‘Aviator’ ready for take-off

Scorsese, DiCaprio reteam for pricey Hughes biopic

On Feb. 2, 1947, under intense scrutiny, Howard Hughes piloted his wooden cargo plane, dubbed the “Spruce Goose,” through choppy waters of Long Beach Harbor and, despite its gargantuan dimensions, it briefly (if clumsily) lifted into the air.

On July 8, “The Aviator,” a $115 million Martin Scorsese-directed Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Hughes biopic, will levitate in Montreal.

“It’s the biggest independent movie ever made, unless you count ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ” says Graham King, whose Initial Entertainment is handling foreign on the film and is on the hook for overages.

“Would I like to see this made cheaper?” King asks. “We all would. But it just can’t be done in a way that we all want to do it. We all want a movie that’s just going to blow everyone away.”

And like the Hughes Flying Boat, “The Aviator” is nothing if not big.

To some, the film’s liftoff would seem an equally impressive feat. Numerous talents, including Warren Beatty, have attempted to bring Hughes’ life to screen with no success.

Biopics are notoriously tough to sell. And the most successful tend to be of unknowns, like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” ($314 million worldwide). By comparison, “Ali” did just $84 million at the global B.O. despite a $107 million budget.

The story of Hughes is a particularly difficult one to adapt. His life, which encompassed being a Hollywood producer, a dashing bachelor, a record-setting pilot, an airline businessman, a Vegas mogul, and finally a recluse, does not fit into a neat three-act arc.

“The Aviator” tackles the problem by carving out just the years between 1928, when Hughes was shooting “Hell’s Angels,” and 1947 with the testflight of the Spruce Goose.

This leaves plenty of ground to cover. The story goes through Hughes’ rise as a glamorous producer, love affairs with Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, the building of an airline, Hughes’ fight against Pan Am, censorship hearings on “The Outlaw,” and Congressional hearings on the Spruce Goose.

John Logan’s script has long been in development, first at New Line, where it was put into turnaround. Michael Mann developed it for a while as a pic he would direct. (Mann is one of the film’s producers.)

It’s an accomplishment that Logan managed to get so much Hughes info into his 171-page script. But, like other attempts to adapt Hughes’ life, the balancing act involves telling a succinct story under a mountain of chronological details.

(A rival project, with Nolan attached to direct and Jim Carrey to star, is stalled at Castle Rock.)

Another issue for “Aviator”: The complicated co-production structure among King’s IEG and Miramax and Warner Bros.

With IEG handling foreign and taking the lead on production, Warners and Miramax are splitting domestic, though WB is running point.

“They are on the point,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, “but we are working together on the film.”

King handled some foreign territories for “Gangs of New York” and received a co-exec producer credit. He played a key role, visiting the set frequently and, most importantly, earning the respect of Scorsese, DiCaprio and Miramax co-topper Harvey Weinstein.

The “Aviator” group, however, is resigned to working under intense scrutiny. “All we read for the last two years,” says King, “was about how Harvey and Marty fought all the time. So it’s obviously under the spotlight.”

Last month, Weinstein laughingly lamented the media’s exaggeration of this, saying at least it got the film millions worth of free publicity; he joked that he and Scorsese would have a boxing match in Madison Square Garden to boost “Aviator” publicity.

But, King adds, “Initial and Miramax went through ‘Gangs’ fairly well and we got to know each other. There was a comfort level.”

The fact that the group was eager to work together again (with Weinstein again being a key force in the new pic) should put a rest to the media’s breathless reports of “Gangs” battles.

“Aviator” will take over four soundstages at the Technoparc in Montreal’s Mel’s Cite du Cinema, where for the last six months Roland Emmerich’s disaster pic “The Day after Tomorrow” has been in production.

In the Pointe St. Charles part of town, construction of sets and vintage plane replicas, overseen by Dante Ferretti (production designer on “Gangs”) is also underway in a huge building owned by train car manufacturer Alstom.

“Aviator” will also film some exteriors in the Canadian town, including at the city hall which will stand in for a D.C. Congressional building.

All told, according to the Montreal film commission, “Aviator” will spend an estimated $40 million in the city, the biggest production in Montreal this summer.

The production sked calls for eight or nine weeks of shooting up north, followed by a month or so of location shots in Los Angeles, including at Hughes’ former home in Hancock Park (now owned by CAA lit agent Robert Bookman).

There’s even talk of trying to land an airplane on the golf course of the Wilshire Country Club, as Hughes did with Katharine Hepburn on board. King says, “It’d be fun to do, but I don’t think it will happen.”

Acknowledging the difficulty in bringing auds to see biopics of celebs, King says of Hughes, “He’s just a guy in the movie. To me, this is ‘Catch Me If You Can’ meets ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ It’s a story of an amazing person and his passion for flying, women and film.”

(Brendan Kelly in Montreal contributed to this report.)