(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)
After two decades of friendship with Orson Welles and writing two books about Orson Welles, prolific actor-director and unabashed movie buff Peter Bogdanovich got a golden opportunity to tread where few but Welles have dared: He's made a movie that brings to life a persistent rumor about publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst was, of course, the major inspiration for the title character in Welles' "Citizen Kane," and Hearst quite famously blew his top over the release of that film in 1941. Bogdanovich's film, "The Cat's Meow," probably would have inspired a similar reaction. It takes place on Hearst's yacht in 1924, where several Hollywood icons gathered for a weekend fete at the invitation of Marion Davies, an actress and Hearst's young mistress.
One of the guests -- among them were novelist and socialite Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley in the film), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), struggling producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) -- died under suspicious circumstances that weekend. "The Cat's Meow" is, as Glyn puts it in the film's prologue voice-over, "the whisper told most often" about what went down, including flirtations between Chaplin and Davies, witnessed and reported to Hearst by Ince, who hoped to suck up to the billionaire for an investment in his production company.
Bogdanovich knows about such career struggles. After three back-to-back hits in the early 1970s ("The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon"), he's had 20 years with only a few hits and many misses. He also has an infamous, intimate familiarity with both young starlet lovers -- at 32 he became involved with 20-year-old Cybill Shepherd while directing her acting debut in "The Last Picture Show" in 1971 -- and with untimely showbiz deaths. He was involved with (and directing) former Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten when her ex-husband murdered her in 1981.
All these elements make "The Cat's Meow" especially interesting viewing for those with a knowledge of Hollywood history, although there are no prerequisites for watching the picture, which is why I'm not giving away who dies here.
Although tired from a short night's sleep, after a cup of coffee Bogdanovich was enthusiastic to talk about the film and all related topics on a recent trip to San Francisco. We began by discussing Kirsten Dunst, who gives a spectacular, spunky, sensual, savvy lead performance and makes a period-perfect flapper in the role of Marion Davies.
|Q: Kirsten Dunst is extraordinary in this film. She seems completely incapable of being false.|
A: Yes, she's really terrific. I agree with you. I think she's a wonderful actress. I enjoyed working with her a lot. She's so smart and she has emotion in her fingertips. She's got it everywhere. She's not old enough to know that much (about acting) but she knows it intuitively. She knows it as an artist. She knows things that she probably doesn't know in life. But she knows them in a scene. She really has an artistic, intuitive sense of things. And the camera loves her.
|Q: Did you and she do a lot of brainstorming about Marion Davies, about the character?|
A: People ask me if I directed her the way I directed Cybill or Tatum (O'Neal, who made her Oscar-winning acting debut in "Paper Moon"). No, because she was a pro. Kirsten has been acting since she was 3. It was like talking to an old pro, you know? She knew what she was doing. We talked about technical things, like I said "Get your voice down for the part." This woman has been drinking and she's older (than Kirsten) so her voice is lower.
|Q: You shot the film's exteriors in Greece. Why?|
A: It was because of the yacht.
|Q: The yacht you wanted was there?|
A: There was only one yacht. Well, there were two yachts, but one guy said forget it. This one was in Athens...and it was the only period yacht that somebody would let us use that had enough similarity to the Hearst yacht. So the production designer and the cinematographer went looking for a location close to Athens (that could substitute for 1920s coastal California) and they found a little fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Greece -- which, P.S., was not easy to get to! It took the cast and crew 11 hours by bus from Athens.
|Q: Wow! Did you feel like you were back on the horse again with this film? It feels like a true Peter Bogdanovich movie.|
A: Thank you! Well, I don't know. No. I didn't. I felt rather apprehensive [laughs] all during it. I followed my instincts, but it was not an easy shoot. Every scene counted. I wasn't sure, but I pretended to be. You're asking me, and the truth is, underneath it I wasn't sure. I just kept going forward. But I had good actors and we never settled for anything. We kept trying to get it better.
|Q: Did it start to feel good after you started seeing rushes? Did you ever get comfortable?|
A: Good question. No. [Laughs] Not until about the last week -- and I wouldn't say comfortable. But about the last week (I was better) because I did see some of the stuff cut together. I don't like rushes. I've never liked rushes. Rushes are, by necessity, in pieces. You don't see the whole scene. So to me it all seems bitty. I don't like to see it that way. I remember John Ford never looked at rushes. I asked him once why he didn't look at rushes, and he said [affecting Ford's blustery voice], "If there's a problem, I'll hear about it!"
In my career, I've never shot anything as tight as this. There was no fat and there was no coverage. There were no extra shots, there were no luxury shots. What you see -- with the exception of three set-ups -- is exactly what we shot. And those three set-ups we took out, we took the scene out. Two little scenes, about a total of a minute and 20 seconds of the whole movie. Everything else you see, that's what we shot. Some of it, like the black and white stuff, we did in a single take!
|Q: The producers must have loved that.|
A: Well, we only had one day to do that sequence (the title sequence, in which the characters arrive at a funeral in old limousines). We had six or seven old cars. Extras and old cars. They take time. The car would pull up, the extras were yelling, the people would get out, close the door, I'd say "Cut! We got it? Everybody happy? That's it." Walk away. If I'd said to do one more, we gotta move the cars back [makes belchy antique car noises], turn them around, get the extras set up -- it would take 20 minutes. I didn't have 20 minutes. And I did that on almost every set-up in that movie. We did 50 shots one day.
|Q: Holy cow!|
A: It was quite something. That was a marathon. I felt good that day -- when it was over! I'll tell you when I did feel good. When the editor had put together what's called an assembly -- which is really basically just the slates cut off, cutting where I say "cut," picking up where I say "action," and putting it together the way the script indicated -- I saw that about a week after we wrapped, and I thought, The picture works! I didn't know until then, and I was shocked.
|Q: You were shocked?|
A: I was shocked and moved to tears. I thought, "Holy s**t, it works!"
|Q: So when you first heard this story -- from Orson Welles as I understand -- I just imagine he must have relished in dishing this dirt.|
A: He just told it to me in passing actually, as an example of how different Hearst was from Charles Foster Kane. Kane is in fact a composite of three or four different historical figures, including a guy named McCormack, who built the Chicago Opera House for his girlfriend, who was a singer. That whole aspect of Kane, all that stuff is about McCormack and had nothing to do with Hearst. In fact, Orson always felt the big libel in Kane -- when people thought that Kane was Hearst and therefore thought that Susan (Kane's untalented mistress) was Marion -- he said he always felt guilty because the misunderstanding led to a real libel of Marion, who, as Orson said, was a fine comedienne and a loyal person to Hearst.
|Q: With the way Hearst was supposed to have flown into a rage over "Citizen Kane," I can't help but imagine what he would do over "The Cat's Meow."|
A: [Grins] We had jokes (about that). When we were in Greece and the weather kept changing, we were caught between two weather systems that were fighting each other. It would be raining, then the sun would come out, then it would start to rain again, then the sun would come out. You can't shoot that way! So we made a joke, the actors and I. We were kidding around saying, "That's Hearst" when the weather got bad. We decided that Marion was on our side and that Ince was on our side, but that Hearst and Chaplain probably weren't. That was our guess.
|Q: Although all four come across as human and sympathetic in the film. Even when they're being manipulative. Even when they're being dishonest.|
A: Well, I think you understand them. The minute you understand somebody, really, it's hard to hate them. They're human. We're all human. We all have our insecurities and our shortcomings. That's what I liked about the way the film evolved, because when we started it seemed Hearst was the (story's) villain, but when we finished the picture and I saw it, I thought he's not really a villain. It's just life. It gets in the way.
|Q: On the subject of understanding the characters, I have to ask: You've had relationships with young actresses...|
A: Putting it mildly...
|Q: Well, I'm trying to be tactful! [Laughs] You were involved with Cybill Shepherd, and you've been close to a showbiz murder -- Dorothy Stratten. Did you incorporate these experiences in the way you told this story?|
A: Well, let's put it this way: I certainly could empathize with and understand the men in the story. I hope I understood the women too. But I had a personal empathy with, for example, Chaplain in this movie. (Here) he's not the genius filmmaker, he's a movie star on the make. I've been there.
|Q: ...coming off a failed picture. ("The Cat's Meow" takes place immediately after Chaplin's box office flop "A Woman of Paris.")|
A: Coming off a failed picture, that's right. I've been there! Now Ince is a guy who's having a hard time. He'd a guy who's had it all and seems to be losing it. I can certainly identify with that. Hearst is a man who is obsessed with this girl, and she was everything to him. I can understand that. In fact, that makes him rather likable. It makes him more real. So, yes, I've had personal experiences with some of this.
For me, I think the death has such resonance in the picture. (Narratively) because you know there's going to be a death -- it tells you right at the beginning. You don't necessarily know who or how or why (unless you know the rumors the film is based on), but you know. But I felt it was (personally) important to show the terrible repercussions that one death can have. One death can destroy lives, alter them forever. It happened to me, our family and Dorothy's family. We were all irrevocably changed by that night.
People say, "Have you gotten over it?" Well, I've learned to live with it. You don't get over it. Human beings are not built well for shock, so we don't get over it. We just learn to live with it. That was something that was very important to me to try to convey. I think, tragically, because of Sept.11 an awful lot more people have come to understand that. Each of those families understands in their own way.