Warren Beatty reveals his formula for turning a funny-papers flatfoot into a modern movie hero

When Warren Beatty finally decided to play ace crime-stopper Dick Tracy after nearly a decade of dallying with the role’s possibilities, he did so with the intention of rediscovering the kid within himself.

”At first, I thought I don’t know if I want to play Dick Tracy, because I don’t look like him, but then I realized nobody looks like him. Maybe I ought to go ahead and do it,” Beatty says of the tortuous thought process that ultimately resulted in his new candy-colored movie. ”When I realized I was going to direct it myself, I evolved a concept that it could recapture my point of view at the age of 6 or 7 when I was really interested in the strip.

”Emotionally, I began to get interested in that childlike feeling about the thrill of bright, primary colors, the sight of the stars and the moon, and people with primary emotions. I could look at them the way I looked at them when I was a kid — a bad guy was bad, a good guy was good, things were simpler and straightforward.”

With that goal in mind, Beatty set out to translate his vision to every aspect of the movie, from the script and the sets to the costumes, makeup, and entire color scheme. ”I thought if I could make Dick Tracy the centerpiece of a swirl of color and plot,” Beatty recalls, ”then maybe I could keep him from being terminally dull, which a straightforward character like that is in danger of being. And I could have a tremendous amount of fun doing it.”

Summoning his brain trust-the sophisticated trio of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Milena Canonero — to his Los Angeles hilltop home, Beatty began searching for ways to translate the comic strip into Dick Tracy, the movie.

How do we turn the two-dimensional copper into a three-dimensional character, the producer-director-star wanted to know. How do we retain the primitive power of the comic strip without lapsing into pow-bang-zowie campiness?

Finding the answers turned out to be a complex process. The talk swirling around Beatty’s kitchen table during the summer of 1988 must have sounded like that of a bunch of crazed French semioticians enthusiastically dissecting an icon of American pop culture for every sign and signifier that it was worth.

What does the yellow raincoat symbolize? How does the myth of the gangster relate to the rise of fascism? How do you dramatize the battle between Darkness and Light?

Spread out before them were vintage samples of Chester Gould’s inimitable comic strip, born in Chicago during the Depression. Originally conceived as an American Sherlock Holmes, with Tracy’s trademark fedora and yellow trench coat substituting for Sherlock’s deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, Gould’s detective was rectitude personified, his righteous chin thrust defiantly forward.

But as Beatty quickly realized, ”You can’t re-create a comic strip except on paper. The difference between paper and film is why I abandoned the idea of putting prosthetics on the good guys, particularly Dick Tracy.” Not that he didn’t try. Beatty had the makeup team fit him with a phony nose and jaw, the better to approximate Tracy’s angular profile, but it just didn’t work. ”Tracy was basically drawn from a couple of angles,” Beatty says. ”When he turned face forward, you almost didn’t recognize him in the strip. On film, it couldn’t be done. You’d be looking at the structure of appliances and plastic and makeup rather than what’s happening emotionally.”

So Beatty continued grilling his collaborators for hours, constantly asking ”Why?,” insisting on explanations, forcing them to suggest solutions. Having worked with him on Reds (1981), his last effort as producer, director, and star, Storaro and Sylbert were accustomed to the intensity of Beatty’s characteristic third-degree and quickly began spinning off ideas.

Cinematographer Storaro argued against filming in a wide-screen format, even though 70-millimeter spectacle has become synonymous with big-screen fantasy. Sticking to the more boxlike standard screen ratio would approximate a comic-strip panel, he said. Discovering in the shadowy corners of Gould’s work echoes of the corrupt violence depicted by Expressionist artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, Storaro was eager to paint a fevered nighttime world, more horrific than pop.

Dick Tracy‘s city, as envisioned by production designer Sylbert, might be inspired by Gould’s burly hometown of Chicago in the ’30s, but it could never become too specific. ”The city shouldn’t be fancy,” Sylbert maintained. ”It has to be in character with the whole movie, its apple-pie emotions and attitudes. And there has to be a full moon and lots of stars, because the moon is extraordinarily useful in comic books, and that’s what we want, that slightly magical world.”

Encouraged by Beatty to stick to the vibrant primary colors of the Sunday comics pages, costume designer Canonero proposed that the movie’s entire palette be restricted to red, yellow, orange, blue, green, fuchsia, purple, cyan, black, and white. It seemed like a crazy notion at first, but the more the creative crew explored it, the more they became convinced it just might work. ”Vittorio and Dick (Sylbert) and me, we can get carried away,” Canonero laughs. ”Warren was always very concerned that the look not override the story he was trying to tell.”

”The movie is really a personal story,” Beatty says. ”It could be subtitled The Last Temptation of Dick Tracy.” For all its primary colors, ”it deals with emotional things that also require capillaries, if you know what I mean. You’ve got to be able to see a little bit of blush and emotion.”

As writer Bo Goldman (who receives credit as special consultant) reworked Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.’s screenplay to Beatty’s specifications, the story line was simplicity itself. Like a fairy-tale prince, Tracy would have three tasks to perform: Rid the city of mob boss Big Boy Caprice; face up to his responsibility in adopting the Kid, a street urchin who falls under his wing; and affirm his love for Tess Trueheart in the face of the temptation offered by seductress Breathless Mahoney.

One of the first adjustments was the movie’s time frame: Cash and Epps had set Tracy in the middle of the Prohibition crime spree of the ’20s. Sylbert and Canonero, both of whom had worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, urged Beatty to shift Dick Tracy to the late ’30s. ”The fashion silhouette of the ’30s was so much simpler than the silhouette of the ’20s,” Sylbert explains. ”It was a much better period.”

Sylbert also quickly nixed any thoughts of filming in Chicago, even if it had served as Gould’s inspiration. ”You can’t take a man in a yellow raincoat and have him follow a man in a purple suit around Chicago,” he says. ”You can’t do it.” Instead, he walked Beatty through the Universal Studios back-lot, 140 acres of generic city streets, country roads, and artificial ponds. ”You don’t use a back-lot when you make a specific movie like Reds,” Sylbert says, ”because then you need details and you kill to make it look lived in. But for Dick Tracy, we wanted to eliminate specific details. What we wanted was a bunch of icons.”

So Sylbert set out to build Tracy‘s comic cosmos. The back-lot itself would come to serve as what he called ”the medium-size world” of building exteriors and city streets. But since the tallest buildings on the lot were only three stories high and the longest streets just four blocks long, he turned to visual-effects artists Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw for ”the big world” of skyscrapers and nighttime vistas. The two executed 57 matte paintings on glass, which were optically combined with the live action. For a brief sequence in which Charlie Korsmo as the Kid dashes in front of a speeding locomotive, for example, only 150 feet of real track was laid; the train itself was a two-foot- high miniature, and the surrounding train yard a matte painting.

Focusing in on ”the little world” of the film’s interiors, Sylbert designed the sets in imitation of Gould’s less-is-more example. Tracy’s office contained little more than a desk, framed by two windows, in a rectangular room at the end of a long hall. When seen through Storaro’s camera, it would have the symmetrical look of a comic-strip panel. Similarly, the Club Ritz, where Breathless performs under Big Boy’s iron fist, was equally stripped-down. The layout is ”a box with the corners cut off,” Sylbert says. ”I wanted to be able to see everything from everywhere in the room. A lavish nightclub wouldn’t have worked.”

Before Sylbert could paint his sets, costume designer Canonero first had to determine the final color scheme. ”We started with the colors for the costumes, because they were very important,” she says. ”They reflect on the actors’ faces. Once I worked out the palette, we tested it. I first found the colors I wanted in certain fabrics and then dyed the rest.”

Tracy’s coat, for instance, was constructed of a wool cord imported from England, ”the kind of material they used to use to make proper raincoats for gentlemen in the ’30s and ’40s.” Canonero’s fears that it ”might not look masculine and tough” were allayed when Beatty tried it on. ”The way it was cut and made, the way Warren wore it, it seemed to work” — both as costume and as metaphor. ”It’s almost a mask that Tracy has to wear, the yellow raincoat and yellow hat, because he’s a knight. He fights against evil. He’s the sun.”

For the other characters, Canonero followed Gould’s lead less slavishly. Breathless Mahoney had been a minor character in the strip, a sort of Veronica Lake-type with shoulder-length blond hair. ”She looked kind of like a drip,” Canonero admits. With Madonna cast in the part, the designer envisioned ”much more of a bombshell.” And so Madonna’s hair was cropped and curled, and her gowns tightly fitted to her siren shapeliness.

”At the beginning of the movie, Breathless is wild, rebellious, untamable, a panther and a man-eater,” Canonero says. ”In our story, she mellows down, acquiring a sort of purity like a moonbeam. That’s what I tried to do with her clothes. My favorite is her blue dress with the moon and the stars. It’s got everything-dreaming, sex, and dreams that don’t come true.”

In the case of Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice, Canonero took her cues from the actor’s own improvisations, ignoring the rather portly Big Boy of the strip to arrive at an even more misshapen creature, deformed both in soul and body. ”Al spent hours trying out his character for us,” she reports. ”We tried different chins and noses and lips. I gave him a false bottom and shoulders and back. The suits are cut from actual patterns of the period, but with the details overemphasized, bigger here, wider there.”

With both costumes and sets color-coded, the ultimate test came with the beginning of principal photography in early February 1989. Whatever fears the filmmakers had that the colors might all bleed together vanished in Storaro’s dramatic lighting. With the night streets awash in violent reds and blues, apartment windows illuminated by beckoning oranges and yellows, the color scheme took on further depth.

”The reds are always the same reds, the yellows the same yellows, but under different lighting conditions they look like different colors,” Sylbert says. ”It looked wonderful when we got it all lit. Nothing disappeared. The more we watched it, the more drastic we got. We started simply, but as we went along, we hit it harder as they say. You didn’t have to use the kind of logic you normally use. You didn’t have to be literal and justify things.”

Ironically, that push-the-limits approach didn’t apply to makeup artists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler. They were charged with the critical task of remaining true to the grotesque gangsters’ comic origins without turning them into mere cartoons. ”When Pruneface (Big Boy’s henchman) walks into a bar, you don’t want to laugh at him hysterically like you’re looking at Roger Rabbit,” says Caglione. ”And you don’t want to scream like it’s Frankenstein.” The makeup, it was decided, would serve to separate the good guys from the bad. Beatty, with his face unmodified, already ”symbolizes this good-looking, dashing hero,” as Drexler puts it. ”So we concentrated on the gangsters, because the makeup defines the difference between good and evil.”

A richly imagined blend of sophisticated style and unabashed corn, Dick Tracy is like a ’30s B movie that has been colorized from the inside-out, a heightened memory of both Saturday afternoons in the darkened Bijou and Sunday mornings with the funny papers.

Whether modern-day moviegoers — flocking to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bone-crunching feats and Eddie Murphy’s smart-mouth comebacks — will respond to the nostalgic, PG-sweetness and comic-strip sensibility of Dick Tracy is this summer’s multimillion-dollar question. Even compared to the megacosts of its competitors, the movie’s still-hefty budget — $23 million is the official tab, though the Hollywood reckoning is that it’s closer to $30 million — makes it a calculated gamble on the part of its studio backer, the Walt Disney Co.

As he prepares himself for the film’s debut, Beatty judges it a mission accomplished. The vision he set out to put on the screen is there. ”It’s a tremendous amount of fun for me to look at the damn thing,” he admits. ”And it’s a tremendous amount of fun to look at other people looking at it. I can see them smiling, and I really enjoy that.”

Dick Tracy
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes