Interview: Wesley Strick

We chat with the legendary screenwriter/script doctor (Batman Returns, Face/Off, Cape Fear) and writer/producer on The Man in the High Castle.

With Nick Nolte, Robert Mitchum and Martin Scorsese on the set of Cape Fear, 1990.

Wesley Strick has been writing screenplays for over 30 years, with credits (both credited and uncredited) that include Final Analysis, True Believer, Batman Returns, Face/Off, Return to Paradise, Mission: Impossible 2, and many more. He’s currently a writer and co-executive producer on the critically acclaimed Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and, rather famously, contributed to the unfortunately-never-made fan-favorite dream project Superman Lives. He’s a rock musician and rock music buff, a film aficionado, a legendary “script doctor,” and an incredible talent, and We Are Cult’s Nick Clement had the honor of discussing Strick’s amazing career with the maestro himself.

Wesley, I just wanted to say right off the top, I’ve long been a big fan of your work, and this is an enormous treat to be able to ask you some questions, as your career is truly inspiring for anyone who loves movies, or has an interest in writing them. Which leads me to my first question – did you grow up in a film friendly household? What’s the first film you have a distinct memory of seeing?

Strick: My parents weren’t film buffs, but they were cultured people who recognized – and went to see, and took me to – good movies.  Growing up in Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies, I had ample access to foreign films and art films as well as Hollywood fare.  Underground films could be seen in the East Village, and on campus at Columbia University.   Older films were screened (usually in double bills) at the Upper West Side revival houses The New Yorker and The Thalia.  I’d go with friends on weekends.

The first film I recall seeing in a theater was a revival from the late Forties called Pinky.  My parents took me, then later expressed reservations about having done so, as the story concerned a black woman passing for white, and perhaps they realized the theme was over my head.  (I must have looked deeply confused.)  Another film that made an impression on my young mind was the late-Fifties Japanese monster flick Rodan, which I saw (several times) on Million Dollar Movie.  And which scared the shit out of me.

When did your interest in screenwriting take shape? Was there one film you saw that caused a “switch to be flipped”?

Strick: I’ve been obsessed with film since childhood (early James Bond series, French New Wave, Hollywood political paranoia movies from the Watergate era), but only became interested in screenwriting as a career when a friend from my UC Berkeley college days sold a script in his mid-20s, then took me out to lunch to convince me to write one too and try my luck.

Robert Towne (Image: Wikipedia Commons).

Do you have any screenwriter/author inspirations?

Strick: Robert Towne was my idol and master, having written Chinatown, The Last Detail, and Shampoo – a Seventies holy trinity.  (Many years later, Towne rewrote my early draft of Mission: Impossible 2, and I was thrilled he left anything of mine in his script.)  My own work is most profoundly influenced by Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, a show that rocked my young world and still reverberates for me in the reality-turned-inside-out-and-upside-down scripts I’ve been writing for The Man in the High Castle.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Towne, and if so, how was that experience?

Strick: I’ve seen Towne at parties, gawked at him.  As my wife will tell you, I’m not the most outgoing guy – she’s dragged me across rooms to meet cool and/or important people at countless cocktail receptions and movie premieres.  In the case of Towne, for me, the principal of “Never meet your heroes” applies.  Even my wife would probably give me a pass on a hearty Bob Towne handclasp.

I’d love to know what a few of your favorite movies are, or what are a bunch of titles that you could re-watch at any point in the day?

Strick: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Shoot the Piano Player, Touch of Evil, Taxi Driver, Yojimbo, Sunset Boulevard, Dr. Strangelove, Night of the Hunter, Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer), McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Kiss Me Deadly, Bonnie and Clyde, Cul-De-Sac, 8-1/2, Don’t Look Now, Contempt, The Conversation, The 400 Blows.  When bored or depressed, I tend to re-watch any one of the first five (Connery) Bond films, with my favorites being From Russia with Love and Goldfinger.

Is there anything you’ve seen from 2017 that’s made you say, “Wow, that was great!”?

Strick: Working my way through the stack of screeners right now.  (I have a projector and ten-foot screen, so it’s a semi-cinematic experience here at the house.)  So far I’ve enjoyed The Shape of Water, I, Tonya, Three Billboards, and Lady Bird.  I’m looking forward to BPM, Phantom Thread, The Florida Project and the Blade Runner sequel among others.

How important are companies like Amazon and Netflix to the entertainment industry?

Strick: From my vantage point they’re VERY important, as I currently work for Amazon.  It’s a boon time for writers like me who, at 63 (albeit a handsome, fit and fashionable 63), would likely have been 86’d from The Biz by now on account of advanced age.  But because Netflix and its competition are currently throwing money at ever expanding scripted content, geezers like me are suddenly back in demand.

Strick with Gene Simmons in his rock journalist days, 1977.

You’re a big music buff with ties to rock and roll journalism – where does your love for music stem from?

Strick: It stems from my grandmother, who was a piano teacher, starting me on piano when I was 5 – followed by me figuring out how to play by ear, then picking up guitar in the Beatles/Stones/Dylan days and forming a series of rock bands that played all the NYC clubs.  In my early 20’s, struggling to get by, I realized I could parlay my encyclopedic rock knowledge into gainful employment by writing for the rock press.  (People say to me, “Gee, you must have loved Almost Famous.”  To which I reply, “Not really, no.”)

Did Almost Famous not capture the authentic spirit of rock journalism, and the roadie life? I really dug that movie, especially Cameron Crowe’s director’s cut – Almost Famous: Untitled. I wish they had left the Stairway to Heaven scene in the film, where Frances McDormand listens to the song in its entirety, as a way of trying to understand her son’s mental head space.

Strick: There’s much to like in the film but it’s for fans, not experts.  Crowe sanitizes and romanticizes the scene.  And of course there was a wide gap between the East and West Coast Seventies rock vibe.  Cameron comes from Palm Springs, for God sakes.  Meantime, much of my rock-writing career was spent at CBGB – a venue that, though legendary today, was in fact a dingy Bowery biker bar that stank of beer and dog shit.  In the mid-to-late seventies there was a heavy heroin subculture among the Lower East Side hipsters that cast a pall, with young punk rockers OD’ing left and right.  And the bands I covered (Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones, Television) were struggling for record deals and decent gigs then – nobody was vying for the cover of Rolling Stone.  Finally, Crowe was writing from the innocent, idealistic perspective of a precocious teen, which contributes to his story’s charm.  Whereas I was in my early 20’s when I wrote about rock, and that small age difference made a big difference in both attitude and experience.

What do you consider to be your “big break” in the industry?

Strick: My big break came when I wrote Final Analysis as a spec while still living in New York.  I collaborated on the story with a friend named Bob Berger – a bright young forensic psychiatrist (who ran the prison ward at Bellevue) and fellow noir enthusiast – then got an agent who quickly sold the script to Warners.  It was 1983, I was 29, and at that point had been subsidizing my bands (and my life) by working as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital and as a word processor at a life insurance company, years of menial jobs.  Overnight, Final Analysis propelled me into the Hollywood ranks and I’ve not stopped working since that script was sold.  Almost 35 years of writing and doctoring scripts.  Yeesh.

How close did the final version of Final Analysis stick to your original script, the one that initially sold?

Strick: Quite close in some respects, horribly askew in others.  The young hotshot director Phil Joanou and I had plenty of arguments over the tone of the film – the genre, in effect – which I saw as neo-noir but Phil conceived as Hitchcockian high-style.  Undoubtedly he felt that this was the more commercial way to go – but it led to a ludicrous finale improbably set atop a lighthouse, a finale I refused to write (I walked off the picture at that point) and which Phil then assigned to his brother-in-law, Scott Frank  (Scott later apologized to me – very sweet).  Also, Richard Gere, a huge movie star at the time (fresh off Pretty Woman) would veer off script in crucial courtroom scenes and therapeutic settings, managing to sound nothing like the expert witness/brilliant shrink he was meant to be playing.

How did True Believer get started?

Strick: True Believer was an assignment – the producing team of Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker had secured the rights to the life story of radical Bay Area attorney Tony Serra.  Walter and Larry (along with Paramount Pictures, before the project went into turnaround and was picked up by Columbia) hired me on the basis of the courtroom scenes they’d read in my script for Final Analysis (a film that would take eight years to finally reach the big screen).  Though just a few years older than me, Parkes and Lasker were already accomplished screenwriters (Wargames and Sneakers) and taught me a hell of a lot about the craft as they helped guide me through my first studio gig.

Arachnophobia is one of the best movies of its type, and it’s the sort of mid-tier studio project that stems from an original screenplay that would be tough to get made these days. I can remember seeing it opening weekend with my family and it scared us all, big-time! What can you share about this film?

Strick: Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg had been working with me on developing Cape Fear.  (Again, I’d been hired on the basis of my Final Analysis spec.)  I’m going back to late 1988 now.  Cape Fear was in flux and on hold for one reason or another, and one day the phone rang – it was Kathy, asking whether I’d be willing to rewrite Arachnophobia over Christmas break.  (The director, Kathy’s husband Frank Marshall, had already shot the prologue then shut down production till the new year.)  I hadn’t heard of Arachnophobia and wasn’t sure about the offer, so they sent over a carton of scripts – at least a dozen, as I recall.  I read the first draft and the most recent draft and saw where the studio had gone wrong: they’d taken a messy horror-comedy and cleaned up its structure but in the process removed the horror and the humor.  Also, the Jeff Daniels character didn’t suffer from arachnophobia – and neither did any of the other characters.  I holed up in my office and restored some horror and some comedy, and gave Jeff Daniels his raging case of arachnophobia, and wrote a bunch of laugh lines for John Goodman.   I didn’t expect a credit on the film and didn’t arbitrate for one – but another writer did, and I wound up with my co-credit. Disney marketed Arachnophobia as a “thrill-omedy.”  My stepfather liked to call it a “vom-edy.”

With Scorsese on the set of Cape Fear, 1990.

Describe what it was like when you got the call from Martin Scorsese to work with him on his remake of Cape Fear. How was it collaborating with him, and how do you feel that the film stacks up to the original?

Strick: Actually, I got the call from my agent.  The project originated with Spielberg, and I never believed the film would really happen with Marty – that seemed like too much of a dream come true.  I subsequently flew to New York to meet with him and De Niro and go through the script – which I’d written with Spielbergian sensibilities in mind – page by page.  You can imagine how nerve-wracking that was, though Scorsese was efficient and thoroughly professional.  One day, early on, he told me, “I’m screening my new movie tonight.  You should come, and see what I do.”  I wanted to scream, “Marty, I know what you do” but I kept my mouth shut and went to the screening.  The movie was Goodfellas.  Scorsese and I quickly developed an excellent working relationship that blossomed into a friendship by the time we wrapped.

I’ve only watched the original Cape Fear once – when Spielberg’s company offered me the job.  I wasn’t particularly taken with it – I responded to Mitchum’s performance, but that’s about all – and passed.  Steven subsequently twisted my arm, and I started work on the new Cape Fear – but never re-watched the original.  So I can’t fairly comment. 

Are you happy with how your version turned out? It’s extremely bone-chilling, and rather underrated in terms of Scorsese’s entire filmography.

Strick:  I was thrilled by it.  In the hands of almost any other director, I’m convinced it would have come out rather run-of-the-mill – a disposable B-movie comparable to say, Michael Cimino’s remake of Desperate Hours.  Marty’s willingness to run with my weirder ideas, plus his own stylistic flourishes combined with De Niro’s yen for going over the top, made it memorable.  Add Scorsese’s sense of movie history, which led him to hire Hammer horror legend Freddie Francis as DP and Hitchcock veteran Henry Bumstead as production designer, and reuse Bernard Hermann’s original score, plus cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam (all stars of the original) gave the picture a level of dark glamour, even grandeur.  Of course it didn’t hurt that, in newcomer Juliette Lewis, we caught lightning in a bottle.

Strick with wife Marla and son Jacob on the set of Cape Fear, 1990.

How hard would it be to walk into a current studio executive’s office and successfully pitch Final Analysis, which Warner Brothers released in 1992? I love those sorts of hot-blooded, Hitchcockian thrillers, which are very much in short supply these days. I’m surprised that Brian De Palma didn’t call you up for an assignment right after Final Analysis…or did he?!

Strick: De Palma was briefly going to direct Cape Fear after Spielberg opted out as director (he stayed on to produce).  So we had a few meetings…but Brian was committed to directing Bonfire of the Vanities first, and Steven decided not to wait for him.  So I dodged a bullet there.  But to your main point – Final Analysis was very much of its time – the dreaded Eighties – one of a number of glitzy, gaudy, Reagan-era revamps of Double Indemnity.  I would never dare walk into anyone’s office today to pitch Final Analysis, except perhaps as satire…but Steven Soderbergh recently remade it (unofficially) as Side Effects, and I must say it played pretty well the second time!  (I refer to Side Effects as “Final Analysis with iPads.”)

What were your experiences like doing uncredited work on Batman Returns? I think it’s one of the most subversive superhero films ever made.

Strick: Thanks!  I like it too.  It was great fun because I was working with a bold and funny script by Daniel Waters and was initially hired only to provide a suitably sinister “master plan” for The Penguin – but my assignment expanded for some reason, and in the end I spent four months on set sitting next to Tim Burton while he directed.  Tim and I got along great, giggling all the time (about what, I can’t recall now).  And the Warners lot where the film was shot is only about 12 minutes from my house.  And I got to bring my two sons, who were then quite young and impressionable, to see the amazing sets.  The DP, Stefan Czapsky, even let them look through his camera’s viewfinder.

It seems much harder to inject true personality into certain corners of the superhero movie world. Batman Returns has REAL edge. What did the studio think about the even darker direction that Batman Returns took? 

Strick:  Warners wasn’t thrilled with The Penguin’s plot to kidnap and kill the firstborn sons of Gotham City – which was the master plan I’d come up with.  The toy companies and fast-food franchises with licensing deals were even less thrilled.  And there was concern about some of the questionable lines I wrote for Danny DeVito, such as “Just the pussy I been looking for” when he first spots Michelle Pfeiffer.  Yet somehow we got away with all this stuff – though the darkness and edginess were blamed by the studio for the fall-off in box office from Tim’s first Batman film.

You had the chance to work with legendary filmmaker Mike Nichols on Wolf – I’d love to know what that was like, and if Jack Nicholson had any creative input into the project.

Strick: Nicholson had a lot of input but he communicated directly with Nichols, who would then pass along Jack’s notes to me.  Mike and I worked well together during the long process of reworking Jim Harrison’s original script.  Harrison was a personal friend of Nicholson’s and a brilliant prose stylist— but not a brilliant screenwriter.  Mike’s directive to me was, “Write me scenes – scenes I can direct!”  Nichols was a legendary raconteur and wit, and throughout our process opened up to me about his personal life, professional ups and downs, insecurities, etc.  I’ve never forgotten some of his witty talk:  “Everything changes but the avant-garde,” and “The bad thing about looking at porn is you might find something you like.”  Also, Mike was a world-class gossip which is why, when Premiere Magazine asked me about my experience on Wolf, I described it as “the world’s best cocktail party.”

Discussing a scene with Daryl Hannah on the set of The Tie That Binds, 1994.

The Tie That Binds and Hitched are your two directorial offerings – do you think you’ll step into that arena again?

Strick: Directing has always kind of terrified me, and certainly the commercial failure of The Tie That Binds was a big career setback.  But I’m not sorry I did it – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience of working with a great DP like Bobby Bukowski or a fine actor like Keith Carradine.  And directing made me a better screenwriter, I believe – more sensitive than I’d been before, to the realities and constraints of production.  That knowledge and experience still pays off for me today as I work with the large ensemble cast of High Castle. I should add that my inspiration for The Tie That Binds was one of my all-time favorite films, The Night of the Hunter.  I wanted to make a contemporary version, and showed the film to my lead actors and department heads.  Halfway through the shoot, I remembered that Charles Laughton – who made his directing debut on Night of the Hunter – was so discouraged by his film’s poor reception, he never directed again.  If that was an omen, I chose to ignore it.  My second feature, Hitched, is a black comedy that was conceived as an indie feature but which wound up on USA Network, starring Sheryl Lee and Anthony Michael Hall.  Hitched is hard to find – out of print DVD’s are available on Amazon – but I think it holds up as a fun little fable about marriage and (in)fidelity.

John Woo’s Face/Off is one of the all-time great action films. What were your contributions to this production?

Strick: I rewrote the dialogue.  The producer, Steve Reuther, thought the original dialogue sucked – I didn’t think it was as bad as Steve did – but in any case he pressured me to replace just about all of it.  I also took part in several long meetings between Travolta and Cage, in which Cage worked out which of Travolta’s mannerisms he would imitate and vice versa, and I incorporated all that into the script.  The Face/Off gig cemented my relationship with John Woo, who then hired me to do a draft of MI:2 which turned out to be not so artistically gratifying but something of a financial windfall.  And Woo was a lovely guy to work with.

Face/Off represents the one time that Hollywood execs totally got out of the way of Woo’s overall vision for extreme action. What was your response when you saw the film for the first time?

Strick:  I was elated.  I’d run it through my computer than handed in my draft and moved on to other projects, with no idea whether any of my work would actually be used.  Months later I walked down the hill where I live to the Chinese Theater, for the premiere.  No expectations.  The movie started, and the first line out of Cage’s mouth was mine.  So was the second…so once I realized they’d shot most of my dialog, and the audience was enjoying it, I sat back, relaxed and started shoving popcorn in my mouth.

Discussing a scene with Bruce Dern on the set of The Glass House, 2000.

Superman Lives is everyone’s favorite “What If?” project. I’d love to hear about your involvement, what you brought to the table creatively, what you think the film might have amounted to, and what your thoughts are on the current iteration of Superman that’s been shown in Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, and Justice League.

Strick: Superman Lives was a close collaboration between me and Tim Burton (and, to a lesser extent, Nic Cage) plus a fair amount of input from Lorenzo DiBonaventura, who was then Head of Production at Warners.  Tim felt that his Batman movies were “night” movies, and the challenge for him now was to make a “daylight” superhero film.  Tim meant that visually, and also metaphorically: he wanted to make a statement that was more positive and upbeat than he’d done before.  That proved a high bar to set for both of us, as Tim and I are similarly depressive and inverted personality types.  But we gave it our best shot, though in retrospect I think we were doomed from the start, between executive producer Jon Peters’ compulsive disruptions and interruptions, as well as Warners’ extreme nervousness over the Superman franchise in general.  I can’t speak to the subsequent Superman movies, as I’ve never seen any of them!

Are you a fan of the superhero landscape? Did you ever expect to have the chance to work on both Superman and Batman projects?

Strick:  No, not much of a fan at all – maybe that shows in my scripts?  It was a surreal surprise to find myself writing lines for iconic characters like Batman, Catwoman, Superman, Brainiac, et al.  And then, years later, there I was dreaming up dialog for Freddy Kruger for the Elm Street reboot with Rooney Mara.  Short of becoming a speechwriter for Donald Trump, I can scarcely imagine a darker, more bizarre gig.

I recently had the chance to ask Phillip Noyce this same question, so I must ask you – can you confirm if Val Kilmer was riffing on Marlon Brando’s performance in The Formula when you were all making The Saint? At one point, Kilmer dons a disguise that is eerily similar to how Brando appeared in The Formula, and considering that they’d worked on the ill-fated Island of Dr. Moreau remake, I’m thinking it’s possible…

Strick: I’ve not seen The Formula.  But I wouldn’t put it past Val, who was always up to one thing or another that mere mortals couldn’t quite comprehend.

You really must see The Formula! It’s hilarious, intentional or not! I must ask – what was it like working on The Saint? I’ve always had a soft spot for that film, due primarily to Noyce’s slick direction, the fun screenplay, and the extra-hot chemistry between Kilmer and Elizabeth Shue, who was at her sexiest ever on screen in that movie.

Strick: Glad to hear that!  The film was a huge struggle – mostly between Noyce and me on one side, and Kilmer on the other.  More than a year of conflict, consternation and, eventually, compromise. Exhausting, in other words, but exciting to shoot at Pinewood Studios and in the streets of Moscow in that historic “wild west” period as the nation struggled to find its footing after the Soviet collapse.  I recall one of our Russian advisors telling me, “Look around you.  Not one person you see who is eking out a living here, is doing it legally.”  BTW, I thought Elizabeth Shue was pretty damn sexy in Leaving Las Vegas – but if you prefer her in The Saint, who am I to argue?

Directing Anthony Michael Hall on the set of Hitched, 2000.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – she was premium hotness in Leaving Last Vegas, it’s just that that film is very depressing, so at times the themes cloud the sexiness for me. She’s still beautiful, and a hell of an actress, and I’m hoping that someone writes something great for her soon. But moving on, I’ve long loved Return to Paradise – how did this movie get started and what do you remember about the production? It’s an extremely provocative piece.

Strick: Again, thanks for the compliment.  The project (a remake of a French film, based on an actual incident) was offered to Joe Ruben, who had done a great job directing True Believer.  Joe and I had been trying to partner up again in the 10 years that had elapsed, and when Steve Golin at Propaganda sent him the original draft (by the estimable Bruce Robinson), Joe thought of me to rewrite.  Which I did, pretty much from top to bottom.

From the beginning, Joe and I had our eyes on the just-emerging Vince Vaughn to play Sheriff, the male lead.  Then we lucked out enormously with Joaquin Phoenix as co-star.  Not long after Anne Heche was signed to play opposite Vince, the whole Anne & Ellen thing unfolded in the media and the ensuing brouhaha wound up hurting us a bit, I believe.  Another source of anxiety: we started shooting neck and neck with a competing project called Brokedown Palace, starring Claire Danes.  We had a mole in their camp who was reporting back to us daily as to whether they were on schedule (which might have resulted in a catastrophic simultaneous release).  I remember the excitement when we learned that their production was stranded in some Southeast Asian jungle and “they’ve run out of film!”

In the end, our movie came out a full year ahead of Brokedown Palace.  Despite mostly good reviews, we opened in 11th place, behind Air Bud 2.  I wouldn’t wish that on anyone besides the Weinstein brothers.  When Brokedown Palace opened, I read a lot of press that said, basically, “This is pretty good, but it’s no Return to Paradise.”  All I could think was, Thanks, but where were you when we opened behind Air Bud 2?!

You re-teamed, on an uncredited capacity, with John Woo on Mission: Impossible 2 – what were your experiences like on that mega-sequel?

Strick: Well, from the jump I was told that as soon as I finished my draft, Tom Cruise would replace me with Robert Towne – that’s how Tom was operating in those days, with Towne as his personal screen-scribe.  So I went into the Cruise experience with eyes wide open (not shut).  Mostly I remember several overnight LAX to Heathrow flights with Woo, glamorous dinners with Tom and Nicole, and sitting in Woo’s hotel suite while John and Tom interviewed a succession of comely actresses for the female lead (“Nyah,” ultimately played by Thandie Newton).  I also remember trying to work out a complicated action beat when, after a fruitless hour, it dawned on me that the finest action director in the world was right down the hall.  So I knocked on his door and asked for help.  Woo thought for a second, then came up with a brilliant solution!  (The final line of his solution, as Woo mimed firing two guns, was “Ethan go pow-pow!”  It’s a line my sons and I repeat for laughs to this day.)

Are there any unproduced scripts that you’ve sold that you REALLY wish had been made?

Strick: About 8 years ago I adapted a book called I Slept With Joey Ramone, by Mickey Leigh (Joey’s brother) for Fox Searchlight.  The book tells the punk rock/ CBGB story through the lens of sibling rivalry and reconciliation.  It’s the only time I’ve drawn on my rock journalist background for a Hollywood project.  With the right director and cast, it might have made for an affecting yarn.  And authentic too, as both Mickey and I were there and know whereof we speak.

Now that sounds like a project you were born to direct!

Strick: Yeah, maybe … but it’s always a sketchy prospect, putting period rock scenes onscreen – particularly rock scenes from a past recent enough that a portion of the audience can remember how it really looked and felt.   You’ve watched Vinyl, right?  One TV critic described it as a “costume party from hell.”

Is there a genre you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet had the chance to do so?

Strick: I’d love to write a romantic comedy.  A dark, twisted one, of course.  Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I’d settle for Swiss Army Man.

You’re also a novelist – do you prefer writing books or screenplays?

Strick: I savored the year I took off from Hollywood to write a (Hollywood themed) novel titled Out There in the Dark.  The pay was lousy but, rather than struggle to constantly pare down and compress scenes and dialog as screenwriters do, as a novelist I had the freedom to expand on almost any idea, theme, tangent or conversation that might flit across my brainpan.  Writing another novel is something I might tackle once I’m well and truly kicked out of showbiz.

With Kenneth Tigar (Heinrich Himmler) on the set of The Man in the High Castle, 2017.

You’re currently working on the critically acclaimed Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. What has this journey been like, and what can you say about the experience of creating a totally new world in which to explore some very resonant socio-political themes?

Strick: The world of High Castle is a dark realm indeed – a tough place to inhabit intellectually and emotionally for two years running, with maybe another year (or two) in my future… and of course the show’s theme (fascism in America) is now horribly relevant in a way that it wasn’t, quite, when I signed on in 2015.  In one sense, it’s our job to not be overly resonant – rather, to write compelling stories for our characters without straining to score nudge-nudge political points.  And with my long background in features, I find it helps me to conceive of each season as a 10-hour movie, rather than ten episodes of serialized drama.  And despite all of my bitching and moaning, to get paid while learning a new craft at this late stage of my career has been an unexpected treat.

What’s been the biggest challenge with working on The Man in the High Castle? And the biggest surprise?

Strick:  Since we ran through the novel’s plot by the end of Season 1, it’s been a challenge to stay true to the vision and cosmology of Philip K. Dick as we build out stories, kill off original characters and introduce new ones.  PKD’s view of the universe is both distinctive and amorphous, so every decision we make is fraught with self-doubt and open to spirited debate.  But that’s the fun of it, too – we may be trapped, but we’re trapped in a galactic funhouse with an almost infinite number of levels to explore.

My biggest surprise is that writing on the show has rekindled my Jewish consciousness and sensitivities.  Sometimes, as I write scenes that humanize our lead Nazi, John Smith (Rufus Sewell), I can’t help but imagine my old Hebrew school teachers tut-tutting:  “Wesley, you were such a promising bar mitzvah boy, what the hell happened to you?”  And I imagine my answer: “I’m not rationalizing or normalizing fascism – rather, I’m portraying Nazis as people because Nazis were, and are, people.  They look like us, at home with their families they behave like us, indeed they are us.” The will to dominate, to subjugate and exterminate the “other” may seem bestial but in fact it’s deeply human.  A troubling truth that, like the Holocaust itself, must never be forgotten.

What’s your favorite aspect of being a writer?

Strick: I love working in my underwear, or maybe just a pair of sweatpants.  That privilege lasted for about 30 years, then I discovered this habit doesn’t go over quite so well in a Writers’ Room.  Dammit, now I’m a fully dressed working stiff like everybody else.


❉ We Are Cult would like to thank Wesley Strick for providing the images used in this interview from his own personal archive.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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