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December 2004
The Aviator: An Interview with Leonardo DiCaprio

The Aviator: An Interview with Leonardo DiCaprio

By Todd Gilchrist

Since Leonardo DiCaprio's star turn in the mammoth box office hit "Titanic", the actor has made only four films: "The Beach", "Catch Me If You Can", "Gangs of New York", and now, "The Aviator". In his latest film, DiCaprio plays eccentric aviator Howard Hughes, who revolutionized cinema and the aviation industry before succumbing to obsessive-compulsive neuroses. In this interview with Blackfilm.com, DiCaprio discusses the prospect of playing the legendary inventor and filmmaker, and charts his own progress as a celebrity and trailblazer in the movie-making industry.

How did the premiere go?

Leo: As far as I can tell, great but you never know. You have to go to a 'real' screening to tell. You have to sit in the back and listen to the sounds.

This has to be one of the most incredible performances of your lifetime. What was it about Howard Hughes that fascinated you?

Leo: As an actor, you're constantly searching for that great character. And, being a history buff and learning about people in our past and amazing things that they've done, I came across a book about Howard Hughes and he was set up as basically, the most multi-dimensional character I could ever come across. Often, people have tried to define him in biographies. No one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century and so I got this book, brought it to Michael Mann and John Logan came onboard and really came up with the concept, saying, 'you can do ten different movies about Howard Hughes. Let's focus on his younger years. Let's watch his initial descent into madness but meanwhile, have the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation that were like astronauts that went out and went out and risked their lives to further the cause of aviation. [He was] the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace of happiness'. It's that great see-saw act in the movie that goes on. On one side, he's having all the successes in the world and on the other side the tiny microbes and germs are the things that are taking him downwards because of his OCD and being a germaphobe.

Could you relate to any of the things?

Leo: I think he certainly took things farther than I could ever imagine. He was such an obsessed human being. He was so obsessive about everything he'd gotten involved with whether it be planes or women or films he made. And that is the direct result of his OCD. I wouldn't go to those extremes but certain, the "Hell's Angels" sequence, being a part of films that have gone on for many, many months and you're sitting there with the director trying to get things perfect and do things over and over and over again, that was something that I think Scorsese and I immediately identified with.

Do you see any other parallels between Howard Hughes' fear of celebrity and any paranoias in your own personal and professional life?

Leo: I have to say, I'm, for the most part, a pretty private person but his came, like I said, from a genuine mental disorder and I'm just fundamentally not like that. I try to---my reasons for being a private person are different from Mr. Hughes'. My are because I'm an actor and I want people to believe me in different roles and not necessarily know way too much about me. I want to be around in the business for a long time and he had an intense fear of being around people and germs, as displayed very well in the film.

Can you talk about your relationship with Mr. Scorsese and what he might have brought to your performance?

Leo: What I'm going to say is going to sound like a cliché but I can not tell a lie. He is every actor's dream to work with. He's the man in the business that you can unanimously ask any actor of any age range, and they want to work with this man because he is not only one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he's like film historian. He's a professor of film. The man has seen almost every film ever made up until 1980. You get an education while working with him every single day. He screens movies for you, talks about specific scenes and what he's trying to convey up on the screen. You can ask him a question about a character or the way a scene should go and he can show you twenty different examples of filmmakers who have done that in the past, the way it's been done right, the way it's been done wrong. And it's an incredible learning experience. But, for us, having this huge sort of generational gap, we actually found that we fundamentally share the same tastes in a lot of different things, not just films but music and art and we dislike a lot of the same things and like a lot of the same things. We have a great work ethic together. We get along. We've had marathon rehearsal sessions and sometimes those can be arduous if people don't enjoy that process but his whole criteria, the thing that he does so well is he's so persistent on making everything he does an authentic as possible. So, he loves to have actors come to the table with an array of different information and new ideas and challenging things. He welcomes that more than anyone else I've ever worked with. For this movie, and all the research I did, we certainly did a lot of that.

In addition to the book what was some of the other research you did?

Leo: The genesis, like I said, was seven, eight years ago, reading the book, bringing it to Michael Mann and finally John Logan developing it with Michael and the script landing on my lap and then the real research began after we committed to the movie, Marty and I. It was a year of preparation. Not only those marathon sessions with John Logan and Scorsese but I got to meet a couple of people who actually worked with Howard, who knew Howard. Jane Russell, I drove up north to spend a day with her and talk about Howard and Terry Moore, his ex-wife, she provided a lot of information about him. When you read a script and it says in the script 'he has obsessive compulsive disorder and then you read two pages of a man repeating the same line over and over againŠ not that it's easy for a writer to write that because he has his own thought process, but when you're an actor and reading that you say 'how in the hell am I gonna say this and what is the driving force behind repeating something twenty times in a row and why the hell is he doing it?' So that brought me to work with Doctor Jeffrey Schwartz (spelling??) of UCLA who is the leading physician on obsessive compulsive disorder and treating it in a non-medicated fashion. He really explained to me what OCD is and the brain mechanism that goes into it and the sort of faulty gear shift, the sticky gear shift that happens when you mind obsesses on one thing and you don't listen to the other part of your brain that tells you you're being ridiculous. So, I worked a lot with him and a patient of his. I spent a few days with him, living around him and talking to him and really trying to find out why he had to repeat or do things obsessively. Then, reading every possible book I could on him and his life.

Howard loved a number of famous women. Do you think he did this with an awareness of his place in history, or to create status as a celebrity? Do you have any of those kinds of thoughts when you enter a relationship?

Leo: No. Those aren't my intentions going into a relationship. But, with Howard, it's an interesting dynamic because I honestly feel that as much as he had love and adoration for these women and genuinely cared for them, he kind of looked at them like airplanes. He was a technical genius and obsessed with finding the new, faster, bigger airplane (laughs) and that was simultaneous with women. He was constantly finding the new hotter female to go out with. It all related back to him being orphaned at a very young age and having this empty hole in his soul that, I think, he was always trying to fill with new, more exciting things in his life. He ended up, obviously, not a very happy person. I don't know if he was think about whether, historically, he was going to become a legend. I'm sure he had that sort of cat and mouse things going on in his mind where he wanted to be famous but it was more like 'look at me! Look at me! No, don't look at me'.

Did you see "The Carpetbaggers"?

Leo: I saw that movie, yes. I saw all the different interpretations of Howard throughout cinema. "Carpetbaggers" was interesting, yeah. That was one of the initial films we saw in creating the movie.

What about the truth versus the legend in this movie?

Leo: There is so much information. There's the whole later years of Howard's life which is a film in its own right anyway. But I think the reason that this film was made, and I think the first true distinctive film on Howard Hughes was possible because of focusing on his younger years and being able to show the growing up of this man in this time period, but our country, the state of our country and what kind of people were around the early Hollywood and the attitudes of people.

How did you shake Howard at the end of each day and did you ever go to see the Spruce Goose?

Leo: Yeah, I went to see the Spruce Goose when I was younger. I didn't go back to see it again and I wanted to go up and fly some of these planes but, quite understandably, the insurance company said to me, 'no, we're not going to allow you to go fly antique world war two planes for the first time in your life two weeks before shooting'. So, that was understandable. There are certain things that you have to have a little leeway for. And how did I shake him? I've always been pretty good at being able to go home and be me again. But, as much as, for this character, I'd say more than any other character I've played in the past, this one stayed with me the most. Especially with this stuff having to do with obsessive compulsive disorder. We all have obsessive things we do to some degree, a primal thing in our brain, that's a part of our brain mechanism. I remember, as a child stepping on cracks on the way to school and having to walk back a block and step on that same crack or that gum stain. So, for the movie, I kind of let all that stuff go and was constantly stepping on things and reorganizing things constantly and wanted to encourage that to come back and it really did. Once you don't stop yourself from doing that stuff, it can just go on and on and on. People with OCD, with genuine OCD, people that aren't able to make that distinction, truly live in a 24-hour hell of constantly playing mind games with themselves. They could sit here and have a conversation but all they want to do is reach over here and twist this around and flip it over twenty times in a row (I think he's touching tape recorders when saying this), an array of different things. Sometimes, it took me a while to get to set having to step on tons of things. (laughter).

If there was a chance for you to have to spend time with anyone of that time period, who would it be and what would you ask them?

Leo: That's a tough question. Can I come back to that one?

There was a lot of talk and a lot of anticipation that you were going to be doing Alexander the Great with Scorsese before you were going to do this. Obviously that's been done. Just wondering how you went from that project to this one and whether you have any regrets about not being able to take on that role at this point?

Leo: I don't have any regrets certainly, after seeing the movie again last night, not at all. Alexander The Great was also, like I said before, it's one of those things where Scorsese and I just share the same taste in similar things. We were both fascinated with Alexander The Great as well as Howard Hughes. They're not - completely different time periods and different men, but similar dynamics. Men that keep on reaching for their ultimate goal and stop at nothing until they achieve that. It just happened to be that this script and the project was way further advanced in the development stage than the script that landed in our lap from Alexander and we wanted to go forth - we had an intention at one time of doing them both, but you don't get everything you want all the time.

Were you developing that with Baz Luhrmann?

Leo: Baz you know - I can't even tell, I've talked to him about it. I have no idea if he's still going to do it or not.

So that was also Scorsese project?

Leo: There was, a lot of people were toying with it, that's the way it is in the business, that an idea pops up and all of a sudden it's a piranha feeding frenzy. Oliver got his off before anybody else's.

What kind of window on today is portraying the events depicted in the film?

Leo: Well more so than anything what I was worried about the most in this film was okay, here's the first American billionaire, he's handsome, he sleeps with the best women in the world, he's an American hero and how the hell do you make this situation with TWA and Pan American Airways and this Senator become a sympathetic situation towards Howard Hughes. I was going through my head and churning constantly and then I realized, for exactly what you're talking about specifically, it has to do with corporate takeover and the involvement of huge corporations with our government and Howard Hughes in cahoots and it's going on today with the Enron scandals and numerous other things and that's what really made me say okay, here's this one man, he's his own boss, he is rich but he is a stand up individual and here he is with all these horrible things going on with himself mentally standing up in front of the Senate and battling the Senate to stop the monopoly on international travel and I think ultimately people kind of got behind that and lost all the other pre-thoughts about how Howard Hughes was or whether he would be a sympathetic character and as far as history is concerned, a lot of people I spoke to said they really wanted Howard Hughes to be President after that. They really loved this one individual taking on the entire system, taking on the government, taking on huge monopolies and corporations and that's what, in other words, struck a chord emotionally for people, or me at least anyway.

Leo, you said as a child, or as a kid, you basically had just one solid dream that you were really actually focused on and it was to be in this business. Where did that come from? Who inspired you with that?

Leo: Well the first thing I can think of is my dad. I remember the casting session that I had where I was a break dancer so I had a punk hair cut and they rejected me and I became really disillusioned with the business and said well this is what it's all about, I haven't even got in to read a line. He said don't worry, some day we're going to get you back into this and it's going to happen for you. So I kind of took that to heart. And it was one of those situations where I was lucky enough and fortunate enough to be at the right places at the right time and I did a couple of television shows, Parenthood and Growing Pains, and then all of a sudden I was on the set of Growing Pains and got this audition for This Boy's Life and was able to jump into the feature film world. It's really been just simply the fact that I'd been able to work. You know what I mean? That has been the deciding factor - I mean I would probably still be trying to be an actor even if I was out of work, but I would probably become a little disillusioned at some point and move on to other things. But I truly love it, I just truly - it's like the one thing that I know that I love.

It was your family then, it's come from them?

Leo: Definitely. And if it wasn't for my mother and my father taking me out to the hundreds and hundreds of auditions every day after school. and never being stage parents, and always saying look, at any time if you want to stop doing this, or you hate it, just tell us. And I kept on saying, nope, nope, I want to do it, I want to do it.

When you're doing a historical film that is so factually documented, where do you feel the director, and the actor, need to draw the line between historical accuracy and when can you go over that line into the realm of storytelling and fantasy?

Leo: When it serves the film and as long, to me, is the essence of what you're trying to portray is the intention of the character. There are a couple of things in this movie that weren't exactly what really happened. And I know there's all those detectives out there that love to look for mistakes or things that weren't exactly the real deal, but, for example, Howard Hughes never did the thing with buying the photos of Katherine Hepburn of her and Spencer Tracy. Instead the intention was the same, he bought her The Philadelphia Story which she ended up doing on stage, and inevitably got her an Academy Award after they broke up. The intention was still there, he still loved her, he still cared about her as a person and still did something like that for her. You know, I think as long as you are carried on that ride of the film and you're engaged in the character and it's something that isn't way too far out of the field of what really happened, and the intention is still there, I think that's the artists right.

What about something as documented as the flight of the Spruce Goose which only went essentially half a mile and then set itself down?

Leo: And I think we pretty much documented that almost exactly the way it happened.

You had it flying through the air over Š

Leo: And it did fly. I've seen the footage 100 times, it flew.

Beyond the half mile flight where he just set it back down.

Leo: And if you look at the actual time of film in the movie I don't think you'll see any more than that amount of flight time, if you want to be a detective.

I have two questions for you. One is can you talk about the two Kates. And secondly do you have any of Howard Hughes' personal artifacts?

Leo: I have old photos of him. What did you say about the Kates sorry?

Can you just talk about the two Kates?

Leo: My two Kates. Well for the Katherine Hepburn character there was really only one person that could play that role in the world. There is the, what can I say, the female version of Daniel Day Lewis, and that is Cate Blanchett. To be able to take on the persona and one of the most iconic female voices of the 20th Century, in Katherine Hepburn, one of the most immediately recognisable voices, and being from Australia as well. Taking on that, you have to be a true chameleon and genius. So, enough said about that. Kate Beckinsale, we were looking for Ava and she came in with the full fur and Ava Gardiner attire and make-up and attitude, and once we met with a few girls for that and as soon as she stepped into the meeting with us we knew we had our Ava. She represented the class, had the strength, had the attitude, and it was a joy to work with both of them.

Film tastes like these days?

Leo: I'm still doing my homework, still watching a lot of old movies. A lot of old films. Some of my favourites, the last thing that I really got into was the whole neo-realism movement with De Sica and all those great Italian directors, The Bicycle Thief and all of his great work. It's so funny because here we are doing movies at this day and age and you don't realise that these directors have attempted these things almost 100 times before you. We think we're so original with our ideas and things we're trying to accomplish, but some of these great directors in the past have gone to those extremes and even further and that's why film preservation is so damn important, so directors and actors can have a library of seeing what people did in the past and learning from it and trying to improve or not make the same mistakes or whatever it may be.

Can you talk a little bit about the breakdown scene in the screening room? Did you ever feel like you were loosing it? It was such a convincing performance.

Leo: That stuff was - we shot a lot more than was actually in the movie because we didn't know what we were going to use and there's literally entire report documents that are the size of huge novels. Howard Hughes took all his technical brilliance that he would use for aeroplanes or engineering or whatever it may be and reverted all that energy into how his lunch was delivered, and it's truly some of the most frightening astonishing stuff I've ever read. I mean transcripts and memos that went on for hours and hours and hours about the angle of the lunch, the way the milk was to be delivered, the way the knock was supposed to be, whether the man could smile, cough, breath, how many times he could blink, and the angles of the way the food was to be delivered, his gloves. It was frightening, frightening stuff. And we incorporated a lot of that, but unfortunately there was way, way too much to put in. We definitely got the essence of his madness and portrayed what we wanted to portray. But, like I said, Howard Hughes in his later years, that's another film unto itself. It's not as cinematic, a man locked in a room for three hours.

How do you feel spending a week doing that? Do you feel like I'm losing it?

Leo: Sometimes yeah, sometimes definitely. You sort of get into your own headspace and don't really want to talk to anyone. I spent a lot of time just sitting around in the screening room alone. But, pain is temporary, film is forever and that's the fun part of knowing on the day that what you're doing will actually show up on screen, that's the best feeling.

Often history shows us that mental instability and genius go hand in hand. Do you think Howard Hughes would have been the genius that he was without the OCD and everything?

Leo: I think they're a direct result of one another. It's like he would have not been as obsessed about making the largest plane ever built, he wouldn't have been obsessed about breaking every speed record, he wouldn't have been obsessed about flying around the world faster than anyone else, he wouldn't have been obsessed about reshooting Hells Angels for sound, having that movie go on for four years, he wouldn't have been - it was all completely a part of his obsessive nature and his OCD that made him have such an amazing, astounding life. And OCD at the time was undiagnosed. People didn't know what it was and he was such a private introverted person that he would have never, even if there was a doctor out there that could have cured him, he wouldn't have had that meeting with the doctor to begin with, nor taken any medication to solve it. So he just thought it was his own essence, his own being, not knowing that he had any kind of condition whatsoever, and absolutely it propelled him to do everything that he did, I believe anyway. But also, he was a huge dreamer as well. It was a crockpot of different things that make Howard Hughes who he was, but it was a combination of stuff, but OCD was a huge part of it.

You haven't answered last part of the question.

Leo: Yeah, maybe this is boring but I would have loved to have met Orson Wells making Citizen Kane, I think that probably would have been the coolest thing to see, and see a director, a young director like that revolutionize cinema. That would have been the most amazing thing to see. Maybe it's a little typical probably.

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