EXCL: Resurrecting the Champ with Rod Lurie

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Rod Lurie isn’t the only filmmaker to come from the world of entertainment journalism or film criticism, but for some reason, he’s one who always seems to have to live that past down. With his new movie Resurrecting the Champ, he has found a way to embrace his journalistic past by telling the story of Denver sports reporter Erik Kernen Jr. (Josh Hartnett) who discovers one of the biggest stories of his career when he meets an eccentric homeless man called The Champ (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who may indeed be former heavyweight contender Battling Bob Satterfield. The movie is based on the Pulitzer-nominated Los Angeles Times article by J.R. Moehringer, but Lurie’s movie is more about the man behind the article and his relationship with his son. It also took Lurie nearly ten years to make the movie, as we learned during this extensive phone interview:

ComingSoon.net: I saw the movie back at Sundance. I don’t know too much about the movie’s origins, but when I spoke to Josh Hartnett a few weeks ago, he said it was kicking around for a while before you finally got it made.
Rod Lurie: It’s been in the works for ten years. The article was written in 1997. Back then, I was a journalist and a film critic and I didn’t have any film credentials at all, but I went to Mike Medavoy, who controlled it, to try to see if I could write the screenplay, and he wouldn’t hire me. He hired Allison Burnett (a man) and then two years later, I guess they couldn’t get that movie off the ground so they needed another screenplay, and they hired Michael Bortman and not me. Then two years later, they couldn’t get it off the ground, so they hired Chris Gerolmo (who wrote “Mississipi Burning”) and not me. What happened was that they gave me Chris’ screenplay, which is excellent. We wanted to shoot that and that’s when I first went to Josh Hartnett. That was like four years ago. At the time, Morgan Freeman was playing the Champ. Morgan, Josh and I, we all met at the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City and for some reason, schedules didn’t work and Josh felt that the might be too young for the role. It was completely different. I think there are three or four scenes in the current version that Chris wrote.

CS: This was all after “The Last Castle” though, right?
Lurie: Yeah, at this point we’re in 2003, so Sherry Lansing (former Paramount president) said she wanted a complete rewrite of the screenplay, and because of all the previous versions dealt with a journalist and his father and I thought it would be much more interesting to do a story about a journalist and his little boy, and the need for telling the truth to your children. She loved that idea, so Paramount commissioned me to do a rewrite, so I took elements from Michael’s screenplay, Allison’s screenplay and Chris’ screenplay and my own and combined them to make this screenplay. It truly was a collaborative effort from people who never met one another.

CS: Having written your own screenplays, it must have been difficult to meld three different screenplays into some cohesive form.
Lurie: I liked a lot of Michael and Allison and Chris’ scenes. Almost everything dealing with the boy, with exception of one or two scenes, is my own, and I consider that really the heart of the film, what the film is really about in the end. It wasn’t that difficult. Remember that it came from underlying material, from the magazine article. The Champ is very much how that guy really was.

CS: Is he dead now?
Lurie: We have no idea where he is. No one’s reported that yet, but we tried finding him. We can’t find him, but we can’t find an obituaries or death certificates either, so we have no idea whether the guy is dead or alive or where the f*ck he is. None of us know. When they originally optioned the story in 1997, Medavoy sent Brad Fischer, a person who worked for him, down to the slums of Orange County to find him and they did, and he turned over the rights to his life story on a piece of paper in exchange for a donation to his church. That’s my belief. We don’t know where he is, and that’s the reason why we changed his name, because there were some liberties in the current screenplay. I’ll tell you this: Josh is in physical resemblance and energy very much like J. R. Moehringer, upon who this movie is based. J.R.’s about ten years older than him, but when he wrote this, he was very Josh-like. In real life, J.R. is single and happy-go-lucky and really sort of like Josh, a handsome guy on the town, and J.R. dates movie and TV stars also. There are a lot of similarities.

CS: I’ve been trying to find J.R.’s original article. Josh mentioned it was online somewhere, but I’ve had no luck finding it. I wasn’t sure if it’s something people should read or know about before seeing your movie or not.
Lurie: It’s quite different at this point. The characterization of the Champ is quite accurate, and there were some unsavory things about the Champ that we didn’t include in the movie, because we wanted him to be a tragic hero, as opposed to a guy who had some real f*cking issues that were really heavy duty. We didn’t include those things, but J.R. asked to have his name changed. He loves the movie and loves the screenplay, but he doesn’t want people to think that he published the story (as it is in the movie).

CS: Did you know J.R. back in your days as a journalist?
Lurie: I didn’t, but when I auditioned to write the screenplay, they had me meet with J.R. I had four meetings and I came very close to writing the original draft. I didn’t, but one of those meetings was meeting with J.R. in Kate Mandolini’s Restaurant. I thought we got along really great, but I didn’t really know him. That article was nominated for the Pulitzer, and you know what? There was a book called “The 100 Greatest Sports Articles of the Century” and that’s one of them, so if you want to read it, you can find it in that book perhaps.

CS: I was really impressed with Josh’s performance in this movie and the types of roles he’s been playing in the past few years. The scenes in this movie between him and Dakota as his son were amazing.
Lurie: They’re quite beautiful, aren’t they? Working with a child is very difficult. Dakota’s six years old, and he became so comfortable with Josh that he became a little goofy sometimes during the shooting. Sometimes, Josh will take like a dramatic pause during a line of dialogue and Dakota misinterprets this as forgetting his line, so Dakota whispers his line to him. I’ll tell you a little story. Josh really wanted to help Dakota as much as possible, and before shooting began, we all sat and watched “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which I think is the real antecedent of this film, as much as it can be. Dakota was in the room on a couch and Josh was in the back of the room. After we watched the film, we watched a documentary, which was “The Making of Kramer vs. Kramer.” Dustin Hoffman starts talking about how he essentially became a surrogate father to the boy–the actor’s name was Justin Henry–before shooting began. As Hoffman is talking about how that helped Justin’s performance, Josh got up out of his chair, moved to the couch, ruffled Dakota’s hair, gave him a hug and he became sort of his surrogate Dad. He was just committed to helping Dakota give a performance, and I think Josh might have given Dakota more direction than I did on the film. I remember Josh, particularly in the scene with John Elway, he was guiding Dakota’s performance, and it was sort of lovely to see. Josh has a real attention to the detail of the actors around him as well. He’s a very generous guy. He likes to cut down his lines, not to increase them.

CS: It really sounds like this project was one of those things where all the elements just came together really well.
Lurie: Yeah, they really coalesced nicely. I’ve been in love with this project since 1997 and was shunned from it for many years until when it really looked like it was at death’s door, my agent called up Mike and said, “You know what? Rod still wants to do this. Can we give it to him to try and get it greenlit and see what we can do?” They gave me an opportunity. It didn’t work at Paramount, because Paramount really wanted us to go for gigantic names like Tom Cruise or DiCaprio or George Clooney. That just isn’t in the cards for a movie this small. Among other reasons, [Erik] is not the flashier role. Dustin Hoffman wins the Academy award for “Rain Man” not Tom Cruise who arguably had the more arced character. In this movie, the movie star is really playing an ordinary guy, who has a small but very beautiful arc, but it’s not the big ass flashy role. Josh wasn’t concerned about that. For Josh, this almost was a flashy role, because he’s never played that is this grounded, somebody is married and somebody that’s a dad. I think if you look at “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Dustin Hoffman wins his first Academy Award for playing outside of his sweet spot, which is these larger than life, Ratzo Rizzo, Lenny Bruce, Benjamin Braddock type characters. I think the sheer everyman like quality to this character was a challenge to Josh, because Josh isn’t an everyman, whether he likes to think it or not.

CS: I always hear about these projects that take ten years to make that turn out great, and maybe you would have been the perfect person to write and make the movie back then. Do you think that the time and the movies you made in between helped you to make this a better movie than it might have been if you wrote it ten years ago?
Lurie: It gave me the credibility to be able to make this film, and also gave me the credibility to get this cast. Like I said, Morgan was the producer of this movie for I want to say six to seven years, and it simply became a scheduling conflict. Back in 1997, Sam would have been too young even to have worn the aging make-up, but this time, when Morgan’s agents told us that he couldn’t commit to the film because of a potential scheduling conflict, at that point, we had to make our film and we called Sam, who now could appropriately play the role. We called Sam and that was on Friday night, and on Monday, he was in.

CS: When I spoke to Craig Brewer. who worked with Sam in “Black Snake Moan”, he said that Sam just had to grow his hair out and he looks older, so did he still have to put on a lot of make-up to play the older Champ?
Lurie: Yeah, yeah… there’s a guy named Al Apone, and he did an amazing job and seamlessly aged him by 15 or 16 years. You know, Sam is a ready-made product. When you hire Sam Jackson, he’ll figure out the character and he’ll figure out the character’s look and he’ll provide it to you. With Sam Jackson, you basically yell “action”, you go get a sandwich and you come back and yell “cut.” With Josh, it’s a different story. You’ve never met a young man more obsessed with really trying to reach the highest levels possible of acting and being deathly concerned with it. He wanted to make sure that there aren’t false beats and sort of beating the sh*t out of himself on a 24-hour-a-day basis. One of the things I was able to help him with was that really, his director was also his technical advisor on the film. I had that job as a reporter, and I also was a dad of a young boy, so I was able to really talk to him on a really personal level. One thing that Josh is very good at is exploiting the positives of the directors he’s working with or finding what will help him the best. In the case of this movie, it was exploiting my own experiences as a journalist.

CS: It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve heard others talk about this movie and about Sam’s role. I love Sam, but I do walk away from the movie thinking more highly of Josh.
Lurie: I’m very glad that you do, because Josh has never been better in a film. This film is a major artistic stepping stone from him, but also when “Rain Man” came about, everybody was talking about Dustin, and not about Tom. By definition, Dustin’s character has got no arc, and by definition, the Champ has very little arc because he’s an old man. He is who he is, he’s not going to change, and when he does change, it may be a little too late.

CS: Going back to my earlier question, if you made the film ten years ago, do you think it would be a very different beast?
Lurie: It would have been very different because it would have been different actors. It probably would not have had the little kid in it, because as we were talking about the film, we were coming from the experience of having a little boy and watching him grow up and seeing the effect of how I raised him. This movie is a cautionary tale about how you should deal with your very young children. In 1997, my boy was only 7 years old, so I was right in the midst of where Josh’s character was with Josh. I now look back at the experience of raising my son and what I would do differently and what I would do the same, and import it into this film. Really the big difference is that it would not have been a father and son film. It would have been a son and his father film. As a matter of fact, in all the previous drafts of the screenplay, Josh’s father is a major character that’s alive and well and would have been the third principle actor in the film.

CS: Do you think maybe Alan Alda took over the father figure aspect a little bit?
Lurie: Yeah, to a certain degree. Isn’t Alan wonderful?

CS: Absolutely, and I really loved what he said about journalism at the movie premiere. I wish I could find my tape of that.
Lurie: He was talking about Judith Miller, and it’s ironic, because my next film, which Alan is going to be in, is a roman à clef of the Judith Miller story about Valerie Plane. Our next film is all about the First Amendment and the protections of the First Amendment. He’s going to play a First Amendment attorney modeled a little bit after Floyd Abrams, the famous attorney.

CS: Considering the merging of the scripts you mentinoed, I’m surprised how well the movie flows. Did you already have the structure worked out before going into editing or did some of that change, too?
Lurie: Yeah, we followed the screenplay pretty well. I cut five scenes out of the film I think, and they were all for issues of pace, and some of them dealt with the relationship between Josh and his wife that in the end, went off theme, so we took them out. I often found that my favorite scene that I shoot is often one that I cut out, like in “The Last Castle” and “The Contender,” if you look at the deleted scenes, some of the best scenes never made it into the film. They’re pearls, but they didn’t fit on the string. We had to dump a couple of scenes. The last conversation I ever had with my friend Jim Gandolfini was telling him that I had to cut out that he really loved, and I haven’t spoken to him since. The actors sometimes get depressed over those things.

CS: Considering the work you put into merging the scripts and embellishing the story, why didn’t you take a writing credit yourself?
Lurie: Well, I didn’t get it. I mean, we arbitrated for it. I don’t ever know how to discuss this without appearing too petty, but it’s very upsetting, because there are three rules that are unwritten but very real: One is the writer’s guild—and this needs to be revamped. They really only give two writers credit or a writing team. The second is that the first writer almost always gets credit, the guy who had the blank page. And the last one, and the most unfair one I think, is that the directors are almost always shut out, and that’s because they feel that the director has the power to impose his will on a film and that’s not fair. My feeling is f*ck what’s fair. There is what’s fair and what’s right and it could be that a director imposes himself on a project, but you know what? If that’s what the movie ends up being, then that’s what it is, and I believe the writing credits should simply reflect the truth. The two guys who have writing credit on the film, deserve it. They’re fantastic writers and their stuff in the film is really artful and beautiful, and I would object to them not having a writing credit on this film. They’re really good, but what the movie’s trying to say comes from my own life experiences and my own heart, so it was a little disappointing not to have a writing credit. But you know what? It is what it is, and my name’s up there enough. I’m in the movie and I wrote the end song,

CS: I would think that being a writer yourself, you’d have a good relationship with the WGA.
Lurie: But you know what? The other guys have good relationships, too, and they deserve credit. Once I was the writer and not the first guy–and they’re only going give it to two people–we were sort of doomed to start.

CS: Maybe they should think about making a Filmmakers Guild for writer-directors.
Lurie: Well, that’s the thing. Writer-directors are also members of the Writers Guild. It was a bummer, but I’ll live with it. The next film I wrote by myself and no one’s touching it.

CS: Did the movie change at all since its Sundance premiere?
Lurie: Yes, we took out two scenes. For example, there’s a scene that you saw at Sundance which was Kathryn Morris and Josh Harnett sitting on the stoop talking about the article he’s just written, and I took it out, because at that point, I think the audience wants to see the article published already, and we didn’t need another lecture from his wife to him. I think it also helped her character a little bit, too, and I took out a scene of him driving and looking for Champ. When you watch the movie with an audience, you can feel when the balloon is being inflated and when it’s being deflated. It was up and down on the film, and now I think it’s just a balloon filling and filling and filling.

CS: What are you doing next? You mentioned a movie about Judith Miller?
Lurie: It’s called “Nothing but the Truth.” It’s not the Judith Miller thing. It uses that incident and I was inspired by that incident to write this article about a woman who is going to protect a source. It stars Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Alan Alda and Edie Falco, and we start shooting in the fall, and we’re stoked, man.

CS: And you’re also working on a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”? How did that come about?
Lurie: I’m doing that in the spring of next year. I’m writing it right now. My partner Marc Frydman came up with the idea to acquire the rights, which very quietly were floating around somewhere and we just snatched it up, because it’s sort of a classic film in the sense that it’s infamous. It’s a good, not great, film by a great director, and we thought if we modernized it and Americanized it, it’s rife for a remake. We just went for it. I’m writing it and we’ll cast it, and hopefully start shooting in May of next year. It’s an interesting film, isn’t it? It was pretty much killed by a two-second moment on screen where she’s being raped and she smiles. That was the end of that movie. You can be certain that she’s not going to be smiling in the rape in my film.

CS: I’m always curious about how filmmakers approach remakes and whether they feel the need to fix things that might not have worked in the original movies or not.
Lurie: Yeah, I mean that’s really something. I was a critic for years, and as I did and you do now, very often our reviews will say, “Well, if he had done this, it would have been a better film.” I look at “Straw Dogs” as a very imperfect movie. It’s a little bit slow and its themes are a little bit murky. There are some amazing moments and it’s a very satisfying movie, but you sort of look at what can be improved upon now. It may seem very arrogant to say, “We can improve upon Peckinpah.” I can never improve upon the best of Peckinpah. I would never remake “The Wild Bunch” but this is a film that I think he was a little lazy on, but it’s a fascinating story, and what I really want to do is make a movie about what it means to be a bully, and how easy it is to become a bully, and how decency is defined I think by not being a bully when you have the opportunity to be one.

CS: I’ve always wondered why studios don’t show movies to film critics earlier and get some sort of feedback that might help the movies be better instead of hiding it until the very last minute like they do?
Lurie: You mean so that maybe we can make changes to the movie?

CS: I’m not sure I’d go that far, but at least to get an intelligent and informed opinion from people who see a lot of movies, to know what works or doesn’t from a viewer’s standpoint. Just like getting notes from a producer, but from someone not associated with the making of the film.
Lurie: As you know, I obviously have a lot of friends who are critics, and I showed this movie to a couple of critics in the editing room. My assumption was that those who were really friend friends would excuse themselves from reviewing it, but I wanted to get a critic’s point of view from a cut that I had. And I did make changes, because when I was a critic, I didn’t have a lot of self-respect. I didn’t think I was as good a writer or as profound a thinker in terms of critical analysis for films, so I really respected those that I thought were at the top of their game at the time, like Manohla Dargis or Ken Turan or Anthony Lane. When these folks make comments about my films, I take them very, very seriously, because I really respect them. I think there is definite value in showing the movie at an early stage sometimes.

CS: Film criticism has also changed a lot since you were in the game. Do you still like to read reviews of your movies?
Lurie: I do, because first of all, I can learn from some of the reviews. On “The Contender,” the reviews there were very interesting because if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, my guess is that it’s going to be like 75% positive, and if you go to the negative ones, so many of them attack the film on a political level, like the arch-conservative critics. Right wing publications really went after the movie, and religious publications really just gave me a good little prison f*cking, but on “The Last Castle” and on my TV shows, I read the reviews and sometimes the criticisms are absolutely correct, and you may as well go with them. Also being a critic, I realized that you can’t take it personally. So many times, I wrote to amuse myself rather than to do a real, thoughtful analysis, and I know a lot of these guys are the same way that they can be very dismissive. However, when they like the movie, I always buy it!

Resurrecting the Champ opens nationwide on Friday, August 24. Also check out our interview with Josh Hartnett.