Best known for the political thriller The Contender (2000), which received Oscar nominations for Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, filmmaker Rod Lurie had not one, but two good movies ready to go in December. But when their distributor, Yari Film Group, went bankrupt just as they were set to launch, Nothing But the Truth, which he wrote and directed, and What Doesnâ€™t Kill You, which he produced, vanished. Outside of press screenings, festival exposure, and abortive weeklong Academy Award-qualifying releases in New York and Los Angeles, their reappearance on DVD this week qualifies as a premiere.
What doesnâ€™t kill Rod Lurie, though, makes him strongerâ€”or, at least, receptive to a Popdose interview. I met Lurie in an unusual way: On my blog, I called his 2007 movie Resurrecting the Champ the work of a â€œmiddlebrow hack.â€ A few months later, I nearly fell off my chair when he sent me a note praising me for my review. (If only all this criticâ€™s critics did the same thing.) Intrigued, I began a correspondence, andâ€”full disclosureâ€”have him as a Facebook friend. (He updates frequently for a boldface name, often about sports.)
This backstory, however, didnâ€™t affect my judgment of the two films. I caught Nothing But the Truth, which was inspired by the Valerie Plame affair, at a screening, and was impressed, not least with the strong central performances by Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga. What Doesnâ€™t Kill You is equally hard-hitting and affecting. Director, co-star and co-writer Brian Goodman based the film on his misspent youth in South Boston, and it digs more realistically into its criminal subculture than either Mystic River or The Departed. Itâ€™s the story of two friends, Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke), who after a lifetime of petty crimes dream of bigger scores. Paulie wants to rob an armored car, a caper that only the truly foolhardy attempt; Brian, meanwhile, would like to be more of a husband and father, but the easy money and his hard-to-break cocaine habit trip him up.
Lurie is a former film journalist who still practices his craft, and he comes out swinging. For The Huffington Post, he attacked The Reader for its gross historical distortions as Oscar season was in full swing; for The Wrap, he went after slipshod independent reporter-bloggers like Hollywood columnist Nikki Finke, who had gotten the facts wrong when he switched representation. Itâ€™s interesting interviewing a fellow journalist; he started by asking whether this was going to be in Q&A or prose format (so as to gauge how careful he should be with his answers), asked me questions (which is always slightly unnerving when youâ€™re marching through your own agenda), requested that for your benefit as potential viewers we go off the record when discussing the ending of Nothing But the Truth, and came up with his own -30- to our session, which I retained. He is foremost a storyteller, and he had some stories to tell, about the fate of the two films, his upcoming remake of Sam Peckinpahâ€™s Straw Dogs (sacrilege!), middlebrow hackdom, and winning the presidential seal of approval.
Letâ€™s start with the good and bad news. The good news is that the two films are out; the bad news is, theyâ€™re out on DVD. What happened with the theatrical release?
I think â€œWhat Happenedâ€ will be the title of my autobiography. You look back on your life and see a series of incidents of bad luck, and if youâ€™re optimistic you can also look at the good luck that youâ€™ve had. No doubt Nothing But the Truth and What Doesnâ€™t Kill You suffered from a horrible fate. They were doing outstandingly well with film critics, got standing ovations at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and were getting nominations in the first round of end-of-year awards. And then in mid-December, as What Doesnâ€™t Kill You just opened in a couple of theaters for Oscar qualification, and five days before Nothing But the Truth was set to open, my partner, Marc Frydman, walked into my office and said that the Hollywood Reporter had just called him and said it wanted to get our comment on Yariâ€™s Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
That was itâ€”there was essentially no movie after that. No posters were printed, and there was more or less no advertising. The Times Square theater that was showing Nothing But the Truth for its one-week run didnâ€™t even put it up on the marquee. My friends and family saw it, that was it.
Did you try to seek new distribution?
I heard that from journalists. I also heard it from my mom, and from my gardener; he said to me, â€œHey, I heard about your movie, why donâ€™t you find some other distribution?â€ Hereâ€™s the truth about movies today. First, we had sold off the DVD rights to both films, and most of the foreign territorial rights, so a company that would have picked it up would only have had domestic theatrical distribution. They would then have to pump in prints and advertising money, and maybe, in a long shot, recover that, and have no other income from the film.
It had to hurt as the reality sank in.
It was like a drive-by shootingâ€”there we were, hopping and skipping down the sidewalk, then a black Cadillac called “Chapter 11 Bankruptcy” unloaded its AK-47s into us and weâ€™re lying in a pool of blood.
The people I really felt for on Nothing But the Truth were the actors. Why do you think Kate Beckinsale, who can make several million dollars a film, would star in a film whose makers are telling her that they donâ€™t have that kind of money? Who probably had to spend money to make this movie?
Because itâ€™s a good part, one that returns her to films of greater substance than what sheâ€™s been making.
She wanted you to say that, and say that in print. I think she wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, which sheâ€™s absolutely capable of. And I think sheâ€™s taking this very hard. I donâ€™t blame her at all. Alan Aldaâ€™s bummed, too. Heâ€™s made a movie about something thatâ€™s important to him and no oneâ€™s seen it. And Veraâ€”Vera, I think, would have won the Academy Award.
Sheâ€™s terrific in it, as she is always. How did you direct the two leads? Do you get in there and mix it up with them, or did you just sort of stand back and hope for the best?
Thereâ€™s no hoping. I do so much due diligence. Not so much with Kate; when I started talking with her previous directors, Martin Scorsese said â€œHire her right away,â€ so I just sort of said, â€œOK.â€ [Scorsese directed Beckinsale in The Aviator.] Sheâ€™s an absolute preparer who comes with a full-blown performance and a script thatâ€™s full of notes, like an M.I.T. term paper. Whereas Vera doesnâ€™t know what sheâ€™s going to do. She leaps into action. With her itâ€™s like opening a furnace door and out comes the fire.
Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker, or a filmmaker whoâ€™s interested in politics?
A filmmaker whoâ€™s interested in politics, although my first two films, Deterrence (1999) and The Contender, definitely had agendas to push. And thereâ€™s nothing wrong with that.
Anything coming out of Hollywood with my name on it is, however, automatically assumed to be wish fulfillment for liberals. A common mistake with Nothing But the Truth is that itâ€™s considered a liberal film, when in fact pushing to get a federal shield law (a law that protects journalists from being thrown into jail for protecting their sources) is a mostly Republican initiative.
But I feel Iâ€™m typecast. I had scripted a remake of the 1948 Frank Capra film State of the Union, but Garry Marshallâ€™s doing that now. I have to move on from political films, do something different, and prove my commercial worth, which is why Iâ€™m doing Straw Dogs.
By remaking Straw Dogs (1971), youâ€™re basically putting on a sign that says â€œKick Meâ€ to every film critic out there.
My only real hope of survival is that film critics wonâ€™t have jobs anymore. But thereâ€™s something freeing about knowing that you have a bullseye on your back. Iâ€™m just going to make the movie that I really want to make. Iâ€™m remaking Straw Dogs, not Sam Peckinpahâ€™s Straw Dogs. Iâ€™m not necessarily going to explore the same themes that he did. Ours will deal to a great extent with the tragedy of masculinity, as opposed to the original filmâ€™s kind of celebration of it. But that may be an overly philosophical way to describe a film that in the end will be a big and lively piece of entertainment. [James Marsden, of X-Men and Hairspray, will star.]
Almost no one under age 40 has any idea what Straw Dogs (1971) is. Our research bears that out. When I speak to young people who have seen it, they tend not to be crazy about it, finding it a little dated and slow. And the over-40s either really love it, or not so much. To me itâ€™s a very good, not great film. For me, Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) are great Sam Peckinpah films.
Straw Dogs is a semi-perfect film to remake. It can be Americanized and modernized, and it can be made oneâ€™s own. Iâ€™m not hostage to Peckinpah. I know the film extremely well, including a thorough review of his hundreds of pages of notes. Iâ€™ve met and talked with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, and theyâ€™re fine with us remaking it. Itâ€™s not sacrosanct. I would never remake an iconic film.
I want to have a hit movie. I really do. And I think I can do it with this one.
If you’re making good films, why is that important?
Iâ€™ve tended to work in arenas that are of interest to me and a unique group of people. The Contender was political and to the left side of that arena, and I was really limiting myself. The same is true of Resurrecting the Champ, and Nothing But the Truth, while more of a thriller, is clearly more for an older adult audience.
Champ brought us together, in an unusual way. Why reach out to someone who called you a â€œmiddlebrow hackâ€ on a blog?
When youâ€™re talking about any kind of art, thereâ€™s a give-and-take that you can have. My films do have artistic mistakes in them. Iâ€™m an imperfect filmmaker with a great deal to learn. I donâ€™t take anything that a critic says personally. My life isnâ€™t wrapped up in whether or not that individual liked the film or not. What bums me out is that they may have an influence on whether or not they see the film.
When you became a writer-director, did any of the assumptions about Hollywood that you had as a film journalist change?
Iâ€™d be a much different critic today. When I was a critic, I was more impressed with people finding out how smart I was than how smart the film was. I donâ€™t think I was a very good critic; I was popular, but more interested in coming up with a clever remark or funny statement. [Lurie wrote for publications including The New York Daily News, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly, had talk radio shows, and appeared on 60 Minutes, Entertainment Tonight, and Nightline.] Movies deserve a close look at their craftsmanship, because it is such a huge effort. The amount of sweat that goes into it is remarkable.
Is working in TV different?
My first TV series, Line of Fire (2003-2004), was almost like being an independent filmmaker; ABC gave us a tremendous amount of creative freedom. Commander in Chief (2005-2006) was produced under a somewhat different administration, at the studio and at the network, and the reins seemed tightened. TV is far more controllingâ€”youâ€™re not excused from following a certain process. I made one studio film, The Last Castle (2001), that was also a controlling situation, but having Robert Redford on the job with you affords you a certain amount of freedom.
Brian Goodman met Mark Ruffalo on the set of The Last Castle.
Brian, who I later used on Line of Fire, gave Mark the screenplay of What Doesnâ€™t Kill You on the set of that film. Brian spent years on movie sets, becoming cognizant of the work of the director, and directed a couple of shorts. It was Marc Frydmanâ€™s idea to have Brian direct What Doesnâ€™t Kill You; it was his life story and he was the best person to get the smell and the authenticity right. Brian shot it on the actual locations, in 23 days. Itâ€™s a pretty stunning directorial debut.
Given how hard it is to get a film off the ground, why keep at writing articles that might be perceived as biting the hand that feeds you?
I canâ€™t help myself. I had a beef with Nikki Finke, who wrote something about me that was patently false. Iâ€™m amazed that bloggers can get away with these things, if indeed they can. The most dangerous part is these people who anonymously contribute comments, who can trash people however they want and lie and libel. Editors edit letters to the editor columns; they know they canâ€™t print certain material without evidence. Freedom of speech doesnâ€™t allow you to defame somebody. One of these days, sooner rather than later, a blogger is going to be held accountable for what he or she allows to be posted in the comments. And thatâ€™s going to be a revolution in Internet â€œjournalism.â€
If thereâ€™s been any negativity of what I wrote about The Reader, itâ€™s all been behind my back. As an Israeli Jew, I take very seriously movies that dare to walk the ground of the Holocaust, and all Marc (whose grandmother survived Auschwitz) and myself ask is that they be accurate. My teenage son and daughter watched The Reader and if they didnâ€™t have me to tell them that this and that moment was historically bullshit they would believe it. Itâ€™s brilliantly made, and in an empirical sense Kate Winslet deserved the Oscar, but the film itself is negligent.
The Boy in Striped Pajamas is even more egregiousâ€”a movie that has two children sitting across a camp fence and talking to one another, as if this were actually possible, feeds into Holocaust denial. It suggests that it wasnâ€™t so bad for children in the camps, who in reality never made it that far, as they were mostly taken from the trains and immediately executed. Those that did make it worked in munitionsâ€”their small fingers were an assetâ€”and werenâ€™t carrying wheelbarrows around like the kid in the movie. That was hard for me, as I love its star, Vera. Sheâ€™s extremely dear to me.
Back to politics: Weâ€™re at the first 100 days. Your thoughts?
Iâ€™m very impressed with Obama. Heâ€™s a cool cookie who seems confident and is inspiring not just the country but the entire world. Iâ€™m seeing some glimmers of hope in my stock portfolio, which suggests that maybe he has the answer, or is at least taking us in a different direction from where we got into such vast trouble before.
He was a year ahead of me in my high school, so I had a certain affection for him from the start. I first met him a couple of years ago. He knew my name, and as he shook my hand he said, â€œRod Lurieâ€¦I want to tell you something. Jeff Bridges was the best movie president ever.â€ I said, â€œYou have my vote.â€
And thatâ€™s a good way to end.