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Steven Spielberg's and Martin Scorsese's lucrative '90s trade-off


When Hollywood is so known for its snatch ‘n’ grab attitude towards the most profitable projects, it’s refreshing to know that this is not true for each and every filmmaker. Sharing, after all, is caring. Such was the case for master directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who in the late 1980s traded esteemed projects for the benefit of one another. The films in question? 1991’s Cape Fear and 1993’s Schindler’s List. 

Back at the end of the 1980s, Steven Spielberg was in the development of Cape Fear, the story of a convicted rapist (eventually depicted by Robert De Niro) released from prison after a lengthy sentence who decides to track down the family of the lawyer who tried to defend him years ago. A dark and violent film, Steven Spielberg, who had just bookended the family-friendly Indiana Jones trilogy with The Last Crusade, decided to turn down the project, offering it instead to his good friend Martin Scorsese whilst staying on as a producer through his Amblin Entertainment.

Speaking at the time, Spielberg commented of the notoriously treacherous script, “I wasn’t in the mood; it’s as simple as that…I just couldn’t find it inside me to make a scary movie about a family being preyed on by a maniac”.

With Bill Murray bizarrely chosen by Spielberg to take the lead role of Max Cady in Cape Fear, Scorsese quickly came in and requested his long-time collaborator Robert De Niro take the role. The actor developed hefty muscle and paid a doctor $5,000 to grind down his teeth for the role to give his character a more sinister appearance.

The director, however, wanted Harrison Ford for the role of Sam Bowden instead of Nick Nolte, though after Ford called to play Cady instead, Nolte insisted on his interest to play Bowden and Scorsese cast him for the part. 

Before then, Martin Scorsese was attached to the harrowing holocaust drama Schindler’s List from Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark, though due to the director’s recent controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ and even Goodfellas, he decided to seek a less daunting project. Instead, after Sid Sheinberg sent Spielberg a New York Times review of Keneally’s book, the director swapped places with Scorsese stating, “I was drawn to it because of the paradoxical nature of the character…what would drive a man like this to suddenly take everything he had earned and put it all in the service of saving these lives?”.

Though even Spielberg held reservations about the film, unsure if he was ‘mature enough’ to make a film about the holocaust, again Spielberg tried to hand the project over to other directors, including Roman Polanski, Billy Wilder, Sydney Pollack and Brian De Palma. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, Spielberg finally decided to make the film, seeing a flurry of neo-Nazism rise after 1989 and Holocaust deniers given platforms in popular media. 

Thankfully, the result of this tradeoff led to the production of two excellent and iconic films of the 1990s, though our imagination is running wild with the idea of Bill Murray as Max Cady. Oh, what could’ve been…