New York bred screenwriter Wesley Strick attended Vassar College and graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied creative writing with poet Thom Gunn. He then worked for a time as a music journalist, contributing to such publications as Rolling Stone, Circus, and Creem. He then sold his first screenplay, Final Analysis (1992), to Warner Bros. in the early 1980s. After that sale, Strick was a hot commodity and was hired as a script doctor to polish such scripts as Batman Returns (1992), Face/Off (1997), and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Strick also spent a time working with Tim Burton’s infamous unproduced Superman Lives.
His own screenplays include True Believer (1989), Aranchnophobia (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Saint (1997), and the reboot A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), among others. Strick is also a writer for the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle.
This interview pertains to his work on the romantic horror film Wolf (1994), which was directed by Mike Nichols and features Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and James Spader. Strick came in and did a page one rewrite of a screenplay by novelist/essayist Jim Harrison. This an excerpt from the forthcoming Bear Manor Media book, Moonlight Marquee: The Werewolf Film Encyclopedia, edited by David C. Hayes.
Diabolique: How did you become involved with Wolf?
Wesley Strick: I’m from New York, and I wrote my first screenplay back in the early Eighties, when I was in my late twenties. I just got lucky and sold it to Warner Brothers. It took years. It was called Final Analysis, and it eventually starred Richard Gere and Uma Thurman. Anyway, it was a very hot script, and I moved out here on the basis of that script, and that script ultimately led to my being hired for Cape Fear. I made a couple of movies before that, like Arachnophobia and True Believer, and then I did Cape Fear. WhenI was done with that and came back to LA, I was sort of a hot commodity as a script-doctor doing rewrites. I worked with Tim Burton for months on Batman Returns. I wrote the shooting script for that movie and hung out with him on set, rewriting the script as it was shot.
Then, out of the blue, Sony called me in ‘92 and they said that Mike Nichols was directing a picture with Jack Nicholson called Wolf. They wanted me to come onboard and rewrite it. I said, “Send me the script and let me look at it.” I was excited to work with Nichols and Nicholson, of course. So they sent me the script, which was written by Jim Harrison. He’s a very well-regarded writer of essays, and he’s published a novel called Wolf, but it has nothing to do with this project. Sometimes people get confused about it, but this was a whole different thing. I’ve never read the novel, but I know it isn’t connected to this project. They gave me Jim’s script and explained to me that he had written one sequence in the fall, but it wasn’t his main focus. I don’t think he ever considered himself a screenwriter.
So his screenplay to Wolf, I thought, was difficult. It was very dense, very long, and way longer than the average 120 page script. I don’t recall how long it was, but I think it was about 150 pages. The exposition was very dense. It was almost as if it was an attempt at a novel that he had tried to reformat into screenplay form. It didn’t work. I got the basic premise, which remains: the Manhattan professional, successful, middle-aged guy, married, who gets bitten by a wolf, discovers that his wife is having an affair, and then gets into a mounting tension with the character played by James Spader, and finally becomes a werewolf. I think in Jim’s final act, Nicholson’s character goes off to an artic preserve and lives the rest of his days there as a wolf. I think the character played by Michelle Pfeiffer is in there too, and freed. It was something like that…
I told Mike, “I love the basic idea. The character of Will Randall, at the time, was a lawyer and working at a law firm. He was sort of an aggressive lawyer type, a stereotypical character in the Eighties you’d see during the Reagan era. I thought, you know, there’s enough of those; a lawyer character like that is already wolf-ish, by definition or nature. So I thought, wouldn’t it be more interesting if he had slightly more different profession or background, like book publishing? One of the reasons I was thinking about that was I had actually worked at a small publishing company two years before as a very, very junior editor. But I had spent a year doing that, so I understood how that business worked a little bit. I was familiar with the dynamics of a publishing office, as opposed to a law office, which I had never spent much time around. I proposed that to Mike as a change– that the character would be an editor, who was much more sensitive and more interested in literature, words, and ideas, rather than lawsuits, and becomes a wolf. Mike got that right away and said, “That’s fun. That’s great. Let’s do it. And I knew something about publishing too, so there would be a certain level of authenticity. I even named the two colleagues, Roy and Mary, after the two people I worked with in my office as a hint to them. That was one big change I wanted to make immediately.
The other big change was more of a global one. As I told you, I found the script very dense, and not cinematic at all. It didn’t move at the right pace. It was clearly meant to be something of a suspenseful yarn, but it wasn’t. I sasked Nichols, “What do you want me to do here?” And he suddenly revealed how frustrated he was with Jim’s script. He said, “I want you to write me scenes that I can direct.” I remember that very well. That’s exactly what he said. I realized that he agreed with me that the script was not a script you could work with to block out scenes with and create real drama. There were a lot of great ideas, but it just wasn’t working in terms of structure or rhythm. So he gave me his blessing to go away and redo it. I went off for a couple of months and wrote a new draft for him.
We went back and forth. We continued to work on it for months. Then the big issue we spoke about was the Laura Alden character that Michelle plays in the movie. In the script, we were never sure if she was Christopher Plummer’s daughter or girlfriend; she went back and forth between being Plummer’s mistress and daughter. We made her his daughter in the end. We didn’t want to overcomplicate it with two love triangles coming out, with him and his wife and then her character later. We simplified that. I remember that initially the Plummer character was younger. He and Laura were actually brother and sister. He was a younger, Richard Radisson sort of character; a young, hip guy.
One day I was sitting with Mike in LA, and with the producer, Douglas Wick, who was very involved in the early stages of helping us rewrite the story. Mike, Doug, and I sat for hours. This is all before I went off to write for them, and when we were in Doug’s office, his secretary stuck her head in and said, “Mick Jagger is here.” I was like, “What’s Mick Jagger doing here?” And he said, “Mick was very interested in playing the Mr. Alden character when he was 10 years younger. Since you decided to make him older and more of a father than a brother, you have to tell Mick he’s no longer right for the part!” They set me up. So Mick comes walking in, sits down, very charming, and Mike Nichols says, “Wesley, why don’t you explain what you’ve done with the script.” I took a deep breath and basically had to tell Mick I had screwed him out of playing the part, which apparently, he had his heart set on. I think he had really wanted to work with Nichols and Nicholson. Anyway, it was down to me to break the news.
Diabolique: How did he take that news?
Wesley Strick: He was terrific. He told funny stories, was utterly charming, and I left feeling really embarrassed about it all, just cringing about the whole thing. Another thing that Mike and I decided to do was to add the Om Puri character, the Indian medic. That was Mike’s idea. I wasn’t really into it. I thought it was a little corny, and obviously a throwback to the early The Wolf Man film with Bela Lugosi, playing the gypsy and fortune teller. That was Mike’s idea as a nod to that tradition, an exotic, older, mystical character trying to explain to our hero what he’s going through and why. I went along with it and wrote the scenes as Mike wanted me to.
We decided to start with a little bit of the ending. We knew we didn’t want Will to wind up on an artic preserve in the middle of nowhere. We tried various things. We ended up doing a reshoot on the movie, and we end with Laura looking at him, also infected. Her eyes were glowing, as I recall. That was the ending we settled on after a good deal of discussion.
Going all the way back to the beginning of this thing… I asked Mike where this whole project originated from. Because often when I’m asked to rewrite a project or am brought on a project late in the game, it really helps to know these things when people ask me to fix something or change something. It always helps me, or anyone in my position, to ask, “What are the origins of all of this, and how did this come to be?” Mike explained to me that Jim Harrison and Jack Nicholson were close, and Jack would leave Hollywood sometimes, just to get away, and go hang out with Harrison at his cabin in Montana. I think it was Montana. It was somewhere really out in the wild, though. Very isolated. They would basically just bring a lot of booze and drink and stay up and carouse and shout and get really plastered.
I think that one of Jim Harrison’s basic themes is masculinity and manhood. I think he has an idea, and I think he did write a lot about this, about what happens to men in civilization and how their male impulses are somehow squashed or threatened in some way. That kind of thing is sort of the opposite of me. But I think he thought that civilization was in opposition to those primal male instincts. So he and Jack got into this drinking binge one night, I was told, and stayed up all night, and then at dawn, sort of staggered out of the cabin and started howling at the moon as it was still in the sky. In a sense, they felt they had been transformed, at least for the moment, into wolves. After they sobered up, I don’t know which one of them had the thought to retell the story as a movie.
[Mike Nichols] would say to me more than once, “Is the secret to this movie, is it AIDS? Does Will have AIDS?” I was like, “No, Mike! That’s not right! I get that you’re trying to supply a metaphor to make this an allegorical look at something other than werewolves, but I don’t think it is. It’s a werewolf movie.”
But that was the origin of the idea. Sony just bought based it on that pitch, basically. “Nicholson plays a New York character that gets bitten by a wolf and slowly becomes one, realizing his wife’s been emasculating him by fooling around with a younger guy. The Nicholson character gets wise to that and senses something irregular, smelling his rival on her. And he takes revenge.” So I thought that was fun. I did say to Mike early on that I wasn’t as committed to the myth of manhood as Jim, and I wasn’t going to write the movie in that way. I’m not going to lean into the human male animal “allowed to express his full savagery.” That’s just not where I’m coming from as a person, as a man. I’m a more quiet, thoughtful, metrosexual, if you will. I’m not a Jim Harrison sort of character. I said, “It’s going to be hard for me. If that’s what you want, we may have some trouble. It’s not the sensibility I’m going going to bring.”
I told Steven Spielberg the same thing a few years earlier when he asked me to write Cape Fear. I had watched the original movie, and again, I didn’t want to do the remake because I thought I wasn’t macho enough. I grew up in Manhattan… I don’t know anything about a couple of guys duking it out on a houseboat somewhere down south. But Spielberg was like, “Yeah, you can do it.” He basically twisted my arm. And Nichols was the same way. I didn’t convince him either, apparently, that I wasn’t sufficiently macho to write the journey of Will Randall. And Mike wasn’t a macho guy either, by any means. We had fun rethinking it through a slightly different lens than the northwest rugged man in the wild mythology that Jim Harrison was playing with in the original script. I think we wrote something more conventional. Mike wants to make a Hollywood movie, not a crazy, drum circle movie.
Diabolique: Mike Nichols was not exactly the guy you would expect to direct a werewolf movie.
Wesley Strick: I can give you a little insight about that. You’re absolutely right. I think Mike himself was never quite sure why he was doing it, aside from the fact he had worked with Nicholson a few times before that and wanted to continue their relationship there. He was always searching to learn more about the werewolf genre. He was interested in the horror/supernatural aspect for a reason that I came to understand. I was younger than him. I was maybe 36 when I wrote the script, and Mike was in his early 60s—a difference of 25 years. I was entering my prime in Hollywood, and Mike felt he was starting to age out. I’m the age Mike was then, so I know what he felt. I’m sensitive to it, because Hollywood does tend to phase you out when you get past 50. Mike was ten years past that.
He wanted to continue directing at the level that he’d been, and he started to feel that maybe what he needed to do was re-establish himself as a director that was relevant, which he thought meant making a big budget movie with special effects. He was very interested in that, because he saw that this was an age where CGI was starting to become dominant in Hollywood. He knew that I had just written on Batman Returns, which was a big superhero movie with loads of special effects, optical effects, and digital effects. I think he saw me as a younger guy who had already had experience doing that, working with Tim Burton, who was a young, hip director at the time. He wanted to get into that, to learn the art of making those big Hollywood movies that are all the big studios make today. I think Mike saw the future and wanted to grab ahold of it and try his hand at it. I think that was one of his big motives.
In terms of the werewolf thing, he was constantly trying to figure out what the metaphor was. “What do we mean when we say that Will is changing, that he’s turning into a wolf?” I remember him saying that to me. The AIDS crisis was still raging then. It wasn’t quite what it had been in the Eighties, but it was still a thing. He would say to me more than once, “Is the secret to this movie, is it AIDS? Does Will have AIDS?” I was like, “No, Mike! That’s not right! I get that you’re trying to supply a metaphor to make this an allegorical look at something other than werewolves, but I don’t think it is. It’s a werewolf movie.” We would go back and forth about that. Sometimes I would sort of tease him. But I think he was looking for a way to justify it to his friends on the upper east side or something. [Laughs.]
At the same time, Mike, loving Hollywood movies, loved the tradition of those kinds of tales. I think that’s why we did the Om Puri character, who’s kind of a throwback to the guy who played a similar role in the old movie. He was kind of ambivalent about it, but he was never sure just how much to play up the werewolf horror of it all, and how much to keep it a sophisticated, Manhattan thriller about sexual revenge and all of that. It was a real balancing act for him, and for all of us, really. I think the product is very good. Over time, I’ve noticed more and more people have come around to liking the movie. I get asked about it a lot, and they just put out a Blu-Ray in England with a whole bunch of extras on it, including an interview with me and Rick Baker, the guy who did the special effects, the monster effects. I feel like it’s almost been reassessed a little bit. In the last 10 years, people have rediscovered it.
Diabolique: You guys tried to do something different with the genre. When I saw it on opening night 25 years ago, I was taken aback because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t know what to make of it. But I do appreciate it more as time goes by, because I see it as something bolder; as something that thinks outside the box.
Wesley Strick: Right. Mike wanted to bring a level of sophistication to it, particularly in the dialogue. We did a lot of work making sure the characters all sounded smart and witty. Everything that Mike was, actually. He never wanted to write down to these characters, even though they were characters in the genre. I think he was trying to elevate the genre to some extent. That’s always tough to do, I think. But I feel like the movie succeeded most of the time. I do feel like we never quite landed on the most satisfying ending, though. We had lots and lots of notes and input from the studio. It just got into that nightmarish realm that Hollywood movies sometimes get into when you get into the test screening phase, when people have complaints of “I don’t understand what happened in the last ten minutes” or “it’s not satisfying.” Once you start doing those reshoots and start acting with fear, without that commitment to a vision, things start to get a little chaotic. I think that happened to some degree, and we settled on the most dramatic ending. But even so, I think it’s a good piece of work that I’m proud of.
Diabolique: Nicholson is interesting casting. He kind of looks like a werewolf, even without makeup. He just has this rough, kind of savage look.
Wesley Strick: You’re absolutely right. Jack posed for the special effects/makeup department that was making his wolf prosthetics and they snapped a lot of photographs of him wearing no prosthetics and no pertinences to his appearance or anything…just pictures of him making wolfy faces and whatnot. They illustrate exactly what you’re saying, that he had that look, even without hair and makeup. I think that some of the best shots of the movie are where he’s wearing the least amount of stuff on him, but he still looks like a wolf and is projecting wolfish qualities.
Diabolique: Were you a fan of these types of films prior to working on this?
Wesley Strick: No, I wouldn’t say I was. As a child, I was very interested in monster movies. But in my later life, as a young adult and as a Hollywood guy, not especially. It’s funny because I work in various genres that I was never particularly an avid fan of. Like wolfman movies, for instance, or even by the time I worked on Batman Returns , I couldn’t have cared less about Batman. And then I did a Superman movie with Tim Burton, and I didn’t give a shit about Superman. [Laughs.] It was only a week ago I gave an interview to a guy who was doing a movie about the Nightmare on Elm Street series, because I worked on the reboot with Jackie Haley and Rooney Mara. I had to admit to him that I got the job and had never seen the original Nightmare on Elm Street. What I said to him, rather than be defensive about that, is that what I tend to do in Hollywood is to not approach these things as a fanboy who’s a zealot of any given genre, but instead as a professional who looks at it with a certain amount of detachment. That doesn’t mean disinterest, but my perspective is detached enough that I can see the strengths and weaknesses of the story and try to fix them from a craft standpoint, rather than bring a whole bunch of boyish enthusiasm to it. I see my work more as a contractor who comes in. I didn’t design the house, but I can build it.
Diabolique: A lot of times people that have an overabundance of love for a particular genre can bring in all of the baggage from what they’ve seen before and it becomes a little bit redundant.
Wesley Strick: I think that’s true. I’m always straight with people who hire me about these things. It’s not like I have a great deal of love or knowledge for this, but if you just want me to come in and tell you what I’d do here, I’m happy to share my thoughts. And if they don’t want me to, then they don’t want me to. But I’m very upfront about it. I’ve never pretended to be an expert in any genre that I’m asked to come in and discuss. That’s just how I do it.