THE CAT'S MEOW took a circuitous journey to the screen. Writer Steven Peros, after having his original screenplay come close to getting made a few times, decided to rework the film script as a stage play. He asked theater producer Kim Bieber to produce it, which she did, to rave reviews and packed houses
Bieber then contacted her friend, casting director Carol Lewis, who had been looking for a vehicle that would allow her to make the transition to film producer, and proposed that they work together on it. The two found that they both gravitated to this unique piece because they shared a love of the classic films of old Hollywood. Though the road from idea to reality was a long and arduous one for the first-time feature film producing team, in the end, said Lewis, "We made the picture we wanted to make. "
For both Bieber and Lewis the selection of a director was an easy one. "Peter was our first choice and we're so glad that he was interested and available," said Lewis. "Kim and I are both long-time fans of his work and we knew that he wouldn't be afraid of a period piece. At the time we had no idea of his personal connection to the story - we felt that his vast knowledge of Hollywood history was just one more reason why he was the perfect one to direct it. "
Director Peter Bogdanovich, whose own life has been touched more than once both personally and professionally by tragedy, first heard "the whisper" about the story from no less a film icon than Orson Welles, while the two men were working together some years ago on a book about Welles' films.
"Hearst's name came up," recalls Bogdanovich. "The story behind THE CAT'S MEOW was in the first draft of CITIZEN KANE. He said Herman Mankiewicz (Welles' co-screenwriter) put it in, but Orson took it out because, as he later told Bogdanovich, "Kane was not a killer. "
"At the start of the movie you know there was a shooting, because it begins with a funeral," says Bogdanovich. "You know someone's going to get hurt - the question is who? All these famous people were reputed to be on the yacht, and there are several versions of who they were. In her narration, Elinor Glyn says, 'everything was told in whispers. This is the whisper most often told. '"
More than just a tale of suspense set in the glittering world of Hollywood celebrities, THE CAT'S MEOW also struck another thematic chord for the celebrated director. "One of the reasons I was attracted to the script, apart from the fateful aspect of it, was that it's basically a story about how difficult success is - it creates a kind of curse that comes with it…Here is a story about how difficult it is to deal with success.
"Success leads you into an unreal world," he continues. "It creates a kind of miasma and people lose themselves. Everybody gravitates to you because of your success - then the avarice factor, the jealousy factor, the envy factor, all kick in. You might say that all seven deadly sins start dancing more.
"It's very dangerous," Bogdanovich adds knowingly.
According to the director, success in the U. S. poses unique challenges, and success in Hollywood is especially treacherous.
"In America success is particularly difficult because it comes to you in waves and can so easily be taken away," he notes. "America, after all, is a young country and we have no respect for age here, or for tradition. "
Bogdanovich himself is no stranger to scandal, or to the fickleness of success. After establishing himself as an American director of the first rank with a succession of the critically acclaimed films, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT'S UP, DOC? And PAPER MOON, his career took a turn with the less well received DAISY MILLER and AT LONG LAST LOVE.
The director enjoyed a moderate comeback with SAINT JACK, an engrossing character study of a Singapore pimp, but then suffered another setback with THEY ALL LAUGHED, a film that he was forced to distribute himself and which became a financial disaster for him. Personal tragedy visited him at the same time when Dorothy Stratten, former Playboy Playmate of the Year and Bogdanovich's girlfriend at the time, was murdered by her jealous husband, from whom she was separated, after finishing her featured role in the film. Several years passed before Bogdanovich returned to filmmaking, but his career was revived again by the success of that effort, the award-winning MASK.
"In Hollywood failure is a scandal," says Bogdanovich. "Of course, everything's a scandal when you live in a goldfish bowl, so everything is the stuff of gossip and legend. "
As both a film historian and someone whom has himself been at the epicenter of considerable personal and professional controversy, Bogdanovich seemed predestined to be the one to bring this particular Hollywood legend to the screen. The story shared by Orson Welles, who had heard about it firsthand from Marion Davies' nephew, stuck in his memory, so that when he read the script of THE CAT'S MEOW, it seemed to the director "that fate was telling me something. "
As a film historian, Bogdanovich has always been interested in the decade of the 1920s, which were in many ways the zenith of the film industry, and the legendary filmmakers of that time. During that decade most Americans of all ages went to the movies at least once a week. It was well before the age of television; even radio, in fact, hadn't yet established itself in the public's imagination.
The director's interest in and knowledge of that period is also evidenced by his several books on movies and their illustrious directors, his most recent being Who the Devil Made It, based on his interviews with sixteen legendary filmmakers, which received a special award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He has also written books about such directors as John Ford, Allen Dwan, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. This Is Orson Welles was published in 1992, along with excerpted audiotapes of his interviews that were subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award.
For a filmmaker like Bogdanovich, who has made a number of period films, the times were irresistible, though the challenges formidable.
"My attempt has always been to tell the story and serve the text as best as I can," notes Bogdanovich. "Beyond that, my designers and I are always after verisimilitude. "
"The designers and I all try to be as close to reality as possible," he continues. "On THE LAST PICTURE SHOW we gave bonuses to anyone who could spot an anachronism on the set, and I recall that someone got a bonus for pointing out that a soda vending machine wasn't of the right period. "
The director immerses himself in the period during the entire shoot. "Orson Welles didn't think it was absolutely necessary to be so focused on the pop culture of the moment, but I find it helps me," says Bogdanovich. "I often have period music playing on the set between takes and will listen to music of the period when I go home after the day's shoot. "
Bogdanovich's attention to detail and commitment to absolute verisimilitude is evident in the score for the film. Each of some three-dozen songs is genuine and from the actual period.
Bogdanovich got his first taste of making period films with his work on the Oscar-winning THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, which premiered in 1971 and catapulted the director's career forward. "When anyone had asked me what I was working on, I would say a period piece," he recalls with a smile. "Then they'd ask, 'What period?' When I answered that the film took place in 1951, they all said it wasn't a period piece at all. "
Nevertheless, he was hooked. "What I like about making period films and why I keep going back to them is that once you set a moment in time, it becomes very specific and very real to the audience. "