Jeff Nathanson

Jeff Nathanson

Inspiration comes early for some writers, and Jeff
Nathanson is no exception. After spotting a course on screenwriting
in his college catalog, he was hooked: "I started writing scripts
at 18 and haven’t stopped." Luck has been on his side. What he
thought would turn out to be just a great writing sample has been
topping the box office for weeks now-Steven Spielberg’s Catch
Me if You Can,
starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks,
and based on the life of real-life con artist turned FBI expert
Frank Abagnale, Jr. A departure from his earlier work on such
action-oriented fare as Twister, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Rush Hour 2, the UCLA and AFI alumnus is now hard at work
on his upcoming directorial debut for Disney, for which he also
wrote the script.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you get involved
Catch Me If You Can?

Jeff Nathanson (JN): I heard a tape of Frank
Abagnale talking about his life, which he does quite a bit. He goes
to all sort of conventions, banker’s conventions and all kinds of
things, and does a 30-minute presentation on his story. Someone
had put that on tape and I heard it and I took the tape to Dreamworks.
I had worked with [producer] Walter Parkes there quite a bit. I
told him I wanted to make the movie and he bought it. Then we bought
the life rights and the book rights from Frank and started developing
the script.

MM: How long did you work on the script?

JN: I think the whole process was a little
over three or four years in development. I think Leonardo DiCaprio
was the first person to sign on and then, about a year after DiCaprio,
Spielberg came on.

MM: What was your writing process for the
film? How much research did you have to do?

JN: I did a lot of interviews with Frank himself.
I met with him several times, had long, in-depth interviews and
really tried to get him to talk about his childhood in a way that
he hadn’t done before. I actually think the movie is more accurate
about his childhood than the book, which was written in like two

Frank started talking about his father one day, and
that sort of got us into this whole long discussion about why he
actually did what he did. The other research was really just period

MM: Being that Frank is really an expert
on the topic, I wouldn’t think you’d need to go much further than

JN: Exactly. Steven is really into detail and
accuracy, so quite a bit of work was done just to try to capture
the period. Not only in the script, but the costumes and the production
design really captured the period beautifully.

MM: Did you feel at all constricted in the
creative liberties you wanted-or could-take because, one, the script
was based on an actual person, but also because it was based on
this individual who you had developed a personal relationship with?

JN: Not really, only because Frank isn’t exactly
a historical figure. It’s not like we were doing the John Adams
story-it’s the life of a con man. From the very beginning I think,
in my head at least, I wasn’t trying to do every moment exactly
as it happened. And the only person who knows exactly what happened
is Frank, and I’m not sure if he’ll ever tell anyone every
detail of what happened when he was on the run for those years.

MM: Is what’s up on the screen how you envisioned
the final product while you were writing it?

JN: No, no-not at all. When I was writing the
script I didn’t think anyone would ever make the movie. I was really
just doing it as a sample to do some new sort of writing. At that
time, I think Hollywood was perceiving me in a different way and
I was sort of desperate to try something else. I just figured I’d
write this little movie and it would never get made, but at least
it would be a good sample. Certainly, you can never in your wildest
dreams, say ‘Oh, it’s going to be a Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg-Leonardo
DiCaprio movie.’ That just goes beyond the realm.

MM: You mentioned being perceived by Hollywood
as a different kind of writer. As much as
Catch Me if You Can is a father and son story, it’s also  very action-oriented, which
is a lot of what you had done before. Do you think that some writers
are better suited to particular genres?

JN: Not really. I’m not much of an action writer,
to be honest. I mean, Jackie Chan choreographs all of his own action
stuff, so maybe I get credit for stuff that I never did! [laughs]
The truth is Hollywood only makes a certain kind of movie; all the
movies that are churned out are pretty similar. If you want to work
within that system-and you actually want to make a living at it-you
pretty much either work on Hollywood studio films or you only write
for yourself and hope to get small, independent films made.

I don’t think you can blame the writers of the world
and say “They only write a certain kind of film” or “They should only write a certain kind of film.” I think we’re all kind of
scrambling to find things that are a little bit outside the box
and desperate to do anything that is a little bit different. It’s
nice that Catch Me if You Can, while it is clearly a piece
of large entertainment, is also not really classifiable as a certain

MM: So what are you working on now?

JN: I’m about four weeks away from directing
my first movie. It’s a dark comedy for Disney, also based on a true
story, about the FBI’s decision in 1987 to try to go after John
Gotti by making a movie. They actually decided that they would make
a film in Providence, RI as a way of implicating the teamsters.
The mobsters were peddling bribes between the teamsters and the
movie people.

MM: And you wrote this, as well?

JN: I did. I wrote it, and Matthew Broderick
and Alec Baldwin are going to star in it with Toni Collette and
Calista Flockhart. We start literally in a month!

MM: So you’re a little stressed-publicity
Catch Me if You Can while you’re trying to prepare your
own movie?

JN: [laughing] Well, writers don’t get
that much publicity, so it’s not that daunting-I’ve got to be honest!