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Success has definitely been the making of Rod Lurie. It wasn't all that long ago that he was an L.A. film critic and one of the most widely resented of all those strange journalistic fauna found in the floating public relations menagerie known as the film junket (so mildly spoofed in the Julia Roberts comedy "America's Sweethearts.") Sitting at tables with stars and other journalists, there was no Lurie question that didn't come with about six or seven follow-ups and seemingly no star with whom he couldn't establish an instant conspiracy-of-two.

Of such things can come some collegial unpopularity and in Lurie's case it sometimes did.

The joke, though, is on the whiny movie junket press, as it so often has been of late. Lurie has become a fascinating and even important filmmaker for three films now - his first warm-up thriller, "Deterrence," his much-acclaimed political actor's show, "The Contender" and now his star-spangled prison rebellion movie, "The Last Castle," starring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini, which opened Friday.

He is a director, then, whose movies win his actors Oscar nominations and whose budgets are now high enough to pay the freight for people of the stature of Redford and Gandolfini. That's a long way from a round table junket interview with Nick Nolte.

"It was always a fantasy of mine to become a filmmaker," he said recently on the phone from Hollywood. "In fact, Jeff, when I decided to become a film critic I was in my mid-20s, I had just gotten out of the Army, I said, "How do I become a filmmaker? I guess I'll become a film critic. That's the most obvious road. It turned out to be the least obvious road and a very difficult one. But what happened to me, to be perfectly honest about it, is that I just didn't think I was very good at what I did (as a critic). I thought when I wrote I was entertaining. I had a lot of readers and a lot of listeners on my radio show. But I wasn't very good. I would wake up on Fridays and I would read Kenny Turan (in the L.A. Times) or I would read Janet Maslin or Jami Bernard or Roger Ebert and realize I just wasn't as good as those people. They could write really well.

"I had hit a personal ceiling. I would always be intellectually mediocre as a film critic. And so I sort of became inspired, instead of making a film, to go into a profession -- one where I had a chance to succeed.

"I think I was sometimes not popular at tables because you're right, I was a question hog very often. It was more a part of my character. It wasn't a competition with the other journalists, obviously. We all had agendas of what our articles were supposed to be. My first and foremost goal was not to look out for anyone on my right or left but for myself. That was selfish but in retrospect, I probably should not have been that way.

"I think there's some superb movie press and there's some inferior movie press. There are many people in the movie press who are so good at what they did that they intimidated me out of the business. On the other hand, there are some people who I think don't take it very seriously, that are really in it for the frequent flyer miles. I'm sure you believe the same thing. There aren't that many of those. And they don't tend to stay too long. They get weeded out. I've always been very vocal about that. Sometimes, I think, the entertainment press goes very easy on the business."

A few more questions for one of the more ambitious and substantive writer/filmmakers in current Hollywood.

Given the traumatized state we're all in in this country, how do you think your movie will fit in with the national mood? And what do you think that is anyway?

I knew that question was going to be asked. I've been trying to figure out a way to answer it. It's difficult for me because it's just to me really petty to be talking about the release of a film. Generally I think the American people are going to tell us in Hollywood what's appropriate and not the other way around. "Training Day" and "Don't Say a Word" both opened at No. 1. They both opened big. I think people are saying, "We're a little tougher than you give us credit for." As for our film specifically, the audience is going to tell us. In test screenings and sneaks, the film has been doing very well.

I think people are craving normality, that they really wish they could go back to the way things were. That includes sports and movies and TV because there's a sense of safety and assuredness when the world goes on around you. On the other hand, there's also a great sense of nationalism in this country right now so that I think people are also craving Americana. They want to be proud of their country. They're now looking at what they've been taking for granted all these years.

Let's talk about your military background. To be a military guy and to be drawn to military stories like 'The Last Castle' isn't common in modern movies -- or at least it wasn't until Sept. 11. It wasn't freakish, of course, but it wasn't that common, either. Did you ever feel the military was unfairly stigmatized or underestimated for political reasons?

There've been some very honorable films about the military but the military often gets a bum rap in film. Films about the military are often made by people who haven't a clue about what it means to be in the military and furthermore don't research what it means. It was very important for me in 'The Last Castle' that we have a high sense of accuracy.

One of the greatest flaws in understanding the military is that we assume people in the military are conservative, on the right, that they're Republicans. In fact, almost all young officers that I know are leftists, are Democrats. That's natural because the military is made up mostly of minorities. Yet I think when you see films about the military, they have a conservative coup d'etat mentality to them. It's very unsettling to me. When I saw this screenplay, I realized it was written by people who had affection for the military, as do I.

Let's talk about Redford a little bit. He's an underrated actor I think, but what he does well is hard to see or to credit. Did you find him easy to direct? Or was he self-protective about his image in any way?

First of all, Bob is really easy to direct because he's a director himself and because he understands what it means to be a pain-in-the-ass actor and he does not want to be that actor. He's had to deal with them. He makes life as easy as possible for me . . .

One of the things that intrigued him about the film is that it enabled him to do things he's never done in a movie before. There are two things he does in this film that I don't think he's ever done in a movie before.

The first is that I don't think he's ever really given speeches before in a movie. He's never rallied the troops so to speak, in a movie before. He's never been that kind of hero. He's always been much more quiet, much more reserved, much more insular.

He's never been a parent in a movie before -- certainly not the parent of an adult. And here he's playing the parent to a woman who a few years ago might have been his love interest in a movie. If Demi Moore can be and Michelle Pfeiffer can be, then Robin Wright can be.

In that scene with his daughter, there's something else, too. He takes a bit of an ass-whooping from her. I think the audience in that scene feels sorry for (Redford's) character. And I don't think you've ever seen the audience feel sorry for Redford in a movie before."

You seem drawn to powerful actors like, say, James Gandolfini and Jeff Bridges and content to get out of their way rather than in their face. Is that a correct reading of the Lurie method?

That's definitely a correct reading, especially with Gandolfini who was, at first, very unsure of his character. Then he became very, very sure of the character. I often found myself watching him direct himself on the set, watching him decide where he's going to walk, what he's going to do, how he's going to raise himself on the balls of his feet, when he's going to take his glasses off. It's a delight to watch.

You know what the most important job is for a director? It's to hire well. I may not do other things well but I certainly can cast well. I cast people who are very confident of themselves. It's true of Joan Allen (who was nominated for an Oscar for 'The Contender'), it's true for Gandolfini."

What are you working on now?

I'm going to do a political TV series for ABC. I can't talk about it any more than that because we haven't signed all the contracts yet."