‘Cape Fear’ at 30: Why Martin Scorsese Needed Convincing to Direct Iconic Thriller (Flashback)

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Following their work on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had one of Hollywood’s most successful creative partnerships. But when the latter approached the former about remaking the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, Scorsese rejected the project. Twice.


When speaking with ET leading up to the movie’s premiere, the actor and director shared how their tale of insidious vengeance eventually came to fruition. As they explained, Scorsese only began entertaining the prospect after having dinner with producer Steven Spielberg and De Niro. And it all rested on a crucial interaction between De Niro and eventual co-star Juliette Lewis.

“It was the scene that made me make the movie,” Scorsese told ET in 1991. “I realized if I can pull off that scene, with the actors and the writer, it’d be great.”

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The sequence transpires at the midpoint of Cape Fear, which follows newly released prisoner Max Cady (De Niro) as he goes after cruel, methodical revenge against his former defense attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). Cady seeks his retribution with a two-pronged approach: violence and psychological warfare, leading to the movie’s famous houseboat showdown on Cape Fear River. For the mind game tactic, Cady sets his sights on Sam’s wife, Leigh (Jessica Lange), and teenage daughter, Danielle (Lewis). ET attended a press conference with the cast and director upon Cape Fear‘s release, where De Niro explained that he wanted Cady to have the ability perform Charles Manson-like “mind trips” on his victims.

This led to Cape Fear‘s nearly 10-minute scene with Cady tricking Danielle into meeting with him at her high school where, by all accounts, he successfully turns Sam’s daughter against him. “When [the scene] was over,” Lewis recalled to ET in 1991, “it was like I had to come down.” She added, “I just went straight to [De Niro] and said, ‘God, that was fun.'” The sequence became one of the film’s most talked-about moments and helped Lewis nab an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

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Scorsese referred to the scene as “the crux of the movie,” but its importance extends all the way back to his dinner with Spielberg and De Niro. “I didn’t want to get involved in remakes. It’s a really difficult thing to do, especially if [the original film] is a good picture,” said Scorsese, adding that his initial double-rejection of the project also stemmed from issues he had with the screenplay.

After airing those concerns, the other iconic director seated at the table provided a helpful reminder. “[Spielberg] says, ‘Listen, if you don’t like the script, you can rewrite it.’ I had forgotten about that part of the process,” Scorsese recalled with a laugh, noting he was suffering from fatigue at the time amid post-production work on Goodfellas.

With that in mind, their conversation shifted to the confrontation between Cady and Danielle. In the original screenplay, the scene featured Danielle running and hiding from Cady at her high school. Scorsese said high-energy chase sequences like this weren’t in his filmmaking wheelhouse, and instead praised Spielberg for doing scenes like that “so beautifully,” while claiming his approach would have “become a cliche” in its execution. “I couldn’t even bring myself to think about doing that sort of thing,” he added.

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After working with a new screenwriter, Wesley Strick, on multiple script revisions, Scorsese set out to find the movie’s Danielle. But he didn’t have to wait too long, as Lewis ended up being the first person to meet with De Niro about the role. “Bob called me and said, ‘She’s really good, but it’s the first one. It can’t be,'” Scorsese remembered. Wanting to do their due diligence, they moved forward with a traditional casting process, which even yielded an audition with a teenage Drew Barrymore. Ultimately, it can and was the first one. As Scorsese put it, Lewis was “a natural.”

The last rewrite of Cady and Danielle’s scene happened mere days before it was filmed, which now transpired in just one location, the high school’s theater. To emphasize the “Little Red Riding Hood” of it all, their interaction also took place within a thematically apt Hansel and Gretel stage set. With a two-camera setup, Scorsese let the actors tackle their lengthy back and forth in single, uninterrupted takes.

“What is so great with [Scorsese] is that we didn’t rehearse [the scene.] We didn’t prepare. We just did it,” Lewis said. Looking at this moment in the film, she recognized the audience was going to be “on edge,” because no one knew “which direction [Danielle] is going to go” with Cady’s mind games. While audiences already knew him to be a physical threat by this point, the level of manipulation Cady displays with Danielle, using truth to tell lies, poses an even bigger danger to the Bowden family. With De Niro emulating the “big bad wolf” throughout the shocking scene, the Grimm fairytale-theme set almost seems like overkill.

Once cameras began rolling, it became clear that Scorsese, De Niro, Spielberg, Lewis, everyone‘s hard work had been worth it. “We froze,” Scorsese recalled as he jokingly mimicked the stunned reactions from everyone on the set. “It was like magic,” he added.

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Audiences and critics thought it was pretty good, too. ET spoke with Lewis in 1992 following her Oscar nod. “It’s nice to be acknowledged as a good actress,” the then 18-year-old star explained. “Rather than as a ‘young girl who accidentally did a good scene.'”

Amid the awards show season hoopla, which also included a Golden Globe nomination, Lewis maintained that the spotlight wasn’t going to change her. “I’m levelheaded,” she said. “I just want to do my job and work with good people like Scorsese and De Niro.”

Cape Fear is currently streaming on Starz.


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