Catch Me If You Can poster art by Mike Pappa, https://mike-pappa.com/illustrator
March 5, 2023
Part of the inspiration of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ for me is that it shows you can turn your life around and make something better of yourself, but it’s also a story that is pure, unadulterated fun. It has tremendous joie de vivre, which is reflective of who the real Frank Abagnale is to me. I could also relate to him in a way. When I was first trying to become a movie director, I became a 16-and-a-half-year-old executive. I put on a suit and tie and carried a briefcase, and walked right past Scotty at the main gate at Universal Studios every day during summer vacation. Five days a week for three months, I walked on and off that lot… and was, for that one moment, Frank Abagnale. —Steven Spielberg
By Koraljka Suton
Steven Spielberg has long been a household name. Seasoned cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike are more than familiar with his box office hits—like Jaws (1975), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the Indiana Jones trilogy (1981-89) or Jurassic Park (1993)—as well as his critically acclaimed masterpieces, such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), both of which earned him an Academy Award for Best Director. Spielberg’s films speak to the hearts of many, with a considerable number of his pictures exploring the concept of broken families, something the filmmaker has personal experience with due to him being a child of divorce. But there is one movie in particular that tackles this subject matter superbly, while managing to be both masterfully crafted and highly entertaining. It is one of the director’s most personal films (apart from his astonishing semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans). A movie that defies genre categorization. A financial success that garnered critical acclaim and snatched two Oscar nominations. And yet, it somehow remains underappreciated and is often left out of the conversation when Spielberg’s films are being discussed. If you ask Guillermo del Toro, it is the most underrated great movie of all time, and one he makes sure to watch annually. The movie in question is the 2002 biographical caper drama Catch Me If You Can.
The source material for this cinematic gem was the semi-autobiographical 1980 book called Catch Me If You Can: The Amazing True Story of the Youngest and Most Daring Con Man in the History of Fun and Profit, written by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding. It chronicles the criminal escapades of the former who claims to have stolen millions of dollars by cashing fraudulent checks while posing as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer and evading the FBI in the process. All of this before turning nineteen. The author and con artist sold the movie rights to producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin the same year his book was released. The rights then changed owners a couple of times, going from Columbia Pictures to Hollywood Pictures to Bungalow 78 Productions to Paramount Pictures, before eventually finding a home at Spielberg’s film company DreamWorks Pictures in 1997. Jeff Nathanson was set to write the screenplay and by 2000, David Fincher was to sit in the director’s chair, but he ultimately left the project to go make Panic Room (2002). After Gore Verbinski, Lasse Hallström and Miloš Forman had also dropped out, Spielberg decided to direct it himself, thus abandoning films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Big Fish.
The story begins in 1963 and follows Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenager living with his parents in New Rochelle, New York. The young man’s hero is his father (an Academy Award nomination for Christopher Walken) who is no stranger to conning people, with Frank Jr. sometimes serving as his accomplice. Dreaming of power and money, Frank Sr. lives an unaffordable lifestyle which eventually catches up with him, resulting in the family losing their big house and moving into a much smaller apartment in the wake of an I.R.S. investigation. After a while, Frank Jr. finds out that his parents, whose romantic love story he could never hear enough of, are getting a divorce. When forced to decide which parent he is going to live with, the sixteen-year-old chooses neither and runs away instead. Having learned a thing or two from his small-time con man of a father, Frank manages to get his hands on a Pan Am pilot’s uniform, which enables him to not only fly across the country for free as a passenger, but also to make substantial amounts of money by forging the company’s payroll checks—and by substantial I mean millions of dollars. Agent Carl Hanratty (portrayed by Tom Hanks) of the FBI is on to him, but Frank Jr. always manages to elude capture by settling into a new persona using his unique set of skills. Be that as it may, Hanratty, himself a man with a family life in shambles, is relentless in his pursuit and Frank is still but a child, running away from the shattered pieces of a broken home, slowly but surely drowning in the loneliness of his chosen lifestyle. He cannot run forever. And no matter how hard he tries, he cannot outrun himself or the reality of his family situation which he tries so desperately to escape.
It could be argued that by leaving his old life behind at the age of sixteen, Frank did not just run away from home, but also from a truth he simply could not come to terms with—the fact that his idyllic family life, the one he had romanticized and grown so attached to, was but a mere façade. Therefore, one of the reasons why he managed to become such a master of deception, was that he started out as a master of self-deception. Each time Frank re-invents himself, he gets to live out a fantasy of his own making, one where he is the one (seemingly) in control of the narrative. By doing so, he tries to compensate for the lack of stability and the accompanying terror of helplessness, both of which rear their ugly heads when our protagonist is forced to choose between his two parents. In declining to make that choice, he goes with a third option of his own making, one that enables him to be the master and commander of his destiny. And this gives him both agency and a new objective: to become enough and to earn enough so that his parents could reunite. Instead of dealing with the pain of having his illusion of a picture-perfect family destroyed and making a hard choice rooted in reality (which parent to live with), a choice which would only confirm and reinforce the shattering of said illusion, he decides to create a new make-believe. One in which he has both the power and the means to bring his family back together again. One in which he is not a helpless kid. And when the time comes for him to abandon a persona, he is yet again presented with a choice—to either face reality or run away one more time, so as to fabricate a new identity and a new happily ever after for himself. And every time, he chooses the latter. Until he doesn’t have that luxury anymore.
It is as if Frank pressed pause the day he ran away and decided to exercise control, thinking that if he just got back all the money (and status) that was lost, he and his parents would simply pick up where they left off. This notion is both sad and touching, seeing as how children tend to take on the burden of unprocessed family trauma, feeling as if they were the ones responsible for ‘fixing’ the family (problem) and believing that they could actually accomplish the task, if they just tried hard enough. If there ever was a testament to Frank being a child—that is one. The other is his dire need for a father figure, which he finds in none other than Hanratty. In Frank’s eyes, the fact that the FBI agent ‘plays along’ by chasing him implies that he cares—just as children need to feel that the adults in their lives are willing to co-inhabit their reality (which often includes games of pretend), so too does Frank need a grown-up to join in on his elaborate game of cops and robbers. By doing so, Hanratty is not only acknowledging Frank’s existence and confirming his importance, but also displaying affection. He cares enough to keep on pursuing him. Or better yet, Frank made him give a damn, something he could never get his father to do. What is more, Hanratty symbolizes Frank’s only outward touch with the reality of who he himself is, since all the other people in the con man’s life are not in a relationship with him, but rather with whichever persona Frank is currently embodying. But Hanratty knows the truth of Frank and is actually paying attention to him. Not to one of the façades he so skillfully puts up, but to the mastermind behind the scenes, the kid making it all happen.
And Hanratty is also in dire need of connection, being a divorced man who rarely sees his daughter. Meaning that the two unlikely companions have more in common than they would like to admit. Both more than familiar with the feeling flavor of loneliness, Frank and Carl immerse themselves each in their respective endeavors (Frank’s being the conning and running, and Carl’s being the pursuing) trying to escape their internal voids. But the sad truth presents itself in the scenes depicting Christmas eve, when Frank starts a new tradition by giving Carl a call from one of the hotels he is staying at. It is the first time Carl realizes that Frank is lonely. And we soon figure out that Carl is in the same boat, given the fact that he is more often than not the only one in the office, working on a holiday. Frank even gives Carl his exact location, but the agent just shrugs it off as another one of his cons. A part of Frank wants to get caught—because the totality of Frank yearns for connection and recognition.
These themes of loneliness and connection, truth and illusion, family and identity form the basis of Spielberg’s picture, making Catch Me If You Can a profound drama film at its heart of hearts, but in the guise of a light-hearted crime comedy. A skillful amalgamation of genres, the movie is touching to watch, exciting to experience and easy to appreciate from a technical standpoint. In the earlier mentioned Twitter thread, Guillermo del Toro praises Spielberg for his ‘prodigious, nimble camera-actor staging’ and the ‘incredibly fluid’ camerawork. Spielberg yet again teamed up with Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński who has, as of today, worked with the director on twenty of his films (the first one being Schindler’s List (1993), which earned the director of photography his first Academy Award). Together, they created an enjoyable watch that is ‘supposed to make you feel better,’ according to Kamiński himself. Up until that point, the two had collaborated on rather bleak projects, but Catch Me If You Can was a chance for them to try out something different. When asked about this by John Pavlus, Kamiński said: ‘I would compare the film’s look to a bottle of champagne: when you pour that first glass and hold it up to the light and enjoy that warm glow, you just want to drink it in and get happy. So the lighting style is very warm. When we enter the Seventies, I went for a slightly bluer and pastel-like look, purposefully trying to make the images flatter and uglier.’
Del Toro went on to compare Spielberg with directors such as Stanley Donen, William Wellman, Vincent Minnelli, William Wyler and Michael Curtiz, all of whom were described by Ted Mills of Open Culture as ‘workaday directors within the studio system, all skilled craftsman, but not so idiosyncratic as to stand out.’ When talking about his influences, this is what Spielberg told the American Film Institute: ‘People like Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz I identify with more [than the likes of Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles] because they didn’t have styles… They were chameleons and they could quickly adapt; they could go from a story about heaven and the afterlife to the Civil War. They could do a lot of different subjects and they could do them well because they were good craftsmen… but they didn’t impose who they were on what that was. And I always felt I was more in their game.’
In 2002, the real Frank W. Abagnale commented on both the book and the film, claiming that the co-writer of the former, having talked with Abagnale just a few times, embellished certain aspects of his story. Abagnale also felt the need to emphasize that the cinematic adaptation is ‘just a movie… not a biographical documentary’ and that Hollywood has taken even more liberties than his co-writer. What Abagnale failed to mention was the fact that the events chronicled in the book itself were not just exaggerated, but potentially completely fabricated. In 2020, The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth While We Can by Alan C. Logan was published. In it, the author presents his meticulous research that proves Abagnale had only scammed and stolen from individuals and local businesses (something he himself claimed never to have done—his targets were presumably only banks, airlines and hotels) and ended up behind bars for a couple of years. Those same years that he allegedly spent on the lam, posing as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. After getting paroled in 1974, Abagnale started selling the story of being a redeemed man, first by giving small lectures and then by appearing on To Tell The Truth in 1977, a national television show where he told his tale, with the producers failing to look into his claims. From there on out, media outlets ate his story up, and the rest is history. As several journalists pointed out, it could therefore be said that Abagnale’s greatest con was convincing us that he was the world’s greatest con artist. Luckily, this revelation takes nothing away from Spielberg’s adaptation, a triumph of seamless storytelling and technical prowess that is meant to be both enjoyed and deeply felt. And that is the truth.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“It was the kind of feeling I got watching films like ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ or ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’—films that focus on people who are working on the wrong side of the law or going against society; yet you can’t help but root for them because they’re so incredibly charming. That’s what I got out of just this 20-minute tape, so I thought it might make a good movie. As a writer, that made it all the more interesting. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller, but at the same time it’s a coming-of-age story, and then very much a family drama. I like stories that cover different parts of life: there’s laughter, there’s heartbreak… ‘Catch Me If You Can’ gave me the chance to explore all of that through one remarkable period of Frank Abagnale’s life.”
Screenwriter must-read: Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay for Catch Me If You Can [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Jeff Nathanson is easily among the A-list of Hollywood screenwriters. His script for Catch Me If You Can earned him much critical praise as well as the devotion of Steven Spielberg, who also brought him to work on his next movie, The Terminal. In this interview, learn more about why he dreads pitching, never speaks during a notes meeting, and finds he can do almost all his research with the Internet and old Playboys.
An interview with Steven Spielberg by Steve Head from IGN, December 2002.
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Now Catch Me If You Can has been in progress for twelve years…
And when you became involved, that was three years ago? Of course writers and producers have been trying to shake this out of a tree for a while. You were able to facilitate it?
The thing is, a man came along named Jeff Nathanson, and finally wrote the best script based on Frank’s [Abagnale] life, and his book. And it was all about the writer. If it hadn’t have been for Jeff, DreamWorks wouldn’t have made the movie either.
How many versions of Catch Me If You Can were out there? Was Jeff the only screenwriter?
The only screenwriter on Catch Me If You Can. The only one. There were other treatments long the away, obviously…
Did you read any of them? Were any of those treatments brought to your attention?
This movie wasn’t even on my radar until, you know, the product was purchased. I didn’t even know the history of the project, didn’t know this incredible journey the project had taken. I didn’t realize that Frank had actually bought and sold his book four times. I mean, which is very Frank. But, I didn’t realize any of this until we were in production on the screenplay that Walter Parkes supervised.
In terms of stories about ethics and morality, do you see any relationship between this and Minority Report?
Not really. No. I mean, some of my films have had to do with broken homes and people on the run from their sad pasts. But except for those touchstones for me, there are those strands that got me to say: “You know, there’s something also about me that I can say through the telling of this kind of light-hearted story.”
Catch Me If You Can does crystallize those things you just mentioned—broken homes, running from your past.
Do you only make movies that will allow you to touch some of those things?
Well, maybe recently I’ve made a lot, but that’s not the reason I commit to direct a movie because there is a theme in it that I’m not through exploring. I committed to directing Catch Me If You Can not because of the divorce component, but principally because Frank Abagnale did things that were the most astonishing scams I had ever heard. And I’m a big fan of scams. I love The Flim-Flam Man. I loved Scarecrow with Gene Hackman. I loved Elmer Gantry, which I think is a bit of a scam movie. The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were kind of scams. You know, some of these villains, you have to sympathize with them.
In this current climate where modern, updated versions of the scams that Frank pulled are very possible, what did you think about the possibility of glamorizing this sort of thing? Are you concerned? Would people perhaps walk away from the film with the wrong idea?
I don’t think they can get the wrong idea because, because Frank Abagnale is the only person who ever did it to this extent, and that was thirty-seven, thirty-eight years ago. He was just this sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-year-old kid. So, you have to understand these things. Especially, there were no safeguards. There were no electronic safeguards that we have today with this kind thing. It’s a lot harder to pass a bad check today than it was eight years ago. Frank was a twenty-first-century genius working within the innocence of the mid-’60s, when people were more trusting than they are now. So, I don’t think this is the kind of movie where somebody could say, “I have a career plan.”
Does it matter to you that there’s a level of poetic license taken in telling a true story?
Yes. I think it’s important in certain stories. Like, I took no poetic license with Schindler’s List because that was historical, factual documents. I certainly think that we took poetic license with Saving Private Ryan. The poetic license that Jeff Nathanson, Walter [Parkes] and I took with this movie simply was to motivate: what made Frank run?
But the parts that focus on Frank’s scams are, for the most part, true.
The whole body of all the scams are true, but the poetic license is in the details. For instance: keeping his father [Frank Abagnale Sr., played by Christopher Walken] in the story longer than he actually was in Frank’s life. When Frank ran away from home, he never saw his father again. And I wanted to continue to have that connection where Frank kept trying to please his father, by making him proud of him, by seeing him in the uniform—the Pan-American uniform. And yet when [the real] Frank saw the movie, and when he read the script, especially when you’re a skeptic, he said, “Even though I didn’t see my dad again, every night after living a brilliant day and meeting many women, and making much money, I’d come back alone to a hotel room, and I would just think of my mom and dad and fantasize about getting them back together again, and cry.” He said, “That’s the justification for the fantasy that you put in there.” But the substantial part of the movie is true. Except for small bits. For instance: when [Frank] actually escaped from the airplane, he went out the back of a 737, as opposed to through the toilet. I added that. Little touches like that I changed.
And you want to be clear this is inspired by a true story.
We worked all so very hard to state to everybody because we don’t want to have happen to our movie what happened to A Beautiful Mind and The Hurricane. We start by saying, “Inspired by a true story.” We’re not trying to hide anything.
Would that also relate to what happened to Amistad?
With Amistad, that was about the lawsuit that got more publicity than the movie itself.
[In Catch Me If You Can] Frank does come across as quite a playboy, obviously…
And, of course, the audience perceives DiCaprio as a party boy, either legitimately or not. Since the audience brings their own associations, was that one of the reasons for casting him?
Well… Leo is the party boy. I got to know Leo really well with this movie; I got to know his mom and dad and his grandmother. [They] were on the set almost every day. He’s such a family-guy. I realized things about him that I’d never realized before because I did believe the tabloids, I did believe these news stories. He’s gone to parties. He’s a young kid. I went to parties too when I was his age; I just wasn’t that good looking and couldn’t get all the girls. But I went to as many parties as Leo ever went to, but nobody wrote about my involvement at parties and in dating.
And at a young age, DiCaprio was in the worldwide spotlight, primarily due to Titanic.
Leo wouldn’t have been talked about so much had Titanic not been such a titanic phenomenon. I think Titanic actually kept Leo from working. And I think right now he’s reborn. He’s going to start working a lot now. I think Titanic created a gap in Leo’s filmography because he couldn’t go anywhere. He was too much the focus of rumor, innuendo. But I didn’t think of Leo being right for the part just because of the party stuff. Leo had such a wily intelligence in his eyes, he had such a great presentational style. Frank got away with everything he got away with based on 80 percent presentation, only 20 percent imagination. It’s all about presentation.
Do you think Frank could’ve walked into Universal and become a director?
Become a director?
Just as he became an airline pilot. In this case, just walk into Universal Studios.
He could do that today. That’s one thing he could do today. He could walk right past the guard, convince the guard of anything. And he wanted to. But right now he’s on the side of law and order, and he’s helping the FBI to catch other people like him, like he used to be.
And you did walk on to the lot…
Yes. It was my only scam in my whole life.
You’ve done “a Frank” apparently.
One time. I was fifteen, or sixteen. I was in high school. I was spending a summer in California with my second cousins. And I wanted to be a director really bad. I was making a lot of 8mm home movies, since I was twelve, making little dramas and comedies with the neighborhood kids. One day I decided to get on the Universal lot. I dressed up in a coat and tie. I actually had taken the tour the day before at Universal, and actually jumped off the tour bus. (It was a bus in those days.) I spent the whole day on the lot. Met a nice man named Chuck Silvers. Told him I was a filmmaker from Arizona. He said, “Kid, come back tomorrow. I’ll write you a pass, and you can show me some of your 8mm films.” I had a little film festival for him. He said, “You’re great. I hope you make it. But, because I’m just a librarian I can’t write you anymore passes.” So the next day, having observed how people dressed in those days, I dressed like them, carried a briefcase, and walked past the same guard, Scotty, who had been there for like a long time, because he the oldest. He waved me in. For three months, that whole summer vacation, I came on the lot every single day—found an office, went to a little store that sold cameras and also plastic title letters to title your films, got the letters, found an abandoned office, and put my name and the number of my office on this directory. Opened up the glass directory and stuck these stick-on letters on the directory. And basically went into business for myself. But it never amounted to anything. I learned a lot about editing and dubbing by watching all the professionals do it, but I never got a job out of my imposition.
But you did get comfortable in the milieu.
I got comfortable in the milieu. I knew what the film business felt like, even felt more like I wanted that drug in my system. Then when I made [the short film] Amblin’; ironically the one person who responded to Amblin’, who wanted me to sign a seven-year contract was the head of television at Universal, who became the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. So, it wasn’t like I didn’t, like, moonlight at Universal, and Paramount offered me the contract. Somehow, ironically, or because I don’t think it was manifest destiny, I wound up back at the place where I first broke into.
And you’re still there.
I’m still there. All these years later I’m still working at Universal.
During your charade, did anybody catch you?
I had one guard that actually questioned me after about three or four weeks. He said, “I keep seeing you every day, and you’re a very young-looking person. Why are you here? What are your auspices here?” I actually said one word, “Lew Wasserman,” and he left me alone.
What was the most difficult thing to shoot for Catch Me If You Can?
All the family stuff. The scams were so much fun to shoot. We were laughing and having so much fun. But at the end of the day it was all the family stuff. It was all more tender and emotional.
One thing that’s great about your films is the production design, particularly in Catch Me If You Can, I thought was beautiful.
[Production Designer] Jeannine Oppewall.
And the photography … [Cinematographer] Janusz Kaminski. Was there some sort of gauze over the lens? There’s a shine.
No. He used such soft light to fill in the faces, and show the eyes, et cetera. I said to Janusz, “We’ve done all these dark, backlit, contrasty movies for almost nine years. Let’s, for the first time, put lights right in people’s faces. Direct light on their faces. Let’s make this whole era blossom the way I remembered it.” And Janusz absolutely loved it. He said, “What a change of pace for both of us.” All the softness that you saw was not the lens, it was the way the light was brought in, the soft light was brought into the scene.
Has your working relationship with Janusz freed you up and allowed you to become more creative? Do you have a kind of common vocabulary between you two?
Well, I don’t know that I’ve become more creative or collaborative; I’m very collaborative with everybody on the set. I think Janusz has brought a lighting style to my movies that I’d never had before. Even Allen Daviau, who had done three pictures with me, who I think is the greatest lighting cameraman in town. But Janusz brought more daring, dangerous light into my films. I set the camera. I do all the blocking. I choose the lenses. I compose everything. But Janusz, basically, is my lighting guy. And he’s a master painter with light. And he sort of, you know, made tremendous contributions to my work through his art.
And of course, the era. The cars, the colors of the cars, the lamps on the table.
That was all art direction. All that stuff is art direction. You get a room and have a lot of neutral colors, and then you put one clutch of red roses somewhere. I mean, that’s art direction, that’s what Jeannine Oppewall is so good at. I don’t do everything in my pictures.
But you’ll say, “OK, I need a green car.” I mean, aren’t you really setting the frame with this?
It depends. I compose the frame literally with the camera, yes. Unless it makes a story point. I remember one time when I made Duel, I said, “We need a red car to be chased by the truck because a red car is going to stand out in all my wide shots, and if it’s a gray car it’s going to blend with the truck.” So, there was one example of how choosing the color red for the victim car sort of made it a real duel. But now, with this movie, I mean, in real life Frank was obsessed with Cadillacs. So, it was important that we get the same Cadillac that Frank had. We actually found out what kind of car it was: The DeVille. And we got the same convertible thing that he drove around in when he began making all this money.
How much difference does that make in a film that’s supposed to be inspired by a true story, to actually have that level of detail?
It’s important, too. Because, there’s like 70 percent detail to his life in this movie and about 30 percent extension of the facts to serve the drama and to serve the emotion. So, all those decisions were made based on little snippets that Frank would tell us—things that were important to him to see in the picture—that we tried to do.
Such as even making the counterfeit checks.
And your researchers actually tracked down the actual equipment.
Yes! We did get the equipment.
But couldn’t you have just come up with it via the art department?
Yes. But I can’t make up the kind of stunts that Frank Abagnale pulled. He, in his line of work, has a much better imagination than me. So I never could dream to tell a tale of fiction about a scam artist like this. This is one kind of example where life is more imaginative than art.
‘CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’: BEHIND THE CAMERA
Go behind-the-scenes of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can. Includes clips from the film, on-set footage, as well as interviews with director Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, John Williams, and the real-life inspiration for the film, Frank Abagnale Jr.
Janusz Kamiński and his crack crew reteam with Steven Spielberg for this a breezy caper about a master of disguise and deceit. This article was originally published in American Cinematographer, January 2003. Interview by John Pavlus.
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Janusz, this is your eighth film with Spielberg. Did it take you into any new territory?
Each movie we do has its own sets of demands and corresponding lighting styles. Steven is evolving from being a classical backlight/warm light director into someone who’s interested in things besides traditional beauty, and I think I play an important role in that. His work with other cinematographers was always sort of the same [because] they were servicing his very traditional aesthetic. I do that, too, but I’m also trying to imprint each movie with my own style, and I hope to slowly change Steven’s ideas about what’s beautiful. This film is less ‘Spielberg’ than some of his other movies. Steven was very relaxed and interested in working with the actors, and because we were working so fast there was often not enough time to give him a traditional look. There are gorgeously lit scenes in the film, but there are also scenes that, well, just don’t look as good! Once we lit we just had to go with it. I love that method.
What kind of visual research did you do during preproduction?
I watched two documentaries: Frederick Wiseman’s High School and the Maysles brothers’ Salesman. I watched them not for lighting ideas, because both films are black-and-white, but for the story and characters. I wanted to see what the world was like when Abagnale was operating. High School was useful because it’s all about how awkward kids are, yet how mature they feel compared to the adults around them. And Abagnale’s father, Frank Sr. [played by Christopher Walken], was just like the salesman in Salesman; he lived in a world of pretending, of hoping that the next day would be the one where he’d strike gold.
What sort of testing did you do on this project?
Leo is 27, and he portrays a character that starts out at age 16, so most of our testing was concerned with how to photograph him to make him look younger. But the way Steven and I work, it’s hard to finesse lighting to accommodate the technical details of an actor’s characterization. To a certain degree, I lit Leo a little bit flatter when Frank was younger and created more textured light when he was older. But we were doing 22 setups every day, plus moves, so there were certain compromises.
How did you decide to render the Sixties and Seventies photographically?
Kamiński: This movie’s photography is very straightforward. There are no tricks, no major CG work. [Production designer] Jeannine Oppewall found such wonderful locations to dress for very little money, and the wardrobe department created such great costumes, that the period was pretty much set. I didn’t have to enhance anything with special filters.
Mitch Dubin: The dressing of the movie—the great sets, period automobiles and wardrobe, and the fantastic locations Jeannine found—posed unlimited possibilities for the camera. No matter where you pointed the camera, it was hard not to find a great shot.
Kamiński: I would compare the film’s look to a bottle of champagne: when you pour that first glass and hold it up to the light and enjoy that warm glow, you just want to drink it in and get happy. So the lighting style is very warm. When we enter the Seventies, I went for a slightly bluer and pastel-like look, purposefully trying to make the images flatter and uglier. I used low-contrast and fog filters to accomplish that. I also shot [Kodak Vision] 320T  stock, which I’ve never used before because I consider it too flat. I wanted this movie to go in that direction.
David Devlin: ‘Flat’ means different things to different people, though. Janusz is very specific with his sources and their direction, and his idea of flatness doesn’t mean he’s filling in light from every angle. It just means that the source is placed closer to the camera. For example, on some of the close-up work we used the Seven-Minute Drill. [Developed on Amistad, this book-light unit consists of an enclosed source aimed at 12’x12′ Ultrabounce, which directs the light through a 12’x12′ sheet of 1/2 Soft Frost.] That’s a large source for a close-up light, so it’s rather flat in that regard. [Key grip] Jim Kwiatkowski and I call it ‘dead light’ because there really isn’t a source to it. To give it a more sparkly look, we sometimes put in a hard source along with the bounced source behind the half Soft Frost; the hard light could be a stop overexposed, and the soft light might be two stops under. When Janusz uses hard light in his sources like that, or one soft source with no fill on the other side, he calls it ‘flat,’ but it’s actually very rich because you feel the falloff of light on the faces.
What philosophy about camera movement and framing did you work out to support the look you wanted?
Dubin: With Steven it tends to be a one-camera shoot. Even on Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day sequences, we used three cameras at most. Steven is very clever about how he uses the camera to tell the story; it’s never just a passive observer, so it’s not usually necessary to do a lot of multiple-camera coverage. He always has in mind how he wants the film to evolve, but many of our framing decisions on this film also had to do with being on the location and watching what the actors did during rehearsal. As an operator, you respond to everything you see. When all of those elements were combined with Steven’s overall concept, it became fairly obvious where the camera needed to be.
Kamiński: In other movies, the camera moves from left to right or pushes in. On a Spielberg movie, we’ll do that but then whip around 270 degrees. We didn’t have a lot of handheld shots in this film, but we never have straight tripod shots, either. Still, like Gordon Willis [ASC] said, everything falls apart once the camera starts moving. You can only light well for one camera angle, maybe 15 degrees. The way Steven moves the camera leads to many compromises on my part, but I love it. That’s why I’m making films instead of taking stills. They may not be the most carefully lit movies, but they sure are good movies!
Did the film’s lighthearted tone affect your decisions about its visual style?
Dubin: You shoot a movie one scene at a time, one take at a time, and the overall effect and concept of that shot isn’t really present in your mind when you’re shooting it. In fact, when you read the script for Catch Me If You Can, you might see it as a movie that isn’t buoyant and upbeat. As the organic process of making the film began, it started to develop that way. That’s how Leo and Tom presented their characters, and that’s how Steven directed them. The general attitude on the set was that it was a lot of fun to make this movie. Part of that could have been the script, part of that could’ve been the fact that Steven was in such a good mood, and part of it could’ve been the fact that Leo and Tom are such great guys and such good actors. The gestalt was an upbeat film.
You had a lot of practical locations for a 53-day shoot. How did the speed at which you were working affect your decisions?
Kamiński: Every day we were doing a whole set of mini-moves, and almost every other day we were doing major company moves. I’d love to work on a movie with a 90-day schedule that allows me to light for three hours and make careful compositions. Well, maybe I’d like to do it once; after that, I think I’d be fed up because it’d be so boring! I’d rather allow the director more time to tell his story and support him as quickly as I can.
Devlin: The speed is largely about maintaining momentum. Steven would rather give up a great shot than not get the action he’s looking for right then and there. Sometimes when we say, ‘That take wasn’t good for us,’ he’ll reply, ‘Well, you missed your chance, because it was good for me and we’re moving on now.’ He’s a wonderful guy, but he’ll put the fear of God in you if you try to spend another 20 minutes lighting when he wants to go! So I’ll pre-light the set and have it ready to roll in a way that I hope will allow Janusz several directions to build off of spontaneously. The way Janusz works is rather like cooking: you can spend a lot of time over it, or you can just go with your gut and find that it tastes better than something you slaved over. Janusz isn’t a big schemer. He works with what’s in front of him, so he sees what he can actually get in each shot. Maintaining lighting flexibility on location comes down to having a lot of amperage that’s reliable and available. The partnership that Evan Green from Paskal Lighting gave us was essential in getting us what we needed in order to light this movie the way Janusz wanted to. If he wanted to power 10 or 11 18Ks through some windows, Paskal supported us by being flexible. At the same time, you can’t just say, ‘We’ll pre-rig the hell out of it so we’re ready for anything,’ because that can spiral out of control very quickly. Usually, we have two rigging crews, one laying down cable and one picking up, but if there’s a hiccup in the schedule—like when Leo got sick for two days—it’s all too easy to end up with six crews instead of two. I always have a detailed plan in place that allows us to track these hiccups when they occur. When we work with Janusz, Jim and I get the same amount of prep that he does, and we spend a lot of it on technical budgeting.
Dubin: Steven’s preference for working fast gives the camera crew a lot of responsibility. We’re often like one of the actors, in that when Steven says, ‘Action,’ we all have to perform on cue without any mistakes. On this film, we rarely rehearsed a shot. In fact, there was the unwritten 30-second rule: if someone asked for a rehearsal and it didn’t happen in the next 30 seconds, then inevitably someone would say, ‘Let’s just shoot the rehearsal.’ It was great fun, and fortunately first assistants Steve Meizler and Mark Spath and second assistant Tom Jordan were all up to the challenge.
How did the fact that you’d worked together so often affect the filmmaking process?
Devlin: We all feed off each other. This is also the tenth film I’ve done with Jim Kwiatkowski. When we go into a shot, we all have ideas about how Steven will want it covered. Jimmy will even have options ready for the camera that he hasn’t discussed with Steven or Janusz! What helps make this all work is that Jimmy and I have our own pre-rigging crews who are also supporting and anticipating us. Steven and Janusz went well out of their way to make sure that Brian Lukas, my rigging gaffer, and Charley Gilleran, Jim’s rigging grip, and best boys Larry Richardson and Kevin Erb were brought onto this show. Janusz knows that the quality of the cinematography starts with the crew.
Dubin: What’s great about having the same crew on all of these movies is that we all have a shorthand. When you go on the set of one of Steven’s movies, it seems like total chaos—it’s so loud because everyone’s screaming and everything’s happening at once. It can only happen that way because we all know each other so well. By now we all have a feel for Steven’s visual style and we’re able to implement it, but the great thing about him is that he always pulls something new out of his hat.
Can you give us an example?
Kamiński: This film has a complicated shot that covers a five-story apartment building at night. As the camera pushes toward the building, we see little dramatic vignettes happening in each of the building’s windows—we see people having dinner, people fighting, people making out, and finally we come to Leo sitting at a desk at his window. Of course, he’s forging checks.
Dubin: We didn’t have quite the right set of equipment to facilitate the move Steven wanted to do. The camera needed to be quite nimble and move all over the building’s exterior, but what we ended up using was a 60-foot crane and a Wescam XR remote head. A crane moves in an arc, and Steven wanted to move more in right angles. It was very difficult to do. You’re always trying your best to making everything perfect when you’re behind the camera, but there’s always something slightly out of place or something that’s not exactly how you want it. Steven knows that the trick to working behind the camera is the art of compromise; he knows when the compromise is acceptable and when it isn’t.
How did you light that shot?
Kamiński: You don’t want to light the façade of the building too much, especially if you have illuminated windows; you just want a little bounce light from the ground. I approached the windows the same way I would if I was lighting an individual apartment—I just did it for 20 of them.
Devlin: On the day of the shoot I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what we’d be seeing, and when we started looking at it I got the creeping suspicion that I was far from ready! We ended up lighting 15 to 20 windows, and I only had five electricians, and two of them were in Condors. That’s when I usually get the fight-or-flight syndrome: I run around, grab whatever I can from our lighthead carts and start hustling them up to those rooms with whoever I can muster. We tried to give each room its own look—some were fluorescent-lit, others were lit by a tungsten table lamp, and others by a glowing TV set. Once the actors rehearsed it, we made adjustments to fit the action, but because Steven shoots so quickly people tend to end up where they shouldn’t necessarily be when the cameras roll. It can be very nerve-wracking when someone’s got to get in there, make an adjustment and bolt out. Dan Windels, one of the electricians who’s been with me for years, has great patience for lighting and is a lot easier to hide than Marek Bojsza, who’s 6-foot-5! On A.I., we were doing a wide shot in a bedroom, and after each take Dan would come out from under the bed, tweak a light and then crawl back under. In the difficult tracking shot we’re talking about now, Dan’s crouching under the table that Leo is using, or he’s hidden in a bathtub! He’s a great sport, and this was one of those days where patience like his really paid off.
Dubin: There’s another complicated move we knew about well in advance—it’s actually the reason we had the 60-foot crane and Wescam XR head on set. The shot shows Frank walking down a New York street wearing his pilot’s uniform and white hat, and he’s amid a sea of people in dark suits. The camera starts very, very high and moves down the street with the whole mass of people, then it drops down and pushes into the back of Frank’s head until his white hat is filling the frame. The difficulty was that so many people had to be in perfect sync: five or six of us, including Jerry Bertolami on the crane arm and Stevie Meizler pulling focus, had to function together to do this one shot, and we had to work with the movement of Leo and all the extras. That’s where you see the payoff from all of us having worked together so much. We actually got the shot in just a few takes.
Given that Abagnale is a forger, several key scenes take place in banks. How did you approach those scenes?
Kamiński: Steven and I came up with this idea that banks are the churches of the modern world, especially those banks built in the early 1930s—they literally look like temples, with huge windows and balconies. We wanted to create a sort of ‘divine’ lighting to support this parallel. We shot in an amazing bank in Brooklyn that we lit almost entirely with Muscos. The bank had huge, cathedral-like windows that hadn’t been washed in over 50 years, so we needed a lot of light. It was very expensive but it did the job. We didn’t have to bring any major lights inside.
Devlin: It was fun to walk into that huge bank and see five huge windows and say, ‘We’re going to need five Musco lights.’ The producers thought I was kidding at first, but it didn’t make sense to move lights like that around because we could easily see all the windows in one shot. On the day of the shoot, if we’re not ready to fulfill this story point for Steven, then why are we there? He really wanted to see the whole place. We had some Seven-Minute Drills in there, but you can often lose the magic if you start filling it in too much. The Muscos lit the set, and the wide shots will look great because there’s a bit of atmosphere and you can see our ‘sun’ coming through it. But what really makes that scene is much subtler: there’s a shot of Abagnale coming up to the teller window to submit a forged check, and there’s a backlight on the bars of the teller window that Janusz rushed to add after the third take. It was probably a Tweenie gelled with full blue because we didn’t have an HMI handy; it perfectly highlighted the bars and the forged check.
Throughout the film, Abagnale travels around the world impersonating an airline pilot. How did you approach the filming of airplane interiors?
Dubin: It’s very difficult to get the camera in the right place in an airplane. Even if it’s a set, you’re dealing with one aisle, and the camera takes up a lot of space. When Leo was sitting in a window seat, it was almost impossible to get the camera in a place that approximated his point of view. We ended up using longer lenses in those scenes than Steven normally likes to use.
Devlin: We had a lot of plane scenes in Jerry Maguire, and Janusz and I used the same approach to lighting the plane scenes in this film. In order to create a good amount of soft, ambient light to crisscross through all the little apertures a flying plane gives through its windows, you have to use a lot of point sources. We lined up 44 16-light Fays on the ground on each side of the plane, as many as we could, end to end. This gave us a wash of diffused light coming through the windows that’s very even and rather bright. From above we suspended LumaPanels to create some blue toplight through the windows. LumaPanels are 4-by-7-foot fluorescent fixtures balanced to 3200°K, and we gelled them with quarter CTB. Creating convincing hard sunlight coming into the cabin of a plane for a wide shot is rather difficult because you can never place your source far enough away yet still have it be bright enough. We had three Dinos on dimmers, and Jim Kwiatkowski put them on a skateboard-dolly track so they’d move along the side of the frame. We used wide-beam 3200°K bulbs in them to get a bit more spread, and they’re less powerful. Even though it’s not logically correct to have multiple sources, it worked well because it created a creeping sunlight that moved along to simulate the movement of the airplane. For scenes with Leo in the cockpit, we used a 20K beam projector on a Titan crane to act as the sunlight moving across the interior of the cockpit. If you need just a wash of ambient light, a 20K Fresnel works great; to make it harder and stronger, the beam projector is the way to go. To facilitate very specific movement, we had ours mounted on a head so we could pan and tilt the light. It’s really the best way to do it, because as the shot changes you can just move the Titan painlessly. It’s not even that expensive.
A conversation with Janusz Kamiński (2009). He has established a partnership with Steven Spielberg, working as a cinematographer on his movies since 1993. He won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).
THE EDITING GENIUS OF MICHAEL KAHN, ACE
“Steven was looking for an editor to work with on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He interviewed everyone in town and finally he came to me. In 1976, I had just finished cutting Return of a Man Called Horse, and was recommended by both Irvin Kershner, who directed that show, and the film’s cinematographer, Owen Roizman, who was a good friend of Steven’s. When I met with Steven, he asked me if I was a good editor. I said, ‘How can I tell you that? All I know is that whoever I work with wants me back again.’ The next thing I knew I was hired.”
Get a deeper look into this master editor’s career straight from the source in this great one-on-one interview with DP/30.
From the DGA Archive: a celebration of DGA Lifetime Achievement recipient and three-time DGA Award Winner Steven Spielberg. Featuring a lively and engaging panel discussion with fellow visionary directors J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and James Cameron (Avatar) and moderated by 75th Anniversary Committee Chair Michael Apted, this “Game-Changer” event drew a maximum capacity crowd at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles and provided a deeply intimate, highly engaging reflection on one of the most influential and beloved filmmakers of all time. Spielberg was vividly forthright in discussing everything from dealing with a disastrous first day of shooting on Jaws, thanks to an inebriated Robert Shaw, to the creative genesis of Close Encounters, which led to the discovery that the key to accessibility in science fiction is personal, human relationships: “Create characters you really want to be with.”
During a recent 2022 screening at the DGA Theatre, Steven Spielberg sat down with Martin Scorsese for an interview to discuss his latest work. Spielberg said, “I’ve been very private about my private life, and I’ve never gone public with my private life until now… What I thought was that if I had to make one more movie, if I had to tell one more story, what would that story be? And that’s why I decided to put this into production.”
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Photographed by Andrew Cooper © Dreamworks Pictures, Splendid Pictures, Parkes/MacDonald Image Nation, Amblin Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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