“The first time I encountered Tony in full Hitchcock makeup, he crept up behind me and said, in character, “Good evening.” I must’ve jumped five feet in the air. He never tired of doing that to visitors on set.”—Sacha Gervasi. Click here to see the slideshow.

Alfred Hitchcock’s carefully honed persona—an eerie patrician clad in a dark suit, with an even darker sense of humor—was as distinctive as his silhouette, and yet just as unrevealing. In the new drama Hitchcock, which plumbs the personal and professional machinations behind the scenes of Psycho, British director Sacha Gervasi illuminates the man in the shadows by focusing on Hitchcock’s close relationship with Alma, his wife of nearly 54 years. “What drew me to the project,” Gervasi says, “was the notion of telling an emotional story about a man we know nothing about on an emotional level.”

When Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) began to adapt the sensational story of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein for the screen in 1959, he was at the height of his career, having just come off both Vertigo and North by Northwest. But with a new generation of filmmakers nipping at his heels—by then, he’d already made 47 movies—the old master was looking to shake things up. “Hitchcock wanted something that would, in making the film, scare him as much as it would scare the audience,” Gervasi says. Featuring a cross-dressing psychopath with a split personality who kills the film’s star, Janet Leigh, halfway into the film, Psycho delivered a kind of seismic shock. Few, though, had felt the director could pull it off: Even Paramount, Hitchcock’s longtime studio, at first didn’t want to make the picture, considering it distasteful, even horrific.

Alma (played in Hitchcock by Helen Mirren), however, stood by her husband. The larger-than-life auteur held the opinion of very few above that of his wife—he referred to her as the Duchess, and she was in many ways one of his closest collaborators. “She was inextricably linked to his process,” Gervasi says. “In some ways, this film is also about the woman behind the man.”