Rod Lurie graduated from West Point and served four years in the U.S. Army. Perfect background for a filmmaker, right?
For Lurie, the answer is a resounding "yes." His time at the U.S. Military Academy taught him the value of ethics, integrity and honesty—and in choosing to do the right thing even when it's difficult. These ideas permeate his films, including 2000's The Contender and now Resurrecting the Champ, opening in theaters this Friday.
In a recent interview with CT Movies, Lurie spoke of the importance of sticking to one's principles, no matter the cost. Those ideas ring true in Resurrecting the Champ, whose tagline almost says it all: "Based on a true story, that was based on a lie."
The true part—based on a Los Angeles Times Magazine article by J.R. Moehringer—concerns an eager young journalist looking for his big break. When the writer meets a former boxing champ who's now homeless on the streets, he knows he's found his story—but in his eagerness to tell the tale, he neglects one vital journalistic practice: Thorough fact-checking. That's where the lies come into play.
In Resurrecting the Champ, Josh Hartnett plays sportswriter Erik Kernan, and Samuel L. Jackson plays "The Champ," the former boxer now homeless in a performance that is already getting Oscar buzz. It's a story and film not just about honesty and integrity, but about father-son relationships as well.
You have a fascinating personal resume—born in Israel, attended West Point, served as an air defense artillery officer in the Army—what drew you to film from that background?
Rod Lurie Movies, man! In a way I entered that background in order to make movies. When people ask me if they should go to film school, I usually tell them, go to school to study what you want to make movies about. I had always been fascinated by history, by leadership, and by the DNA of greatness—and what better school to study that than West Point? They have a motto there: "The history we teach was made by the men that we taught." You really get a distinctive training in history and leadership and ethics. And to me, the characters I make movies about are people who are always confronted with ethical dilemmas and quagmires. So when I was 17 and went to West Point and saw those statues of those great men, I knew that was the place for me because I wanted to tell stories and eventually make movies about men like that.
You used to be a successful film critic. At what point did you decide to stop writing about films and start making them instead?
Lurie I had resigned myself to the notion that I was going to be a film critic—which is a good resignation, because some of the great writing artists of our time, like Pauline Kael and David Denby, were all film critics. But to be honest with you, I don't think I was ever very good at it. I was successful, I was entertaining, I had good ratings on the radio, but I don't think I was very good. And it got a little humiliating for me; there was a humiliation in waking up on Friday and reading these beautifully written reviews by some of the great critics and I felt saddened and cheap because I wasn't writing anything near that. I was using humor to compensate for a lack of eloquence. I realized I needed to try something different.
I've loved the movies ever since I was ten and saw Ben Hur and realized that I wanted to be involved in the film business—whether it was making them or melting butter on the popcorn. The film critic job served those needs. But when I found out I wasn't that good at it, I wanted to get out and try to make them.
You quickly established yourself as a master of the political film. For my money, The Contender is the finest political thriller since All the President's Men. Why do you like making political films and have you always been a political junkie?
Lurie: Thank you very much; that movie means a great deal to me. A lot of people think it's about femininity and whether there is a double standard in how we view male and female politicians, but really what it's about is how far we are willing to stand for our principles? Is that, in fact, the DNA of greatness? Are you willing to die for your principles, are you willing to kill for your principles, are you willing to be destroyed for your principles? From Christ to Mandela, the great people in history are those who have been willing to die or be crushed to support their principles. You have to be right about those principles, by the way. Hitler had principles too, and he was wrong. So it's a two-part thing—you have to be right and you have to be willing to die for it.
That theme certainly resonates in your films. But Resurrecting the Champ, while it still deals with ethical issues, is not a political film. Are you a sports junkie as well?
Lurie: I love football, boxing and tennis. If I liked the other sports as much as I like those three, I'd be out of work because I'd be watching TV all the time. But I'd actually say I'm more of a journalism junkie. I've worked for newspapers and magazines and my dad is a political cartoonist, so I've been in the journalism world for a very long time. I think it's the noblest profession of them all. There is probably no work, other than teaching, where the nobility and the importance of the work is so inversely proportional to the amount of money you make. I look at the press as the fourth arm of society—the executive, the judicial, the legislative … and the press. And yes, this is a movie that explores basic human ethics [in the context of journalism].
What attracted you to this story?
Lurie: I read the article in 1997 [in the Los Angeles Times] and I thought the story was fantastic. And I couldn't believe the twist. I did a lot of investigative journalism in addition to my film stuff, and I learned this much: Even though you want to believe you live in an honest world and an honest society that tells honest things, unfortunately, that's very naive.
Those themes—honesty, integrity, standing up for your principles, and holding onto your honor no matter what seem to permeate nearly everything you touch?
Lurie: It's the West Point thing.
Joan Allen's character in The Contender was absolutely above reproach. And in this film, both Erik and "the Champ" have built their lives on little white lies and compromises. What is it about that idea that seems to germinate in your films?
Lurie: The common denominator is the difficultly of doing the right thing. Part of the Cadet Prayer at West Point, and I may be paraphrasing, is, "Lord, give us the power to do the harder right over the easier wrong." This movie is about finding the strength to do that. In the film, Erik Kernan lies to his son all the time. I am certain that looking into your son's eyes and telling him that you are a liar is a VERY difficult thing to do. That is a hard right.
I've never told my son—who's 16 now—a lie. I have told him and my daughter the truth, even when it's the most embarrassing I can imagine—because your children will discover the truth. I've seen a lot of people lie to their kids. And I've witnessed it do horrible things to their relationships.
I believe the Talmud says that a smart man learns from his own mistakes while a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. I wanted to create a movie which, by watching the mistakes of others, the audience can learn something about themselves—that the most important people we need to be honest with are our own children.
There are lots of father/son relationships in the movie. There is one between Erik and his son, between Erik and his deceased father, and then there's one between Champ and his surrogate son in Erik. And there is deception between all of them. I think dishonesty is a bigger problem between fathers and sons than between mothers and daughters. And in this movie, Erik lies to every single male in the movie, but is honest with every woman. For some reason he shows ethical strength with all the women.
He tells Champ, "I'll tell your story and I'll make you look good." But when his son tells him that the story he's writing sounds like a sad one, he says, "No, it's going to be a hopeful story." How does he know that? He hasn't even started researching it yet!
He knows because he has already determined how he is going to write it?
Lurie: Right! But when other women make a pass at him, he tells them he's not going to do it. Whether it's for his son or his estranged wife, he has the moral courage not to proceed. In the end, as the Scriptures say, the truth shall set you free, and that is the message of the film. We were born with free will, which allows us to go in many different directions. But only one of those directions is of unfettered honestly. And that's difficult. My movies are about people making difficult decisions and doing the right thing. Even when the right thing is capable of destroying you, it has the power to nonetheless set you free.
Samuel L. Jackson gives a standout performance. What was it like working with him?
Lurie: With Sam Jackson, what you do is yell, "Action!", go make a sandwich, come back and yell, "Cut!" Almost every element of Champ was Sam's decision. It's truly a beautiful performance and I'll be very surprised if he's not nominated for an Academy Award.
There was a point where we were doing a shot above Sam while he was lying on the ground with his arms outstretched. I asked him not to do that because it looked too much like a Christ metaphor, and there are just too many of those in the movies. It's so presumptuous and arrogant to do that. I asked him to move one or both of his arms and he said, "Hey man, I'm a Christian, I don't have a problem with that!" And I said, "Well, I'm Jewish and I do!" We had a good laugh over it.
I think the movie character as Christ is an overdone and easy cliché. Even though this movie revolves in a very real way around the teachings of Jesus to a strong degree—it was something that was very much a part of our thinking as we were writing it—it's arrogant to go to that sort of Mel Gibson state. It's interesting isn't it—I'm Jewish and not necessarily a believer, but there is still so much wisdom to be mined from the Scriptures, Talmud and other religious teachings. Whether you are a believer or not, you can gain so much wisdom from their wisdom. And it applies to film as well.
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