'My Dinner With Herve' Director on Peter Dinklage Drama: "We Were Told It Was Impossible"
"He felt that he wasn't allowed to be human because people couldn't accept how different he was," Sacha Gervasi says of exploring his connection with the late Hervé Villechaize in HBO's TV movie.
French actor Hervé Villechaize spent his final days participating in a series of unusual interviews with then-journalist Sacha Gervasi for Britain’s Mail on Sunday magazine. My Dinner With Hervé, written and directed by now-filmmaker Gervasi, recaptures this bizarre experience and fulfills a request made by the actor: Tell the real story.
The film documents their meeting in a restaurant where Gervasi's character, Danny Tate (Jamie Dornan), is skeptical of the Fantasy Island actor (Peter Dinklage) and unprepared for what an intense character his subject turned out to be. Over their next several meetings, which take place in unconventional interview settings such as the back of a car, a freeway and strip club, the journalist is tested to emotional extremes as Villechaize probes him about his life as much as he presses Villechaize to reflect upon the missteps of his career and marriage.
Citing chronic pain as the reason to end his life, Villechaize committed suicide at his North Hollywood residence in 1993.
In order to learn how the project took shape, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Gervasi about his interview with the real Villechaize, the themes of judgment that run through the film and the types of stories that he is motivated to pursue.
When you first interviewed Hervé in 1993, then unaware of what a key figure he would eventually become for you, what conclusions did you draw from his character? Was there any sense that the initial interview was far from over?
It was meant to be a sort of throwaway "Where are they now?" article, and the first interview was really rushed, but he ultimately pulled a knife [on me] and said, "I’m not done with the story; you’ve written it before you came here." He struck me as desperate, lonely and really wanting to tell his story to someone and wanting desperately for them to pay attention to him. I think he felt written off, like everyone thought he was a joke. He wanted to get that by the neck and shake it. He wanted to do the same with me and say, "Pay bloody attention, because there’s a lot more going on here. You have no idea what the real story behind my persona really is." While I had a sense, I didn’t know how epic the whole episode would become, and I had no idea how close I would get to him in the time that we had together, which was just three interviews over a five-day period. He committed suicide seven or eight days after I’d last seen him at the Sheraton. The story really hit me because how could you possibly imagine that your throwaway, two-minute interview would prove to be such a critical experience? It was so randomly bizarre and unexpectedly intense, just to meet him. If you had met him yourself you would have thought, "My God, this is like being in a Fellini film." Surreal.
How did the project come together over time?
It was written initially as a short because as you see in the film, the story was truncated and the stuff that made it personal was really taken out, so I felt like the article was 50 percent of what it should have been. I knew I’d made this promise to Hervé to tell the story and the article didn’t do that, so the first script I ever wrote was a short script — I really didn’t know what I was doing — but I sat down and wrote a 34-page screenplay called My Dinner With Hervé. That script ultimately got me into UCLA film school in 1995 and found its way to the film’s producer Steven Zaillian, who really liked it and said to me, "One day you will direct this as a feature." Once it was a feature script, it took a long time to develop it. Peter Dinklage and I had been talking about it since The Station Agent, and meanwhile he obviously became one of the biggest stars in the world. People loved the script, but they thought it was unmakeable: The star was a dwarf. We were told it was impossible multiple times, and rather than compromise it, we [preferred] to not make it at all. So, we let it go. Eventually HBO called and said, "There could be something here. It needs a little work, but if we can get it right, maybe we’ll make this thing." I rewrote the script and it became the story of an unexpected friendship told through the prism of a cynical narrator.
What was the casting process like for Jamie Dornan, who essentially plays you?
It was really interesting because we had a number of people who wanted to do it. People were intrigued by the story, and every actor I know, pretty much, wanted to work with Peter. It was exotic and weird and a character on the edge. I had seen Jamie in The Fall and he was extraordinary. He pursued the script and we had a Skype session while he was in Bulgaria [on location]. He subsequently flew to London and said, "Look, I’m really feeling this." For me, by that point, I was like, "Oh, Christian Grey." In the way I thought people might be judgmental of Hervé, I thought people might be judgmental of Christian Grey and that character. As soon as we did the audition, Jamie just called it out: that scene on the freeway where he really gives it to Hervé, he’s on fire. I was filming on my iPhone and wished the film crew had been there because he uncorked the bottle and exploded full of despair and hurt and rage and anger — the torrent of emotions was churning around him. In one sense, the theme of the movie is judgment and there’s a sense of irony in these two characters who could not be more physically different in the way that they appear in the world, but whose problems are fundamentally the same.
Speaking of judgment being a theme, there’s a revealing line in the film spoken by Hervé’s character: “When the world realizes you are a real person and not just an amusing sight, they get scared.” Is that a real thing that Hervé said? And what are your thoughts on the sentiment?
He said not exactly those words, but pretty close to them. He basically said, "I frighten people and make them uncomfortable because of my physical uniqueness." He felt that he wasn’t allowed to be human because people couldn’t accept how different he was. I felt uncomfortable when I first met Hervé — how can I treat him as a human being when he’s 3-foot-10 and I would be looking down at him standing up? It’s very surreal; you really do feel like you’re in Alice Through the Looking Glass or 8½. Hervé was fully aware that that discomfort was just fear — fear of the unknown, fear of those who don’t configure to “normality.” Once I peeled back the layers of the story, I found it to be a very profound story of a mother not being able to cope with having produced what she considered a deformed child. She felt at fault. For me, I understood that feeling of parental rejection. There were universal themes, less about how tall Hervé was and more about the emotional experience of being rejected and trying to get love that has been withdrawn. When Hervé and I were together, people would laugh and point, and I felt tremendous empathy for him. That is a tough gig when you walk down the street and people laugh, point and giggle because they don’t understand or they feel awkward. That’s also something I have experienced being in public with Peter. People are freaked out when they see an incredibly famous dwarf in front of them. Without talking about it directly, Peter is clearly talking about a version of his own story even if the facts and the behaviors are different. He has had not a dissimilar experience in the world than Hervé, including bizarre and horrific medical treatments, so this story spoke to his heart as it did mine.
How has your background in journalism prepared you for a career behind the camera?
I’m fascinated with real people, and to me there is nothing richer than real life stories, so it made a huge difference interviewing all the characters I’ve met. Spaceships and robots don’t fascinate me, people do. Journalism allows you to absorb different stories while you’re trying to work out who you are at the same time. [In film] I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, which is to probe and question and explore what motivates people at their core.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.