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LAist Interview: Rod Lurie

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To conservatives in the media, Rod Lurie may be the ultimate bête noire of Hollywood filmmakers (he would compete with Oliver Stone and Aaron Sorkin). His two highest-profile projects, The Contender and Commander-in-Chief, fully reflected his Democratic politics and were both harshly labeled by Republican commentators as little more than sops to the (then) presumptive presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

How strange then that Lurie's new film, Resurrecting the Champ, is a morality play about the relationships between fathers and sons, the terrible cost of deceit and and the absolute necessity of personal integrity. I'm curious to see what liberal hobgoblins the Michael Medveds of the world will manage to find hiding in this deeply traditional work. I had a chance to speak to Lurie about that and other things earlier this week.

(assistant cheerfully answers and transfers my call)

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LAist: Hello?

Rod Lurie: Hello? Josh, it's Rod Lurie. How are you, man?

LAist: I'm good. How are you doing?

Rod Lurie: Very well. Thank you.

LAist: Excellent. So this is the week?

Rod Lurie: Yeah. (laughs) Tell me about it.

LAist: I saw the movie last week actually. I really liked it.

Rod Lurie: Oh, did you? Great.

LAist: I thought we'd talk a little bit about the movie and then a little bit about yourself. Sound good?

Rod Lurie: Yeah, absolutely. Whatever you want to do, my friend.

LAist: Okay, I've seen the trailer and I've seen the advertising that they're using for the movie, but I'm interested in knowing how you would sell the movie to somebody.

Rod Lurie: Well, the truth is you can't sell a movie universally. I think the movie appeals to all sorts of groups. That's one of the reasons why I got involved with it. Because I thought it could appeal to different groups differently. Although it's not really a boxing film, it has enough elements of the sport in it that you could definitely appeal to the ESPN crowd. But that commercial would look different than the one we're going to sell on Lifetime to women, because there is a softer side to the film which is it's a movie about becoming a better person. I think that women instinctively--I hope this doesn't sound misogynist--like movies in which people self-improve. Especially when a father wants to become a better father. And then there is the broader appeal to men which is that it's a movie about fathers and sons. So if I were marketing the film I would do, in fact, what they're doing. I think it does appeal pretty broadly.

LAist: Fairly or unfairly, I think a lot of people think of you not as an ideological filmmaker but certainly a guy who's been political in the past. Certainly a progressive Democrat.

Rod Lurie: Yes

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LAist: But my take on Resurrecting the Champ was that it is really a very traditional morality tale about individual responsibility.

Rod Lurie: Yeah, that's really true. Look I've done Deterrence which was a left-wing film and The Contender was certainly on the left and Commander-in-Chief--as balanced as we wanted it to be--the natural inclininations of the creators are certainly going to flow out of it. So all my people were telling me you got to stop all this fucking political stuff for a little while, because otherwise the perception that people would have is that is all I can do. And I wanted to make a more populist film. It certainly is a morality play, but Republicans and Democrats can take from it alike. There's no group who--because of their political beliefs--will be offended by the film. At all.

LAist: Is your head going to explode when Fox News and Michael Medved give your movie a great review?

Rod Lurie: Well that would be shocking. What's really interesting with Michael is that--I wouldn't say we were friends--but we were certainly friendly. In fact, when I wrote a book in 1995 he gave a quotation to support the book. And then The Contender came out and I became--I wouldn't say the Antichrist because we're both Jewish and we don't believe in that necessarily (laughs) but I really became the scourge of the earth to him. His attacks on the film and me were just "scorched-earth" policy and it became very personal. If Michael gave me a good review, I think it would be very nice and I would welcome it obviously, but I would be surprised. I think those guys have a negative predisposition to me to begin with.

LAist: Right. They're going to see things in there that may not even be there.

Rod Lurie: They'll say here's another lefty movie from Lurie. I think a lot of those people are rooting for me to fail. As they would root for Oliver Stone to fail or for Aaron Sorkin to fail.

LAist: That's too bad, because I think it's an extremely, intentionally apolitical movie.

Rod Lurie: It's very apolitical. I think its message is more for families. Or fathers. It's really trying to say your children are going to love you no matter what. It's one of the great dynamics that God or nature--whatever you choose--is going to give you. It's not about 'we need to get a woman into office'. It's not about 'we need to have progressive thinking'. It's nothing like that.

LAist: Let's talk a little bit about the movie. My first real reaction came the first time Sam Jackson started talking. I thought to myself, "that was a really big choice and that was a risky choice." He has such a definite personality, almost like Nicholson in that way. You're used to a certain thing from Sam Jackson. How did you feel about it?

Rod Lurie: Most people would be scared, but I know I'm in the hands of a master and I really say that sincerely. This was much talked about, and I have to say that all the people involved in the film--when they saw the dailies for the first time--there was a sense of "Whoa, horsey!" and I just stood by and said, "No, I'm really confident that this is going to work. Sam is a movie star, but he's also an actor. The truth is, this character of Champ is his Ratzo Rizzo. When Dustin Hoffman first appeared in Midnight Cowboy, people had become accustomed to him. When those dailies first came in, I imagine that everybody at--I think it was MGM--were scared out of their minds. And then acclaim and an Oscar nomination later, everyone said it was the right choice. I hired Sam Jackson for his acting ability, not for his iconography.

LAist: How did you settle on Josh Hartnett?

Rod Lurie: He was one of the first people that we went to. The film was originally set up at Paramount. They hired me to do a new draft of the script. There were three different versions of the screenplay written by three different writers. And for some reason, it didn't go even though I thought they were all fantastic. But Sherry Lansing asked me to do a re-draft which got green-lit, but she would only do it with Tom Cruise or Dicaprio--people that are industries in and of themselves and to get them into a movie is next to impossible. So once we went to Yari Film Group, the first person I went to was Josh.

LAist: It's really his movie in a way. Even though Jackson plays a big part, the whole movie hangs on his shoulders.

Rod Lurie: Yeah, it's really like Rainman. You got the Tom Cruise role which is really the character with the arc. And the character with the arc is Josh Hartnett and not Sam Jackson.

LAist: How was it working with Yari? He's become pretty ubiquitous in the last few years. Everything I've read about him is that he's very hands-off and very filmmaker-friendly. Was that your experience?

Rod Lurie: He's hands-off in the sense that in the end he let me make my movie, but that doesn't mean I don't want to hear his opinions and sometimes they're very good. He's a bona fide producer. He's not just some real estate guy. He's not just a guy who puts money into the movies. He's the real deal.

LAist: A couple more questions not exactly related to the movie, but more related to you. What movies have you really attached to in the last five years? Everyone always says, "my favorite movie's Citizen Kane", but I'm interested in what's new out there.

Rod Lurie: Well, first of all, my favorite movie is not Citizen Kane, it's All the President's Men. But to me the two best movies of the century so far are The Pledge by Sean Penn--everyone says that the American Ingmar Bergman is Woody Allen, but if you really want to talk about a guy who can talk to you with the silence of God it's Sean Penn. And the movie, The Pledge, was beautifully made with a haunting message and performances that took everyone out of their iconography. I don't think Nicholson ever let an eyebrow arch in that entire film, and I think it's because Sean is one of the few guys who will tell it like it is to an actor and not anger them. The other movie that I think is genius is Pan's Labyrinth. I watched that movie and by the time it was done I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that I had watched something that beautiful and something that creative. Sometimes for a director--and I know for me--watching a movie that beautiful, that noble is sometimes a very sad experience because you realize that you're not there and you probably never will be. What you're watching up there is true genius. Talent does what it can and genius does what it must. Looking at Del Toro's work, it haunts me and saddens me and exhilirates me. All at the same time.

LAist: Like all directors, there are movies that you would love to make but will never get the chance to make. What story would be your ultimate pet project?

Rod Lurie: I really want to--with all my heart--I want to make a movie at West Point. I was gonna do a movie a few years ago called Heart of a Soldier. West Point had not approved a film in over half a century, but they approved our film. Because I went up there and looked into the eyes of the Superintendent who wanted to make sure that the Academy wasn't going to get screwed. But I'm a graduate from there and he trusted me. There's a West Point honor code that seeps into your life so there was a trust between us. The star of the film, Paul Walker, started pulling some deal-making shenanigans so Universal killed the film. It was a very, very sad day for me when I got a call from the Academy, disappointed that I had let them down. It really saddened me so I want to make it up to them. I want to go and I want to make a great film. I want to make a great film there.

LAist: Rod, I really appreciate it. Best of luck with Champ and everything else going forward.

Rod Lurie: Thank you very much.

Resurrecting the Champ opens this Friday. The LAist review will run tomorrow morning.

Photo courtesy of the Yari Film Group