Filmmaker Rod Lurie’s interest in politics is bred in the bone, from childhood. He has been able to use that passion to interpret politics, particularly the US presidency for filmgoers throughout his career through his films The Contender, Deterrence, 4 Second Delay and Nothing But the Truth and his TV series Line of Fire and Commander-in-Chief. Killing Reagan on National Geographic Channel Sunday night at 8 ET is his latest presidential project, on the events leading up the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the personal and political aftermath. Tim Matheson plays President Reagan and Cynthia Nixon is his First Lady Nancy. Killing Reagan tells the tale and brings to light important new details. We spoke with Lurie from Los Angeles.
Rod, you’ve made an extraordinary number of films and TV series on aspects of the US presidency. Why does this area interest you?
My dad was a political cartoonist so my entire life was with politics in the house. Other kids were playing baseball and I was wondering who would win the primaries. It never left me and my dad never let it leave me.
And then you attended West Point and served in the military but pulled an about face to become a film critic, then filmmaker. Why the switch?
I was in the military for several years then left to pursue this element of my life. You know when film students ask me for advice on film school, I always tell them not to go. Go and study what you want to make films about. For me it was the military, politics, leadership and history.
I must be torture seeing what`s become of presidential campaigns now.
It’s not torture, it`s fascinating and so interesting and spirited, I would say that it’s not boring. I’ll tell you that the Trump campaign has been very good for Killing Reagan because Donald Trump has made Republicans nostalgic for Reagan. I didn’t like Reagan at all but he had style and dignity and he would never wear a Donald trump suit.
Reagan seemed warm and fuzzy and was a showman, as Tim Matheson portrays him. But many people really disliked him.
On a personal level I don’t know, but I disliked what he was trying to do and that includes and I will never forget his lack of attention to the AIDS crisis and Iran Contra. But he was a model for how to comport oneself and when you look at Donald Trump this disgusting asshole who is basically the very model of the Ugly American it seems ridiculous that he can even be in the discussion.
His fan base just doesn’t seem to mind what he does, it celebrates amorality.
We are starting to see the strong effects of that and any women right now who would vote for Trump should have her woman card removed.
Killing Reagan is informing new generations about the man and the event. So it had to be entertaining and concise. Was it challenging?
National Geographic are slave masters when it comes to accuracy. We had more researchers than Hillary had in Florida. Anytime we submitted a script or cut of the film. They told us for example, that the man who sold John Hinckley the guns had a daughter and not a son. And then the larger subjects, we had it caught on videotape.
I personally spoke with the doctors who looked after him. I walked around Atlanta reading books on Reagan and I would show waiters and waitresses his picture and no one knew who he was. I don’t think it’s taught in school. Reagan survived so for high school history is wasn’t really history. When he was shot he followed the idea that “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”. And that made him his own man.
Ronald Reagan was ruled by Nancy. She seemed protective but what was the reach of her influence?
Cynthia is remarkable in the role. It was extraordinary, the influence of Nancy, after the assassination attempt. He became stronger but she became weaker and terrified and didn`t trust anyone anymore. That’s one of the reasons she hired an astrologer.
How did you help Cynthia?
Cynthia is simply one of the best actors in America, and I`ve been in love with her sin ce Amadeus. She does not physically resemble Nancy but like all greta actors, she was able to find the soul of the character. She did research and it wasn’t really necessary to direct her too much. She knew what she needed to do. The most I can do is tell her what I hope to achieve in the scene. There are moments when she is fierce but also at times she is loving and kind.
Did you learn anything new?
This is not a spoiler, but in the opening scene of the movie John Hinckley is about to shoot Jimmy Carter and that is a little bit of history that we are introducing. It’s interesting what we do and do not know. History has a way of expanding itself at its own pace.
Talk to me about the Oval Office set and the desk called Old Resolute! How many times have you directed in the Oval Room?
This is my fifth Oval Office. It is always designed Eloise Crane Stammerjohn. The desk is made of wood from Old Resolute, a naval ship and it belonged to John F. Kennedy but also in fact, Jimmy Carter. Reagan kept all the Carter furniture.
The painstaking period detail is remarkable.
It’s a lot of work and the production designer, the most difficult thing to get right was the hospital. We had to find all the 1980`s equipment.
John Hinckley is now released from hospital. What do you know about where he is and his mental state?
I think he’s in New Hampshire with his mother. We had the première and we were all looking over our shoulders. I’m sure he`s better now and I don’t want to pay my tax dollars on his peanut butter sandwiches.
How much better is presidential security now?
They really fucked up that day. They had become complacent at the Washington Hilton where they had gone dozens of times. There was no one at the rope line. It was rather insane.
Is Jodie Foster aware of the film?
Not that I know of but if she was watching the debate, there was a commercial for it.