A living legend and a towering presence in cinema, Oscar-winner Warren Beatty remains one of Hollywood’s last great male icons and last links to the old studio system. He starred in his first film, Splendor in the Grass, back in 1961, and since then, he’s made an eclectic range of films, including such classics as
Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Bugsy, McCabe and
Mrs. Miller, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, The Only Game in Town, Lilith, and
The Parallax View.
Only Beatty and Orson Welles (for Citizen Kane) have been nominated by the Academy as an actor, director, writer, and producer for the same film — and Beatty is the only person ever to have done it twice, for
Heaven Can Wait and again for
Reds. Over the course of six decades and some 40 films, the movie star has also metamorphosed into an ambitious and accomplished filmmaker whose credits include
Reds, Heaven Can Wait, Dick Tracy, Bulworth and his latest film,
Rules Don’t Apply, which he wrote, produced, directed and stars in.
Set in 1950s Hollywood, the film tells the story of the burgeoning romance between aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins)and her ambitious driver Frank Forbes(Alden Ehrenreich). Both are employed by Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty), the secretive billionaire movie mogul, famed aviator and legendary eccentric — and the ultimate rule breaker.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, a very playful Beatty talks about making the film, stardom, Howard Hughes and his love of post.
I last interviewed you 18 years ago for Bulworth, which now seems incredibly prescient. This is the first film you’ve directed since then. Why the big rush?
(Laughs) “Yeah, I could have taken an-other 18 years! It just took a long time to get it just right.
Given all that, what sort of film did you set out to make?
“I thought I was going to make a film that involved three people, one being Howard Hughes, who I’ve always been extremely amused by — his need to hide, his outrageous indulgences — and simultaneously, since I first became aware of him when I came to Hollywood, I wanted to do a movie about someone arriving here and getting involved with him.”
You’ve probably met every famous person in the world, but you never met Howard Hughes, right?
“True. I never met him, but I felt that I met everyone who did ever meet him, and who had all these experiences with him. And he was very well-liked. No one spoke ill of him. I almost met him. Here I was in Hollywood, in 1964, and I had what I’d consider to be an appropriate level of paranoia, and I’d become — what do you call it when you’ve just had a huge hit?”
A movie star?
“Thank you. You said it, I didn’t. (Laughs hard) Anyway, because of that, I was slightly paranoid about the tabloids —and I feel that a man who isn’t slightly paranoid isn’t in full possession of the facts. And I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I felt I was being spied on by these two guys hanging around in the hallway outside my room. So I called the front desk and told them how disappointed I was that they’d allow tabloid reporters in to spy on me, and they said, ‘Mr. Beatty, those people are not with the tabloids — they’re with Mr. Hughes.’ So I said, ‘Are you telling me that Howard Hughes is in the next suite to me?’ And they said, ‘We don’t know. He has seven suites – and confidentially, he also has five bungalows.’ And from that moment, I thought, I have to get this in a movie. It could be a French farce. And so I always had that in mind and I heard all these bizarre stories about him that were sort of trivial but hilarious. So I knew it could have all these comedic elements, and I wanted to do a story about that guy I was, that came to Hollywood and was dazzled by all the people I met, like Sam Goldwyn and David Selznick and Billy Wilder and Jack Warner. They were nice to me, and Frank’s character in this is someone I could relate to. And what was most interesting to me were the effects– comedic and sad – and consequences of American sexual Puritanism, that thing that’s so often made us the laughingstock of France and so much of Europe. So you had all this hypocrisy about sex, and then the rise of feminism in the ‘50sand early ‘60s, which helped to lead us into the sexual revolution of the ‘60s,and all that really fascinated me. And I came from Virginia, a southern Baptist, and grew up with all that background, all the changes taking place, and then the idea that in movies it was OK to kill as many people as you want, but don’t be sexy. And then a person coming to Hollywood and seeing that the marketing of that sexiness was par-amount — I saw it as a fascinating and ridiculous situation. So I wanted to explore all those ideas in the film, the idea of sexual guilt and repression, along with the story of Howard Hughes, this larger-than-life character.”
What were the biggest technical challenges in making this?
“There weren’t any huge ones, although it’s a big period piece and that always creates problems.”
Because that glamorous world doesn’t exist anymore?
“Exactly. But I had very good people who helped with all that recreation, including Deborah Ricketts who did all the archival research, and found some great period footage of street scenes in Hollywood and Las Vegas that we incorporated with the visual effects. And then there was Caleb Deschanel who did a great job at capturing that Hollywood ‘50slook and style, and then we were able to shoot at the real Beverly Hills Hotel where Hughes often lived, and Musso & Frank Grill, and we built a lot of sets, and then visual effects supervisor John Scheele did a lot of work. But it wasn’t that complicated a movie to shoot. I came in on schedule and budget.”
Do you like the post process?
“I do, a lot. The only part of it that I find quite difficult is that I don’t like to show a film before it’s ready, because with my films, they only get ready at the last minute. To quote Cocteau, ‘a poem’s never finished, it’s just abandoned,’ and that’s how I feel. I like showing it but not to people who then have to decide what they think of it. That’s dangerous, and you only have one immediate response. So post and editing is where you make your film to some degree, and sometimes you have to go back and do reshoots to fill in a blank or to clarify some-thing, but I didn’t do any reshoots on this.”
Where did you post?
“I edited it at my offices up on Mulholland, the usual place, and then we did all the rest of the post and sound mixing over at Sony on the lot.”
You edited the film with four editors — the great Billy Weber, who’s been nominated twice for an Academy Award (for Top Gun and The Thin Red Line), along with Leslie Jones, Robin Gonsalves and Brian Scofield. How did that work?
“I like to kick it around in editing and I’m there every day. Billy, who worked on Bulworth with me, started off and then had to go off and cut Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise and Ed Zwick. And Leslie is the daughter of Bobby Jones, who was my editor on Heaven Can Wait and Shampoo. And for Robin, this was her first main editing job after being an assistant, and she was on the movie the longest. And they all worked on it simultaneously, and on all the same scenes, kicking it back and forth. And I wound up with the luxury of being able to take a long time over the edit in the final process with Robin.”
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? A lot of directors feel it’s half the movie.
“I wouldn’t say half. I’d say more like 95 percent.(Laughs) It’s just so important and I choose all the music myself and work very closely with the sound team, supervising sound editors Mike O’Farrell, Dave Giammarco, mixer Deb Adair and the rest.”
This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but in period films the VFX play a big role, and you tend to make period pieces.
“Right. In fact, I haven’t made a movie that wasn’t a period piece. Even Shampoo was a period piece as we made it in ’74 and it was set in ’68.”
Talk about working with visual effects supervisor John Scheele, who did Dick Tracy with you and whose credits include W and Alexander.
“He’s incredibly skilled and he worked very closely with Deborah Ricketts. They did all this research for over two years and found a lot of old VistaVision footage from the late ‘50s and early‘60s, with all the cars driving around Hollywood, and then we built up the visual effects for the plane sequences using actual photography they found. But for the Spruce Goose itself in the scene where Howard Hughes takes Frank for a hamburger, John recreated it completely with CGI. And then he did a lot of clean up and taking out all the modern stuff in shots and so on.”
Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it, or did it morph into something else?
“A film never turns out the way you first envision it. And you hope it doesn’t, because it gets better as you go along — or it should. But this pretty much came out the way I hoped it would. As I said, I had all these initial ideas in mind, but sometimes you do your best work when you don’t have anything in mind and it just happens when you’re thinking about something else. And I was able to indulge that in my career as I got lucky with my first film, Splendor in the Grass, with Elia Kazan. So then I didn’t have to go and do a bunch of movies I didn’t want to do, and I’ve never produced a movie I didn’t want to do. I’ve been very lucky.”