In the Melrose Avenue office of his production company, Acappella Pictures, Charles Evans Jr. was sorting through a box of oversized photos depicting major moments in Howard Hughes’ life.
There was a shot of Hughes in an aviator cap, stopping in Paris during his 1938 record-setting flight around the world-three days, 19 hours and 17 minutes-that Mr. Evans said “effectively shrunk everyone’s awareness of the immensity of the globe.”
Further down was a photo of a familiar plane: Its massive wingspan and distended fuselage were about as distinctive as Jane Russell’s décolletage in another Hughes-designed project, The Outlaw .
“Is that the Spruce Goose ?” I asked him.
“This,” he corrected, “is the HK-1. People who don’t like Howard call it Spruce Goose . So don’t.”
Mr. Evans let out a short, sharp laugh, then resumed his wary composure.
“Basically, those were the detractors, the ones who said it would never fly,” he said.
Charles Evans is not a Hughes detractor; he is a Hughes obsessive. For the last nine of his 40 years, he has immersed himself in “the dramatic quagmire” of Hughes’ life to make a movie about the filmmaker, aviator, industrialist and cocksman. Most people’s memories of Hughes are caught up in his squalid last years as an emaciated, drug-addicted recluse with gnarled fingernails. Mr. Evans saw a different Hughes: a man whose ability to communicate with machines changed the world as we know it.
Mr. Evans also had a pedigree that Hollywood understood: His father is Tootsie producer Charles Evans, his uncle is former Paramount chief Robert Evans. But when that wasn’t enough, he challenged the Hollywood establishment. After securing financing and wooing Leonardo DiCaprio to play the lead, Mr. Evans met in 1998 with his leading man’s choice to direct the film, Michael ( The Insider, Ali ) Mann, and outlined his ideas for the picture.
And in 2001, when Mr. Evans concluded that Mr. Mann had already cut him out of the process, he sued the director, his powerful agent and the studio where Mr. Mann was trying to set up his deal, New Line.
Fast-forward to July 8, when production is set to begin on The Aviator , a movie that will focus on 20 years of the billionaire’s life. The film begins in 1927, during the filming of Hell’s Angels -the flying picture in which Hughes discovered Jean Harlow-and ends in 1947, with the flight of the HK-1. It has all the earmarks of a Big Film. Martin Scorsese will direct a script by John ( Gladiator ) Logan and a cast that includes Mr. DiCaprio as Hughes; John C. Reilly as his right-hand man, Noah Dietrich; Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn; Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner; and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow.
The film’s credits will also identify five producers, including Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Mann. And Charles Evans Jr.
If the copy of the script that The Observer obtained bears any resemblance to the finished product, then moviegoers will be thrust into a world of glamour and aeronautics. They’ll see Hughes take Hepburn for a night flight in his Sikorsky Amphibian and land on the fairway of the Wilshire Country Club, then join her for a claustrophobic dinner at Fenwick, the Hepburn Yankee homestead in Connecticut, where everyone speaks with a locked jaw. There, Mama Hepburn tells him: “We don’t care about money here, Mr. Hughes.”
“You don’t care about money because you have it,” Hughes replies, then tells her: “I care about money, Mrs. Hepburn, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it.”
The test flight and fiery crash, in Beverly Hills, of Hughes’ XF-11 reconnaissance plane-a crash that almost killed him-will be recreated, as will Hughes’ 1947 televised showdown with Senator Ralph Owen Brewster. So will some tough and tender moments with Ava Gardner, as when she discovers a microphone under her bed: “What do you wanna hear?! You wanna hear me screwing Mickey Rooney-that do it for you, Howard?! You wanna hear me screwing Sinatra?! You goddamn faggot-screw them yourself if you’re so interested!”
Mr. Evans identifies himself as “Charlie.” When I asked him how it felt to see the Hughes project move into the final stretch, he said, “When the cameras start to roll, I’ll feel better.” Mr. Evans wore a pale beige button-down shirt, open at the neck, nondescript pants and athletic shoes. The Evans genes were in evidence, though at a lower volume. He was fairer and stockier than his Uncle Bob, not quite the cocksure conversationalist who made The Kid Stays in the Picture a smash. Mr. Evans contorted his hands into grotesque shapes as he mulled things, then spoke with a kind of muscular candor reminiscent of his impossibly tanned uncle.
For instance, when I asked Mr. Evans if it helps to be his father’s son and his uncle’s nephew, he replied that what has benefited him is “the arrogance that a second-generation person can have,” the ability to say: “If they can do it, surely I can do it-perhaps better.”
Mr. Evans laughed and added, “That can give you some sustenance sometimes.”
And when I asked Mr. Evans what about Hughes appealed to him, he thought about it for a few seconds. Then he said that Hughes found “stimulation from other things perhaps more than other people. He didn’t speak English as much as he spoke engineering. He saw the world as a machine, and people happened to inhabit it.”
The remark jibed with something Mr. Evans’ father told me about his son. “He’s tremendously ambitious in his work,” Evans père had said. “He’s not very social-minded. He’s not taken up by the glamour of Hollywood. He’s very serious about making movies. And in making movies, it’s difficult to have people do things for you.”
Initially, Mr. Evans fils developed “five or six drafts” of a script with “two different writers” in approximately seven years. (Mr. Logan was hired by Mr. Mann.) By 1995, he began to acquire any Hughes memorabilia and archival information he could. Mr. Evans said he thinks he may have “the world’s largest archive on Howard Hughes”-newsreels, photos, games, countless engineering magazines and one of his most prized acquisitions, the unedited manuscript of Noah Dietrich’s memoirs, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes .
“I just got more and more involved in figuring out how to tell the story of a man who is a loner,” he said, “who is essentially unsympathetic, a manipulator, a collector of people, who lived with drug addiction and terrible terminal diseases for a good part of his life.”
Mr. Evans was not alone.
Spider-Man screenwriter David Koepp wrote a script for Touchstone that was supposed to star Nicolas Cage and be directed by Brian De Palma. The From Hell team of the Hughes Brothers, screenwriter Terry Hayes and Johnny Depp were working on a project at Universal. John Malkovich and David (Bad Company ) Himmelstein reportedly were exploring the darker side of Hughes’ life for HBO. Hughes’ widow Terry Moore wanted to adapt her book, The Passions of Howard Hughes , for the screen. And Warren Beatty, for decades fascinated by a Hughes project, was interviewing Hughes intimates for his and Steven Spielberg’s take on the billionaire.
But, Mr. Evans said, the more he researched, the more he became convinced that his movie should focus on Hughes as a pilot and an engineer-on the fulcrum that, as he said, “Howard loved machines, and they loved him back.”
“I think filmmakers who wanted to tell his story have always misused the material,” he said. “They’ve misused his illness, his eccentricities and his periods of isolation.” Hughes was diagnosed in his 40′s with tertiary syphilis. He was also addicted to codeine and other drugs, a byproduct of his horrific XF-11 crash. “That, when combined with his obsessive-compulsive disorder-we have a name for it now, they didn’t then-that is the essence of his seclusion and his asylum of his own making,” Mr. Evans said, adding that the more tragic aspects of Hughes’ life too often overshadowed his achievements.
And as far as Mr. Evans is concerned, those aren’t the only aspects of Hughes’ life that are given too much valence.
“There are a couple of models for Howard Hughes,” he said. For one, he said, there’s the paradigm that was used in The Carpetbaggers , the Harold Robbins novel and its film adaptation, which Mr. Evans described as: “I am an arrogant beautiful rich guy who’s craaaaazy , and too rich to care what people think of me. Subtext: How do you like me?
“There are a lot of ways to portray a powerful man,” Mr. Evans said. “Is it the guy who barks out orders like a machine gun and needs to say, ‘I never apologize, Noah.’ Or is it the guy who sets records and breaks barriers and still has to ask the reporters, ‘Oh, come on, guys-I don’t want to have to answer that one.’ Like he’s seen in newsreels. The latter is more appealing to me.”
Mr. Evans paused. He contorted his hands. “If you could include things that Howard’s companies so prominently figured in, like contributing to landing on the moon and geosynchronous orbit and things that made the world a telecommunicating place-that, I think, would be a home run.”
Mr. Evans took me to another office and showed me a horizontal filing cabinet filled with copies of Popular Mechanics and Popular Aviation magazines from Hughes’ time. One cover, illustrated with pulpy sci-fi flair, depicted a pilot outfitted in a monstrous-looking oxygen mask somewhere in the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere.
This spurred Mr. Evans to recall a favorite Hughes moment.
“He had just broken the coast-to-coast record in one of those successive flights and he said: ‘Oh, the radio failed, the compass broke, the oil had to be pumped by hand, the oxygen mask I had to hold in my hand. Other than that, the engine was great.’”
“He was flying coast-to-coast by dead reckoning. Looking down expecting to see St. Louis, the lights. And if the weather was really bad, he had to fly really low and hope he didn’t just fly off the Eastern seaboard.”
There have been times when Mr. Evans’ life resembled that flight. He grew up the oldest of three children on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he attended the Allen-Stevenson School. By the time his son was born, Charles Evans Sr. had made his first fortune in fashion, co-founding the Evan-Picone clothing line, where Robert Evans also worked. In 1962, he sold the company to Revlon and switched to real estate.
It was Charlie’s mom, Frances Evans, a documentary maker, who sparked her son’s interest in moving pictures. “My earliest film memories are waking up under her 16-millimeter flatbed and cleaning her trim bins and all that stuff while she cut all night,” Mr. Evans said. “It was the first time I felt like I was doing anything important-coming down into the dawn with Mom and taking a taxi home.”
Mr. Evans’ parents divorced in 1967. And in 1975, a fire swept through the East 80th Street apartment where Mrs. Evans, her son and two daughters, Melissa, 10, and Elizabeth, 9, were living. Charles Evans Jr. was the only survivor. He was 12.
“I put on an overcoat and went to live with my father,” he said.
That year, he also began to develop a drug habit.
Mr. Evans attended the University of California at Berkeley. Next was U.S.C. film school. “I certainly didn’t give him any encouragement. I think it’s a stinking business,” said Charles Evans Sr. “But he’s wanted to do it since he was in grade school. He wanted to either write, direct or produce.”
But first he had to deal with his drug habit. “I was adapting a novel for my uncle’s company at Paramount. I was reaching, and nothing was there. I was scared,” Mr. Evans said. “I checked into rehab the day I turned the script in.”
Mr. Evans’ first project on his own-a film adaptation of Gregory McDonald’s The Brave , about an impoverished man who agrees to be the victim of a snuff film in return for a large sum of money for his family-was directed by Johnny Depp. Marlon Brando also took a role, though not necessarily to the film’s benefit. Mr. Depp took his film to Cannes in 1997 and projected a director’s cut “that shouldn’t have been seen, really,” Mr. Evans said. “And got savaged by the critics. It was never released domestically or in the U.K.”
By 1998, he began to pursue Mr. DiCaprio, and that led to Mr. Mann. Then, in February 2001, there was the lawsuit, which was settled out of court in 2002. Mr. Evans declined to discuss it, and Mr. Mann also did not return calls to his Forward Pass Productions office.
But a copy of Mr. Evans’ complaint, purchased by The Observer from Los Angeles Superior Court, charged in its introduction: “This dispute arises from a decision made by powerful players in the entertainment industry to exclude a young producer from participating in his own project.”
The complaint alleged that after securing financing from New Regency Productions and talking to actor Kevin Spacey about directing, Mr. Evans set out to woo Mr. DiCaprio for the lead. But Mr. DiCaprio’s manager, Rick Yorn, the court papers said, let Mr. Evans know that his client would “never join the project as long as any director (i.e., Spacey), not selected by DiCaprio, was attached.”
Mr. DiCaprio wanted Michael Mann to direct, and in December 1998, at a meeting with Mr. Yorn, Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Mann, Mr. Evans told them about his financing deal and his view that the picture should focus on the more positive aspects of Hughes’ life. According to the court papers, “Mann told Evans that he felt that Evans’ vision for the story with respect to de-emphasizing the later years of Hughes’ life as a recluse was the correct approach.”
Mr. Evans then began to share his treasure trove of Hughes materials with the director and Mr. Logan, whom Mr. Mann had hired to write the screenplay.
But in March 2000, the complaint alleges, Mr. Evans discovered that Mr. Mann had entered into a deal with New Line to develop a Hughes project.
Shortly after that, New Line advised Mr. Evans “that it was not interested in entering into a deal with Evans and Acappella.”
Charles Evans Sr. said that he spoke with his son before he filed the lawsuit in February 2001 against Mr. Mann, Mr. Yorn’s company, the now-defunct Artists Management Group, and New Line. “I told him I thought it was a long shot, which of course it was,” he said. “But he was so attached and passionate about this that I never tried to talk him out of it.”
Since Mr. Evans got his producer’s credit, he has spoken to Mr. Scorsese, sent him a bunch of his Hughes newsreels and, it sounds like, reams and reams of faxes. He’s seen the script, and he’s very happy with how it turned out.
I asked Mr. Evans if this is a good time to be a producer. His hands contorted. He said it was always a difficult time to be a producer. And he said, “You spend your life submitting the things you work on and polish for other people’s consumption. And when they run with it, you try not to be the gum at the bottom of their shoe.” That’s where Mr. Evans was at now: trying not to be the gum at the bottom of Mr. Scorsese’s shoe.
Mr. Evans walked past a beautiful vintage movie poster from his collection. It was a 1950 RKO picture made when Mr. Hughes owned the studio, called Where Danger Lives , starring Robert Mitchum and one of Hughes’ protégées, Faith Domergue, playing a woman married to a sadistic older millionaire.
Later, I wrote Mr. Evans and asked him once more why he was drawn to Howard Hughes, and he wrote back saying he wanted “to tell the story of a man who related to machines better than people, and as a result had no personal enduring relationships, and who disappeared into an asylum of his own design at the age of 52 never to be seen in public again.”
On July 8, Mr. Evans can finally begin to see the light of day.