Q&A With Screenwriter John Logan
John Logan is no stranger to Alpha males, their giant egos, and how they perform when the moment of truth is upon them. Hell, he's building an impressive screenwriting career upon the backs of their outsized personalities. Logan has written stories about all kinds of intriguing protagonists, be it the cocky quarterback "Steamin" Willie Beamon (Jamie Foxx) and his weary coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) in Any Given Sunday, the intense Maximus (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator, the regal Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in Star Trek: Nemesis or even the swashbuckling animated Sinbad (voiced by Brad Pitt). Logan, 43, is also versed in real larger-than-life characters as well, having written the screenplay for RKO 281, detailing the battle between William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles over Citizen Kane, but every movie he authored was prelude to digging into the incredible life of Howard Hughes.
Working in concert with "America's greatest living director" Martin Scorsese and an up-and-comer named Leo DiCaprio, Logan has brought the entrepreneur's entrepreneur to the big screen just in time to escape the holiday madness for the mayhem of Mr. "Spruce Goose" himself. Logan talked with Patrick J. Sauer about living inside Howard Hughes' cagey head and why it took him fifteen drafts to get there.
Q: How did you get started in screenwriting?
Logan: I was a playwright in Chicago. Working in the theater is great, but nobody makes any money, so it was a natural segway into movies. I spent 10 years in the theater trenches and wrote 14 plays. I always wanted to write something about football and it really wouldn't work as a play, so I wrote a screenplay instead. Oliver Stone liked it and bought it, so my first gig was working with a major director on Any Given Sunday.
Q: How do you go about telling the stories of these amazing characters?
Logan: Great drama comes from great power. How businessmen or even the Roman Emperor exert their power whether it's for a personal whim, whether it's just or unjust... In the case of Howard Hughes, what excited me was that he was a visionary, an empire-builder who had a deep passion for aviation.
Q: Was it tough to get a feel for Howard Hughes?
Logan: Reading Senate transcripts, biographies, the history of TWA and anything else related to Hughes I got to know every aspect of his life. It took me some time, and 15 drafts, but I realized the spine to follow was his life in aviation. The Aviator is really the story of a corporate battle between Hughes' TWA and Juan Trippe's Pan Am disguised as a biopic. What makes Hughes fascinating is his passion, drive and demons. He was a vibrant, powerful man, but he also had what today what probably be diagnosed today as severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was fanatic about detail and would tinker endlessly. He had little patience or affection for any of his employees outside of the pilots and he drove a lot of good people around him mad because of his micro managing. Later in life, he worked entirely in the middle of the night and had no problem making an engineer drive into the desert to argue about a screw.[Ed Note: Juan Trippe, played by Alec Baldwin, headed Pan Am]
Q: So was Hughes ultimately a loner?
Logan: The biggest surprise to me was how absolutely lonely Hughes was. He had few close male friends and none of the many women he had constituted an adult relationship with the exception of Katherine Hepburn, because she was a tough gal and learned, and loved, to fly. The saddest moment of his life though, was when he forced out and lost control of TWA in 1960. Building airplanes and flying was everything to him. He was happiest, if that word can be applied to such a strange figure, up in a pressurized, germ-free cockpit.
Q: Do today's entrepreneurs compare to Howard Hughes?
Logan: Hughes goes back to the days when businessmen were pioneers, but there are modern-day equivalents that can match his unique combination of brass tax business sense and personal panache like Ted Turner or Richard Branson. Like all great entrepreneurs, Hughes was a huge gambler. At the age of 18 he declared himself and independent so he wouldn't have to share the Hughes Tool fortune and promptly went to Hollywood and financed and directed the most expensive move of its time, Hell's Angels, which was about World War I pilots and he himself did much of the daredevil flying stunts. Hughes mortgaged everything to get it made and then he decided he wanted to make and race his own planes. He constructed the H1 and set the speed record, which he topped by shattering the around-the-globe trip by four days. At TWA, Hughes made the first non-stop cross-country flight in less than seven hours. There was no such thing as a non-stop flight across the country without refueling until Hughes built the "Constellation" with Lockheed. And then he thought why can't I fly across the world? He changed commercial aviation, tourism and international relations.
Q: What was it like on the set?
Logan: Scorsese was fascinated by the way Hughes could multi-task because it's what a film director has to do all the time on set. You're constantly besieged by actors, designers, camera operators, and you have to make a million decisions every second, and the money accruing is stratospheric. Hughes had it; he could walk through a hangar and edit a movie on the phone while looking at blueprints for an elevator on the plane with a designer while talking to TWA executives about corporate maneuvering and keep all of the balls in the air, until he would crack. And when Hughes would crack, it was a terrifying experience where he would isolate himself, that's where the reclusive behavior began. DiCaprio was also involved in every aspect of The Aviator, and he said it was a major challenge to play a man with that much power, with the power of life and death. I think he found it rewarding.
Q: Any last thoughts on Howard Hughes?
Logan: It was five years from initial discussions to the movie coming out, and I've become very attached to the man. It was a bear. There were times when I felt like one of those Hughes' employees getting calls at 2 a.m. I think entrepreneurs will enjoy seeing a vibrant character playing in their world. I had no idea when I started all that Howard Hughes accomplished against unbelievable odds. When he died he was worth $2 billion dollars, so he did something right.