Q&A with Nothing But the Truth director Rod Lurie
Director Rod Lurie has had Colorado on his mind in recent years. His 2007 film Resurrecting the Champ, co-starring Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson (with a cameo by John Elway), was partially filmed in Denver and based loosely on an article by J.R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Tender Bar, who once worked as a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain News. The flick was a mess, and a miss: Read our attempt to bury Resurrecting the Champ here. But his latest movie, Nothing But the Truth, a Kate Beckinsale starrer that serves as the opening night attraction of the Boulder International Film Festival (get details about the February 12 Boulder Theater event by clicking here) is a much more worthy effort -- a variation on Hollywood's venerable ripped-from-the-headlines genre that's briskly paced, effectively constructed and imaginatively cast, with actors such as Matt Dillon, David Schwimmer and Noah Wylie effectively tweaking their familiar images.
Unfortunately, the movie is in limbo thanks to the collapse of the Yari Film Group, which was supposed to release it. Hence, Lurie's taken it upon himself to make sure the film is seen. He'll appear at tomorrow's BIFF festivities, and he talks about the drama on-screen and off in the extensive Q&A accessible after the jump.
Lurie, who worked as a journalist and film critic for publications ranging from the New York Daily News to Entertainment Weekly before stepping behind the camera, begins by discussing the death of Yari Film Group, and how the timing of its failure -- during the run-up to awards season -- complicates marketing for any studio that might consider picking it up. Then, after mentioning his fondness for Colorado, which he first got to know during a training stint at the Air Force Academy during the early '80s, he details his decision to build the movie around Beckinsale, a spectacular Brit who credibly portrays Rachel Armstrong, a Judith Miller-style reporter; the against-type casting of Matt Dillon, as a prosecutor who goes after Rachel when one of her stories unmasks a CIA agent (Vera Farmiga); the range of Wylie, an ER veteran who gets a chance to show a tougher side as a newspaper lawyer; the awkward moment when he had to admit to Friends star Schwimmer that he'd never seen the ubiquitous sitcom or known that his love interest on the show was named Rachel; his belief that documentaries like those made by Michael Moore can lie every bit as much as a fictional film; the ways in which his story does, and doesn't, resemble the real-life incidents involving Valerie Plame, the CIA operative whose public naming led Miller to spend time in jail for refusing to reveal her source; and the movie's conversation-provoking ending. He also laments the troubles afflicting the newspaper industry -- a downturn that prompted him to push the film to the top of his to-do list -- and the difficulties laid-off film critics will have trying to ply their trade.
He'd clearly like these scribes to be back on the job -- and to have a chance to analyze his movie.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I think this is one of those films that's going to sneak up on people...
Rod Lurie: Well, I hope so. It's just got to get released now. The company that made it went into bankruptcy.
WW: Tell me about that.
RL: The Yari Film Group was supposed to release the film. Here's the story. We're in mid-December, and the film is getting the best reviews I've ever had - that's for sure. The research screenings are indicating that it's populist film, and Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga just got nominated for the Critics Choice Awards, as best actress and best supporting actress. It's one of the best days I've had as a filmmaker. And then my partner, Marc Frydman, walks in, and he says to me, "I just got a call from the Hollywood Reporter asking me what my opinion is of the Chapter Eleven that Yari is going through." That was pretty amazing - and the film was done. Cooked goose. Goodbye. It was like a drive-by shooting.
WW: Has anyone stepped up to rescue it?
RL: Nobody yet at the time that we're talking. It's very difficult to do for some business reasons I can't get into. But it's a difficult, difficult process. Because the film did have what you call an Academy run. It went out for a week in two theaters. So it's a rather unfortunate set of circumstances.
WW: You mentioned Academy runs -- and as we know, film companies regularly launch promotion campaigns in an effort to get nominations for their movies...
RL: Not one dime was spent on this. Not one dime. And so we didn't get any Oscar nominations... When you look at the amount of money that's spent, ludicrously I think, on these things by the studios, and even by the smaller studios, like Sony Classics and so on, you're talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars - and maybe millions -- to try and get Academy Award nominations. The process is a little ugly, because it becomes who has the best people on the job to get the film nominated rather than what are the best films and performances. You want an Oscar nomination, you go out and get publicist A or B or C, because they're the best and they know how to do this. But that shouldn't be the issue. So what's the answer to that? I think the answer is to put Meryl Streep in the film. That way you've locked up at least one nomination.
WW: For this film, then, will you have to be carrying it to places like the Boulder International Film Festival, to make sure it doesn't vanish without a trace?
RL: Well, first of all, I love Colorado. I really do. It was really cool to be invited there. Very, very cool. I shot part of Resurrecting the Champ in Denver, and I spent a summer going to survival school in Colorado Springs.
WW: When was that?
RL: That was 1983 at the Air Force Academy.
WW: Was that a formative experience for you?
RL: Well, I went to West Point, and the Air Force Academy is, generally speaking, a much easier place to be than West Point. But I would certainly say it was formative. I lost a lot of weight -- and I've eaten a lot of Colorado bugs. I would say I've eaten more Colorado bugs than almost anyone who lives there... But here's the thing. I'm very proud of this movie. I think this is the best movie I've made, and I think it's filled with performances that can be called the best performances by several of the actors involved. I think Kate Beckinsale's outstanding in the film, I think Vera's outstanding, that Matt [Dillon] is outstanding, that Alan [Alda] is brilliant. Everybody is great. And we worked very hard on this film. When you make an independent film like this, you're not doing it to make money. You're doing it for the movie to be seen - because you're proud of it. So I want the movie to be seen. And if I have to carry this movie on my back, crisscrossing the country, I'm going to show it to audiences. Because that is deserved by my actors, who worked so hard and are so brilliant in the film.
WW: Let's talk a little about the casting. You mentioned Kate Beckinsale. Now, I've worked at a newspaper and covered the media for quite a few years, and I've never seen anybody who looks like Kate Beckinsale in the office...
RL: Well, I'll tell you what, my friend: That is true, because I worked in newspapers, too. But the poor girl has a problem, which is, no matter what role she plays, people are going to say, "I've never met a person who looks like that in my profession." She was too good-looking to play Ava Gardner [her role in Martin Scorsese's 2004 film The Aviator], for heaven's sake. What's she supposed to do?
WW: So what was it about her that convinced you she could face the myriad challenges her role presents?
RL: I never even thought about her at first. The truth is, the movie was written for another actress who'd accepted the part, and for reasons that were almost entirely business-connected, we had to part ways.
WW: Can you mention who that was?
RL: Of course not. It's unfair to both her and to Kate. It's sort of an unwritten rule: We don't do that. She's an Oscar winner; I will tell you that. But immediately after that happened, the floodgates opened and I'm being called left and right by actresses who want to be in this film, and Kate was one of them. And when I told her agent, "Kate is too British, too glamorous, no reporters look like that" - exactly what you're saying - and I didn't buy her as a mom, necessarily. I didn't think she looked old enough to have a kid who was seven, eight, nine years old. So the agent sent me a movie called Snow Angels, where she played an American with a kid, and she's a waitress - and she was brilliant in it. So I contacted her directors, including Martin Scorsese, who'd worked with her on The Aviator, and he was so effusive. He insisted that I make the offer right away. So I got off the phone and made the offer right away - and that was it. That's how she came to be in the film.
Also, I met with her, and we talked about why she wanted to do the film. But also she wanted me to walk her through a couple of issues she had. Because there was some stuff about the character that she couldn't really relate to and didn't know how any mother could. So we had to talk about those kinds of things.
WW: I'm guessing one of those was Rachel's decision not to let her son visit her while she's in jail...
RL: Yes, exactly. That's right. She just couldn't imagine being parted from her kid like that and being okay with that. And what I told her was, "Rachel Armstrong's not okay with it. It's not something she does lightly. But it is a testament to her principals and the fact that one day, her son will know the principals she stood up for." But more importantly, after Kate agreed to do the film, we went to a prison and we talked to the inmates, and the inmates almost to a person told her that they don't allow their kids to come see them, for exactly that reason. They don't want them to see them as a prisoner, as a criminal. That's not the vision they want them to have. They don't want them to become familiar with that environment.
WW: Another interesting casting decision on your part was Matt Dillon, who throughout his career has played a lot of anti-authority figures - and yet you put him the role of this relentless prosecutor. And I thought it really worked well, because I could imagine viewers expecting him to identify with her battle, and he consistently didn't. Was that one of the appeals of giving him that part?
RL: Yeah, it was one of the appeals. I really like iconoclastic casting. I really do. That role was originally written for a woman, and when I thought to make it a man, one of the first names that was brought up to me was Matt Dillon. And I loved the fact that it was so outside anything that we had ever seen him in before. It was really something absolutely brand new. I think that's what appealed to him as well. I think he loved the fact that he had more or less never worn a suit in a movie before. I think it was really cool to him. And also, Angela Bassett has never played a role like that before, in my opinion. And when I cast Jeff Bridges - I made a movie called The Contender, where I made him the president of the United States. And the truth is, Jeff had always played dudes, laid-back people. Him as the president of the United States didn't make sense to a lot of people, either. So I really like bursting open what a person is iconically known for.
WW: Two other examples in this film are Noah Wylie, who's well-known for ER - and he shows a much fiercer side than most people are accustomed to...
RL: That's for sure.
WW: ...and David Schwimmer, who is playing a much more complicated and conflicted character than most people who spent years watching him on Friends will expect.
RL: Yeah. I have to tell you, I wasn't familiar with Friends. It was a show I'd never watched. It was to the point where I didn't know that his character's name was Ross, and I certainly didn't know that Jennifer Aniston's character was named Rachel.
WW: Wow. How have you managed to live in America without picking that up?
RL: I don't know. I was going to movies on Thursday nights when I was a film critic, I guess. But someone pointed out to me that he calls her "Rach" like he does on the TV series, and we had to go and edit out every time he said "Rach." It's difficult enough with television actors who've been on such successful shows to eliminate from the mind of the audience their character from that show. That can do damage. I said to David afterwards, "Why didn't you fucking tell me?" And he said, "How was I supposed to know you never saw Friends?"
WW: In both his case and Noah Wylie's, though, you were able to both upset the audience's expectations even as you showed that these actors had a lot more range than they were able to show in their most famous parts.
RL: Yeah. And, well, you always have regrets after you finish a movie, and one of my principal regrets is that I didn't take one or two steps further with Noah's character, who I think sort of disappears in the film. Noah is so good in the film. He brought such wonderful kicks and subtleties to the role. And I really liked working with him. He's such a malleable actor. You don't often get those. He's a delight, and really listens. He's a great guy. I hope, hope, hope we have an opportunity to work together again. I have every intention of doing that.
WW: Right at the outset of the movie, you set up a basic contradiction: Even though it's called Nothing But the Truth, there's a note that says even though the film was inspired by actual events, it's a work of fiction. And yet I get the sense that in your view, fiction can get closer to the truth - at least the emotional truth - than a documentary can. Am I on the right track with that?
RL: Yeah. And, you know, documentaries can lie every bit as much as a fictional narrative film can. You look at a movie like All the President's Men, and I guarantee you that it's a more accurate version of its world than, say, the Michael Moore movies are a depiction of their world. As much as I like Michael Moore, and I'm on the same political side as him, I think his documentaries are really a batch of manipulations and lies.
But in the case of this film, a lot of people have made, not surprisingly, the Judith Miller and Valerie Plame connection. And indeed, the storyline for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film certainly evolved out of that. But the truth is, I took people that are totally different characters than, say, Judith Miller. Kate, other than the fact that she breaks a story, which Judy didn't even do, and goes to jail, there's no connection otherwise. I look at Rachel Armstrong as being more of a Susan McDougal character: a person who resiliently hangs out in jail and truly is there defending, for the most part, a principal. So I took different human beings and put them in similar situations, to see how that would end up.
WW: In another difference between Rachel Armstrong and Judith Miller, there are a number of times where Rachel is more directly involved with the story about the CIA operative -- ones that invite debate about whether or not she made the right call. As you know, Judith Miller didn't break the story about Valerie Plame -- she just had information about it -- whereas Rachel actually publishes the agent's name. Did that make Rachel a more interesting character for you?
RL: Well, yes -- but when you say "a more interesting character," I never had Judith in mind when I was writing this character. I made no phone calls to her, I had no contact with her whatsoever during the writing phase of the film. Here's what I really want: I want at the end of the movie, when the lights come up, I don't want one person to turn to their neighbor or to their date and say, "What do you want to get for dinner?" I want them talking about Rachel's decision. Because the ending tends to throw people off in the sense that here they'd been thinking one thing, and we find out that, perhaps, her thinking had been entirely different than we had thought throughout the entire film.
Every filmmaker wants to get their audience talking. My film wasn't intended to be a paean to the First Amendment, although I love journalists, having been one, and being the son of one. But really, what I wanted to do is make a movie about principals, and how our principals can sometimes destroy us -- but that it's necessary sometimes in order to, well, vanquish evil and save the world.
WW: I don't want to give away the ending. But I think it's safe to say that some people will watch it and see Rachel as a complete hero, and other people will have more questions about what she did.
RL: That's right -- and that's what happened. Listen, when I wrote this, and knew it was going to be a film, I knew that in the critical world of people writing about the film, there would be some people who would say that the ending was fantastic -- that they didn't see it coming, but it all makes sense. People like that include Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. Most of them, actually. But I also knew that some people would say, "It misses the point of the entire film. It diminishes what she's done. And it doesn't make any sense." And that has happened, also. But I've discovered that those people, for some reason, are all over the age of 65. I don't know why. Whenever I do a Q&A after the movie, there'll always be somebody who raises his hand, and it'll usually be someone who's really old -- and he'll say, "But I don't understand..."
I love people debating about the end. Because that lets me know that we've succeeded and done our job.
WW: Once upon a time, Hollywood made a lot of ripped-from-the-headlines topical films like this one, but that doesn't happen very often anymore. It seems to be the realm of television now.
RL: Well, the studios don't really make topical films at all, really.
WW: And the lack of success of the post-Iraq films gives them an argument for why they shouldn't.
RL: Yeah, but I think Iraq films are going to start doing well now. We'll look at movies about the warts in America as long as it's a historical thing. And the more than Iraq becomes part of our history, the easier it'll be to swallow. And I think with this administration, it is de facto history. This movie The Hurt Locker will come out, and it's supposed to be very good. And hopefully it'll do well. We don't mind watching movies about what assholes we were; we just don't want to watch movies about what assholes we are.
WW: Another aspect of your film that's sort of a throwback is that it's a newspaper movie. There's that moment on the bus where Rachel tells a little girl that she should tell her parents to pick up the paper because "the Internet is killing us." Was that another reason you wanted to make this movie now - because five years from now, you may not be able to tell this kind of a story except as a period piece?
RL: You know, it's so interesting that you should say that. My producing partner, Marc, he laughs at me when I say, "We've got to make this movie now, because it may become anachronistic in a couple of years." But I believe that's right. I was a journalist for many, many years -- longer than I was a filmmaker. And if I was a good one, I would have stayed there. But in a way, I'm happy that I'm not, because it's dying. Many of the film critics who are being fired now, who are age fifty and older: What the fuck are they going to do? Seriously, man. What are these people going to do? I really feel for them. They can make a couple of bucks here and there doing freelance, but they're yesterday's news. It's really upsetting.
WW: Tell me about your next project.
RL: My next project is a remake of a movie called Straw Dogs.
WW: Sam Peckinpah...
RL: Yeah. I'm remaking that.
WW: Have you cast it yet?
RL: We're doing that literally as we speak...