With so many people taking a vow of silence,
how did you manage to research the facts behind this mysterious story?
(Bogdanovich) I heard the story originally from Orson Welles
in 1969 or 1970; and he got it from Marion Davies' nephew, Charles
Letter, who was about 12 at the time. It was a known story in the
family. And the reason Orson told it to me was because I was
interviewing him for a book that we did and he was trying to make the
point that Charles Foster Kane was not meant to be exactly like William
Randolph Hearst. And as an example of how Hearst was different from
Kane he told this story... But having known the story, I didn't ever
think to make it as a movie. However, about thirty years later, I
suddenly got a script out of the blue, sent to me by these two
producers (Kim Bieber and Carol Lewis) and a writer
(Steven Peros). I was familiar with it and I
thought he dramatized it very well. He (Screenwriter, Steven
Peros) did a lot of research, read all the newspaper accounts,
looked at all the stuff- There have been two fictionalized accounts: I
think one by Alvis Huxley, as part of a novel of Huxley's (Bogdanovich
was unsure of the exact title but something with "swan" in the title
published in the 1950s). And I think Patty Hearst did a
version of it called Murder at -- (Bogdanovich was unsure of
the exact title), which was again a fictionalized version,
with the basic twist that it was an accidental murder. Steve did a lot
of research on it. The script that I read, I thought worked, up to a
point; and those things that I didn't think worked, were revised. In
fact, we brought Steve with us to the location in Europe (much
of the film was shot in Greece), which is not common, but I
thought would be valuable. All the actors really got into this, really
got into researching their characters, and they all contributed. We all
worked to try to get it right; to do what made sense. So for example,
there was a scene in the original scene that none of the actors nor I
thought made sense... so we threw that out and made a scene with a trio
(Hearst, Marion, and Chaplin).
Approximately 40% of the original script changed
throughout the production, although the original structure (order of
events) remained intact, for the most part.
How important do you think the film history
aspect will be to audiences?
What I find important or interesting is how these people
react, these human beings- what are they like? How do they behave in
the circumstances? It's the human dimension that interests me and how
the positions that they all had in life, those positions of celebrity
and fame and power and money- how those affected their actions. That's
interesting to me.
How much of what is depicted in the film do you
believe actually happened?
Well, there is no way to know exactly. But it all seems
to ring true now to me. I think in order to make it work from a sort of
melodramatic point of view, Steve introduced a couple of melodramatic
touches that I think worked, like the letter- but there is no way of
knowing if that happened; but that's interesting- and the hat, and how
that played a part. But it's all perfectly acceptable; I think it
works. And Shakespeare's 'Othello' hinges on a G-d d-mn handkerchief,
so Shakespeare reduced things to a handkerchief, so I thought 'well, we
can do it with a hat'.
How much of the film was factual (since the
film has a docudrama feel to it)?
There are a lot of facts and factual things. Hearst did
have a gun; he did shoot seagulls. That item about Chaplin and Marion
did appear that weekend (in a gossip column).
Chaplin was noted as a Lothario. Chaplin's Japanese chauffeur, Kono,
was the only one who went on record and said he saw someone carried off
with a bandage on his head. So that's two things that were on record:
one that Ince was stricken ill on Hearst's yacht and two that he died
of an attack brought on by indigestion, then why was his head bandaged?
So there was no autopsy. All the narrated elements that Elinor Glyn's
character talks about is true: there is no autopsy, only Dr. Goodman
was ever questioned, there was a recommendation that it be further
investigated, but the prosecutor said 'thank you very much, I am not
going to'. Margaret's salary did go from $302 to $1000; Louella Parsons
was one of the only persons to have a lifetime contract and that
happened shortly after; and there is a lot of circumstantial evidence,
but of course there is no proof... That is why we call it 'the whisper
told most often' because we don't exactly know the truth; but this is
an assumption. But now that everyone is dead, it's fair enough.
Are you extra careful about how you present
Yes. Because I've been burnt and I'm alive. People have
done movies that I wasn't happy with (most likely referring
to STAR 80). I think we all tried: Steve, me, the actors,
everybody tried to make the movie as conscientious as possible and not
do anything reckless or frivolous. So we tried to tell the truth, as
close as we could get to it; based on the people we were dealing with;
based on the circumstances that we knew about...
How much of your own experiences influenced the
tone of the film?
Well, I think everything. I think the tone of the film
is something that the director really supplies- the kind of tone, the
way the emphasis is, the way the tempo is. What you see is my vision of
it. And I think among the things that matter to me- Let's put it this
way: Chaplin in this movie is not portrayed as the cinematic genius
that gave you "City Lights" and "Modern Times". No, we portrayed him as
what he was that weekend, a movie star on the make. I've been there.
I've been a movie star; I've been on the make. I definitely understand
that. Ince is not portrayed as a pioneer filmmaker. He's portrayed as a
guy who is down on his luck and looking desperately for return of his
luck. And Hearst, I certainly could identify with his feeling of
desperation. I don't know if I would have stooped as low as he did
because of a letter, but maybe, maybe. The point is that I understood
it. I don't condemn it. When you're desperate, you're desperate. I
could understand Hearst because here's a man who has everything he
wants but he's obsessed with this woman. He's mad about her, he's crazy
about her. I think that makes him human. And again, I certainly
understood how he felt. And the other thing, the fourth thing, the most
important, perhaps, because there was a murder; and I do have
first-hand experience with what that sort of event can do to
people...We are so almost desensitized by violence in movies- everyone
is always getting killed, hundreds of people seem to die in every
movie, that I think we get desensitized. So I was trying to say, 'okay,
this is one death, and it changes everything.' Because I think it is
important for everyone to realize that one death, one murder is
important, it changes everything. Everyone's life who is connected is
affected inevitably and forever.
Bogdanovich is also a film historian and has written a
number of biographies of accomplished directors like John Ford, Howard
Hawkes, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles; when asked which if any had
given him helpful advice, he answered:
I have gotten advice from John Ford, Hawkes,
Hitchcock, and Welles that are part of how I make films, that is part
of what I do, part of my approach to the medium, and I think about them
all the time. They are sort of guidelines, I don't know what you would
call it- a lot of advice, a lot of pointers, a lot of experiences that
they had that I have seen come true in my own work. One of the most
important things, was when Ford said to me, 'most of the good things
happen by accident'. And I repeated this to Welles... I said 'is that
true?' And Orson said, 'yes, you could say that the director is a man
who presides over accidents'. What he meant was that you have to keep
yourself a little open to the possibility of divine intervention and
you have to know what you want, but that doesn't mean that it should be
closed down and therefore you can't let anything in because so many
things happen in a movie. And this movie is a perfect example of- I
don't think I have ever made a picture that had more happy accidents,
even things that I thought were not going to be good, turned out to be
good. I am talking about the casting, the locations- everything turned
out to be fortuitous.
Bogdanovich claims that even Hitchcock, who is notorious
for planning every last detail, was open to spontaneous ideas.
Apparently, Cary Grant improvised the ending of "To Catch a Thief". Of
the 18 directors that Bogdanovich directed, he feels that he learned
something from all of them. He describes the interviews as a sort of
"masters course", replacing the film school training that he never had.
You seem predestined to direct this film
because of your own experience in Hollywood and your background as a
film historian. What did you like about working on this film as opposed
to some of your other works that were completely fictional?
"We felt that because it was based on real people, we felt incumbent to
do it as honestly and as realistically, as faithfully to what seems to
have happened as possible. So that was definitely on all of our minds."
Bogdanovich describes this challenge as a positive one
and asserts "I think that limitations are a positive challenge. If you
have the whole world, it's tougher."
Is "The Cat's Meow" making a general commentary
on the rich and famous or specific to the historical people included in
Well, it's specific to those people, but I think it
reverberates. There is a terrible danger to success, that kind of
power. I think it is filled with unreality: you live in the real world,
but it isn't real. The murder was real, that's what shocked everyone...
You see, I don't think Marion would have stayed with Hearst, if this
hadn't happened. I think she felt so guilty that she stayed. So
ironically, he (Hearst) got what he wanted... She
did become a bit of a drunk, though.
No one living will ever know what exactly happened on
the Oneida or why. No one living will ever truly understand the reasons
why the persons involved re/acted as they did. However, Bogdanovich and
the rest of the filmmakers involved in "The Cat's Meow" certainly put
forth one possible scenario that appears quite plausible. If you are
interested in film history and historical figures in the film industry,
you will probably find this film interesting. If you enjoy learning
about the rich and famous, you will certainly learn something by
watching "The Cat's Meow". "The Cat's Meow" opens wide on April 26th.