Interview: Rod Lurie on Remaking Straw Dogs

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Arriving in theaters tomorrow, Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs remakes the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, casting James Marsden in the Dustin Hoffman role of a quiet husband who, moving to the country with his wife (Kate Bosworth), comes face to face with a group of locals (led by Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd). As tensions mount, the idyllic setting gives way to the brutal extremes of lust and violence.

Lurie, a former film critic, made his big screen directing debut with 1999’s Deterrence and has, since, helmed projects like The Contender, The Last Castle and Resurrecting the Champ. Like Peckinpah’s original, his Straw Dogs is aiming for controversy, albeit controversy of a very different sort. Tackling a remake of the heralded classic head-on, Lurie explains to ComingSoon.net how a conversation with Dustin Hoffman led to him deciding to take the job.

ComingSoon.net: Take me back to the origins of this. How did it come your way and how did you know that it was something that you wanted to be involved with?
Rod Lurie:
I was sitting in my office shortly after I left the ABC series “Commander in Chief” and they walked into my office and said, “How would you like to remake ‘Straw Dogs’? I’ve been thinking about acquiring the rights.” It turned out that the rights were lapsing over at ABC to films to Miramax. When that happened, we swept in and picked up the rights. I wasn’t sure, to be honest with you, that I wanted to direct it at that point. I knew for sure that there was going to be a bullseye on my back and that the criticism would be swift and brutal until, at best, the day that the film came out. I also didn’t see the need to do a remake a “Straw Dogs.” Then I ran into Dustin Hoffman at a Golden Globes party and we ended up talking a little about it. He said, “You know, ‘Straw Dogs’ is a western. It’s nothing more than a western. If you remember that and you put your own ideas into it and don’t necessarily go by Peckinpah’s, then you’ve really got something.” It struck me that there is no need to do “Straw Dogs,” but there could be a purpose. There’s no need to make any film. The word “need” is pretty strong. But if there’s a purpose behind making the film, there can be a justification for it. My purpose became to tell the very same story that Peckinpah told and told brilliantly, but to tell it from a different point of view. Sam was very mindful of a theory of human beings espoused by a man named Robert Ardrey that said that men were biologically coded to violence and that we should understand this about ourselves. That’s a pretty harsh view of mankind and it’s not one that I share. I think that maybe human beings are conditioned to violence. So I thought that I could tell that same story but do it from that other point of view. As I say this, I realize that I sound unbelievably arrogant and maybe full of myself and, in fact, the marketing department would probably rather it be described as “an extremely entertaining thriller,” but it would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that some thinking went into both the making of the film and the very reason for making it.

CS: The term “remake” has sort of become a dirty word and yet there are remakes that not only match the original but ones that actually wind up better known with the passage of time. There are alternate terms there, too, like “re-imagining” or “reboot,” but that often involves going back to the source material and, while the original “Straw Dogs” was based on a book, that’s not what happened here. This is very much a remake in the truest sense of the word.
Lurie:
Honestly, I had a difficult time getting through the book, as did Peckinpah. The book is very, very different from the film. If I had gone to the real source material, you wouldn’t recognize this as “Straw Dogs.” I was very interested in remaking “Straw Dogs.” There are certain remakes that are really brilliant with the latest one, of course, being “True Grit.” That’s just a fantastic film. I also love “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with Donald Sutherland.

CS: Well, when you go back far enough even the versions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Maltese Falcon” that we know as classics are remakes.
Lurie:
You could argue there, though, that those are both so loyal to their source material that they’re just re-adaptations of their respective texts. “Ben Hur,” in that case, was a remake and so was “The Ten Commandments.” In point of fact, if someone has a very well-coded source material, the film will always be considered another version of that instead of a remake.

CS: So how do you prepare yourself going in? Do you purposefully avoid re-watching the Peckinpah version?
Lurie:
Oh, no! I watched that version about 30 or 40 times. I wanted to become very, very familiar to it. There are homages to it during the course of my film. There are cuts that are very, very similar, just because I thought I they were so brilliant. I even took one scene and almost played it word for word. Because we’ve played the characters so differently from the beginning of the film and, hopefully, conditioned the audience to these new versions, that scene that is virtually a replicate takes on a whole different meaning.

CS: The original, too, wasn’t immediately beloved when it first came out.
Lurie:
When the original came out, the reviews were extremely divided. Some people thought it was a masterpiece, like Michael Sragow. Pauline Kael hated what it had to say and grappled with what she called a fascist film, but she admired it from a technical point of view. Then are critics who really killed it. Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby and Richard Schickel just abhorred it. So it was very divided back then. Hopefully it will be less divided this time, critically.

CS: Do you think that there’s an advantage to having the original out there as a part of pop culture that gives you a jumping off point?
That you’re free to do things with the remake specifically because people have seen the original?
Lurie:
I think that if this movie was truly original, it would be much easier, actually. So far, the critics have been very, very good to us. The few reviews that we’ve already gotten have been very favorable. But then there are people out there who, almost as a matter of conditioning or out of some imagined loyalty to Sam Peckinpah, feel they have to devastate the film just because it’s a remake of this master’s work. We do live in its shadow and we deserve to. It’s his story. He created it. I didn’t create that story at all. I’m very, very respectful of the original film from that point of view. But to those people who claim that we’re attacking or tampering with a classic, you try to remind them that, as you said, the original is there. Nobody is painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The original is there with no one touching it and you can go see it if you like it.

CS: I’ve always felt that, even when the worst remakes happen, at least it tends to put the original in the spotlight. We just got the Peckinpah version released on Blu-ray specifically because of your film.
Lurie:
Yes, I’m very happy that that just came out. The book has been re-released, too.

CS: There’s a western theme in a lot of your films. Is that something that you actively go after?
Lurie:
No, I never really look it that way. There are a lot of westerns that deal with people standing up for their principles and that is the predominant theme that has been in my films. I find the virtues and dangers of standing up for one’s principles to be very interesting. That certainly is a theme of a film like “Shane” or “High Noon” or even “Rio Bravo,” for that matter. But I don’t really actively pursue it as a running theme in my own films.

CS: Your background is as a film critic and you’re obviously pretty knowledgeable when it comes to film history. Do you take in all of Peckinpah’s work heading in?
Lurie:
I’ve never seen “The Osterman Weekend” or “Convoy” and I think that Sam himself might have said, “Don’t bother.” But I’ve seen most of his films and I find them all to be fascinating. Sam Peckinpah’s movies probably say more about him than anybody’s body of work says about that person. There are running themes in his films that I find eminently fascinating, disturbing, exhausting and exhilarating. My favorite of his films is his cut of “Major Dundee” and I really love “The Getaway,” too. Of course, I’d have to throw in “The Wild Bunch,” too. I obviously admire his work very, very much.

CS: Can you talk a little about what’s coming up next for you?
Lurie:
I have a deal with 20th Century Fox TV to create a TV film right now for NBC. There is a major film on the horizon and it may even be a remake again, but unfortunately the i’s haven’t been dotted and the t’s haven’t been crossed so I can’t get too much into it.

CS: You were formerly attached to “Borderline” as well. Is that still happening?
Lurie:
I’m attached to it, but I’m afraid that we won’t be able to shoot it at the time that it would be necessary to shoot it, which would be next month. That’s going to have to wait a little while. Hopefully they’ll keep me as its director.

Straw Dogs arrives in theaters on Friday, September 16.

(Photo Credit: WENN.com)