“My Dinner with Hervé” has been 25 years in the making, but writer/director Sacha Gervasi believes things will only happen when they are fated to occur.
“The truth is, I was not ready to make this film years ago. I had to grow up and learn my craft,” Gervasi tells Variety, noting that he feels “mostly relief” he finally got to fulfill a career-long dream.
In late August 1993, then-journalist Gervasi was sent to Los Angeles on a number of assignments, the smallest and seemingly lowest profile of which was to interview former “Fantasy Island” star Hervé Villechaize. Gervasi says he went into it expecting to “ask all of the expected questions” about the television series, his role in the James Bond franchise and tabloid headlines about his womanizing but ended up having a “massive emotional experience.” Villechaize committed suicide soon after granting Gervasi the interview, and Gervasi made it a mission to properly honor him.
“He poured out his life to me over these meetings,” Gervasi says. “He forced me to look at my own judgement. … We all will just quickly rush to judgement based on the color of one’s skin or how tall they are or what their voice sounds like because we want to put people into boxes. And the reality is, if you peel back the layers and really get to know someone, despite all of the physical and obvious differences, everyone is human with their own struggles and failures and desires and successes.”
But the road to fulfilling his promise was not an easy one. “I can’t believe how many people told me, ‘Listen, it’s a suicidal dwarf movie, you could not come up with anything less commercial, it’s never getting made,'” he recalls.
Peter Dinklage signed on early on, though, and then “‘Game of Thrones’ happened and that completely changed the game for us,” Gervasi says. Suddenly HBO became interested in this other project of his. Gervasi knew he could only tell the story if he could “do it right — with enough budget to shoot in England and LA and all of these complex time periods between them.” It took a few more years for that — and the casting of Jamie Dornan as Danny Tate, the journalist character based on Gervasi — to come together.
Gervasi’s primary goal was to tell “the emotional truth of the experience I had with Hervé, which was thinking [the interview] was a joke and then recognizing this was one of the most dynamic and complex and dangerous and crazy and wonderful human beings I had ever met.”
Even though the story was immensely personal for him, he didn’t create a true biopic. Instead, he tweaked some details to raise the dramatic stakes and “hopefully bring the audience closer to the feelings.” The individual meetings Gervasi had with Villechaize over the course of a week turned into one roller coaster of a night for the film, for example.
He also fictionalized his own story to create Danny, giving him a young child and an ex-girlfriend, while Gervasi was single at the time. When the audience meets Danny, he has 30 days sober. In reality, Gervasi says he had a year clean and sober but “was really on edge.”
“It was interesting because when I met Hervé and he was popping pills and drinking, he kind of looked how I felt at the time. I was not in a good place,” Gervasi says. “In movies like ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ or ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ we know the kind of on-screen drunk and the mess they cause, but what we don’t often see is … [the] process of really taking responsibility for the damage that you’ve caused.”
Although Danny struggles with his sobriety due to the debauchery Hervé engages in beside him, as Hervé gets “personal and raw and honest” with him over the course of the evening, Danny is moved to do the same.
“I think that’s why the relationship between these two people who could not be more dramatically different from how they appear really are the same person, struggling with the same thing — they’re struggling with the courage to take responsibility for their own roles in their lives, to look at what they’ve really done, to face it, and to move on,” Gervasi says.
There were certain core “emotional truths” Gervasi knew the film had to carry in order to be a “proper account of what it felt like to encounter Hervé Villechaize in the final week of his life.”
“There were these barbaric medical treatments to try and make him grow, and none of them worked,” Gervasi says. “And he had three normal sized brothers and he was teased at school and attacked on the street. His brother Patrick told me that they would be walking down the street and people would just kick Hervé in the head because at that time — in the ’50s — there was almost this medieval intolerance of those who were different.”
Gervasi shares that the most emotional true-to-life moment to film was the final scene between Danny and Hervé in the Universal Sheraton hotel.
“We were shooting where my final meeting with Hervé had actually taken place,” he says. “To be standing behind the camera, watching Jamie and Peter in that lobby, saying goodbye in the place where it happened, I could almost feel Hervé behind me.”
Gervasi also kept Villechaize’s final words to him in the film, as Hervé’s final words to Danny: “Tell them I regret nothing.” Filming that moment made Gervasi feel like he had “finally honored the promise I made to Hervé to tell his story.”
“It was very, very gratifying and very strange and surreal,” he says of finally completing this project. “Here you are recreating something very personal that happened 25 years before … [and] you just feel like you’re in a parallel time period. It was strange and wonderful, and it will never be repeated.”
“My Dinner with Hervé” premieres Oct. 20 on HBO.