How did you react to the original film when you saw it for the first time?
In 1983 I was a cadet at West Point. I was in charge of the Film Society. We showed a classic film every Friday night, and the brass left the choice of film in my hands. I had heard and read about STRAW DOGS and was intrigued by the movie, so I chose it for a Friday night showing. It didn't go over very well with the brass at all. We were supposed to limit the amount of violence and nudity in the films, and violence against women was completely unacceptable. So the first time I saw the film was with my fellow cadets and also Generals and Colonels, and it was really a shocking sight to behold.
The first few times I saw the film I was not very impressed with it, finding it slow and inconsistent. It was only after multiple viewings and watching it After I bought the remake rights, I rewatched the film many times and it was only then that I could finally see the wisdom in the filmmaking and appreciate its cinematic heights. Peckinpah was going after a specific goal and he achieved it beautifully for what he wanted to achieve.
Peckinpah is one of the great geniuses of cinema. He created a genre when he made THE WILD BUNCH (1968) and he hit targets in his career that nobody even knew existed. As a filmmaker I hold Peckinpah in great reverence. I don't actually think THE WILD BUNCH is his best film, though. I think his best film is the Director's Cut of MAJOR DUNDEE (1965).
So, I don't have a problem with Peckinpah per se. But I do have a problem with the socio-political aspects of STRAW DOGS. Peckinpah was an ardent follower of Robert Ardrey and told 'Playboy' that he was the only living true prophet. Ardrey was a sociobiologist who wrote the books 'The Territorial Imperative' (1966) and 'African Genesis' (1961). These books basically said that every human being is genetically coded to violence and that we have to understand this about ourselves. If we don't understand this about ourselves, as Peckinpah would say, "We are in a lot of trouble." To me, this is the very root of fascism and hardcore right-wing conservative thinking. In fact, the Ardrey books were all required reading for the followers of George Lincoln Rockwell, who was the head of the American Nazi Party.
If you look at the Peckinpah film, everyone is violent. At the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman doesn't just commit acts of violence to simply protect his wife and himself. He seems to end up relishing the violence because it's who he is, and part of who we all are. It's the reason why Susan George's character Amy semi-enjoys the rape. She is going to give herself over to whomever is the biggest Alpha male.
Stanley Kubrick was also a follower of Robert Ardrey, if not to the extent that Peckinpah was. Kubrick was much more of an intellectual than Peckinpah was. STRAW DOGS premiered in the US in the same month as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and they both ended up with the same fate. They both had a rape scene and both films had violence that inspired copycats. They were also both unavailable in the UK for a long time and it's only until recently that they were able to be screened again. The Kubrick film seemed to indicate that there was a possibility that people could be cured of their violence, and that this violence was genetically coded. In that film, every character shows that they have a capacity for violence. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is a masterpiece but I disagree with its assessment of human behaviour.
My beliefs are the opposite to Peckinpah, Kubrick and Ardrey's. I don't believe that we are genetically coded to violence. It's a dangerous way of thinking. If we are violent, it's formed by our environment, how we grew up, who educated us and who had the most influence upon us. So what I wanted to try and do was to tell almost the exact same story but from a liberal point of view rather than a conservative point of view.
What response did you get from people when they found out you were remaking a Peckinpah film?
Before and after the film came out, many people asked me whether there was a need for the film to be made. The truth is that there is no need to make any movie. There might be a need to make movies about historical events like SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993). The question that needs to be asked is if there is a purpose to the film. And there is with my film. The purpose was to experimentally see whether I could take a right-wing film that Pauline Kael called "The first American Fascist work of art" and turn it into a very liberal film.
How did you get involved with the remake?
The option for the remake rights were held by the Weinsteins. Edward Norton was going to do a version at one point called 'Fear Itself". When that option ran out, my partner Marc Frydman and I picked up the rights. I never read the screenplay that Ed and Stuart Blumberg put together, so I don't know how similar or different it is to the films Peckinpah and I made.
Did you go back to the original book (1969's 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' by Gordon Williams) when you wrote the script?
The book is very tough to get through and I am not a fan, so I didn't revisit it. Initially, I did intend to. Interestingly, what will hopefully be my next project is another remake of a famous film, but this time I am going back to the book instead of simply remaking the film version. I may even give the film the title of the book.
The first draft of the 1971 film, written by David Zelag Goodman, was very faithful to the book. In the book, the couple have a child, which changes everything. Who wouldn't understand using violence to protect your child? Peckinpah took away everything that made it easy. There is no rape in the book. It's very different. If you make a version of the book, it would not be a remake of STRAW DOGS.
Did you ever consider calling the film anything different than STRAW DOGS?
No, we never entertained the idea of changing the title. That may have been a mistake. A couple of filmmaker friends of mine who had made remakes advised me to change the title, including Paul Schrader who did a remake of CAT PEOPLE (1982). We did a survey and we were surprised at how few people knew the title or had even seen the Peckinpah film. There was no real value in keeping the title, and we could have easily changed it. If you change the title, it diminishes the thirst to make comparisons to which inevitably you can never really succeed. Very few remakes have been favourably compared to the originals.
Why did you choose to explain the term "Straw Dogs"?
The history of the title is very interesting. Originally the Peckinpah film was going to have the same title as the book - "The Siege of Trencher's Farm - but when it was tested, audiences thought it sounded like a Civil War movie. Then they tried "The Siege at Trencher's Farm", but they were told it sounded like a WW2 movie. They tried some other titles that were considered too esoteric and wordy. Peckinpah actually came up with STRAW DOGS from the 'Tao Te Ching' by Laozi - "Heaven and Earth are cruel and treat their minions as though they were straw dogs." He just liked it, and there was no real rationale for it being the title of the film. The film was tested as 'The Straw Dogs', but audiences thought it sounded like a comedy. They then tested it as STRAW DOGS and it kind of worked. There was no time to try and come up with a better title.
In Chinese times, straw dogs were effigies created to honour the Gods but were destroyed once they had outlived their use. The villains in my film were once football stars and heroes in the community, but when their time passed they were forgotten about and left with nothing to do except to aim their violence elsewhere. The term 'straw dogs' is applicable to my film and that's why I chose to include a reference to it within the film.
James Marsden's character mentions the Battle of Stalingrad: "A universal tale of survival, fighting back, the human spirit. They beat them with innovation and fortitude they didn't know that they had." Is this the essence of your remake?
Stalingrad was the most important battle of WW2, and probably the 20th century, maybe even mankind. The Nazis had 90% control of the city, and the Russians, sometimes with broomsticks, were fighting back against them. They did it because it was necessary for their survival. Otherwise it would have been a Carthoginian Solution. The Marsden quote may be a little heavy-handed but its a metaphor for what his character is going through. He is the Russian citizenry, and his oppressors are the Nazis. He uses his brains to beat them. I think it's a very apt analogy.
Why did you decide to cast James Marsden as David?
It's a role that not a lot of actors are going to have the guts to go into because of Dustin Hoffman. Some would see it as a fool's errand. I wanted someone who wouldn't remind you of Hoffman. If Ed Norton had done STRAW DOGS, he is like a Hoffman type, and the parallels and contrastings would be begged. There were a number of other actors that we briefly considered but they were too reminiscent of Hoffman. We wanted to try and create a new character. Where Dustin is New York nebbish, Marsden is more of a WASPy/ Greenwich/ Connectitut/ Country Club kind of guy. His casting gave us the freedom to play it very differently. Marsden, by the way, is an amazing mimic and would do some scenes as Dustin. It was uncanny!
Peckinpah also had problems casting the role of David. There were several people that were ahead of Hoffman. Before Peckinpah came on, they were looking at Beau Bridges. Then Stacy Keach was on it for a while, follwed by Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, both of whom I spoke to and told me they turned it down because they couldn't handle the film's violence. Sidney Poitier was involved with it for a little bit, which obviously would have changed the entire texture of the film. And finally they went to Hoffman. Which is interesting because arguably Hoffman was the hottest star of all of them. If the film had been made with any one of them it would have changed the film because of the importance of casting.
How about Kate Bosworth as Amy?
Peckinpah had difficulty casting Amy because the character gets raped, and because she is an anti-heroine - toward the end of the film she moves to the enemy camp. Eventually, after being turned down by many big-name actresses, Susan George was cast, against the objections of Hoffman who didn't think she was right for the role.
On the other hand, we did not have a problem casting Amy at all! I met with half of Hollywood's most talented and beautiful women for the part but Kate Bosworth was the first person we made an offer to. Aside from being incredibly beautiful, we all felt she was a fearless actress. She was wonderful in WONDERLAND (2003) opposite Val Kilmer, but it was a movie called GIRL IN THE PARK (2007), that got me thinking she would be right. She was stunningly good, and showed dramatic chops that were amazing. If you look at Marsden and Bosworth they sort of made sense as a couple, and had indeed already played a couple in SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Hoffman and Susan George did not make sense as a couple, which was intentional on Peckinpah's part. David and Amy have a much more together marriage in our movie.
Many of the actors we spoke to were attracted to playing the villain, Charlie Venner, which is interesting considering the heinous nature of the character. There were some who were repelled by the character. I had seen Alexander not in 'True Blood' but in 'Generation Kill'. I thought he was fantastic in it. The role called for an ex-athlete who was still very buff and when I met Alexander in an Italian restaurant he didn't strike me as being in particularly great shape or the tough guy we needed for the role. He looked very Swedish with long, flowing hair, tight pants and ankle socks. I told him I needed him to get in shape, and he just smiled and said "I am in pretty good shape, Rod." Little did I know how in shape he really was, because he was frequently naked in 'True Blood', which I had never seen!
Rhys Coiro, who plays Norman, the second heavy, was cast because I had seen him on the show 'Entourage'. I modelled the look of him and Skarsgard on the two rapists from Ingmar Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), a film that may have influenced Peckinpah. The actual rapes in the two films are so similar too.
How was working with James Woods?
James is one of the world's most charismatic character actors and I have been a massive fan of his for a long time, even back to THE WAY WE WERE (1973). He has been great in so many films. I was very excited that he agreed to play Tom Venner. He's a highly intelligent man and he can be challenging on the set because he doesn't accept things at face value and needs to understand things. We have very different politics. To me he is excruciatingly conservative. He claims he used to be a liberal, but I cannot imagine how that would ever have been the case! We had a lot of political arguments on the set, and when we got into these arguments and things got delayed, we would call it "being in the Woods"!
Why did you choose to set the film in the Southern part of the US?
Setting it in the South is a nice contrast to the Cornwall setting of the original. In the South, people grow up on football, which is a violent sport that we only allow because we use helmets and pads. This actually encourages more violence. They grow up with hunting, and not to eat, but for the fun of killing. They grow up with church on Sunday, where the sermons are filled with an extraordinary amount of violence - God flooding the world, Sodom amd Gomorrah, wars, David slaying Goliath. They grow up in an environment of violence. It comes from nurture, not nature as it was in the Peckinpah film.
I also like the cinematic look of the South. The air there is really thick, and I like the colours, the swamps. They add a lot to the texture of the film. I like the intense heat of the South. I wanted the audience to sweat.
How did Southerners feel about the way you represented them?
I don't really know. I was warned they were going to hate it. But the film didn't do very well anywhere, and it did as well there as it did anywhere else.
Why did you make David a filmmaker in the movie?
Filmmaking is something I know really well and can write about easily. David was a novelist in the book, and Peckinpah changed him to a mathematician. Mathematicians don't have a lot of leeway in the way that they think, and they are rigid in their thinking and only deal in absolutes. Making the character a filmmaker allows him to be more interpretative and creative in their way of thinking. So the violence within us can be created in many different ways or be extinguished in many different ways. I wanted to give him a job where he is not stuck to any rigid thinking, and making him a screenwriter made it possible to make Amy a failed actress. Kate Bosworth's Amy is much more ambitious than Susan George's Amy.
How did you feel about the critical reaction to the film?
We did very well with a lot of the important critics. Roger Ebert, 'The New York Times', 'The Washington Post', 'USA Today' and 'The Miami Herald' all liked the picture. But we took a beating from a lot of other critics. The film divided critics in pretty much the same way as the Peckinpah film did.
What is your response to those who claim your film also ended up glorifying violence?
The film is disturbingly violent at the end, but extremely exciting. Audiences go batshit crazy during the last half hour of the film, especially the last five minutes. They are cheering and clapping and having the time of their lives. I think that when many film critics, who tend to be left-wing and not interested in seeing violence glorified onscreen, watched the film with an audience who were going insane with excitement, they began to believe that the film itself was glorifying violence.
When I was filming the siege I got caught up in it all myself. The audience does relish the violence at the end, and I am not quite sure how I feel about that. I guess on one level, it's good to know you are connecting with your audience.
In the Peckinpah film, Hoffman says "I got them all" with a kind of pride and an acknowledgment of his own manhood. In our film James Marsden says it with a kind of sadness.
Rod was interviewed by telephone on 27th June 2012. I would like to thank him for the generous use of his time and for his candid answers.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.