It’s no small feat for a director to take on his first full-length fictional feature after a career in documentaries and screenwriting. It’s might be even more intimidating when your subject is one of the best directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, and he’ll be played by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins. But Sacha Gervasi, director of Hitchcock (Nov. 23 in limited release), a movie that tells the story of how Hitch and his wife Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren) made Psycho against the advice of the Hollywood establishment, says that there’s a trick to it: focus on the story of the man, not the legend. Gervasi spoke to TIME about the strength of that story—and the power of Anthony Hopkins’ costume.
TIME: This isn’t the first movie you’ve worked on that’s based on a true story. How did directing a movie based on Alfred Hitchcock’s life compare to writing The Terminal or making a documentary?
Sacha Gervasi: I’ve always been fascinated by real life stories. Real people are often far more fascinating to me and enigmatic and make richer stories than ones that are made up. I was a journalist in England. I remember in 1993 I interviewed the former British Prime Minister and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in the same week. I’ve always been fascinated with people and it’s found its way into my work. You capture the essence of the truth by dramatizing it.
Does this movie stick pretty close to the truth?
It was really based on Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which is one of the most authoritative, if not the most authoritative, stories of the making of any film. Clearly there are elements of the film that are stylized, but there are also large parts—particularly Hitch’s fights with the motion-picture production code—which happened and have been documented in detail. It’s a true story with elements that have been dramatized for the film, but I think audiences are intelligent. They understand that. We’re not making a documentary. We made a film in the spirit of Hitchcock.
What does it mean to make something in the spirit of Hitchcock?
He made movies for the audience. He had a very ambivalent relationship to critics. They often dismissed his movies when they came out. One example would be Psycho itself. The movie was widely panned. I think he found it rather hilarious that those same critics later that year, when it came to round up the best films of the year, came back and said Psycho is one of the best films of the year. Now it’s grown into a masterwork. He was very concerned about his audience and that was the primary focus of his endeavor—to make sure that an audience was entertained.
Were you a fan of his work before?
I don’t think there’s anyone in the film business who’s not a fan of his work, who’s not happy to be inspired by Hitchcock.
What’s it like to direct a movie about a director?
I have to say it’s an unusual experience. But I wasn’t thinking in those terms, because I was thinking that I was directing an emotional story about Alfred Hitchcock and his wife. I was trying to focus on the story and the emotion of it and bringing that to life, rather than thinking, ‘Oh my God, my first narrative film is about the greatest director of all time.’ I think if I thought in those terms I might have stopped doing it.
(MORE: Scientists Solve Mystery That Inspired Hitchcock’s The Birds)
Did you know Alma’s story before you started the project?
I learned a little of it at film school. The film historians and the fans of Hitchcock know exactly who she was, but to the general public she’s a bit of a mystery. I thought that one of the opportunities of this movie was to shine a light on that very unique creative collaboration. She was involved in pretty much every decision that he made. It was always Alma’s taste that he trusted. He was never one to pass out praise, but his famous quote on her was “I would prefer never to make a film without her.” It’s about time that a little credit is given to his incredible wife, who absolutely played a vital role in contributing to his genius.
And she was the one who saw Janet Leigh blinking when she was supposed to be dead.
Among many things!
What was it like the first time you saw Anthony Hopkins in costume?
It was quite scary. He was so like Alfred Hitchcock. He really loved the idea of freaking people out on the set. If someone new was on the set he took great delight in making sure that he couldn’t be seen and then he’d creep up behind them and in a very deep voice, whisper in their ear, “Good evening.”
Did the costume go through many drafts?
He was so famous for wearing the black suit. It was almost like his superhero outfit. It was so specific to that persona he created. Alfred Hitchcock was really the first director who was an international star. People recognized him. A producer I know was at Cannes quite a few years ago, and [Hitchcock] simply walked down the Promenade Des Anglais in his suit and every table got up and began applauding him as he walked. He was so iconic, so recognizable, and that was part of his genius—marketing, being able to sell himself.
But it also struck me during the movie that, compared to celebrities today, his life seems fairly modest on the outside—then you get to all that foie gras.
He lived incredibly well—he had the foie gras flown in from Paris, he had the wine flown in, they owned a vineyard in Northern California—and his life was relatively glamorous compared to most people’s. Hitchcock’s modern kitchen was one of the first in Hollywood. They did spend money. I would say they were lavish in their own way, cautiously lavish.
That’s sort of a theme of the movie, with him spending so much to make Psycho: lavish in his own way.
When we researched him, we went to the Academy and they have all of his papers, including his grocery bills, and his delicatessen bills were huge. The foie gras would be flown from Paris to London, from London to New York, from New York to California. It was a three-day ordeal to get him his foie gras, and that was not cheap.
There’s another Hitchcock movie, The Girl, out this season. Is Hitch just having a moment?
The British Film Institute has just restored his early films and showed them at national theaters to coincide with the Olympics. It’s really a celebration of Hitchcock coming out of England. So I think probably a lot of it came from that, to recognize the immense genius of this incredible artist. For us it was an opportunity to explore this unbelievably rich and fascinating character. People have for so long wanted to put him in a pigeonhole—he’s good, he’s bad, he’s this, he’s that, whatever—and the truth is he’s far more complex and deserves far more exploration than that. Our film attempts to add to the vast and hopefully endless discussion of Hitchcock. And the reason we’re so interested is because his films are so bloody good.