On a rainy, wind-swept night in 1959, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma attended the premiere of the classic Cary Grant movie “North By Northwest” at the United Artists Theatre in Chicago.
To re-create the scene for a forthcoming movie about the legendary suspense director, however, the producers of “Hitchcock” didn’t fly to the Windy City. Instead, they cast the exterior of the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles to play the part.
Hundreds of extras dressed as Chicago reporters, photographers, police officers and theater patrons recently congregated outside the cinema on Broadway, surrounded by aerial cranes, Klieg lights and a line of vintage limos and other cars. Water hoses and a fan created a shower of rain as actors Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren, as Alma, walked out of the movie house.
The ornate Orpheum Theatre, a former vaudeville musical hall that opened in 1926, was among several historic locations in L.A. -- including the nearby Palace Theatre and the Ebell of Los Angeles women's club -- that played a prominent role in “Hitchcock.” The movie, which centers on the director’s relationship with his wife during the making of the 1960 suspense thriller “Psycho,” recently wrapped 35 days of filming at the downtown movie palaces and other landmarks.
“This is an undiscovered gem,’’ said director Sacha Gervasi during a break in filming at the century-old Palace, which doubled for the New York theater where “Psycho” premiered in 1960. “You feel like you’re going back in time.”
The film, which is yet to have a release date, was produced for less than $15 million by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Beverly Hills-based Montecito Picture Co., better known for comedies like “Up In the Air” and “I Love You, Man” than serious period dramas. John McLaughlin, whose credits include the 2010 independent hit “Black Swan,” wrote the screenplay for “Hitchcock” based on the book by Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” who shares a writing credit.
“This wasn’t the kind of movie we normally do,” said Joe Medjuck, a producer with Montecito, in an interview at the Palace Theatre, where "Psycho" was displayed on the marquee. “We’ve always had an aversion to show business films, but when we read the script we thought it was really good. Anthony Hopkins was really interested in it…. So we said, ‘let’s try to do this.’”
Although most of the story is set in L.A., shooting here wasn’t a given, especially after producers failed to receive a requested California film tax credit, which is awarded by lottery. “We were No. 46 on the waiting list,’’ Medjuck said. “No one was going to give us enough money to shoot here, so we started looking at other places. We drew up two budgets in England.”
But even with a U.K. tax credit, Medjuck and his partners concluded it would have cost more to make the London streets look like Los Angeles of the late 1950s.
Helping to make the case for shooting locally was the movie’s executive producer Richard Middleton, who had experience rediscovering L.A. landmarks such as the Orpheum and the Ebell club in the Oscar-winning movie “The Artist.” Middleton had worked with location manager Caleb Duffy, who also worked on “The Artist.”
“Any time you’re doing a story about Hollywood, and you’re tying it into Hollywood history, it doesn’t make sense to do it anywhere else,’’ Middleton said.
For undisclosed legal reasons, the crew did not film at Universal Studios, where the iconic sets from the original “Psycho” movie are preserved and remain one of the most popular sites for tourists on the back-lot tour. Although Paramount had released “Psycho,” the film was shot at Universal, which later acquired the rights to the movie.
Instead, studio scenes were mainly filmed at the back lot at Paramount, where Hitchcock kept an office (before moving to Universal) and Red Studios in Hollywood (formerly the historic Ren-Mar Studios ), which housed several sets, including one used for the film’s infamous shower scene inside the Bates Motel.
Gervasi wasn’t bothered about not having access to the Universal lot. “Frankly, we didn’t need to because the movie touches on the making of ‘Psycho,’ he said. “We’re not really re-creating ‘Psycho’ as much as we are telling the story of the relationship [between Hitchcock and his wife] while the film is being made.”
An isolated beach house on Sycamore Cove in Ventura County, used as a lifeguard training center, served as the Santa Barbara bungalow where Alma would meet up with the writer Whitfield Cook. And an old farm house near the town of Piru in Ventura County doubled for the Wisconsin home of serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired Hitchcock’s Norman Bates character in “Pyscho.”
“We found a dilapidated farm house that hadn’t been lived in for 20 years,’’ said Duffy, who used photos from Gein’s actual house in Wisconsin to find a match. “We gutted and renovated the house and removed the bee hives,” he said. Naturally, the palms and Clementine trees also had to go.
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