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Warren Beatty Talks Hollywood Legends, Humanizing Howard Hughes and More in Career-Spanning IndieWire Interview

18 years after "Bulworth," the multi-hyphenate finally directs "Rules Don't Apply," in which he plays his decades-long obsession.

Warren Beatty

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Last month, Warren Beatty hosted an Academy screening on the Fox lot for his new film, “Rules Don’t Apply.” The actor and Oscar-winning director cheerfully greeted new arrivals, but when he introduced his movie it was in his typically controlling fashion: “It’s not a Howard Hughes biopic!”

People can be forgiven for the mistake. Beatty, 79, has wanted to make a movie about the neurotic aerospace and movie mogul since 1973, when he noticed during a stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel that a room was always occupied by two crewcut men in dark suits. The self-protective movie star thought the hotel was spying on him, but a manager told Beatty that the men worked for Howard Hughes, who at the time reserved seven rooms, plus five private bungalows for his girls.

At the time, Beatty was working with Robert Towne on the Oscar-nominated script of “Shampoo” (1975). Hal Ashby directed the semi-autobiographical Hollywood comedy that starred Beatty as George, a womanizing hairdresser whose conquests include Julie Christie (his long-time lover), Goldie Hawn and the mother-daughter combo played by Lee Grant (Oscar nominated) and teenage Carrie Fisher in her breakout role. Upon its release, Beatty refused to delve into the ways that he resembled the ladykiller. Instead, he wanted people to recognize it was about the era’s politics, including sex.

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in "Shampoo."

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in “Shampoo.”

Columbia

More than a decade later, when Beatty was writing “Dick Tracy” with Oscar-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman (“Melvin and Howard”), Beatty asked him to write the long-gestating “Howard Hughes,” which Beatty was contracted to hand in to Warner Bros. by the end of 1990. “Warren Beatty is Howard Hughes,” Goldman told Peter Biskind in his 2010 book “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America.” “He felt Hughes was the guy who mastered the three F’s—’the filmmaking, the flying and the fucking,’ as Warren called it.”

Over decades, Beatty developed the Hughes movie in many guises. At one point Steven Spielberg flirted with it, but nothing stuck. Beatty even asked Biskind back in 2009 to postpone publication of his biography, which Biskind had taken on five years before at Beatty’s behest. But his subject proved elusive. “He asked me to hold the book back until the release of the Howard Hughes movie,” Biskind told me recently. “I thought, ‘How long will it take him to get the movie out? Until pink elephants fly?'”

So, stop me if this sounds familiar: Now that it’s finally being released, the subject of “Rules Don’t Apply” is sexual politics, and Beatty still won’t admit how much he identifies with his protagonist.

That’s one of the things I learned during a two-hour visit to Beatty’s sprawling hilltop mansion on top of Mulholland Drive, a follow-up phone call, and several secondary interviews. Here’s five more.

1.  Never trust a journalist. For Beatty, there’s no such thing as off the record. He’d rather tell rambling accounts of  the good old days with Elia Kazan, William Wyler, David Lean, Sam Goldwyn et al., than answer queries about himself or Howard Hughes. If he doesn’t want to respond, he taps his fingers as he waits for you to ask a question he’s willing to answer. Volleying with him can be an amusing sport, but it takes focus, time, and patience. He knows his charming detours are more fun than the subject at hand.

Hughes’ seven suites and five bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel “gave valid grounds for a French farce,” said Beatty. “I felt, as I feel now, that a man who is not paranoid is a man who is not in full possession of the facts. There is a sensible caution — or sensible paranoia — that can get out of hand with the man we’re talking about, Mr. Hughes. I hope it hasn’t gotten out of hand with me.”

Rules Don't Apply

“Rules Don’t Apply”

20th Century Fox

2. Protect your legacy. Beatty hasn’t read or cooperated with any of the dozen-plus books written about him. He only read the 11-page foreword of Biskind’s “Star.” He bad-mouthed the book as inaccurate partly because Biskind included the oft-repeated silly stat about the 12,775 women Beatty supposedly had sex with back in the pre-Annette Bening era. Beatty will tell anyone that convincing Bening to marry him 24 years ago after making “Bugsy” was the best thing he ever did. They raised four children. The oldest, Stephen Ira, 24, is a transgender activist; the youngest Ella, 16, smiled as she passed us in the hallway on my way out. Beatty courteously escorted me to my car.

Of course, Beatty really was a notorious womanizer (often tomcatting around with chum Jack Nicholson). Like many movie stars, he reflexively flirted with just about every woman he met. He likes to talk about how strong, smart actresses like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” star Christie and his “Reds” flame Diane Keaton were feminists who didn’t want to get married. What’s wrong with making love?

If he’s controlling with his media image, he’s controlling with his movies, too. He’s a perfectionist. He wants everything to be right. He doesn’t want his and older sister Shirley MacLaine’s nice parents to be pigeonholed as Virginia Puritans. They were academics, he corrected — who were Southern Baptists, just like the young heroine Marla Mabrey of “Rules Don’t Apply.” (At one point Beatty chased Felicity Jones for the Hughes contract player role that was finally played by raven-haired Lily Collins, daughter of pop star Phil.)

Like Mabry, Beatty came from “this Virginia atmosphere, more Protestant or Puritan than the town I came to in an attempt to do well,” he said, “which was to some extent in the business of merchandising this item called attractiveness or sexiness. My whole intention here was to take a look at the often comical and sometimes sad consequences of this American sexual Puritanism.”

While it’s 18 years since “Bulworth,” Beatty didn’t have to take on directing another movie. (Those he controlled — Oscar-nominated “Shampoo,” “Reds,” “Dick Tracy” and “Bulworth”—  have turned out better than those he didn’t —”Ishtar,” “Love Affair,” “Town & Country.”) And yet, he couldn’t let go of Howard Hughes. “He’s spent so much of his life on this movie,” said cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. “He’s been thinking about it for a long time. He’s avoided it because Hughes is more symbolic of something; it’s about someone exposed to incredible wealth at a young age and how it distorts their life. Warren could relate because he became a huge star at a very young age. He could live his own life the way he wanted to but with it comes strange responsibility; your life gets distorted.”

Hughes’ unlimited wealth, said Beatty, “was not only a huge asset but a huge liability.”

Beatty is also too smart not to know that “Rules Don’t Apply” (Fox, November 23), while it plays well for critics and the older Academy crowd and could yield some Oscar nominations this January, is not overtly commercial — even if he put a youthful romance front and center with Collins and co-star Alden Ehrenreich (who is the young Han Solo). He hides his own mysterious Hughes character behind dark shadows, only to emerge in all his craziness in the film’s second half. It’s a gutsy performance. “I’ve always felt that Hughes was a difficult character for people to identify with,” he admitted.

Rules Don't Apply

“Rules Don’t Apply”

20th Century Fox

 

3. Take your time. His movies, whether written, produced, or directed by him, take as long as they take. Because he got lucky with “Splendor in the Grass,” from the beginning Beatty had the freedom “to have an idea at the back of my head that could be fun,” he said, “and that’s the way I have approached every movie I’ve felt I have been in charge of.”

He lets ideas simmer before scribbling them on scraps of paper or the three-hole yellow legal pads that wind up in stacks of binders. While he knows how to use Final Draft, Beatty usually gets someone else to put it into screenplay format.

Beatty interviewed many people over the years as he reported on the mythology and reality of Hughes. He may have been obsessive/compulsive, or bipolar, or simply took the wrong meds. He did have a kidney condition that caused his hair and nails to grow at five to six times the normal rate, one doctor told Beatty. “Everything that Howard Hughes does in this movie, as crazy as it seems, happened,” he said. “I was told by people who were there. That doesn’t make it true.”

His fingers start tapping when asked if Hughes was, as Tippi Hedren has accused Alfred Hitchcock, a sexual predator of the young actresses he had under contract. Beatty reminds me that Hitchcock can’t defend himself for something that might have happened 50 years ago. And he suggests that Hughes manipulated the legends that grew around him. “He was not an abuser of women,” said Beatty, “any more than he was an abuser of the young men under contract. He liked to be known as the person who was the boss.”

Beatty never met Hughes: “I like to joke that I sometimes feel I met everyone who did meet him. Everyone spoke very highly of him. They all had funny stories of how impossible he was.” He spoke with Hughes’ second wife, actress Jean Peters (unlike Marla and Howard in “Rules Don’t Apply,” theirs was only a 21-year age difference). She gave him a valuable insight: “He was terribly deaf. It kind of touched me,” he said. “He couldn’t hear her! He didn’t listen to anybody.”

Ehrenreich latched onto the Hughes project for five years, never knowing when and if it would become real. Similarly, Collins went to meeting after meeting without a formal audition until finally she realized she was getting fitted for costumes. “I didn’t know if I had the part,” she told me on the phone. “I went along for the ride.”

After assembling a roster of film financiers led by New Regency’s Arnon Milchan, Beatty shot the $26-million film on budget, but as usual took his time in the editing room, near his Beverly Glen offices. In this case, it took more than a year. He always brings in friends and trusted voices like Elaine May and Robert Towne to look at different cuts. He originally had the Greta Garbo-mysterious Hughes hidden in the dark for more of the movie. “He wanted to be in control of how and when he was seen,” he said, but he finally decided, “‘OK, we made our point.'”

Warren Beatty in his home library.

Warren Beatty in his home library, with his three-hole legal pads.

Anne Thompson

4. There are advantages to shooting digital. Deschanel talked Beatty into going digital. The filmmaker was suspicious at first; he didn’t want the movie to look like video. It doesn’t, of course. The team had fun with production designer Jeannine Oppewall and costume designer Albert Wolsky shooting in a deliberately ’50s Hollywood style, inspired by the work of old masters Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler, and Conrad Hall. “I shot the movie in a very traditional or old-fashioned way,” said Beatty. “The way movies were often shot in that era. It gives the feeling you are there, because that’s what you have seen.”

“A lot of what makes it look old-fashioned is the lighting,” said Deschanel, who deployed spot lighting for faces and eyes, especially as Hughes was often sitting in the shadows, “and how you move or don’t move the camera. We did a lot of car scenes with green screen to look like the old rear projection. I tried to talk them into shooting them live.”

Besides being cheaper to use than film, digital Arri Alexa cameras allowed Beatty to indulge his penchant for multiple takes. “I usually use the first or second,” he said. “I fool around. I know that actors can come up with something better than what I had in mind. I do keep schedules in my head.”

Collins admitted that she had to shoot some scenes “tens and tens of times.” The long night scene when Marla’s driver Frank (Ehrenreich) helps her to install a TV antenna was tough. “Warren wanted anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness, overlaps of dialogue,” she said. “He wanted it to be perfect. We were tired and hungry, trying to figure out in our minds how to create new situations for the same scene.”

In scenes with Beatty as Hughes, he would direct her in character as the camera was rolling, “not to take you out of the scene and the moment,” said Collins. “He’d say, ‘Can you say that louder? Are you angry? Do you want to do angry? What do you want? Say it again!'”

The trick with getting along with Beatty is to appeal to the version of him you need to get what you want, said Deschanel. “If you need lighting time, you appeal to the star. To get across a visual lighting idea, appeal to the director and writer.

“I would rarely talk to the producer,” Deschanel said. “He was the toughest character there was. I tried to avoid the producer Warren. In the end, he does what he wants to do. He’s earned the right to do that.”

Next up: There’s talk of a “Dick Tracy” sequel —and there’s still a trunkful of abandoned projects that never got made. “I never thought I quit,” Beatty said. “What’s tough is to do movies you do not want to do. On the other hand, Kate Hepburn used to say to me, ‘A happy movie is a lousy movie.'”

Will he write a memoir? “My answer to that is, nobody else will.”

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