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For ‘Hitchcock’ director, a different kind of suspense

Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock."
(Suzanne Tenner / Fox Searchlight)

If Sacha Gervasi was, as Anthony Hopkins would later say, “absolutely scared stiff,” the first-time filmmaker certainly didn’t show it.

The 45-year-old director had a popular documentary under his belt, but Gervasi had never worked with live actors or a screenplay before. And here he was, working not only with Oscar winners Hopkins and Helen Mirren but also making a movie about Alfred Hitchcock, one of the giants in cinematic history.

On this April morning inside a Pasadena estate doubling for Hitchcock’s Bel-Air home, Gervasi was faced with directing two particularly tricky “Hitchcock” scenes, populated with dozens of extras and juxtaposing two competing story lines.

PHOTOS: ‘Hitchcock’ premiere at AFI Fest

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Concerned that younger, edgier directors like Jules Dassin (“Rififi”) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (“Diabolique”) were poised to turn him into a relic relegated to TV, Hitchcock (Hopkins) had decided to mount his most daring production yet, personally bankrolling “Psycho” when Paramount Pictures declined to finance it.

To convince himself that the story would truly shock moviegoers, Hitchcock invited some chic-set friends for tea and Champagne, whereupon he treated them to crime scene photographs from Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, on whose life “Psycho” was based.

In the adjoining kitchen, meanwhile, Hitchcock’s wife and frequent collaborator, Alma Reville (Mirren), was flirting with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who was showering Alma with affection that was largely missing from her marriage.

PHOTOS: Alfred Hitchcock: Career snapshots

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Through it all, Gervasi never lost sight of the smallest detail, at one point castigating the background players that images of Gein’s mutilated corpses weren’t upsetting them enough. “Can we get a bit more animation in your reaction?” he barked to the several dozen background performers between takes. “Be really offended!” he instructed as cameras rolled. “This is horrific!”

At first glance, the story about the making of “Psycho” and Gervasi’s own background seem miles apart, outside of the fact that Gervasi and Hitchcock were born in Britain. Yet the very movie that helped Gervasi land the directing job — the 2008 documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” — had in many ways mirrored “Psycho’s” making.

Determined to become more than a screenwriter ( “The Terminal,” “Henry’s Crime”) often called upon to do uncredited script doctoring, Gervasi had made a huge bet on himself. Just as Hitchcock mortgaged his home to underwrite “Psycho’s” $800,000 budget, Gervasi had borrowed against his home and spent almost the same amount of money bankrolling “Anvil.”

When the documentary gained a cult following inside Hollywood, Gervasi’s future was recast — like Hitchcock’s following “Psycho.” “'Anvil’ gave me something you could never buy — which was a chance to make ‘Hitchcock,’” said the director, who went on to reveal another startling twist to the back story of his encounter with “Hitchcock.”

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By Gervasi’s math, 26 directors were candidates up for directing “Hitchcock.” He was No. 27. But the filmmaker had made it into the room to pitch his filmmaking ideas thanks to “Anvil,” and that alone was quite an accomplishment.

Premiering at 2008’s Sundance Film Festival, “Anvil” followed the obscure band’s two principal members, guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who were still trying to make it 35 years after the band’s formation.

Even to people who believe Anvil’s music is the amplified equal of fingernails on a chalkboard, the pair’s determination was inspiring, and the documentary won many prizes and influential fans.

“I got offered a lot of things after ‘Anvil,’ mostly big studio comedies,” said Gervasi, who has a mane of wild hair and is alternatively brash and edgy. “But I wanted to do something special, with real human emotion.”

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Tom Pollock, whose Montecito Pictures controlled the rights to “Hitchcock” with producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette, had been among “Anvil’s” supporters, so when the director asked for a “Hitchcock” meeting, Pollock opened his door, but not that wide. “Obviously, Sacha was not first on anyone’s list,” he said.

PHOTOS: Alfred Hitchcock: Career snapshots

Other directors far more accomplished had flirted with the movie, which had been in development for nearly a decade, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. At one point, Ryan Murphy (television’s “Glee”) was penciled in to direct the script, adapted by John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) from Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’”

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.

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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.

PHOTOS: ‘Hitchcock’ premiere at AFI Fest

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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Hopkins went through a series of makeup tests to make him look more like Hitchcock, but ultimately makeup artists Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero ended up ditching more elaborate prosthetics, including a fake lower lip. “It looked like a slug,” Hopkins said of the appendage. “I thought it best not to push it too much. If they covered me up completely, I wouldn’t be visible at all.”

Mirren said she has little resemblance to her character. “I don’t look anything like Alma. She was a tiny bird of a woman,” Mirren said. The movie’s real authenticity, the actress said, was in how “Hitchcock” portrayed a marriage. “We all make these sacrifices and compromises with our partners,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to claw back and regain some territory. You’re constantly trying to find equilibrium in your marriage.”

Yet there was one thing Gervasi couldn’t get right. In a homage to the real Hitchcock, who gave himself cameos in his movies, Gervasi cast himself as a background performer near the film’s end. Mirren took one look at her director and said he looked totally out of place, like a “third-rate bookie from Brighton.”

Having come this far, it was an easy decision. Gervasi cut himself from his own movie.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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