Catch Me If You Can
Production Notes

While DiCaprio offers that those subtle traits were something he tried to bring to his portrayal, he was intent on not trying to create an imitation of the real-life Abagnale. “At a certain point you draw enough information from the person, and then you have to go off on your own and create that character and let the character have a life of its own. I didn’t want to take away from the spontaneity of the young Frank going out in the world. I wanted the audience to be carried along with him on his journey of self-discovery,

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to see the sparkle in his eye the first time he sees a pilot looking like a movie star and being treated like royalty, or to watch his first mistakes as a pilot or as a lawyer… I didn’t want to be too perfect, because I believe Frank gets by more on his personality and charm and his ability to misdirect, rather than on being perfect at impersonating people. I think that has a lot to do with the ego of this cocky kid who thinks he can defy everyone, including the F.B.I….and, in fact, does.”

Frank Abagnale’s defiance notwithstanding, the FBI has other ideas and assigns Special Agent Carl Hanratty to track down this elusive “paperhanger.” Tom Hanks stars in the role of Abagnale’s dogged pursuer Carl Hanratty, whom he describes as “an FBI agent who takes great pride in working areas like bank fraud, forgeries and check kiting.”

“Tom Hanks brought such authenticity to this part. He has a bureaucratic quality I had never seen in him before,” Spielberg says.

The two agents assigned to work with Carl don’t share his penchant for bureaucracy and can barely hide their boredom and disdain. But, unfortunately for Frank, Hanks says, “Carl Hanratty loves that stuff; he lives and breathes it. So when he comes across this paperhanger, as they’re called, who is remarkably intelligent and certainly an above-average check forger, Carl makes it his life’s mission to, well, catch him if he can.”

That is easier said than done because, as Spielberg notes, “In any good cat-and-mouse story, the mouse keeps winning for a long time and the poor cat is so frustrated. It’s a vicious circle with the cat chasing a mouse who is much more clever than the cat. But what our FBI agent does have is tremendous patience and resolve. He is just tenacious and as patient as the day is long.”

However, the part of Carl Hanratty serves as more than just the cat in this cat-and-mouse tale, a fact the filmmakers realized early in the development of the script. Walter Parkes explains, “When you have all these terrific but separate incidents of a kid impersonating a doctor in the E.R. or a pilot who flies all over the world, it makes for a very episodic script. The key to turning these episodes into a complete story was the character of the FBI agent. At some point we said, ‘That’s what it is: It’s the story of a kid who leaves one father and finds a different one.’ I mean, imagine this kid who can intuitively change roles, has all the women in the world and is making millions of dollars. Then there’s this FBI agent, the least charming person in the world, who has somehow been put on this earth to not only catch this guy, but to perceive just what kind of genius he is. There was something about that dynamic between Carl and Frank that captured Tom’s imagination.”

Hanks attests, “Carl 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.”

DiCaprio comments, “Carl Hanratty eventually becomes the only person who Frank Abagnale trusts, which is ironic given the fact that Carl is the one who is aggressively trying to put him in jail. There is a certain element of Carl becoming something of a father figure to Frank because he ends up being the only real guidance that my character has.”

That being said, no one could ever take the place of Frank’s real father in his eyes. Frank Abagnale, Sr. was the greatest influence in his son’s life, and Frank Jr.’s devotion to his father remained steadfast, arguably driving him to do much of what he did. “The key person in Frank’s life was his father,” Parkes affirms. “In our film he is a kind of modern Willie Loman. He’s an extremely charismatic man whose attempts to grab onto the American dream elude him every time. There is great poignancy in that.”

Christopher Walken, who was cast in the pivotal role of Frank Abagnale, Sr., remarks, “It was a wonderful opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg and Leonardo. I play his character’s father, and I guess you could say that I encourage him in his pursuits because I’m a little bit of a crook myself.”

It was Walter Parkes who first suggested Christopher Walken for the role. Spielberg 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.”

For DiCaprio, the awe in which he held Christopher Walken translated perfectly into the respect his character holds for his father. “Frank has an unwavering faith in his father; anything his father does is just the most brilliant, ingenious thing. I think my own admiration for Christopher Walken really helped me to portray my character in relationship to his father. As an actor, just to be in a scene with Chris was a great experience for me, both professionally and personally.”

The filming of one particular scene with Walken resonated not only for DiCaprio, but also for everyone involved. Parkes remembers, “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.”
Every time Frank reunites with his father in the film, it is in the blind hope that he can somehow use his ill-gotten money to bring his father and mother back together. Frank’s father had regaled him from childhood with stories of how, as a young GI, he had swept this beautiful, young Frenchwoman off her feet and brought her to America as his wife.

To stay true to the part of Frank’s mother, Paula Abagnale, Spielberg was determined to cast a French actress. He enlisted the aid of a friend who just happened to be living in Paris at the time, director Brian De Palma. “I sent Brian the script and asked if he would help,” Spielberg says. “He did tests with different actresses, including Nathalie Baye, whom I knew from her work in the François Truffaut film ‘Day For Night.’ She was the one I wanted for the role.”
“There was a particular quality Steven was going for,” Parkes offers. “Frank’s mother is full of contradictions: she adores her son, yet she is a pretty self-involved woman. It was a very complex character to depict in a very few scenes.”

Nathalie Baye observes, “I don’t think she’s a very good wife, and she is not really a good mother. She met her husband when she was 18, so she feels she missed something in her life. She smokes a lot, drinks a little, and she has another man. She is not, how you say, politically correct.”

After he leaves home, Frank has other women in his life. Taking on the persona of an adult opens the door to relationships with older women, including a one-night stand with a model-turned-call girl named Cheryl Ann. Jennifer Garner makes a cameo appearance in the role of the beautiful woman who sells her services to Frank…or so she thinks.

Spielberg had seen Garner on her hit series “Alias,” in which she is the one playing different characters from week to week. “The first time I saw Jennifer, I immediately said she would be the next superstar. I knew she was locked into the series, but I wondered if she would do this small role. She came in and worked for just one day and was simply remarkable.”

Recalling how she got the part, Garner laughs, “It was so like a dream that it’ll sound ridiculous. My agent called and said, ‘You have been offered a small role in a film…and Steven Spielberg is directing.’ I thought, ‘How can that be possible?’ But it was, and it turned out to be an amazing experience.”

Not all of Frank’s female encounters are so casual. The loneliness of his illusory lifestyle finally catches up with him when he meets a sweet and innocent young woman named Brenda. “As fantastic and colorful as Frank’s life was, at the end of the day, he really had nobody,” DiCaprio says. “He finally finds a girl he feels he can settle down with, but he soon learns there can be no picturesque, idealistic family life for him.”

Amy Adams won the role of Brenda over numerous other hopefuls following a casting search that Spielberg says lasted for months. “I was blessed because I had one of the most resourceful casting directors I’ve ever worked with in Debra Zane. She brought me a lot of potential Brendas, but when she brought in the tape of Amy Adams, I could tell she had somebody she really liked. She was so excited and she was holding the tape like it was the Rosetta Stone of the whole movie,” he recalls. “I loved Amy’s test. Then when Leo came in that afternoon, I told him, ‘Leo, I’m going to show you eight or nine different actresses.’ When we got to Amy, he said, ‘Go back. Who’s that?’.”

“Amy was as fresh and honest as anyone we’d seen, and honesty is very important in this part,” Parkes notes. “The great irony of Frank’s relationship with Brenda is: here is Frank who’s living the biggest lie you could imagine, and in that lie, he meets the one honest, true thing he’s ever known and falls in love with her. Yet the relationship is totally based on deception. It was very important that the actress playing Brenda be able to convey that simple purity, which is in stark contrast to what Frank’s life has become at that point.”

Amy Adams agrees that Brenda does possess a certain naiveté, but adds that there is more to her than meets the eye. “I understand why Frank is taken with Brenda. She is very open and honest with him, and that must be attractive to somebody who has had to live a lie for so long. She’s also, of course, completely enchanted by him. Who wouldn’t be? He’s darling. Brenda is naive and innocent, but at the same time, she has this raw energy and passion, so it was really fun to play that innocence just bordering on losing control.”

Frank meets Brenda at the hospital where she works as a candy striper, and in that moment, he changes his identity from Pan Am co-pilot Frank Taylor to Doctor Frank Conners. After proposing to Brenda, he goes with her to her parents’ New Orleans home to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Brenda’s father, Roger Strong, is the New Orleans District Attorney, so as quickly as he became Dr. Conners, Frank adds Attorney at Law to his resume.

Spielberg wanted Martin Sheen for the role of Roger Strong, and fortunately, the actor’s schedule on the hit series “The West Wing” did not preclude him from being available to do it. “Martin brought an immediate power and solidity to the role—maybe helped a little by the fact that we now know him as the President of the United States,” Walter Parkes jokes. “Seriously, he has that kind of intimidating presence, which is very important in that it gives Frank a certain amount of anxiety to deal with.”

Frank’s welcome into the Strong’s home is the closest thing he has had to a family in years. It causes his relationship with them to be, in some ways, more honest than any he has had, with the possible exception of Carl Hanratty. However, it is too late for Frank to start over with his new family, regardless of how much he wants to.

Martin Sheen offers, “Frank is genuinely in love with my daughter, and we are overwhelmed by his charm, intelligence and charisma. Of course, it ends badly, but his heart was in the right place. There is no question that he’s sincere. I mean, he could never pull off the frauds that he does if he didn’t come from a foundation of honesty. At heart, he’s a good and decent young man, and that’s why I think the audience is going to be pulling for him from the first frame.” Read On

 


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