Martin Scorsese remembers the moment he knew he wanted to direct Cape Fear. He and Robert De Niro were at a meeting to discuss the possibility of remaking J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller. ”Bob leaned down at the table,” recalls Scorsese. ”He knelt beside me, took my ear, and said, ‘We could do something with this guy, you know?”’
This guy, of course, is Max Cady, the brutally self-righteous white-trash psychopath — played with implacable menace by De Niro — who terrorizes attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family. ”Bob and I hadn’t worked that closely together in nine years. And so it brought back all these flashbacks. I thought, ‘Yeah, we really could do something.”’
Cape Fear, which is heading toward a $30 million gross after only two weeks, is the 14th feature Scorsese has directed and is fast on its way to becoming the biggest hit of his career. For Scorsese, who has never been one to bend to the whims of major movie studios, this is no small accomplishment. It means he’ll continue to be able to work with freedom in Hollywood. ”You always have to prove yourself,” he says. ”I don’t expect that just because there’s been some great critical reaction over the past few years, I can do what I want. In the end, it always comes down to ‘how much?”’
For this particular filmmaker, though, it comes down to much more than that. Martin Scorsese is a kind of cinemaholic, a man who thinks about movies — who runs them in his brain — more than he thinks about anything else, a driven perfectionist who fuses his obsessions with sin, redemption, violence, sensuality, rock & roll, and camera movement into exhilaratingly dark psychodramas of the soul. For nearly two decades, he has fought to direct pictures His Way. The real victory of Cape Fear is that, once again, he was able to make the movie he believed in.
”I’ve always been drawn to the exploration of this sort of character,” says Scorsese of Cady, ”a character who will not give up, who’s unrelenting, who not only tortures himself but the people around him. De Niro and I just happened to lock into that sort of thing together. I mean, we have the same kinds of feelings, the same painful reactions to a lot of this material — so painful that it gets very, very hard for us to express it in words. But we’re able to act it out. In France, they asked me recently, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have De Niro to play these parts?’ I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘I’d do it myself.”’
Actually, that’s difficult to imagine. Martin Scorsese is one of the least threatening people I’ve ever met. He’s extremely short — 5 feet 4 inches, tops — and listening to his conversation, which is punctuated by a series of self-effacing, hey-whaddo-I-know shrugs, you can catch a glimpse of the young Marty who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side — the sensitive, asthmatic movie freak who must have spent a fair amount of time placating kids a lot bigger than he was. Scorsese once planned to enter the priesthood (that was before he discovered the New York University Film School), and from a distance he still has the knitted-brow aura of an anguished young seminarian. At 49, though, there’s a boyish kineticism about him. When he gets on to a subject he likes, his eyes widen eagerly, the long, wiry black forests that are his eyebrows shoot straight up, and he flashes a wide, toothy smile you can’t help grinning back at.
Entering the hallway of his sleek white apartment, which looms 75 floors above a packed commercial artery of midtown Manhattan, Scorsese apologizes for being late and then pauses to check a crucial matter: a note from his office listing the movies he may want to tape this weekend. He’s excited now, because he has to set his VCR to record Carbine Williams, a 1952 Hollywood biopic starring James Stewart as the inventor of the famous carbine rifle. ”It’s not a very good picture, but it’s fun,” grins Scorsese. He seems almost sheepish about his enthusiasm. ”It’s been showing up more and more in the colorized version, so I want to get a copy in black and white.”
Scorsese is dressed in superfaded designer jeans and a matching light blue work shirt; his hair is slicked straight back, setting off eyes that are clear, nervous, penetrating. His infamous, rapid-fire conversational style casts a spell. When he gets rolling, an entire sentence will come out in a single machine-gun blast, as though he wanted to plant his thoughts inside you without actually taking any time. (It’s that same spirit that powers the live-wire immediacy of his films.) A moment later, he’ll snap back to his wary, scoping mode. You get the feeling that Scorsese has his lighter moments, but that he doesn’t quite trust them.
”He goes through tremendous mood swings because of his art,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor who has worked with Scorsese, on and off, ever since the late ’60s, when they teamed up to edit his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), and to shape the rough cut of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock. ”He can be very impatient with the noise out in the hall or the assistant rewinding a reel or someone knocking on the door at the wrong time. But he’s also one of the funniest people in the world.”
Scorsese’s small, angular living room, which is made to seem bigger by a wall of mirrors, affords a surreal, Jetsons’-eye view of Central Park. It’s not what you think of as a Scorsese sort of place. Too glitzy, somehow. But there are Marty touches. On the main wall is a rectangular mural from a Sicilian puppet theater depicting a 14th-century slasher-movie tableau of knights in combat. One of the knights has sliced through the middle of his foe, literally splitting him — plume and all — in two. ”This sort of stuff would actually happen during the show,” explains Scorsese with obvious delight. ”There’s all this great rhetoric, these rolling speeches, and suddenly everybody fights! Any excuse! All through the ages, it’s the same thing.”
In front of that same wall, Scorsese often pulls down a movie screen to watch 16 mm prints of Hollywood films made from the ’30s through the ’60s. By many accounts, he is the single most devoted film buff on the planet. ”Sometimes,” he says, ”I think it would be great if I could just turn the sound down and project them all the time, like paintings.” Wesley Strick, the screenwriter of Cape Fear, recalls that ”during the shooting, I would see him on a Sunday at 10 a.m., and he would make reference to a Japanese science-fiction film that he had screened earlier that morning. Sometimes the merest detail about a film fascinates him.” Scorsese acknowledges his fanaticism, but he also resents the image of Marty the Hermit watching movies around the clock. ”Everybody always says, ‘The only thing Marty likes is movies, movies, movies,”’ he complains. ”If that were the case, my movies would be about movies.”
”So why do they say it?” I ask.
”Maybe because it’s safe. Maybe because they get nervous if they realize that all the things my films are about are a part of me.”