Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 11-12-12

Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson

Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in “Hitchcock”

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in “Hitchcock”

Stars of “Hitchcock” Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren

Stars of “Hitchcock” Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren

“Hitchcock” history: I’ve been a Hitchcock fan for many years and a “Hitchcock” fan since seeing Sacha Gervasi’s awards worthy biographical drama about the Master of Suspense 10 days ago.

Of all the notable directors who have found fame and fortune in Hollywood over the years, Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the only one to have achieved the same instant recognition with moviegoers that typically goes only to stars. Hitch, as he liked to be called, turned himself into a brand long before most people had ever heard of branding.

The result is a filmmaker whose connection with audiences was so strong that the story of how he made “Psycho,” his greatest commercial success and the 1960 horror thriller for which he’s probably best known today, has itself become the movie “Hitchcock,” opening Nov. 23 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Fox Searchlight presentation in association with Cold Spring Pictures is a Montecito Picture Company production and a Barnette/Thayer production. Produced by Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck, Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette, it was executive produced by Ali Bell and Richard Middleton.

“Hitchcock” arrives with a strong awards pedigree that should put it on the radar for Oscar, Golden Globes and BAFTA voters as a film they need to see and consider before sending in their nominating ballots.

Directed by Gervasi, a Directors Guild of America nominee for “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” its screenplay by John J. McLaughlin, a BAFTA nominee for co-writing “Black Swan,” is based on Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho.'” Anthony Hopkins, a best actor Oscar winner for “The Silence of the Lambs,” plays Hitchcock. Helen Mirren, a best actress Oscar winner for “The Queen,” plays Hitchcock’s wife and longtime behind-the-scenes collaborator Alma Reville. And Scarlett Johansson, a BAFTA best actress winner for “Lost in Translation,” plays “Psycho” star Janet Leigh.

Hitch began making cameo appearances in his films starting with “The Lodger” in 1927. By the '50s, audiences were watching carefully to see how and where he’d turn up on screen. By then, Hitch was also famous for promoting his films, appearing in their trailers to tell audiences what to expect and then making personal appearances to launch them with their stars.

Hitch also connected with audiences through his weekly television appearances as the host of the popular mystery series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,“ which began as a half-hour show in October 1955. Although its last new episode — in what by then was a one-hour series called “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” — aired in June 1965, the program is still seen on cable TV today.

The show helped establish Hitch as the Master of Suspense. He became famous for the caricature of himself in profile that opened each episode and also for voicing his customary greeting to viewers – “Good evening,” delivered so that “Good” was extended into something like “Gooooode” that made the most of his British accent.

The series’ memorable theme music, Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” became so closely identified with Hitch that Gervasi uses it over “Hitchcock’s” closing credits.

Having greatly enjoyed his movie, I was delighted to be able to focus recently with Gervasi on the making of “Hitchcock.”

“I’d gone to UCLA Film School,” he told me, “and pretty much every film student in the world studies Hitchcock. I’d come from England, of course, wanting to get into film. Obviously, people like David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock were our gods. So I’ve always been a Hitchcock fan. Everyone in England is blown away by the fact that he was able to come here and become such a huge legend and success in his time.”

Not only was Gervasi fascinated as a Hitchcock fan with the story of the making of “Psycho,” but there was “something about this particular story that resonated for me. It starts with him in the bath and he’s (reading) about all these young French directors coming up and 'Diabolique' is causing a stir. (The 1955 French film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot had become a horror thriller classic. It was based on 'Celle qui n’etait plus,' the first novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had based his 1958 thriller “Vertigo” on their later novel 'D’entre Les Morts.'”)

“He says to his wife, Alma, 'Tell me, my dear, am I really too old?' The idea of feeling like it might be over — feeling like, 'Oh, my gosh, I’m the old god now.' That’s why he said, 'Why are they concerned with the new Masters of Suspense when they still have the old one?' It’s a wonderful notion of an artist at 60 who feels slightly imprisoned by his success, who feels like he must do something radical to not just shock his audience, but shock himself awake.”

To that end, Hitchcock finds in “Psycho” a project that everyone, including his wife, looks down on. “And when everyone says no,” Gervasi noted, “he’s willing to risk everything to make this project. It’s such a crazy and insane gamble. But somebody who has that kind of courage and that kind of intensity and that kind of instinct, I just really relate to.”

By way of explanation, he cited his own experience making the 2008 documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” about the heavy metal act recording its thirteenth album while still following its dreams.

“I had just made this small documentary, which ended up doing incredibly well,” he said. “I self financed it. I took a massive risk. I felt I had like just the tiniest window into understanding Hitchcock’s insanity because the reason I made 'Anvil' was, I think, the same reason he did 'Psycho,' is that I just wanted to feel like my voice was being heard and that the powers that be couldn’t tell me no.”

Besides that connection, Gervasi also points to the story, itself. “I didn't know that it was impossible for Hitchcock to make this movie,” he pointed out. “Why would he have to take such a risk? But he did. To me, the revelation of the book and, particularly, the screenplay by John McLaughlin was this relationship (between Hitch and Alma) that I knew nothing about. The fans of Hitchcock and the film historians know about Alma Reville, but so few people understand the degree to which her creative contributions (were of major significance and that) their collaboration was such a huge part of Hitchcock’s genius.”

Gervasi wanted to tell that story and to talk about marriage “and how hard it is to sustain, particularly in a creative collaboration and to pinpoint how important Alma was to him. She purposely stayed in the shadows. She didn’t want to announce herself as being to important. She took great joy in seeing him succeed. But the decisions that she was part of were huge. In the case of 'Psycho,' it was her who insisted on that music in the shower seen. And you see Hitch in the film arguing, 'No, you’re crazy.' It was only because he blindly trusted her (that he agreed to use music there). If Alma passionately fought for something, in the back of Hitchcock’s mind I think he knew that she was right.”

Bringing Hitchcock to life on the screen had to have been challenging, I observed, since probably no film director is as well known visually to moviegoers as Hitchcock is.

“He was really the first star director who was known,” Gervasi replied. “Obviously, many directors like (George) Cukor or Cecil B. DeMille were legends. But Alfred Hitchcock marketed his own image and ultimately became this iconic brand.”

Did the Hitchcock look make a difference in casting the role? I recalled that when Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biographical drama “Nixon,” he didn’t duplicate Nixon’s look, but he nailed the President’s voice and style of speaking.

“That was a key thing for us because he’s Anthony Hopkins,” Gervasi said. “We did a prosthetic at the beginning where he looked exactly like Alfred Hitchcock, but the problem was we lost Anthony Hopkins. I wanted to let the audience know this is Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of all time, playing this iconic director. So with a knowing wink to the audience, it’s Tony Hopkins. And like you say, remember that opening shot in 'Nixon?' You come through the window and you first see Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon and the first thing you think is, 'Hmmm, he doesn’t look that much like him.' But once you hear the voice and feel the spirit, he then channels that character in his own way. And that’s what we tried to do here.”

The last thing Gervasi wanted to do “was have an impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock. We wanted the audience to know it’s Hopkins and he’s doing his Hitchcock.”

That wasn’t a challenge he faced with Helen Mirren playing Alma since almost no one knows what the real Alma Reville looked like. “We didn’t have a big issue because she was free to create her own character,” “We didn’t have a big issue because she was free to create her own character,” Gervasi agreed. “Immediately when you’re seeing Hopkins as Hitchcock, you’re comparing him to the man you know and love whereas with Alma she’s completely open (to Mirren’s interpretation). I think in one sense that’s possibly why she’s the surprise of the film.”

In making “Hitchcock,” he emphasized, the goal was to make it an entertaining story for audiences. Stephen Rebello, who wrote the book, which is this exhaustive, definitive, meticulous study of the making of a film, wanted it to be an emotional entertainment as Hitch would have wanted, he said. He wanted it to be a movie for the audience that’s, hopefully, entertaining, emotional, funny because he felt that that was Hitchcock’s spirit. So we really tried to do that.

“We weren’t trying to do a meticulous recreation (of the filming of 'Psycho'). The (actual) shower scene was shot over seven days. That’s in the book and in endless documentaries. (Our goal) was, 'How do we surprise the audience? How do we move them? How do we make them laugh? How do we add our voice to the massive and deep discussion about Hitchcock that’s been going on for 50 years?'”

In presenting Hitchcock to moviegoers, Gervasi shows him warts and all: “You see the darkness in the film. He’s unspeakably cruel to Alma. He’s totally mean to Janet Leigh when he’s directing her. He’s insane and uncontrolled during the (filming of) the shower scene. But he’s also tender and romantic. We didn”t want to say he’s good or he’s bad. We wanted to say he’s both. He’s a contradictory, flawed, complex, multi-layered, complicated, fascinating human being. That was the story that I wanted to tell.”

Gervasi’s playful side came out when I asked if Hopkins and Mirren were his first choices to play the Hitchcocks. “Originally, I wanted Jon Cryer from 'Pretty in Pink' and then I was really hoping for Demi Moore for Alma,” he said quite matter-of-factly. “But, unfortunately, we couldn’t get them and so I had to go with Hopkins and Mirren.”

Two beats later, he continued, “I’m joking! Come on, who else is going to play Hitchcock? An international movie star who plays iconic characters, who’s able to carry a film and be funny and emotional and crazy. And who was going to match him? Who the hell was going to match Anthony Hopkins apart from Helen Mirren? No one. And that’s why I said to (the producers), 'If you don’t get Hopkins and Mirren, you may as well not bother making the film.'

“It’s all about them. These two iconic, brilliant English actors playing this iconic, brilliant legendary couple, giving as good as they get, having fun, getting emotional about their marriage and having a really good time. That was the point of the film. That’s really what the film was built around.”

Happily, the film’s producers listened to Gervasi. In making “Hitchcock” he had strong support from the team that included Montecito Picture Company partners Ivan Reitman, himself a high profile director for many years of hits like “Ghostbusters” and “Twins,” and Tom Pollock, former chairman of the MCA/Universal Pictures Motion Picture Group.

“They were massively supportive of me, essentially a first time narrative director,” he pointed out. “I’d done a small documentary, which everyone loved, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I got their support. It was really Tom Pollock who gave me the job against his better judgment. There were 26 directors auditioning for it. I was number 26 or 27 on the list and he just felt my passion for the project and decided to trust it. And then he got tons of calls from agents representing really big directors saying, 'Are you crazy?' And he said, 'Yes, probably, but I’m doing it anyway.'”

Bottom line: “Hitchcock’s” a worthy contender in an already highly competitive race for Oscar consideration. With its standout performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, it belongs on moviegoers’ and Academy members’ radar screens.