Writer-director Rod Lurie was in a bit of a lose-lose situation when it came to dealing with the hardcore Straw Dogs fans. Like all remakes, if Lurie deviated too much, many critics would ask, “Why call it Straw Dogs?” If the Nothing But the Truth director stayed too faithful, then he’d get ripped on for making a carbon copy. There’s a tough middle ground between those two sides, and Lurie made enough changes to try to find it.
For one thing, unlike Sam Peckinpah, Rod Lurie doesn’t hate women.
All jokes aside, the original film earned controversy, partly because Peckinpah’s depiction of his female lead was deemed misogynistic. That’s not much of a surprise — Peckinpah treated that character with such disgust, as he treated all the main characters in that film with disgust. His film was about David (played in this version by James Marsden) finding his inner animal, while Lurie opted for David finding his inner man.
Here’s what Rod Lurie had to say about the commercial potential of a Straw Dogs remake, the fine line between David being manly and narcissistic, and Peckinpah’s depiction of Amy versus his own:
Note: this interview contains spoilers.
Are you enjoying your press day?
Well, it’s nonstop press. I just came from doing a radio show — actually, you’re my last interview, then I’m going to the premiere of the movie.
Has anything stuck out to you during this process, like what people are taking from the film?
Well, you want to know something? If I have to answer one more time, “Why did you want to remake Straw Dogs?” with the emphasis on the word “why,” I’m going to flip out. The question is so unoriginal, so let’s just put it that way.
So, then why remake Straw Dogs?
Are you really asking?
[Laughs] No, but related to that question, I’m curious about the commercial appeal of a Straw Dogs remake. It’s not that well-known, so what’s the commercial gain of remaking it?
Well, that’s an extremely good question. For me, I wasn’t looking at it for its commercial appeal — and that has never been how I’ve made films — but I probably should start doing that. [Laughs] Although it’s not a famous name, it’s famous enough to journalists and people on the inside that makes great noise out of that. Therefore, the film gets a little extra attention.
There’s been a slight surplus in home invasion films over the past few years, and some of them have done extremely well. Did that help get the film off the ground?
I think that it did. I wouldn’t say there’s been a surplus of home invasion films, but they’ve become more popular. Obviously, it’s something audiences gravitate towards. It’s a very realistic way of being scared, if you think about it. Some nights I lie awake at night thinking, “What’s going to stop someone from smashing a chair through my window and coming in the house at two in the morning?” It is very unnerving. It’s a realistic scare, which is the worst kind of scare that you could have. I’ve heard a lot of comparisons, based off the trailer, of my film to The Strangers. As you now know, it’s a very different film than that, but it’s the same level of anxiety.
Do you see this as going outside of your comfort zone? Or, thematically, do you think it ties to your other works?
I’ve always made films about people standing by principles, and what those principles are; the truth is, this film fits very well into that wheelhouse. However, it’s certainly not a drama, and not a political drama, which most of my films have been. I’ll tell you, Jack, I had written a screenplay called State of the Union, which was my version of a political play for the 1940s, and we had a cast, it was ready to go — more or less — and I decided not to do it. I just said I couldn’t do another political project, and then Straw Dogs came along. I thought I could do a thriller and an audience film, for sure.
I do think there’s a political subtext to the movie, though.
Political subtext — there are some people talking about the film being this liberal vs. conservative film, and I don’t happen to see it that way, at all. If people want to read into that way, then that’s their own private Rorschach test.
There is something interesting about David, who seems like a left-wing liberal, coming to a small town acting as if he’s better than the local conservatives.
I would find that interesting, too, except there’s nothing to litigate he’s a left-winger. He could very well be a Republican. That is people reading into it. Of course, he’s coming from Los Angeles and is a writer writing about the success of the Red Army, so maybe there’s a sense he’s on that side. There’s nothing overt there at all.
I’d say him even being an atheist could play into that idea, and how you see him contrast with the religious community he’s in. What was the decision behind that choice?
I’m not trying to make a religious statement. What I was trying to do is say this: That it says we’re conditioned to being violent, but we’re not naturally violent. A part of that conditioning — believe it or not — comes from certain pastors, not all, talking about a violent God, Noah, flooding the Earth, and the apocalypse. Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), the villain of the film, believes all of that stuff. Therefore, that’s one of the ways he’s been conditioned towards violence. That’s what I find interesting.
That’s also James Woods’s character, who was their football coach and probably a father figure, that put some of that violence in them.
Not only that, it’s also the hunting they do. To these guys, violence is simply a way of life. It’s not a big deal. If they need to accomplish something, they can do it through violence. They will take, rather than ask; that’s how I read it.
As you mentioned, Charlie is the villain in this version, whereas Peckinpah saw David as the villain of his film. What made you want to switch that role around?
It goes back to this thing that, Peckinpah really believed in the biological coding of violence in all men, and he used David to emphasize that point. Since I don’t believe that, there’s no reason to make him the heavy of the piece. Some critics will say I’ve taken a more facile approach, but I’d say I’ve taken a different approach, and a more realistic approach.
You’ve said how this David finds a man in himself, and not an animal. For me, whether he was enjoying the siege or not at the end was blurred at a point or two. How did you go about approaching him committing these violent acts, and yet not becoming an animal like the original David?
We tried very hard to have him be the reluctant hero. By that I don’t mean he’s hesitant, but I don’t think there’s any evidence in the siege sequence that shows him actually enjoying himself, or getting a visceral thrill. That’s very much inside the Peckinpah film — and again, Jack, that’s not a criticism — but I think it’s the point he was trying to make. At the very end of Peckinpah’s film, when you see David in the car with Niles, he’s smiling. There’s no smile at the end with James Marsden, even when he says, “I got ’em all.” He says that line clinically in my film, where Dustin Hoffman said it with some sort of release. I’d say it’s almost a heroic villainy.
One scene I disagree with you about is when you see David cleaning his glasses and playing music, he’s shot heroically, and it’s not long after he tells one of the intruders he hopes he slits his throat.
It is a heroic shot, and I’m not saying he’s not a hero. What he’s doing is discovering his ability to stand up for himself, which he never knew he really had, because he was never tested before. Finding out you’re able to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do it. At the end of the original, I think David is very satisfied and thinks it’s pretty cool. Here, I have him looking at the horrors of what has happened. He’s never really going home.
I’d say that’s where most of your take differs from Peckinpah’s, where it’s not as cynical. I see you as a humanistic filmmaker, and with that, did you see that as a way of making the film your own?
You know, I want to be careful about saying things like that because I never want to put myself above Peckinpah, as either a director or a man–
And just to clarify, I find that cynicism in Peckinpah’s film really interesting.
Right. Well, yes, he is more cynical than I am. Perhaps, that makes for more interesting independent filmmaking. I am much more of a humanist. I do have this belief that we all have a chance to be great, beautiful people based on how we are raised and our surroundings. With Sam’s movies, I think there’s a certain sense we’re all doomed.
I think Charlie shows that potential in the beginning. It doesn’t seem like an artificial niceness, and he comes off more likable than David.
I agree, and that was absolutely the point of the film. For a while you may think this is going to be like that movie Sweet Home Alabama, where Reese Witherspoon goes home, finds her old boyfriend, remembers the good ‘ol days, and maybe she should be with him. There definitely is a sense that maybe they belong together more than she does with David.
You altered Amy quite heavily from the original. Peckinpah’s version was accused of being misogynistic for how he portrayed her, where you have her be the strongest character in the film.
I would say that — and you stated it yourself — I don’t see there being any negatives to presenting a strong and fierce woman. In 1971 it was so long ago your parents were probably still virgins back then, Jack. I don’t know what the women of the world were like back then, but I assume they weren’t much different. I do know the women of 2011 are not going to be walked all over, abused, and certainly not going to be happy about it. It was very important to me to try to present my own version of feminists.
Do you consider the original film misogynistic?
[Pause] Boy, there’s no winning with answering that question. I’ll say this — and I can understand how it’s viewed as misogynistic — it all goes back to this view of man as a violent animal, which is why she’s perfectly fine when she’s assaulted. The first man that assaults her, who she then cuddles with, is the strongest bull in the herd, and that’s who all the women will gravitate towards in that social biological world.
I’ve always thought that that movie just puts you in the p.o.v. of these misogynistic men, and that’s how they see Amy. I’ve never thought of the movie being misogynistic, just the characters.
What I see as misogynistic is the view that women as a whole are going to gravitate to men based on the physical strength. Like, how being a brute is a good thing, you know? Even in the context of the film, she gravitates towards the strongest guy, and I think that is what’s problematic with the film, and why he got into trouble.
You don’t really know Charlie’s history in the original. When they were together, he could have been a good guy.
Well, he could have been, but we’re not talking about the point of view of Charlie. We’re talking about the point of view of Peckinpah, and how he had this woman react. At the end of the film, she wants to go out with the rapist. She yells during the siege, “I’m coming out, Charlie!” What do you attribute that to, Jack? Why do you think she’s saying that? Why does she cuddle with her rapist?
I see the movie as being this hellish nightmare just about terrible people, and not in a realistic way. You see both men and women doing the worst things they could do.
Which is… to cuddle with her rapist? You know, I don’t know too many women who would do that.
I don’t, either. I just don’t see the original film as being a realistic portrayal of men and women, and I see it as something being very heightened and extreme.
Right, and I don’t disagree with that. I think Sam would say it’s very realistic. If you read his interviews, Jack, you’ll see it.
Then that bothers me, of course. I know you gotta go, but you said how there was no winning with that question, but I feel like there’s no winning in making a remake now. If you stick too closely to the original, people say you’re making a copy of it. If you deviate too much, then people complain you’re not making Straw Dogs. What was the middle ground for you?
Well, I think that we found it. For this film, you’ll see a tremendous division between the critics, and you’re already seeing it. Some people absolutely obliterate the film, for either the violence or because of Peckinpah. You’ll also see Roger Ebert‘s review, the Rolling Stone review, or Rene Rodriguez from the Miami Herald, and they’re all very, very strong. They understand what I was going for. You know, you have to take the good with the bad.
Straw Dogs is now in theaters.