Way back before he found honest work as a moviemaker (The Contender, Resurrecting the Champ) and television producer (“Commander in Chief,” “Line of Fire”), Rod Lurie toiled profitably as a film critic. He achieved a fair degree of celebrity—especially after Martin Landau thanked him by name while accepting an Oscar as 1995’s Best Supporting Actor—and enjoyed enviable success with a weekly radio show in Los Angeles.
The only problem: Lurie wasn’t a very good movie critic. Or at least not as good as he dearly wished he was.
“I thought I was really entertaining,” he says, “and I was really popular and well read, and my radio show was highly rated and so on. But I would wake up on Friday mornings and read the reviews by people like Ken Turan or Manohla Dargis or Roger Ebert and I could see I didn’t write as well as them. I didn’t have their sort of real insight. I thought my reviews were slightly more superficial than they should have been.
“I just didn’t think I was very good at the job and I didn’t see myself getting much better. But I loved movies and I wanted to stay in that world. So I started to write screenplays.”
Lurie continued apace down that detour, making his feature debut as writer-director in 1999 with Deterrence, a provocative, low-budget political thriller in which a U.S. President (Kevin Pollak) contemplates the use of nuclear weapons during a Middle East crisis. One year later, he made a bigger splash with The Contender, another drama involving Chief Executive decision-making, for which Joan Allen (playing a potential appointee as Vice President) and Jeff Bridges (as a power-playing President) earned Academy Award nominations. After that, any lingering doubts about the career change pretty much vanished.
Now 46, Lurie took time to chat with MovieMaker shortly before the theatrical rollout of his latest feature, Nothing But the Truth. Yet another political-themed drama, the movie—very loosely based on the real-life misadventures of Judith Miller and Valerie Plame—has been praised for the powerhouse performances of Kate Beckinsale, who plays a dedicated reporter who goes to jail rather than reveal her sources, and Vera Farmiga as a CIA agent who’s outed by the aforementioned journalist. Lurie is, of course, thrilled for both women, and also relieved by the glowing reviews from his former colleagues.
Joe Leydon (MM): Years ago, Norman Jewison admitted to me that when he heard François Truffaut had made the transition from movie critic to moviemaker, his first reaction was: “Okay, you SOB—now you’ll see it’s not so goddamn easy.” Were you expecting a similar reaction when you made your first movie?
Rod Lurie (RL): Well, I think that schadenfreude is probably the least attractive and most ubiquitous of human traits in Hollywood. I started out with a significant disadvantage, because not only did several filmmakers and actors want to see me fall on my face—a number of critics did, too. I don’t know if it was jealousy so much as a feeling that I was getting too big for my britches. But I can remember back when I was making The Contender, I met with an actor to play Joan Allen’s husband. He’s a fairly well-known actor—actually, a very well-known actor—and he seemed very eager to meet with me about the film after he’d read the script. So we met for lunch and when I sat down, he said to me, “Look, the only reason I wanted to meet is to tell you what an arrogant fucking prick I think you are.” And he recalled with absolute clarity and accuracy a review I’d written about him—in which, I have to admit, I was really, really vicious to him. He was halfway through his meal when I arrived. And then he left me with the bill—and no chance of getting him in the film.
RL: Later, I met with Kenneth Branagh about doing a film. I sat with him and told him, ‘I think you’re one of the great actors.’ He said, “Oh, no you don’t,” and he recalled in detail a review I did of his movie Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The thing is, though, he wound up wanting to do the film—but it never got off the ground. There was a time when [talent agency] CAA didn’t even want to let me through the door because I’d written some vicious things about a couple of their clients. But look, in the end if you have a screenplay that people want to make, or if you do a film that does well either critically or at the box office, memories can fade really quickly.
MM: Of course, you don’t pay attention to any reviews you get, right?
RL: (laughs) No, I can’t say that’s the case. It’s become less of an obsession with me over time, on a film-by-film basis. But when one of my films opens, or a TV show premieres, I’m at my computer, refreshing Rotten Tomatoes every 10 minutes, getting pissed off when they post a positive review and say it’s a negative. But you know when the reviews really hurt? When they’re right and you just can’t disagree with them. And you think, ‘Goddammit, I fucking deserved that. I wish I could go back in the editing room again.’ Those really get to you.
MM: Many critics have made much of your liberal politics, especially when writing about The Contender, “Commander in Chief” and, now, Nothing But the Truth. I’m sure that some of those folks would be surprised to learn about your military background: You’re a West Point grad and you served a stint in the Army as an artillery officer. How do you think that experience prepared you for moviemaking?
RL: Well, you can say what you want about people who graduate from West Point, but those guys are hard to rattle. And those guys don’t feel stressed. They feel pressure, but they don’t feel stressed. So when you’re on a film set, and you’re behind schedule, or your prop person has really fucked up, or your actors don’t have their lines memorized—there is a sense of calm that I can directly connect to my education there. And to the time management that we learn at that school.
All of my films have come in under budget. They’ve all come in a little ahead of schedule. And I think that also owes a lot to the fact that I recognize a calm team when I see it. Like, there’s a guy named James Spies who’s been my line producer, who I see as an incredibly efficient guy. I surround myself with people like that. Like I’m building my own army.