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The Aviator - Martin Scorsese Q&A



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 very strange.

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 different places.

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 to.

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 with perfection?
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, in 1987.

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 just happens.

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 genius?
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 everyone.

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