News & Reviews
Interview with ‘Out There In The Dark’ author Wesley Strick
Wesley Strick is a
longtime script writer who wrote Martin
Scorsesi’s Cape Fear and executive produced/co-wrote this year’s
Love Is The Drug, among
other films. St. Martin’s imprint Thomas Dunne Books just published his
debut novel, Out There In The Dark,
a neo-noir story set in 1940s Hollywood that’s been compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Day of the Locust.
Strick talked with WORD’N’BASS.com Editor BPM Smith about Hollywood, the
challenges of novel writing, and Ronald
best known for writing Cape Fear for Martin Scorsesi. Do you have an
anecdote about Scorsesi you can share?
Strick: What kind of
WORD’N’BASS.com: I don’t
know, something that we all don’t know already, something that captures
how he is.
Strick: A year after Cape
Fear we tried to do another project. I’m the first writer he let on
set. ‘Til then he kept them away, even friends he worked with like Paul Schrader (Editor’s note: who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Richard Price (The Color of Money, Clockers), but
when the time came to shoot he banned them ‘cause he was self-conscious
and neurotic. People said, ‘Don’t fantasize about watching him shoot,
it ain’t gonna happen.’ As we got to know each other working close for
two, three months he’d lowered his defense. I said, ‘Marty, can I hang
out for a week or two and watch the shoot?’ That’s the first time he
got uptight around me. He said, ‘Well when I shoot with Deniro it’s a closed set.’ So I
backed off because I wanted him to work, but in the end he said to come
to the set. So I made a point of staying away from his line of site but
eventually he asked the TAs if they’d bring Wes. He realized he liked
having a writer around to bounce things off him. After we'd finished
he’d fly me to New York to the cutting room where they had a lot of
edits. He needed to lose 40 minutes and wanted to see where we could
make trims. When I made suggestions he’d do it. Partly because Cape
Fear was his first and only thriller, so he knew I had that experience
and he’d defer to my sense (of pacing).
because Scorsesi had done these gangster films like Mean Streets so Cape Fear was out of
his genre, right?
Strick: I love his
earlier movies. But they weren’t about fast pacing and you never knew
what kind of film he’d do. But Cape Fear was a change. We stayed
friendly and later tried to do a project with Warren Beatty but that never came to
fruition. Because he’s Warren Beatty. We lost touch about six years
ago. That happens in Hollywood: you work together, then hug and kiss,
and then work takes you elsewhere.
remembers Cape Fear but you’ve been a prolific screenwriter a good 20
Strick: They still want
to hire me. I was considered a hot screenwriter but I considered that
‘hot writer’ stuff to be bullshit. It just means you’re offered a lot
of crappy projects.
you and me, 95 percent of what Hollywood produces is crap anyhow.
Strick: I agree. It’s
tough because you’re serving a lot of different masters: the studio
being one, the audience being another, so you’re working for a monster
that’s salivating in some ways.
these two decades working in film, why’d you get into novel writing?
Strick: By a kind of
fluke. I wasn’t looking for material to use in a novel. I was cruising
along happily writing scripts. One day I stumbled across, totally by
accident, an anecdote about director Douglas
Sirk. He made flicks with Rock
Hudson... Have you finished the book yet? Because I don’t want
to give away the ending and ruin it for you.
WORD’N’BASS.com: Not yet,
I’m about half way through. You also don’t want to blow the ending for
our readers, so how about just giving us a hint without the whole
Strick: Well, in the ‘30s
he worked in Berlin under another name but he got so disgusted with the
Nazi propaganda, he was desperate to get away. He got out of Germany
and came to Hollywood and had to reinvent himself. Something happened
in his personal life that was tragic, beautiful, haunting, strange, and
heart breaking. There’s a whole novel there, I realized. Without
thinking of writing a novel, ‘cause I’m not a novelist. I thought of
wrestling it into a screenplay but in the end realized it’s a book.
WORD’N’BASS.com: So this
was a gamble in a way. I mean, you’re a screenwriter you’re not a
Strick: I had mixed
feelings about it because, as you know, books don’t pay that well and
they take a long time to write and I didn’t know if it could get
published. So it was a big risk but worth the shot. It was a time when
nothing I was being offered was mouth watering. So I decided to take
four, five months to myself and get a first draft done. I got
run-of-the-mill offers (to write screenplays), so it was kind of fun to
say no. Producers asked, ‘Don’t you want to eat?’ They were surprised I
wouldn’t come to their office for a meeting. At that time I was buzzing
with the novel. After five months I had the first draft.
months is a pretty good turnaround for a first novel.
Strick: I’m used to
working on a schedule so for a writer I’m pretty disciplined. Sometimes
I got excited enough where I’d wake at 6 am and get 10 pages done
before breakfast. It was like I was on meth.
WORD’N’BASS.com: You say
your writing background is what did it, so would you say being a
screenwriter is a pretty good training ground for a novelist, what with
the deadlines, storytelling and whatnot?
Strick: Many of the tools
you’re working with are the same. The difference is scripts are not
meant to stand alone as literature.
difference between being an author and a screenwriter: you’re on a book
tour right now. This week you’re here in San Francisco. Later it’s New
York City. Is this public visibility a big jump from being a
Strick: In some ways. I
had lots of publicity on numerous projects that were visible. Writers
get a decent amount of attention in Hollywood, at junkets doing
interviews, things like that. But this book is totally mine; it’s not a
collaborative process. I’ll have to take the credit and the blame. In
films, if it flops they can blame the screenwriter or the director or
the producer. But this one came out of my head. That’s the upside.
WORD’N’BASS.com: I see
some of the screenwriter in your prose. You use parenthetical notes
here and there that could be like a fast-take edit in a film. Is that
how you intended or am I reading this wrong?
Strick: Maybe so. I’d
have to look at an example.
WORD’N’BASS.com: Well, I
notice you do that with Roarke, the former detective who’s a movie
Strick: It works because
the story is at a movie set in Hollywood. So it’s got a movie within a
movie quality. Maybe that’s something I should get away from (using
parentheses). But that’s interesting you bring it up, so I will now
claim it’s thematic.
use that in your future interiews. Your prose style is also pretty
visual. Are these things you credit to your screenwriting background?
Strick: I’ve lived in
L.A. for the past 20 years. Coming from New York, it was exotic. The
palm trees, the legendary structures, things that were only seen in
movies until then. That all stayed in my mind. To this day I’m like a
tourist driving around L.A. Even pulling onto a studio lot, I think,
‘Wow, here I am at Warner Bros. Here’s where they filmed Casablanca.’ Films are visual and
that’s where I lived. This book is about the movies and the illusions
people fall victim to. One theme of the book is how they believe more
about what’s on screen than the reality right under their noses. Some
of the tragedies in the book are about that. So the visuals are an
important element of that.
There In The Dark’s setting is 1940s Hollywood. What prompted your to
choose that period instead of say, contemporary Hollywood?
Strick: I was stuck with
it. I had that director anecdote. Once I had that I was stuck in that
period, whether I wanted to be or not. There’s much to be made of that
period. The downside is it’s been done, like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, you want to
retain your own voice and not be like James
Elroy. You’re revisiting a period that’s been done by some real
giants. On the same token, I didn’t have a choice.
Hollywood a city where everyone wants the dirt on everyone else? Say
your competition, the other players?
Strick: I think it is.
Look at Anthony
Pellicano. You might have heard, he’s been wire tapping
major Hollywood players. It would seem that regardless of what they say
about how Hollywood normalized itself and now behaves like corporate
America, with Pellicano you realize maybe it hasn’t changed. It makes
perfect sense because there’s so much money to be made. But every year
fewer movies are made, which means competition gets fiercer.
might have some people reading into Out There for dirt on real life
people. Aside from the director character, are any of these other
characters loosely based on anyone?
Strick: Harley Hayden is
based on Ronald Reagan. He was
dating (actress) Jane Wyman,
who became his first wife before Nancy.
Many of the other details came direct from him. He worked as lifeguard.
The main thing I took from Reagan is his bland ambition. He had an ‘aw
shucks’ quality but you know he had to be a killer because he charmed
himself to the top, not just Hollywood but the top of America. He had
to have a lot of self-belief. My character has that as well. It’s like Peter Sellers played in Being There, if we question was he
wise or an idiot? We’re not sure. Harley is also near-sighted and never
served in the Army. Instead, he made films about being in the Army.
After he made all these films the public thought him to be a war hero.
People believe what they see in films. In America we originated the
danger of this idea.
WORD’N’BASS.com: So after
you’re done promoting Out There what’s next?
Strick: A collaboration
with David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Naked Lunch).
I wrote the pilot for HBO. We are developing Dead Ringers as a series.
WORD’N’BASS.com: That was
originally a standalone movie, wasn’t it?
Strick: Yes. It was a
great movie almost twenty years ago. HBO liked the idea, they thought
it worth taking a shot on. The actors are going to go crazy about it:
twin gynecologists, who share the same girls, the same drugs.
WORD’N’BASS.com: Nice. If
HBO buys it would you be the main screenwriter?
Strick: I’d supervise a
team of writers. I’d be in charge and co-produce and develop it.
will you find out if it’s thumbs up?
Strick: I should find out
soon, they move faster than the networks.
WORD’N’BASS.com: Can we
expect another novel?
Strick: I’m definitely
gonna do it. I have been.
WORD’N’BASS.com: Oh, so
you’re already writing a new novel?
Strick: Yes. I don’t want
to go too deeply into it, though.
about a hint, just the juicy premise?
Strick: It’s a novel set
in the Pacific Northwest, in an emotional growth boot camp for troubled
teens. It’ll become like a totalitarian society of teens, in a remote
self enclosed location.
the opposite of Out There, which is set in front of everyone in a very
Strick: Yes, it’ll be a
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