Unlike “The Aviator” star Leonardo DiCaprio and one of its producers, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese never really had a particular urge to bring the Howard Hughes story to the screen, but the project ended up feeling like familiar territory to the helmer.
John Logan’s script had Scorsese hooked on the first reading. “I was taken by the fact that this is a picture that explores the pioneer spirit of America — there were no limits, they were going into the sky. Plus there was Hughes’ obsession with movies and women,” says Scorsese, who was drawn to the focus on Hughes’ younger years.
“The whole script took less than 20 years into account. It ends at a point where Hughes succeeds but he had a price to pay. I kind of cared about him but he had fatal flaws — the kind of material I’m usually attracted to.”
Scorsese, of course, has dealt with his fair share of tortured characters harboring inner demons (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”), so Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive bouts must have seemed old hat.
The pic’s coverage of film history was more familiar ground. “Aviator” spans the late 1920s, when Hughes was breaking into Hollywood and financed “Hell’s Angels,” the highest-budgeted film at the time, to the early ’40s.
So Scorsese, a well-known film buff and passionate cinema preservationist whom DiCaprio dubs “the Nobel laureaute of film,” made sure his cast was well-versed in the movies of the era. “I wanted Leo to understand Howard Hughes as a filmmaker and the town he was coming into — Hughes did ‘Hell’s Angels’ after William Wellman did ‘Wings.’ So I showed him ‘Wings’ and then ‘Hell’s Angels.’ ”
He unspooled many more for his cast, including comedies such as “The Front Page” (1931) and “His Girl Friday” (1940). “I wanted them to see the fast dialogue, the rhythm of the time,” he adds. These old films informed backstory, dialogue nuance and tone. “It allowed us to speak in shorthand about these films on set,” says Scorsese.
“Marty almost directs sideways,” says Cate Blanchett, who plays Katharine Hepburn in “Aviator.” The helmer made sure Blanchett got private 35mm screenings of Hepburn’s work, from “A Bill of Divorcement” to “Spitfire” to “The Philadelphia Story.”
“It was like a little movie club,” says Scorsese. “I really wanted them to see it on the bigscreen, because at that time there was no small screen.”