deeper into the man. "The script gave me a lot of the information that I needed," he notes, "and then I watched several documentaries and films on Hitchcock and began putting together all the pieces."

Those pieces added up to a man who Hopkins says is an utter paradox. "He can be dark, troubled, cold, ruthless and obsessive and also big-hearted, warm and ingenious," notes Hopkins. "That was all part of his nature."

The full spectrum of that nature was perhaps best understood by Alma, who saw him when he wasn't sculpting a fluid, taut experience on movie sets but was deep down in the messier parts of life. "She was his steadfast ally through his life, and a very good writer and filmmaker herself," Hopkins observes. "He must have been a very tough guy to live with, but when you see them in photographs they look happy. I think he may have concealed his inner vulnerability from everyone except Alma." He continues: "People often wonder: how intimate were they? Well, they probably weren't, but what they had was pure love and companionship. I think they must have had a lot of fun together, they must have had a lot of laughs, because he could be a real clown." As for working with Helen Mirren as Alma, Hopkins comments: "She is a formidable performer, yet so easy to work with. Easy in all kinds of dimensions. She is skilled and savvy, knows what she wants, knows how to do it, and then makes it like a good game of tennis. Her portrayal of Alma is brisk and clear and warm. It really took me by surprise."

Gervasi also presented Hitchcock to Hopkins in a surprising light - as a film industry Goliath turned into a modern day David, determined to make a movie few believed could be a commercial success, let alone get past the Motion Picture Production Code Administration, the powerful censors who could quash any film that violated their strict rules governing sex and violence. "The resistance to PSYCHO made Hitchcock even more determined to succeed and in that way, this is also a kind of underdog story," says Gervasi. "Anthony and I talked a lot in preparation about that theme. You have this contradiction of the king at the top of his game who is now the underdog, and Anthony had a lot of fun with that."

Alma

Alma Reville was a rising young film editor and cinema lover who married Hitchcock in 1926 and spent the next 54 years as his wife, confidante and silent collaborator. Unless it was critical, she never came to her husband's sets but played a key role throughout his career as a script editor, editorial consultant and perhaps the most keenly trusted opinion on each of his films.

In one of the best known stories of the pair's partnership, it was Alma who spotted Janet Leigh blink after she was presumably lying dead on the bathroom floor in a close-to-final cut of PSYCHO, sparking a quick re-edit just before the movie went out to preview.

While film historians and Hitchcock buffs have long been aware of Alma's major influence, she has never been widely known. With HITCHCOCK, Sacha Gervasi wanted to change all that so casting was absolutely critical. He was gratified to be able to cast one of the most compelling and award-winning actresses of our times - Helen Mirren, who won the Academy Award playing another obscured character: Queen Elizabeth in her private moments following the death of Princess Diana.

"Her fluidity with this character is just extraordinary," says Gervasi. "She's incredibly sharp but also very open. The Mirren touch is just magic and it can't be properly explained or understood by a mere mortal like myself."

While the producers had been after Mirren to play Alma for some time, it was not until she read the latest draft that she signed on. "What Sacha did was to strike a tonal balance between the seriousness of the drama and the light kind of wit and comedy that is associated with Hitch. He brilliantly merged these two elements together," says Mirren. She says, she felt he had created a very original and unexpected kind of romance around a man few would think of as romantic and a woman about whom most people know little. "It is a love story," she states.

"And I think that Alma and Hitch were, in their own funny, unglamorous way, a great kind of Romeo and Juliet partnership. They were amazing partners in life and I think they could teach us all something about how to make a successful marriage."

One thing that defined that marriage for Mirren was their undying sense of humor. "Alma is always laughing - I think she found Alfred very funny. It's one of the things that kept them together, their shared sense of irony and the darkness of their humor, which is also very British," she notes.

She was also drawn to Alma's innate strength and self-belief. "Film buffs are well aware of the contributions Alma made to the creation of some of Hitch's masterworks -- but I wanted to present on screen someone that the general public would believe had the ability to truly work side-by-side with this incredible filmmaker," says Mirren.

In portraying Alma, Mirren had little to go by; there is no surviving film footage depicting her mannerisms. But Mirren intuited her own way into the character's skin. "I don't know what she walked like, I don't know how she used her hands. There was an awful lot of research that I couldn't do," she admits. "But I knew there were all these people trying to get to the great and glorious Alfred Hitchcock. And I knew what that feels like because that happened to me with my husband (director Taylor Hackford) when I first came here. I had a freedom with Alma to not attempt any kind of interpretation and really just let her be who she is in the story."

Gervasi was exhilarated by their immediate chemical reaction, which produced an instant depth to the relationship around which the entire film hinged. "When the two of them were together, the energy was just unbelievable," he describes. "They were so sweet with each other, yet so intelligent in their approaches. I was just glad to give them something so real and delicious to play."

Mirren and Hopkins had never worked together, despite coming from similar backgrounds and knowing many of the same people. "We both knew it was our destiny to someday work together but when this project came about, we were both of the mind, 'why did it take so long?'" muses Mirren.

Janet Leigh

Hitchcock's real life with Alma, full of everyday marital conflicts and the grit and dust of decades spent with one another, was of course very different from the passionate, provocative and often dangerous sex lives of the women who populate his films. Much has been made of the so-called "Hitchcock Blondes" - the director's roster of flaxen-haired leading ladies from Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly to Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak, who each had evinced an air of icy sophistication, clever confidence and impenetrable secrecy. They were some of the most daring, intelligent, irreverent and multi-dimensional female characters who had ever graced the movie screen - but they were also manipulative, untrustworthy and magnets for crime, psychopathy and danger.

There have been countless interpretations of Hitchcock's fascination with strong, sexually alluring but ineffably remote women in positions of jeopardy. Some have ascribed it, Freudian-style, to Hitchcock's repressed upbringing and bottled-up fantasies. Others see a complex engagement with issues of gender and feminist psychology- suggesting that Hitchcock was not exploiting the idea of the evasive blonde but rather exploring how powerful women are viewed by and must operate inside a society that feels threatened by them. Still others saw a more poetic illumination of life's insoluble contradictions. When Francois Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock he surmised of Hitchcock's obsession: "What intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface."

HITCHCOCK acknowledges the director's reputation for not only casting a certain type of blonde powerhouse but also for inserting himself into their lives and psyches during his productions -- without either whitewashing it or simplifying it. Rather, the film hones in on a far more elemental relationship: his life-long loyalty to his non-blonde wife, Alma, around whom he had a very different kind of obsession, an obsession of creative ideas.

But certainly PSYCHO called for a consummately seductive blonde to take one of the most harrowing plunges Hitchcock ever asked of an actress. Taking the role was Janet Leigh, played in the film by Scarlett Johansson. Leigh had spent the 1950s as one of Hollywood's most sought-after sirens, and was just coming off working with another masterful and authoritative director, Orson Welles, on TOUCH OF EVIL. But playing Marion Crane in PSYCHO would become her signature role, garnering an Oscar nomination and etching out an enduring place for her in popular culture as the quintessential pursued woman.

To play Leigh, the filmmakers of HITCHCOCK went after an actress with a rare ability to move from the modern to the classic, Johansson. "I've never met a woman of her age, who is that self-possessed, articulate, intelligent and understands her own persona," says Gervasi of Johansson.

In researching the role, Johansson says she became aware that Janet Leigh had a unique relationship with the director, one that broke his mold. "She was different in that she was married to Tony Curtis and she had three children, so she didn't quite fit that category of impossible to reach blonde. She truly was unavailable because she was a wife and a mother and was also a kind of funny, sexy, confidant broad who was able to have something more like a friendship with Hitchcock," she observes. "In the film, their professional relationship is an opportunity to see Hitchcock's more playful side, the side that was mischievous and childlike."

While Alma is skeptical of Leigh as another potential object of infatuation for her husband, she ultimately comes to see that she is not a threat. "I think Alma has had enough of her husband putting his gorgeous leading ladies on a pedestal, and along with her own feelings of being ignored or undesired by him, that makes her react," says Johansson. "But she's not reacting to Janet so much as to the feeling that this is the last straw and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Johansson was quite taken with Alma as a character. "She believed in her husband's vision, but she also supported his vision and inspired him as a partner in every way. Their artistic collaboration became a kind of unbreakable foundation," she says. "I love that HITCHCOCK becomes a story about two artists in the autumn of their lives - and how they keep that love alive."

In preparing for the production, Johansson spent time with Janet Leigh's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, who gave her deeper insight. "Jamie was so lovely and so supportive and you could tell a very proud daughter," she recalls. "She sent me beautiful family photographs and spoke so highly of her mother, as everyone does in the industry. From everything I heard and read about her, she was a very grounded, humble woman and a wonderful mom, first and foremost, which I think really informed me."

The highlight of it all was working with Hopkins as Hitchcock. "He has a truly remarkable presence -- almost like a lion on the prowl who finds just the right moment to pounce. It's incredible to feel that kind of energy coming at you. Hitch could not have been taken on by a lesser actor," she comments. "I think Anthony has all the sweetness, the sadness and the intelligence that was required. It was all there on the page but to actually experience Tony as Hitch was a once in a lifetime thing." Vera Miles

Another famous Hitchcock blonde also starred in PSYCHO - Vera Miles, who was under a 7-year contract with the filmmaker, and had starred in THE WRONG MAN and appeared regularly in his "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series. Hitchcock was said to be enthralled with her - to the point that she had been cast to play the lead in VERTIGO in 1957, but the director was unhappily forced to replace her with Kim Novak when Miles became pregnant before production. Two years later, Hitchcock cast her as Lila Crane, Janet Leigh's searching sister, in PSYCHO.

Taking the iconic role was Jessica Biel, who burst onto the scene in the romantic thriller THE ILLUSIONIST. It was a live audition that won over Gervasi. "She blew everyone away. Her energy was so right - she was light and funny and human and she had tremendous pathos," he says. "It was a really well-rounded and captivating portrayal of Vera Miles."

Biel was thrilled to join the production. "Two things excited me: being in a cast which consists of pretty much everyone that I've hoped to work with and the fact that this takes place in such an interesting and curious moment of this film icon's life."

Then she became fascinated by Vera's relationship with Hitchcock. "I think their relationship was a little bit tricky," she observes. "But they had massive respect for each other. She was a spitfire and a very independent woman. She worked tirelessly and she liked that he was the same way as a director. At the same time, I think Hitch was a little hurt when she chose to have a family so that rift is between them as PSYCHO begins production."

Biel saw Vera as someone who was well aware of Hitchcock's propensity to be controlling and hard on his cast - and who knew what she was doing. "He always created very, very complicated women in his movies," she notes. "His women were for the most part not perfect women; they were dysfunctional, had psychological issues, some would go crazy. From my point of view as an actress, these are the roles you want to play and he continually created these roles in his career."

Working with Hopkins was especially exciting. "It was overwhelming, it was nerve wracking and it was utter jubilation," she laughs. "He's a powerful actor but he's also playful and he makes you feel comfortable enough to try anything, which made this film such a great experience for me."

Anthony Perkins

Sacha Gervasi always suspected casting Anthony Perkins, the famously rangy, boyish actor who became indelibly associated with Norman Bates in PSYCHO - would be challenging. Then, out of the blue, the actor James D'Arcy called him up. "D'Arcy is a friend of mine for years and I'd forgotten that, physically, he could be perfect for Perkins. He said, 'you're doing this Hitchcock thing, what about me?' He came in and gave the most mind-blowing audition," recalls Gervasi.

Executive producer Ali Bell concurs. "He simply knocked our socks off at the audition. He did such a great job of capturing the awkwardness of Anthony Perkins and showed us shadings to the character we hadn't even thought of."

D'Arcy, whose recent films include W.E., CLOUD ATLAS and THE PHILOSOPHERS, says that for Perkins, PSYCHO was a kind of gift he'd been waiting for his whole career. "I think it was a huge break for Anthony Perkins," he observes. "Actors were lining up to work with Hitchcock at this point. At the same time, the studios were trying to position Perkins as a kind of young James Dean which he didn't fit into terribly easily. He was more gangly and gawky and kind of childlike and he didn't have that sort of masculinity that Montgomery Clift or Brando and all those guys had and actually, I think ultimately, that was sort of the reason that we only really know him for PSYCHO -- because he was never truly accepted by American audiences beyond PSYCHO." He adds: "Now we're really used to the idea that the psychopathic murderer turns out to be the last person you'd expect, but when PSYCHO came out, the casting of Anthony Perkins was shocking."

The fact that not much is known about Anthony Perkins' life off screen also intrigued D'Arcy. "Every character in this film has a secret side," he notes. "It's very Hitchcockian in that way."

Peggy Robertson

In addition to Alma, Alfred Hitchcock had another fiercely loyal woman in his life: his long-time right-hand woman Peggy Robertson. Robertson worked for the director for an incredible 30 years, served as a script supervisor, chief assistant and conducted much of the research for his movies. According to PSYCHO script supervisor Marshall Schlom, Hitchcock "could not do anything without her." Indeed, her meticulous notes on his productions would later be a major resource for historians.

Australian actress and Academy Award nominee Toni Collette (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) takes on the role of the woman who made protecting Hitchcock's art, sometimes from himself, a priority. Right away, Collette was compelled by Robertson's equal footing with the director. "I think Hitchcock knew she was astute, capable, stoic and probably what he appreciated most is that she didn't let him get away with anything and didn't bow down to him the way others did," she says. "The manipulation of his actresses and the complex life of balancing work and marriage with Alma was nothing Peggy had to, or would, put up with."

Collette had also previously worked with Hopkins - in her very first film, the 1992 crime drama THE EFFICIENCY EXPERT. "It did feel like things coming full circle," she says. "I was 17 when I did my first film with him, and I couldn't believe I was going to have this experience again."

The excitement of working with Hopkins was soon equaled by her pleasure with watching Gervasi pull together all the elements of Hitchcock and Alma's story. "Sacha's enthusiasm is infectious. The depth of his understanding was incredible, he'd done so much research, and then he created the most harmonious, pleasant set. But the film is very much like a Hitchcock film - it is layered, complex and has its own vision to it." Ed Gein

In the revision of the original HITCHCOCK script, there was the addition of an unusual character: the infamously twisted killer Ed Gein - the real-life murderer who inspired the creation of Norman Bates in PSYCHO -- who makes his presence known as an ink-black figment of Hitchcock's agitated imagination. For Gervasi the character's fantastical forays into Hitchcock's reality became a route into the hidden vein of psychological forces at work under the director's surface, the obsessive drives of his filmmaking and also his need to reconcile with Alma and have her see his humanity.

"Bringing in Ed Gein to me seemed to be a very fun, but potent way of articulating the battle that we all have with the darker side of ourselves," says Gervasi. "He could be Hitchcock's shadow, in a Jungian sense. It became an interesting way to dramatize Hitchcock's struggle with his own obsessions with murder, death, and his fear that he was as bad within as Ed Gein. Ultimately, there's a realization that there's a central difference in the souls of these two men, but I loved trying to dramatize the fact that we always believe that we're much worse than we actually are."

Gein was a particularly gruesome kind of madman in 1950s Wisconsin, who not only killed women, but exhumed corpses from the cemetery, fashioning keepsakes from their decayed bodies. His extreme urges and monstrous behavior inspired Robert Bloch's depiction of Norman Bates, as well as spawning an ongoing fascination in popular culture with the mysteries of disturbed psychopaths. After all, Gein was the very antithesis of shiny, happy suburban life in the 1950s - and more than one person was terrified that a grimly perverse Ed Gein might be lurking within a loved one . . . or themselves.

To play him with the just the right tone, Gervasi cast Michael Wincott, whose work has spanned stage and screen. "He's a brilliant actor who was able to channel the character's darkness and pain along with ultimately a kind of empathy," Gervasi says.

Wincott knew he'd be diving into a murky realm where dreams, fears and the most deeply hidden emotions meet, but he also saw Gein's relationship with Hitchcock in the film as turning into something positive. "While the scenes of Ed Gein certainly are dark, ironically I think there is also something illuminated by his presence," Wincott observes.

Whitfield Cook

While Alfred Hitchcock throws himself into PSYCHO, Alma searches for a creative connection elsewhere, reworking a screenplay by writer Whitfield Cook, who most famously wrote the adaptation of Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. In real life, Cook was known to have collaborated closely with Alma, and on her death said of her: "Alma was truly a filmmaker. I can sincerely say from personal experience that I don't think Hitch's films would have been as good without Alma."

Playing Cook is Danny Huston, whose films include THE AVIATOR, THE CONSTANT GARDENER and CHILDREN OF MEN - and who grew up the son of a master director himself. That gave him a certain insight into the gap between the public and private lives of celebrities. "Hitchcock was a legend, and like a lot of legendary humans of this ilk, I think he had a great ability to play into his own mythology. You see that with Orson Welles, the way he behaved, and certainly with my father, John Huston, where people thought of him as being a man who was more interested in going out for a hunt rather than making his films - and he did nothing to dispel that. He loved it and Hitchcock, I think, had that same ability to encourage the view that we have of him," Huston says.

Huston sees Whitfield as a kind of Hitchcockian character, who gets wrapped up in more than he bargains for when he decides to write with Alma. "He suddenly becomes embroiled in this tender relationship. He needs Alma, in much the same way Hitchcock needed her, to lift his material. He is using her out of innocent ambition and he's a flirt, but when they are creative together, a certain spark happens and I think it surprises both of them," he explains. "And that fuels Hitchcock's jealousy."

As for what fueled his performance, he cites Helen Mirren as his inspiration on the set. "She has no pretense, so it is just pure joy to work with her," he summarizes.

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