“I think the precision and the meticulousness of detail that both the production designer and set decorator brought was something that told you the story without hearing a single word...”
—Director Sacha Gervasi
Rather than the usual biopic, the feature film HITCHCOCK is a love story, as Director Sacha Gervasi describes, “the real-life union between an imperious director known for his dark obsessions and a ferociously intelligent woman who was a screenwriter, superb editor and behind-the-scenes assistant director."
"Sacha found a contemporary relevance in the Hitchcock story that resonates for an audience,” says Producer Tom Thayer. “He made it the story of a marriage, framing their relationship against the gauntlet Hitch encountered developing PSYCHO…an artist trying to reinvent himself in an industry that wanted more of the same. It was Sacha mining the complexities of Hitch and Alma's [Anthony Hopkins & Helen Mirren] relationship through this lens that brought so much to the surface."
“I always felt the core of HITCHCOCK had to be the love story between Alfred and Alma,” Gervasi comments. “They had this dynamic, complex, contradictory, beautiful, painful relationship that was not just a marriage but a real creative collaboration. I was really interested in how these two very strong-minded people lived with each other and created together, and that brought a whole new perspective to the story of how PSYCHO was made. Without Alma at his side, Hitchcock would not have been as brilliant, or would not have pulled off PSYCHO.”
Gervasi, who wrote THE TERMINAL and won numerous awards for the documentary ANVIL, chats with SET DECOR about the making of the film and bringing about his vision of Hitchcock through a slice of time that became particularly significant to the legendary director, both professionally and personally...
Director Sacha Gervasi: We had an opportunity to shine a light on the idea of partnership, on how hard it is to be married, on how hard it is to express yourself. But I think you don’t always have to be serious to be profound. And sometimes through comedy and lightness, you can really touch upon deeper things. I think what I hooked into was having a sense of fun. The thing that I love about Hitchcock is the way he approached life, death, sex, mothers and murders all with a kind of drollness. So that was the spirit with which we approached this material.
SET DECOR: This was quite an experience to jump into...
Gervasi: I know, with all this incredible crew! It started with Production Designer Judy Becker, who is extraordinary. I think the same things applied to the crew as it did to the actors…hire the best, cast the position correctly, and then you let the people do their job. Judy loved the script and she came in for a meeting with an incredibly detailed presentation spanning the different visual worlds…the beach, the Hitchcock’s at home, Ed Gein’s place, Hollywood. She clearly understood the layers of the tonal journey of the movie. There are a lot of things going on…the surrealism, the hyper-realism…there’s slapstick comedy, there’s real darkness, there’s drama, melodrama…and she really got it. You could tell by her images for the film that she was really tuned to it.
SET DECOR: Did you have your own specifics that you asked for, that you wanted included?
Gervasi: Sure. We started with a gigantic room in which we put up all of the worlds in photos. We’d review them, and I would say “That works. That isn’t right for it…” And I would ask for specific things, but really the most of it came from Judy.
We weren’t dealing with an invented world…we were dealing with a real world. So we had tremendous source material to draw from, and then it was about finding the right balance, the right images, the right feel, the right tones, the right vibes…
I would give her film references and I would say, “I love the film BETTY BLUE, it’s set at the beach. Go and look at that just for color, the yellows and oranges in that.” For the Hitchcock’s home and in the garden, I said, “Look at REMAINS OF THE DAY and HOWARD’S END."
So it was more like she would key into what I was thinking about and then she would come back with her own ideas, which were more often than not, ten times better than mine…because she has such a keen eye…
SET DECOR: Yes, she’s had the experience and she has the eye….and she’s meant to be your visual voice.
As is the set decorator.
Gervasi: Absolutely. Who was great on this film...Bob Gould, who had worked on THE ARTIST…and his team, which was just fantastic! And he had a great eye for detail. You know, by choosing the books on a shelf, he could tell the story of the character. I think the precision and the meticulousness of detail that both Judy and Bob brought was something that told you the story without hearing a single word.
So I think that was the best part, to watch them…but also, to be able to trust them. And if something was notably out of key, or didn’t seem right, I would say so, and they would change it…and they were always very open to that.
SET DECOR: Let’s talk about the details, such as the images of birds appearing in various forms in his offices, in their house…years before he filmed the thriller THE BIRDS.
Gervasi: We were having a bit of fun! I particularly liked the ones on the lamp in Hitchcock’s office, the scene where he’s reading the PSYCHO book and she comes in the door…And then the birds on the wall in his other office at the studio…An additional nod to Hitchcock was his love of modern art, so pieces appeared in their home and in his office.
SET DECOR: It seemed that the decor of their house was quietly controlled, traditional English with a few touches of contemporary…which is somewhat descriptive of their marriage. For Alma, was there anything that stood out for her character?
Gervasi: Well, Alma had this little office in a nook in the kitchen and you could see all the bills and the ledgers on her desk, and you could see the pressure building up…so that’s another little thing that the set decorator did that gave you more information…And then we see her typing the rewrite of PSYCHO at the kitchen table…The kitchen was important to get right as it was the setting for some of their most revealing repartee…that and the bedroom…
SET DECOR: Which was a fitting sort of ‘50s icy blue, with the creamy French Provincial furniture…ice and warmth…perceptibly evocative of their relationship…but were these directly referencing their actual furnishings?
Gervasi: Yes, that was what they had…essentially. Their bedroom was white, like the bathroom and dressing area, but for camera, the icy blue tones worked better and gave more definition.
SET DECOR: Another recurring setting is the patio with its white furniture crisp against the brick house and the colors of the garden and the pool…England in Hollywood.
Gervasi: Yes! We really looked at their actual backyard in photos and tried to source stuff from them…tried to be true as much as we could.
SET DECOR: And their other world, that of the studio…the sound stages…the sets within the sets…the vintage equipment…
Gervasi: Well, we took all of that from source photos. And what was interesting, the original PYSCHO set photos were all in black and white, as was the film…but we found some color photos, and the sets were so vivid to get the monochrome effect in black and white film…for instance, there were deep crimson red lamps next to a yellow chair. So basically, everything was very bright and quite surreal when you walked on the set…
SET DECOR: It’s amazing, that translation. I remember our discussions of the chroma scale for black & white in our interviews with the directors of THE ARTIST and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.
That almost garish palette of the PSYCHO sets was softened back to a variation of the peachy corals and aquas used throughout the film when we see the dressing rooms for the film’s leading ladies, Janet Leigh [Scarlett Johansson] and Vera Miles [Jessica Biel].
Gervasi: Yes, and there was a difference in the rooms, Janet’s was warmer, with fresh flowers…and of course, Vera Miles’s had the peephole and it was a little less welcoming…
SET DECOR: Yes, she was being punished by Hitchcock! But the Degas dancers in Janet Leigh’s dressing room was a lovely little bit of symbolism, as the two women became friends during the making of the film…
Gervasi: That’s right! Little touches that Bob and Judy brought to it, which are very subtle, but to those who recognize, you’re telling a story with the tiniest detail.
SET DECOR: What about specific elements from the original film?
Gervasi: Yes! In our re-creation of the famous detective scene with Mrs Bates and the fall…at the bottom of the staircase there’s this great ornamental lamp fixture that was the actual one from PSYCHO. And James D’Arcy [who portrays Tony Perkins] wears the jacket that Tony Perkins wore as Norman Bates…the beige corduroy jacket. That was the actual piece from the original wardrobe, so wherever we could, we tried to sneak it in. Pretty wild, right?
SET DECOR: Pretty wonderful. And how about for you? This was a literal translation of another time... when you walked onto the sets…
Gervasi: It was like entering a different era, it was fantastic.