Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Director Rod Lurie

We talk movies and media politics with the Nothing But the Truth director.

by | December 19, 2008 | Comments


Rod Lurie
Nothing But the Truth director Rod Lurie (The Contender)
took a circuitous route to Hollywood — he was an army officer and an
entertainment reporter before perching himself in the director’s chair. He’s
also an engaging conversationalist, full of insight on the key issues of the
day, especially where the worlds of film, politics, and journalism collide.

In Lurie’s latest film, Nothing But the Truth, Rachel Armstrong (Kate
Beckinsale), a reporter for a fictional Washington newspaper, is jailed after
revealing the identity of Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), a CIA agent who’s
married to a government official critical of a U.S. attack on Venezuela.
Armstrong’s imprisonment takes a toll on her family life, while Van Doren and
special prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) try to find the source of the
leak. The film has a number of parallels to the real-life cases of Judith Miller
and Valerie Plame, although Lurie says he was not trying to make a fictionalized
account of their stories. Rather, he wanted to make a thriller that examined the
personal toll on these two women.

In an interview with RT, Lurie not only waxed poetic on his favorite movies, he
also discussed his approach to melding fact and fiction, and bemoaned the
current state of the mass media.

 

All the
President’s Men
(1976, 100% Tomatometer)



All the President's Men

My number one favorite film is All the President’s Men, by [Alan]
Pakula. All the President’s Men is a movie that has a very personal
place for me because it made me want to be a journalist, and then it made me
want to be a filmmaker. I think that it has a level of realism that’s really
unparalleled in the world of thrillers which, inevitably, this film actually is.
There are moments of naturalism in it that are extraordinary. I remember there’s
one moment in it where [Robert] Redford is speaking to someone on the other line
who’s speaking Spanish. And he turns to the newsroom and says, “Does anyone here
speak English?” And then he laughs at himself and says, “I mean Spanish.” It had
this very real feel, and I asked Bob whether or not it was improvised. He said,
“No, it was actually planned. It was in the screenplay.” And there’s that sort
of attentiveness to human mannerism and the frailty of our diction is rather
beautiful in a film. It’s also supremely cast. There’s nothing about it I don’t
like.

The 400 Blows (1959,
100% Tomatometer)



The 400 Blows

Les Quatre cents coups, better known as The
400 Blows
, a film that every man can relate to, because every man once was
a boy. It also bears the historical importance of being among the first films of
the Nouvelle Vague, along with Breathless.

[The last shot] is one of the few freeze fames that I think really works in the history of
film. When you do a freeze frame, you have the opportunity to find the exact
shot that you want — no guessing. And [director Francois Truffaut] used it to
the full effect.


The Godfather
Part II
(1974, 98% Tomatometer)



The Godfather Part II

I would say [I like it] more so than [All the President’s Men], because I sort
of luxuriated in the ambition of it all: telling two stories simultaneous from
different eras. I don’t think that had ever been done before. It was also the
first R-rated movie I saw. I saw that, and in the evening I saw Chinatown.
So I saw two R-rated movies when I was 12 years old. That was quite a Christmas
vacation. I remember quite distinctly that my dad and I also saw The
Conversation
, and we saw Lenny and The Towering Inferno.
We saw all five movies over that Christmas vacation. That was really great.

Paths of Glory
(1957, 92% Tomatometer)



Paths of Glory

Being a military historian, I was really blown away by the depiction that
[Stanley] Kubrick had of trench life. But more importantly, I was immersed in
the moral quagmire that Col. Dax, played by Kirk Douglass, experienced in the
film. There’s a moment when somebody looks down at a cockroach and says, “You
see that cockroach?” He says something like, “In an hour, he’ll have more
relevance than I do.” And [another character] steps on the cockroach and says, “Not anymore.” Also, it was a very revolutionary shooting style that Kubrick
presented, with his long tracking shots and his use of close-up wide lenses that
I found very attractive. I first saw that film when I was a cadet at West Point.


The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three
(1974, 100%)



The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

And the final film, since you limited me to a mere five… that’s always the
biggest battle, not what will be number one, but what will be the last film on a
short list, because, you know, I would want to throw Pan’s Labyrinth on
there, or City of God, or Annie Hall, or Crimes and
Misdemeanors
. What I’m gonna put on is The Taking of Pelham One, Two,
Three
. You want to throw on your list something that is perhaps would be
contrarian, or would be unusual. But to me, it’s the most entertaining crime
film that I have ever seen. In a movie like that, involvement is the most
significant aspect in determining whether or not it’s successful. And you’re
simply involved in this movie. It doesn’t have one movie star. There’s nobody
particularly handsome or heroic in the film. You’re dealing with Walter Matthau
and Marty Balsam and Robert Shaw. To me, it’s a delight. It’s interesting
because a remake of it is gonna be coming out, I believe next year. I don’t
begrudge them. I think it’s an absolutely appropriate film to remake. As good as
it was, it can be given a modern sensibility that can appeal to modern
audiences.

Next: Rod Lurie talks about mass media, film distribution, and the politics
of awards season.

[rtimage]MapID=1202524&MapTypeID=2&photo=5&legacy=1[/rtimage]

It’s really interesting that you started off this whole thing with a
discussion of All the President’s Men, because that harkens back to a
time when the general public thought of journalists as heroes, after Watergate.
In the current climate in which Nothing But the Truth finds itself, not
only are newspapers folding left and right, but there’s a general distrust of
the mainstream media?

Rod Lurie: I think there is a good reason for that. As
corporations started buying up newspapers and magazines and television stations,
the need for profit overwhelmed every other aspect of that business, which was
not the case years ago. The networks looked at news divisions as loss leaders,
and they felt, “Really, no problem, as long as we got it right and we did well.”
But the need for profit has forced all of these organizations to get the widest
possible audience that they can, and one of the ways to do it is to become
partisan, to know that you’re gonna get all the Republicans to watch Fox, and
the vast majority of liberals are gonna watch MSNBC. As a result, this
partisanship has created a bias in the news. That bias, then angers a gigantic
section of the population. It never was that Walter Cronkite had people who
hated what he stood for. At the same time he was on, people didn’t hate John
Chancellor, or Harry Reasoner, or Howard K. Smith. But now, people really have
animus toward Sean Hannity on the right, or Chris Matthews, say, on the left.
They’re calling themselves journalists, and that’s not really what they are.
They’re just more politically–oriented Andy Rooneys. The bias has found its way
into the reporting of news.

I’ll tell you what: I’m a lefty, so let me take away my own bias and attack
the New York Times for a second. If you look like something like that
story about McCain having a mistress, or maybe she wasn’t a mistress, or they
weren’t sure what she was but they had to report something…In the old days, this
article never would have been published, because there wasn’t enough information
to report what they said were the facts. In today’s world, in order to feed
their liberal readership, they plastered it on the front page.

In Nothing But the Truth, there are a lot of parallels to
the cases of Judith Miller and Valerie Plame, but you twisted it a bit. When you
heard those stories, what did you want to leave in, and what did you want to
take out when making this film?

RL: Whenever you make a movie, when it’s done, as a
filmmaker, you never sit there and say, “Boy, I really got that right.” It’s, “Where did I screw up?” I’ve not confessed to anyone yet, but I really feel,
after having read a lot of reviews of the film — which have been overwhelmingly
positive — but those negative ones, every one of them make objection to the
fact that we have quote-unquote “gotten wrong” the Judith Miller sorry, or that
we have romanticized Judith Miller in some way, who by most people’s accounts is
not a glamorous figure. I never intended for this to be a roman a clef
of Judy Miller versus Valerie Plame. What I wanted to do was to take their
situation and put completely different characters in it, and see how different
human beings would behave in their situation. Of course, the story goes wildly
off the Plame story. But I dug myself a bit of a hole having enough parallels
that some of the lazier critics or some of the critics who have a political bias
could use that against the film. It probably would have been wise of me not to
make it a CIA agent. I could have made it some other sort of national security
[employee]. Maybe I shouldn’t have made her the wife of an ambassador. Most
people seem to seem to think it’s a high quality film, particularly for its
performances, [but] they’ve been sidetracked by [the facts versus the fictions].

[rtimage]MapID=1202524&MapTypeID=2&photo=2&legacy=1[/rtimage]

With this film and The Contender, are you attempting to
provide a civics lesson — for lack of a better term — within the framework of
a thriller?

RL: The answer to that is not just no, but unequivocally no.
I don’t think I’m equipped enough to be giving anyone a civics lesson, or any
kind of message. What I’m trying to do with both The Contender and Nothing
But the Truth
is to try to find entertaining stories that could come out of
“what-if” situations with regard to things that really happen in the world. For
example, in The Contender, a lot of people thought it was influenced by
the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In fact, it was influenced by me watching the
Clarence Thomas hearings and thinking, “Could you imagine if this person was a
woman, and this woman had to answer all these sexual questions, and how un f—-ing
comfortable that would be?” It would be outrageous. And I thought, “That’s a
good movie!”

In the case of Nothing But the Truth, its real genesis was I was
gonna do an episode on a smaller lever of this for Commander in Chief.
But I was fired, and Steven Bochco came in and killed it. So I really wanted to
do a story of a journalist in jail for protecting their source. When Miller and
Plame happened, I didn’t really follow their case, but I really wondered what
would happen if these were both moms, and their kids went to school together and
they had some sort of connective tissue between them. Once I started thinking
about that, the dominoes started falling into place. In fact, I wrote the ending
first. I felt it was a very a very cool and interesting idea to put the lead
character into an impossible situation.

As someone who came out of the world of journalism, what do you think
the future holds for newspapers?

RL: I think with the print newspaper business, it is
empirically obvious that it’s going the way of a disaster. I’ve noticed Rolling
Stone
has literally shrunk from its classic large size. The New York
Times
has also physically shrunk, and there are layoffs left and right.
It’s really a shame to me, because in 30 years my grandchildren probably won’t
know what a newspaper is. It’s rather stunning, and not good for the
dissemination of news, because there seems to be a less thoughtful and
calculated amount of research and investigation done by purely internet-run
publications.

Now, I love the internet. I’m on it all f—ing day long. I do read my print
newspaper in the morning, but all day long, I’m on the Internet. I love the
access to information, I like to be able to find anything I want, but there are
a couple things you don’t find that you’d be able to find in a print newspaper.
A newspaper will run a lead story that will go 2,500 to 3,000 words filled with
information. Being able to physically hold the newspaper and read it over a cup
of coffee at a diner lends itself to that. Stories of that length just don’t
appear on the internet almost ever. It’s kind of a shame; I wish both worlds
could coincide, but the internet has put a dagger in the heart of newspapers in
many ways.

The Contender came out at the tail end of the Clinton
administration, and Nothing But the Truth is being released at the end
of the Bush administration. Are you optimistic about the current state of
affairs?

RL: It seems to me that even the people on the
right seem to be watching Obama perform in the transition, and they’re putting
their fingers on their chin and they’re saying, “You know, let’s give this guy a
chance. Maybe there is something here after all.” I think there is a tremendous
amount of hopefulness. Now, I say this at the exact moment when the company
that’s releasing Nothing But the Truth, [Yari Film Group], last Friday
went into chapter 11 bankruptcy. And I’m seeing my own film, as far as the
immediate distribution beyond this qualifying run get obliterated. And I’m
seeing almost everyone at the Yari Film Group being fired, and these are people
I really like. And it’s all part of the economy that George Bush sank us into.
I’m hoping the confidence that the economy that the world seems to have for Obama is going to help our economy. Too late for my film, but people are having
far worse problems.

What is your next project?

RL: Well, if I tell you, it’s gonna open up a line of
questioning that’s gonna take forever…. I’m remaking Straw Dogs.

[rtimage]MapID=1202524&MapTypeID=2&photo=4&legacy=1[/rtimage]

What’s the new take, given that a lot of what Sam Peckinpah was doing
in that film is very much of its time?

RL: It was very much of its time, because it was about a
liberal anti-Vietnam guy who goes into an Irish town where he discovers he’s
capable of as much brutality and violence as those who he’d had objection to. I
certainly admire Peckinpah’s movie, but anyone who watches it objectively — and
certainly if they take the mythology about Peckinpah out of it — would find it
to be a film that’s more notorious than it is great.

When you’re making a film, do you ever think of awards recognition?

RL: I’ll be honest with you: the answer is yes, for Kate Beckinsale, and Vera Farmiga and Alan Alda in particular. I think the movie’s
impeccably acted. And in fact, both of them {Beckinsale and Farmiga] are both in
the mix; the both got nominated for the Critic’s Choice Awards. Here’s the
thing: the awards at the end of the year are absolutely driven by the ability to
finance a very aggressive marketing campaign. In today’s New York Times,
the ad for Revolutionary Road runs six full pages. That must be
$500,000 to $750,000 ad in just the New York Times. The truth is the
Yari Film Group couldn’t get anyone to see the film. What can you do when you’re
a tiny distributor with a high level film, and you’re sending out screeners, and
[a critic] gets a screener for Nothing But the Truth, but at the same
time you’re getting Benjamin Button and Doubt and Revolutionary
Road
and Slumdog Millionaire. These movies just have major
financial clout behind them. I contacted about a third of the Broadcast film
critics just to make sure they were looking at the film, and almost everyone I
spoke to said they had the screener but they hadn’t gotten around to it, which
meant they weren’t gonna see it before they voted. And I asked them just to look
at the film, and they looked at the film and voted for the women. I feel that if
we had a little more marketing power, we would have been more successful,
because I really do believe, as many of the critics pointed out, that Kate and
Vera are absolutely on fire in this film.

Want more Five Favorite Films? Check out previous installments with Don Cheadle, Robert Pattinson, Kevin Smith, and Judd Apatow.

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