The New York Times - September 7, 2002


Back From a Dark Future, Spielberg Lightens Up

By Lewis Beale


On a blustery day in late April, Eero Saarinen's gloriously Art Moderne T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy International Airport looked like something out of "The Twilight Zone." Outside the soaring, birdlike structure, built in 1962 but abandoned last year, a fleet of finned Cadillacs and old Checker cabs waited to pick up nonexistent passengers, while a police car with dome light looked as if it had just been driven onto the property by Toody and Muldoon of "Car 54, Where Are You?"

Inside, the terminal's magazine stand carried faux copies of Look, Life and The New York Herald Tribune. Scurrying by on their way to the next Ambassador StarStream flight were more than than 100 extras in early-1960's attire.

Pillbox hats, pumps and coats with mink collars adorned the women, while the men wore sharkskin suits, skinny ties and white shirts. Flight attendants wore stylized aqua outfits with coordinated carry-ons that looked as if they had been designed by a Paris couturier. Keeping with the period ambience, cigarettes were in evidence everywhere.

Controlling this manufactured chaos was Steven Spielberg, in town to shoot scenes for his new film, "Catch Me if You Can." The movie, which is scheduled to open on Christmas Day, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the real-life con man Frank Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an F.B.I. agent out to capture him.

Dressed in his usual Hamptons-guy-at-the-Gap style gray zip-up sweater, white T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and baseball cap with a Port Authority Security logo Mr. Spielberg was a calm presence in the midst of all this mania, efficiently shooting several scenes in which Mr. DiCaprio attempts to evade policemen and F.B.I. agents out to get him. Relaxed and convivial, Mr. Spielberg took time out to have an extended chat with a visiting fireman, the director Martin Scorsese, and to pose for pictures with the current Olympic skating gold medalist, Sarah Hughes.

After directing "A.I." and "Minority Report," two relatively downbeat science fiction films, Mr. Spielberg seemed overjoyed to be working on a lighthearted project, a caper film about a particularly elusive impersonator and scammer.

"You can assume that somewhere subconsciously I was looking for a way out of the tunnel," he said, referring to his previous films, "but that wasn't in the forefront of my mind. I was simply looking for something that had a lot of energy and forward motion, almost like watching a magician perform close-up magic, sleight of hand."

Yet there is also a recognition that "Catch Me if You Can" is not about just Mr. Abagnale, who by the age of 21 had passed more than $2 million worth of bad checks in 25 countries and had passed himself off as a Pan Am pilot, an assistant state attorney general, a college history professor and the chief pediatric resident at a Georgia hospital. "Catch Me if You Can" is also about a simpler, gentler time, when, as Mr. DiCaprio put it, "you could get by on a handshake and a smile."

Mr. Spielberg's film is based on Mr. Abagnale's 1980 book of the same name, a breezy and testosterone-filled retelling of his adventures, which read like a Playboy fantasy. It is filled with exotic locales, fast cars and even faster women.

"There's something about Frank's exploits that was exciting," said Walter Parkes, who is producing the film for DreamWorks. "This happened before the counterculture, a time when we believed in the roles adult life provided us. The iconography of careers as expressed in uniforms was accepted. Frank understood that and exploited it."

Mr. Abagnale, who was born in New Rochelle, is now 54. After serving time in several prisons in the United States and other countries, he has etched out a successful career as a public speaker, he owns a firm that advises businesses on fraud-related issues and he has been an F.B.I. consultant for more than 25 years, helping the agency track down forgers and con artists.

His own life of crime began when he was 16, after his parents were divorced. Forced to choose with whom he wanted to live, he ran away instead, and spent the next five years living by his wits.

Armed with a lively intelligence and a teenager's sense of bravado, Mr. Abagnale became an autodidact, passing the bar without attending law school. Meanwhile he was printing his own bad checks and manufacturing false ID's

Because he looked years older than his actual age, Mr. Abagnale had little trouble getting people to believe in his cons. Also, he committed his crimes in the mid- to late 1960's, before the age of ID cards, so he was the beneficiary of a more trusting mind-set.In one escapade, for example, Mr. Abagnale posted a sign on a bank's night deposit slot, saying that the opening was broken and all deposits should be left with the security guard. He then stood next to the slot in a rented guard uniform and carried away the night's deposits.

"I never thought I was real smart," said Mr. Abagnale. "I was just someone who saw things and said, `Boy, if I could fly around the world as part of an airline crew.' This was a kid's mind thinking. I would just get these ideas and try it. I was an opportunist."

Opportunist or criminal genius, Mr. Abagnale and his capers have long been of interest to Hollywood. He actually sold the film rights to his story before "Catch Me if You Can" was even written, thanks to a 1977 appearance on the "Tonight" show that generated hundreds of phone calls asking if he had written a book about his experiences. After that, the material was under almost continuous option, passing through the hands of several producers and studios. At one point, Tom Cruise wanted to play Mr. Abagnale. Directors like Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules") and Gore Verbinski ("Mouse Hunt") were also briefly attached to the project.

Mr. Abagnale's story finally landed at DreamWorks, under the auspices of Jeffrey Katzenberg. "I think DreamWorks saw it as a $40 million movie along the lines of `American Pie,' " Mr. Abagnale said. "They saw it as a kids' movie. But all of a sudden Leonardo DiCaprio got in touch with Walter Parkes, saying, `This is my favorite book, I want to play this guy.' "

The part was especially interesting, Mr. DiCaprio said, because it captured "what it's like for a young man who doesn't have the right guidance in his life, who's let out on his own and is like Icarus."

He continued: "He goes to the utmost extreme; he makes up his own rules as he goes along. The fact it's a story about crime is irrelevant to me. It's about human will power and the fact this kid was able to con the world for several years from the age of 16 on. It's about human potential."

Enter Mr. Spielberg. As one of the DreamWorks partners, he reads all the company's scripts. But it was not until the third draft, written by Jeff Nathanson ("Rush Hour 2"), that Mr. Spielberg considered directing the film. He called Mr. Parkes and asked if he could have "24 hours to throw my hat in the ring."

"In a way, I related to the chutzpah of what Abagnale did," Mr. Spielberg said. "It reminded me of when I pretended to be an executive as a teenager, wearing a suit and walking past the guard at Universal Studios. In a way, I lived a double life, hanging around that summer to see how movies and TV shows get made."

Mr. Spielberg was also drawn to the story because he, too, was a child of divorce. As it happens, he was vacationing in the Hamptons with family and friends at the time he was considering the script, he recalled. "So I did something unusual," he said. "I basically had a reading. There were nine girls, including my daughter Jessica, and they began reading the script out loud. In the business we call them `table reads.' This was a patio-table read. The story told itself very well."

That story, which Mr. Abagnale referred to as "strictly a film based on a character myself but not a documentary," has been altered in several important ways. The relationship between Mr. Abagnale and his father, played by Christopher Walken, has been beefed up considerably (Mr. Abagnale never saw his father again after he left home). And Mr. Hanks's part, Carl Hanratty, has been created practically from whole cloth: the book makes reference to an F.B.I. agent on Mr. Abagnale's trail but he is barely mentioned. The film makes him a surrogate father figure.

"If Abagnale had been a 42-year-old guy, there wouldn't be anything special Hanratty would feel about him," Mr. Hanks said. "He does feel protective in a way. There's a `this is me as a kid' feeling. And there is jealousy. The suits, the cars, the lifestyle. But at the end of the day, Frank Abagnale is not going to sleep as well as Carl Hanratty, and Hanratty knows that."

Ultimately, however, "Catch Me if You Can" is about more than a scared and savvy teenager who lived a colorful life on the run. It is also about a time and a collective psychology that don't exist anymore.

"This could only have taken place in an age of innocence, which we are no longer about as a global community," said Mr. Spielberg. "Today people are generally more suspicious of each other, whereas in the 60's, there was a community of trust. That innocence was something that all of us are nostalgic about."


Thanks to ciaoeno and Shaolin !