Interview with writer/director
Rod Lurie
By Ross Anthony

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 great.

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 intellectual factor.

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 "Deterrence" is.

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 to?

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 place?

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 were shooting.

RA: Cool.

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 reviewed?

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 life.

RA: My review is not a bad one. It's a middle of the road - mixed review, three popcorns.

RL: I'll live with three. I'll take three popcorns.

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 sides.

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. Rod LurieEverything 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 one answer.

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 decisions?

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 have control?

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 use.

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" huh?

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,

[Review of Deterrence]   [More interviews]

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 17-Mar-2004 15:36:40 PST