Steven Spielberg Almost Directed Cape Fear With Robert De Niro

Steven Spielberg's career has been filled with hits and misses that showcased his strengths and weaknesses as a director. But what if one of his career defining hits, Schindler's List, was directed by Martin Scorsese – as he originally had intended? Well then we'd have a version of the Cape Fear remake directed by Steven Spielberg, and (still) starring Robert De Niro. Hold on to something, because things are about to get a little "timey wimey" as we theorize what such a film might have been like.

As of this moment, Steven Spielberg's next two projects are an untitled Tom Hanks drama set in the Cold War, and his adaptation of Roald Dahl's book The BFG. But the legendary director has made a "career" out of abandoned projects. In my opinion, the most interesting project that almost had the distinction of being "A Steven Spielberg Film" has to be his proposed remake of Cape Fear.

A project that eventually went to Martin Scorsese, Cape Fear is the story of a vengeful criminal (played by Robert De Niro) who spends his time in prison learning the legal system. Once out, he plans on making life a living hell for the lawyer who failed to get him off on the charges (played by Nick Nolte). The film is an exercise in ever-raising stakes, with the adversarial nature between the two men culminating in a final act that involves one hell of a storm and a houseboat making its way into its path.

The reason that Steven Spielberg dropped the project is also the reason I think it's his greatest missed opportunity: for him, it was just too violent of a film to make. He traded the film to Scorsese, so that he could go on to make Schindler's List, which is his most personal film to date. Now while I'm glad he went on to make a film that was as historically and personally important as Schindler's List, I can't help but wonder what Cape Fear might have been like if he actually took the reins himself. Robert De Niro would have been in the film, as Spielberg always planned for him to play the part of insane criminal Max Cady. But who would he have picked to play Sam Bowden, the target to Cady's evil schemes? My pick, based on the timing of the project and the trajectory of his work at the time, is Robin Williams.


Think about it: the two of them had made Hook together (where he also played a lawyer), and Williams was also flexing his dramatic muscles in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, which was released in the same year. Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro fighting doesn't leave much to be surprised about, because Nolte was built enough that he could have taken De Niro on with his character from I Love Trouble. He was always a hard ass, even when Hollywood tried to sell him differently. But Robin Williams suffering a full film of De Niro's escalating behavior, leading up to a crazy-assed fight of primal rage between the two men? Done right, this could have been something that took the Spielberg brand in a different direction entirely.

With Cape Fear under his belt, Steven Spielberg could have ventured forth into darker territory more reminiscent of Jaws and even his proposed horror/sci-fi hybrid Night Skies. Even if this only slightly changed his course over the next couple of years, imagine how much more brutal and scary Jurassic Park could have been? Not to mention, Robin William's career would take a turn that would have probably spared us Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, but would have robbed us of Aladdin. It's hard to say whether we'd be better off with Cape Fear or Schindler's List being in Spielberg's list of films, but even with the glorious possibilities of a more noir-ish career in his alternate future, I think the Steven Spielberg we wound up with is the better one.

While he's always flirted with darkness and danger, Mr. Spielberg has always tempered it with wonder and sentiment. His critics fault him for this, but in a world where so many filmmakers fail at doing either dark and gritty or light and fluffy, it's nice to know there's a director that has no problem navigating either to deliver a quality film experience.

Still, if you want to continue playing a game of "What if?" like I have here, I highly suggest you check out Empire Magazine's list of 19 projects (including Cape Fear) that almost took the king of the blockbusters into different kingdoms altogether.

The BFG will be released in 2016, with the Tom Hanks thriller probably hitting in 2015 sometime. I have my fingers crossed that Robopocalypse springs into life after both of these films have been made. Seriously... we're only a stone's throw away from Thor and Catwoman versus a legion of killer robots, from the director who brought you A.I and Jurassic Park.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.