Spielberg decides it’s time to have some serious fun

Times Staff Writer

Standing in front of a Pasadena house festooned with lights right out of Christmas 1963, Steven Spielberg is amused to find himself in a universe far, far away from his usual extravaganzas of the dinosaur/World War II/futuristic robot variety. In this safe, homey world, there are no blue screens, flying henchman, scientific wizardry or multiple whirling cameras.

For Spielberg, “Catch Me if You Can,” the tragicomic tale of a teenage con man, is a lark, a welcome respite from his weighty films of the last decade. As the director puts it: “I needed this. It sort of came along and rescued me.”

The film explores lighthearted larceny on a human scale; in one of the rare instances since “Sugarland Express,” Spielberg’s first film, human foibles drive the story.


Of course, the life it’s based on -- that of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- is not pedestrian, but big-screen-sized. As a teenager on the lam from his parent’s divorce, Abagnale successfully impersonated a pediatrician at a Georgia hospital, a state attorney and a raft of airline pilots, impressively running scams and bouncing checks all over the world for millions of dollars. He is pursued around the world by a relentless modern-day Javert, an FBI agent played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Abagnale also romanced a veritable platoon of beauties, most with no idea that their suave Romeo was but a kid, several years their junior. “Leo kisses a lot of girls,” says the director, noting what undoubtedly will be one of the film’s selling points when it opens Christmas Day.

The film is an ode to the innocence of the ‘60s, an evocation of an earlier America, when pillbox-hatted stewardesses were chic and men wore dark-rimmed glasses and buzz cuts. A misdirected teenager running scams with the insouciant charm of young Cary Grant seems positively benign in a world of Columbine and snipers. Spielberg particularly likes the tale’s improbable but true (and morally satisfying) finale: Abagnale is now one of the country’s leading experts on fraud, working extensively with Fortune 500 companies and the FBI, the same agency that spent years hunting him down.

In some ways, it’s a case of one shape-shifting boy wonder turning the limelight on another. For Spielberg, 55, it’s also a vehicle for some of his fastest and dirtiest movie-making ever. It’s hardly guerrilla-style -- everything whirs with the smooth efficiency of a top-of-the-line BMW -- but it does proceed at a blistering pace, 38 locations in the U.S. and Canada in 55 days.

With its frisky tone and waggish lead, the $55-million “Catch Me if You Can” certainly is lighter than his recent material, though not “Indiana Jones 4,” which he’s also preparing. “I’m just at a point in my life right now where I just want to react to things I’m interested in, as opposed to trying to be somebody who I used to be to people who would like me to go back,” he says.

Whatever the Spielberg-ologists make of the movie, the director seems to be having fun. “This is like ‘Playhouse 90.’ It’s like live TV,” he says, enthusiastic about his dive into raw, human-sized filmmaking.

In Pasadena this past spring, Spielberg is mostly entranced with watching an ethereal, dark-eyed, 5-year-old moppet in pink footie pajamas. “Such a great face, a great face,” he says with admiration.


Spielberg has not only borrowed Steven Soderbergh’s casting director (Debra Zane) but also the Coen brothers’ costume designer, Mary Zophres, who gives the movie a look of bright-eyed buoyancy, a self-conscious wittiness about the wholesomeness of the ‘60s. It’s hard not to giggle seeing DiCaprio, decked out in a baby-blue shorts jumpsuit or a Creamsicle-hued sports get-up, though he maintains enough clean-cut sexual panache to carry it off.

In this scene, DiCaprio’s genial swagger has caved in. He looks haggard and scared, his skin the color of dishwater, his hair lank, his clothes shabby. The FBI is on his tail, and he’s returned to his mother’s house to confront her about her failed marriage to his father.

DiCaprio is knocking on the window trying to get his half-sister -- who doesn’t know him -- to open the door. The camera pans over his shoulder, lingering on the warmth within the house as a stark contrast to the cold outside, his sister enjoying the glow of a security and love that’s been ripped away from him.

“Not your face, just your cheek and nose,” Spielberg reminds DiCaprio, before telling the camera crew, “Don’t cut. Just keep rolling.” It’s a strategy often employed by directors to keep energy flowing.

“If I can just make faces at her,” suggests DiCaprio, and tries unsuccessfully to get a rise out of the little girl, who watches him with wide-eyed wonder, all the while holding a harmonica. “Tell her to laugh a little here.”

“Let her do what she wants,” Spielberg says. “It might be surprising.”

In successive takes, the little girl grows more and more responsive. When DiCaprio taps at the window, she shyly taps back, and then begins to mouth her harmonica.


Spielberg is pleased and effusive, and walks over to lead the girl through the next part of the scene by the hand. “That was fantastic, great.”

He knows the score

Five months later, after a long summer sojourn in East Hampton, Spielberg is scoring the film, watching as composer-conductor John Williams, with whom he’s worked longer than any other collaborator, leads a 100-piece orchestra in a soundstage on the Sony lot.

Usually, Williams sits down and plays the movie’s main motifs on the piano for Spielberg before orchestration, but the two were on different coasts this past summer, and these recording sessions are the first time Spielberg has heard the music. “I have implicit trust.”

Wallowing in the majestic swell of violins and trumpets, he adds giddily, “This is why I make movies.”

He watches the session with a tiny Sony digital camera affixed to his eye. For the last 30 years, he’s personally recorded Williams conducting the score to every one of his movies. He practically imbibes the music through the lens, panning from oboist to cellist to trumpeter. The musicians are playing a jazzy score, with echoes of Leonard Bernstein.

In a break, Spielberg dives into a small antechamber to show a visitor the first trailer, a jaunty Pink Panther-ish look at Tom Hanks chasing a dapper DiCaprio across America.


In the film, written by Jeff Nathanson (who also wrote “Rush Hour 2”), Abagnale’s story has been tweaked and massaged into a three-part structure, a taut tale of cat and mouse, with significant thrust given to Hanks’ character, who’s not simply his tormentor but his possible savior.

According to one associate, Spielberg, when approaching a film, often becomes enamored with a subject -- the Holocaust, for example -- and then searches for an appropriate script. But this project, developed by DreamWorks, dropped in his lap, with DiCaprio attached, after having passed through several other directors, including Gore Verbinski and Lasse Hallstrom.

When pushed to actually commit, Spielberg hesitated.

He was on vacation, so he called together his wife and daughter and their various friends for an impromptu reading. “Seven girls and myself sitting around the table and they all read the script out loud to me,” Spielberg recalls.

“I related to it on the basis of the kind of larceny I had as a kid, sneaking onto the Universal lot when I was 16 years old and getting away with it.”

Abagnale “is a kid who continually reinvents himself,” says producer Walter Parkes, who also runs DreamWorks’ production division. “Steven is someone who reinvents himself from genre to genre and is constantly playing different roles. We all kind of feel like an impostor and we’re waiting for someone to blow the whistle.”

Indeed, while most of his directing counterparts from the ‘70s have settled into familiar styles and obsessions, recycled through most of their films, Spielberg -- like Abagnale -- has ardently resisted getting trapped.


One hallmark of Spielberg’s films, though, is the fractured family; his parents split when he was a teenager.

It’s not a subject that Spielberg discusses much, unless specifically asked. “I certainly think I’ve been mopping up after my parents’ divorce for probably about 39 years,” he says musingly. “I’m fine with it. I’ve never thought much about it, although I have been attracted to projects with themes of family dissolution. I just don’t know ... to be honest and humble. It might be the loudest vocalization of my parents’ divorce, but that’s not really the reason I made the movie.”

Spielberg says he simply wanted to make the kind of lighthearted movies he used to watch at the drive-ins growing up in Phoenix in the ‘60s. His parents would drive, while he and his date would be safely ensconced in the back seat, often with a huge speaker strategically placed between them. “There’s nothing worse than having a date with my mom and my dad behind the wheel,” the director says and sighs 40 years later.

Innocence was in the car, and unspooling across the screen was a vision of America populated by beach blanket bingo and bang-bang westerns.

“I guess there’s a component in my brain that is a little bit retro,” he admits. “So ‘Catch Me if You Can’ was an easy film for me to make compared to ‘Minority Report.’ I had to rewire my brain to make ‘Minority Report,’ whereas I didn’t have to rewire anything to make this.

“When you meet [Frank], you suddenly see how it’s so easy to trust him,” he adds. “He was a 21st century kid operating on 1960s Americans. What he got away with was due to the fact he was operating in a time of innocence. The music was all top-line melody and jazz and bubblegum mixed, and the times were about to change with the invention of the Beatles. He admits to me that he couldn’t get away with it today.”


Spielberg sounds relieved to be emerging from almost a decade of darkness, of thinking about Jews being sent off to crematoriums, the dehumanizing African slave trade, the brutalities of WWII and robots in existential crisis.

“I need the light in my life. After all those dark movies one after the other, this was kind of a ray of sunshine and I wanted to bask in it for a while before deciding what I do next,” he says. “I love this mood. It really pulled me out of my little dark place after ‘Minority Report’ and ‘A.I.’ and with ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Amistad.’ ”

Relaxed, but always thinking

Back in the house in Pasadena, Spielberg watches most of the filming from behind a pair of video monitors set up in an adjoining dining room cramped with extraneous furniture and a whole peanut gallery of visitors. They include the house’s owners, the little girl’s mother and DiCaprio’s grandmother.

Many directors guard the perimeter around the video playback with the ferocity of a bear, but Spielberg seems unfazed, enveloped in an invisible force field. The one sign of tension is an occasional chewing of his thumb.

He moves back and forth from his director’s chair perch to the actors in the other room. Spielberg starts off by telling DiCaprio and Nathalie Baye, who’s playing his mother, just to perform the scene any way they want.

DiCaprio’s first take is furious, a primal explosion tearing through his long limbs. “Why did you divorce him?” he screams. He storms into the house, but it’s difficult for the actor to find the exact marks, amid a torrent of dialogue. A camera snakes behind him, and the choreography is elaborate as the little girl and her father exit the scene, and DiCaprio hunts his mother through her middle-class lair.


Spielberg readjusts the choreography to suit DiCaprio’s emotional arpeggios, and in successive takes, the actor is alternately more defeated and scared, a man-boy trying to break through a parent’s hard carapace of aloofness. The scene ends with Baye at her knees, asking forgiveness.

Spielberg doesn’t talk about character or motivation, but begins meticulously cutting lines. “As we go to full tempo, we’re going to cut even more lines,” he says. “It has to be natural.”

“Steven’s incredibly fast, very facile,” Hanks says. “He’s always asking us to do it faster. ‘OK, that was good. Can you do it faster?’ and we think we’re blowing it out as quick as we can and, lo and behold, we can still take another 17 seconds out of something.”

“I think he gives each individual actor whatever it is that they need,” DiCaprio says, who admits that he expected the man who is arguably the most successful director in history to have more of a God complex. “I thought someone in that supreme power position must be arrogant and controlling, but he was the opposite. He was extremely open to new ideas.”

On this afternoon, Spielberg seems to be a grounding, watchful force, letting DiCaprio soar, but carefully monitoring for scenery-chewing.

Spielberg is well aware that no actor has ever won an Oscar in his movies, that critics tend not to champion his performances. That’s at least partly a function of the design of his films -- they tend not to be tales of flashy neurosis, but parables of simple men in complicated universes. In Spielberg’s films, the story usually is king.


Usually, the director moves intuitively. He rarely storyboards, and on this film he simply showed up in the morning and then decided what he was going to do. He prides himself on shooting the scene in his head before he begins.

Yet the emotional stickiness of the scene is giving him problems. He’s worried about it becoming maudlin and decides, in an unusual move, to cover the scene from myriad angles, to keep all his options open in the editing room.

He tells both actors to refrain from calling each other by their names and begins to tinker with Baye’s performance.

The body language, which initially just seems to illustrate the words, begins to run at a counterpoint. Baye’s character is still apologizing, not as a supplicant now but as a mother pulling her son to the succor he craves.

Once in the editing room, Spielberg is still unhappy. He winds up cutting out almost all of the day’s work. “I had real insecurity about the scene,” he admits. “I couldn’t articulate what was wrong with the scene, but I’d be safer if I cut out a few lines.”

What remains is suggestive and elliptical, a momentary glance through an outside window of the pair reconciling.


A single image was all it took.