Director Rod Lurie (The Contender, Nothing But The Truth) has had a long three years of dodging and absorbing criticism ever since it was announced that he would be taking the reigns on a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 classic, Straw Dogs. Loosely basing his film on the book “The Siege At Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams, Peckinpah fashioned a unique statement about the politics of masculinity in his story about American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) who visit her hometown in England only to find fissures in their marital dynamic. The cracks in their relationship are tested by the differing cultural environment and the local populace (including Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie) and by the end of the film, well… things get a little out of hand.
When the wildly controversial original film was released in 1971 it was met with public outcry, forced edits by the US studio, and an `X’ rating in the United Kingdom (in fact, 13 years after the film’s release in the UK the uncut version was banned, which remained in effect until 2002). Many critics felt the film’s exploration of violence and was both fascist and misogynistic. Whatever Peckinpah’s true moral and sociological intentions may have been, the film is a masterpiece.
All of this obviously adds to the stakes of tackling a remake. Taking on one of the hallmark films of a legendary director, a film that touches on issues that are very much still culturally sensitive, well it’s certainly a risk.
I had the chance to touch base with Rod Lurie this week to discuss his version of Straw Dogs which stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as David and Amy Sumner as well as Alexander Skarsgard as Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie. Rounding out the cast are James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Walton Goggins, Willa Holland and Dominic Purcell.
Speaking by phone from his hotel in New York, Lurie discussed the film’s location shift to Mississippi, how his view of humanity differs from Sam Peckinpah’s, and how James Marsden approached his character from a different place than Dustin Hoffman.
Note: Towards the end of the interview I asked Lurie about a central scene, in both the original film and the remake, and he declined to comment on it. I have omitted both my question and his response. Lurie did, however, offer to speak with me in a followup interview. If that falls into place I’ll be glad to share some more in-depth discussion down the line.
Bloody-Disgusting: I actually haven’t had a chance to see the new one yet. I was supposed to come out to New York and see it a few weeks ago and talk to the cast but –
Rod Lurie: Hurricane Irene cancelled all that, yeah.
BD: Well I’m a fan of the first one and thought it had an interesting take on the notion of masculinity, especially in the 70`s. So I wanted to talk with you while I had the chance. What attracted you to this project in the first place?
RL: What attracted me in the first place was, first of all the opportunity to make it, that’s the first one. And my producing partner Martin Freeman was able to obtain the rights, and he asked me if I thought I wanted to direct it. And, like everyone else, I said “oh they’re really going to come after me. I’m going to have a bullseye on my back”. And that is exactly what happened as soon as I announced I was going to do it. But it was Dustin Hoffman who talked me into it actually, and he basically told me, you know Straw Dogs is a western after all and as a result what you can do is put your own spin on it. Peckinpah had his own point of view of humankind and you can put your own point of view on it. And we do have different points of view. Peckinpah is much more from that school of violence being biologically embedded in us and and I’m from the point of view that violence is conditioned into us. So we told the same story but from different points of view.
BD: Did you go back to the [book] “Siege Of Trencher’s Farm” and extrapolate anything new out of it?
RL: No. No I didn’t. I went entirely from the film. A little bit like Peckinpah, he didn’t use the book really at all. In fact I went almost entirely off the Peckinpah film, that’s what really interested me. That’s the experiment that interested me.
BD: What were some of the benefits of transporting the story to Mississippi?
RL: Well the primary interest for me was to find a community, and it didn’t necessarily have to be Mississippi, it could be many many towns in the United States but I wanted to have a town where sort of violence was a part of the town. For example a town where football is king, a town where hunting is king, a town where the preacher is talking about God smiting people from the earth. A town that where violence is so much a part of it that when it is perpetrated, barely an eyebrow is raised.
BD: Earlier you mentioned having a target on you when this was announced, which I think was in 2008 right?
BD: And when I heard about James Marsden being cast I certainly remember thinking that he’s such a kind of strapping and handsome person that he’d certainly be less nebbish than Hoffman’s character in the original.
RL: That was very much on purpose because, you know, I could have hired one of those actors who are very Hoffman-like but, I decided not to do that because I decided it would be an impossible burden for that particular actor to carry. I went for a very different kind of David, someone who was not really a character actor at all, someone who was more of a movie star, someone more in the Redford or Paul Newman mode. I thought that would be less of a burden and create another contrast.
BD: Between Skarsgard and Marsden, Marsden is very much playing a different version of David from what I’ve seen [clips] at least and –
RL: I would say that and again that was very much done on purpose. The David that exists in the Peckinpah film is certainly a guy who is possessed of violence. That is what his very existence is. Within him there is a simmering violence. And I don’t think that’s true of my guy. My guy is a guy who is driven to violence, not a guy whose violence is released from him and therefore he is a different sort of character.
BD: You changed his profession to being a screenwriter, is there anything in your personal experience that informed that?
RL: In the original he’s a mathematician, meaning that he lives by rigid rules and, by the way, is very non-confrontational and not argumentative because mathematics is ‘2+2=4’. My David is a screenwriter so he lives in a world of greater ambiguity and in fact he’s writing a screenplay in the movie about Stalingrad.
BD: In the original it feels like Dustin Hoffman is baiting the violence a little bit.
RL: Well that’s exactly what it is. Peckinpah said in the film that David was the heavy of the movie. So I think you have that exactly right. So now let’s see whether or not mine resonates at all. I hope that it does.
Straw Dogs is in theaters September 16th.