It was finally time.
Warren Beatty has been working on an idea for a film script featuring Howard Hughes since the late 1970s. As with all of his other film projects, the Oscar-winning writer/director/actor did not start production until he had had everything exactly in place.
The fruit of his patience is “Rules Don’t Apply,” which opened Nov. 23 for the Thanksgiving weekend. It’s the story of a young driver (Alden Ehrenreich) from Fresno who works for Howard Hughes (Beatty) and a Virginia beauty queen (Lily Collins) who comes to Hollywood to work in the film company owned by the billionaire.
“I have delayed mobilizing every time I’ve done a movie,” Beatty says during a one-on-one interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. He’s in town for a screening of “Rules Don’t Apply” as part of the publicity swing for the film. The 79-year-old actor, dressed in all black, has graying hair and still looks like a leading man.
“I delayed ‘Bonnie & Clyde.’ I delayed ‘Shampoo.’ I delayed ‘Bulworth.’ I’m good at delaying,” he says.
His willingness to wait is something he learned during his early years in Hollywood. While he was making a living doing TV appearances – including a recurring role on the 1960 comedy “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” – and small film roles, Beatty was watching and learning.
He soaked up anything he could learn from legendary producers such as David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Sam Spiegel and George Stevens. The big lesson he learned was patience – that it was OK to delay a project until he had the right script and actors, even if that meant changing both.
“When I made ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1978), it was originally going to be about boxing. Muhammad Ali was a very good friend and I wanted to make the movie with him,” Beatty says. “But Ali was making too much money fighting. When I could not get him, I told him I would change the role to a football player and play it myself. That was a shame because Ali would have been a great actor.”
The list of films Beatty has done covers a wide array of topics. The common factor is that he’s found something about each story that touched him. That connection is vital to motivating Beatty to start working on a new film.
Once he commits to a project, he takes control from the script to the final edit.
“As a hired actor, I always felt frustrated,” Beatty says. “What developed was a need to be in control. I went through several experiences where I didn’t have control and I thought I had control because I thought everyone would make nice. But it didn’t happen that way. So, I realized I had to say I’m the boss and I’m responsible. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was the first place I did that.” (Beatty produced that film; Arthur Penn directed.)
Although his name is listed as the writer, director, producer and star, part of Beatty’s process is to put together the right team to make his movies. He’s a big fan of working with a committee, and he encourages input. What he wants from his team is constructive dialogue.
As “Rules Don’t Apply” began to take shape, Beatty decided to make Fresno his central figure’s hometown. He selected the city because of his experiences in Fresno over the years working on various political issues.
He liked the conservative nature he saw in Fresno and thought that would be a perfect background for the character, who fights the temptations of the beauty queen, who also comes from an equally conservative world. It’s all part of the themes of “Rules Don’t Apply,” circling around what Beatty calls the “American sexual Puritanism.”
“There is the America straight-lacedness and then you go to Hollywood, which if anything is selling unstraight-lacedness as an industry,” Beatty says.
Beatty stresses that while “Rules Don’t Apply” is being called a Howard Hughes movie, the focus of the film is the young couple. The intention from the start was to do a film about two young people who come to Hollywood in 1958, about the same time Beatty arrived.
Finding the right actors for the roles was another reason Beatty was willing to wait. He was excited when he found Ehrenreich and Collins because both actors are smart, have an onscreen charisma, are witty and, as Beatty puts it, not bad to look at.
Along with the “will they, won’t they” storyline are elements of the early days of feminism. That’s a topic Beatty understands since he’s been around strong women all his life – from his mother to his sister (Shirley MacLaine) to his wife (Annette Bening).
“I always considered myself a feminist,” Beatty says.
Beatty’s patience also comes through in his personal life.
In his early days, Beatty made as much news with his dating of a steady stream of starlets as he did starring in films such as “Splendor in the Grass,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” His love life even inspired Carly Simon to write “You’re So Vain.”
That changed in 1992 when he married Bening. The fact Beatty was 55 at the time might suggests he had a fear of commitment.
“The key to staying together is talking. I was never afraid of getting married. I was afraid of divorce,” he says. “Although I’m not thinking about it, I remain afraid of divorce. As I saw, I was afraid of it all falling apart.”
The same thing can be said about his approach to movies. Beatty is patient because he’s making movies that fall into a medium-range budget, such as “Rules Don’t Apply.” Films in that budget bracket often have trouble because they don’t get much time in theaters, with big blockbusters pushing them out. It makes Beatty sad that smaller movies don’t have time to build an audience.
“What we have eliminated, not intentionally but by cashing in quickly on mass release of movies, is that thing called time,” Beatty says. “You used to be able to see a movie, think about it, then see it again and recommend it to a friend. When I started, this would take place over three months or six months or a year or two. That was beneficial to the art form.”