Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi has journalism and storytelling in his blood. His grandfather Frank was the author of ten books including The Violent Decade, his account of being a foreign correspondent in Europe from 1935 to 1945. His uncle Tom was a military affairs specialist who wrote a seminal book called The Myth of the Soviet Military Supremacy. His father, Sean, an adviser to JFK, resigned in protest after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and later, while working as a journalist and economics professor at Oxford, went on a hunger strike. Sacha’s parents were both radicals, core members of the anti-Vietnam student movement.
Their only child was restless, driven, and a misfit. After seeing his favorite heavy metal band, Anvil, the 15-year-old Gervasi sneaked backstage and befriended the drummer, then brought them all back to his house. His intense, perfectionist mother took one look and said, “Ten minutes.” Partly to horrify her, Sacha blew off attending Oxford to become a roadie for Anvil on three international tours. He learned to play the drums and co-founded a group with Gavin Rossdale that evolved into Bush.
Gervasi got in trouble during his rocker days in the 80’s, hitting the rocks and falling into the usual traps of drugs and alcohol. He got sober in 1992. While working as a journalist in London around that time, he was sitting in the Mail on Sunday magazine’s office and watching a Fantasy Island repeat. “Where is that guy,” he said, laughing at Hervé Villechaize, the actor with dwarfism who played Tattoo on the ABC monster hit from 1977 to 1983. “Let’s find him! Is he still around?”
His editor agreed to a “where is he now?” story that Gervasi could fit in during an upcoming trip to Los Angeles, where he was set to interview serious, important people like Elmore Leonard. Villechaize would be the amusing throwaway piece. Finding him wasn’t easy. Gervasi had to go through his ex-manager, who sounded drunk on the phone, before reaching the actor’s personal publicist and girlfriend at the time. Kathy Self said Hervé would consider the interview, but before agreeing he wanted to read samples of his work. Gervasi faxed over some articles and joked that it was like dealing with Howard Hughes, and more complicated than the time he negotiated a sit down with the elusive George Harrison. He and his colleagues thought Villechaize ought to feel lucky anyone was even paying attention to him.
But Gervasi was intrigued about being made to audition for this has-been actor who’d been fired from his TV show ten years earlier for being an out-of-control prima donna. And when the two finally met, what Hervé had to say turned out to be so intriguing that the interview lasted 12 hours. Hervé told him the story of his fascinating life, and they shared a profound connection. Gervasi was stunned by how many things they had in common, like their demanding mothers. Instinct also told him that something strange and ominous was going on with Hervé. When they said goodbye, Gervasi promised him that he would tell his story.
Right after returning to London, he got a call from the girlfriend, who said, “Hervé’s killed himself a few hours ago and he would have wanted you to know. You had the last interview.”
Suddenly it all clicked. Gervasi started crying. He listened to the tapes again and realized, OK, the guy knows he’s going to do it. Though devastated, he got to work and turned in a 5,500-word epic from the perspective of his pre-judgement of Hervé, and then bonding intensely with this odd, larger than life character.
The editor had bad news. “Listen, this is a really great piece of journalism,” she said. “But the reality is we are a middle-market publication and six million people on a Sunday morning are going to choke on their chocolate croissants. This is too morbid.”
Gervasi thought he had a 12-page cover story. For a week, he fought the editor, who didn’t really know who Hervé Villechaize was. “What’s he done lately?” she asked. “An ad for Dunkin’ Donuts?”
In the end, all the good stuff got cut, and they gave the story two pages between the recipes and the interiors sections. Gervasi knew he had not honored his promise to tell Hervé’s story. He started working on his first script, called My Dinner with Hervé.
The following year, in 1994, he was back in LA on assignment and had a chance meeting with Steve Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List and later created the HBO miniseries The Night Of. He read Gervasi’s 34-page script and said, “This is great, and one day you’re going to direct it as a feature.” Zaillian passed the script on to Steven Spielberg, who then hired Gervasi to write a different screenplay.
In 1995, Gervasi moved to LA and enrolled at UCLA film school. He eventually wrote The Terminal for Spielberg and Tom Hanks; directed Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in Hitchcock; and made a documentary about his friends in the Canadian heavy metal band (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) which the London Times called “possibly the greatest film yet made about rock and roll.” He also had a daughter named Bluebell with Geri Halliwell (aka Ginger Spice) and in 2010, married producer and banking heiress Jessica de Rothschild of the Rothschild family (wedding attendees included Alec Baldwin, Nick Rhodes, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter).
After two decades of vicissitudes, My Dinner with Hervé, which Gervasi wrote and directed, debuts October 20 on HBO, starring Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan, and Andy Garcia as Ricardo Montalban. Gervasi is currently working on a sequel to Anvil! and writing a movie for Guillermo del Toro, who asked Gervasi to co-write The Shape of Water, which won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, but he was too busy with Hervé.
Earlier this month, HBO recreated the set of Fantasy Island for the film’s premiere party on the Paramount lot in LA. Among the 500 guests were actresses Margot Robbie and Emilia Clarke, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and Ricardo Montalban’s grandson.
The 52-year-old director recently strolled into the restaurant at New York’s Bowery Hotel, sat in a corner booth, removed his motorcycle jacket, and ordered a salad with no cheese and scallops.
GEORGE GURLEY: Take me back to that first meeting.
SACHA GERVASI: It was a place called the Moustache Cafe, a long-closed French bistro on Melrose, and we met at 3PM. There were celebrity photos on the wall from the 70’s. Charo, Wolfman Jack, Lee Majors, Bill Bixby, and of course one of Hervé in his white suit with a sack of fan mail at his feet. I remember going to meet him and he showed up an hour late, and my photographer and I were packing up our stuff to go to another interview, because we had about five set up in five days. And suddenly this white limo lurches up to the valet stand and Hervé flies out, breathless, apologizing profusely, saying, “I’m so sorry, I was reading your articles!” So I said, “Look, Hervé, we’re running late, I’ve got a half an hour.”
I sped through some questions, and he told me stories he’d been dining out on since 1979. He was very funny, wonderful, drinking red wine, and at the end of the interview I said, “Great! Thank you so much.” I’m being enthusiastic but I’m really like, I’ve got to get the fuck out because I’d written the story in my head before I got there. We had the photos and he was wearing the red Hawaiian shirt. So I’m packing my shit into my briefcase and out of the corner of my eye there was this rapid movement, and I turned around and Hervé was standing two feet from me and he had this knife, the one he’d been slicing duck à l’orange with. And he said, “I’ve told you all the bullshit stories, now do you want to hear the real story of my life?”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because I thought I literally could be stabbed to death by the dwarf from Fantasy Island. Tattoo murders British journalist, I was already writing the headline. And I realized that he wanted to get my attention.
Was he smiling with the knife?
No. Remember he is quite a dangerous guy. Like you didn’t even know where it would go. There’s a sense of mischief and irony but you’ve also got a guy pointing a knife two feet from your heart. He wanted to puncture this bubble of judgment that I clearly had brought in with me. He wanted to say, ‘I’m a real fucking human being, I’m not all these stories everyone’s heard. Do you want to hear about my real life?’ And so as a journalist and even more as a human being I was fascinated, and I agreed to meet him the next night. We went to this place called Le Petit Château, met for dinner at 10:15 and left at three in the morning. Then we got into the white limo and drove to the Mulholland Overlook. When I got back I was wrung out.
Everything he said was gold?
It was incredible. It was the big one. We got everything. Obviously at that point I didn’t know he was going to kill himself, but you got the sense that this was a guy who was just pouring his heart out. It was almost like he was kidnapping me, to pay attention to him.
Was he in a lot of pain when you were with him?
I remember when Hervé stood next to me, when he pulled the knife and later when I gave him a big hug, you could smell the medication coming out of his pores. He was on so many pills just to keep him alive. If you’ve ever been in the hospital with somebody heavily drugged and they’re taking a lot of pills, the smell comes through the skin. Hervé was drinking a lot, he was popping a lot of pills, mostly to do with the pain. His organs were normal sized, compressed into a tiny body. I’m by no means an expert, but midgets are proportional including their organs, and for dwarves the housing is much smaller but they have normal size organs. I think that creates such physical stress on the system, they have to take all these medications. It was immensely painful.
The last time I saw Hervé—and I couldn’t get this into the film because it was one detail too many—but when I walked into that hotel room at the Universal Sheraton, the first thing I saw at the foot of the bed was a dog bed, because Hervé was in such physical pain with his spine. The way he slept was he kneeled, his knees went into the dog bed and he leaned forward into the side of the bed, and that was how he slept, because it was too hard for him to get up and out of a bed. He was clearly in a lot of emotional, physical and spiritual distress. That Samsonite case that you see in the film is exactly what it was, filled with pills, and it had a knife in it. I saw a gun at one point. It was sort of an armory-slash-pharmacy. I think it was just very tough for him to just sustain life.
He was at the end of his rope.
Yeah, and as he says in the film and to me in the interview, “He [God] make me the way he does but he offers compensations: to eat, to feel, to touch, to make love”—these were the things that made life bearable for him, and once they were withdrawn, it was like, fuck this, this is no fun anymore.
There’s a lot contentiousness between you and Hervé in the movie. Was it that bad?
Hervé was a big red wine drinker, and he was very much of the school that if someone doesn’t drink you shouldn’t trust them. So the first thing he did was try to get me to drink, and he kept pushing me on it. I was fronting it quite well, but it had been a year, and I was still quite on edge. He said, “Come on, why won’t you drink with me?” And I said, “Look, I’m here to do a job.” He said, “Come on, no one will know, we should drink. You know, I’m a Frenchman, join me, it will make me feel good about the interview,” and I said, “Hervé, I don’t drink.” Then he said, “Well, why don’t you drink?” He kept going like that and finally I said, “Obviously I had a problem with it.” So at the second meeting he really started goading me. He would order a Petrus and a Lafite, and say, “Oh this is so good!” and things like, “You know, if you just had a little sip, you know nothing would happen. But just smell it.” I think he was vulnerable and wanted to feel safe, and if I was vulnerable that would make us equals, and if we were equals, he could control the narrative. And he knew I had a vulnerability around booze.
You didn’t call him a “pathetic little freak” like your character does, did you?
I did not. And I didn’t say “your life is a joke.” But I did get very pissed off with him when he tried to get me to go into the strip club. I said, “Look, man, this is not my thing, and I don’t want to do that.” Because I could tell that he was trying to fuck with me. That’s what Hervé did. He charmed you, he loved you, he goaded you, enticed you, tried to fuck with you, and it was a seduction. He was trying to pull me into his world. He could already smell blood in the water with the booze, and I knew that he knew that if he got me into the strip club there was a chance something might happen. He wanted me to drop my guard and defenses so he could fuck with me even more, and I knew that.
But you two ended up connecting pretty deeply.
That’s what’s so strange about it. Even though we only knew each other in the last week of his life, I really feel it’s true to say that I was his friend. I walked into the situation as most people would have, filled with judgment and basically thinking this would be a great trivial dinner party story for my friends back home—you’ll never believe who I met: that crazy dwarf from Fantasy Island, what an odd character! And Hervé changed my life.
Can you say dwarf? You don’t have to say little people?
Dwarf is better, that’s what Hervé told me. When we met he said, “I don’t care about all the correct terms. I prefer ‘dwarf.’” I think things have progressed in the last 20 years. What’s great about the way Peter has handled his life and fame and career is because it’s incidental to him, the fact that he’s four-foot-five or whatever. His focus is on, I’m a real fucking actor, I’m devilishly handsome and charming, not that he’ll ever say that. He wants you to think of his stature as maybe the third or fourth thing about him, and I think that’s what’s so powerful about the way he’s done things. There’s this meta-similarity in the movie, where you’ve got the most famous dwarf in the world on the biggest TV show in the world now playing the most famous dwarf in the world on the biggest TV show then. So you have this crazy, almost otherworldly connection between Hervé and Peter. But Peter’s so different than Hervé.
Was Hervé a sex addict?
I don’t know. Look, there was no doubt that at times in his life he was a massive womanizer, for sure. And, of course, certain women really loved him. I witnessed it. He was very charismatic, he would flirt with waitresses, they would flirt back. He was a Frenchman.
Roger Moore said Hervé slept with around 35 prostitutes during the making of The Man with the Golden Gun.
I actually met Roger Moore about 1999 and we talked about Hervé, and he told me all these stories. He said it was quite crazy on this set in Thailand, ladies of the night were Hervé’s favorites. At the hotel in Bangkok, when everyone was climbing into the crew van at like seven in the morning, Hervé would be arriving from his evening out with some ladies of the night, in his private limo, and then jump into the crew van. That’s what he was like!
What about “The Tripod”?
Well. He told me that and then I subsequently found out that might not be true. But he said his nickname was Tripod. Look, he did say to me the curse of disproportion sometimes works in a man’s favor.
Let’s just assume he was a good lover.
He was, according to Kathy, she will tell you that by the way. Hervé was a storyteller, he loved to tell stories about himself. He knew he was this Felliniesque, surreal kind of character, so he would just add to the stories. He exaggerated, he wouldn’t quite tell you the truth.
Hervé got fired from Fantasy Island for being impossible on the set and demanding more money—did he deserve it?
I’m sort of divided. On one hand, you could say he was very forward-thinking, because he was a minority demanding equal pay. On the other, I’m mindful of the story Leonard Goldberg told me. He produced Fantasy Island and he told me Hervé had been living in a homeless shelter in downtown LA, and somehow they found him, showed him the Fantasy Island pilot script, and Hervé couldn’t believe it. When he came into their office he had tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you. You have no idea, you saved my life. I was about to die.” Leonard said within 18 months of that moment of humility and gratitude, Hervé had become a nightmare, and was demanding the same size trailer as Ricardo Montalban. In one sense, yes, he was very forward-thinking, but with random fame that’s so gigantic and sudden like his was—it’s like you’re walking down the street and someone mainlines heroin into your neck. It blows your mind. And he couldn’t cope.
He was famous, but not necessarily for his acting. What else made him one of a kind?
Hervé wasn’t really an actor. He really was a painter who kind of fell into being this character in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. In France, he was attacked for being a freak, literally and figuratively—remember, in Europe at that time there was almost a medieval intolerance towards people who were different. So Hervé would walk down the street and be kicked in the head by strangers. Remember that cruelty that existed, people being scapegoated. It was, OK, he’s a freak, he’s a dwarf, and that still exists. Dwarf tossing still exists. But obviously we’re much more evolved. His father gave him a few hundred dollars and said go to New York because he knew there would be a celebration of his originality, his otherness. It would maybe be a plus in America.
So he reinvented himself in New York?
He says it in the movie and this was taken out of the original article: when Hervé Villechaize saw Salvador Dali here and understood that he had turned himself into his own kind of installation—he was a performance artist playing the role of Dali, as well as being an artist—Hervé realized he had the ability to grab attention here. He was 3 foot 10. Dali had the mustache, the hair, the surreal look. So really Hervé was an artist who became a performance artist. The actor was really the vehicle by which he could become the installation. Hervé was very, very smart, but he was no actor. So the difference was that there was a persona, playing the part of an actor. Peter is a real actor.
The reason I cast Peter was after The Station Agent, we started talking and then in 2004 I came to New York to the Public Theater and I saw him do Richard III, and he blew the place apart. He shattered every other actor—the boom of his voice, the power of this performance, his charisma and intensity. Hervé didn’t have that performing ability, that depth. It was a completely different kind of thing. Hervé loved a good time.
When I watched Fantasy Island recently I noticed a twinkle in his eye. He’s in on the joke.
He was one of the smartest people I ever met. His self-knowledge was incredible. He was a terrible actor with a brilliant mind and he was one of the most gregarious, charming—remember, when I met him he was in his last week, he was clearly on the edge, sort of perched on the blade between nightmare and dreaming. He was going through so much, you could tell. One minute he’d be garrulous and sweet and fun and tender and in the next minute he pulled a knife on you.
There’s a powerful moment at the end of the movie, the photo of the real you with the real Hervé. You see his humanity and intelligence.
You see the warmth. So you know that this is a story that happened that needed to get out there, not just for him but also for me because it was a turning point in my life. It nearly didn’t happen. Two years ago, when we got the offer to make the movie for no money, we couldn’t do it. Peter and I were at this restaurant and Peter said, “You know this movie may never happen” and we had a sort of goodbye to Hervé dinner, and toasted the film that never was. We decided either make it the way we saw it or don’t make it at all, don’t do it half-assed. So we made peace with the fact that this movie we’d spent by then 13 years trying to get made might never happen. We were like, Fuck it man, it’s not meant to be. And then we got the call from Len Amato, the head of HBO films, who said, “I read the script, and I really want to make it.”
So it’s the lesson of life, about when you truly let something go genuinely to your heart, somehow it allows for the universe to maybe make it happen.
What was the lowest point, in all those years trying to get it made?
One studio head said to me, “You guys need to give this up. It’s a dog.” He literally said, “In the history of film you could not have come up with a more noncommercial idea. What this film is, it’s a suicidal dwarf picture set over five decades, starring a dwarf, and you’re trying to make Citizen Kane. It’s too expensive, too elaborate. It’s never going to happen. You guys need to listen to me: move on with your lives.” I can’t tell you how many times versions of that were said to me. In fact, my old agent said that. People were laughing at us for a long time.
At a certain point, you have to not give a fuck what other people are thinking or saying. Because I lived it and I knew I had to tell the story one day. Peter knew it, no matter what, and he was instrumental in everything. He’s been through so many ups and downs with me.
How do you feel right now?
I’m thrilled. Think about it from my point of view. Imagine you’re me and you wanted to tell this story for fucking 25 years and then suddenly people care enough to ask you about it. I’m aware that it’s a bit of a miracle. I’m not quite sure that it happened. Most importantly, the whole movie, the core of it, was really a promise I made to someone I didn’t know in the last week of his life. Because it’s the Hervé Villechaize movie, everyone thought it was going to be a funny romp, and I think people were surprised by what it ultimately is about. The tragedy of addiction, of falling in love with an alcoholic, suicide— how success and fame distorts the psyche and renders you at times defenseless. There were people at the premiere in tears because they weren’t expecting that.
After such an incredible time together during that one week in 1993, how did you two leave it?
When we said goodbye at the hotel, we stepped out into the corridor by the elevators, and he tugged at my sleeve and pulled me down. We were face-to-face and he looked at me and he was nearly crying, and he said, “Tell them I regret nothing,” and I just got this chill. And then I watched him walk off and there was this family checking in and this 12-year-old girl came up to him for an autograph, the parents and other people came over and within 30 seconds he was doing “Da plane, da plane!” and he looked back at me. That was the last time I ever saw him.