Spielberg moderated a Q&A with Martin Scorsese at a DGA screening at Gangs of New York in 2002, and Scorsese did the same for Spielberg at a screening of Catch Me If You Can that same year. A transcript is below.
Martin Scorsese: When I think of Steven, images come to mind — spectacle, entertainment and, ultimately, the evolution of genres that were developed earlier in the film world. But on the other hand, when I think of your body of work, what comes to mind is your sense of family, and the working out of what is a family, what a family could be, and ultimately, what it should be. This picture deals directly with the family. Every film is a new lesson. Did you discover something from this one?
Steven Spielberg: I did, but my discoveries are still rooted back 45 years in my life, when I was kid. The older I get, the more I go back to the early memories to get me to commit to a movie. It takes sometimes something very Freudian to get me to say, “Well, this is interesting; I better read beyond page 50. With Catch Me If You Can, it was the first time, I think, on any film that I directed that I pretty much confronted head-on the events and repercussions of divorce. More figuratively perhaps in this film than I even did in E.T., which was suggested. The idea came to me based on my parent’s divorce and how I felt and how Elliot felt, and what my needs were when I was that age, what Elliot’s needs were without a father. This was a little more literal than that, and so that was the first thing that attracted me to the subject — that and the fact that I did what he [Frank Abagnale] did once. I snuck through the gate at Universal pretending that I was a junior executive to get myself on the lot for the first time when I was 16 years old.
Scorsese: The film kind of reminds me of the Ealing Studio films made in the ’40s and ’50s, particularly The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. Frank is basically a decent kid, like the character that Alec Guinness played. A charming guy who wants to beat the system, in a way. I wonder about the game plan in the film, the way you showed the game, because we want to be scammed.
Spielberg: We do. We also want to see Butch and Sundance beat the system. We want to see the characters in The Sting beat the system. Every scam in the movie actually happened. It was Johnny Carson who inspired Frank Abagnale to write the book on which this movie is based because he was on the Carson show several times after he got out of prison. Carson’s producers discovered him and he became more known because of the Carson show than anything else. We admire people who break the law without killing people.
Scorsese: In the 1950s when Frank Sutton, the guy who when asked why he robbed banks replied, “Because that’s where the money is,” was arrested and they were going to give him the chair, there was a whole public uproar. He didn’t get it. He stayed in prison.
Spielberg: This was a very moral time. This was a safe time, relatively speaking, in America. When someone like Frank Abagnale, based on charm, personality and presentation, could pull these scams. Frank has told me that you couldn’t do this today, that today he could never do what he did all those years ago because the country’s changed. I said, “What kind of person does today what you did over 35 years ago?” He said, “Oh, hackers on the internet. It’s all done by hackers now.”
Scorsese: In terms of the story, what bothers me, Frank’s story, is the style, the lightness of touch. It’s a very deceptive movie because there’s a lightness in the storytelling visuals and in the cutting in this story about Frank and his two fathers — really one father in a way. When the drama hits home, it becomes extremely powerful. There’s that one medium close-up over the shoulder of Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio on the plane [where Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty tells Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank that Frank’s revered father died]. You don’t expect it because the attitude is light, the storytelling is kind of light. Lightness of touch is not easy to do, right?
Spielberg: I’m not sure. I compare lightness with movies that I’ve seen years and years ago when lightness of touch was something that was pretty standard fare. It’s a little harder to do today because there’s more cynicism.
Scorsese: You enjoy watching the scams. In the camera moves, there’s a lightness in touch, but it knocks you emotionally.
Spielberg: There’s a very simple reason. I had just come off A.I. and went immediately into Minority Report, two very dark science fiction, futuristic dramas. When I read this script, to me, it was suddenly a chance to have some fun and get out into the sunlight and do something that I have never really done before. It was a real breath of fresh air. Minority Report was the most complicated story I have ever had to tell, and every single day I worried more about the script than I did about the camera, because every single day it was, “Oh, my God, there’s a plot hole” and I had to fill it. This was a ride. On this, I was able to sit on the back of the film with a very light rein without having to beat it to death.
Scorsese: You still make it look easy, and I know it’s not. We look at the older films by the older Hollywood directors and we’d say, ‘Ah, Ernst Lubitsch, look at that touch! It’s so light, so easy! Yeah, try it.’
Spielberg: Look at George Cukor. No one talks about George anymore. But look at The Philadelphia Story (1940), look at some of the great films he made with a light, sophisticated touch.
Scorsese: Look at Our Betters (1933) and some of his films from the early 1930s. They still hold up.
Spielberg: What does make it harder today is to find the writers. I think what we have the greater nostalgia for is finding the writers. Most of the greatest writers working in our business today are writing television episodic and television sitcoms. The Larry David Show [Curb Your Enthusiam] is like 1930s perfect screwball comedy, perfect structured scenario. It’s all improvised, so there is improvisation around really good structure. When we get a good screenplay, we’re blessed. I was blessed because I had one writer on Catch Me If You Can. I had Jeff Nathanson, who wrote the script, who was there for the whole movie and who was there on the set almost every day. Marty and I know that the biggest thing that keeps us off the floor is not having a script ready to shoot. That keeps us off the floor for years sometime on a project that we really want to do.
Scorsese: And even off the floor while you’re directing sometime you can still be writing the script while you’re shooting. Again, I want to ask you about the visuals. Steven is a picture maker and people wonder what a picture maker is. I once asked you about a shot in Empire of the Sun, and I’m going to ask you to tell the story. I think that kind of defines it. There’s this extraordinary shot of the sun in the morning. A great big sun coming up and the last three kamikaze pilots are doing ritual sake and they are silhouetted against the sun.
Spielberg: Sometimes it pays to get to the set before your crew, which I try to do on almost every picture. I like to get there first. I walk around, and figure out what I’m going to do that day. I got to the set while it was still dark and then I saw, as it got lighter, where the sun was going to rise. It was going to rise on the very flat area, and I suddenly had this idea. Luckily, thank God, the camera truck had arrived and there was one assistant and he was taking boxes out of the truck. I had the driver and the assistant take an 800mm lens out and stick it up on an Arri, and we ran with five sandbags. I ran into the makeup hut and grabbed these four Japanese who spoke no English. I gave them swords and put hats over their heads, and dragged them out to the field, and basically said, “Do what we did yesterday. Do. Rehearse.” I took a sake cup: “And do this [Spielberg mimicked the sake ritual] and bow.” I ran back to the camera, which was about an eighth of a mile away. It was awful — this was before we had little motorcycles and golf carts — you just had to run. They were having trouble getting the magazine loaded because the guy who took the camera off the truck was not a loader, so we were both together loading the camera. I had never loaded an Arri before and you have to load it properly. By this time, the sun is five feet off the ground, and we’re not going to make it in time. Finally, we closed the gate. I do an eye focus, turn on the camera, and scream as loud as I can, “DO IT LIKE YESTERDAY.” It was like kismet, like magic, just where the sun needed to be. We filled the entire frame with the 800mm long lens. We were able to get that moment.
Scorsese: I wanted to ask you about this story you told me once a long time ago about a meeting you had with one of our colleagues. I never met him. I saw him once at the DGA. It would be nice if you told the audience who it was.
Spielberg: Well, when I was about 15 years old, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona. My second cousin had a friend who had a friend who was the creator of Hogan’s Heroes. [Through this connection, Spielberg visited the man at his office.] This guy said, “Well, do you want to be a picture maker?” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “I’m in television. You want to talk to the guy next door. That’s the guy you should talk to. It’s John Ford.” I said, “You have John Ford next door?” He said, “Yeah, his secretary’s really nice.” So I went next door, and the secretary said, “Well, Mr. Ford’s at lunch, but he’ll be back any minute now, so why don’t you have a seat and wait.” So we waited and we talked, and I told her about my little 8mm movies I was making back in Phoenix, Arizona, and all of a sudden the door opens and a man in a complete safari outfit, with a patch over his eye, with a cigar between his fingers comes walking into the room. She says, “Mr. Ford will see you for a couple of minutes.” So I walk into the room and he is sitting there with his big cowboy boots on his desk. It reminded me of the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart sits across from Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter purposely has the chair across from him so Jimmy Stewart looked like one of the Little Rascals once he sat in the seat, and shrank down. I did the same thing. Ford said to me, “So you want to be a picture maker?” And I said, “Yes.” “What have you done so far?” I said I was 15 years old, and I said, “I’ve made some films in 8mm and I go to school in Phoenix, Arizona.” “Well, what do you know about picture making?” “What do you know about pictures?” “What do you know about art?” “You’ve got to know about art.” I guess I was quiet. “Well, get up and look around the room. What do you see on the walls there?” I said, “Art.” “Go to the first painting.” And, by the way, these were all Western paintings, probably Russells, Remingtons, but I didn’t know those names then.
He said, “Tell me what you see?” I said, “Well, there’s a cowboy sitting on a horse—” He said, “No, no, no, no, where is the horizon?” I said, “Well, the horizon is just a couple of inches above the bottom of the picture.” He said, “OK. Go to the next painting, what do you see in that painting?” I said, “There’s a lot of Indians on horseback—” “No, no, where’s the horizon?” “Well, the horizon’s at the very top of the painting?” “Go to the next painting. What do you see there?” I said, “There’s no horizon at all.” He said, “No, no, what objects are in the painting?” I said, “There’s an Indian and a cowboy.” And then, still sitting in his chair, he turns around, he said, “Look, kid, when the day comes in your life when you can tell that a shot is great when the horizon is at the very bottom of the frame with all that sky, or the horizon is at the very top of the frame with all that ground, and when you can recognize the fact when the horizon goes directly in the center of the frame, it’s a lousy painting, when you recognize that, you might have a future in the picture business.”