Filmmaker Rod Lurie on Straw Dogs, His Critics and Sam Peckinpah: 'I'm Certainly More Optimistic'

strawdogspic630.jpgAs soon as he took the reins on this week's remake of Sam Peckinpah's brutal 1971 classic Straw Dogs, writer-director Rod Lurie knew the haters would come in droves. "From the minute we announced it everybody was on my ass in the blogosphere, telling me that I couldn't carry his jockstrap and I'll never be Sam Peckinpah," Lurie told Movieline on the eve of his film's release. But with his updated take on the Peckinpah film, which transplants the violent tale to the American South and re-envisions protagonists David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) as a Hollywood couple fighting off fire and brimstone-raised good ol' boys, Lurie was never attempting to mimic Peckinpah at all -- in fact, he was doing just the opposite.

Lurie's Straw Dogs pays homage to Peckinpah's film (itself adapted from Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm) in many ways, but the former journalist-turned-filmmaker has a vastly different view of the world and of the psyche of his pushed-to-the-brink hero. "I think Peckinpah was essentially a pessimist about man," Lurie explained, "and if you read his interviews around the time of Straw Dogs it's very depressing to read what he has to say about humankind. I'm certainly more optimistic. I think that at the very least, we can be saved by our parents and saved by the society around us. It just depends on how those entities behave."

Much changed, too, is Lurie's version of Amy Sumner, portrayed by Susan George in the original film. Bosworth's Amy is a different creature -- a native of the fictional small Mississippi town who at once rejects and seems to crave the kind of masculine ideal she grew up surrounded by. It's Amy, not David, who ultimately understands the gravity of what transpires when frictions give way to explosive, destructive violence. "The most dramatic thing that I wanted to change was in the portrayal of women in general in this film," said Lurie. "As great a filmmaker as [Peckinpah] is, we have a very different outlook on life and on women."

Read on for Movieline's in-depth (and spoiler-free) conversation with Lurie -- a former Movieline contributor -- about his version of Straw Dogs, the inevitable comparisons to Peckinpah and his 1971 film, dealing with hecklers in the blogosphere, and the agony and ecstasy of reading reviews.

This is an interesting return to the fold for you, in a way.

Yeah! I loved working for Movieline back in the day. It was really great, and there was never an article I wrote where they didn't say "Don't forget to be irreverent!" It was really great. I had to stop writing when I started making films, but those were really great days. I was writing for Movieline and Premiere at the same time, and they were just such wonderful outlets.

It's a shame that the era of the print movie magazine is over. You were there in the heyday!

There were such great magazine writers. I remember it would take me days to get through Vanity Fair, Esquire, Movieline, Premiere, GQ, and now Movieline is not in print anymore, nor is Premiere, and in those other magazines I will nitpick the articles I read.

Jumping into Straw Dogs -- I sat for an hour after watching it just talking about the film, it's so thought-provoking.

Thank you, Jen. I've had more than one person tell me that they felt like they needed a drink after seeing the movie, and you're right: It is designed for people to talk about the film. It is definitely a genre picture, and it's definitely a thriller, and it's definitely an audience-pleasing film, but that's not the kind of film I solely want to make. I do want to make movies that will get people talking, because it was made with that intent.

Movies like the original Straw Dogs and other films from the '70s in particular don't really get made anymore. Do you feel like this was a way to reintroduce that kind of filmmaking to modern audiences?

I'll be straightforward with you: I think this is not that kind of film. I love films from the '70s and I've made movies like The Contender and Nothing But the Truth, which were meant to evoke that feeling. But this was one of my attempts to make a film that I think has the speed and the energy of 2011. I will say that I do think that the slow burn element of the film is evocative of those films, and I think that the audience is rewarded for getting to know the characters by caring about them and caring what happens in that siege at the end. But almost every filmmaker I know and every filmmaker I meet says, "I want to make a movie like the ones from the '70s." Every single one. Maybe our movie is more like movies from the '60s; I told my DP that I wanted it to look like the rich movies from the '60s, like Cool Hand Luke or The Professionals.

The kinds of themes being discussed, the kind of story and how challenging it is though -- that's of a tradition from 1970s moviemaking that is, sadly, something we don't get very often anymore.

You're right -- I see your point, although last year I was very happy to see how dramas like Black Swan or The Social Network were doing so well, and they did deal with stuff that was uncomfortable and dealt with protagonists that weren't necessarily fully heroic. And it is a difficult thing, A) to make those films and B) to debate them afterward. You know, sometimes I wish I had it in me to take on a straight-on studio job, a romantic comedy with wonderful actors like, you know, you make a movie with the wonderful Rachel McAdams and the fantastic Jake Gyllenhaal. A comedy. And both of those actors have certainly done great in independent work. I would love to make a movie at some point that I can sort of just ride into the sunset with. Instead, I've always made life a little difficult for myself. And now is no different.

Really, how so?

Well, you're remaking a movie from an iconic director and from the minute we announced it everybody was on my ass in the blogosphere, telling me that I couldn't carry his jockstrap and I'll never be Sam Peckinpah...

Do you usually read all of that stuff on the Internet?

Well, I don't read all of it, but I read what I find. I'd like to be able not to. I have several peers who never look at a word, and I'd really like to get to that point. At first it sort of just infuriated me, and now it just sometimes makes me scratch my head a little bit. I suppose that the most unnerving thing is that so many of the people that write about film on the Internet are anonymous, so they're more like hecklers than actual critics, or people writing on the bathroom wall. It's very easy to be anonymous.

Remaking a film like Straw Dogs immediately invites scrutiny, but on top of that you change the film's setting, in a significant way, by transplanting the story from rural England to the American South. The way that it plays out it becomes a red state/blue state-divided film. Was that the intent?

I certainly never intended for the film to send any political message about a conservative-liberal issue, and I do not see this film as a red state/blue state film at all. The reason why I set it in the South is because to me, it was a way of creating the best fish-out-of-water situation that I could find for my lead character. I wanted to find two extremes in lifestyles, and it seemed to me that taking somebody from an intellectual world and planting him into a world that is almost purely physical made sense. Now, some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time have come out of the South. However, this is a community where everything about it is geared towards violence: football, hunting, preachers talking about a God that will smite you from the earth if you behave badly. It's the principal difference, I think, between the two films in my opinion. Peckinpah was making a movie about a man, and men in general, who are biologically-inclined to violence. My movie seems to be stating that violence is conditioned from how you grow up and where you live.

When David fights at the end of our film, he is fighting like the people of Stalingrad did -- fighting with his wits and because he has to. It's not part of an internal rage, which is how Peckinpah represented it. It's not a criticism of Peckinpah. I'm just coming at it from a different approach, which is the very reason [for making the film]. When people say, "Why the need to remake Straw Dogs?" Well, there's no need, but I did have a purpose, and the purpose was to experiment and see if I could put a different sociological spin on the exact same story.

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  • Gordon Winslow says:

    "However, this is a community where everything about it is geared towards violence: football, hunting, preachers talking about a God that will smite you from the earth if you behave badly."
    Dear Southerners: This is what Hollywood thinks of you. They'll happily take your money, though.

  • George Miller says:

    And yet the crime rate in these small Southern communities is drastically lower per capita than their more "intelligent" counterparts in California and New York.

  • Alice says:

    To Your Killer: Chill. Nobody that's actually a conservative talks like that.
    Regarding Lurie's comments: Seriously!?! Hunting and football? Contained safe sports with long traditions? Yeah, I'll take that over the gang violence in LA and New York any day. It's not just that you have no idea what you're talking about. It's that you have NO IDEA you have no idea what you're talking about.

  • CharlieDon'tSurf says:

    Another dogpile the south movie? Really...? Now, there's an original idea. I'm sure the hero(s) will be good looking, intelligent, well reasoned and rational. The villians will be ugly, possibly toothless, barely intelligent, very violent and brutish.
    More like Straw Men for Straw Dogs.

  • aquarius1271 says:

    Lurie's Nothing But the Truth was one of the most brilliant political films of all time in my opinion. Just remembering the lenghty final monologue by Alan Alda about how vital freedom of expression is for the existence of democracy and the smallest concession made to it starts the undermine the very notion of freedom in general gives me boosebumps. He is definitely an intelligent filmmaker I follow closely.

  • Erik North says:

    Beyond the unfortunate stereotypes of Southerners that Lurie seems to indulge in, much to my dismay, I think the problem I have with his take on STRAW DOGS is that he dismisses a lot of inconvenient truths about the thin line between human and animalistic behavior that Peckinpah had raised. He had always been adamant about Man's penchant for violent behavior, and how we have to learn to control it if we expect to survive as a species. This isn't a left-vs.-right political issue, it goes to the very heart of humanity itself, and I think this is a point that Lurie totally dismisses to the partial detriment of this film, not to mention besmirching Peckinpah with a right-wing political tag that, if you read anything about "Bloody Sam", was not very accurate.

  • Eric says:

    Assuming that's a pic of Lurie, isn't he a little old to be hoping that his parents will save him? Or for that matter, leaving it to them (nameless entities in society) to save him?