Director Rod Lurie is crouched at the monitors as if he’s watching a football game that only has a few seconds left of play and the chance of a major upset. He’s that excited about the performances he’s getting from his cast in what might seem like a fairly innocuous scene. That is, if hanging an open bear trap on a wall is something normal people in Southern Mississippi do on a regular basis. It’s an important scene with many different layers, the main one being that it’s one of the few scenes in Lurie’s upcoming remake of Sam Peckinpah’s gory and controversial 1971 revenge thriller Straw Dogs that’s taken directly from the original.
Lurie is best known for strong character-driven dramas like the Oscar-nominated The Contender and his last two movies Resurrecting the Champ and Nothing But the Truth – the latter suffering one of the greatest injustices in the history of film distribution. The writer/director/producer’s most commercial film might have been 2001′s The Last Castle starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, and Mark Ruffalo, a movie set within a military prison that suffered from the fact its politics flew in the face of the country’s post 9/11 mindset. Now, he’s taken on the rather unenviable task of remaking a movie few people, whether they loved or loathed the original, feel should be remade, which is partially why ComingSoon.net felt it was as much our responsibility as it was an honor to travel down to Shreveport, Louisiana to visit the set of the movie and see for ourselves how Lurie’s version was going to differ (or be the same) and why it was indeed a worthwhile endeavor to retell this story in a way modern audiences might relate.
Times certainly have changed in the forty years since Peckinpah’s movie, especially in this country, which was less than a year into a new President’s term at the time we were on set. There are just as many themes being explored in Lurie’s movie as there were in Peckinpah’s, but with the passage of time and the amount of thought Lurie puts into everything he does, one can expect that there will be even more layers.
A big point of discussion will be how the story has been fairly effortlessly moved from Northern England where Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s dysfunctional couple are besieged by locals to the American South with Shreveport filling in for Mississippi. In this movie, David Summers is a screenwriter visiting his wife’s family home to work on a screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad, a similar siege of many against few where the latter faced insurmountable odds but won.
Lurie admits both he and Marsden knew the decision to cast the fresh-faced 34-year-old actor, best known as the mutant Cyclops in three “X-Men” movies as David, would be a controversial one. After all, Marsden looks and acts nothing like Dustin Hoffman, the star of the original. Similarly, casting Kate Bosworth, who played Lois Lane (and Marsden’s wife) in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, in the role played by Susan George would get a lot of people talking. Lurie also knew it would be hard to get any actress to put herself through what Amy Sumner would have to endure over the course of the movie, particularly a famous rape scene that’s been discussed and over-discussed to the point where everyone involved in the movie is likely to be asked about it for the rest of their careers. Realizing this, Lurie met with Susan George to find out how she prepared to shoot the scene in the original movie.
The scene being filmed that day was far less intense with Marsden (wearing glasses) walking into the Sumner living room to where four hired hands are assessing a bear trap they’ve found that he wants to mount on the wall. David’s slender blonde wife Amy, played by Bosworth, walks in wearing a white shirt showing off her midriff and short pants, and offers the boys a beer then calls out for their cat “Flutey” before putting down a bowl of milk. Seems harmless and friendly enough, right? Maybe not if you realize that David and Amy’s cat had been found hanging in the closet earlier, and this is her strategy to get a reaction out of those who may be responsible.
The four men are the proverbial “Straw Dogs” – the gang of four who will lay siege to the Sumner’s home in the last act of the movie, and among them is Alexander Skarsgard, who many think is on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars thanks to his turn as Eric on HBO’s “True Blood.” He plays Charlie, Amy’s high school boyfriend who was a football star but who sees her back in town with this Hollywood guy as her husband, who he doesn’t see as a challenge for him to try and win her back. The other three guys in the group are Billy Lush’s Chris, Rhys Coiro’s Norman and Drew Powell’s Bic, all of whom we’d be able to spend more time talking to later on. David has hired them to fix the roofing on the old house, but he ends up firing them when they start leering at Amy.
In fact, as Amy walks in with the beer in this scene, it’s clear a few of the guys are checking her out, but David is still trying to fit in and be friendly with the locals, so when they invite him to join them on a hunting trip, his response is essentially, “When in Rome…” The guys continue to work on opening up the bear trap, the prop being the perfect analogy for how the tension is being created for the violence that’s to come after David falls afoul of these young men.
During a break between set-ups, we had a chance to talk briefly to Marsden and Bosworth, who already had built a strong chemistry having worked together before with Marsden keeping the interview light with his jokes.
ComingSoon.net: You two have worked together before, and the original movie is pretty controversial, so can you talk about the concerns when you first came onto this?
James Marsden: Kate came on after I did, and I just knew that with the history of this film, there was a safety in numbers thing for me. Just where we had to go with this. I was just thinking who would be great for the role, and I always thought would be great anyway, but just to have some sort of background we’ve had together, to be comfortable with each other. I wrote her an Email basically begging her to be in this film. So that was important to me, to have someone in the role opposite of David that you feel comfortable with and that I felt could challenge me. As if there weren’t enough challenges already. We were super-comfortable with each other when were stuck in Sydney for 9 months…
Kate Bosworth: Yeah, got to know each other really well.
Marsden: So we change gears and do something completely different. (To Bosworth, pretending to be a journalist) “Other than him begging you to come, what attracted you to the role?”
Bosworth: How can you say “no” to him? (laughs) I guess I’ve always been attracted to the unknown, and anything that seems challenging to me, so I guess there’s this equal separation in myself, there’s fear and exhilaration when I’m faced with something that’s challenging and unknown. This is certainly that, and knowing that Rod is helming this film is incredibly exciting. I’ve never been on a set where someone’s been so prepared, and when I sat down with him just to talk about the film and the character and the relationships between the characters, I guess it’s just this immediate thing when you sit own with a visionary knowing that they’re going to deliver. It was just immediate between me and Rod. The cast on this film was really important to me as well, because so much of it is about the tension between characters.
Marsden: Totally, and it hinges on that. We have our work cut out for ourselves on this one obviously, so it’s really important to me, too, who this other person is. We keep hearing that Dustin Hoffman and Susan George lived together for two weeks before they shot. I put a lot of value in that, to whatever degree in my power would allow. Rod was really open to listening to my ideas about casting. I never felt like I was in a place to have ideas about casting, but when he asked, I thought, “Here is who I see, here is who I think will be great.” (to Kate) You were brought up even before I opened my mouth, it was one of the things that Clint Culpepper and Rod were completely in harmony with is you for this role. So I just went, “Absolutely.”
Bosworth: To know each other so well and to have that foundation is great, because…
Marsden: It’s always difficult to be angry at you.
CS: Were you familiar with the original movie? How did you feel about it being remade?
Marsden: No, I didn’t watch it at all, I’m not familiar with it. I’m kidding. (laughter) I’ve seen the film many, many times, and it will either be revealed as the smartest or dumbest move I’ve ever made in my career (laughs) because obviously Hoffman is brilliant in the movie, and Peckinpah is a tough game. I couldn’t not watch it and take notes from it, and a lot of ways it was a great template to be able to see what worked about the film and maybe there’s some areas that didn’t necessarily work that could be improved upon. I know that’s largely Rod’s responsibility, but it’s ours as well. I saw the film as an incredible challenge for me, still is, and it’s finding a way to take a certain amount of creative license and make it your own but also acknowledging the brilliance of the original.
CS: The vast majority of the under-40 crowd probably has never heard of the movie, let alone seen it.
Marsden: We’re banking on that. (laughs) I’m basically aping Hoffman in this movie, so don’t tell them that this is a remake. (laughter)
After spending some time on set, we were driven out to the middle of nowhere, a desolate, swampy area surrounded by ponds where the production had built an entire house and barn in the middle of the swamplands for the siege. What was interesting about this house was that it was modified from an old Civil War fortress that housed troops, and it was a rugged-looking building that was primarily made of stone. You couldn’t tell from the picture, but this building was actually an empty shell, but when we walked around inside, we saw that they had dressed-up only one of the rooms, that being a bathroom with a window that overlooks the garage so that Bosworth’s character could see the men outside leering at her when she gets out of the shower.
When we got there, they had already filmed a lot of the siege with Charlie’s Ford pickup truck being strategically embedded into the side of the house. The barn already showed signs of destruction, as had David’s Jaguar, which apparently had been set on fire.
The magic of the movie would have to come in editing, cutting between the house exteriors and the interiors which were being shot on the soundstages miles away. In between takes, we were able to walk around the latter, which was a detailed recreation of Amy’s childhood home, complete with childhood pictures of Kate on the mantle. The set decorator had done a fantastic job filling the house with memorabilia and antiques to make it obvious that the owner of this house was old.
Lurie will easily share from the vast well of knowledge he amassed while researching the original movie, and he gave up his entire one-hour lunch break to talk to us along with his producing partner Marc Frydman. We hope to run this entire interview soon, but here are some of the highlights:
ComingSoon: Why “Straw Dogs” and who first came up with the idea to remake it?
Rod Lurie: He said it first.
Marc Frydman: We have a production company, so we work every day, and we always talk about movies, and one day, we were thinking about what would be a great remake, and we had a list of movies and “Straw Dogs” is a great title and there’s kind of an aura around the movie, but it’s a very flawed movie, and we thought it would be the perfect target for a remake. Yet it had something very specific about it in that it was not set up in the US, it was set up in Northeastern England, and that made it very foreign to the American audience. It made it a little difficult to access for American audience. That was an angle that I thought made it a very good potential remake.
Lurie: Mark found it, it was at ABC Films, which was then owned by Disney, and we were at Disney at the time.
Frydman: Rod had a deal at Disney, and it was produced in ’71 by a company called ABC Pictures, which was a subsidiary of ABC, they decided to go into movies and they did twenty movies, and the library was sitting there. While we were investigating the rights, we found out the remake was under auction with Harvey Weinstein and Ed Norton, so we called the guy in charge of the library and said, “Listen, when that option is running out, we’re number one on the list.”
Lurie: And please don’t tell them the option is running out. (laughter)
Frydman: And the minute it ran out, we were in. I had a check sitting on my desk for like six months for the option.
Lurie: In fact, I believe they had written a screenplay, and what Ed and Harvey wanted to do was they wanted to do the same story… By the way, it’s a Western, right?
They wanted to change the title; “Fear Itself” was the name of their screenplay. To us, the title was the most important thing about the remake, frankly. We kept the title, and then took it out into the world to see who was interested and a lot of people were. Not a difficult sale.
CS: What were some of the flaws you thought could be improved upon?
Lurie: For me, it’s not so much flaws as the fact that the movie is in many ways anachronistic to a certain degree. One of the things I don’t think you can have in a film today is to have a woman even quite as immature as that, quite as babyish as that, quite outside the realm – in a drama, in a comedy maybe. In a drama, I don’t think she’s a modern American woman, the Susan George character. I think she was perfect for a country and a world where women certainly are subservient to men, and where they’ve always simply been a man’s plaything. Peckingpah said many times after the movie was made, he had all sorts of different interviews where he said the movie was about something different. He wasn’t consistent about what he said, but one of the things he said was about how men do women, that in a way, the Hoffman character views Amy with the same level of disrespect that the thugs do. They’ll rape her physically and he’ll rape her intellectually. He makes her feel small. In fact, we have the same thing but somehow, Kate is playing more intelligently and more of a woman who will stand her ground as an individual and not be the vice-president but the co-president of the marriage itself.
The reason I personally want to be careful using the word “flaws.” Look, guys, I know what’s coming with the press with reviews. I’m not stupid. I was in this world for a long time. No matter how good a job I do, no matter what I do, there’s a bullseye on my back, there’s a bullseye on Mark’s back, there’s a bullseye on the film. It’s taking a film that some people revere it, others don’t, but everybody will say, “You can’t carry Peckinpah’s laundry bag, you can’t mess with it.” If I do exactly what Peckinpah did, then they’ll say, “It’s unoriginal.” If we put it into it our own flourishes, our own themes–which I think we have done–they’ll say that we don’t get Peckinpah. The truth is that we’re not remaking Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” we’re making “Straw Dogs.” We’re taking this story and we’re putting our own spin on it. The mere fact that I have James Marsden in it is an indication that it’s a very different film than the one that had Dustin Hoffman in it. They’re two very different kind of personalities, they’re very different kind of actors, and they play very different people.
(Rod has a lot more things to say about his movie, and we’ll run more of that interview sometime later this summer.)
Football also plays a large part in the movie, maybe because Lurie, like millions and millions of other Americans, is a fan of the sport, almost to an obsession. This town in Mississippi is a football town and Lurie shot a couple of scenes at a local football game. James Woods plays Coach Heddon, a former football coach disbarred for inappropriate behavior and after the death of his wife is now a full-on alcoholic whose only pleasure in life is their daughter Janice. In that way, the “remake,” if we’d be so bold as to use a term that’s become synonymous with pain for so many film buffs, is also about image and how one has to try to retain it while facing adversity.
With nearly forty years working as an actor, Woods is a living legend, but he is a strange choice for Lurie, who is as liberal a Democrat as you can get, because Woods is an outspoken Republican, having even appeared in David Zucker’s right-wing comedy An American Carol. We got to sit down with Woods for a hefty 45-minute interview where that politics often came to the fore.
CS: As one of the older actors, you’re probably most familiar with the original movie.
Woods: Yeah, I was surprised. You start to realize how long 20 years seems to be if you’re really young. I’m 62 and it just seems like another century to people. I was surprised because it’s such an iconic film. Don’t forget that it came out at a time when women’s images were changing. People don’t remember but that movie didn’t do as well commercially in the United States, but did phenomenally well foreign, and one of the reasons was that it was the beginning of the women’s movement and the fact she liked the quote “rape-slash-sex” scene is iffy on purpose, and he had beaten her up before he did it, and the reaction was horrific among the audiences. But Peckinpah was trying to tread on the razor’s edge on everything. He made everything more complex in that movie, the moral decisions were more complex, so everything he did was the provocative version of it.
CS: What effect did the original movie have on you?
Woods: I remember being blown away by the fact that you think things are going to be okay in a bad situation. It’s the same metaphor you have in poker. They say the most dangerous emotion you have in poker is hope. “Boy, I hope that Ace comes in the turn… but mathematically, it’s not gonna so shut up.” You hope these guys aren’t as bad as they are to hang the cat and then it’s all over. That’s the turning point, that’s probably the end of the first act. This is a big action film, and it’s just a great Friday night movie, but I was talking to Rod about it. Rod and I have different politics, but we’re very, very close friends, we really like each other, but we have the same views of what we want in life. When people have political differences and they’re good people, it’s just a matter of the approach of getting a good result for the country or for the things we believe in. We just believe in a different tactic and a different strategy, but you do have the same values in common. We talk about this a lot, and he was addressing the issue of what happens when people invade other people and they’re trying to resist and so on. I interpreted it as if you’re attacked for no reason, how are you going to defend yourself and to what degree should you do that? I feel like it’s the same situation but through a completely different lens depending on your predisposition towards human behavior.
CS: Do you think that the difference in times and how people have accepted things more will allow Americans to have a different outlook on the controversial aspects of the film?
Woods: I think they actually changed a critical scene to accommodate a newer consciousness, so what provoked people then has been removed from the story now, because no person in their right mind could imagine a woman wanting to be beaten up. It’s so preposterous, but back then the world was a little titled, and we hadn’t been enlightened in these areas, so I guess that fantasy was promoted and maybe in some parts of the world, it was still thought to be something a woman would like. Why, I can’t imagine why anyone would think that, but that’s part of an ethos or a culture that’s obviously been amended because it’s such a preposterous presumption, but it’s still controversial in terms of the extreme nature of the violence on both sides.
CS: How appropriate do you think it is for the movie to be transferred to the South from England?
Woods: I think it would seem to be appropriate to a person who judges everything from an ultra-liberal point of view which is that people who aren’t sitting around judging liberal issues are savages, rather than realizing that Republicans freed slaves. It’s always easy to pick on the Deep South until you come here and realize how gracious people are. People say to me, “What’s it like shooting in Louisiana?” I say, “I don’t know. Right now, the country is suffering economically, but if you want good manners, there’s no place to be than the Deep South.” People are so incredibly gracious and men are so gracious to women, there really is genuine Southern hospitality and people are incredibly well-mannered. I think it’s a Hollywood stereotype of the Deep South and the fact there’s such lemming politics in L.A. where everybody is supposed to say the exact same thing without thinking about much in many cases, so they make presumptions. To say that about the original picture set in England, traditionally you think of England as a place of sophistication and manners, so isn’t it odd that these guys are all thugs? You can set it up anyway you want to make them thugs. This is more about an outside coming to a place and about a guy who is a non-violent person having to (face violence).
CS: Can you talk about how your character is different than in the original movie?
Woods: You know, the original, I chose not to watch it again, because I don’t want to be influenced, but I can’t wait to see it once we’re done shooting. All I remember of the older one is a guy who is this big drunk thuggy guy going “Where’s my Janice?” but this I thought was a great idea because the inciting incident is the accidental abduction of Janice, the girl who is my daughter. This thing is done in broad strokes. It’s an entertainment on level, so my character is drunk and tough, and a bit of a clichéd Southern redneck kind of character, but he was a successful coach for a long time. (Rod) wanted me to flirt with one of the waitresses once, but I said, “I don’t want to do that. This is a guy who is really happily married, strong and tough guy, kind of a guy like you from West Hollywood would probably think he’s a bad guy because he’s accomplished and he’s very firm in his beliefs and they didn’t agree with yours.” It might be more interesting if he had been a good guy and maybe he got fired because he made some comment that was no longer politically-correct and called a kid a name that’s now unfashionable and got fired for exercising his right of free speech even if it’s distasteful, and feels unfair about it and his wife dies and then he just goes off the deep end and starts drinking and becomes a bad guy, and just turned sour somehow. The only thing he’s got is this girl but she’s feeling unloved because he’s lost his way. I think it’s more interesting if people behave badly because they’re human and then they go bad from their humanitytragic flaws turn ugly.
(Again, this was a long interview and if there’s interest, we’ll print more of it down the road.)
Not on set that day was Dominic Cooper, who plays a mentally unbalanced man who becomes involved with Woods’ daughter, which is what finally sets things off in the town for them to go after David. In the original movie, it’s Hoffman’s protection of the disturbed man when the girl’s father finds her missing which sets the “Straw Dogs” upon his house, and one assumes that will remain the same between the films.
Lastly, we had a chance to sit down with Alexander Skarsgard and his fellow Straw Dogs. Most of them had been relocated to Shreveport for a number of months and later that night, we’d go to dinner with the guys and get a sense of their individual personalities and how they’ve bonded as actors. Although Skarsgard has become well-known for his role on HBO’s “True Blood,” Rhys Coiro has also been seen a lot on that network, playing moody filmmaker Billy Walsh on “Entourage.”
ComingSoon.net: I don’t think any of you were alive when the first “Straw Dogs” came out so had any of you seen it before it came out? Did you know anything about it?
Alexander Skarsgard: Yeah, I saw it 10 to 15 years ago, and I just remember the rape scene. I saw it again before I met with Rod.
Billy Lush: I saw it like when I was 21 at my friend’s place back when I was trying to soak in as much art and the classic movies as I could, and came across that, and was like, “What?” It was a little weird.
Rhys Coiro: I was about that age when I saw it, I was 22, and it definitely had a big effect on me, too.
CS: What’s it like now being a part of it and what are you changing for those who will be watching this movie for the first time?
Skarsgard: Like I said, I rewatched it before the meeting but I haven’t seen it since. There’s no point in just remaking it. You have to make it your own and add something, and it is obviously a remake, but Rod rewrote the script. I think for us, the Straw Dogs, I actually think this is more interesting than in the first version. There’s more backstory now, the dynamics between Charlie’s character and Amy’s, the history there, he elaborated on that a bit more and worked that out a little more, and that game that we’re playing is quite different from the original one.
Lush: I think there’s more to do in terms of what the Straw Dogs are doing. Like in the original, Bic and Chris, Chris was just laughing like an idiot, and I don’t remember Bic, but we definitely have more to do in that. I think they always get portrayed as the bad guys, but in this, my perspective is that David is the bad guy. Not necessarily a bad guy but he’s an *sshole.
Skarsgard: Well, he is a bit of a jerk because it’s our territory. This is the way we live.
CS: How do you avoid doing stereotypes of the normal Southern hillbilly clichés?
Skarsgard: We touched on that a little earlier. I don’t see us as bad guys. It is different. This is our territory and like Billy said, he’s a bit of a douchebag when he shows up, this Hollywood guy, he’s kind of condescending. He has his approach, and this is our home, this is our land, and he comes in driving his P-type Jag and giving us 100 bucks like we’re kids, that kind of the thing.
CS: How did you guys go about developing the Southern accents?
Lush: To really get it, it took me like a week. There was just this one session where I instantly got it, but to build up to that took about a week.
Skarsgard: I was nervous about it because English isn’t even my first language, so I found out about this end of June, early July, and I said that I know you’ll have a dialogue coach on set, but I need to start this now, because I hadn’t even been to the South.
Lush: We did another television series together two years ago called “Generation Kill.” Remember that?
Skarsgard: That’s right. (laughter) On that, I had a bunch of British actors and a couple South African actors, and I’m from Sweden and a guy from Israel, so it’s about a platoon of Marines, so we had a dialect coach there that I liked a lot, he’s based in New York, so I flew out to July and spent a week with him working on it. He put stuff on tape so I had it on my iPod when I went to Sweden just listening to his voice and getting into it. I need to work on it. It’s easier for me to do it this way, because it’s a mess right now. I live in California but I’m working on this accent, I’m from Europe, so I don’t know what’s happening right now.
Drew Powell: I had a problem. When I got to Hollywood, I’m from Indiana, which doesn’t necessarily have an accent, but I got to Hollywood, and everybody thought I was from Texas or Tennessee. “Where’s that accent from?” “Indiana” “Oh.” I didn’t think I had one but apparently, I must have put it on when I got to Hollywood.
Coiro: It’s really just second nature from being around folks down here. I can’t imagine if we tried to shoot this somewhere else. If we were trying to do this in L.A., I think we would have been in danger, but because we’re down here, everybody…
Lush: You hear it day in and day out.
Skarsgard: Rhys is like a local anyway. He’s assimilated to this sick town more than any of us.
(The irony of the above question was that the journalist who asked it was actually from the Louisiana area and he had the perfect Southern accent for real, but it made transcribing fun because everyone else spoke in their regular accent.)
On-set pictures courtesy of Jeff Wells and Hollywood-Elsewhere.com.