Premieres Saturday, October 20 at 8 PM ET/PT on HBO
Photo: Peter Lovino/HBO
Q: How much of the story in MY DINNER WITH HERVÉ is inspired by your own experiences?
SACHA GERVASI: A large part of it. In the summer of 1993 I was a young journalist who was sent to LA to do several interviews for a British newspaper – the least important of which was a quick “Where are they now?” piece about Hervé Villechaize, who played Tattoo on the show “Fantasy Island.” After our interview, as I was packing my things away, he walked around the table and pulled a knife on me and said, “Now I’ve told you all ze bullshit stories, would you like to hear the real story of my life?” Things were never the same for me after that.
Q: Why did you choose to make the film now, 25 years later, instead of earlier?
SG: Peter [Dinklage] and I have been trying to make the film for the past 15 years, so waiting this long was certainly not the plan. Sometimes in life things happen in the way and at the time they are meant to. For me there is something special about the film coming out exactly 25 years after I said goodbye to Hervé for the last time at the Universal Sheraton.
Q: How much of yourself is reflected in the character of Danny Tate?
SG: It’s a very personal film. The basic facts are true. I was a young journalist, then recently sober, who was sent to LA by a British newspaper in the last week of August in 1993 to interview Hervé, amongst others. Only a few days after I came home, Hervé’s girlfriend, Kathy, called me to say Hervé had shot himself a few hours before. I was the last journalist to interview him. That said, the personal details about Danny Tate and the relationship with his ex-girlfriend have been dramatized to increase the stakes for the character. In real life, I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay? Did you have Peter Dinklage or Jamie Dornan in mind when you were writing it? Were you conscious of maintaining a certain tone from the beginning, or did that emerge in the writing process?
SG: I worked on the script for so long over so many years and through so many incarnations that it’s even hard to remember sometimes what I had in mind. I just wanted to honor Hervé and our time together. As soon as I got to know him I realized he was considerably more than the famous punchline from his show “Fantasy Island”: “The Plane, The Plane!”
I promised to tell his story and even though in the end, it took a quarter of a century to do it, I finally managed to get it done! The tone of the script and the film reflects the tone of our meeting – at times surreal and ridiculous, as well as emotional. Peter and I worked closely on it for about 15 years on and off. It was an incredible experience. Jamie [Dornan] came into it later, but his contributions were equally insightful, soulful and brilliant.
Q: Could this have been a novel or memoir, rather than a film?
SG: At one point it was going to be a stage play and I think it certainly could be. There’s a London theatre producer who wants to do it in the West End, but Peter has been with the character so long I think it is time for him to let it go. I doubt anyone else could play it, or even understand it in the same way Peter does.
Q: Did the story or script change in the process of shooting, or did it stay the same? Did Peter Dinklage or Jamie Dornan give you any feedback that inspired you to see the film differently?
SG: Absolutely. The script is only the blueprint. To make something feel alive and spontaneous you have to allow the actors to come to you with new ideas, to own their characters. Fortunately for me, Peter and Jamie’s ideas were typically excellent. Also, in many cases, they loved the scenes exactly as they were and so that’s what we shot. It was an intense and surreal but ultimately very gratifying creative process overall, and to be able to watch the words I had written, often many years before, come to life on set in such a vivid, vital way, was for me, at least, beyond joyous.
Q: What was the most satisfying thing about making the film? The most difficult?
SG: The most satisfying thing was to know that I had finally honored the promise I had made to Hervé to tell his story all those years ago. Even though I only knew him in the last week of his life I can really say we became friends. He was the most original, intriguing and hilarious person I had ever met. That’s still true to this day. Perhaps the most difficult thing was having to wait 25 years before being able to tell his story. I learnt the meaning of the word patience.
Q: Hervé Villechaize is sometimes treated as a punch line. Were you consciously trying to change that, and present him as a three-dimensional person?
SG: Yes. I just wanted to tell the truth about the person I had actually met, rather than the persona he had from the show. I went into the interview having pre-judged Hervé. I thought our encounter would be no more than a good dinner party story for my friends back in London – I mean, how could this surreal Fellini-esque creature be a real human being? But he was.
The film is about how dangerous it can be to judge. Who is this person you are looking at, once you knock down the wall between you and see them as they really are, rather than just seeing the color of their skin, or how tall they are?
Q: What would you like audiences to take away from MY DINNER WITH HERVE?
SG: If the audience connects with the film and ends up caring about these two characters, who look so incredibly different but are ultimately so similar, I hope they are provoked into thinking about how we all sometimes rush to judgment without thinking, without knowing the full truth. Perhaps some will consider their own lives and ask, “Is there something in my life that I am not taking responsibility for?” That would certainly be wonderful.
But if the audience just ends up having a great time, Peter, Jamie and I would be more than thrilled with that, too!