How to Remake A Classic

The "Straw Dogs" director offers four secrets to taking on a well-loved film and making it your own.

One of the first things that Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, said to me after giving me the green light to write and direct the remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (opening Sept. 16) was, "You know, there's going to be a big bull's-eye on your back." Boy, was he right.

From the minute we announced our plans, the bloggers made it clear that I was "no Sam Peckinpah," that I was a virtual heretic, a blight on all that is cinema. I had my own obvious reservations. When I was a film critic, I had more than admired Peckinpah; I thought him to be one of the great auteurs in all of film history. Who was I to do this?  

Here is what pushed me over the edge:

I ran into Dustin Hoffman, the star of the original 1971 film, at a Golden Globes party at producer Mike Medavoy's house. I distinctly recall him putting both hands on my shoulders and saying to me, with that wry smile of his, "You know, Straw Dogs is a Western. It's a scary Western." It was a story in the tradition of Shane and High Noon. "Put your own spin on it," he told me. 

And with that, Dustin was giving me the first of my four basic rules in remaking a film.

Put your own spin on it.

What Dustin was telling me is I should remake Straw Dogs, not Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. I was going to remake a film, but not with the same themes of its auteur. Peckinpah was famously influenced by the books of Robert Ardrey, which espoused what is known as the "Territorial Imperative" theory: that human beings are genetically coded for violence. Peckinpah spoke about it consistently in interviews and wrote about it in memos during the making of the film. 

I disagree with his view of man's nature. To me, violence is something that is conditioned. Thus, the point of my remake -- the spin, so to speak -- was to tell the same story, but from a completely different mind-set. 

Be very careful how you cast.

If the star of the original was himself iconic, you're probably better off going to a different kind of actor. Hoffman is one of the few actors in the world who is an "-esque," in that he is "Hoffman-esque." Dustin himself recommended to me a few actors to play the role of David Sumner, but they were all actors who were, in fact, Hoffman-esque. I thought we would be holding those actors to standards that would be near impossible to achieve. I'll always remember when Clint texted me the name James Marsden. I responded with three exclamation points. He is almost the anti-Hoffman. He's tremendously handsome and a kind of hopeless WASP. If Dustin's David was a New York intellectual, Marsden's would be a Greenwich Country Club fellow. Marsden, who is an amazing mimic, made things difficult by always doing at least one take as Dustin Hoffman. My problem in the editing room is that these were often the best takes.

Watch what you keep and throw out.

If you're not keeping most of the story, you shouldn't be remaking the film. The very first draft I wrote for Screen Gems was well received, but it was very different from the original. Clint called me into his office and said, "This is great, but we are remaking Straw Dogs."

As a result, most of the story beats are the same. What I did change was the location, the professions of the lead characters, the era in which the story takes place, and as I said before, the mind-set of those same characters. I also eliminated sub-stories and characters not connected to the central conflict.

You'll be tempted to throw out the title, but don't.

Peckinpah selected Straw Dogs from a saying he read from the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. This only happened after the studio rejected one title after another, including The Siege of Trencher's Farm, the name of the book upon which the movie is based.

At least three filmmakers who directed remakes told me I should change the title. They hadn't changed the titles of their films, and they seemed to feel that the projects suffered. I think what they were saying was that in some sort of weird way, if you change the title, you can fool the audience into thinking the film isn't really a remake. But I find that to be simply impossible. Part of the power of this film is, in fact, in its title. When you see our version, you will understand what it is meant to signify. 

Only time (in this case, a few days) will tell whether it was wise to remake Straw Dogs at all. But in my mind, I'm no longer daunted by the idea of a remake. In fact, I now look at it as a genre unto itself -- so long as you make it your own.

Ex-journalist Lurie's films as a director include The Contender and Nothing But the Truth.