The dramatic film “Hitchcock” tells the behind-the-scenes story about the difficulties that Alfred Hitchcock had in making the 1960 film “Psycho,” which is now considered one of the best horror movies of all time. But Hitchcock encountered problems with studio chiefs and movie-theater owners who were troubled by the film’s violent content. And many people in the movie industry thought the movie was going to flop. Through all the controversy, Hitchcock received crucial and valuable advice from his wife, Alma Reville, who also acted as editor for “Psycho” and many of Hitchcock’s other films.
In the movie “Hitchcock,” Hitchcock is played by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, and Reville is played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren. For her role in “Hitchcock,” Mirren was nominated for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards and Best Actress in a Motion Picture at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild Awards. At a New York City press conference for “Hitchcock,” Mirren and co-stars Jessica Biel (who plays “Psycho” actress Vera Miles), Toni Collette (Hitchcock’s chief assistant Peggy Robertson), Danny Huston (screenwriter Whitfield Cook), Michael Stuhlbarg (movie studio executive Lew Wasserman), James D’Arcy (“Psycho” actor Anthony Perkins) and “Hitchcock” director Sacha Gervasi gathered to talk about the film. Here is what they said.
Sacha, how did everyone get to be here?
Gervasi: How did everyone get to be here? How did you all get to be here? We had this script and I think we all liked it. We got lucky enough that everyone wanted to do it. Obviously it was great to get Tony [Anthony Hopkins] who can’t be here today; he’s shooting three films, back to back to back. For me at least and I think all of us, we were just so connected with this unexpected story, this love story between Alfred and Alma. I went to film school and one of the things that I studied there was the history of film, and one of the first things we talk about is the shower scene.
I remember at the beginning the professor mentioned Alma Reville, but then it of course became about Hitchcock, and she was sort of in the background. So when I read Stephen Rebello’s book and John McLaughlin’s script, I was sort of surprised at this relationship and this unbelievable story.
All of us have been affected by “Psycho.” I remember when I first saw it and it shook me from my foundation. When you’re 13 and maturing and see this film, it’s almost too much to process. It’s this wonderful combination of all these different things. We got incredibly lucky to have this brilliantly accomplished cast
How has your perception changed about Hitchcock and Hollywood of the times, from before you started the film?
Collette: Well I guess he comes across as quite a domineering figure and in figure alone. He was very domineering, he was a control freak, and he was intimidating, but he was also very warm, and very funny, and obviously very talented.
Huston: The problem with a man that has that kind of greatness is sometimes the man and the mythology creates some confusion. What I discovered in my life first hand, is one of their great brilliancies is to live up to their own mythologies, which makes it all the more confusing. In a sense of working with Hopkins, I wasn’t always fully aware if it was Hitchcock playing Hopkins or Hopkins playing Hitchcock, which blurred the lines all the more. Their knowledge is smoke and mirrors, and we’re telling the tale, which is somewhat true and somewhat not.
Biel: We of course know his very challenging relationships or domineering relationships with his wife and with his great leading actresses that he worked with. What I had discovered was, yes, that was a part of who he was and his directorial style, but it’s the passion, the love of the work, and he was so dedicated, he cared so much;
So yes, it was a very strange way to work at times and it may have been hard for some people to be part of that, but I think in the case of Vera Miles, they had so much respect for each other. I think that type of respect was such a big part of this relationship with the women in his life.
For all of you, what is your favorite Hitchcock film?
Gervasi: Hello? “Psycho.”
Mirren: “Vertigo” is mine.
Collette: It’s too hard.
Huston: “Strangers on a Train,” only because I wrote it.
Biel: “Dial M for Murder.” I always loved it.
Stuhlbarg: Wow, it’s kind of hard to choose because each one kind of accomplishes a different feet. I’m particularly taken by “Rope” in some ways, just because of the technical issues in creating that whole story in just one shot; how he made it through the cuts, how he tried to hide that. There’s so many, and I love them all.
D’Arcy: For me, it has to be the last one I watched. The minute you see it, you’re struck by its genius and you forget the last one. Then you watch the next one, and you’re like, “Oh wait…” The last one I saw was “Foreign Correspondence,” which is a 1940 piece of war propaganda. Absolutely mesmeric, it has one of the best plane crashes I’ve ever seen. That one wasn’t even on my radar before I saw it, now it’s my favorite Hitchcock film.
Gervasi: I think the range of Alfred, illustrates the point. With many film makers there are maybe one or two master works, with Hitchcock there’s perhaps ten or twelve. That’s very rare. You have Kubrick, you have Hitchcock. I think for us, a man who can create a drama in a lifeboat, or that drama that is one shot, when really it’s three. I think Sam Mendes recently referred to “North by Northwest” as the first Bond film.
And “Psycho” is the first horror film. The range. he was known as a genre director at the time, and I think he was quite dismissed. Some of these films were not particularly well-reviewed.
We have a joke in the film, Helen’s favorite, “Vertigo” (which actually is my real favorite besides “Psycho,” because it’s so revealing about the man himself), but we have this joke where Hitch wakes up from a nightmare, he turns to Alma and goes, “What is this? Another ‘Vertigo’?”
“Vertigo” was a commercial and critical disaster, and I think it was the week we shot that sequence, around that time it was voted by [BFI] Sight and Sound as the No. 1 film of all time. It’s lovely to have that perspective and talk about his film “Psycho,” which was widely dismissed. I think the quote from the New York Times was something like, “an awful blot on an otherwise honorable career.” And now most critics call it a master work.
With the passage of time, the true depth of the genius is revealed. I think for us, because the work is so fascinating, because there is such a richness and range and brilliance across so many different genres, the man himself is fascinating. Often he has been deified, he’s been vilified, and perhaps that is an over simplification.
In answer to the question, “Was he good, or was he bad?,” I think the film doesn’t skirt away from the darkness, you see some very dark things in this film, like when he’s directing Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and he’s pummeling her with all of his personal stuff to elicit a performance. He’s being very lewd and tough.
Or in his scene with Alma, where he reviews the treatment she is working on and he calls it, stillborn, and of course the shower scene. We show that darkness, but I think what we wanted to show was also, as Jessica was saying, there is that warmth, that tenderness, that humanity that you see in films like “Vertigo,” and not to come down and make a judgment about him. That’s the key thing, sometimes people are invested in having a certain mythology or an idea.
Where saying, come open with a question, but don’t leave with a definitive answer. If anything I hope the film deepened the mystery of Hitchcock and not answer any specific questions, but illuminates this aspect of his character, and sheds a light on his life with Alma. Even for people like me, who studied him in film school, I did not know how crucial a role Alma played. Even in our research, she did a lot.
Anthony Hopkins mentioned how thrilled he was to work with you, Helen Mirren. How was it like acting with him?
Mirren: Our trajectories, while we never actually met, are fairly similar in a modicum of terms. The funny thing is, when talking about theater, you are reliant on the other actor on stage with you, unlike in film where you’re sort of really working between you and the camera. You never really get the chance to work long with another actor unless you get in a long two person scene. You learn to depend upon and give room to the other actor.
That was the nature of getting to work with Tony. We recognized that the other person needed support. I recognized that hugely with Tony because, to carry all of that make up, and the necessity to have that impersonation, as well as acting the role, I knew what kind of challenge that was, so I tried to give him as much support and freedom, and he did the same for me, which is fantastic. And I think it was for all of us, not just me.
I think he is just amazing, because Tony, when you watch him on screen, he is an absolute minimalist. You’d never imagine he did so much stage because some of these movements are so tiny and subtle, to act through all that which he is carrying. I have to say, being on set with him, I was completely unaware of the fact that he was wearing anything.
He became Hitch, he just was that man. In a way, when it all came off and it was Tony, I was rather taken by surprise. Like, “Oh god, I completely forgot you are actually this person.” The makeup is so brilliant, even when I was doing the bathroom scene with him in the beginning, I was so close to him and it was totally real.
Again, it’s a minimalist performance, and I think Tony himself was very unsure, because when you do that type of work, you have no idea if it’s communicating or not. And you have no idea if your voice is working or not. You have no idea if the makeup is working, if the whole thing is coming together; you just don’t know.
He would never watch himself on screen. I think he was so frightened that if he looked at it and found himself wanting on any of those levels, he would not be able to do the next scene; he’d be so devastated, and torn apart. The only way to maintain confidence in what he was doing was to carry on and go forward; never to review it, never to look at it. I think that went all the way down to even when the film was finally finished, he was not ready to watch it
Gervasi: I think all that is understandable. I think all the great actors have to have that relationship to their work. If you don’t have that fear, you’re not taking a risk, and it’s when people take a risk, that great performances happen. I think it’s wonderful how you talk about the minimalism. For instance, that wonderful bedroom scene when Hitch comes back and he realizes … and Alfred Hitchcock as played by Anthony Hopkins, cannot say, “I’m sorry.”
So as much as he was worried and scared, he had this incredible instinct, and it was his idea to stage the scene with Alma sitting on the bed, and them not looking at each other and he’s just standing beside her as she’s watching the telly and he didn’t want to touch her.
It’s that wonderful restraint to see him, for example, in “Remains of the Day.” You’re aware of these enormous feelings, and yet the character is not able to quite fully express it. He does this kind of thing, he says, “You deserve better,” and he just gently touches Helen’s shoulder, and that’s it, the touch of the shoulder.
You see the brilliance of the instincts and the way he bought that to all of us. It’s just wonderful to watch that organically grow. He’s extraordinary and I think the performance here is very subtle.
Mirren: And incredibly emotional. He’s a minimalist but it’s so full of emotion. He is a volcano of emotion, so to say being minimal means there is no emotion, when he’s full of emotion is just wrong. And when he is able to push that emotion through all that make-up, it just plays brilliantly and it did on the set as well.
Gervasi: For me, another high point of the performance is very subtle, but very meaningful. With that one scene at the pool when Alma says, “Tell me my darling, why this one, why ‘Psycho’?” He sits down and before he sits down he sort of takes the flap of his jacket and puts it over his belly. Now, people who are really large do that, it’s this tiny gesture.
For Jessica and James, you both portray people who had very noticeable public images, whereas Helen, you played someone who didn’t have that kind of exposure. How did you go about researching these roles, and how did you go about playing the roles without trying to just do an impression?
Biel: That’s a tough question. It was something I was very careful about, and something I talked to Sacha about, a lot. I think what I realized as we were going along with it was that, it’s almost impossible to actually recreate the whole person, so I’m really just grasping onto a facet of who she could have been. Everybody knows the characters that she played, and who she was, but who was she as a woman, as a mother, as a sister, as a wife, we won’t ever really 100 percent know that.
I just wanted to grasp a facet of maybe her personality, of who she was as a human being in reference to her experiences with Hitchcock, and with her family, and with the trajectory she took with her career, which is really very interesting, it’s definitely different from what it could have been. Maybe I think, what a lot of people wanted her to be, she didn’t want. She didn’t want to be a star; she just wanted to be a perfected actor. That says a lot about who she is. She has a lot of grace, and was so intelligent, so that is what I was trying to go for.
D’Arcy: In terms of trying to find a character who is a real person, I can’t improve on what Jessica said. It is interesting that this man I was sort of trying to find the essence of is so confused with Norman Bates, that journalists who have seen the film have asked me what it was like to play Norman Bates.
I don’t play Norman Bates, I play Anthony Perkins. He became so synonymous with the role that he was condemned to play it three more times. He even directed himself playing. He couldn’t get away from it. For me, there was a little freedom in that — your question was about playing a character people know very well — but I don’t think people know Anthony Perkins very well at all.
They know Norman Bates extremely well, particularly from the first “Psycho,” maybe not so much from “Psycho IV.” There’s a very good biography written about him—he does share, well at least as far as I can tell certain characteristics with Norman Bates, that sort of shyness, that boyish quality. I felt disrespectful the other day but looking at a few of the other films he made around the time, he wasn’t the most versatile actor I’ve ever seen in my life.
So his physicality, I decided was Norman Bates’ physicality. It was the same physicality he had in other movies, so that was quite helpful that he had a consistency. After that, obviously I had massive cosmetic surgery to try and look like him.
Mirren: Yes, very few people apart from the few who might still be alive, very few people even knew what she looked like. She’s not an image people are familiar with. My great sadness is that she was tiny, she was less than 5 feet, and I’m really fairly tall. That imagine of a tiny birdlike woman and this huge guy who was big in every sense, I just love that image and that she was the only one who could control him.
And I couldn’t do that, cause I’m not little, that I couldn’t even attempt to go there, So I had to find a different way to get into her, and my way was the book that her daughter wrote. I thought that was very pertinent, the fact that the only daughter of Alfred Hitchcock chose to write about her mother, and not about her father, and that she didn’t call it “Alma Hitchcock.” She called it “Alma Revel.”
She said she really wanted to bring her mother out of the shadows, and put her in her rightful place. So obviously that was an amazing resource for me and I tried to get to Alma, but what I learned about her from the book. Her life, her energy and her love of Hitch and her love of film.
In this modern world where we know so much about people’s private lives, if this was happening today, do you think Alma would have stuck with Alfred Hitchcock?
Mirren: Absolutely, even more so. The great thing, in Patricia’s [Hitchcock] book she said, “People don’t understand. My dad was an ordinary guy. He would come home regularly at 6 o’clock. We didn’t shoot through the night. He came home at 6, mom would cook diner, we would sit and eat as a family, feed the pets.”
She described a rather banal family, suburban life. Yes, he was artistic, he would go off and make these extraordinary films, but there was an ordinary streak about them. I think this was a partnership made to last, and it would have done just as well in this day in age as it did, then.
Gervasi: I wanted to say that Toni and Michael also play people that had very important and specific relationships with Hitch, and I was interested to hear about your research to play these people as well.
Collette: I felt like I could kind of get away with anything since there is very little about Peggy out there. There are a few photos and an interview from later in her life, so for me, there was a lot of research put into the script itself. She is sort of this contradiction, Peggy is this incredibly strong, capable, astute, rock of a woman for Hitch, not too dissimilar to Alma, but not as great; but she also gave up her life for him. She dedicated her life to his work; she was working with him for over four decades. I find that really interesting.
Stuhlbarg: I started as well with a biography, and a documentary about the life of Lew Wasserman. He was not only a giant in the industry, but quite taller than I am. I had these wonderful shoes with four-to-five-inch heels. I just tried to bring what I could. In the end, in the capacity for this particular film it was about being accessible to Hitch as a soundboard, as a friend. They had known each other and worked together for about 15 years at that point.
Lou was at the height of his power, president of MCA, at that time, and thinking about retiring and letting the younger kids, get in there and do his work for him. He was a master at what he did and hugely intimidating. When you learn about these people, to try to pay tribute to them and do right by them; they were titans at what they did, particularly this man. I think that just embrace the challenge and I tried to cling to what I read and where it applied as helpful, try to apply it to the scene.
Gervasi: I think for us or for me, the most gratifying thing is that there are a lot of people still in Hollywood that worked under Lew Wasserman and Peggy Robertson. All of the people who knew and worked with Hitchcock and his cast of characters have been coming up and saying, “Your film finally captures the mischief, the warmth, and the total insanity of the man that they worked with every day.” When it comes to Lew Wasserman, it’s the sort of combination of the worth and the ball breaking, that I think Michael captured so brilliantly.
One of the great moments on the set was, we had Marshall Schlom, who was the original script supervisor on “Psycho.” He came to visit, and he is about 84, 85 years old. It was his second movie, “Psycho.” He was with Hitchcock, day by day, through everything, even at the initial screenings, right through post production. He came to the set and watched us filming and he started to get emotional and he said, “You know, you guys have given me my memories back.”
You know we set out on making this film, and here is a guy who was there, and then here is this person playing him, it was just wonderful. Then he came to see the film in L.A., and I got up and I was telling a story. And I told the story about how he came to the set, and all of a sudden this little hand went up and he said, “Here I am.”
We gave him a microphone and he said, “I have to admit, I was apprehensive about this film at first. It was so wonderful because the spirit of the man was in this film.” That to me was the most wonderful thing.
I met someone who was the grip on “Topaz” or the grip on “Family Plot,” and they’d show me the picture of them with Hitch and say, “This is right.” I think it’s really nice for us. Helen was saying about Patricia Hitchcock wanting her mother to be honored, but also people who knew and worked with him and knew he was complex and crazy, but who also recognized this human being, that’s just been really satisfying.
How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually? Also, if Hitchcock were still alive today, what questions would you ask him?
Gervasi: It’s an accident of course, if anything ever comes together. You do your best work, you try, you never know. I think we all intended within a Hitchcock thriller to make a film for an audience. We wanted it to hopefully be entertaining and hopefully emotional and hopefully you laugh a bit too. So that seems to happening with audiences, I hope they haven’t all been paid, in some elaborate trick. It’s been a wonderful and warm response.
We try to capture his spirit. The film opens with Ed Gein killing his brother in a field in Wisconsin, and we pan over to Anthony Hopkins sipping his tea. We’re clearly telling everyone, “Get ready. We’re going to have some fun.” As the film deepens and expands we hope to get to the emotional reality of what might have been his life. We were definitely trying to entertain, and we hope it’s successful. As for the second part of the question, I would be silent in awe.
Mirren: I think I would ask him, “What is the most elaborate practical joke you ever played?” He was a great trickster, and some of these practical jokes were incredibly elaborate, requiring huge amounts of organization and a cast of people literally having to act the part. So I would love to know what he thought was his most successful practical joke.
Jessica, your Vera Miles character had that great speech at the end to Hitchcock about the importance of having a life and not just being a movie star. Do you and Toni as think it’s easier to have a brilliant career and a family and a real life now then it was back then?
Biel: Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s terribly hard now. Do you mean the idea of giving it up?
Collette: Well, that was the ‘60s; that was a cultural expectation. I think it’s certainly changed.
Biel: Definitely. I don’t think she [Vera Miles] looked at her career as being a failure of some kind or something she wasn’t proud of. She wasn’t interested in being a star, the way I got into the character.
I talked to her grandson. Vera is alive, and doesn’t have a public life at all. She’s not interested in having a public life and was just not interested in speaking with me at all. I don’t think that was an insult in anyway, but her grandson was interested.
OK, he’s married and highly protective of his grandmother. He’s probably the best historian on her career and who she is, and was at the time. I think in her mind and in his mind, she has a life and her life is exactly what she wanted.
She did lots of theater, played lots of interesting characters, so no one saw her in a big way, but it was perfect for her. I don’t know what you guys feel about this. I think it is very challenging to have a private life.
That’s just my opinion. It’s been very hard for me, to have any sort of privacy, in my life. I get it. It’s a balance you have to try to create, but it’s very hard. I really would love to be in the days where there was no TMZ, and the Internet. You know, Google is great, but I think I would be better off.
Gervasi: What’s clear, from listening to all of you guys speak is, just the warmth that all of us have. Not just for Hitchcock, but for all of these people, even when we were researching Whitfield Cook. I actually got a copy of his book “Taxi to Dubrovnik,” which was a real book, a very long book.
We really did whatever was possible to try and reach out and discover everything we possibly could about these people, because we wanted to be as true as we could, and often with Alma there was nothing out there, as you know. Though whatever there was, we really tried to get it as real as possible in the context that we are making a movie for an audience.
And I hope that we honored them, and I hope that people feel the love that we have for Hitchcock. We’re all fans, we all in the film business, we’ve all been affected by his work, and we’ve all been fascinated with it, and we all watch it still. And I hope that is something that comes over from the film we made. That was an important part of how it was made.
For more info: “Hitchcock” website