Never one to sidestep controversy, writer/director Rod Lurie recently caused film purists to perk up their ears when he seemed to suggest during an interview that his upcoming remake of Sam Peckinpah's revenge thriller Straw Dogs would be tantamount to a moral improvement over the original film, since it would purposefully not rehash the ultra-controversial moment from the Peckinpah original when Susan George, playing the wife of Dustin Hoffman's character, begins to express pleasure during a brutal rape sequence. Lurie was more than ready to expand on his statement and explain exactly what he meant when I spoke with him recently -- he's out promoting his new sports journalism drama, Resurrecting the Champ, which opens in theaters today. During the course of our conversation, we talked about that film and what it says about the state of journalism today, we talked about his career path and how he wants to alter it, and I got his thoughts on the decline of the print film critic and the rise -- for better or worse -- of the Internet film critic. Here's the interview.
Cinematical: What are you up to today?
RL: Today's the day before the release of my film, so I'd like to say I'm just chilling out, but really we're watching all the reviews come in and all the box-office tracking and all that. It's a tense day, to say the least.
Cinematical: I wanted to ask, did you catch that article in the American Journalism Review this month, about film critics?
RL: No, I didn't.
Cinematical: Pretty interesting. It talks about print critics being offered buyouts or being simply let go at a lot of places, in favor of coverage from the wire services and all that. The underlying premise, I think, was that the trend was escalating.
RL: You know, I think about it a lot, because you know, I was a film critic for many years.
RL: There but for the grace of God go I, sort of thing, Ryan. You know, the Internet is a wondrous thing. It's the space travel of our time. By that, I mean it's the sort of thing that, twenty years ago was sort of unfathomable and it's done a lot of wonderful things, but it's also destroyed a lot of things. Print journalism is going to disappear, obviously, in the not too distant future. And part of the war of attrition on print journalism is getting rid of the non-essentials. Not that movie criticism is non-essential, but movie critics are, in the sense that there are plenty of wire services and we use Roger Ebert's reviews in 400 newspapers and the Associated Press and Reuters. It's a little sad, because I think it's nice for every town to have its own critic, its judge, its representative, its own community standards held up by the candle of that particular critic. So that's definitely going away, and it's too bad -- it really is.
Cinematical: I saw Resurrecting the Champ as sort of a counter-point to films like Shattered Glass, which are about deception. It seems like amateurism is the culprit in Champ, and I think amateurism might be an issue with the increasing irrelevance of those small town critics -- do you see it that way?
RL: No, I don't. I do not, in fact. I think that, if I may be so bold, that it's sort of the other way around. I think that the print journalists, the old timers ... they're so tireless in their research and they take such a long time, that sometimes they find themselves unable to compete with the Internet. Let me give you an example. I had a situation with an announcement of a film of mine in one of the trade papers -- Straw Dogs. About four months ago. They got some information and they raced into publication because they were scared that somebody on the Internet or that Variety was going to, you know, c**kblock them on this thing. So the article gets printed and there's not one sentence that's correct. There were large and small mistakes. Let me backtrack -- there wasn't one paragraph that didn't have a mistake, either large or small. And it was all because of speed -- they didn't even speak to me. I think this has become part of the culture. The Internet is not why those people are going away -- they're going away because there's no more classified ads in the newspapers. The newspapers don't have revenue, so they have to start streamlining. A film critic will cost them 40, 60, 70, 100 thousand dollars a year, and all they gotta do is pick up a wire service, almost for free, comparatively speaking. Why would they have that person? And not only that -- they can get Roger Ebert's review, and Roger is so respected, so great, let's have him in there.
Cinematical: Are there any Internet film critics that you view as quality critics, or emerging quality -- anything that compares to the print critics?
RL: That's a very interesting and somewhat loaded question. Yes. Let me tell you who I read. I read Berardinelli. You know who that is, from Reelviews?
RL: I read Harvey Karten on CompuServe. I read Ed Douglas on Comingsoon. I read this kid Zach Haddad who is on Filmthreat. Those are guys who I think are really quite smart, and I enjoy what they have to say. But my two favorite guys to read on the Internet are David Poland and Jeffrey Wells.
Cinematical: Hollywood Elsewhere.
RL: Yeah, Hollywood Elsewhere and the other, I think, is Movie City News. They're probably the two best writers -- they're among the two best writers on film in the United States. I'm not saying the Internet guys aren't good -- I think that the Internet has forced a new amateurism, which is speed.
Cinematical: There was something I wanted to ask you about Josh Hartnett's character -- I didn't really see him as a very principled guy. I mean, his fondest hope is that his big plan works out and he gets to be a talking head on Showtime. Do you see him as a stand-up guy?
RL: I think he's a classic filmic flawed character, who has to be shown the way of his errors and the destructiveness of his errors in order for him to become a better man. He truly has an arc. In some ways, you can compare him to the Tom Cruise character in Rain Man. You know, a person who is selfish in his own way in the beginning and learns not to be. By that, I mean selfish in the sense that he doesn't care that he's hurting his child by lying to him so much. And he can improve himself. It's a redemptive movie. That's one of the great arcs in literature and cinema, the redemption story.
Cinematical: What do you think his biggest mistake is in the film?
RL: It's a tough question to answer, because I don't want to give away the big twist in the movie. I'd hate to see that in print. The biggest mistake he makes is in deciding what the story is gonna be ahead of time. How long have you been a journalist for, Ryan?
Cinematical: Six or seven years.
RL: Six or seven years -- you may have had the experience, I know I did when I was a journalist, where I really craved that a story would go a certain way. There was always a temptation -- I never fell to it -- but there was always a temptation to go ahead and try to shoehorn your story into a theory rather than the theory into the story. So, he says to his little boy at the beginning of the film -- the kid says 'This sounds like it's gonna be a very sad story' and he says 'No buddy, it's gonna be a hopeful story.' Well, how the f**k does he know what kind of story it's going to be? He has no idea. He hasn't done the first interview. He hasn't done any research yet. What the hell does he know? He knows absolutely nothing, yet he's already pre-determined what the story is going to be. Later, when Champ says 'what's the story you're going to tell?' he says, you know, 'Whatever you tell me.' So there are presumptions made. I must say that I have, more than once, counted on single sources, but in those situations, Ryan, you're really walking on fire. Because most people who you interview have an agenda of some kind. And if the agenda includes any sort of duplicity, you're f**ked. I've been down that road.
Cinematical: By the way, random question -- whose idea was it for Sam Jackson to speak in that high register throughout the film? Must have been tough on his voice.
RL: Every decision dealing with Sam Jackson is made by Sam Jackson. Sam is a -- I think every single one of his directors will tell you this -- Sam is a ready-made product. He and his team -- his make-up artist and his costumer and his hair-stylist -- they decide what it's gonna be. What the character is gonna be. They go over it with me, and I sign off, and I'll debate a little while and give an inch and they give an inch, but in the end that character is Sam's. That voice was his Grandpa's voice, and I think doing that voice was a very emotional thing for him. That's my belief.
Cinematical: You mentioned Straw Dogs earlier -- were you surprised by the brouhaha that erupted from what you said about Peckinpah?
RL: Well, I read a little bit of the brouhaah -- and it's really confined to like twenty or thirty people -- I think that when I said that, my intention -- you're talking about this thing, "she's certainly not going to smile in my rape scene?"
RL: Well, I think what I meant was, I'm going to try to elicit the same sort of energy and brutality, but I'm going to do it in my own way. I'm not going to simply replicate Peckinpah. I understand that, at its most visceral level, what Peckinpah was at least trying to say was that there's some sort of reality -- in his opinion, and it's not mine, by the way -- that every woman sort of fantasizes about being taken by a real man, and especially after she's been with a guy who is as dweebish as Hoffman's character was presented. I understand that, of course, but I'm gonna be my own guy when I write this, when I make this film. It's not going to be a shot-by-shot remake of what Peckinpah did.
Cinematical: Well, I've read interpretations that are more lenient on Peckinpah than that -- some take the view that Susan's character is sort of trying to make it easy on herself by going along with it, getting it over with. You don't share that view of the film.
RL: No, I don't think, I don't believe that's what Peckinpah was trying to do. Peckinpah was a classic man's man director, and 'damn to all political correctness.' I don't think he cared at all that people thought he was doing a quote-unquote 'she was looking for it' sort of scene. I don't think he minded that at all. And, of course, when the second rapist comes in, then all bets are off. That sort of justifies the whole thing. It's very interesting -- I've studied this film a great deal and I've read his interviews about it and looked at, I think, just about everything that there is to say about it. All I can tell you, Ryan, is that all I was trying to say was that when we make this film, it's going to be a Rod Lurie movie, and not a Sam Peckinpah film, and to many people that'll be too bad, but if I'm gonna remake Straw Dogs, I'm not gonna remake Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. If I was gonna do that ... there'd be no point to it.
Cinematical: I think when most people think 'Rod Lurie movie' they think of a movie that's overtly political. That would seem to be a rough fit with everyone's conception of what Straw Dogs is. What's the basic motivation here?
RL: Well, exactly what you're saying. What are the expectations of me? I think my TV series Line of Fire was a very exciting, sexual, violent mob/FBI show that had nothing to do with politics. But as usual, I went through the situation of having a lot of critics liking it and the audience not really finding it. But as far as everything else I've done, you know, you're right -- they've all had some kind of political, or in this case journalistic, bent. They've been social movies, let's say. And I really do want to escape that a little bit. I crave making an audience-pleasing, quality, commercial movie. I'm in love with a movie like, say, Crimson Tide, which was a commercial success but also really intelligent and really well-made. As was, off the top of my head, Gladiator and True Lies. I wanna give that sort of film a crack. Even The Last Castle was a movie that was trying to do some sort of analysis of the DNA of leadership. Maybe I weighed it down with a little too much purpose.
Cinematical: Maybe Gandolfini would be a good choice for the dweeby Dustin Hoffman role.
RL: I think he's a little old for it.
Cinematical: Do you have someone in mind?
RL: We do, but I certainly can't talk about it.
Cinematical: Just between us.
RL: Hmmm.. let me see ... no. Maybe Dustin could reprise it.
Cinematical: Sure. They have that age-reducing computer technology now.
RL: Yeah. We're gonna bring Dustin and Susan George back. I actually spoke with Dustin about it, and he said "Just remember, it's a cowboy movie." No, he said "It's a Western."