It’s one thing to remake a film like Fright Night, a staple within its genre but mostly unknown to those who shy away from horror. But to revisit an all-around classic as treasured as Straw Dogs is—now that’s quite courageous.
Directed and co-written by trailblazing auteur Sam Peckinpah, the iconic filmmaker behind 1969’s immortal western The Wild Bunch, the 1971 version of Straw Dogs starred a young Dustin Hoffman as an uptight mathematician who shacks up with his hot young wife (Susan George) in her native English village. There, the locals don’t take too kindly to Hoffman’s academia and general outsider position, systematically threatening him; once his wife’s ex rapes her, a series of events jumps off that tip over into a violent home invasion finale. Peckinpah’s aim was to explore the brutality that exists within every man, and, back in ’71, audiences and critics were repulsed, if not also blown away.
Compelled to modernize Straw Dogs for today’s society, writer-director Rod Lurie has put himself into a vulnerable position—he’s an easy target. People who swear by Peckinpah’s film have their rotten tomatoes aimed in Lurie’s direction, anticipating an inferior re-imagining of Conan The Barbarian proportions.
What they’ll get, however, is a well-acted take on the material that’s not without its own clever ideas. Lurie, who’s earned critical acclaim with past political dramas movies The Contender (2000) and Nothing But The Truth (2008), has brought Straw Dogs to the States; James Marsden and Kate Bosworth star as the central couple, newlyweds who relocate to her old Mississippi hometown, a football-obsessed community not unlike that of Friday Night Lights, so he can work on a war movie screenplay. For his main antagonist (read: the ex-boyfriend), Lurie cast Alexander Skarsgård, a.k.a. Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood—clearly, Lurie not only moved the setting into southern America, but he also brought the cast’s age range down to commercially viable numbers.
On the eve of his Straw Dogs judgment day, Lurie spoke with Complex about the rationale behind tweaking Peckinpah’s original film, his reluctance in casting Sookie Stackhouse’s lover, and why the Straw Dogs experience makes him want to give Justin Timberlake a phone call.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: You’re a brave man for taking on such a classic and cherished movie as a remake. What drew you to the idea of redoing Straw Dogs?
Rod Lurie: It came to me as a possibility about 10 years ago, actually, and I knew the rights were available. At first, I was very hesitant about doing it for obvious reasons; the attacks that came my way then and are still coming my way today are what I prognosticated.
But I ran into Dustin Hoffman, and he had a long talk with me about it. He explained to me that, indeed, Straw Dogs is just a western, and he encouraged me to put my own spin on it and to go ahead and make that western. I don’t necessarily have to make Sam Peckinpah’s film. He convinced me to do it, and studios…well, at least one studio in this case. [Laughs.] Sony wanted to do it, so we went with them.
The most obvious difference between your film and Sam Peckinpah’s is that yours is set in a southern American town, not an English village. Why was it important for you to relocate the story?
That was all me. First of all, I wanted to set it in the United States to make the film more relatable to American audiences, and, really, international audiences, too—international audiences feel like they know the south very well, as well. This was the kind of town where I could put all these ingredients into the script that would help differentiate it from the original film. What I mean by that is, I wanted to make a film about people who are conditioned to violence, not people, like in Peckinpah’s film, who are innately violent.
I wanted to set it in a place where football is king, and that’s a violent sport; hunting is king, and that’s a violent sport, as well; and where they talk about a god that kills and seeks revenge. People that are conditioned to violence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it had to be the south at all; in fact, it could be in Pennsylvania, or in up in Washington state, or in California.
But I just happened to think that the south would be particularly inviting for a movie like this, and create a good fish-out-of-water situation for the main character, played by James Marsden. He’s this Connecticut country club, yuppie kind of guy, so he’s immediately out of his element and met with resistance the second he steps foot into the south, and that felt like an interesting place to root his dilemma.
You bring the religious aspect up—there’s a really good scene where James Marsden’s character walks out of the town’s mass, and when Alexander Skarsgard questions why he’d do such a thing, he says that their god seems like a bully. Were religious touches like that something else you wanted to use to separate your film from the original?
I wasn’t so much concerned about having a thesis on religion in this film as I was trying to make the point that the bad guys in the film have been taught that violence is OK, because, if God can commit violence, then we all can commit violence. I was not going to use my film as a forum for religious thought; it was more a case where I just thought it was interesting to the conditioning of these people.
Is the south an area you’re personally familiar with, or did you need to spend time down there before writing the script?
I lived in the south at one time; I lived in Alabama, and I lived in Tennessee and then Richmond, Va. I wouldn’t mind going back there, either. I love that part of the world—I love the people, I love the fattening food, I love the music, and I love the weather when it’s not hurricane season. It’s all very appealing to me, which is another reason why I decided to set the film in that area.
The casting of Alexander Skarsgård is interesting, considering that he’s a Swedish guy known for playing an undead former Viking on True Blood—not exactly the kind of guy you’d associate with a southern lifer. But, despite that, he seems perfect for the role, and gives one of the film’s strongest, most convincing performances. What prompted your decision to cast him?
You’re right, and when I first met him, I had to reconsider. When he came in for the first time, he was very Swedish—he was wearing all-white clothing, had very wispy blonde hair and had a very sweet smile. Personally, if that was the only time I’d ever seen him, I wouldn’t have hired him, but I had seen him in HBO’s Generation Kill and knew what he was capable of doing. He really sees this movie as a love story about him getting back the girl that he lost, and that’s the way he played it, and I thought that he played it rather beautifully.
And that love story culminates, albeit uncomfortably and dangerously, in the controversial rape scene, which shocked the hell out of folks back in 1971 when the original film came out. I’ve seen in past interviews that you just refer to it as “The Scene.”
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s really all that needs to be said. But I’ve realized that I don’t want to talk about “The Scene” at this point, because, frankly, since most people have no idea what Straw Dogs is and don’t know the story at all, it becomes a spoiler. I certainly handle the scene in a different way than how Peckinpah handled it, and in a way that I think is going to get cheers from feminists by the time the movie ends.
And it’s one hell of an ending. The home invasion siege at the end has some very brutal imagery. When you were writing the climax, how’d you set out to modernize the extreme violence? It doesn’t seem like there’s any CGI used, which gives the siege a very realistic feel.
Well, in the siege itself I think there’s one CGI shot, actually, but I don’t want to say what it is. It’s all stuntmen and very authentic, and also very cool, frankly—I was enamored by it all as we were shooting. The scene needed to be modernized, but, more importantly, it’s about the attitude of the lead character. In my film, the lead character is fighting for his life, and fighting because he has to; I think Sam Peckinpah himself would tell you that his David was fighting because that rage and violence was always within him.
That comparison is one, amongst many, that people are definitely going to harp on. It seems unavoidable that critics and fans of the original films aren’t able to watch a remake on its own merits, and its own terms—there are always comparisons made, and often those comparisons lead to unfavorable comments about the new versions. It’s an endless cycle.
Yeah, of course. The reviews have been coming out and they couldn’t be more divided down the middle. There are people who refuse to let go of the Peckinpah film at all, and then there are people who have looked at this film on its own merits, or as a flipside of the Peckinpah film to a certain degree. And, yeah, I knew that was going to happen. Every time I make a film, I always make these controversial films, and I always deal with attacks from the press. Just one of these days, I should really make a nice romantic comedy. [Laughs.] Cast Justin Timberlake and Anne Hathaway, who are both wonderful actors, and just have an easy go of it, instead of always having to fight. Straw Dogs has certainly been a fight, but I’m proud of the film and I’m hoping that people can view it with an open mind.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)