Compiled by: Jack Foley
Q. How did you decide what to leave out of the film?
A: This is a good point, one of the reasons I never became
too interested in the fascinating life story of Howard Hughes
was that there are so many facets to his life story, stretching
over 76 years. I found it rather daunting. I was born in 1942
so I was mainly aware of Howard Hughes’ name on RKO Radio
Pictures presents His Kind of Woman, Macao, Susan Slept Here which
was a favourite of mine, narrated by a golden statuette with a
voiceover that says ‘hello I’m Oscar.’ It was
So I was watching all these Howard Hughes pictures, the first
one I saw actually was Stromboli, the edited version where she
goes back to her husband. So I knew his name there and I knew
him as a recluse, something to do with Vegas and ultimately an
eccentric of some sort with strange stories coming out of many
My father was an avid moviegoer, a working class guy in the garment
district in the 1920s and 30s, and he loved Hell’s Angels
and Scarface, and he had taken me to see Public Enemy which was
my favourite gangster film. What I’m saying is I had a sense
of Howard Hughes as a filmmaker, but the two films my father kept
talking about were hidden. You couldn’t see them in America
until after he died in 76.
When I got to Hollywood in 1970, 71, people were always talking
about doing a Howard Hughes story – Warren Beatty, Steve
Spielberg, Brian De Palma. So it was not my territory, and when
I got this script called The Aviator, that’s a special word
now that doesn’t really exist any more, thinking of Lindbergh
and Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart I started reading it and basically
the opening scene has Howard Hughes directing Hell’s Angels.
I was hooked on the Hollywood edge, I was a little nervous about
it reading that it was Howard Hughes but what really took it,
what really locked me in was the fact that it only took 20 years
of his life, maybe the most productive. The 20 years in which
his vision, his obsession with speed, his obsession with aviation
really formed in its most lasting pattern in a way, in that it’s
affected our lives today.
We leave him at the end, at the right point. I read the Senate
scene, I said it was like Frank Capra, it couldn’t happen
but it did. That was almost word for word in the transcript, what
he says. And then he flies the plane. He did fly it. But after
that he has to deal with his inner self destruction which ultimately
takes him down.
That’s why I was interested, but also because it was Howard
Hughes and Katharine Hepburn, but they were characters. They were
not documentary figures, where you had to be totally accurate
to every aspect, you know. If he’s afraid to touch the doorknob
it’s the character named Howard who’s afraid, not
Howard Hughes. In that sense he [Leonardo DiCaprio] had to play
the scenes for what they are.
I found that the sparseness of John Logan’s writing, what
he left out in the life story gave a resonance to the scenes that
existed in the script. And the fact that there were so many women
in his life that the only way to deal with this story is to do
one. The second one, Faith Domergue, is one he creates or tries
And the third one is a gang member, Ava Gardner. She treats him
like another guy. Also the chance to do Hollywood in the 1920s,
30s and 40s and the aviation scenes was very tempting.
Q. How did you go about understanding Hughes’ obsession
A: I think there’s only one or two films where
I think I’ve had all the financial support I needed. All
the rest, particularly Mean Streets, I wish I’d had the
money to shoot another ten days. Or The Last Temptation of Christ,
where we had a very low budget. It sounds like a lot, but coming
out of a negative pick up deal I think it was $6 million all in,
It would have been nice to have another million. I’m not
asking for 20 or 26, but another million of 500,000. I could have
shot a few extra days and it would have looked like that. You
do feel that. It would have been nice, but I do think it balances
out. Having restrictions as a filmmaker really does help you.
I certainly would have liked another ten million or so for Gangs
of New York.
I could have shot more of that, that would have been nice. What
was interesting to me about the Howard Hughes story, as I kept
reading the 180 page version and then reading about his life and
the different books that have been written about him – some
rather gossipy and some pretty serious.
Here’s a guy who got everything he wanted, and it did remind
me of something out of Greek mythology, like the richest king
who gets everything he wants but ultimately his family has a curse
on it from the Gods. Here you have this disorder which is in the
genes. It’s not his fault, it’s not his mother’s
fault, it apparently comes from the mother’s side of the
family but no-one went in and fooled round with their DNA, it
It reminds me very much of the curse of the ancient world in
a way, on a family and how it deals with this person. Like the
Minotaur in the labyrinth, and the idea that Icarus’s father
Daedalus who builds the labyrinth to keep the Minotaur in the
centre and keep him under lock and key. And to save his son he
makes him wings of wax.
In a sense his father died young too, he was orphaned but he
left him this extraordinary fortune based on drill bits. And basically
throughout his whole life he tries to escape from the labyrinth,
but he is the labyrinth. He’s the Minotaur, he is his own
monster. That’s what he knows at the end, he looks in the
mirror and says he knows the way of the future, he knows what
the future is going to be.
Q Were the cleavages you
show in the bra sequence real?
A: They were real, we had to get them all cleared per
actress. Obviously the Claudette Colbert comes from DeMille's
Cleopatra, right before the code came in. There were a number,
Irene Dunne was there. The Jane Russell one he finally unveils
was quite bold, but they were done from early 30s films.
Claudette Colbert's was a pre-code picture but the others were
supposedly during the code, that was the idea. I forget which
films they're from but they are the actresses because we did have
to get clearances from them or their estate. You'd be surprised
how many of them didn't want to give us the clearances.
Q. Are you a comfortable flyer?
A: No I’m not.
Q. Does it cause any problems?
A: The flying thing is yes, I’m very phobic about
it, but I’m also drawn to it. I love the look of the planes
and the idea of how a plane flies. The more I learn about it the
better I feel that while I still may not like it but I have a
sense of what is really happening the more I learn about airworthiness
and that sort of thing.
But I was born in 1942, so my first memories were of the art deco
era, and the planes in the 30s like those set in the Chrysler
building. It brings back those old memories, I was very much attracted
like The Shape of Things To Come, the great British film that
was done here by HG Wells and William Cameron Menzies. That was
a major film for me when I was a child. It was on television all
the time along with all the other British films.
Q. Did you talk to Danny Huston about his father?
A: Oh yeah, we talked. I still have to show him some
of his father’s films that he hasn’t seen. I want
to show him We Were Strangers and a number of others. And also
one of his grandfather’s films, called Law and Order, because
I’m a great fan of Walter Huston.
It’s a Universal picture from 1931 or so, and it’s
Walter Huston and Harry Carey and they’re playing the Earp
Brothers. And it’s really Gunfight at the OK Corral, and
he plays a character called Ghost Johnson and it’s just.....they
were all in black suits. I’m going to screen that for him.
Q. Are you filling in the gaps in his knowledge then?
A: I’m trying to, yeah.
Q. Do you see Hughes as a sympathetic figure or a troubled
A: For me there certainly was sympathy for him. I really
didn’t know that much about the early Howard Hughes, that
was one of the reasons I did the film. I think to a certain extent
there is a celebration thereof, of the man and what he was capable
of doing, of his accomplishments.
But I don’t if I would ever want to direct a film with him
producing it. I don’t know if I agree with all his political
points of view, which are not in the script. That’s another
story. Of all the things he did ultimately in his life, I don’t
know if I agree with those. The troubled genius, it’s there,
that is the negative part of it, that’s the dark side.
The way John Logan wrote Howard Hughes in his prime, the visionary
obsessed with speed, I understand that, the drive to make the
picture right. He had all the money in the world, I don’t.
But I’ve been lucky over the years to have crews with me
and some studio people who have been determined to make it right
and go right down the hill with it.
I understood that. I don’t agree with everything he did
in his life, there’s volumes of stuff, but we’re dealing
with this Howard Hughes at this point. And also ultimately the
flaw in Howard Hughes, the curse so to speak, is that a curse
for all of us in terms of a nation that acquires wealth like empires.
I love studying ancient history and seeing how the empires rise
and fall, sowing the seeds of their own destruction. That’s
what fascinated me in the story, in the way the future is for