Rod Lurie, Nothing But The Truth
Rod Lurie has had remarkable success as a writer-director by focusing on his preoccupations with the worlds of politics and journalism. Born in Israel, but raised in Hawaii and Connecticut, Lurie is the son of esteemed syndicated political cartoonist turned foreign policy expert Ranan Lurie, and grew up with politics as a staple of everyday life. After attending West Point, Lurie served four years in Germany in the U.S. Army and then became a film critic, entertainment reporter and radio talk show host. Lurie made the transition from writing about movies to making them with his politically themed short, Four Second Delay (1998), the success of which quickly lead to him writing and directing two features set in Washington, D.C. The low budget Deterrence (1999) featured Kevin Pollak as the first Jewish president of the USA, while the much higher profile The Contender (2000) starred Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen and Gary Oldman, and centered on the controversy surrounding the attempted appointment of a female vice president. Lurie followed up with the prison drama The Last Castle (2001), with Robert Redford and Mark Ruffalo, and then took a sideways move into TV with the shows Line of Fire (2003), about FBI agents, and Commander in Chief (2005-06), which featured Geena Davis as America’s first female president. He returned to the big screen last year with Resurrecting The Champ, the true story of an investigative journalist (Josh Hartnett) who finds a former heavyweight boxer (Samuel L. Jackson) living homeless on the streets.
With his latest project, Nothing But the Truth, Lurie revisits his favorite subjects: Washington politics and investigative journalism. The plot revolves around an exposé written by Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) which reveals that Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), the wife of a U.S. ambassador, is a CIA operative, and that her reports of another country’s innocence in an assassination attempt on the American president were ignored by the government. Armstrong’s story gets her a Pulitzer nomination, but her refusal to give up the name of her source has an increasingly destructive impact on her life, as well as Van Doren’s. The film clearly riffs on the Valerie Plame scandal, but Lurie is more interested in examining the legal and political ideas that the incident stirred up (the role of political journalism, First Amendment rights, government intervention), as well as the human implications of the story, rather than sticking closely to the facts of the case. What Lurie delivers is both a compelling human drama and a tightly written political thriller, at the center of which is Beckinsale’s career best performance as the resolute journalist who stands up to the system to defend her story, her rights and her principles. The always excellent Farmiga stands out among a sterling supporting cast that includes Matt Dillon, Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, Noah Wyle and David Schwimmer.
Filmmaker spoke to Lurie about his roots in political life, the sudden collapse of the film’s distributor, Yari Film Group, and his next project, a remake of Straw Dogs.
Filmmaker: Your father was a political cartoonist, so when did politics become a passion for you?
Lurie: Throughout my entire childhood, our home was overrun by generals and governors and senators and congressmen and ambassadors. When kids my age were wondering who won the baseball game last night, I wanted to know how well Lowell Weicker did in the primary in Michigan the night before. Politics appeared to me to be some sort of contact sport, I was always really fascinated by it and I never lost my interest in it. Even when I was in college, my basis for study was political science and international relations. I always found it so interesting that I couldn’t imagine others wouldn’t find it interesting as well, so it seemed to me to be an obvious fit in the film world.
Filmmaker: After leaving the army, you became a film critic before transitioning into making films.
Lurie: When I was a little boy, I viewed film critics as the coolest people on earth because back in my day the movies you would go and see would be everything from The Sting to Taxi Driver to All the President’s Men to Rocky – really, really unequivocally great films. Going to the movies was a cool thing back then, so it stood to reason that film critics must be the coolest people on earth. I really wanted to become a film critic and I even began a correspondence with people like Pauline Kael, Judith Crist and Roger Ebert. They were so mensch-y they would write me back: I was 12 or 13 years old and having a relationship with these guys. There was nothing better than going up to my bedroom and on my bed would be waiting a letter from Ebert who, very early on, became a hero to me.
Filmmaker: With Nothing But the Truth, it seems like you’ve once again drawn on your persistent passions and fascinations: investigative journalism, politics and movies.
Lurie: One of things I’ve been telling all people who want careers as directors and producers is, “Don’t go to school to study film, because the only real education will be on a set eventually. What you need to study is what you want to make movies about. Become an expert on that, become knowledgeable about that. Study. Become smart, become educated, because it will become invaluable to you later on. I remember when I was a cadet at West Point, I became interested in things that are very important at West Point, which is history, the military, character, principle and leadership. Ultimately, everything I’ve ever done has been about those facets of life that really interest me.
Filmmaker: When people refer to Nothing But The Truth, they inevitably bring up the Valerie Plame case. How closely did you base the film on those events?
Lurie: It turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass (and I really brought it upon myself), because what I did was I wrote a movie in which I put different women into a similar situation that [journalist Judith] Miller and Plame were in. [I was influenced by the case of] Susan McDougal, the woman who wouldn’t testify against Bill Clinton in the Whitewater scandal for what she said were righteous principles. I think she stayed in [jail] for years – not just months, not just days – and that character fascinated me more as a personality than Judith Miller did. By the end of the film, maybe we reevaluate the motivations of the lead character a little bit, but there’s no doubt that one way or another she’s guarded by a very strong set of principles.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the ending. We can’t discuss it directly, but it makes you reconsider everything that’s gone before.
Lurie: We do it for economic reasons – we want the people to see the movie a second time.
Filmmaker: Well, you seem to be joking, but one of my questions was about whether you had designed this to be a film people would feel compelled to watch again, because of the ending.
Lurie: I’m not joking – but I am speaking humorously… The point is that the movie does make you reconstruct the film in your mind, and when you can’t do that, you simply choose to see it again. The ending was the first thing I wrote of this particular story. I just thought, “Wouldn’t this be cool?” It presents the ultimate “What would you do in that situation?” I think one of the things I like the most about Nothing But The Truth is that it is indeed a movie where you have empathy with the lead character and try to figure out how you would behave in a similar situation. I love Iron Man and I love Batman, but I never found myself asking, “What would I do in Batman’s shoes? How would I combat the Joker?” But you do ask yourself persistently, “Would I be doing what she’s doing? Do I believe in what she’s doing?”
Filmmaker: Presumably you could easily key into the mindset of Kate Beckinsale’s character because you were once an investigative reporter yourself.
Lurie: I have absolutely been in those situations. I wrote a piece about The National Enquirer and about their news gathering techniques. In fact, they assigned a private investigator named Anthony Pellicano – who’s now in jail pretty much for the rest of his life – to try to get the story killed and try to find out who my sources were. I do not profess to be a tough guy, but I’m happy to say that we remained very resilient in that case. But I really think that journalism is the among the most noble of all professions when done properly, when people keep their word and promise to report the truth.
Filmmaker: How did people respond to the idea of funding this kind of political thriller – obviously anything to do with Iraq at the moment is box office poison…
Lurie: One of the reasons why the primary conflict in the film is with Venezuela is because we didn’t want to touch Iraq in any way, shape or form. You’re right, it’s box office poison. It’s simply insane to make a movie set there – unless it’s money that you’re happy to lose, because you’re going to lose it. Like The Contender, Nothing But The Truth was made at a budget that makes sense. Ultimately the film is going to be sold as a thriller, and it can attract a thriller audience. People who saw it immediately after it was put together thought it was a more commercial film than they had ever imagined. Time will tell if they’re right or not.
Filmmaker: Your first two films were about presidents, as was Commander in Chief, and this film concerns politics also. I presume that you must still really enjoy immersing yourself in that world.
Lurie: It is very enjoyable, but my next film is Straw Dogs. I was advised by everyone from my wife to my partner, Mark Friedman, that my next film really should not have anything to do with politics or journalism or the media. It should be something outside of that very safe area in which I have lived, I should grab my balls a little bit and make a big ass commercial thriller, which will also have a lot of artistic merit, hopefully. As much as I enjoy it, it has become time for me to move away from it.
Filmmaker: How daunting is it to be remaking a film like Straw Dogs?
Lurie: I’m pretty much assuming that the bullseye is on my back for the time being with the critics, that there is going to be a predisposition to go to war with the movie even before they’ve seen it – but I would just really caution everyone to take a deep breath and wait until the movie comes out, and then let the arrows land where they may. But we’re pretty confident that we have a really good screenplay, and it hasn’t been cast yet but we have every confidence there as well.
Filmmaker: The distributor of Nothing But The Truth, Yari Film Group, went into Chapter 11 just a few days ago. Did you know at all about the situation beforehand?
Lurie: I didn’t know. I found out about 6pm [on December 12] and it was really, absolutely shocking. At this moment, I still haven’t spoken to Bob [Yari] and I’m sure he’s got incredibly important things to do. None of us really knows what it’s really going to mean, how it’s going to affect the film. Probably it will have it’s Academy [Awards] qualifying run and there’s going to be a situation where it probably will have to get sold to another distributor. It’s rather stunning. This town is littered with the corpses of movies that got trapped in bankruptcies and companies that went under and we just want to do everything we can not to become one of those films. It’s very possible. I’m so proud of all the actors involved in this film, and I can’t believe that I’ve spent over a year working on nothing but this – my whole heart is in it – and, “Goodbye, Charlie.” But hopefully it will work itself out, because the Yari people are good people, they just got really trapped in really horrible economic vise.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Lurie: The last time that I blubbered in a movie, like a baby, was 20 years ago watching Born on the 4th of July, and that scene where Tom Cruise comes home from the V.A. He knows that everything is fucked up, his family knows that everything is fucked up, and both are pretending that nothing is fucked up. We know the tragedy that is about to befall them, and John Williams’ scores at exactly the moment that his mom comes out of the house. I remember being an absolute wreck at the end of that film, and then I saw it again when I showed it to my whole family, and I remember crying again. At the end of the film, none of us could really talk, we were just so swept away by the mountain of emotion that Oliver Stone had created.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Lurie: Hollywood is most certainly not going in the right direction. Unfortunately – and we have the economy to blame – it’s impossible for independent films to get made with anywhere near the level that they were even two or three years ago, so there is an entire segment of entertainment that is going to go away. We’re going to end up with some very valid films, but they will be safe films: franchises and sequels. This comes from the guy who’s going to remake a film, but the film I’m remaking was not a big box office hit when it came out. And it is risky.
Filmmaker: Finally, if the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Lurie: I wish that I could make a greater contribution as a filmmaker. I’m proud of my movies, but I think that there’s so much more that I would be capable of. I’ve never said this before and will probably regret saying it… I don’t want to indicate that my films haven’t been good, but I think that my best work will come when both my kids are in college and don’t need me that much. The truth is that when you look at movies like Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now or anything that Kubrick made, you’re looking at movies that were made by men that were absolutely obsessed, that they lived and breathed and ate their films 24/7. They either had no children or [laughs], I presume, ignored their children for a while. I have always gone to prep as late as possible because I want to spend as much time with my children as I can and I get back home as soon as I can and instead of working on my film at night, so I’ve not been able to give any one film the 110% treatment that is required to create great, soul-splitting art. That will come, but my kids will be in college, so a couple of years away.