Emmys Interview: Sacha Gervasi On How A 12-Hour Interview Led To My Dinner With Herve.
“It was just one of those bizarre comic episodes in life that you could never quite anticipate why it happens.” Director Sacha Gervasi says as he discusses the inspiration for his Emmy-nominated My Dinner With Herve.
Sacha Gervasi sat down for an interview with actor Hervé Villechaize. It was going to be a “Where is he now?” piece for Britain’s Mail On Sunday, a “fluff piece.” It turned out to be a lot more than that. It ended up being a lasting 12-hour interview over a period of days.
Gervasi did not know at the time that he would be the last journalist to interview Hervé Villechaize. Villechaize would commit suicide a week later. Twenty-five years later, Gervasi documented the encounter in My Dinner With Herve starring Peter Dinklage.
I caught up with Gervasi to talk about the interview and his journey to bring My Dinner with Herve to the screen. Don’t forget to read Gervasi’s dive into the true story and his dinner with Herve Villechaize in Vulture .
I read that you sat down with him for 12 hours, and that’s how it all began?
It began as a joke interview that was meant to be a fluff piece, essentially. At the end of our first meeting, he ended up pulling a knife on me. I was rushing to get out of the restaurant. I was trying to get out of there, and he pulls this knife out saying, “You have no idea the reality and truth of my life. If you want to hang around, I’ll tell you the truth.” It was just so shocking, and he was trying to get my attention. He did. I was immediately compelled and thought, “What kind of state must you be in to threaten some random English journalist to pay attention to you?” I thought there was clearly something going on. I was intrigued by the mystery of it.
In retrospect, it makes sense, but at the time, I couldn’t have possibly imagined that a week after our last encounter he would kill himself, and twenty-five years later, from that time, I would have made a film about that experience. It was just one of those bizarre comic episodes in life that you could never quite anticipate why it happens.
What was that journey where you go from that movie to it being the script, and now a movie?
It started off being a fluff piece. It turned into three meetings over five days culminating in me going to the Universal Sheraton and seeing everything you see in the movie; the fan mail and the madness of the hotel room. As you see in the film, the last thing he says in the film to Danny Kaye, the journalist is,”Tell them I regret nothing.” That was exactly what he said to me, and at that point, I knew something was going on. It was impossible to ignore.
I came back to the newspaper, and I said, “I’ve got to write this as a proper story rather than a 500-word fluff piece.” I sat down, and I probably wrote the best piece of journalism that I’ve ever written. I wrote about 5,000 words. I took it in to the editors and they were like, “We love it, but we don’t want 6 million people on a Sunday morning reading this in the Mail on Sunday Magazine and chocking on their chocolate croissant.”
They thought it was too morbid and too personal. So, they wanted me to re-write it. I said, “The whole point of the story is that what you think is a fluff piece, is in fact completely different and an extraordinary experience.” I really fought for the piece. In the end, they filleted it and took out all the things that I thought made it personal and unexpected. They turned it into a tabloid sensationalist piece of garbage which is exactly the thing that Herve didn’t want.
That was where the idea of the film came from. I had not been able to execute my duty, I said I’d tell the story one way or another. At the magazine, they wouldn’t let me do that. The idea to somehow tell the story was born. The first screenplay I ever wrote was a 34-page short script called ‘My Dinner With Herve.’ I had no idea what I was doing. I thought it was funny to write a short bit about a short man. I submitted it to agents about 20 years ago and I got into UCLA Film School.
The idea of making a film about this was always in the back of my mind. I was very fortunate to run into our esteemed producer and legendary producer Steven Zaillian who read the script and said,”I think this could be a good feature one day and you should direct it.” He encouraged me right from the start.
It was just one of those things where I wasn’t really trying to write scripts, but I couldn’t tell the story as a piece of journalism, but I couldn’t get the experience out of my brain. I couldn’t get the feeling that I felt out of my heart. It was just hard to let it drop because it affected me so profoundly.
You know, when you walk into a situation thinking very judgementally about something, but something unexpected happens and you’ve completely turned around. I wanted to mark the experience by trying to make a film.
That script ultimately found its way to Peter Dinklage. By 2003, five years after I wrote it, he and I met and said, let’s make the film. He was fascinated for obvious reasons, and it became personal for both of us for a long time. It’s quite well known that we faced rejection for a long time. That’s all back when we tried to make it as a short. We got it budgeted and it was a 2-3 million dollar short film. That wasn’t going to happen.
We thought we had to make it as a feature and Steve was very encouraging of that. We tried about 10 years ago. At a certain point, we were living in a different world. It was an epic story told over a few time periods, and it required money for us to do it properly. And no one was going to put Peter Dinklage in the movie at that time. In terms of the lead with quite a complicated time-jumping film with a lot of period stuff, it was just a non-starter. We really gave up ourselves. We said we had tried everything to do this right, and we had offers that we can’t make the film for. That was when almost magically, HBO gave us a call. We were in shock because we had truly given it up at that point.
And here we are, the film is made. HBO has released it, and it’s got an Emmy-nomination. So congratulations.
Thank you. It’s certainly gratifying.
Jamie is superb as Danny Tate. How do you fictionalize yourself? Isn’t that one of the hardest things to do?
It had to become something different. I didn’t want to make about myself. I wanted to make a film about the experience. The script had really been about Herve’s life with this faceless journalist to it but wasn’t in it that much, but really no one wanted to make that film.
Peter and I started talking, part of the reason we’re still here is that this guy had this effect on me. So maybe a character based on me – this cynical journalist listening to this story might be an interesting way to go and turn it into a past and present story. The past is affecting the relationship in the present.
I wanted to make it clear that the genesis of Danny Kaye is that there are some similarities and the basic facts are the same, but it was important there was no way I was going to have an actor playing me. Also, the guy from Tears For Fears was unavailable. I had to get an actor. I wanted them to feel free to create and invent their own character.
A lot of people responded, they wanted to work with Peter and we had a different budget with HBO coming in. Jamie came in, and of course, having done Fifty Shades, I thought that helped the film because the feel of the film is pre-judgment and judgment. The audience is going to come in – the British audience will know him from The Fall, but mainstream America will bring some judgment. When he came in, he was so good, and in one sense it works for the film because you come in with a pre-judgment, and then that is actually completely taken apart over the course of the film.
I thought Jamie was a great counterpoint to Herve. The point of the film is you can look like Herve or Jamie; it doesn’t really make a difference. These two guys have a lot more in common than they realize, and than we realize. Ultimately, they’re battling with the same demons. I thought to have two people who are viscerally different, superficially, but who are so connected in terms of fighting against, and with, I thought there was something ironic about it. Also, having “good-looking man” and no one defies that more than Jamie. He wouldn’t have gotten it had he not been so determined. I think he does a great job. It’s not easy acting with Peter, and it’s not easy holding your own.
I loved that battling, and the contention as you say.
Exactly. That’s the message we wanted to put out. There’s this commonality that we need to focus on. Ultimately, dissimilarities are always much more profound and important than the differences between us. I think we felt, let’s put that into the world right now, as things are so polarized right now.
I think that’s what was so great about it.
One of the most remarkable things about it was that Mark Povinelli who is the President of the Little People of America wrote this incredible moving column for Variety about how he felt that the film was a representation of little people as real people as opposed to characters defined by their size. He describes it as a step forwards of representation of dwarves and little people in film. That’s really the point of the film, that we’re all human and it doesn’t matter what we look like.