Director Sacha Gervasi talks to Sky News about his new film, My Dinner With Herve, why it has been 25 years in the making, and why the man he met was "1,000 times more interesting than the stereotype"
It was 4 September 1993 when Sacha Gervasi took the call that would change his life.
Sitting in his London flat, the then young reporter was poring over thousands of words that would make up his interview with dwarf actor and James Bond baddie Herve Villechaize – not the "bullsh*t stories" of a man largely seen as a figure of fun and his time in front of the cameras, but his very real, very tragic and quite incredible life story.
A week earlier, as they were about to wrap up what he had intended to be a short interview, in a scene straight out of the 007 playbook Villechaize jumped up and pulled out a knife. It was the start of a short-lived and unlikely alliance that would have a profound affect on Gervasi's life and career.
The 4 September call was from Villechaize's girlfriend, Kathy: he had taken his own life, Gervasi learned, and the writer was sitting with his final words in front of him.
"I started to cry as it dawned on me that this was his intention, that for whatever reason he'd just grabbed on to some random English journalist, this total stranger, and spilled his guts, his heart and soul. I knew I had to tell his story."
Gervasi – now an award-winning filmmaker, whose credits include Hitchcock and The Terminal – is talking to Sky News ahead of the release of My Dinner With Herve, an HBO film about his experience meeting and interviewing the actor, starring Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan.
It has been 25 years in the making but now, finally, he has fulfilled his promise.
Sent to LA as a reporter for a Sunday tabloid in the summer of 1993, Gervasi, then in his mid-20s, was to carry out a few "important" interviews. The least important of these, he was told, was an interview with Villechaize, the French-born 3ft 11ins actor who gained international recognition as The Man With The Golden Gun villain Nick Nack in 1974, and also played Tattoo in TV series Fantasy Island, which ran until 1984.
His star was waning but no doubt "the most famous dwarf in the world" was going to have some interesting tales, and Gervasi was to turn them into perfect Sunday-morning reading.
"It was meant to be a jokey piece," he says. "Ultimately, what happened was I went and met him and did the expected interview and asked all these questions… As I was packing my stuff away I looked round and he had pulled a knife on me. He said: 'I told you all the bullsh*t stories, now do you want to hear the real story?'
"Clearly he wanted to get my attention and that's what he did. I'd come with scepticism at best and most likely a lot of judgement… when he pulled the knife stunt it really turned me around.
"I'd just put him in a category like most people do. The whole experience ultimately changed me."
Gervasi ended up spending three days with the actor, learning his life story.
Born in the 1940s, Villechaize lived in an era when being a dwarf put you in the category of freak.
For most of his childhood, Gervasi learned, he was carted around the world by his doctor father, a man desperate to find "the cure" for his son. He was often attacked in the street, because of his size.
"He had to undergo these brutal and barbaric treatments… it was a nightmare, until the age of 12, when he said he'd had enough."
Listening to the story unfold, Gervasi began to see the person behind the characters.
"I had no clue in our original interview, for example, that he was an award-winning painter… I didn't know about his marriage, how troubled his divorce was. There was just so many things. He was much more interesting, incredibly well educated, an unbelievable storyteller.
"He was 1,000 times more interesting than the stereotype."
Gervasi's "silly piece" turned into a profile which could have run and run.
"I came in with 5,000 words from a completely different perspective. The editor just said, 'look, it's too morbid… this is wonderful but I asked for a funny piece. It's too dark, too personal."
Gervasi wanted to take the story elsewhere, but in the end it was edited and "watered down".
"It just wasn't the story that I'd promised Herve," he says. "But in a way I'm grateful that it was watered down and killed as had that not happened I might never have chosen to be a filmmaker."
For a long time, it seemed as if the film would never be made. After talks with Dinklage and a studio head a few years ago, he was told a "suicidal dwarf picture told over five decades – it'll never get made".
"It was a very ambitious film… people felt it was too expensive, the material too intense. Then of course Game Of Thrones happened and it changed the game."
Suddenly, the idea of Dinklage – who has achieved huge, award-winning success with Game Of Thrones – starring as Villechaize was not only exciting, it was commercially viable.
"I think there's a different atmosphere now… people are more open now to stories about people who are different. There's an empathy to those who are different to the mainstream. It doesn't matter whether you look like Jamie Dornan or Peter Dinklage – it's really about all of us being human."
While Dornan's journalist character is called Danny Tate rather than Sacha Gervasi (Gervasi says he wanted the character to only be loosely based on him, so that Dornan could make it his own), it has been a "surreal" experience seeing one of the biggest moments of his life played out on screen.
"It's quite an overwhelming experience. My final goodbye to Herve was at the Universal Sheraton Hotel in Hollywood. That's where we shot the scene… it was really satisfying because I finally felt the world was listening; two of the biggest actors on the planet being able to tell this story.
"I hope to provoke some talk about how all of us rush to judgement, how we put people in pigeon holes, stereotype them.
"Often we discover that people who are so radically different on the outside really have such incredible commonalities with the rest of us. We all have struggles and hopes and dreams and failures and things that are good and bad.
"In a time that is so incredibly divisive – Brexit or Remain; Trump and anti-Trump – I think the one thing really missing is empathy. Hopefully this is one of those stories that speaks to that."
Gervasi says that now, after 25 years, he has finally achieved what he wanted to achieve in print back in 1993.
"I do… and we have such fine actors and a brilliant crew. I feel like I've finally honoured the promise I made to a stranger in the final week of his life."
:: My Dinner With Herve premieres on HBO and Sky Atlantic on Friday