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A biopic about brilliant fraudster Frank Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can unites director Steven Spielberg with stars Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio; not a fraudulent talent list, you might say, as Jenny Cooney Carrillo reports.

Three of the most powerful people in Hollywood are working on the same set, as Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in his latest caper movie Catch Me If You Can. But, believe it or not, it’s an extra in the background who suddenly catches the eye of the Oscar-winning director.

“Cut!” yells Spielberg mid-scene, striding over to a nervous female extra standing behind DiCaprio and offering her a few tips before returning to the monitor to call action again. Today he is shooting one of the rare scenes in the film where DiCaprio and Hanks are actually in the same room, coming late in the story when DiCaprio’s former conman character, Frank Abagnale, shows up at the FBI office of Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) to reluctantly work for the same guy who sent him to prison. As he is watched by other FBI agents sitting at their desks, Abagnale, dressed in a black suit and tie, is slowly walking toward Hanratty, dressed in a white shirt and tie and holding a large box of files meant for him on his first day at the new job. The pair eventually meets and exchange cordial greetings in the scene – but only after Spielberg has straightened out the extra and shot five more takes.

"this was kind of a ray of sunshine"

“Sometimes I have to watch the actors and at the same time watch the background because if there is one thing that is not convincing about the background, then you lose the whole credibility of the scene,” Spielberg later explains while his crew are breaking to set up another angle here on a stuffy soundstage that used to be an old Boeing aircraft plant in Downey, California. “The woman in the background looked as if she didn’t know what she was doing and she hadn’t been specifically directed to go someplace and do something,” he adds. So why the other five takes? “Leo was looking around a lot and I wanted him to keep his focus more down the aisle because if I’m looking right at you, aren’t you more interested in me if you can see my eyes?” he asks. 

A relatively simple problem to solve today for a director who has spent years in the darkness and complexity of films such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. and Minority Report.. “I needed this,” Spielberg admits, looking relaxed and cheerful in jeans and a denim jacket. “After all those dark movies one after the other, this was kind of a ray of sunshine and it sort of came along and rescued me.”

Today he seems so carefree that even cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s dog, Larry, is allowed to watch from the sidelines. “Of course I’m relaxed,” he chuckles. “I’m not blowing anybody or anything up and there is not one drop of blood in this movie!”

Based on the 1980 memoir of the same name, Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale, who after running away from home at the age of 16, became the youngest person to ever make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. He successfully posed as a lawyer, doctor, college professor and a pilot for a major airline – all before his 18th birthday - and he was also a brilliant forger whose skill at cheque fraud netted him millions of dollars in stolen funds. The film focuses mostly on that three-year period of crime sprees, from the age of 17 to 20, when he played a cat-and-mouse game with his nemesis, Agent Carl Hanratty, before being caught and sent to prison. 

The real Frank Abagnale served prison time in French, Swedish and U.S. prisons between the ages of 21 and 26 before being released on the condition that he would help the government – without remuneration – by teaching and assisting federal law enforcement agencies. Today he is known as one of the world’s most respected authorities on cheque fraud and embezzlement, developing new procedures utilised by over 14,000 financial institutions around the world and conducting over 140 seminars every year for FBI agents and the general public on how to avoid being ripped off by criminals just like him.

First optioned by Paramount Pictures in 1990, the Jeff Nathanson screenplay has been circulating in Hollywood ever since, with directors such as Cameron Crowe, Milos Forman and Lasse Halstrom attached at various times. When Hallstrom dropped out last year due to a conflict with Miramax over a previous deal they would not release him from, Spielberg the studio boss began to think about hiring Spielberg the director to step in.

"first choice for the roles"

“I always loved the script and was always jealous of the other directors who were attached to it. In the back of my mind I always knew that if one director had fallen out, I would step in,” he admits. “Two other directors stepped in after Miramax wouldn’t allow Lasse to make the movie and one of them was a close friend so I had four days to decide whether to speak now or forever hold my peace,” he continues. “I was on vacation in East Hampton and all my wife’s high school friends were visiting us so we had a table reading with these non-actors who were pharmacists and dental assistants and things like that and we read the script out loud and it read so well that I thought, if a tax accountant and a mum can make this sound this good, this must be a really good story!” 

DiCaprio and Hanks were first choice for the roles, and Spielberg has high praise for the two actors on top of their game. “They are amazing to work with, very quick to prepare and they both do their homework and know their lines, which is the only thing I really care about as a director going in,” he says. “I cannot tell you how many movies I’ve made where I come on the set and nobody knows a single line and I ask, ‘why didn’t you learn your lines?’ and they say, ‘we wanted to be open for any new ideas you would have’ and I’m thinking, ‘let’s go with the foundation before we build the damn house!’”

Pushed to get specific, Spielberg elaborates; “Leo studies way ahead of time for every single moment and Tom works best when an idea hits him. Tom will feel the set, feel the desk he is sitting behind and then suddenly become the character. He uses the environment to give him ideas. Leo tends to work things out ahead of time while Tom is spontaneous.”

Hanks does his best Forrest Gump ‘ah shucks’ as he brushes off the compliment when it’s repeated to him a few minutes later. “I just feel like I am in the hands of Thomas Edison and whatever he needs to make the light bulb, I’ll be happy to provide!”

The Oscar-winning actor says he jumped at the chance to work with his long-time friend and Malibu neighbor for the first time as an actor since Saving Private Ryan (the pair had since co-produced the Emmy-winning mini-series Band of Brothers). “You’d have to be the stupidest actor in the world not to want to work with these guys,” he muses. “I knew Leo was doing it and I knew that Steven was doing it and I said, ‘have you guys cast the role of Carl Hanratty at all, are you looking for somebody?’ I just got aboard the train for the view and for the ride. And Carl is somebody who is passionate about what he is doing for a living,” he adds. “He doesn’t care if anybody appreciates it or not but just loves the process and that’s a great character to play.” 

"The real Frank Abagnale has a cameo"

Leonardo DiCaprio - back in the public eye with this film and the Martin Scorsese epic Gangs of New York after almost three years of a self-imposed hiatus - says his decision to get involved was a no-brainer. “Not only was it the best script I’d ever read,” he said, “it was also the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg.” And now on the set, DiCaprio is not disappointed. “The thing that is most special about him is the tiniest little adjustment that he can make,” notes the 27-year-old actor. “He focuses on the characters a lot more than I ever imagined and he is really meticulous yet still open to all kinds of ideas. I’ve never been less afraid to tell a director an idea than Steven, so that is great for an actor.”

The real Frank Abagnale has a cameo in the film – details of which Spielberg refuses to divulge – and he also invited cast to attend one of his seminars so they could see him in action. “You meet him and you don’t think he could hurt a fly,” marvels DiCaprio. “He seems like the most innocent, straightforward, white-collar normal guy but at the same time you can’t help but know he was probably one of the best conmen of all time.”

Hanks continues; “I was fascinated by this story because it’s all possible. When we saw Frank speak, he talked about how we used to teach ethics in school and how we do business and what we expect people to do and now the whole concept of ethics is what can we get away with? We cheat on taxes, scam our bills and take things off the Internet. He made us aware that the average good-natured person thinks it’s possible so just imagine what you can do if you have the slightest bit of larceny on your mind!”

Needless to say, Spielberg is thrilled that he’s got an A-list cast (including supporting roles by Alias star Jennifer Garner, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen) to assist him in telling the lighthearted tale that romps through innocence, larceny and human fallibility. “This movie is 100% dependent on performances and almost like a play,” he says, “so it requires an aspect of me which I use in every movie but more like The Color Purple, where I was dealing with character every single day for four months, this story requires me to deal with the characters, not the camera, every single day for three months. 

“A.I., Minority Report, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, probably half of the time was spent on logistical production problems being solved or having to convince you that you were in combat or convince you the dinosaurs were real and this isn’t about that,” he adds. “I feel more like Mike Nichols directing actors on this than I ever have before.”

"a wonderful fast-paced rhythm"

The US$55 million movie may be low on special effects but it is high on energy, shooting in 38 different locations over 55 days. “I haven’t done that since I first began directing on Sugarland Express,” Spielberg says excitedly. “We’ve had three moves a day and it’s like a mobile army unit where we travel 20 miles, set up our lights, shoot three hours and get back in the trucks and move somewhere else. The longest scene in the script is three-and-a-half pages (minutes) and most of the scenes are a quarter of a page. One scene was Leo walking into a room, taking a cigarette out of his mother’s mouth and walking out of the room and that’s it. It has a wonderful fast-paced rhythm and a conman such as the one Leo plays in the film really needs rhythm to get away with his crime.”

While Spielberg also describes the film as “showing how gullible society was back in the 60s”, he can’t help but smile at the irony that he was also the victim of identity fraud two years ago, resulting in the arrest of 26-year-old Jonathan Taylor Spielberg, who had legally changed his name and was masquerading as his nephew. “It didn’t bother me too much because he got caught doing something for himself, trading off my name for profit, and he didn’t do anything to me or my family,” he says, adding with a cheeky grin; “but my only wish is if he’s ever going to do it again, next time, please do it to another celebrity!”

Published January 9, 2003

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Christopher Walken, Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio onset


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