Sacha Gervasi is no fool. He knew it was coming.
He is the director of Sir Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the hugely awaited “Hitchcock,” whose first wave of openings in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere was met with nothing if not rigorous scrutiny from film critics and historians. Skepticism, and worse, were commonplace.
“Hitchcock” (rated PG-13) opens in Buffalo on Friday. Gervasi had this to say in a telephone conversation conducted during a film junket in New York where press attitudes were lavishly evident, but before the national openings – and opening reviews.
“[Alfred] Hitchcock, in a certain sense, is a sacred cow,” Gervasi said. “We knew that was going to happen. We’re not a documentary. We’re a movie. We’re offering a very subjective interpretation of what might have been in his mind and in his wife’s mind. … We can’t possibly say we have a definitive understanding. It’s a movie. I’m a storyteller. Hitchcock was a storyteller. Hitchcock made movies for an audience. That was the spirit we tried to embrace.”
He added, “In terms of film critics and historians being forensic about it … I hope they understand that the spirit of mischief about Hitchcock is the spirit we’ve tried to embrace here.”
What Gervasi was after in his film, then, was the spirit of Hitchcock’s droll introductions to the mini-dramas on his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which remain a regular TV staple thanks to cable and satellite TV more than a half century after they first appeared.
Whether that sacred cow has been presented as a stale, franchise burger kept warm under a heat lamp or a succulent rib eye steak is for individual viewers to decide. What’s undeniable is the wallop of his cast, all of whom are first rate – Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Dame Helen Mirren as his wife and partner (in almost every way) former film editor Alma Reville, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles.
The film was based on critic Stephen Rebello’s book about a very specific endeavor in Hitchcock’s long creative life – the making of “Psycho,” an epochal event in the movie history that changed forever the commercial landscape of an art form.
And, said Gervasi (who is, among other things, an ex-rock drummer for Bush), “Hitchcock” might never have come about with him directing it had it not been for his documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” a cult favorite that is often called the real-life version of “Spinal Tap.”
“I’m really proud of that movie,” Gervasi said of “Anvil.” “It changed my life, it changed the guys’ lives who were depicted in the film … Whoever I wind up working with [there’s talk of Hugh Jackman at the moment in his next film], it’s all been because of ‘Anvil.’… It’s an intensely personal movie. I paid my own money [to get it made]. I took a huge risk. No one wanted to release it, so I released it myself. It had a crazy success – particularly with awards and the fans it garnered. With Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, the reason they allowed me to direct them is that they loved ‘Anvil.’ They felt I had such a strong storytelling sense that they were willing to trust me. I think that everything that is happening in my life now is the result of that film.”
The rest of Gervasi film dossier isn’t as distinguished. While he wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks, he also wrote the script for and produced “Henry’s Crime,” which brought Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga and James Caan to Buffalo, where parts of it were shot.
As producer of the film (Malcolm Venville directed), Gervasi said, “I came out there [Buffalo] to spend time researching it. So it was really great fun. I spent quite a bit of time there. I loved writing the film, setting it there, and it was a really good experience. I liked the final film … It’s really the director’s film rather than mine, but I really liked it.”
Gervasi is, of course, well aware of HBO’s recent film “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s obsessive and sadistic mistreatment of Tippi Hedren during the making of “The Birds” and “Marnie.” In it Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton starred as Hitch and Alma; Sienna Miller played Hedren.
“It’s quite a different film from our film. What I will say is that the experience it describes is obviously its own thing. … Let’s assume that it’s true. What’s also true is that his relationships with his leading ladies were not typically like that. Many of them felt tremendous affection for Hitchcock. He was difficult, he was complicated, he was intellectual, he was tough, but he had tremendous respect for them all … Kim Novak said, ‘It’s so unfortunate that Mr. Hitchcock is not around to defend himself.’ ”
In Gervasi’s view, “What’s been missing a lot from the way he’s been perceived is him as a tremendously warm man who occasionally – as much as he could be bitingly cold – could also be incredibly romantic. It’s a combination of all those extreme things that don’t seem to fit together that make him such a complex and interesting character.”
As for “Hitchcock’s” notable glamorization of the director’s wife, Alma, it was unavoidable with the casting of Helen Mirren. “We were trying to be true to her spirit, but we’re also making a movie. Which means when you have a movie star, it’s clearly going to be star representation. Had we had someone who looks exactly like Alma, the film would never have been made. In a film we’re trying to channel the essence of the character and the person. You also want the actors to add their own spin, their own personal stuff into it. With Alma, when Helen gives that incredible speech in the bedroom [reminding her husband of her lifelong conjugal loyalty no matter what], as much as that’s Alma Reville, that’s also Helen Mirren, her story of when she came to the States in the ’90s and she was nearly unknown and Taylor Hackford, her husband, was running a mini-studio. She had the experience of being at Hollywood parties and people would literally push past her to get to her husband. In that scene, that’s as much Helen Mirren speaking as Alma Reville.”
Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” then, is full of a lot of different stories from a lot of different sources.
For audiences, the question is, how much should it matter in such a well-acted film if the story, so freely adapted, is about, rather than by, a person acknowledged to be a film genius.