I knew a little about the true story of Christa Worthington, a fashion writer who was involved in a coastal affair, before being brutally murdered. When I sat down to watch Arthur Egeli‘s film based on those events, Murder on the Cape, I went looking into it even further. The screenplay from Egeli has a fresh take on the tragic events, changing the names and even the extent of the title’s pivotal moments. In fact, the film subtly spotlights hard times, the decline of the fishing industry, and several strands of sheer character frustration. So I’m not really giving spoilers when I say there is far more to this than a murder.
Writer-director Arthur Egeli is married to Heather, who has a prominent part in the film, and they are locals to Cape Cod, both familiar with some of the people involved in the original Christa Worthington case. A significant part of Murder on the Cape is based on the accounts of certain people at the time, and many Cape Cod inhabitants appear in the film, which was shot on location. I was lucky enough to have Arthur Egeli answer some of my questions about the project.
Which movies define your childhood? Which movies define your childhood?
Before being mesmerized by the classics like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was TV that first captured my imagination. No, not TV shows, but the mini-series that were just debuting at that time. I actually couldn’t believe I was expected to do homework while Roots, Rich Man Poor Man, and Shogun were showing every night. They were not only adventures but melodramas. I know its a bad word – melodrama – now, but I was glued to the screen!
This moved me to try my hand at a screenplay. My first attempt was a story about a high school ballet dancer who gives it up to play on the high school football team. This mirrored my own life as the son of artists who expected me to be in art class while my friends were doing the things normal high school kids do. This screenplay won me a creative arts scholarship to the University of Maryland, who had the only film program available in the area at the time.
Who were you inspired by when stating out? And now?
When I first saw Jaws, I couldn’t believe a 25 year-old had made that film. Of course comparing myself to Spielberg was not going to get me anywhere and I had to get over it. But even now I am drawn to his story telling ability, his editing, and the way he visually tells a story.
The other important film to me was Manion of the Spring directed by Claude Berri. Here was a film with just a few actors and a few locations, but completely engrossing. This kind of film I could write and produce with a small budget and this is the kind of film I try and develop now, because I know I can get enough money to make it. What’s the use of writing films that cost so much that you will never make them unless you win the lottery! A filmmaker makes films, no matter how small.
What is your writing process? Seclusion? Public library? On the train?
Generally I write the first draft in my art studio alone. I am a painter by profession now, so as I paint on the easel, scenes and story ideas come to me. I will sit down and write and then go back to the painting. After a month or so, I will have my first draft. Then my wife Heather enters the picture. After breakfast, while the kids are at school, we will work together until lunch. I will read a scene out loud to her and she will comment and make suggestions. While I am good at plot, she is good at character development, and after another month or so, we will have a working draft.
So Murder on the Cape. How much do you want viewers to know that this is based on what happened to Christa Worthington?
I would prefer viewers know something about the story, but I know this is probably unrealistic. As in most cases, the survivors naturally tell the story. But they tell their story and they tell stories that protect themselves. I don’t mean protect them from getting arrested, but protect their reputations. As we went deeper and deeper into the story, I could see that was reported was true in one way, but not true at the same time. For example, the victim was painted by many as a “woman who got around”. This wasn’t true, she was a single woman looking for love who dated men. The convicted killer was portrayed as a monster. It became apparent that he was “just one of the guys” and no one suspected him of the crime.
This dramatization differs from the real event. How did you decide what parts to change or omit or add?
This is was very complicated but rich story. It would take several movies to tell everything that happened. For me, though, the core of the story was this unlikely relationship between a fisherman and a fashion writer. A relationship that was doomed from the start but beautiful at the same time. A relationship that happened because lives were changing and it really was no one person’s fault. And out of this tragedy a beautiful child came into this world. As we wrote, we constantly went back to this story. Is this character adding to this thru-line.
Tell us about the cast, and casting process? I see your surname a few times in the list.
My wife just happened to come into the room and ask me what the current question was! “How did you cast film?” and she said, “You cast me because I was the only actor in the movie that wasn’t going to cost you money.“ But the truth is, she said she felt undeserving of the part because she was very busy caring for our kids, writing with me and helping me produce the film, so she felt physically and emotionally unprepared for a major role in a film. But I knew how talented she was and I refused to cast anyone else, and she really deserved the part. And she knew the real Susan Jackett, whom the role is based on. This was a very small movie, so it saved a lot of money having family members work in the film!
On the first day of casting, the co-producer Judy Richland brought in a young man named Josh Walther. He had never been in a film before – just a couple of commercials. I was very skeptical when he came up for his audition, but he was good and authentic. He was from the area and had the local look and attitude and confidence that working men have here. We then went to New York and saw scores of young men trying to do fake New England accents and acting like the seasoned fisherman. None of them held a candle to Josh Walthern, and he was cast. Another casting miracle. Our choice for the Harbormaster, Jimmy, stepped out the day before he was scheduled to film. We cast our production designer, Kevin Cotter, another local, and he owned the part!
Do you feel you deceive your audience somewhat who are perhaps expecting a murder much earlier?
I feel that when the police found their suspect, they convicted him and threw away the key. To me, our ending is symbolic to what happened in real life. I am also asked, “where is the black man in the story?” If I had put him in the story, every eye would be on him. I would had to invent things that he did, relationships that he may or many not have had.
What I did know is his peers didn’t see him as the devil and that’s why early on his name never came up as a suspect. He was a guy who was very likable and one of the guys. When you watch the film, would your ideas about Sammy Santos change if he were a black man? Sammy Santos was at the wrong place at the wrong time – perhaps this is what really happened in real life, but we will probably never know.
I liked that the story touched on theme such as poverty, the decline of the fishing industry, adultery – how much of that was based on real events? How important were those themes in carrying your story?
The decline of the fishing industry had a huge impact on the old families here and still apparent here today. Most town jobs are still held by ex-fishermen or the sons of fishermen. And these weren’t poor fishermen, they were men who got rich from tuna (when tuna was 10 cents a pound!) and haddock and had large houses on the water and multiple boats. So men that pretty much ruled their worlds, now served others. Mike is one of the those men, who is looking for any way he can to save his ego.
How was the shoot? Locations? Timescales? Budget?
For a film this small, the shoot went very well. One of the reasons is that nearly every location was within walking distance of each other. The movie was very low budget, shot under the Ultra Low Budget SAG contract. The shoot lasted 19 days and we spend about a month prepping on location.
Where do you feel you fit into the big bad film industry?
As independent filmmaker, one has to make films that the mainstream studios won’t make, yet still have an audience. This story, for all it’s play in the media, was difficult to finance. It’s about a brutal murder where the only black character in the film is the killer, and this is just not a story that should be glorified in any way. Unless he didn’t do it.
Care to comment on the latest revelations in Hollywood regarding Harvey Weinstein?
We are fresh off seeing a female presidential candidate bullied on television by her rival about things her husband did behind her back. Now we see another man in power using his position to bully, intimate and probably rape innocent women. It is just unacceptable.
What is next for you, both work, and personally?
I am shooting a feature based on the play “N” by Adrienne Pender. It’s the story of black actor Charles Gilpin, who’s career is ruined when he refuses to say the “N” word on stage in 1921. When Eugene O’Neill cast 40 year-old Charles in his ground breaking play “Emperor Jones”, O’Neill broke all precedent. He was hiring an African-American actor to play not only the the lead role, but a serious, dramatic role. The custom at the time was for white actors to perform in blackface on Broadway. Despite advice to the contrary, the play opens with Charles as the lead, and it becomes a runaway hit. It is the first money making play for O”Neill and makes Charles Gilpin a huge star.
However, in the play, there is the customary gritty and realistic O”Neil dialogue, and the “N” word appears over 50 times. Charles never liked saying this word, which he thought was more than demeaning to his race, and finally he refuses to say it altogether. He is fired, and replaced with Paul Robeson, a young actor who has no trouble with the word and also becomes a star. Charles is ruined and despite efforts a compact, including another chance offered to O”Neill, he won’t abandon his principles and dies a poor alcoholic.
Now available on DVD/VOD.