Rod Lurie Takes as Good as He Gave

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Before he became a filmmaker and television showrunner, Rod Lurie was an outspoken movie critic and radio talk host in Los Angeles. His over-the-top style during the 1990s so angered some studios he was banned from press screenings.

A graduate of West Point, Mr. Lurie took the heat. But he was soon looking to make his own films. The first was a 1998 short, “4 Second Delay,” inspired by his lifelong fascination with politics. It later became the calling card for his first feature, “Deterrence,” about a U.S. president stranded by a blizzard in a diner during a military crisis.

When it came time for his first reviews, Mr. Lurie recalled being stressed out. “I used to sweat bullets about how it was going to be reviewed and how my peers were going to view me,” he said last week, “because one of the reasons why I left film criticism was because I didn’t think I was very good at it. And thus I really respected several other people who were in the business. And those people I really respected were now going to judge me.”

Since then he has made two other features (“The Contender,” about a female nominee for U.S. vice president, and “The Last Castle,” a military prison drama) and created, wrote, directed and produced the political drama “Line of Fire” for ABC in 2003-04.

Mr. Lurie no longer takes critics nearly as seriously. “I don’t lose sleep over it anymore,” Mr. Lurie said. “Everyone’s got a job to do. I should be able to take as good as I gave, and I gave pretty f***ing good. I should be OK with anything, even the personal assaults, which I was guilty of myself.”

He may need emotional armor to handle the notices for “Commander in Chief,” which premieres Sept. 27 on ABC. Critical reaction so far has ranged from “Can’t-miss fall drama” to “‘Commander’ may be doomed.”

The series is the story of the first woman president, played by Geena Davis. She succeeds to the office after the elected president dies of a sudden illness. In the pilot, members of her party want her to step aside in favor of her political opponent, played with wicked charm by Donald Sutherland. Instead, she grabs hold of the job, then has to deal with the political heat and the concerns of her husband and children.

“Commander” has drawn inevitable comparisons to NBC’s “The West Wing,” but Mr. Lurie insisted the dramas are quite different. “Their show deals with a lot of the staff and the political arcana,” Mr. Lurie said. “We’re planning just to deal with the really heavy-duty [political] stuff. We’re going to deal a tremendous amount with the family side and what it means to be the family of the president.”

During his appearance before TV critics in July, Mr. Lurie was given a hard time about several things, including having only Democrats on his staff and among his key cast. Some critics suggested that showed a lack of balance. Mr. Lurie, still fuming, dismissed the charge. “It’s a bit like discovering that there’s quote-unquote ‘gambling going on here,'” he said, in a reference to the movie “Casablanca.” “We’re in Los Angeles. We’re in Hollywood. What do they expect? … I found that to be a childish exercise, as if they were asking me if I was ever a Communist. … I promise you, it’s not going to be a partisan Democratic show.”

Mr. Lurie lamented that a version of his “Commander” pilot shown to critics was a rough cut. He felt it didn’t properly represent his pilot, which has since been re-edited. A key role, the president’s son, has been recast.

Mr. Lurie is also betting on Ms. Davis. He risked everything to get her. Mr. Lurie explained that the series was cast-contingent. That meant it made the schedule only if the right star was attached. Mr. Lurie wanted Ms. Davis, but she had a holding deal at CBS, where her best pal Nina Tassler is president of entertainment. CBS was trying to find the right vehicle for Ms. Davis as well.

Mr. Lurie had until the end of this past February to cast his lead, but Ms. Davis couldn’t even read the script until Feb. 28, when her CBS deal expired. Meanwhile, sets were being built in Richmond, Va. “They had spent half a million dollars already,” he recalled. “We were hiring the rest of the cast, which we have to do because otherwise they’re going to other pilots. So we’re out a load of money if for some reason Geena says no. We were just hoping she would be entranced by it.”

On the afternoon of Feb. 28, Ms. Davis called Mr. Lurie humming “Hail to the Chief.” Shooting started two weeks later. That cut things close. “It was a pretty wild experience,” Mr. Lurie recalled. “There was no table reading. We’re just racing on to Richmond to shoot this thing … on the last possible day we could start shooting [and make a deadline for pilots].”

ABC has since put its promotional muscle behind the show. As part of the hype, Mr. Lurie and Ms. Davis will fly in a private jet to Denver to appear on “Monday Night Football” the day before the show premieres. Mr. Lurie said that will be a thrill: “It’s heaven for me. I would do the whole thing just for that night, to be honest with you.”

The son of a noted political cartoonist, Mr. Lurie said “Commander” will succeed because it is really not a political show at all. “It has more of a presidential nature, which I think is a real distinction,” he said. “Political, to me, means right below the presidency. The presidency shouldn’t be political. The president should be about the wielding of power. And politics is about the obtaining of power.”

He cites film and TV history to make his point, including political series “Mr. Sterling” and “The Court” and political film “First Monday in October,” all of which were seen as flops.

“When you go into the presidency,” Mr. Lurie said, “as with, say, ‘Fail-Safe’ or ‘Air Force One’ or ‘The American President’ or ‘Dave,’ they do work.”

“I think people are fascinated by the presidency,” he added. “Look at the voting pattern in this country. Midterm elections have very little turnout whereas the presidential elections have a hundred million people turning out. I think that’s going to be true in television as well.”

“Commander,” which is likely to draw a slightly older audience, faces fierce competition on Tuesday evenings but Mr. Lurie is confident it will attract viewers.

“In the end I’m making a piece of entertainment, I’m not trying to change the world,” he said. “I found a concept that I felt was long overdue and simply put it on the air.”