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Catch Me If You Can - Special feature

Feature by: Jack Foley

"THINGS that happen in real life are sometimes a hundred times more fascinating than anything a person could make up off the top of his head," remarks Leonardo DiCaprio, when talking about the story behind Catch Me If You Can.

The actor portrays Frank W. Abagnale, Jr, a man who, as a runaway teenager, without so much as a high school diploma to his name, managed to pass himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a college professor, all while cashing millions of dollars in fraudulent checks.

Based on Abagnale’s biography, the film is an effortlessly enjoyable romp, co-starring Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, that chronicles an extraordinary story. Though Abagnale was eventually caught and served time in prison, he went on to work for the FBI and is now a leading authority on the subject of embezzlement and fraud - a millionaire.

Yet, as with most Steven Spielberg movies, the story which unfolds is borne out of tragedy and was triggered by a defining moment in the teenage Abagnale’s life.

As Abagnale offers in his biography: "It begins with my parents’ divorce and its dramatic effect on me. I ran away and suddenly found myself a teenager alone in the world.

"I had to grow up very quickly and become very creative in order to survive. But what started out as survival became more and more of a game. I was an opportunist, so when I saw an opening I asked myself, ‘Could I get away with that?’

"Then there was the satisfaction of actually getting away with it. The more I got away with, the more of a game it became - a game I knew I would ultimately lose, but a game I was going to have fun playing until I did."

A bestseller, Abagnale’s autobiography has fascinated millions of readers, including director/producer Steven Spielberg.

"I was like the many people who fell under the seductive influence of the real Frank William Abagnale, Jr., just through his book. and when you meet him, you understand in a second how he could pull the wool over your eyes and convince you that he was a doctor or a lawyer.

"I was fascinated by the unique way he came of age. I really believe he was very strongly affected by the divorce of his parents. There are all sorts of ways kids act out against divorce, and Frank just happened to act out in a way that was so original, it was worth making a movie about.

"Personally, I have always loved movies about sensational rogues, like the Newman/Redford classics ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Sting.’ They were breaking the law, but you had to love them for their moxie."

Although the book had been previously optioned, Abagnale admits: "I never dreamed it would ever really be a movie. How do you condense five eventful years of a life into a two-hour movie?"

The period during which Abagnale was able to pull off such elaborate scams was the decade of the 1960s, and Spielberg attributes at least some of Abagnale’s success to the innocence of the times.

Spielberg explains: "It was a time of tremendous trust, when you never locked your doors, but felt safe."

Aside from the challenge of telling the story in just two hours, Spielberg also jumped at the chance of working with DiCaprio, an actor he has long admired.

"I have been a huge fan of Leo’s, dating back to his work in ‘This Boy’s Life’ and then ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,’ which was a phenomenal performance," he says. "Leo is a very inventive actor and has a lot of ideas. He is also his own best critic. There were times I’d accept a certain take, and Leo would say, ‘No, no. I think there’s something I haven’t found yet; let me do it again.’ And he would invariably come up with something that was just brilliant."

DiCaprio also jumped at the chance to play the role of Abagnale, saying: "For an actor, it’s all about the art of misdirection… how, for example, Frank is able to make somebody concentrate on being asked out to dinner as opposed to the phony check he’s about to pass. I think those are fantastic elements for an actor to play," he adds.

The actor even had the opportunity to meet with the real Frank Abagnale and relates that he still caught glimpses of the one-time con man’s innate ability to disarm you.

"To look at him, you wouldn’t think he could steal a postage stamp. But he has an almost unconscious way of engaging you with his eyes, with his energy and with his intelligence."

With DiCaprio in place, the production team then turned towards casting the role of the FBI agent who goes after him - a part which immediately appealed to Tom Hanks.

He comments: "Carl [Hanratty] is so impressed with the style and panache of his quarry that he’s doubly astounded to discover how young he is.

"Carl suddenly realizes that he is just a kid, incredibly gifted but ultimately a child, who is in the midst of an adventure that is bigger than he is.

"Carl comes to feel almost protective of Frank. I mean, he treats him like a criminal - he’s going to arrest him and send him to jail - but at the end of the day, he sees a fragile human being who is worth trying to redeem somehow."

That said, no one could ever take the place of Frank’s real father in his eyes, particularly as Frank Abagnale, Sr. was the greatest influence in his son’s life. As such, Frank Jr.’s devotion to his father remains steadfast, throughout, providing the movie with its emotional core.

The scenes between DiCaprio and Christopher Walken (who plays Abagnale Snr) are among the strongest in the film, and led to one of the best moments for Spielberg on set.

The director recalls: "I have been a great admirer of Christopher Walken and have always had a desire to work with him. So the minute Walter said, ‘Have you ever considered Chris Walken?,’ everything came into focus about who should play Leonardo DiCaprio’s father."

Producer, Walter F Parkes concurs, adding: "We were filming the scene in the restaurant between Leo and Chris where Chris is talking about his wife, Frank’s mother, leaving him.

"We get to the close-ups, and halfway through the speech, his eyes well up, his voice breaks and he starts to weep.

"Steven and I looked at each other like, ‘Where did that come from?’ It was so real and so immediate, and it changed the essence of the scene to one of heartbreaking emotion.

"That kind of non-mechanical, genuine acting is what you pray for, and it’s what you get with Christopher Walken."

It is just one of many reasons why viewers should make an effort to catch up with this film…

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