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Red Box Rental: Nothing But the Truth Director Talks Journalism and Valerie Plame

June 10, 2009, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
Santa Fe, I've got a homework assignment for you.

Zip down to Smiths or Albertsons, walk right up to the DVD vending machine known as the Red Box, pop in your debit card and spend a $1 on Nothing But the Truth, the straight-to-video journo-drama from director Rod Lurie. Go home, watch it.

I say homework because, for me, the film is an instant Journalism 101 essential. If All the President's Men is the ultimate argument about why anonymous sources are crucial to reporting, then Nothing But The Truth is the ultimate explanation of why a reporter must protect those sources.

"I want to make it very clear to you rreaders that it's also a thriller and very entertaining," director and writer Rod Lurie tells SFR in a phone interview. "I don't want people to think that it's broccoli."



Oh, right. Yeah, I'll vouch for that. The film isn't the hyper-realistic snoozer as I might be selling it. First of all, it's a rarity in that it's a simultaneously a Hollywood spy thriller, a courtroom drama and a prison saga. Secondly, it's got a very satisfying if not problematic reveal/twist at the end. Thirdly, it crunches more stars between the credits than a box of Little Debbies: Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, Noah Wyle, David Schwimmer, Courtney Vance (otherwise known as the district attorney from Law & Order: Criminal Intent).

Speaking of Law & Order, the film follows the ripped-from-the-headlines-and-twisted-for-dramatic-effect formula. Lurie, as a filmmaker, likes to play what-if with his concepts, and this one starts with the Valerie Plame leak and journalist Judith Miller's imprisonment when she refuses to reveal her source. Lurie entirely fictionalizes the story, replacing Iraq with Venezuela, Valerie Plame with "Erica Van Doren" (Vera Farmiga), Miller with "Rachel Armstrong" (Beckinsale) and 85 days in jail with more than a year.

So, if it's such a great film, why do you have to stop by the Red Box to pick it up? The irony of the film is that while it's an overzealous prosecutor who silences a journalist in the film, the film itself was silenced when film company Yari Film Group declared bankruptcy. No theatrical release, no Academy Award consideration.

Lurie, who I consider a friend (at least on Facebook), agreed to an interview about the impetus and accuracy of the film and the disappointment when the film bottomed out.



SFR: Just to give people a background. The way you and I kind of met was, like a year and a half ago, I reviewed a film you made about a journalist...

RL: Right...[nervous laugh]...Resurrecting the Champ.

And I hated it, because I thought it was so off on how journalist were portrayed. You wrote me an e-mail and we've been talking about films ever since. Now, this is another movie about a journalist. I have a completely different opinion about this than the last. So, I figured I'd ask: What attracts you to journalists?

Nostalgia is one of the most truthful answers taht I can give you. It's an unfortunate answer. I was a journalist for many, many years, far longer than I have been a filmmaker for. I'm nostalgic for the great newspapers and the great newspaper men and women. I'm nostalgic for editorial boards getting together and trying to come up with a message that a newspaper wants to get across, I'm nostalgic for the gumshoe journalist. I'm nostalgic for having ink come off on my thumbs and fingers. I'm nostalgic for all those things and I wanted to make the best newspaper story that I could. I really do believe that newspaper journalists and magazine journalists, if they do their job right, they are employed in the most noble profession of them all.

You're warming my heart here.

Unfortunately, the way things are going right now, everything is going topsy turvy in that profession.

The most recent other journalism related movie I saw was State of Play. I really like that director (Kevin MacDonald), mostly for his documentaries, but with that film, it had the nostalgia, but it equated journalists with print as a medium. You really went for different angle altogether,  looking not at the medium itself, but  the philosophy and principles.

That's right. I've always felt beholden to the nobility of journalism. My favorite movie of all time is All the President's Men. I saw it when I was 14 years old and I decided then I was going to become a journalist. Now, I'm also influenced by the fact that my dad d is a journalist. I loved watching his stories come to fruition. Of course All the President's Men also made me want to become a movie maker because I think it's the best American film ever made.

People are forgetting that journalists are noble. Journalism used to be the most trusted profession there was, now it's one of the most mistrusted. One of the things I wanted to show is we're not going to get great people into this business if they think that it's a den of vipers. Unlike the legal profession (which we also think of in the same way), there's very little money to be made. People become journalists like people want to become teachers, they want to serve some sort of public good.

Your film is kind of a thesis argument for shield laws. I could send this film to my Congressman and say just 'Watch this, I don't need to say anything more.' How much research did you do on how federal shield laws work for this film?

We did a tremendous amount of research. Floyd Abrams, who plays the judge in the film, also happens to be the preeminent First Amendment attorney, maybe ever. For example, he defended the NYTImes in the Pentagon Papers case. He happened to be Judith Miller's attorney. He was our technical adviser and I spent a lot of time with him trying to make sure that everything in the film is factually accurate as far as the shield law is concerned, as far as throwing journalists in to jail is concerned and as far as the newspaper side of it is concerned.

As you may know, Valeire Plame does live in Santa Fe. In fact her office is just across the street...

No! Do you ever get to see her?

I've seen her drive off in her Prius, which made me laugh when you had this line from the character about how she couldn't be a CIA agent since she doesn't even know how to operate her Prius.

You know what? That's a complete coincidence.

You've been very clear that this really wasn't about Valerie Plame. Can you tell me how you were inspired by this and why you kept certain elements?

You know, the story actually began with my TV series Commander in Chief. After I was fired from that show, there were a number of ideas that I never got to exercise. One of them was going to be about a journalist that goes to jail for writing top secret stuff about the president. That concept really fascinated me and about the same time, maybe not too far after my firing, Judy Miller went to jail because she would not reveal who had outed to her that Plame was a CIA agent. Then I began my what ifs. What if Valerie Plame was a mom and Judy Miller was a mom? And the kids knew each other? What would happen then? What would happen if Judy Miller would stay beyond those 85 days she spent in jail?  I like taking real-life situations, twisting them around completely and adding my own interesting what ifs.

What happened with this film? It was set for a December release. People were talking about possible Academy Award nominations.

We were really riding high. I was in my office and the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes started to come in and it was like 80 percent positive, I mean really, really strong. We were lining up interviews for Kate Beckinsaleand for Alan Alda and Vera Farmiga. The Broadcast Film Critics announced  Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga were nominated for best actress and best supporting actress. So, we think it's a really great sign. And then, later that afternoon, the producer Marc Frydman knocks on my door and says he just got a phone call from Hollywood Reporter and they wanted to know what we thought about the Yari Film Group bankruptcy. That, as they say, was that. The film was dead. That was it. Goodbye, sayonara. We didn't even print a poster.

This movie that was testing so beautifully and it's really affected Kate Beckinsale greatly because when you're an actor, a movie star of her clout, you take a movie like this for very little money for only one reason. You take it because you think it might realign how people think about you as an actor. Maybe you'll be into the Academy Award mix and you're not looked on just as a vampire or Adam Sandler's wife. Sure enough her reviews were all talking about her getting nominated and then all of sudden, sayonara.

But the film is still doing well in film festivals, isn't it?


The film did great on the film festival circuit. We got a standing ovation in Toronto and we won the Colorado one and we opened in Tampa and went to Ebert Fest, which was the best of them all. But you know, we still want to be in theaters, man. It's really too bad.

I have a hope that you guys will submit it to the Santa Fe Film Festival this year.

Well, it's on DVD, so what's the point? And we're off to make our next film in two months anyway, the remake of Straw Dogs.

 

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