The film-makers behind Hitchcock talk to Michael Rosser about bringing the iconic director ― and one of his most famous works ― back to the big screen

“Good evening,” says the voice on the phone, in the unmistakable tones of Alfred Hitchcock. “We have a little story this evening that I would like to present to you.”

It is the night before the New York premiere of Hitchcock and star Anthony Hopkins is enjoying playing the part again, for an audience of one.

The film follows the legendary director’s struggle to make Psycho in 1959 and highlights Hitchcock’s lifelong collaboration with wife Alma Reville, portrayed as a fast-talking, quick-witted heroine by Helen Mirren.

Proving that history repeats itself, the financial struggle associated with making Psycho ― Hitchcock put up the $800,000 budget himself after Paramount refused ― was mirrored more than five decades later as this project moved towards production.

It began at Focus Features in 2005, when producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette approached the Universal-owned studio with Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho.

Focus optioned the book and set Black Swan co-writer John J McLaughlin to write a screenplay. But Universal, which distributes Hitchcock’s films on behalf of his estate, did not want to upset the family with a look into the private life of the master of suspense and put it into turnaround.

Thayer and Barnette then approached the Montecito Picture Company, the production outfit founded by director Ivan Reitman and former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock. Montecito boarded the project, attracted by the screenplay’s quality. “The screenplay was on the Black List,” says Pollock, referring to the selection of the best unmade scripts in Hollywood.

The company had a first-look deal with Paramount Pictures ― the original distributor of Psycho ― and had to re-option the book and script, while also clearing legal rights.

“We then went on a long search for a director,” recalls Pollock. “Tony [Hopkins] was already attached, and the film would not have happened without him. I cannot think of another actor in his age bracket that could pull it off and get the film made.”

Hopkins confirms his early attachment and says: “I had met with one director about six years ago. Then, last year, my agent phoned and asked if I would meet Sacha Gervasi, who I knew as the director of Anvil! The Story Of Anvil.”

Gervasi, the London-born screenwriter whose credits include Steven Spielberg’s 2004 comedy The Terminal, had gained influential admirers after directing the 2008 documentary about a heavy metal act that was still striving for success after 25 years of rejection.

Pollock was one of those admirers. “I had long been a fan of Anvil,” he says. “We wanted someone who could bring more humour to the movie than the script contained. It needed to be as funny as the droll wit of Alfred Hitchcock.”

Speaking in Santa Monica the day after the AFI Fest world premiere of Hitchcock in Hollywood, Gervasi says he was an outside bet for the job.

“There had to be about 27 directors on their list and I was 28,” he says. “But I told Tom exactly what I’d do, how I felt it needed to be shot and how I thought it needed to be. At the end of 90 minutes he said, ‘You should direct the movie. I feel it in my gut.’”

Hopkins, Pollock and Gervasi met for lunch at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. “I was a little scared,” Gervasi says. “After all, it’s Hannibal Lecter.”

The actor put him at ease by revealing he had seen Anvil three times but was initially cautious. “I did think about the fact this guy had never directed a movie before with actors,” says Hopkins. “But he was so enthusiastic and the studio believed in him so I trusted him to do it. We shook hands on it over the table.”

Still at Paramount, Pollock then tried to secure the budget. “At that time, studios were making small, quality films and our studio had Paramount Vantage,” he recalls. “We wanted to make it through them. But it went out of business and Paramount passed.”

Fired up to get the film made, the team went back to Focus Features but Universal remained wary of upsetting the Hitchcock family.

Finally, Fox Searchlight Pictures signed on ― with some conditions. “We had to get the budget down to $15m-something and we had to source half, because that’s how studios operate today,” says Pollock. “Ivan Reitman and I put up the money ourselves through Cold Spring Pictures, through which we have previously invested in Up In The Air and No Strings Attached.”

Pollock is aware of how this struggle matches Hitchcock’s own and adds with a laugh: “The irony has not been lost on us.”

With Hopkins and Mirren attached, “everyone wanted to jump in,” according to Gervasi. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Janet Leigh and spoke with the late actress’ daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, ahead of shooting. James D’Arcy secured the role of Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel the part of Vera Miles.

Toni Collette flew from Australia to meet with Gervasi and won the role as Hitchcock’s trusted assistant, Peggy Robertson. Danny Huston was cast as screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who becomes a writing partner for Alma in the film, while Michael Wincott took the role of murderer Ed Gein, who inspired Psycho and haunts Hitchcock throughout the film.

A digital Hitchcock

Then came the decision of whether to shoot on 35mm or digital.

“Initially, I really wanted to use film,” reveals Gervasi. Working with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who shot digitally with David Fincher on The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, they tested 35mm.

“The film tests were very good because they had a richness and texture,” says Gervasi. “But then we did a RED Epic test and it was almost indistinguishable. Not only was it cheaper but it gave me more time to shoot the scenes. Also, Jeff is a master of light and at the vanguard of digital. With him, it doesn’t feel like video.”

Shooting began on April 13, 2012. Los Angeles provided several locations, from Paramount Studios to a Malibu lifeguard station, which doubled as a beach house. The film also shot at RED Studios and sets were built to portray the Hitchcocks’ bedroom and the Psycho set, including the shower.

Judy Becker, the production designer for Oscar winners including Brokeback Mountain and The Fighter, “brought an unrivalled authenticity”, according to Gervasi. They even used a lantern on the Psycho staircase set that appeared in the original 1960 film.

Danny Elfman, who wrote the score and is a longtime fan of Hitchcock’s music collaborator Bernard Herrmann, visited the set, as did Marshall Schlom, script supervisor on Psycho, who said seeing Hopkins in costume helped retrieve memories he believed he had lost forever.

Hopkins would spend about 90 minutes daily in the make-up chair at the hands of special make-up effects artists Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Greg Nicotero.

Julie Weiss made the fat suit, transforming the 168-pound actor into a much larger character. “It made me top heavy so I had to throw my head back, which was Hitchcock’s classic, haughty pose,” says Hopkins.

Unlike the iconic Hitchcock, Mirren had rather less on which to base her portrayal of Reville. The actress says she could not find any footage of her beyond some of Hitchcock and his wife in 1979 when the director received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. “I wore the colour of her hair and I wore the kind of clothes that I thought she might wear. But I couldn’t do any physical impersonation at all, really,” Mirren explains.

“My inspiration was the book that her daughter, Patricia, wrote. And the wonderful thing, Patricia wrote one book about her family and she chose to write it about her mother. She didn’t write it about her father. That was an incredible source of information and I just tried to reflect the woman that I felt Patricia wrote about.”

Filming wrapped May 31. “Post-production was accelerated as Fox wanted to put it out at the end of year,” says Pollock. “Then they wanted us to complete it for the AFI Fest opening on November 1. We had to work 24/7.”

Edited by Pamela Martin (The Fighter, Little Miss Sunshine) and completed just days before its first screening, Hitchcock hit deadline and is attracting awards attention. “I always live with low expectations,” tempers Hopkins, who won an Oscar for The Silence Of The Lambs. “But I’m glad I did the movie and if awards come up that will be thrilling.”

The Oscars ceremony would be less than a year after Gervasi got the green light for production and he is similarly modest about its prospects. “Who the hell knows?” he adds. “I made the movie I’d pay $14 to see. It’s a miracle that it got made.”

Additional material by Leon Forde

Hitchcock’s history

  • 1990 Publication of Alfred Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho, written by Stephen Rebello. Producers Alan Barnette and Tom Thayer option the book soon after its release.
  • 2005 Barnette/Thayer take the project to Focus Features, which pays for a script by John J McLaughlin.
  • 2006 Anthony Hopkins attached to the project.
  • 2008 The script moves to the Montecito Picture Company, which had a first-look deal with Paramount.
  • December 2011 Sacha Gervasi signs on as director and Fox Searchlight Pictures comes on board.
  • April 2012 Shooting begins on Hitchcock. It wraps in late May.
  • November 1, 2012 World premiere at the opening of AFI Fest.
  • November 23, 2012 Opens in the US and makes $287,715 from a limited 17-site first weekend.
  • February 2013 Releases across Europe, South America and Asia.