Sacha Gervasi was 13 years old when his school’s film club screened Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
“It was really shocking and scary,” Gervasi said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t watch it again for another 12 years, because I didn’t want to relive that experience.”
Now, thanks to Gervasi, the world is not only reliving “Psycho” but seeing details of how it was made — with the movie “Hitchcock.” The film, which Gervasi directed, began a platform release on Nov. 23, and arrives in Salt Lake City on Dec. 14.
The film follows director Alfred Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) as he seeks out a new film to follow the success of “North By Northwest.” He wants to do something radically different, and hits upon a book based on the rampage of serial killer Ed Gein. The studios balk at the idea, thinking it schlocky B-grade horror. But Hitchcock insists and even mortgages the house he shares with his wife and frequent collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Gervasi — who had never directed a narrative film before, and whose only directing credit was the self-financed rock documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” — was given a shot at directing “Hitchcock.” But first he had to convince Hopkins over lunch.
“I was terrified,” Gervasi said. “Meeting Hannibal Lecter in a restaurant for an Italian meal?”
Hopkins turned out to be a fan of Gervasi’s documentary.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’ve seen “Anvil” three times. How are [the members of the band] doing?” said Gervasi, who had the number for Steve “Lips” Kudlow, Anvil’s frontman, on his cellphone.
“I called up Lips, and they got on the phone together like two old friends,” Gervasi said. “ I think at that point, there’s some very good energy around this.”
Hopkins gave Gervasi his blessing. “He took a gamble on me,” Gervasi said. “He said, ‘I like your ideas, you’re obviously completely crazy. I’m in.’”
Meeting Mirren was just as intimidating.
“She is so scary,” Gervasi said. “She had me in tears at the first meeting.”
But once filming started, Mirren was supportive. “If she saw something going on with the crew, she would whisper in my ear,” he said. “She wanted me to look strong in front of the crew.”
On the surface, “Hitchcock” is about the director’s struggles to make “Psycho,” but at heart, it’s “an unexpected love story,” Gervasi said.
“The Hitchcocks were married for 36 years. Together as a team they could be exceptional. They weren’t as good on their own,” he said. “How do you sustain that when one is in the limelight and one isn’t?”
In studying Hitchcock’s films, Gervasi said, he learned a lot about filmmaking — and particularly in working with actors.
“Casting is everything, and I’m very actor-centric,” Gervasi said. Hitchcock “always understood actors. He was obsessive and difficult, as all great directors can be as they’re trying to birth some kind of art. But without them, he couldn’t get his pictures made, and he knew that.”
One of the things that made Hitchcock a great director, Gervasi said, was his versatility. The gritty black-and-white of “Psycho” is vastly different than the lush color of “North By Northwest.” It also is different stylistically from “Rear Window” or “Rope” or “Vertigo.” (By the way, Gervasi issues a challenge to hard-core film lovers: Find the eight references to Hitchcock’s films placed in “Hitchcock.”)
“With some great directors, you’re looking at two or three masterpieces,” Gervasi said. With Hitchcock, “you’re looking at 10 or 12.”