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Peter Bogdanovich knows that The Cat’s Meow is a great yarn: Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, on a cruise with his young lover, Marion Davies, and such assorted Hollywood types as Charlie Chaplin, novelist Elinor Glyn, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons, is driven by jealousy to a terrible act. Bogdanovich also knows that the tale of how he came to make the movie is a pretty good one, which is why he happily relates it again, the day after he told it on a radio talk show where his interviewer was also a guest.

“I first heard the story—what became the basic plot of The Cat’s Meow—from Orson Welles,” says the 62-year-old director, who’s clearly used to dropping the names of Hollywood icons. “Thirty-three years ago in a conversation about Citizen Kane, in which he was telling me how different Hearst was from Kane, and how he didn’t mean Kane to be Hearst. I thought it was an amazing story. He had heard it from Charles Lederer, who was Marion Davies’ nephew. When I met Charlie years later, he showed me a whole bunch of photographs of costume parties at San Simeon [Hearst’s estate]. The first time we see Hearst in the movie is a photograph of a costume party.

“And then, about 30 years later”— Bogdanovich releases a theatrical cackle—”I was on an ocean voyage. I happened on that voyage to tell Roger Ebert the story Orson told me. He was amazed. He said, ‘That would make a great movie.’ And then I got home from that voyage, and I swear, on my desk was this script. I told Roger, and he said, ‘I think you better make this picture.’”

Bogdanovich says that writer Steve Peros and his agent didn’t know about his long-standing interest in this dark Hollywood anecdote. “I asked them, ‘Why did you send this to me?’ And they said, ‘We just thought you’d be a good director for it.’”

For a brief period in the ’70s, Bogdanovich was a hot young director. In town for the Filmfest DC screening of his new movie, he still looks the part: backswept brown hair, loosely tied scarf, a denim jacket, gingham shirt with unbuttoned cuffs, and a large signet ring with a prominent “pB.” After such critical and box-office successes as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, however, Bogdanovich’s reputation crashed. He became as well-known for Hearst-like relationships with starlets as for directing. It seems that this personal history might also have drawn him to Peros’ script.

“I can’t say this was totally conscious at the time, but I can see it now,” the director concedes. “I kind of understood the story. I don’t know if the word ‘identify’ is right, but I could empathize and sympathize with everybody in the story. Because of my past, and because of my own ups and downs. I became more aware of it later.

“Having been a writer about movies,” adds Bogdanovich, who’s written books about such directors as Orson Welles, John Ford, Fritz Lang, and Allan Dwan, “you’d think I’d be more self-conscious.”

The director says he cast “good actors that I could believe in the roles,” including Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Kirsten Dunst as Davies, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, Jennifer Tilly as Parsons, and Joanna Lumley as Glyn. He didn’t worry much about physical resemblance, although he says “we got lucky, because Ed Herrmann, who was not the studio’s first choice, really does look like Hearst.”

The principal casting hurdle was that Lion’s Gate, the film’s U.S. studio, “wanted a bigger name, for all the parts. Once we had Kirsten, they were happier, because she had some heat from Bring It On. That made it a little easier to get the rest of the cast.”

A Hollywood period picture is not likely to attract the Bring It On crowd, Bogdanovich agrees. But then the casting went in every direction, from drawing-room-drama veteran Herrmann to stand-up comedian Izzard.

“Chaplin was the hardest part to cast,” the director recalls. “All I kept saying was ‘Gotta be English.’ My manager called me up and said, ‘You want to see Eddie Izzard?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And I went and saw him perform, and he blew me away. And then it hit me: an English comic. And it turned out that Eddie was a big fan of Chaplin. Had just become a big fan of Chaplin. Hadn’t been, but now was.”

The director did tinker with the screenplay, mostly the ending. But many of the changes came during the shooting. “The actors had really good—what Hemingway called ‘shit detectors.’ By the time we were shooting, they knew their own characters well. Eddie would say, ‘I don’t think Chaplin would say that.’ Edward would say, ‘It doesn’t feel right for me to say this.’ Kirsten would say, ‘I don’t think Marion would say anything.’ There was a lot of that, which was very important.”

Because the film was partially financed with German money, the interiors had to be shot in Germany. The production ended up in Berlin, in the studio “where The Blue Angel was shot, which I thought was a good omen.” Then it was off to Greece, to film exterior scenes from the cruise from Los Angeles to San Diego.

“Why did we shoot in Greece, you might ask? Well, because the yacht was there. We only found one yacht in the whole world that was the right period, and looked sort of like Hearst’s, and that they would let us use. It was in Athens. So we sent the production designer and the director of photography to find someplace near Athens where we could believe we were in San Diego and San Pedro in 1924—which means not built up at all.

“Did they find it near Athens? Well, it was nearer to Athens than, say, Paris. They said it was a few hours’ drive. It was actually—with a very good car, a Mercedes, and a brilliant driver who grew up there—it took five hours. It took the crew 11 hours by bus. I thought we were in deep shit.

“And we were. The water was terrible. I cursed everybody. I said, ‘What are we doing here? We fucked up. The picture’s going to be a disaster.’ We lost three days. We had no way to make up three days. We had to leave Berlin by the 23rd of December—it was Christmas! We shot on a couple Saturdays. We cut three pages of script—but not any one place, just here and there. We finished shooting at midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd.”

Bogdanovich clearly relishes this horror story, perhaps because it sounds like the ones told to him by Hollywood pioneers he befriended when he was young man. “I met an awful lot of people who have since passed away. It’s rare for someone in his 20s to know as many people as I did in their 60s and 70s. It was like I had a whole bunch of grandfathers. And I became very close to some of them. Like Allan Dwan, who was born in 1885. I knew him the last 20 years of his life. My firsthand experience with people who had lived through this era made me more intimate with it. It becomes part of your own story.”

The director began his research under the influence of his father, a painter and art expert: “If he knew everything about the history of painting, I guess if I’m going to be a film director I need to know everything about that—and it’s a lot easier, because it’s short.

“People thought I was a film critic before I became a director,” he adds. “I wasn’t. I never have been.”

Instead, he began in the theater, with an initially amateur sideline as a Hollywood historian. “I knew that you couldn’t do it from books, because the books hadn’t been written. And here were the people, alive! They were still alive: Jack Ford, and Howard Hawks, and Hitchcock. Orson came into it later. Allan Dwan was living in a little house in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where I lived. Jesus! So I searched them out.

“There were two reasons. One was to learn; the other was to popularize, to have it for other people to learn from and to get joy from. A large part of it was selfish, but part of it was altruistic.”

Bogdanovich doubts that contemporary Hollywood has the same allure for young people today as its golden age once had for him. “I don’t see how it can. Because we’re not the foundation of anything; we’re just what happens to be current. I wish that younger people would have a passion for learning how it all began. As far as I’m concerned, there’s buried treasure. That isn’t even buried.” —Mark Jenkins