As someone that spent the better part of three years making an exhaustive documentary about the Psycho franchise, there was nothing more surreal then turning the corner off of 6th Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, walking up Broadway and seeing in bold red letters the word PSYCHO displayed on the marquee of the Palace Theater, doubling here for the world famous Demille Theater in New York City circa 1960.
As I got closer and reached the entrance of the theater, I was taken aback by the dozen or so theatrical one-sheet posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that I’d seen a million times before, but something was off about this version of the iconic image. It wasn’t Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh or Vera Miles displayed on these posters, but instead it was actors James D’Arcy, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel (respectively) in their place.
In front of the theater stands an erected sign that reads “Line Forms Here” and as I entered through the lobby, other signs listed the designated set show times, a practice first implemented by Hitchcock for Psycho’s theatrical exhibition and the infamous Hitchcock standee’s encouraging audiences not to share Psycho’s surprises and twists upon exiting the theater. All of the wonderful theatrical gimmicks that we’ve all seen in old news reel footage have been perfectly recreated here for today’s shoot. The only noticeable difference is that the Hitchcock of these promotional materials bares a striking resemblance to esteemed actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Yep, here I am at the premiere of the original Psycho, and this is as close as I can ever get to jumping in a time machine and actually being there for this historic moment that originally took place in June of 1960.
It’s the last day of shooting on Hitchcock, the Fox Searchlight feature based upon Stephen Rebello’s best selling book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO. For Hitchcock enthusiasts, we know that Psycho was a major turning point in his life and career, but of all his famous movies and all the equally interesting behind the scenes production stories of all of those, why set this particular bio pic against the backdrop of making Psycho?
Director Sacha Gervasi explains, “He was coming off of North By Northwest and he really hit the peak of his success in one sense. He was so brilliant at doing these giant, lush, vibrant, colorful fantasy pieces and he was at a certain point in his life where he’s 60 years old and he’s looking around going ‘what else is going on in the world?’ All these new filmmakers were making movies like Diabolique, very much films on the cutting edge and my feeling is that he thought, people are talking about the new masters of suspense, but they still have the original!”
“So Psycho came from a deep need to reassert himself at the very vanguard of the cutting edge in filmmaking,” continues the director. “To remind everyone that he still had it and could do unexpected things. I feel like he might have felt trapped by that success. He says it in the movie actually, ‘they just want me to make North By Northwest over and over again.’ There was no support for him to do Psycho because it was this pulpy, trashy drive-in type concept. I think people viewed the idea of Hitchcock doing this as if somehow he would be debasing himself. And I think that’s what intrigued him so much about it was he was able to come at it as, if you elevate the genre you can do something extraordinary with it. He was daring all his doubters and more importantly daring himself to do something that would push him into taking risks again. And into doing things the way he did when he was much younger. I think it was a statement he was making, a need to not be defined by his own success. He was throwing himself into a risky situation; he was spending his own money. He was rolling the dice. No one wanted to do the movie. Of course, it’s considered one of his greatest successes. When you think about Hitchcock, the first thing you think about is Psycho and that shower scene. It’s the first thing that comes into your mind. I think because it’s become so iconic, you can’t imagine that no one wanted to make the movie and you can’t imagine that Alfred Hitchcock in 1959 had problems getting it made. That’s what makes this story fascinating is that the more people told him no, the more determined he was to do it.”
Producer Alan Barnett agrees, “He was always a little ahead of the curve and he wanted to do something a little different and obviously, he had to jump a lot of hurdles to make that happen [with Psycho]. When you look at what Hitchcock accomplished with this movie and what he saw into the future which was that top directors and talent weren’t doing horror films or slasher films back in those days. By Hitchcock doing this, he ushered in films like The Exorcist, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs where top talent could come in and do these tent pole movies. He was really ahead of the curve in seeing the commercial appeal of the genre.”
While the idea of a Hitchcock bio pic set around the time period that he made Psycho seems like a no-brainer, it was quite a long road that spanned almost a decade to make it here to set today. Of the project’s humble beginnings, producer Tom Pollack tells us, “Alan [Barnette] was the one that had the idea of the movie. He said we should do a movie about Alfred Hitchcock. And I said, nobody will buy it. Its period, it’s dusty, it’s a bio-pic. It’s behind the scenes Hollywood, it’ll take 10 years to get off the ground. And it actually took us about 8 and a half. But he kept seeing it, seeing it and seeing it, and I thought maybe we should find a movie to tell the story against. So we’re not doing a cradle to grave Hitchcock bio. We found the book and in the book was more than the title; there was a real story about Hitchcock and looking over his shoulder at age 60 and all these insecurities. The genesis of Psycho is really interesting. So we optioned the book and I had worked with the writer before on another project, John McLaughlin and he wrote the script and this was the pitch. If Capote can work, if Gods & Monsters can work, if Good Night and Good Luck could work, why can’t Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho work?”
Over the course of eight or so years, the project went through over 13 different script drafts and dozens of directors, including at one point Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy and even Steven Spielberg flirted with the notion of helming. Eventually, the task went to Sacha Gervasi, who’s only other directing credit prior to this was the well-received documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. While he might not initially seem like the ideal choice, the producers agreed that his passion for the project and his “intoxicating pitch” were what sealed the deal. Gervasi explains how the story between Hitch and Alma isn’t all that different from the story of Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner in Anvil. “I’m fascinated by creative partnerships where there’s another level of emotional intensity that’s really compelling. I felt in some strange way there was a real similarity between the two stories. Emotionally, even though they’re both very different films. The emotional component was similar. Both movies were about essentially aging couple that love each other more than anything in the world and that drive each other completely nuts, and yet are completely incapable of living and/or creating without one another. To me Anvil and Hitchcock are the same film and that’s how I was approaching it. I didn’t approach it thinking wouldn’t it be cool to redo the shower scene? The shower scene is interesting as to how it related to Hitchcock’s state of mind at that moment and where he was in terms of his relationship. But really, this story is about a marriage that was based on a unique love and obsession for and about film”
And although this is his first narrative feature, Gervasi always seems to gravitate toward reality based material with his film work. “Even The Terminal which I scripted was about a real guy. Every story I’ve been involved in whether it’s Anvil or Hitchcock or The Terminal has some kind of prominence because I used to be a journalist so I find people way more fascinating than fantasy and I love the idea of blending fantasy and reality as I think Hitchcock was able to do it so brilliantly. We’re taking that instinct, the idea that he’s quite fantastical, but that’s what made him. Look at Hitchcock as a person. You almost can’t believe that he was real and existed!”
One of the most interesting pieces of early casting was Michael Wincott as Ed Gein; Gein of course being the original (loose) inspiration for Robert Bloch’s book Psycho. But how exactly does the real life killer fit into the story of the making of Psycho? Rumor has it as an imaginary friend to Hitchcock. “The beauty of what Sascha brought to this was taking the Gein elements and making them a fantasy, and having Hitchcock be a voyeur whenever Gein appears,” explains Barnette. “There’s a progression through-out the film and even by the end of it, even Hitchcock is horrified to see the culmination of Gein’s deeds. It’s one thing to titillate yourself with these thoughts but it’s another when they’re real and you’re staring at them in the face.”
“It was something I thought was important for the movie,” elaborates Gervasi. “For us to have an insight into Hitchcock’s mind in I think an interestedly Hitchcockian way, where it’s in his imagination. He dialogues with Ed Gein but as a fantasy figure, essentially as his shadow. Because Ed Gein inspired the (Robert) Bloch novel and the novel in turn inspired Psycho. So, the idea being that he dialogues with Ed Gein.”
And speaking of casting, producer Pollack reaffirms that through out all the years of development, “there was only one name attached as Hitchcock and it was Anthony Hopkins.”
“And he was incredibly patient and graceful,” adds Barnette. “It took eight or nine years, but he stuck with us. He always wanted to do the role. He was very supportive of us and we never had a second choice.” And what’s interesting about seeing Hopkins on set as Hitchcock is that although he definitely has the presence of the famous director, you can still tell its Hopkins underneath all that make-up. “There’s no point in having Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and then losing Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock,” says Pollack. In terms of working with KNB to get the right look for Hitch, Barnette explains, “I think it really started with the prosthetics. We did five camera tests with Hopkins as Hitchcock, almost a full Hitchcock replica, and it was almost too much. He looked exactly like him in initial tests, but you couldn’t get the facial expressions behind the prosthetics, and we decided that less is more. We went back and stripped everything off and just went with jowls and cheeks and padded him out. Tony’s in great shape, so he’s carrying 60 pounds of armor on him. We ended up with a synthesis of the two. I think it was the perfect combination because we can get the expressions in his face, the enunciation of his speech, but it’s still Hopkins and we let him act. Most of the actors did a lot of homework. Scarlett Johansson did with Janet Leigh and certainly Jessica Biel did with Vera Miles. And Helen’s just Helen. She takes over the character. Like Tony, her and Tony have that gift of invisibly moving into the characters that they play and just becoming them.”
The one other person that arguably was the most affected by the success of Psycho was actor Anthony Perkins who portrayed the sympathetic Norman Bates. And playing him for the movie is James D’Arcy. On his casting, Barnette tells us, “When he first walked in to read, there was a moment where we all were like ‘please be a good actor!’ Because he looked so much like Tony Perkins. He totally embodies Perkins and it’s pretty amazing. Now, to be clear he embodies Tony Perkins, not Norman Bates. There were a lot of similarities, but James really captured the essence of Perkins.”
“Hopkins came to the audition,” recalls D’Arcy about the casting process. “And Hopkins reaction (to me) was so amazing. I feel like he swayed everybody, because he kept starring at me and then looking over to the producers with a look like ‘why are we looking at anybody else?’ I started to read the first few lines of the scene and Hopkins fell off his chair laughing; laughing in a really charming way. He gathered himself and said ‘this is uncanny’. We read the scene again and the same thing happens, he falls out of his chair laughing. We improvised on for 10 minutes in character. And at that point I thought, if I get the job, great. But if I don’t get the job, at least I got to sit in a room and improvise with Anthony Hopkins for 10 minutes, which was amazing. Right at the end of it, he said to me as Hitchcock ‘what would you do to get this part?’ And in my Anthony Perkins voice I said, ‘Um, Mister Hitchcock, I’ll do anything to play this role.’ And he kind of looked at me and stopped being Hitchcock and said in his Hopkins voice, ‘well I think you are going to get it.’ It was so sweet and that was that. He jumped out of his seat and gave me a huge hug before I left. And I’d never met him before that! He’s an amazing human being.”
Before I leave set for the evening, producer Alan Barnette invites me over to the monitors to watch the scene they’re currently shooting. It’s a beautiful dolly shot that starts at the marquee of the theater which reads “Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO” and then pans down to a huge line of people eagerly waiting outside the theater. A limo pulls up and out exits Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock followed by Helen Mirren as Alma and Toni Collette who plays Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson. Hitch takes his wife’s hand and begins walking past the screaming crowd into the lobby of the theater relishing only for a moment in his triumph to what will later be considered his most famous film. The story of Hitchcock, the movie is the turbulent road to get to this final victorious moment and for me personally, I can’t wait to watch it all unfold on the big screen.
Robert Galluzzo directed The Psycho Legacy which can now be found on DVD.