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
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
"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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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."
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
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
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
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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