Busy at a Burbank production studio, Pasadenan
Film Critic turned filmmaker Rod Lurie edits a scene
from his next film "The Contender." Turning his back
to Joan Allen and Christian Slater (on screen), Lurie
welcomes me with a jovial smile and handshake.
RL: You want anything? Water?
RA: Sure, water would be
After filling a glass for me in the studio's
kitchen we retreat to an all-purpose in-between room
with two leather sofas, each occupied only by it's
own 9-line telephone.
RA: What were your days as a
film critic like?
RL: Film criticism is an art unto itself.
Pauline Cale did as much for her art as Scorsese has
done for his. You know, I'd read her with the same
enthusiasm that I'd go to a Scorsese film. People
like Kenny Turan, Roger Ebert, and Anthony Lane and
Manohla Dargis are brilliant film critics.
I don't think that I was a particularly good film
critic. I think that I was very entertaining. I don't
know if you ever read or heard me, but I was
boisterous, but nowhere near as good or as profound
as the peers even in this town. There isn't a film
critic in this town I think who isn't a superior film
critic to me -- to be honest with you. It used to be
I'd look forward to Fridays with a zeal and I'd just
devour every film review. I loved to read them. But
then when I became a film critic and started writing
about film Fridays became almost a depressing day.
Because I would read the other critic's and they
would just be better than me. You know?
RA: (Chuckling) I can't say
RL: You can't relate ... huh? Sometimes I'd
read Manohla Dargis and she'd make some sort of point
that would just leave me mesmerized. I mean, she's
absolutely right. The real value that a film critic
can bring is to identify immediately why a movie
works and why it doesn't work. She does that well and
so does Ebert. I mean , I could just tell you
viscerally whether or not I liked a film. I think my
column was probably read and my show more listened to
than most, but I think that it was more or less
because of an entertainment factor rather than an
RA: That's a debatable point.
Why do people read reviews? Is it to be entertained?
For the intellectual factor? Or just to decide if
they want to see the movie or not?
RL: It depends on the publication. I would
say for example in the LA Weekly it's really an
intellectual approach, people want to read an
in-depth review. In something like the LA Daily news,
or the Pasadena Weekly, I'm certain that it's to
determine whether or not to go and see the film. And
so the function of those film critics is slightly
different. It does vary. In my case it was to
entertain, but like I said, I was jealous of those
people, that I could always hide behind the fact that
look, I'm here to be humorous, to entertain, to give
some sort of insight but not as much as the others.
But the truth of the matter is, that I couldn't have
done that level of work [the in-depth analysis].
RA: Well, I find that a very
interesting statement, given the intense film your
RL: (Chuckles) it certainly is. But that's
because that's the kind of film I liked growing up. I
was infatuated with political films my entire life.
My dad is and was a political cartoonist and my
favorite film of all time is "All the President's
Men." I think it's the best film -- period. It's a
masterpiece. There's just a dearth of those films.
There's films that have politics in them
peripherally, but they don't deal just with political
behavior. That's really what I wanted to do with
"Deterrence." It's a world that I just covet. I'm a
"Crossfire" junkie, a "Hard Ball" junkie. MSNBC is
always on in my house, I'm totally obsessed with it.
Right now it's Pig in Sh-- time for me with the
primaries, I'm just loving it. So if you're going to
spend a year making a movie - it better be something
that really interests you.
RA: Yesterday I saw Kevin
Pollack on Regis & Kathy Lee. He said about
"Deterrence" that, "The part was written for me."
How'd that happen?
RL: It's a good story actually, this will
be your lead. I predict. What happened was I had
tried to make two films previously and they had both
fallen apart just at the end for reasons dealing with
bonding and casting and so on. So I decided, Goddamn
it! I'm going to make a movie that's impossible to
fall apart. I went to TF1 (this French conglomerate)
and said, "Kevin's very popular in Europe , How much
money would you spend on a movie that's starring
him?" And they told me. Then they chopped it down a
little bit, "but we'll only give you half of that." I
said, "Okay, I'm gonna give you Kevin and you're
going to make this movie." So now all I had to do is
get Kevin into this movie. I knew Kevin from poker --
playing with him a few times. So I said, what kind of
role can I write for Kevin that he can't say no
RA: Make him the president.
How can you say no to that?
RL: Nobody turns down the president. Right?
The screenplay was pretty much written over
Thanksgiving Day weekend and I wrote it for him. And
I put it in one location so that the bond company
doesn't have any problems with it. How can you refuse
a film that's in one location?
RA: I don't know? Why would a
bond company refuse a film in the first
RL: . A bond company determines whether or
not you can make your movie and they're basically
ready to insure that the movie will get made.
["Deterrence"] had to be made in 18 days for
finances. And if I had to be moving from location to
location, they may think that I'm going to go over
[budget]. So here it was Monday after Thanksgiving, I
had a screenplay with a role that I knew Kevin
couldn't say no to. I had a one set movie and 18 day
schedule. It should be heaven for everybody. And
that's exactly what happens. Everybody said yes
basically within a couple days. And that summer we
RL: Yeah, cool. What Kevin should have also
said is that he made next to nothing for this film as
did Tim Hutton and everyone concerned. Kevin probably
has made more money sucking dollars outta me at a
poker table than he got from this movie.
RA: Of course, that'll be my
lead. (Chuckling.) But anyway, how did the film
industry react to a film critic putting together a
movie? And how difficult is it for a critic to be
RL: One of the most difficult things about
being a film critic trying to make a film is that the
studios believe that there's a wish for you to fail.
They assume there's going to be a pettiness among my
peers, which I haven't discovered at all.
But I got a phone call from Paramount Classics,
"Guess what? 'Deterrence' has been reviewed in
Variety and PSSSHT" the connection goes out. So I had
no idea what the review was and that first review was
a terrifying experience. I remember getting the
Variety two days later and my heart was beating so
hard that I could see my skin moving up and down
around the area of my heart. The review began,
"Though not up to the level of 'Doctor Strangelove.'"
(Sighs.) I can live with that any day! It went on to
actually be a really good review. And I was happy for
it. So far most of the printed reviews have been very
good, but I know inevitably the bad ones will come
and it'll be curious to me to see how I deal with it.
I think one of the real benefits to being a film
critic is that I know that I was just a guy at a
computer printing a sentence and sometimes the
sentences would be more harsh depending on whether it
would be more witty. That I really know that I can't
take personally what critics have to say. What is the
center of the world to me is just 2 hours in their
RA: My review is not a bad
one. It's a middle of the road - mixed review, three
RL: I'll live with three. I'll take three
RA: What brought you to
Pasadena in the first place?
RL: My wife started working in a little
school in San Marino. SouthWestern Academy. And I was
much more mobile than she was so I wanted to just
live close to her work. Went to Alhambra first
actually, we live in three different places now. We
live in the Caltech area now. That's such a great
area we love it. Pasadena is such a kick-ass town. We
would never leave it for the world. The best people,
the best restaurants, the best biking, the best
rollerblading, the best everything in all of
California in my opinion.
RA: In the press notes it
says that you were the only American film critic
still active while you were filming.
RL: That's true.
RA: Did you feel that that
helped or hindered you in the filmmaking world?
Perhaps you ran into a production company that said,
"You reamed one of our films ..."
RL: Oh, but it happened ... obviously I had
stepped on a lot of toes and butted a lot of heads
and, in fact, as you may know, I was banned for life
from Warner Brothers for the reviews I'd written. Oh
yeah, they wouldn't let me come to any screenings
they were so upset with me.
No, it was very difficult to a degree especially
with agents and managers whose actors I had just
ripped to smithereens at times. ...There are some
people who don't forget. And in this town I was on
the biggest radio station and I wrote for the
hometown magazine and they read and remembered me
very well. The worst thing about being a film critic
is that you can't BS anybody. You can't go to an
actor and say, "You know I really think you're a
terrific actor." Because they'll say, "Oh no you
don't. You don't think that at all. You think I'm a
deformed little toad, you said so yourself." On the
other hand, the beauty of being a
critic-turned-director is that they assume you're not
BS'ing them when you tell them that you really love
their work. They know that you're sincere.
RA: Back to the film -- the
secret service guys, I liked their reaction to shots
fired. Very emotional. You don't see that.
RL: I believe that almost any secret
service agent will tell you that they've never fired
their gun other than on the range. In that sequence
in particular, it was the left wing which was the
cook and the right wing which was the soldier. This
is a movie that tries to explore both sides of the
equation. I have my own side, but there are two
RA: "But that's just how I
interpret the film..." You say in the press notes ...
but aren't you the author?
RL: Well, that's a very good comment, but
the truth of the matter is that I tried to make a
very objective film. Everything that I said in that statement [my
opinions] I could have put into the film. And the
audience would walk away with a certain message and
that would be it. And there'd be nothing to talk
about. Because they'd have been told everything. I
wanted to show rather than tell. I am very much on
the left. But I gotta tell you, up in Toronto I got
pilloried by people who think I'm a right wing
Buchanan fanatic. On the other hand, there are right
wing Buchanan fanatics who think that I'm a dangerous
leftist. You know? And one of the things that I
appreciate about "Deterrence" is that it will promote
discussion about this guy [the president]. I
certainly wouldn't want to give away the ending of
this film in any article or review. The behavior of
the president is to be absolutely debated.
A person is very sympathetic, commits a specific
act that may or may not be viewed as horrendous by
other people. And you're left to wonder whether or
not he did the right thing. And nobody tells you. As
far as my statement, when I was a critic I used to
love reading director's statements. I just used to be
entertained by it. I loved to look at a movie and
compare my opinion to what the director's opinion is.
Just because I'm the author doesn't mean there's only
The movie begins in black and white and then turns
into color. One day I was watching a black and white
program on TV and I don't know why, but for some kind
of stupid curiosity I moved in very close to the TV
to see what the pixels look like and they are
actually in color. The metaphor is that nothing is in
black and white. What seems to be black and white
really is color. So I think this film will really
instill a debate - among people who see it.
RA: My friend and I debated
on the way home the screening.
RL: Some people are really incensed by it.
You know the big risk I was taking ... I could have
had a scene where he explains the connection to Harry
Truman. I did have that scene once. And I really laid
out my philosophy quite clearly and it really made
the film much more pacifistic. But, the risk that I
was taking in not specifically stating what my
thoughts were, that I leave people thinking that I
personally feel this way. Now, when you see "The
Contender" [current project] it's unlikely that
you'll find a film more to the left ...ever.
RA: In the notes you say,
"When searching for the source of evil, we should
look first inside ourselves." Now, you like to
encourage debate in the average filmgoer, but do you
hope/expect that your film will make a difference in
the minds of those that actually make nuclear
RL: Nuclear arms exist and are the only
form of weaponry that have never been used in
warfare, ever. Whatever has been the highest level of
weapon from the bone in "2001" to the crossbow to
gunpowder to the atom bomb have always been used.
nuclear weapons have never been used. But they exist
and they are gonna be used one day and that means
somebody's got to pull the trigger on them. We like
to think about those wild loose bombs in Russia. We
like to think about mad men like Khadafi. We like to
think about emotional leadership like those that
exist in Pakistan or India. We never talk about us
dropping IT. But we don't have a no first strike
policy and we very well may do it. And it may seem
for reasons that when you look back on it seem
barbaric, if you really sub-analyze the dropping of
the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I mean, it
really makes you stop and think - did we really do
that for the right reasons? So we have to look at
ourselves -- who are potentially going to use this
weapon one day.
In 1991 it took six months to get our troops
mobilized to fight Hussein. Why didn't Hussein say,
at one point, "oh there's only 10,000 of you right
now ... I'm going to run right over you to those
Saudi Arabian oil fields." He could have done it.
Imagine the shear volume of personnel that needs to
be dispatched, the answer may very well be the use of
Nuclear weapon. In our lifetime.
RA: So how much of an effect
do you think your film's going to have on those who
RL: I don't think my film will have any
effect whatsoever on the political thinking
especially from our leadership. I hope that it gets
the people who see it thinking. I hope it resurfaces
the notion of nuclear weapons living among us. We
haven't had it that in a while. We try to blow up an
asteroid with it in "Armageddon" but we don't talk
about its use on a population and a realistic
I'd never want to give away the ending, but I will
say this: the ending of this film is shocking
disturbing and it will leave you confused about where
you stand on issues until you sit down and think
about it and then things should crystallize for you.
But I love movies that have an ending that takes a
baseball bat to your head basically and leave you
stunned. A gentleman walks from the screening room to
get Rod's preference on music for a certain sequence
in the "The Contender."
Gentleman: Apparently the film is going to
be filmed on Monday. Do you want "Ring of Fire" or
the Leonard Cohen song.
RL: I want Leonard Cohen.
RA: Don't want "Ring of Fire"
RL: I'm re-doing "Ring of Fire" too ...I'm
doing a cover of it.
RA: Okay then. Thanks for
taking a little time away from the current project,
let's close here. Would you like to leave an email
address for those who've read this article and have
some questions of their own?
RL: Sure, Movie790@aol.com.