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For 'Hitchcock' director, a different kind of suspense

Sacha Gervasi laid his finances on the line to make his documentary 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil.' Hitchcock made his own financial outlay to bring 'Psycho' to the big screen. They both succeeded. Gervasi's success led to a new opportunity: a film about Hitchcock's making of 'Psycho.'

November 10, 2012|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

When Gervasi met with Pollock and producer Jeffrey Clifford , he had to sell himself, and hard. "Hitchcock," he told them, should be less about the making of "Psycho" and more about his relationship with Alma. The movie in Gervasi's mind would track key issues surrounding the film's production — including the director's fight to win a Production Code seal allowing "Psycho's" theatrical release — but it would be anchored by the director's romantic and working life with Alma.

Also known as Lady Hitchcock, Alma was a screenwriter on her husband's "Sabotage" and other films and a keen editor who spotted (over her husband's objections) that Janet Leigh was not fully dead after her encounter with Norman Bates in "Psycho," forcing him to recut the scene.

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"Even though 'Anvil' and 'Hitchcock' are obviously very different films, they are ultimately about marriages — where two people collaborate and create together," Gervasi said. "But Hitchcock is too selfish and obsessed to notice what's right in front of his nose," he said of Alma.

The director had one more proposal for Pollock: If Anthony Hopkins didn't want to play the lead role, the project should be abandoned. Fortunately for Gervasi, "The Silence of the Lambs" Oscar-winner also had been captivated by "Anvil."

Hopkins had passed on making the movie when Murphy was attached. The script, the actor said, "was a bit hokey" and he was still on the fence when Gervasi rang. "Do I really want to play a fat man with a bald head?" he thought.

Hopkins was at least willing to meet the director and sat down with his agents, Gervasi and Pollock for lunch at the Grill in Beverly Hills soon after Gervasi had been hired to direct. "I hope it's not strictly a movie about the making of a movie," Hopkins said. Gervasi, who did an uncredited rewrite of the screenplay, said not at all.

Hopkins knew Gervasi had never directed actors before, but decided his eagerness overcame his inexperience. "He was so enthusiastic, so passionate about it," said Hopkins, who frequently stars in lower-budgeted films but is now making sequels to the big action movies "Thor" and "Red." "You can tell pretty quickly if you're with someone who you like, and I instantly liked Sacha." "I think this Sacha Gervasi is crazy enough to pull this movie off," Hopkins said. He was in.

Before the lunch was over, Gervasi asked everyone but Hopkins to leave the table. There was something he needed to tell him, a story that had changed Gervasi's life, in which Hopkins played a starring role.

Some 20 years earlier, Gervasi, who had been a roadie for Anvil in his youth and played drums with the rock group Future Primitive, was addicted to drugs and alcohol. As part of his rehabilitation, he was assigned to Thurston House, a residential treatment center in Clapham, south of London.

The 16 or so men in the halfway house would welcome guest speakers on occasion, typically people in recovery who would offer motivational speeches about the rewards of sober living. On one particularly miserable day, Gervasi stepped outside to welcome that week's visitor. Out of the car and into the cold rain stepped Hopkins, who weeks earlier had collected his Academy Award for "The Silence of the Lambs."

Hopkins, who has talked openly about his alcoholism, shared lunch with the residents and gave a pep talk. "If you get off of this stuff — and it will kill you if you don't — anything is possible," he told them. "And I'm living proof of that."

Gervasi never forgot the fact that a man as famous as Hopkins would visit such an incongruously scruffy spot, but what he remembered more were his words. "It was massively inspiring," he said. Hopkins' admonition that "anything is possible" became the light at the end of Gervasi's tunnel of recovery.

Not long after becoming sober, he moved to Los Angeles, working as a freelance journalist and attending UCLA's graduate screenwriting program. In the middle of film school, he claimed his first producer credit, shared with comedian Craig Ferguson on 1999's "The Big Tease."

Steady screenwriting work followed, but his big dream, directing a narrative feature, seemed just out of reach, until "Hitchcock."

Even as he welcomed Hopkins and Mirren, who had never before worked together, into the "Hitchcock" fold, Gervasi still had issues to resolve.

The Hitchcock estate, controlled by the director's grandchildren, was so opposed to the movie it effectively killed the project when it was in development at Focus Features, whose sister studio Universal Pictures distributes the five Hitchcock movies (including "Psycho") whose rights the director controlled. Consequently, no dialogue or staging from the 1960 film could be used in "Hitchcock," which Gervasi said was a blessing. "The whole point of the movie is what we don't know or didn't see — it's the untold story," the director said.

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