Mann trusted Scorsese to bring script to life

Producer devoted three years to it

December 24, 2004|By Michael Sragow

Part of The Aviator's freshness comes from the filmmaker who first developed the script and then produced it: Michael Mann, director of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and this year's Collateral.

Approached by Leonardo DiCaprio, Mann worked on the project for three years. He hashed out the script for eight months with John Logan (Gladiator) before Logan went off and wrote it, and Mann "pretty much approved" the finished screenplay. But at one point, he says, "It came down to a choice of doing either Ali (2001) or this. I chose Ali."

Between The Insider (1999) and Ali, says Mann, "I had spent half a decade depicting characters like Ali, Lowell Bergman, Mike Wallace, Jeffrey Wigand, Don Hewitt, Howard Cosell, Drew `Bundini' Brown, Malcolm X, Herbert Muhammad and Don King. I didn't want to have to deal again with the constrictions of real-life characters."

So in January 2002, a month after Ali opened, Mann let go of The Aviator, but not before signing on another A-plus-list filmmaker. "Out of three I had in mind, No. 1 was always Marty [Scorsese]. I couldn't imagine anything better than Marty directing an extremely well-structured story."

Logan had structured The Aviator the way Mann structured his previous biopics.

"You pick a salient period in Hughes' life and then ask, what is the central conflict of his story? Even in his early adulthood, it's Hughes vs. the disease. He sees a mental disease [obsessive-compulsive disorder] coming his way, sometimes personified in the competitors and government people who torment him. He has to worry, `How do I fight it off, will it disable me?'

"His inner experience - that's where the center of the film had to be. And when Marty read it and said yes, in a day it became his."

Scorsese says he spent months rethinking the script with DiCaprio and Logan, only to arrive at a screenplay close to the one Logan and Mann had assembled.

"I think most of us directors are humble," Mann says. "We all know what we can do. When I approached Marty about taking over the movie, after reading the script he couldn't believe it: `Why are you giving this thing up?'

"But I take the building of a narrative for granted, it's what I do; I expect the story to be good. What Marty did with the opera of this movie - the style of acting, with everyone acting in the same style, and the music and the sound and the lushness of the color and the staging, and then the harmony of all these parts in the whole - it's extraordinary.

"Marty may take all that stuff for granted. It's what he does."

- Michael Sragow

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