CAPE FEAR (1991) // Wesley Strick
Interview With Screenwriter Wesley Strick
A former rock journalist, Strick had co-authored the script for ARACHNIPHOBIA when he was contacted to adapt the J. Lee Thompson thriller CAPE FEAR for Amblin Entertainment. On the film's set in 1991, Strick recalled how he first rejected the idea of working on the film.
Strick: They sent me the original movie and I watched it and didn't like it very much, I thought it wasn't very interesting. It seemed like sort of a failed Hitchcock, which doesn't really turn me on. And also I didn't like the vigilante implications of the story you know, there comes a point when a man's gotta be a man with a gun and shoot this guy down. It's not a message I ever wanted to send in a movie.
So actually I passed on the project; I called Steven's development girl and she said, 'Steven wants to meet with you and discuss it.' And I had never met him so I thought, well, I can't refuse to meet him. So I went to the meeting but I prepared by thinking very cogently about why this wasn't for me. I didn't want to insult him and tell him I didn't think it was a good movie idea, but I wanted to convince him that I wasn't the writer for it, in a sort of polite [way]. So we sat there and we talked. Actually I did most of the talking; I kind of explained what aspects of the story bothered me, and he listened, and then when it was all over he stood up and said, 'Well, I'm really glad that you're coming aboard.' And he shook my hand, and as I shook his hand back my mouth moved, my lips moved and I said 'Me, too.' It was like, in person, I was unable to say no to him, and I remember driving home thinking, What have I done?
I think between me and Marty it's certainly not going to seem like Charles Bronson I mean, that was my real fear, that it would be like DEATH WISH, and I certainly didn't want to promote the idea that guns ultimately solve problems.
Or that the ideal resolution is to bury the guy in your back yard.
If you could tell the story with another kind of sensibility it would just be more ironic and sort of full of dread, and more a fable of the thin veneer of civilization. It's almost like a black comedy, like a Thomas Berger novel where things just get worse and worse and worse for this perfectly decent guy. He has committed an ethical transgression, but in a sense it's the decent thing. It was wrong, it shouldn't have happened. What it is was he had buried this crucial piece of evidence that would [have] tended to exonerate Cady in these kind of cases where a woman is raped there will be an investigation into the woman's background, and if they find that she was let's say promiscuous or sexually active, that would be brought up in certain states as evidence in the court and juries will almost always then acquit. So in this case Sam has suppressed that, knowing that Cady had done this heinous thing, really beaten her and etcetera, to allow him to do some jail time. And then he's forgotten about it, and this happened like 14 years ago, but now of course this is all coming back to haunt him and it escalates into this really grotesque life and death confrontation.
And what really intrigued me about it, and Marty too, [was] the horror of discovering this vast and intricate support system that we all kind of assume finally is there for you is not there at all. They're focused on their own sort of interests to protect. It's not even good versus evil, it's just decency versus evil. Kafka and Berger, those kinds of absurdist black comedies where things seem only to get worse, where the hero flails like a drowning man, and the harder he flails, the more he seems to cramp up and sink. In fact he is covered with blood and is horrified by it, and is horrified to acknowledge the savagery that he's finally come to descend to.
Cady has accomplished his mission, which was to reduce Sam to the level that he had been reduced to, which is that of an animal. I mean when he comes back the first thing he sees is a man who is glorying in his bourgeois comforts, The other things I wanted to achieve was to create a Cady who by his own lights was fighting a holy war, [who] was just. And I think Marty really sees Cady's point of view. I can see it in a very literary way, and when I construct monologues for Cady in which he justifies what he's doing he claims that he's the best thing that ever happened to Sam. I can articulate a certain kind of logic for Cady. I think Marty really does see Cady's point of view, which will give the movie a lot of power. He can let his vision extend to the most black part of his characters.
I tried to create a psychopath who is more interesting, who has a real sense about himself, about being on a religious quest; the vengeance that he's seeking is pure and just and cleansing not only for him but for Sam, too. I mean he absolutely believes that he's Sam's doom, but he's also Sam's redemption. That's the way he sees it: the avenging angel. He believes that Sam has created a world for himself that's not real, it's insulated from the horror of the reality that Cady has been immersed in for 14 years. And now Cady wants to do Sam the favor of showing him what life really is, the extent of the horror.
Meting out justice, violent justice. That the experience is communal, that we're all going to go down together, all of us. That's what we're going for.
How has the script changed since Scorsese came on?
One of the weaknesses of the original script is that [Jessica's character] was very generic. Occasionally she'd make a wisecrack but she wasn't really more than The Wife. And then Jessica came on board, I'm sure a lot more to do with Marty and Nick and Bob than the script; her part really wasn't there particularly, and so we've worked together on it a lot. She made it quite clear when she took the role that she had a lot of questions that she wanted answered in terms of the characters, and so I think most of the rewriting I've done has been her character just to give it some texture and depth. And she's wonderful, she 's remarkable, she brings so much feminine anxiety that I find interesting. It's the otherness of the female she's helped me a lot to write for her.
I feel like I try to psychoanalyze, to figure out what's on her mind. It drives Sam crazy. Sam wants to keep Cady away and keep him identified as the enemy; he wants to maintain clarity Cady's the enemy. And so does she in a sense that she wants to protect her family, but she also finds herself thinking about him, trying to understand him, identify with his rage a little bit; she feels that same frustration, she feels a sort of frustration with her own husband, because he tends to keep her at arm's length just to maintain order, that happy, bourgeoisie life, and that's when the cracks start to appear. She continues to try to understand what's going on, she's fascinated by his pathology.
When she sort of confesses to him in the climactic scene, there is a real gulf between her and Nick in the movie, they're not a happily married couple. I remember Janet Maslin reviewed THE SHINING, and she said you could read it all as an allegory of a bad marriage and what happens to the child that's caught between the two angry parents. All of those demons are a kind of projection of marital neuroses and unhappiness. And there's a sense that's operating in this movie, too; their daughter, also an important character, much more so than the little kid in the original movie, she's more sexually aware, so it's more dangerous. She is drawn to Cady quite a lot. There is a lot of sexual tension between them. She looks like a kid on the one hand, but she has a very full sensuous mouth that's really sexy. So it's almost disturbing to look at her; I feel like a dirty old man when I'm around her. And you can understand why Nick is so uptight about this girl, she's totally nubile. He's in an emotional uproar about it the whole time. And of course Jessica, too. It's just impossible for him to keep these two women down on the farm; they have their own ideas. confused, groping for understanding, even on the smallest level, a lot of the dialogue instead of ending in periods, would end in dashes. A lot of unfinished thoughts, trying to more closely approximate real life, just in the way people can't quite figure out how to respond to a threat or in a crisis and there's this kind of pathetic trying desperately to organize your thoughts and martial your energies.
Strick's writing credits since CAPE FEAR include FINAL ANALYSIS, WOLF, THE SAINT and DOOM. He has also directed THE TIE THAT BINDS and HITCHED.