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Speed Demon 

by Ed Symkus


Steven Spielberg is a whirlwind, a little ball of energy. He's constantly on the move, much like the shark in his first blockbuster, Jaws. But Spielberg's goal isn't to eat everything in his path, it's to tell good stories on film.


His newest, Catch Me if You Can, is a movie he says was inspired by the true tale of Frank Abagnale, who, as a smooth-talking teenager in the 1960s, managed to successfully impersonate a Pan American pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, as well as operate a multi-million dollar check-writing scam. It's a comedy -- light and breezy -- with a serious side that looks at the effects of divorce on children. But more than anything else, it's a Spielberg film, a story well told.


Like the brisk pace of the film itself, Spielberg also directs quickly -- Catch Me if You Can was filmed in just 56 days -- a practice that makes demands on himself and his crew, as well as his actors. Yet no one's complaining.


"The style in which Steven wanted to make this movie was that we all had to be sort of raw, instinctual actors," says Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Frank Abagnale. "Especially me. Every day I was thrown into like a lion's pit, and I had to squirm and fight my way out. But that's the way making the film was paced. It was certainly different from the way we made [Scorsese's] Gangs of New York, which was much more meticulous and had much more attention to detail. This one was like trying to submerge yourself in the reality every day by constantly moving and not having enough time to think about how Frank actually did what he did."


Spielberg proudly wears the reputation of working quickly. Asked if he thinks he's ever lost anything by working on the fly like that, he immediately shakes his head no.


"I lost things by slowing down," Spielberg says, speaking so fast, his words run into one another. "When I shoot fast, my intuition tells me what to say to the actors and where to put the camera. If I shoot slowly -- I do have a kind of busy brain -- I tend to defeat spontaneity through too much thinking and reasoning and logic. So shooting fast for me is maybe like Jackson Pollock just splattering paint everywhere as opposed to Norman Rockwell, who is so meticulous."


There's also the collaborative side that his actors enjoy. Tom Hanks, who starred for Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, plays Carl Hanratty, the FBI man who's on Abagnale's trail.


"With Steven, it's always a kind of, 'Hey, how about this?' or 'What about that?' " says Hanks. "And he comes up all the time and says, 'What I need you to do here is come in and provide this moment of it.' And it might be something I've already thought of or it might not be. We see things eye to eye a surprising amount of the time. But when he says I've gotta do something, I do it."


It often seems that what Spielberg himself has "gotta do" is either recreate memories or get things off his chest by putting them into films. He still recalls, as a 4-year-old, being awakened by his father in the middle of the night and brought to an open field to watch a meteor shower, which led to the scene of late-night UFO watching in Close Encounters. Part of the reason he was drawn to Catch Me if You Can was that Frank Abagnale ran away from home when his parents divorced.


"It terrified him, and he ran from the bad feelings at home," says Spielberg. "I also come from a broken home, which was a terribly traumatic experience for me as well."


Abagnale ended up becoming a con man. Spielberg's destiny was a different one.


"The year my parents were divorced was the year I ran away to California," he says. "I was in high school then, and it was during my summer vacation. I slept at a cousin's house at night, and every day I snuck onto the Universal Studios lot dressed as an executive. I couldn't get on movie sets because there was always a guard out there. But I got on every TV show. I watched Leave It to Beaver being shot, I watched Wagon Train being shot. I just watched. I basically made it the University of Universal. In a sense, it was my first film school. Everybody asked me what I was doing there, and I would always lie and say I knew somebody in the executive offices."


Of course since those days, Spielberg has gone on to be the most successful and imaginative director in the history of the business. But with the development of DreamWorks, which he runs with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, he's also become a powerful decision-maker.


"Now that I'm on the side of distribution, I understand how competitive the industry is," he says. "How much in-fighting and animosity happens from studio to studio. So I've gotten into sort of the dark side of Hollywood just by knowing now what I never knew as a filmmaker before I had a studio."

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