'Clearly Journalism Wasn't Going to Work': Sacha Gervasi on 'My Dinner with Hervé'
This HBO presentation that casts Peter Dinklage as 'Fantasy Island' star Hervé Villechaize is no ordinary biopic.
Sacha Gervasi’s My Dinner with Hervé tells an unbelievable but true story, drawn from the director’s own life. In the early 1990s, Gervasi, then working as a journalist, got an assignment to interview Hervé Villechaize, the actor best known for his role as Tattoo, the diminutive sidekick on the 70s-80s TV show Fantasy Island. The interview turned out to be Villechaize’s last before he committed suicide, and Gervasi’s experience with him was a tumultuous one that ultimately led him to have a new respect and empathy for an actor who was often reduced to a punch line.
With Jamie Dornan as Danny Tate, a journalist based on Gervasi, and Peter Dinklage as Villechaize, the film shifts from broad humor to poignancy to despair, and moves from 50s Paris to 90s London to, of course, the garish set of Fantasy Island.
No Film School spoke with Gervasi about how he turned this stranger-than-fiction tale into a compelling film premiering on HBO this Saturday evening.
No Film School: What made you want to share this story now? Was it something you pitched to HBO or did they come to you?
Sacha Gervasi: It was a very long, arduous journey to this film being made. I wanted to do it based on the actual experience I had with Hervé, but why now? No one wanted to make it for years, if I'm being really honest. It was incredibly challenging. It was an insane bunch of time periods, and very expensive.
I remember hearing, “There is no bankable dwarf in the world,” so for years we just couldn't get it made. Peter and I had been talking about it for about 15 years and so it became a passion project for both of us. Then, of course, Game of Thrones happened and suddenly HBO called us out of the blue. What had happened was that Peter and I had some offers to make the film, but we would never be able to do the movie the way we wanted to do it. It was going to end up being completely compromised. So we had dinner a couple years ago, and it was kind of a “goodbye to Hervé” dinner. We tried for years and it wasn’t happening. We loved the script, but no one really wanted to make it. So we were kind of at peace with the fact that it wouldn’t get made versus it being made badly or not being able to do what we wanted to do.
Eight months later we got a call from HBO saying, “Hey, we read the script and think it’s interesting. Could we talk about making it?” We couldn’t believe it. My first question was, “Do we have enough money?” I wanted to do it a certain way, to shoot in London, and LA, and at the original Fantasy Island house in Arcadia. And they said, “Whatever you need,” so it was like a chance to realize the film in the full, proper way that we had hoped.
"When the long version of my article was refused by the magazine I was working for (they published this sort of bastardized short version), I said, 'Look, I promised this guy I was going to tell his story. I have to do something and to tell it in a new way because clearly journalism isn’t going to work.'"
NFS: So how long ago was it that HBO contacted you?
Gervasi: About a year-and-a-half. They called us, we did a tiny bit of development, and then we shot last summer. It happened quickly. It took 23 years for it to happen quickly, and when you think about how long ago Hervé died, it was 25 years ago. I was at home in my flat in London and got the call from his girlfriend saying that he killed himself. I just left him a week before in LA. It's funny how a quarter of a century passes, and now we’re finally there.
NFS: What was your writing process like?
Gervasi: I wrote it originally as a short. When the long version of my article was refused by the magazine I was working for (they published this sort of bastardized short version), I said, “Look, I promised this guy I was going to tell his story. I have to do something and to tell it in a new way because clearly journalism isn’t going to work.”
I always wanted to try my hand at a script, so the first script I ever wrote was a short movie script called My Dinner with Hervé. It was 34 pages. I wrote that in about 1995, so within two years of the interview happening, I had written this script and then Peter and I got together about nine years later. It was right after The Station Agent. From there, we just persevered over 15 years until we got to where we’re at now.
NFS: As I was watching, I was wondering whether you had auditioned anybody else. Hervé is obviously a hard role to fill...
Gervasi: No, there were so few people we could use. Peter was connected with the material, and also the most famous dwarf from the biggest TV show in the world right now is playing the most famous dwarf from the biggest TV show then. There's this kind of meta connection that exists.
Peter is so decidedly different from Hervé. Obviously, it was a different time, but the way Hervé sort of sucked on the fame—he devoured the attention, the money—he was really trying to fill a very deep hole in his soul with all of these external things. Peter's the opposite. He distances himself from it. He thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and realizes the emptiness. Hervé only realized it while he was in the middle of it and his ego had been taken by it.
I think the real Hervé felt a sense of regret that he was unable to understand what was really going on until it was too late. Peter comes from a very different background. He really has an acting background. Hervé was actually a painter and performance artist and a character more than an actor. Their backgrounds and experiences are different, the eras when they grew up are remarkably different, their attitudes are different, and I think for Peter there was a chance to explore Hervé’s cautionary tale as well as Hervé as an inspirational figure and someone who pioneered having an acting career as a dwarf.
With Peter, the fact that he’s a dwarf is irrelevant. The first thing he wants you to know is that he’s a really fucking good actor. The second thing is—and he said this himself —is that he is, of course, devastatingly charming and handsome. The third thing is that he’s a little person. Hervé really played into the stereotype a lot. He would walk around with a t-shirt that said “Bionic Midget” on it. You see it in the film, and that was a real shirt.
"Journalism is all about assessing, evaluating, judging, comparing, and contrasting. It's quite analytical and factual, whereas if you want to reveal the spirit of a character, you have to operate from a totally different place in your brain and your soul."
NFS: How did your journalism background play into your filmmaking and screenwriting?
Gervasi: I think there's a very big difference between the two. In journalism, you have that triangle theory: you synthesize the whole story in the opening paragraph and then you kind of extrapolate. Journalism is all about assessing, evaluating, judging, comparing, and contrasting. It's quite analytical and factual, whereas if you want to reveal the spirit of a character, you have to operate from a totally different place in your brain and your soul.
In one sense, I think that I had to stop doing journalism to develop the skills that I didn't have. Journalism gave me a tremendous insight into human beings and their experiences. I interviewed really different people. The summer I interviewed Hervé, I also interviewed Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and Ted Heath, who was the former British Prime Minister, a Conservative. It was the summer of wild and disparate characters.
It just gives you such a great opportunity to experience these different worlds and people. Sitting down and writing a script is so hard and it uses entirely different muscles. It's all writing but it's such a profoundly different place that writing comes from.
NFS: What was the process of creating the aesthetics of the past for the film?
Gervasi: I had to research all these things, and a lot of it came from Hervé himself and then working with the production designer. You’ve got a movie where you’re jumping around time periods and going from slapstick comedy to serious drama, to hopefully unsentimental emotion. To be able to bounce between these things was a big part of the editorial process. In terms of the richness of the production, we had a great production designer and a phenomenal camerawoman—Maryse Alberti, she shot The Wrestler, she shot Creed, she shot Velvet Goldmine, and she's also one of the best documentary camerawomen—she really understood how to create the visual world.
"By the end of the second act, you realize that these two people who could not look more different are actually the same person going through similar struggles and really trying to make sense of life and face themselves."
NFS: And it’s interesting how the film ends up with a balance of a kitschy aesthetic and despair.
Gervasi: In one sense, the audience will sort of anticipate this idea of kitsch fun, and it definitely is that, but I think what people aren't expecting is being surprised by the last half-hour. You get a level of emotion between these two characters that at the beginning you think have nothing in common. By the end of the second act, you realize that these two people who could not look more different are actually the same person going through similar struggles and really trying to make sense of life and face themselves.
By the end of the movie, if it succeeds, that character is you, the audience member. If people engage with the film, I hope that it makes them think about their own lives, makes them think, “Well what am I not taking responsibility for?” To me, that's the journey of the film. The journalist walks into the interview with judgment and cynicism and is forced to open himself and have a human experience, and he recognizes that that was a valuable thing to learn about himself.
NFS: What was it like casting someone to play a version of you? Was it weird at all?
Gervasi: The truth is that the Danny Tate character is as much Jamie as it is me. He’s not me and I wanted to free the actor and have Jamie bring his own thing. He did it with an Irish accent and he said, “Look, I know what you're talking about, I feel this.” He was hungry to play the role and his understanding of and passion for the part was impressive. It was important that he brought himself to it. It's weird in a way but also, it's a movie.
I mean, Jamie Dornan playing me is preposterous. I’ve said that the only reason that happened was because the lead singer of Tears for Fears was not available. Jamie was the best actor. The audition we did was the scene in the freeway where Hervé pulls the knife on him, and Jamie basically says, “You don't have the market on feeling bad. We've all had a tough life.” He did that piece and as I was recording on my iPhone, I wished we were actually filming. He was that good. It was clear that he was the guy.
"I wanted to tell the story in the way that it happened, which frankly was so unexpected and weird."
NFS: Were there any particular films you looked at for inspiration in the aesthetic or structure?
Gervasi: Obviously the first thing was My Dinner with André. There they are, two guys at a dinner table having a sort of relationship. Someone described the movie as being like Boogie Nights meets Frost/Nixon, and I could sort of see elements of that. I took some elements from Fellini and Terry Gilliam—like if Terry Gilliam does My Dinner with André. Hopefully, it's its own thing.
I wanted to tell the story in the way that it happened, which frankly was so unexpected and weird. Hervé was inviting me to let go of my cynicism and judgment and the fact that I had written the story before I got there and actually see him as a human being.
NFS: Has anyone involved with the actual story seen the film?
Gervasi: Hervé’s girlfriend has seen the film and loves it. We're about to show his brother, Patrick. I think people are very touched, because anyone who knew Hervé knew that he hated being a punch line. He was such a complicated and contradictory, wonderful, insane, tender, brilliant, and hilarious person, and I think that the movie shows all these sides. That’s the point, is to show that he wasn't just “The plane! The plane!”