Rod Lurie on ‘Straw Dogs’

The director explains his new take on Sam Peckinpah's original film, the power of Twitter and much more.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Rod Lurie and I go way back. I was never a journalist at the same time as him, but I was starting out when I interviewed him for his first feature film, Deterrence. As a film lover and former journalist, Lurie has kept up with the press. Right before I left for Toronto, we made time for me to see his latest film, Straw Dogs, and speak by phone while he was on a press tour in New York. I gave this interview extra proofing because I know Rod will be checking up on me.

 


CraveOnline: In your time as a journalist, had you ever had an opportunity to speak to Dustin Hoffman or even Susan George about ‘Straw Dogs?’

Rod Lurie: I don’t think that I ever discussed Straw Dogs with either one of those actors when I was a journalist, but I sought them out and spoke to them extensively once I elected to make the film. It was in fact Dustin Hoffman who even sort of pushed me over the edge to agree to actually direct the film which I was hesitant to do. I met him at Mike Medavoy’s house, a great producer, and Hoffman put his arms on my shoulders after I told him I’d acquired the rights. He told me, “You know, Straw Dogs is a scary western. That’s what it is. It’s a western.” Then he went on to talk about how Sam [Peckinpah] had his ideas about humankind and how I may not necessarily share those ideas so why not put my own spin on that same story? I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times after that. I was very curious as to what Peckinpah’s tastes were and how he directed him. I did speak to Susan George about Peckinpah and about the movie. I was curious how she had been directed in that film, but more importantly I put her on the phone with Kate Bosworth to sort of be her cheerleader. There are a lot of very intense scenes in Straw Dogs and I wanted to have her find some sort of ally in Susan.

 

How do you give the same plot different themes?

I would say that the biggest difference between the original film and mine is that Peckinpah was taking the position that all men are genetically coded to violence. He was an advocate of a guy named Robert Ardrey who had written books like The Territorial Imperative and African Genesis and The Social Contract. He advocated this notion that violence is simply innate. That’s something that I’ve never bought into whatsoever, and was the reason why Pauline Kael called the film “the first great American fascist work of art.” I’m of the opinion that we are conditioned to violence. I think that that’s what my film is trying to say. As Hoffman suggested, I was taking my own spin on human behavior and applying it to the exact same story.

 

Do you think the original ‘Straw Dogs’ is most famous for one particularly controversial scene?

The original Straw Dogs is probably most famous for its controversy and most famous for being banned in Europe for so many years. When we did our survey even before shooting the film about how many people were familiar with the film, we found that 2-3, maybe 4% of the population had heard of Straw Dogs, let alone seen it. The film has been out of print for a very long time on DVD, although I understand it’s being re-released.

 

Why was it important to you to make David [Zelag Goodman, one of the original film’s writers] a screenwriter and set the film not only in America but in the south?

I was trying to create the most dramatic fish out of water situation that I could. There are perceptions on both sides. People in the working class may have perceptions about intellectuals and intellectuals certainly have their perceptions of the working class. The division in our country right now has probably never been as dramatic as it is. One of the reasons why I set in the south – besides very obvious artistic ones. I really love the look of the south and I love the sounds of the south including its music and its accents – is the fact that in that particular part of the world and in that particular town and in that particular depth of Mississippi, football is king which is a very violent sport. Hunting is a hobby which is a very violent hobby. You go to church and you’re preached to about a very violent God. You solve things with bar fights. So there is a conditioning to a violent mentality in those towns. There is a sense that you live and solve things with a fist or with a gun or with a helmet to the chest in a football game. Our lead character comes from a world where he’s probably never seen a fight other than on screen. In order for him to become violent, he has to go against his nature whereas in the Peckinpah film, I think he was saying that was his nature all along. It was just suppressed.

 

I like the way you’ve reached out to fans on Twitter. If you see a hater, you tweet at them inviting them to give the movie a chance. That’s a very classy approach. How have you embraced Twitter as a filmmaker?

Well, Twitter is here very much as the phone came into effect after Alexander Graham Bell invented it. We have to embrace Twitter and we have to embrace Facebook as a modern part of communicating with the world. I really do believe that Twitter is going to be more essential for getting people into theaters than film critics are. Now I respect film critics, I was a film critic and I covet being well reviewed. I think it’s a very important part of the literature of our day, but in terms of convincing people to go to a movie, if somebody on their Twitter sees 1000 people telling them to go see a certain movie, they’re going to go regardless of what one person at The Tribune says. So I do think that it’s important and I’m all for communicating with fans and communicating with moviegoers. Directors shouldn’t be in some ivory tower. Talk to the fans. They’re the ones that are going to make your movie successful. You owe it to them.

 

Does it hold studios more accountable for making better movies? They can’t just buy an opening weekend if everyone on Twitter is saying, “Don’t see that movie.”

The truth of your movie will be exposed almost instantaneously vis a vis social networking. I do believe that they have a very dramatic influence. Will it force studios to make better films? No, not necessarily. In the 1970s, film critics were the primary source of people’s information about movies so you needed to make movies that the critics would recommend and thus you would go to. That is why movies like the 1976 films Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network, Rocky and Bound for Glory all did so well. Right now, the studios can get away with making a straight populist film and not really caring so much what film critics have to say. Again, I’m saying this under the caveat that I still think film criticism serves a very important function in cinema and modern journalism.

 

I’m most concerned with the diminishing of news. A lot of sites are emphasizing lists and features or even eliminating news stories completely. And I’m only experiencing in the entertainment news field. Are you concerned about the future of news in journalism?

Well, once again the value of breaking news is diminished because once spoken by one person, it seems to be on everybody’s blog. Or, information can be broken without any help from journalists whatsoever. On the other hand, it may force journalists to work a little bit harder, to dig a little bit deeper, to get information that is fresher. That would be positive.

 

Hopefully we can reinvent it again, as we did when the internet started.

Well, not just when the internet started but when television started. Journalism, like everything else, has to adapt to the modern culture.

 

Do you have any tips for me at the Toronto International Film Festival?

I think Toronto is one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to and ever taken a movie to. I covered it when I was a journalist. It seems like it’s probably the best collection and combination of populist movies and critical favorites. I’m going to say that in all probability, the Oscar winner will be playing at Toronto as it was last year. I don’t know what it is but I’d take a pretty good stab at it. Also it’s about as film friendly an audience as you can have. There’s really nothing like being in an audience that loves movies, in my opinion. A unity of emotions is just beautiful because in the end you really want to have a good time.

 

That’s what I’ve gotten from my film festival experiences, all the friends you make in that film loving community.

Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I’ve had four films play at Toronto. Two of them were galas and they were two of the best professional experiences of my life time, The Contender and Nothing But the Truth. It was a hell of an experience.

 

You’ve made movies at two upstart studios, Dreamworks and Yari Film Group, both of which are gone now. Dreamworks still exists as a name. What was your experience in the beginning stages of those start up studios?

First of all, my experience with Dreamworks was only good. When the head of your studio is Steven Spielberg and Katzenberg and Geffen to boot, it was a tremendous experience. I owe my career to Dreamworks and to Steven Spielberg. They plucked The Contender out of the independent world and gave it a great run and it made money for everybody and received a couple of Oscar nominations due to their campaigning and the quality of the performances in the film. I look at Dreamworks still as very viable. Yari Film Group was one of the great tragedies of my life that it went bankrupt the very week that Nothing But the Truth was to open. The truth behind that bankruptcy and what was going on with the books is something that I think we’re far from knowing the full details on. There’s obviously some sadness, if not a bit of resentment, about what happened there but I will give credit to Bob Yari at least for giving me the creative freedom to make the movies that I wanted. I had three movies with him: Resurrecting the Champ, Nothing But the Truth and another movie which I produced, Brian Goodman’s great What Doesn’t Kill You.

 

Screen Gems is obviously a solid company. What were your thoughts and theirs about recreating the classic ‘Straw Dogs’ poster with now James Marsden in the cracked glasses?

It was an idea that had been bandied about from the minute that we agreed to make the film at Screen Gems and they agreed to make it, that it’s very possible we’d go back to that iconic image of Hoffman. Some people will criticize us for it but most people saw it for what it was, which was an homage to one of the greatest posters of all time. I personally love the poster and I think it’s been very effective.

 

Do you know what you’re doing next?

I do but the deal is not complete so I don’t want to yap about it.

 

Will it be something you’re writing?

It is something I’m currently writing, yes. I also have a television deal.

 

Is it ‘Borderline?’

It’s not going to be Borderline. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with Borderline but we sort of ran out of our window to shoot. Fall is when it would’ve been necessary to make it.