How the Story of a Master Director Beat the Odds: The Making of 'Hitchcock'
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The scene is the premiere of Psycho, the 1960 classic that stunned audiences in its day by killing off its leading lady just a third of the way into the picture. Alfred Hitchcock, its director, unable to watch the film on which he has staked his reputation as well as a good chunk of his fortune, is hovering in the theater lobby. Through closed doors, he hears the famous first notes of composer Bernard Herrmann's shrieking violins, signaling the beginning of the movie's shocking shower scene, now indelibly imprinted on the minds of anyone who has ever seen it: the head-on shot of the shower head, the shadowy silhouette of a knife-wielding woman seen through the shower curtain, the furiously slashing knife. On cue, the audience screams can be heard.
Hitchcock reacts as if wielding the knife himself, raising his arm and slashing the air. The violins and the audience screams are building to a crescendo. And suddenly Hitch is dancing about as if he is an orchestra conductor, anticipating every moment, summoning each new thrill.
Did it actually happen that way? Probably not. That bit of business was invented by Anthony Hopkins, who plays the iconic director, during one of the final shooting days on the new film Hitchcock, which Fox Searchlight released Nov. 23. "Being a musician myself, I appreciate those higher string harmonics, and I just went with it and started conducting the dagger thrusts," admits the actor.
But it does point toward a deeper truth about the renowned master of suspense: He certainly knew a thing or two about pressing the audience's buttons. As Helen Mirren, who plays Alma, Hitchcock's wife and behind-the-scenes support system, says in the new film, "You may not be the easiest man to live with, but you know how to cut a picture better than anyone." That knowing relationship between Hitchcock and his wife is at the heart of the new movie, which is set against the backdrop of the making of Psycho.
For Hitchcock, Psycho was a low-budget gamble, but Hitchcock, the film, is something of a dare, an attempt to rediscover what really drove the legendary director.
In 1959, coming off the glamorous romantic thriller North by Northwest, Hitchcock was determined to strike out in an unexpected direction. When Paramount rejected his proposal for a movie adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel, based on the story of real-life serial killer Ed Gein, Hitchcock mortgaged his home to pay for the $800,000 production. With Alma offering strategic advice, he battled the censors and a reluctant studio to bring the movie to the screen. In telling that story, Hitchcock faced even bigger hurdles, but in the end it has beaten the odds to become a last-minute entry into this year's awards season.
When in January 1980 a young journalist named Stephen Rebello scored an interview with Hitchcock at the director's Universal bungalow, he certainly didn't have a movie in mind. But Hitchcock would die three months later (Alma died in 1982), and Rebello's interview, the director's last, inspired him to spend 10 years researching a book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which was published in 1990. It was another 15 years before producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette optioned the volume and began a long quest to turn it into a film.
There were a number of false starts. The project was developed first at A&E and then at Focus Features, which brought on screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan). "I found the idea of an aging artist who doesn't feel he's getting the respect he deserves interesting," says McLaughlin. But the story also belonged to Hitchcock's wife, a screenwriter and editor, whom he married in 1926. "Alma was threaded throughout the book. And anyone who is in this business who has a spouse knows that they are the person you go to," he adds.
As the screenplay evolved, McLaughlin also introduced the character of screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who had worked with Hitchcock on Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. Played by Danny Huston in the film, Cook enlists Alma as a collaborator on a project on which he's working. Although speculative, "I wanted to introduce hints of a romance coming between Alma and Hitchcock," explains McLaughlin.
But the Hitchcock estate, controlled by the director's daughter, Patricia, and his three granddaughters, was uninterested in seeing a movie made about Alfred and Alma. (Patricia had published her own book about her mother, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, in 2003.) And because Universal, Focus' parent company, is in business with the Hitchcock estate, handling distribution rights to five of the films the estate owns including Psycho, Focus dropped out. With Hopkins attached as a potential star, Media Rights Capital next became involved, and at one point Ryan Murphy looked as if he might direct until he moved on to other projects, visiting psycho territory himself with the FX miniseries American Horror Story.
Eventually the project found its way to Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock's Montecito Picture Co. "It was a really good script," recalls Pollock. "There are very few movies made about long-term marriages, and there had never been a movie that I know about that deals with creative collaboration within a marriage, of which there are a lot in this town. Hitchcock deserves all the credit in the world, but Alma never got any credit."
While sorting out all the rights and clearances they would need, the Montecito team began looking for a director. As it happened, Pollock had seen Sacha Gervasi's 2008 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the account of a Canadian heavy metal band's 30-year odyssey. He'd sent the director an e-mail under the subject line, "I Hate Heavy Metal," adding in the body of the message, "But I loved your movie." Still, when Gervasi was called in to meet with Pollock and Reitman, he figured that if there were a list of 26 directors they were considering seriously, he was probably No. 27. However, he thought Rebello's book was "a revelation" and that McLaughlin's screenplay astutely examined how a creative genius relied on a partner who, for the most part, remained in the shadows. And so, he says, "I pitched my heart out."
Pollock and Reitman were impressed. "Sacha had the best take on what we needed from the movie that still wasn't there yet -- the emotionality between Alfred and Alma," recalls Pollock. The U.K.-born director also emphasized that while he wanted to bring humor to the movie, it had to be exactly the sort of dry, whimsical humor in which Hitchcock specialized. Additionally, he suggested that Gein, the serial killer who inspired Psycho, be brought into the movie as a figure who haunts the director's psyche.
The next hurdle was selling Gervasi, who had never directed a narrative feature, to Hopkins, whose participation was key because The Silence of the Lambs Oscar winner brought not only a marquee name but also experience in playing historical figures like Pablo Picasso and Richard Nixon on the screen.
A lunch was set up at The Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills to introduce the two. "He was so enthusiastic, that was the clincher," says Hopkins. "I thought it was actually good that he hadn't done another movie." But what might have actually sealed the deal was that Hopkins confessed he'd seen Anvil three times. "How's the band doing?" he asked. Why not ask Steve "Lips" Kudlow, the band's lead singer, suggested Gervasi, who immediately rang him up, passing the phone to Hopkins. "To hear those two talking back and forth was an extraordinary, weirdly beautiful connection," he attests.
With Hopkins' blessing in hand, Gervasi went off to meet Mirren for tea at the Chateau Marmont hotel. She'd passed on the project earlier, feeling it tried to juggle too many elements -- Hitchcock and Alma, Hitchcock's relationship with Hollywood, the making of Psycho. But Gervasi explained how he planned to bring the couple's relationship to the forefront, and Mirren could relate on a personal level. Although she's an Oscar winner in her own right for The Queen, she knows what Hollywood wives sometimes experience because of her long marriage to director and DGA president Taylor Hackford. "I had the experience with Taylor, when he was in a position to greenlight movies," says Mirren. "We'd go to parties and people would just elbow me aside to get to him, rather ruthlessly. And, of course, you always had to be polite."
With the major elements finally in place, the project, which had languished for years, was put on a fast track. Montecito put up half of the $15.7 million budget, with Fox Searchlight covering the rest. Production designer Judy Becker pieced together the Hitchcocks' home from three locations. She found the exterior, a Tudor house that suggested a bit of England relocated to Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills. A second house in Pasadena provided interiors. And to accommodate the needed camera moves, the Hitchcocks' bedroom and adjoining bath as well as a period kitchen were re-created at RED Studios in Hollywood.
Because Chasen's, the Hitchcocks' favorite restaurant, no longer exists -- it was reoutfitted as a Bristol Farms in 2000 -- the production took over another historic Hollywood restaurant, the famed Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, adding wood paneling to re-create Chasen's in its heyday.
Meanwhile, makeup artist Howard Berger and costume designer Julie Weiss went to work transforming Hopkins into Hitchcock. Berger at first created a prosthetic that copied Hitchcock's face down to the smallest details but decided "you lost Tony in it." So he refined the design until it consisted of what he called "the horseshoe," a large appliance that gave the actor jowls, augmented with smaller silicone pieces attached to his nose and earlobes.
Hitchcock "was known for his black suits, but that doesn't mean he wore a black suit every day," says Weiss, who added to the director's signature look by devising a lightweight fat suit. "She was brilliant, the Stanislavski of designers," says Hopkins. "It made it all very easy for me. When I put it on, the weight and shape of it would throw off my center of balance, so I would have to lean back slightly, just like Hitch."
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who had just finished the mammoth production The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, relished the idea of jumping into the quick, low-budget shoot -- the production, which began filming in April, spent just 35 days shooting around Southern California. Using the RED Epic MX digital camera, he aimed, he says, "for a mild Technicolor look" that recalled Hitchcock's work in the '50s. He and Gervasi also inserted sly references to Hitchcock's movies -- an overhead shot of umbrellas borrowed from Foreign Correspondent, a telephone in the foreground taken from Dial M for Murder.
"We had absolutely no time, so we had to make instinctual decisions and just go for it," says Gervasi. "But I think in one sense it helped the film, giving it the energy it has." Six months after shooting began, he previewed his director's cut in La Jolla, Calif., and the preview went so well, Searchlight quickly decided to add the film to its 2012 release slate.
The Hitchcock who emerges in the finished film is more than the Alfred Hitchcock so familiar to audiences in the '50s and '60s from his droll introductions to the CBS and NBC series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That itself was something of a performance. Born the son of a greengrocer, Hitchcock "was a good old London cockney," says Hopkins. "But when he went to Hollywood, he developed a persona. The way he would over-enunciate his words -- I think to Americans he sounded very posh. But when he and Alma are together, he drops all that a bit." Gervasi agrees: "Hitchcock wasn't an English snob; he just played one on TV." And while he and Alma often directed barbed zingers at each other, there was a playfulness there as well, says Mirren, contending: "I noticed in the photographs, she's always laughing. I think Hitchcock cracked Alma up, and I think that was very real."
BEHIND THE SCENES: Why the Psycho Shower Scene Looks Totally Different in Hitchcock
How do you make a movie about the making of Psycho when you don't own any rights to Psycho? With a lawyer's eye for detail, it turns out. Tom Pollock began his career as a successful entertainment attorney before running Universal Pictures and becoming a producer. So when his former studio, which distributes the five Alfred Hitchcock films controlled by the director's estate, declined to grant permission for Hitchcock to use footage, he knew how to fashion a workaround. Consulting with L.A. attorney Donald Gordon, an expert in reviewing films on behalf of insurance companies that issue "errors and omissions" policies, Pollock instructed that rewrites omit footage from the 1960 film or any direct re-creations of scenes or images. Fleeting pieces of Psycho probably could have been defended as "fair use," which allows snippets of copyrighted work to be used in other works in certain circumstances, but the filmmakers chose the safe ground. For instance, a creepy house seen in the background as Hitchcock walks around the Universal lot isn't the Bates Motel -- it just looks like it. And when shooting the key scene about the filming of the shower sequence, the filmmakers were careful to avoid copying the look of the original. "You don't see it the way it is in the movie," says Pollock. "There's a shot of Scarlett [Johansson] looking like Janet Leigh -- that's the closest we come, and it lasts for one second." To complement Danny Elfman's original music, the filmmakers were able to license the well-known Psycho score for the scene by Bernard Herrmann from Sony ATV Music Publishing, but the rest presented a fun challenge. "It did play to some of my old strengths," says Pollock. "I'm not exempt from the rules, but I at least know that there are rules and how to play by them." -- Matthew Belloni
HITCH'S INSIDER SHOPTALK: Hitchcock is full of references to movies everyone in town was gossiping about in the '50s and '60s.
Winchester '73 (1950): By getting Jimmy Stewart profits on this Western, Lew Wasserman revolutionized star salaries. Played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the agent says the movie "was a dog."
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): The film's Hitchcock says it's ironic that Paramount -- which produced this best picture Oscar winner, which critics knocked -- finds Psycho "distasteful."
North by Northwest (1959): The thriller was a big hit for Hitchcock. Studios asked for more of the same, but he refuses, saying he wants to make something without expensive stars like Cary Grant.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959): Hitchcock claims Fox wanted him instead of George Stevens to direct, but the audience would have been "waiting for Miss Frank to discover the corpse I'd hidden in the attic."
Cinderfella (1960): "Thank God we've got Cinderfella for the holidays," says Paramount head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) in the film. Psycho proves a much bigger hit than the Jerry Lewis comedy.
Casino Royale (1967): In the movie, Hitchcock dismisses the idea of directing Grant in an adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel. By the time it hits the screen, it's a comedy starring Peter Sellers.