Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock." (Suzanne Tenner / Fox Searchlight )
If Sacha Gervasi was, as Anthony Hopkins would later say, "absolutely scared stiff," the first-time filmmaker certainly didn't show it.
The 45-year-old director had a popular documentary under his belt, but Gervasi had never worked with live actors or a screenplay before. And here he was, working not only with Oscar winners Hopkins and Helen Mirren but also making a movie about Alfred Hitchcock, one of the giants in cinematic history.
On this April morning inside a Pasadena estate doubling for Hitchcock's Bel-Air home, Gervasi was faced with directing two particularly tricky "Hitchcock" scenes, populated with dozens of extras and juxtaposing two competing story lines.
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Concerned that younger, edgier directors like Jules Dassin ("Rififi") and Henri-Georges Clouzot ("Diabolique") were poised to turn him into a relic relegated to TV, Hitchcock (Hopkins) had decided to mount his most daring production yet, personally bankrolling "Psycho" when Paramount Pictures declined to finance it.
To convince himself that the story would truly shock moviegoers, Hitchcock invited some chic-set friends for tea and Champagne, whereupon he treated them to crime scene photographs from Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, on whose life "Psycho" was based.
In the adjoining kitchen, meanwhile, Hitchcock's wife and frequent collaborator, Alma Reville (Mirren), was flirting with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who was showering Alma with affection that was largely missing from her marriage.
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Through it all, Gervasi never lost sight of the smallest detail, at one point castigating the background players that images of Gein's mutilated corpses weren't upsetting them enough. "Can we get a bit more animation in your reaction?" he barked to the several dozen background performers between takes. "Be really offended!" he instructed as cameras rolled. "This is horrific!"
At first glance, the story about the making of "Psycho" and Gervasi's own background seem miles apart, outside of the fact that Gervasi and Hitchcock were born in Britain. Yet the very movie that helped Gervasi land the directing job — the 2008 documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" — had in many ways mirrored "Psycho's" making.
Determined to become more than a screenwriter ( "The Terminal," "Henry's Crime") often called upon to do uncredited script doctoring, Gervasi had made a huge bet on himself. Just as Hitchcock mortgaged his home to underwrite "Psycho's" $800,000 budget, Gervasi had borrowed against his home and spent almost the same amount of money bankrolling "Anvil."
When the documentary gained a cult following inside Hollywood, Gervasi's future was recast — like Hitchcock's following "Psycho." "'Anvil' gave me something you could never buy — which was a chance to make 'Hitchcock,'" said the director, who went on to reveal another startling twist to the back story of his encounter with "Hitchcock."
By Gervasi's math, 26 directors were candidates up for directing "Hitchcock." He was No. 27. But the filmmaker had made it into the room to pitch his filmmaking ideas thanks to "Anvil," and that alone was quite an accomplishment.
Premiering at 2008's Sundance Film Festival, "Anvil" followed the obscure band's two principal members, guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who were still trying to make it 35 years after the band's formation.
Even to people who believe Anvil's music is the amplified equal of fingernails on a chalkboard, the pair's determination was inspiring, and the documentary won many prizes and influential fans.
"I got offered a lot of things after 'Anvil,' mostly big studio comedies," said Gervasi, who has a mane of wild hair and is alternatively brash and edgy. "But I wanted to do something special, with real human emotion."
Tom Pollock, whose Montecito Pictures controlled the rights to "Hitchcock" with producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette, had been among "Anvil's" supporters, so when the director asked for a "Hitchcock" meeting, Pollock opened his door, but not that wide. "Obviously, Sacha was not first on anyone's list," he said.
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Other directors far more accomplished had flirted with the movie, which had been in development for nearly a decade, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. At one point, Ryan Murphy (television's "Glee") was penciled in to direct the script, adapted by John J. McLaughlin ("Black Swan") from Stephen Rebello's "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho.'"