You’d be hard-pressed to find a current director who has helmed as many beloved movies as Rob Reiner. He was born into show business; his dad Carl Reiner was an early creator on The Dick Van Dyke Show and a comedy partner of Mel Brooks. The younger Reiner eagerly dove into the family business, with improv troupes and stage directing alongside TV appearances as members of the counterculture movement (read: hippie) on shows like Gomer Pyle. His big break came when he was cast as the rebellious son-in-law on the classic sitcom All In The Family, where he frequently fought onscreen with his father-in-law Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor.
After that show ended, Reiner turned to directing, kicking off with the now-classic improv effort This Is Spinal Tap, which essentially started the mockumentary movement continued and extended by Tap member Christopher Guest. Reiner followed with 1985’s John Cusack romcom The Sure Thing, then Stand By Me, a nostalgic adaptation of a Stephen King novella that he now points to as his masterpiece. He then crafted the beloved The Princess Bride, and went on to a noteworthy string of hits with When Harry Met Sally…, A Few Good Men, The American President, and Misery. Throughout, Reiner has maintained his interest in liberal political efforts: He is a co-founder of the American Foundation For Equal Rights, which initiated the court challenge against Prop 8, the same-sex marriage ban. In 1998, Reiner chaired the campaign for the California Children And Families Initiative, which helped create services for early childhood development. He has also worked for ecology initiatives in California.
Recently, Reiner directed his most personal film: His son Nick co-wrote Being Charlie, based on his years of struggle with drug addiction. Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes plays the addict’s father, a politically minded former film star, who resembles Reiner. (The film comes out on digital HD and VOD on September 6, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 4.)
The director will turn 70 next year, but shows no signs of slowing down: He recently wrapped an LBJ bio pic starring Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the former first couple, and has a new movie in the works about the Iraq War. These days you’re also as likely to find Reiner in front of the camera as behind it, as he’s appeared in movies like The Wolf Of Wall Street, and has a recurring role as Jess’ dad on New Girl.
The exuberant and generous Reiner talked to The A.V. Club recently, stretching an allotted 20-minute slot into a half-hour as he talked about his many now-classic movies (along with a few fun anecdotes), and the classics he still hopes to make.
The A.V. Club: It’s hard to believe that Stand By Me is having its 30th anniversary this year. You’ve said that you consider that film your masterpiece. What about that movie really resonates for you?
Rob Reiner: People always ask me “what’s your favorite?” I don’t know that it’s the best film or not, but Stand By Me—of all of the films that I’ve made—it’s certainly the one that means the most to me, because it was the first time I made a film that really was reflective of my personality and my sensibility. It was a mixture of melancholy and humor, and up until then, I had done This Is Spinal Tap, which is satire. I’d done some things in satire—my father had been trafficked in satire when he was young. And then I did The Sure Thing, which was basically a romantic comedy, and my father, again, had done those kind of things. And this was the first time that I was doing something that was very far away from anything he would have thought to do, so I felt like, even in my 30s at that point, I felt like I was becoming my own person.
So it meant a lot to me that people liked it, because I thought if they don’t like this, then they’re not going to like the kinds of things that I’m interested in, which is to try to blend these more serious, darker things with humor. And anytime a movie lasts, it’s really a thrill. I mean, that people can still pick up on it, and still enjoy it, that makes you feel great.
AVC: Speaking of your father, you grew up in an environment surrounded by all these comedy legends. How much of an influence was that on you?
RR: I mean, I grew up around Sid Caesar and Norman Lear and Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben, all these very funny people, and as a young person, I was drawn to it like crazy. I loved what Sid Caesar did on the old Your Show Of Shows. I loved watching him, and I love Mel Brooks, and the way he and my dad were able to play off of each other. I just loved all that stuff. I’m sure it had a tremendous influence on me.
AVC: But you were also politically minded as well. When you got to be a little older, you were in the counterculture, and getting cast as the hippie in a lot of these early roles.
RR: I was certainly a child of the ’60s, and I came out of that era, and as a young actor, I got cast as a lot of counterculture hippie types. When I played in All In The Family, you know, playing the liberal adversary to Archie’s conservative. But the thing that got me more engaged, aside from the fact that my parents were always pretty politically engaged, was seeing Norman Lear use his fame and celebrity to be able to make some change in the political arena. That to me was the greatest example for me of what I could be doing.
So then I decided to not just be about protesting or speaking out against certain things, but actually trying to get things done. That has been tremendously fulfilling for me. The work that we were able to do in early childhood, saving environmental areas in Southern California, and then getting marriage equality the law of the land—those things are big. People come up to me a lot of times, and they say liked Spinal Tap or When Harry Met Sally… or whatever, which always makes you feel good. But then when they come up and say, “Thank you so much for what you did for marriage equality,” whatever the things are, that makes me feel even better. That you know you really, profoundly affected somebody’s life.
RR: Yeah, but I mean, American President was political, and A Few Good Men also had some political parts to it. So I haven’t done a lot of them, but I’ve always kind of been interested in politics. This LBJ is certainly that, and then I’m doing a picture now that I’m starting in October called Shock And Awe, which is all about how we got into Iraq and the lies that were perpetrated by the Bush administration, and how they were debunked by a group of journalists from the Knight Ridder news service. I guess as I get older, I’m kind of getting drawn to the things that I really love the most, which is trying to figure out ways of blending politics with humor, and making it interesting. So I don’t know if anybody’s interested in this stuff, but I like it, so I get involved with it.
AVC: Well, at this point in your career, you should just be able to do whatever you want.
RR: Yeah, I mean, I feel that way. As you get older, all those dumb clichés, they’re all true. You only have a certain amount of time left, and you should only spend it doing the things that you want to do. It’s all true. And for me, if I had all the money in the world, and I could finance my own films, I would do whatever. I’m always running around trying to raise money to make the films. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do that, but if I can’t, at this point, it’s not like I wanted to spend a lot of time putting together, you know, you spend a year of your life on something, you go, “What the hell am I doing that for?” So you’re right. You’re absolutely right.
For me, the only type of guilty pleasure fun that I have in terms of my career is I act once in awhile. And I don’t have any responsibility. I just did a part with Adam Sandler and Kevin James in a movie that they’re doing for Netflix, and that’s just fun for me. I like doing that. I liked doing Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s fun.
AVC: And on New Girl, who else could be Jess Day’s dad? She has the perfect parents with you and Jamie Lee Curtis.
RR: Yeah, Zooey [Deschanel]’s so cute. She’s so sweet, and she’s such a good actress, and so fun to be with. I had a great time doing that, I did four or five of those things. So you know, anytime they call me, if I’m around, I’ll do it. I like coming in for a day, two days, whatever. It’s fun for me.
AVC: Ostensibly your big break was All In The Family, on a sitcom set, and now you’re back around single camera versus multi-cam, but still in the sitcom world. How do you look back on your perspective of your career? Like, how is shooting New Girl different than shooting was in the ’70s? Do you think it’s more cinematic now?
RR: Well, shooting New Girl is fun because a lot of it is improvised. They let you improvise. When I did Spinal Tap—the whole movie is improvised. We didn’t have a script. So I like doing that kind of thing. That’s fun for me. But yeah, to me it’s all about putting on a show. It’s a story. What’s the best way to tell a story? Whether it’s three cameras, two cameras, one camera, film—now everything’s digital—and I like that. I like all that technology. I’m not good at it, but I like it. It gives you more freedom, the digital camera.
AVC: As a bona fide TV veteran, how do you feel about TV today? People keep talking about this golden age.
RR: TV’s great. I think the best stuff is happening on television. For the last five, 10 years, you’re seeing the best things happen on television. The movie studios, they only like to make—I make a joke, but it’s true—if the movie has the word “man” and a number in the title, they’ll make it. If it doesn’t have that, it’s an R-rated raunchy comedy, and that’s it. Any other movie that you’re going to make is going to be an independent one. So for filmmakers who want to do something other than “man” and a number, it’s either independent films or television, which is like the place for real creative filmmakers to go. I think there’s great stuff on television. I’m hooked on all these shows. I love watching these shows.
AVC: Would you consider a series at this point?
RR: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m developing one thing that I would like to do. I haven’t brought it to the network yet, but I got this one pilot right now that we’re producing for the USA network. It’s called The Tap. It takes place in 1969 on the campus of Yale, and it’s about the first year women were allowed to go to Yale, and it’s about all the unrest that was happening in the world at that time, and it focuses on this young guy who’s trying to get into Skull And Bones, you know, the secret society, and it’s tied to the CIA and all this stuff. So it’s interesting. There’s a lot of good stuff. So we’re doing that—hopefully that will get on. And I have another idea that I’m trying to work on.
So yeah, I love television. But again, it’s got to be something that’s interesting to you. I mean, I love House Of Cards, I love Breaking Bad, I love The Wire. You know, there’s some great things that have been on. I even like things like Bloodline—it’s fun to watch that. A lot of good stuff on television.
AVC: As your most recent film, Being Charlie, was based on your son’s struggle with addiction and co-written by him, it’s probably your most personal film. Was it hard for you to film that, to see that play out?
RR: Yeah, it was very difficult. It was very painful. But ultimately, one of the most satisfying creative experiences I’ve ever had. Because, basically, what anybody who’s in any kind of art—whether it’s films or painting or music or writing a book—the greatest experience is being able to express yourself and what you’ve gone through, trying to figure out a way to make it into something that’s artistic that people can connect with. To me, that was the best thing about Being Charlie—I got to work with my son, who’s gone through really difficult times. His mother and I have gone through difficult times along with it. We made a film that reflects both sides of drug abuse and so on. It was painful, but also incredibly creatively satisfying.
AVC: It’s such a tough situation. And the father in the film is prominent, and you’re a prominent father—to go to set and see those parents struggle, it must have been hard.
RR: That was a reflection of me and my wife. I was told by all these experts—and you don’t know, you’re feeling like this is uncharted water—you don’t know how to deal with all this stuff. And so you listen to anybody with a desk and a diploma—you do what they tell you to do. And it’s totally against my nature to be that kind of tough love guy—I’m just not that kind of person. But I’m doing that because they’re telling me that’s what he needs, and at the same time, his mother is much more forgiving, so we were at odds at times with each other, and times when we were on the same page. It was just really, really difficult, as I have learned since Nick has been good now for the last almost four years. I learn more from him. He was trying to tell me things when he was younger. I wouldn’t listen to him because they told me, “they’re trying to manipulate you,” “they’re trying to do this.” I realized that a lot of what he was saying was true, and I wish I had trusted my own instincts a little bit more than what I did, because what I did was basically blindly go with what the experts were telling me. I think for every parent, they know their kids better than anybody else, and they have to just trust their own instincts.
AVC: Is it a coincidence that your son’s name is Nick, the same name John Cusack brings up in The Sure Thing? “Nick’s your buddy!”
RR: Nick was born after that.
AVC: So that’s how he got his name?
RR: Yeah, yeah. There you go. I mean, we actually did think of that. We didn’t do it because of that. But once we thought of the name Nick, we said, “Hey, that’s the name we used in The Sure Thing, that would be good.” Yeah, Nick’s your buddy, he doesn’t mind if you puke in his car.
AVC: You mentioned your improv experience. That apparently gave you the courage to direct your first movie, This Is Spinal Tap, based on only two pages of outline and no script?
RR: We had four. Four pages. Basically, in four pages, what we did was, just give the broad strokes of what would happen on the course of the tour. And that’s all. The only dialogue—we only wrote one speech of dialogue, and that was for Patrick Macnee, who played the head of Polymer Records. He was not an improvisational actor, so we gave him that little speech where he says, “Tap into America.” And that’s the only thing we wrote. Everything else was completely improvised.
AVC: But at that point, you had all known each other for a while. There has to have been so much trust there and knowing each other and how you were going to play off of each other.
RR: Yeah, the thing is, people always said, “I can’t believe you made a movie that had no script.” Yeah, but here’s the thing, if you’ve got actors who are used to that, and that’s what they like to do, they’re all good improvisers and they’re all people that feel comfortable doing that, then you know, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s what you do. Howard Hesseman is in there, Tony Hendra, Fred Willard, Billy Crystal. These are all guys that improvise. They’re comfortable doing it, and it made sense for us.
AVC: How you guys didn’t break character, though, I have no idea.
RR: We did a couple of times. When [Nigel] said, “lick my love pump,” I did go, actually. Because that came out of nowhere. I said, “That’s really beautiful what you’re playing,” and he says, “Yeah, it’s in D minor, the saddest of all keys.” I said, “Really? What do you call this?” And then he says that. I almost—no, I did break on one of them. We had to do it over again.
AVC: Is that the movie people come up to you the most about?
RR: No, I think that one is a lot, and Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally… sometimes. People like Stand By Me. They like different things, you know?
AVC: Is there a movie you feel hasn’t gotten its due? Like The Story Of Us so accurately depicts what a marriage is like. I watch it and wonder, why is that under the radar?
RR: Yeah, that one, and I made one fairly recently called Flipped, which is about the first time you love at age 12. I love that movie, and that movie didn’t get a lot of attention. So there’s one. But yeah, The Story Of Us, it was the same thing. It’s interesting—everybody makes a romantic comedy about people meeting and falling in love, and once they fall in love, it’s like the movie’s over. But it’s like Into The Woods. What happens after happily ever after? That’s what we wanted to explore with The Story Of Us. The tag line we had was “Can a marriage survive 15 years of marriage?” Most people are in marriages, and there are very few movies made about what it really is like to be married for a length of time. You always show the romantic part and all that. Or the divorce, and the horrible split, and the guy’s having an affair, or she’s having an affair, and they’re going to get split up, whatever. But very few people just look at what actually happens in a marriage. So I thought that would be interesting.
AVC: You delve into so many different genres overall. To go from When Harry Met Sally… to Misery the next year, which in its own way is like a super-dark comedy, but really a thriller. What that’s like for you? How do you approach each project?
RR: I look to see if there’s something in there that I can connect with, and then the question is, what’s the best way to tell that story? And you know, I love thrillers. I’ve never made them, but I would say a really good thriller is my favorite kind of a movie. If I can get a really great thriller, you know. But they don’t make them too much. I certainly don’t make them. But when I got the chance to make one that had to do with being trapped by your own success, I thought, “Oh, I can relate to this, I know what this feels like.” [Laughs.] When I did All In The Family, and then everybody just wanted me to keep playing that part in a spin-off and stuff. I know what that’s like. So I thought, “Okay, I can tell this story.”
But then because it was done as a thriller, it was a Stephen King book, I studied all the thrillers, Hitchcock movies, and everything, and said, “Okay, how do you tell this story?” But I usually look for the thing that I can connect with. With A Few Good Men, I like the idea that it was a young guy whose father was a famous lawyer, and he always shied away from challenging himself in court, and finally he did it when he goes up against Jessup. I thought, “Ooh, I can tell this story.”
AVC: And When Harry Met Sally… was based on your friendship with Nora Ephron, right?
RR: It was totally based on us, yeah. I mean, it started with me. Before she came aboard, I was thinking about how I’d been single—I’d been married for 10 years and I’d been single for 10 years. And during that time when I was single, I kept being in and out of different relationships, and they didn’t go so good. And I kept getting confused. How do you make friendships? If you have sex, does that ruin the friendship? All those questions that are brought up in the film, I said, “This has got to be the basis for something here.” So I went to Nora and I told her about it, and she said, “I like that idea,” and so she interviewed me. She was like a reporter, and I told her all these stories of different things that I had been through. And she wrote this stuff down, and she injected her own experiences. One day, we were eating lunch, and she’s ordering, “This is on the side, this that,” and I said, “This has to be in a movie!” I mean, it was crazy the way you’re ordering this food. So we put that in as a character trait for Sally.
AVC: Nora Ephron was like a gourmet?
RR: She loved cooking—she was a great cook. Not only a great cook, but a great party giver. She could bring people together, all these interesting people. She was like the concierge to the world. She would tell you what to order. It was always, “this is how you want to do it.” I think [Ephron’s widower] Nick Pileggi was so heartbroken and it’s so tough for him, because he met this great woman who basically could show him this incredibly fun, exciting life. And she was a pretty amazing lady. Did you see the documentary on her?
AVC: I haven’t. I’ve read her books though. She’s one of my heroes.
RR: You should see it. If you don’t know that much about her, it’s pretty good, it’s pretty accurate.
AVC: So an early version of that script had those characters walking away from each other at the end?
RR: They did. Because at that time, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get with anybody, so I just had them walking in opposite directions at the end. And then I met the woman who became my wife during the making of the movie, and I changed the ending.
AVC: That is such a great story! Thank you for that. That’s one of those movies, and also with something like Princess Bride, where probably on set, you’re having fun, but you have no idea that this is going resonate with people for 30-plus years. Cary Elwes mentioned how wonderful that set was and how much everybody just loved making it, so they had a feeling the movie was going to last a while. Did you get a sense of that on Princess Bride?
RR: I loved making the movie, I loved the experience. But you never know if anything is going to stand the test of time or going to be successful. I mean, This Is Spinal Tap, when it first came out, people didn’t even get what it was. We screened it in Dallas, and it got the worst response. People would come up to me and say, “I don’t understand why you’d make a movie about a band that nobody has ever heard of, and one that’s so bad!” I’d say, “Well, it’s a satire, it’s not really a real band.” They thought it was a real band, and they thought, “This is a stupid movie.” It took years for people to catch on to it and realize we were making fun of the whole thing.