Rod Lurie On Dustin Hoffman and His Remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”

The last time I spoke with Israeli-born writer-director Rod Lurie—whose remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial film, “Straw Dogs,” opened this past week – was before the premiere of “The Contender” (2000), his political thriller about a female U.S. senator (Joan Allen) who is nominated for the vice presidency, only to encounter allegations of sexual scandal.  The movie critic-turned-filmmaker had made his debut feature, “Deterrence,” in 1999, exploring the dilemma of the first Jewish president of the United States thrust into a nuclear crisis.

In making “Straw Dogs,” the 49-year-old Lurie—the son of famed Israeli political cartoonist Ranan Lurie and the first Israeli-born graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point—braced himself for a more personal kind of attack.  “One of the first things that Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, said to me after giving me the green light to write and direct the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” [1971]…was ‘You know, there’s going to be a big bull’s-eye on your back.’  Boy was he right,” Lurie told The Hollywood Reporter.  “From the minute we announced our plans, the bloggers made it clear that I was ‘no Sam Peckinpah,’ that I was a virtual heretic, a blight on all that is cinema.”

The original film, adapted from Gordon Williams’ novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” stars the iconic Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a New York intellectual and mathematics professor who travels with his sexy new wife, Amy, (Susan George) to her hometown in rural England.  There, tensions escalate between the pacifist David and Amy’s ex, Charlie, who hangs with a thuggish posse.  The end result is that David is willing to kill to defend what he perceives as his property (including his wife), and discovers the savage within.

Lurie’s version stars James Marsden as a Hollywood screenwriter with a hot new actress wife (Kate Bosworth), who finds his humanity, rather than his inner caveman, when attacked by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård of “True Blood”) and friends. 

I caught up with Lurie last week to discuss why he was drawn to this signature film by Peckinpah, who in the 1970s proved himself a master of bloody, brutal cinema.  We also discussed how Lurie’s Jewish worldview affected the outcome of his remake and why he cast Marsden to portray David, rather than an actor reminiscent of Hoffman, one of the most identifiably Jewish movie stars ever.

Here are excerpts from our conversation: 

NPM:  When did you first see Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs?”

RL:  When I was at West Point, I was in charge of the film society, meaning that every Friday I would bring in a film and show it to the cadets in the auditorium.  It was always supposed to be a classic film, but sometimes I would bring in a film that I had never seen before. When I brought in “Straw Dogs,” I didn’t even know what its content was; I just knew that it was a controversial film from an esteemed director.  I will never forget the horrified look on the generals’ and colonels’ faces in that middle sequence [the scene in which Amy is raped].  They allowed the film to play out and the cadets were really into it.  But there was a certain sensibility at the academy—at least when I was there—that we were officers and gentlemen and this wasn’t a movie at the time that a gentleman watched.  And so I got a very big ass-chewing and was relieved of my duties as curator of the film society for a few weeks.  Now that I look back on it, maybe making this film is somehow connected to that – the sense that I got in a lot of trouble and I’m going to get my revenge. [He laughs.]  I’m joking as I say that, obviously.

NPM: Hoffman’s character, David Sumner, is not specifically Jewish in Peckinpah’s film.  Even so, do you think Hoffman’s own Jewishness added any kind of subtext to the story?

RL: There were five actors ahead of Hoffman who were offered the role of David:  They were Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Sidney Poitier.  And the film would have been much, much different with each one of those actors. 

The layering of Hoffman’s performance, and what makes his character such an unusual protagonist —perhaps unique in film history—comes from the fact that it was Dustin Hoffman himself.  There is something about Hoffman that does smack certainly of an intellectual; somebody you cannot in any way imagine being physical.  And there is, attributed to many Jews, a certain intellect-over-brawn mentality; there is not a sense of internal violence. 

And so in his effort to demonstrate that all men are genetically coded to violence, Peckinpah ended up with an actor who, perhaps among all the other major actors of his time, one would least expect to become violent.  In the trailer for the original “Straw Dogs,” there is a moment where they say, “Sam Peckinpah unleashes– dun dun dun [imitates scary, dramatic music] – Dustin Hoffman!” Now that seems semi-comical, because Hoffman is the last person in the world you’d expect to have any violence within him.

NPM:  Back in the 1970s, Were you conscious that Hoffman, as well as actors such as Elliott Gould, had become stars despite the fact that they were Jewish and not the so-called all-American ideal?

RL:  Absolutely.  But since I was growing up with those actors and those films, it never struck me as particularly out of sync with the way that movie stars were at the time.  I thought that being a movie star meant you were Dustin Hoffman or Elliott Gould.  Or if you’re talking about non-Jews, Al Pacino.  There were also the gorgeous actors like Robert Redford and Paul Newman, of course.  But certainly back then when character was king, the best character actors became the most successful actors.  Gene Hackman is another example.

NPM:  You weren’t particularly gung-ho about “Straw Dogs” when your producing partner, Marc Frydman, brought it to you years ago.

RL:  We were obtaining the rights because we thought it was a good, commercial piece of property.  And then I ran into Dustin Hoffman at a cocktail party at Mike Medavoy’s house and we got to talking about the story; he regarded the original film as simply a Western, like “High Noon,” in which the lone hero, who is not accustomed to having to fight, suddenly has to take everyone on. 

Dustin told me that Sam had his own ideas about humanity, and if I had my own ideas, why didn’t I put my own spin on the story?  That really is what convinced me to make the movie.  I immediately went to my partner, Marc, and said, “Dustin says we should do the film.”  Then we went out and started trying to see which studio would make it.

NPM:  How would you describe the difference between Peckinpah’s “spin” and your own?

RL:  I don’t know too much about Peckinpah’s politics, but I do know that he was semi-obsessed with the writings of Robert Ardrey, who wrote “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative.”  Peckinpah called Ardrey a prophet; but the truth is, Ardrey had semi-fascist ideas, in particular that we are genetically coded to violence.  And Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” certainly was played that way.

I don’t share that view at all; I believe that we’re conditioned to violence, rather than the fact that we are innately violent.  That’s the reason some countries have never been to war, while others always seem to be at war.

NPM:  What part does your Israeli background play in your worldview, as expressed in the film?

RL:  I think that Israel does what it feels it needs to do to survive as a nation.  I go back to that quotation, which I can only paraphrase, from “Munich” [Steven Spielberg’s film about the mission to assassinate terrorists responsible for murdering Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics]:  Sometimes we have to compromise our own beliefs in order to survive. 

There is a macho-ness in Israel, that’s for sure, but I don’t think it’s a nation of people who have blood lust in their hearts.  Although I am, in principle, in disagreement with almost everything that Ariel Sharon has had to say, I do believe he was right when he said, “If the Jews lay down their arms, there would be no Israel, whereas if the Arab nations did, there would be no war.”  That goes back to what I am saying about a conditioning to violence.  I don’t think Israelis are necessarily taught to hate their Arab neighbors, but they are taught to beware and to be cynical – and to be ready to survive.

NPM:  You’ve said you didn’t try to cast a New York Jewish intellectual type to play David; instead you went for a “sort of Greenwich, CT, country club sort of intellectual.”

RL:  I didn’t want somebody who was evocative of Dustin Hoffman.  I thought that if I did cast an actor who was too similar– and I don’t want to mention any names – it would have been an impossible weight for that actor to carry.  People would say, “That person is no Dustin Hoffman, just like the director is no Sam Peckinpah.”

I’ll tell you a funny story:  I was at an Oscar party a year ago and Dustin Hoffman was there, and I wanted to introduce him to James Marsden.  But James didn’t want to meet him; he said, ‘[Dustin] is going to be angry with me.”  And I said, “Jimmy, you’re the only guy on earth who’s scared of an ass-whooping from Dustin Hoffman.” 

NPM:  In your film, David is a Hollywood screenwriter working on a project about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II – in which the Russians ousted the Nazis despite the fact that the Wehrmacht controlled more than 90 percent of the city at times.  How did you intend this bloody battle to parallel David’s journey?

RL:  Stalingrad is the ultimate example of the underdog using all of its resilience to beat back a ferocious enemy.  It was the most important battle not just of World War II, but it may well be the most important battle of the 20th century.  It was an example of people fighting because they had to; it wasn’t just the Red Army that won that battle, it was the citizens—women fighting with broomsticks, kids throwing bricks and using whatever they had in their arsenal to survive.  Perhaps this comes off a little too neatly in the film, but the bottom line is that these citizens were not fighting and killing Nazis because there was a blood lust inside of them.  I was keen on using Stalingrad to exemplify how people can behave violently, but that doesn’t mean they are innately violent.

Of course, you have to be very careful whenever you make reference to the Nazis, because their heinousness was so extreme that you diminish it by comparing it to almost anything.  I wasn’t so much comparing our villains to the Nazis as comparing our hero to the citizens of Stalingrad – in the sense that he was fighting a much stronger foe, and using whatever resources he had at his disposal. 

NPM:  The playwright Harold Pinter – who also happens to be Jewish – was incredibly disturbed by Peckinpah’s film; you have a copy of the letter he sent Peckinpah about the project.

RL:  The letter has been in the Peckinpah archives for a long time.  Basically what happened is that Peckinpah had wanted Pinter to write the screenplay for “Straw Dogs,” but Pinter had turned it down.  I think that a), the subject wasn’t his cup of tea, and b), it was perhaps too repetitive of a play he had written called “The Homecoming.”  So Sam wrote his own version of the screenplay and sent it to Pinter, who wrote back – I remember one of the lines reading that he “detested it above all detestation.” Like me, Pinter did not think that men are biologically coded to savagery.  That letter was one of the reasons I decided to make the film. 

NPM:  The film critic Pauline Kael called Peckinpah’s film the first great American fascist work of art.

RM:  I think the word, “fascist” is extremely hyperbolic, but I understand her point of view. 

NPM:  Is there anything else in your worldview, as expressed in “Straw Dogs,” that comes from your Jewish background?

RL:  I think that Jews tend to have a very realistic view of human nature, and a very humanist one. 

“Straw Dogs” is now in theaters.