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Courtroom Thriller <i>Runaway Jury</i> Packs All-Star Cast - 2003-10-18

American film icons Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman co-star in the new courtroom thriller based on a best seller by lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham. Alan Silverman has a look at Runaway Jury.

In high profile American court trials, especially those with huge business interests at stake, the jury consultant has taken on increasing importance. These experts use psychological profiles and background investigations in an attempt to craft a jury that will favor the client paying them.

In Runaway Jury, Gene Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, a ruthless expert hired by gun manufacturers when the widow of a shooting spree victim files suit claiming the companies are liable for the damages caused by their firearms. It's an important departure from the 1996 John Grisham novel in which the liability trial involved cigarette manufacturers; but director Gary Fleder contends the core remains unchanged.

"I made a movie about jury tampering, n-o-t about gun control," he explains. "I did feel that the case in the film should make sense, but the case is only the backdrop for the bigger story about jury tampering, surveillance and privacy issues. As a filmmaker you always want to say that you've captured the essence of the book and I think we did. I like the book a lot and I think we got the sense of it being smart and conspiratorial, but also with surprising turns like the book. I think we've captured that."

John Cusack and Rachel Weisz play characters with their own agenda for the trial. Cusack's Nick Easter has manipulated his way onto the jury itself and Weisz, as a mystery woman named Marlee, contacts both sides promising a verdict in favor of the highest bidder:

"These two characters become vigilantes at the end of the day and vigilantes are usually very compromised, damaged people," explains Cusak. "They are basically saying 'the system itself isn't going to work so we're going to become as corrupt as the evil that's corrupting the system in order to fight it.' "

"It's fun to play a role where you have a secret and you have masks that you can take off and have a reveal," adds Weisz. "It gives you something interesting to play. That coupled with the fact that this story had some substance to it I thought it was an interesting combination."

Jury consultant Fitch is the latest despicable screen character brought to life by Gene Hackman.

"It's part of me. We always try to use various things in our personalities that we may n-o-t find attractive, but we find them useful," explains Hackman. " I always try to find in these bad guys something that's human and that makes them even more diabolical. If you see somebody that is all bad you can put them in the 'monster category' and forget about them; but if you somebody that is really bad and is also a father and a grandfather, that's even worse, I think. "

On the other side of the case is plaintiff's attorney Wendall Rohr, played by Dustin Hoffman, a longtime friend of fellow Oscar-winner Hackman (the two were roommates 40 years ago during their struggling actor days). Ironically, Hoffman explains, a confrontation scene between the two characters marks the first time they have acted together in a film.

"We show up for the scene and we admit to each other that we hadn't slept the night before, how nervous we were . . . So we did the first take and we were terrible and yet we embraced and said 'we got through it!' It was intimidating," Hoffman says.

Runaway Jury is shot on location in and around historic New Orleans.