Why would a former film critic remake a divisive classic like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs? Rod Lurie explains why he took on the job of tackling “Bloody Sam.”
Written by Dylan Callaghan
To say it’s obvious that Rod Lurie is a former film critic might be giving film critics too much credit. The writer-director behind a new remake of the controversial 1971 Sam Peckinpah classic, Straw Dogs, is more scholar than critic. He approached this remake, which originally starred Dustin Hoffman as a bookish math professor staying in a remote Cornish cottage with his younger wife, like a devout monk scouring a holy text. He read every book, article and even personal correspondence from or about Peckinpah relevant to the original film’s making.
Though initially leery of remaking Dogs, Lurie, who was born in Israel and raised in Connecticut and Hawaii, decided to tackle the job by telling the same fundamental tale with a wholly different point of view. He would, essentially supplant Peckinpah’s core idea, that man is by nature violent, with his own; that violence is begotten by absolute necessity or conditioning.
Peckinpah’s original was not only hotly contested for its brutal violence, but specifically for a rape scene in which Hoffman’s younger wife “cuddles” with her rapist. This was a key motivation for Lurie to take on the project, which he has called a “feminist” remake. Not surprising since Lurie has made a name for himself by depicting strong female characters in films like The Contender and Nothing But the Truth. This new Dogs takes place in the American South rather than the English countryside and Hoffman’s character is played by James Marsden while Kate Bosworth takes on Susan George’s role of Amy.
Lurie spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the fundamental philosophies of human nature in both versions and what he learned from grappling with Peckinpah.
First, the obvious question: This is a classic. It’s Sam Peckinpah and it’s a contentious film on top of that. What made you want to redo it?
Photo: © 2011 CTMG, Inc
Drew Powell, James Marsden, and Billy Lush in Straw Dogs.
First of all the opportunity was presented to me. My producing partner Marc Frydman and I found out the rights… which were being controlled by Miramax for Ed Norton to star in, were lapsing. He asked me if I was interested in writing, producing or directing a remake and my first reaction was the same as the blogosphere’s – that’s an insane idea. You can’t possibly win with that.
Nevertheless, when an opportunity presents itself you don’t dismiss it. I got to thinking quite a bit about it. I went back and read that very famous Pauline Kael review in which she called it the first American fascist work of art. It’s probably the most famous film review ever written. I was trying to figure out what she meant by that exactly.
I began to research Peckinpah a little bit. I went to the Academy library and pulled all the documentation on the making of the film. I realized that so much of the basis for his screenplay and his film was a theory called the territorial imperative, which comes from a book of the same title by Robert Ardrey.
Basically, at its very root, it says that human beings, men in particular, are almost genetically coded to violence, that it’s simply a part of all of us.
That was something that was out of synch with my own beliefs and those of most people I know. It then became clear to me that the reason that Susan George cuddles with her rapist in the original film is that it fits with the concept of the territorial imperative. She is now attracted to the biggest alpha in the group as gorillas might be. Basically, what Ardrey was saying, followed up by Peckinpah, was that human society reflects the animal kingdom. I don’t believe it does. I believe that if you’re violent, it’s because you were conditioned that way.
So you wanted to deconstruct this notion.
Yes, I wanted to tell the same story but from a completely different sociopolitical point of view.
You’ve nutshelled Peckinpah’s point of view pretty well. What is the world view you wanted to put forward with the remake?
I shouldn’t say the “world view.” My view is that violence is conditioned and that people will be violent if they have to be or if they’re conditioned to believe that it’s a way of life. In fact, there’s a moment in our film where the character David [the husband, a screenwriter in the new version] says to our villain, Charlie, played by Alexander Skarsgard, that he understands that hunting is a tradition in their town. Charlie responds that there’s a tradition and then there’s a way of life.
So what I did was I set this in a community where violence is their way of life. They are so centered around football, hunting, bar fights, and listening to sermons about an almighty God that smites you from the earth if you don’t please him, [that] violence is really a part of their lives.
So it’s a matter of indoctrination?
That’s exactly correct. I think Peckinpah himself would have said that, at the end of Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman’s character finds the animal inside of him. In my Straw Dogs, that character finds the man inside him. I’m not saying that Peckinpah doesn’t have a point of view with integrity. He does. I just happen to have a different point of view and I thought it might be interesting to simply present the same story with a different point of view.
On a purely technical level, can you give me an idea of how you worked off Peckinpah's original script? Did you simply work from the beats of that script as your frame and then flesh it out?
I didn't have the Peckinpah-Goodman screenplay next to me when I wrote the film. But two things of note: I did read every single draft, and there were many, including the one Goodman wrote solo, which was a direct adaptation of the book [Gordon M. Williams’ The Siege of Trencher's Farm]. I was searching for goodies. I ended up putting one line into my script from the batch. It didn't make it into the final Peckinpah cut nor mine. As I was writing I would often have the original on in the background. So much of shifting the theme from his point of view to mine would end up in the execution. Because we changed so much at the head of the film, presenting new versions of Amy and David, it ended up changing the mood of the second half as well, even though many of the scenes and even dialogue were kept intact.
Why did you decide to change it from the English countryside to the American South? What did that give you that you wanted?
First of all, this question could be asked about maybe 200 different things in the film. When you remake a film you’re gonna change things. I could go on forever saying why I changed this and why I changed that… as for the change to the American South, it was important to me to make this film a movie of its time and something relatable to American audiences as well as world audiences. I say to world audiences because they’ve become so familiar with the American South.
I wasn’t interested in setting it in some super-remote outpost that could theoretically be seen as a place where this kind of behavior was unique…
Right. By putting it in a prototypically American small town, we suggest that the condition of violence can occur anywhere. And by the way, I like to make movies where I can contribute my own knowledge and experience. I’ve lived in the American South. I know it, and I love it. I will probably move back there someday.
I don’t know anything about Cornish towns.
What would you say to those critics who might say this is Hollywood bashing the South?
They would say that about any place that I set the film I suppose and I guess, in that sense, there’s no winning. But when you see the film, you’ll see that it doesn’t bash the South. We have Southern characters in the film that are exemplary – the sheriff, the coach, and others… I’m personally a fan of life down there.
To your point about male identity, the original Straw Dogs was in 1971. Here we are all these years later, how has male identity changed? What does that mean now?
What it means is what it has always meant, that in the face of a crisis, you can stand up to it and confront it, be it in a physical or intellectual capacity. Peckinpah once said, although he never really demonstrated it on film, that true masculinity is pacifism. I agree with that. But there are points where pacifism becomes an impossibility.