There is something almost surreal about being left alone in a room with three of Hollywood’s most powerful figures: Spielberg, Hanks, DiCaprio, between the three of them, American wealth and power. “Here, you’d better take the hot seat”, booms a jovial Hanks.
All suited up, the trio teamed together for Catch Me If You Can, director Spielberg’s second feature in a year, a 1960s-set true story with Leo as an adolescent con artist being doggedly pursued by a Bostonian FBI agent played by Hanks. Larger than life on screen, and perfectly aware of their collective influence in Hollywood, they avoid making too much a deal of that whole power thing, yet it’s something that one cannot help but address. Are they as powerful a trio of Hollywood players as they think they are?
Of course, but for these guys, who represent three generations of such power, it serves as means to achieve creative ends, says the youngest of the three, one Leonardo DiCaprio, who defines his own sense of ‘power’ as something rare. “I think what every actor and artist in this business tries to achieve, is to steer the course of their career. The opportunity that I have is one that I’ve worked hard for but one that was directly linked to a boat movie called Titanic,” concedes DiCaprio. “On some levels that propelled me out to be more of a product that I would have liked, but the upside to that is that I get to pick and choose the roles that I want in my career.”
Director Spielberg, who helped to redefine the concept of the Hollywood blockbuster in the late seventies, agrees with his young star, that commercial success is equated with choice, and that is the real power in Hollywood. “After Jaws, not only did I get to choose my NEXT movie, but I was given final cut, and that is how it affected me,” says the Oscar winning director. Hanks, unarguably the most commercially successful screen actor in today’s Hollywood, prefers to define power as being transparent. “There are always going to be things that are going to get into the way of doing the work that you really like to do, and for me as an actor, there are always roles that I wish I’d had or I see movies where I envy the people who are up there being able to be in them, but that doesn’t mean that I had to go off and do something that I DIDN’T want to do. That is a firmly drawn line in the hierarchy”, Hanks insists. “When you do not have to take a job that you do not have to take, then that’s true power, because that’s the moment when you begin to control your destiny in a different way. Once I got to the point where I said: You know, I don’t want to do this, then that was a hugely liberating moment where an actor can take one’s career in one’s own hands. You can call it the power of God’.”
That power of God, however, can be a double-edged sword. When one has the power to have a project greenlit on your behalf, then the question is: How do you choose? With great difficulty, says DiCaprio, who is already signed up for at least three upcoming films, from Scorsese’s The Aviator, to Baz Luhrmann’ s Alexander the Great and Robert De Niro’s next directorial gig, The Good Shepherd. “I think that’s something you learn as a result of your experience in this business. I’ve had projects in which I’ve found characters that I’ve wanted to play or that I wanted to work on, and it’s hard to figure out who you can trust, ” DiCaprio concedes. “The reason is that a lot of people represent something much different to what your initial intent is. The more I’ve gotten older, the more I’ve realised that it truly is the director’s art form. At the end of the day, it’s their vision that’s going to be put up on the screen, so you can only do your best. I’ve read scripts that jumped off the page or characters and stories clearly in the wrong directors’ hands so consequently have been completely botched up, so that’s the lesson I’ve learned.”
Spielberg has a different attitude when it comes to deciding what he will or will not direct. “I don’t really look for projects that I’m interested in. If a project comes along that discovers that I WAS interested in that subject, that becomes much more of a reason to say yes.” Subjects such as the Holocaust or World War 2. Yet in deciding to do Catch Me If You Can, a relatively light-hearted chase movie based on the real-life exploits of teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr, Spielberg decided to show the flip side to his cinematic personality, almost the jovial Spielberg. “I love your use of the word jovial’ because I’ve never had that word quite applied to me in any way, shape or form,” says the director, smilingly. “But it says, about me, that I’ve found some kind of new colour that I never splashed against the canvas before. This is certainly the most laughs I’ve ever gotten out of one film that I’ve directed in my entire career.”
In Catch Me, DiCaprio’s 16-year old Frank runs away from home as his parents announced plans to divorce. Running away from a broken home, he immerses himself in a world of subterfuge, posing as a doctor, pilot and lawyer, and forging cheques and living a life of creative masquerade. In some ways, something not too dissimilar from this trio of protagonists and ironically, all three, products of broken homes. Yet it is curious that none of them saw the divorce theme as a prevalent factor in doing the film, at least initially. “I never had the kind of situation that Frank had”, says DiCaprio.
“At 16, he was faced with the decision between living with either parent and it really propelled him out in the real world and made him have no moral high ground and there was nobody to answer to at the end of the day. In my own life, it was the way it was, ever since I could remember. They split up when I was very young, but they were always very supportive and there for me. I think what struck me about this character and this story, was that I had a love for this character, though unconsciously there are certain reasons why you are drawn to material and why it strikes such an emotional chord in you. That’s because of who you are, your genetic make-up, your life experience and what’s happened to you.” Hanks, who spent much of his childhood moving about with his father, an itinerant cook, while continually attempting to cope with constantly changing schools, religions, and stepmothers, says that by the time he turned 10, he already had “three mothers, five grammar schools and 10 houses”
Yet despite his fractured youth, the actor never consciously drew on that experience as a deciding factor to co-star in Catch Me If You Can. “I never read it and thought: Oh here is a fascinating hook about Frank – HIS parents are divorced. It all made perfect sense coming from it as we did, knowing full well that it’s a huge motivating force somewhere deep beneath the psyches of all the characters but not worthy of special headlining, more part of the fabric of the piece.” But for Spielberg, whose parents divorced after years of intense arguing, used his youth often as a metaphor for his work. Many of his films, notably the likes of E.T, mirrored Spielberg’s lonely childhood, and agrees that in some ways, his latest film is his most personal to date. “When I read the script, I certainly found the touchstones that I could relate to. I can honestly say that it did come from my heart, even though it did come from someone else’s life.” Yet the director still concedes, that Catch Me “is the most literal I’ve ever gotten to the consequences of divorce. I suggest it in ET, which was the basis for Elliot’s need for a friend but this is the first time I’ve really kind of dealt with it head on, as I suggest it as a motivation for why Frank did the things he did. That was our speculation and Frank had to confirm that that was true.”
Spielberg does, however, adopt the view that every movie he has made, has his personal vision. “Making movies is sometimes like going to college and taking 16 different courses where you decide to major in one, learning everything you can about World War 2 or the Holocaust, etc. Now I’m not an expert on these subjects, but I certainly became much more than a dilettante once I got myself deeply immersed in these subjects and therefore I was able to say: Yes, this is a personal vision of mine, having adapted it to MAKE it a personal vision.”
Yet it’s Spielberg’s personal visions, exemplified by a sometimes sentimentalised view of the world that has gotten him in trouble with the critics. Often accused of being overly commercial and mainstream, Spielberg refuses to read his negative reviews. “I’m not one of those stand-up comics that just LOVE to suffer. They read everything bad and nothing good and then when it gets really bad they somehow get funnier. I’m not like that. If somebody tells me something’s bad, I avoid it like the plague.” Not the effusive DiCaprio, however. “I read ’em”, he says cheerfully. “I’m interested to hear what they have to say”, as long as they understand your intentions, DiCaprio insists, recalling the critical backlash he received after the release of The Beach, his first film following Titanic.
“I didn’t set out to make some kind of love story set on a tropical island. It had an interesting subject and said something that was socially important having to do with urban sprawl and the whole world becoming westernised. The critics automatically looked at it as some meek attempt to sustain my fan base, while my intentions as an actor are to make unique films.” Hanks takes the argument one step further, maintaining “that a small part of the vast amount of space has little to do with criticism. A huge amount of it is personality-based and following on what Leo says, is that they’re attempting to explain your motivation, which is always according to their own agenda. Buy and large I think it’s a waste of time to read reviews, because they tend to be mostly on a bell curve. The amount of truly glowing reviews you get is usually balanced out by the poison pen letters, and then everything else is kind of like mishmash.”
Whether they are darlings of the critics at any given time or not, Spielberg, Hanks and DiCaprio continue to carve a unique niche in American cinema, with the latter representing a generation of actor who has successfully learned to be a master of his career, as Hanks was able to from the early 90s, and Spielberg has achieved since 1975’s Jaws. Spielberg and Hanks are also trying to enjoy double duty as fathers and husbands, which is perhaps why their latest collaboration, Catch Me If You Can, has a degree of emotional validity attached to it. Hanks admits that he still has many unfulfilled ambitions, but adds that he “never had any real ambitions as far as being an actor goes, except to work, and every time I got a job I found that ambition fulfilled for that amount of time. But all the other things have self-improved and in connection with the family and the world, I always find myself coming up short there,” Hanks concedes.
“I have to dedicate some more time and effort to being a friend, lover, father and citizen.” Despite the pitfalls of his nomadic profession, he would still encourage his younger children to be actors “if they wanted to because it’s a wonderful life. I want my kids to be happy, funny and well-adjusted; whatever they do in order to get there, is what I’m looking for.” Spielberg says that his oldest son Max, now 17, shows signs of filmmaking, while Spielberg is already looking to the future, and Indiana Jones IV, which he confirms is a go. “It would be fun to have a reunion with everybody, you know? It was really Harrison who got me into it. He was the guy that said, ‘I want to do one more,’ and he got George and I interested in working with him again, so the script’s being written, I’m going to shoot it late 2004 coming out July ’05 for the July 4 weekend,” Spielberg happily confirms.
For a director who helped define a changing Hollywood, for better or worse, his passion in movies, which began when he first saw Lawrence of Arabia in the early sixties, remains unwavering. The Oscar-winning director may have his detractors, but all he cares about is sharing his stories with an audience; that, after all, is the power of the cinema. “I hope we’re such a communal society that we’ll always insist on sharing an adventure in the dark with strangers, no matter what the platform hardware. That’s my wish and dream — that we never give up the communal experience. It started a long time ago with cave paintings and I hope it doesn’t go away.” It certainly continues with Catch Me If You Can, which, like E.T, is at its heart, a Steven Spielberg film.