There’s really no denying that for a good 10-year stretch (if you ignore NORTH), that Rob Reiner had an unbelievable stretch as a director, particularly of comedies that weren’t afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeves, beginning with THIS IS SPINAL TAP in 1984 and continuing on through THE SURE THING, STAND BY ME, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…, MISERY, A FEW GOOD MEN, and THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT. And that doesn’t even include his many years as an actor, including seven years on the landmark series “All in the Family” all the way through a memorable cameo in Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET last year.
In a strange way the modern romantic-comedy that Reiner helped set the template for with WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… also became a benchmark he could never quite hit again, but that didn’t stop him from trying in film like THE STORY OF US, ALEX AND EMMA and RUMOR HAS IT. Toss in a few less than critically acclaimed works such as THE BUCKET LIST, FLIPPED and THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE, and you get a director whose works are very often hits with audiences but less so with critics.
His latest work is AND SO IT GOES, starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton as widowed neighbors who figure out that the spark that clearly exists between them might be the last shot either one of them has at romance before run out of juice (sexual or otherwise). The film has a few cute moments, some bizarre tonal shifts, some lovely music (courtesy of Ms. Keaton’s rarely heard but still strong singing voice), and a few classic Reiner one-liners peppered in to keep things light. It’s a film clearly aimed at the older set, but there are a few choice moment in it for all mature ages.
And whatever I or anyone thinks of the film, I was thrilled to finally sit down with Reiner recently in Chicago to cover as much of his career as I could in the time we had. Not surprisingly, he was great fun and eager to talk about the entire scope of his career, including his politics (he was one of the leading proponents of overturning Proposition 8 in California a year ago (as can be seen in the great doc THE CASE AGAINST 8). I hope you all get a chance to meet Reiner sometime in your life; I guarantee you, your week will be made if you do. Please enjoy my talk with Rob Reiner…
Capone: Hello, sir. Good to meet you.
Capone: Rob Reiner: How are you? Nice to see you. Ain’t it Cool News is a good site.
Capone: Thank you.
RR: It really is. I’ve gone to it many times.
Capone: Thanks for saying that. I can only let you down from this point forward. [Both laugh] With this film, you continue a tradition that I think you established long ago, which is that the female characters in you films are usually smarter, more mature, more together…
RR: You’re the first person to say that.
Capone: Ever? You mean today?
RR: No, no, no. To say that about the films, because I’ve been saying that to people when they ask me about romantic comedies and how do you put them together, and I have said “I make the same film all the time. It’s exactly the same.” If you look at FLIPPED, whether it’s a 12-year-old finding love for the first time, or in THE SURE THING where it’s college kids, or young adults in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, or old adults in AND SO IT GOES. It’s the same. It’s essentially exactly what you said, and that’s what I believe, which is women are more evolved. They just understand emotion, and they understand the connection to other human beings. They're just basically more emotionally mature.
And I think there’s a reason for that, and that is if you have a human being growing inside you that you are physically connected to, it is in your nature to understand intimacy and connection with another human being. Men have to learn that, and it’s with the help of a woman showing them that is what’s important. That’s the most important thing in life. So, men run around like idiots trying to figure out what’s going on, and then they find somebody who is right there for them to have, to be in front of them, and they kind of raise them in a way and teach them what’s important. So, they’re all the same, in my opinion. That’s my take on it.
Capone: It makes it sound like women are raising children, whether they have their own or not.
RR: Well, they are. They’re raising the children they have, and the man who is another one of their... I can’t tell you how many women I’ve talked to who say, “I have four children. The three that I birthed, and then this other child I have.”
Capone: That doesn’t bode well for the future of our planet. This movie also made me think that, after you’ve spent so many years putting couples together, this feels different because it’s their last stab at this.
RR: Well, that’s the whole idea of the movie. The movie is about finding love later on in life. You have two characters who are romantic and are sexual beings, as are the actors who play them. It’s the perfect marriage of actors to parts, because, yes, you can have people finding love in their 80s and in the 90s, but this is the last time where these two people who are getting close to being in their 70s will maybe have one more great romance, which is what was the genesis of this film. We were doing the press junket for BUCKET LIST, and every journalist would ask, “What’s on your bucket list?” Whenever they asked Jack that, he would say “One more great romance,” because that’s what he would want in life. So, that became the genesis for this.
Capone: But it adds sort of an undercurrent of sadness to it, not that it’s not happy by the end. It almost feels like they’re thinking, “If this doesn’t work, this probably will be it for us.”
RR: Well, there’s only sadness if they don’t embrace it. If they don’t and there’s a regret, then there could be sadness, but what we’re trying to say with a movie like BUCKET LIST and with a movie like this, is that you have a limited time on the planet, so you have to embrace it, you have to go after it, because you may be gone. And so you don’t want to have those regrets, and you want to live your life as fully as possible. So even though your time may be limited, it’s not sad because you can still enjoy that time.
Here’s a very philosophical, existential idea: the unconscious mind has no concept of time. So whether it’s a year or minute or five minutes, whatever it is, you want to be experiencing it now, and enjoying it now, and if you can do that then you have a pleasant life. It’s like, we’re having a conversation now. We’re only doing this now. This is all that’s happening now. Nothing else is going on. So if we’re not enjoying this, then we’ve wasted this time.
Capone: You mentioned something earlier that I hadn’t considered, but you’re right that these are both actors who, throughout their careers, have allowed themselves to be seen as sexual beings in films before. That’s a really key thing. There are certain actors that wouldn’t work in these parts, because we can’t imagine them actually having sex at some point.
RR: [laughs] I think that’s another aspect, that every younger person doesn’t want to think of their parents having sex. It’s just like, “What are you talking about?” And what we’re saying is that people who are older still enjoy sex.
Capone: Have you and Michael Douglas been talking about trying to find something else to do since AMERICAN PRESIDENT?
RR: Well, we had such a great time on AMERICAN PRESIDENT, and I’ve said it before, if I could do every film with him, I would. He’s such a great guy, and we’ve known each other for a long time. We’re good friends, and he’s a pleasant, great person to work with, and we share a lot of similarities, both being sons coming from very, very successful parents. So we have had those conversations. Yeah, we have talked over the years that we’d love to find something to do together, so I was really happy we could find this.
Capone: I don’t think he and Diane Keaton have ever worked together, which I find astonishing.
RR: Yeah, it is astounding that Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton have not worked together. They’re two great, iconic, Academy Award-winning movie stars, and they both wanted to work with each other, and I think they had a great experience, and their chemistry’s incredible.
Capone: There's a plot element where we find out his character’s son has a history with drugs, and I though, “Doesn’t Michael Douglas have a son with similar issues?” Was that always a part of the story?
RR: Yes, that was always part of the story, and I think that, for Michael, he didn’t have to go too far to think about how to play those scenes, and we didn’t even have to talk about it because I know. Michael and I have had many conversations about his situation, and certainly when we got to those scenes, I didn’t have to remind him of any of it.
Capone: Of course. That the one scene where they go with the little girl to find her mom, that’s a unexpected scene, because up to that point, things have been light to a degree. But that is a very dark moment.
RR: It’s very dark, yeah.
Capone: Were you ever concerned about that scene throwing off the tone of the film?
RR: No, because my goal is, if a film works it’s going to have very dark, emotional moments and humorous moments. And I like the idea of trying to blend these things and trying to make these things work with each other, and I think it’s a much more satisfying experience for the audience if they feel that this is real. Yes, life can be funny, but it’s also very real, and things that happen to people can be very dark at times. I love this film because it has both of those elements in it.
Capone: You’ve been mixing the comedy and drama, comedy and tragedy as a director going back to something like STAND BY ME. And here, we’re dealing with two people that are still mourning their spouses, and there’s this issue with the son. Do you still find that a tough thing to balance? Is that something you can do while you’re shooting, or is that something you do in editing? Where do you strike that balance?
RR: Well, you first have to balance it in the creation of the script. Once the script is in a place where you think you’ve balanced it, then you can tweak it a little bit as you’re shooting it and editing it. But I do like trying to strike that balance. That to me is what makes it more fulfilling as an audience to watch. Even MISERY, there’s a lot of darkness there, and there’s still humor throughout. And I find that much more interesting and much more satisfying for an audience than just a balls-out comedy or something that’s just dark. I like to try to balance the two.
Capone: We’ve never ever been able to hear Diane Keaton sing enough in films. Was the character always a singer, or was that something that was added?
RR: She wasn’t initially. Initially the character was a woman who made wall hangings, and he was going to help her sell her wall hangings. But it’s not as interesting. And the idea of coming up with the songs she has to sing; I loved that idea, because my mother at age 65 started a singing career, and I love the fact that her character at the age of 65 is discovering another part of herself, so it was great. Perfect for Diane. She only sang a little bit in ANNIE HALL, and just a tiny bit in a movie called SHOOT THE MOON, but this was a chance for her to really sing.
Capone: She has one scene in RADIO DAYS too where we see her sing. She’s just a singer on the radio.
RR: Yes yes. On the radio. Right. Yeah, she’s got a great voice.
Capone: In several of your films, music is so key, and the soundtracks sell though the roof. Tell me about selecting the music for her to sing. Did you two pick them together?
RR: We worked together on it. I gave her a whole bunch of ideas; she had a whole bunch of ideas; we tried them out. She would practice them to see if they fit her, and then we came up with these songs that she felt comfortable singing. And we found songs she felt good about singing, and we tried to mix more standard and then the Oren’s influence, saying, “You should try something a little bit more contemporary.” So we brought this Bonnie Raitt song [“Something to Talk About”], which is not really contemporary but certainly more contemporary than “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.”
Capone: That's right. At least the original singer’s still alive.
Capone: I saw this film and then maybe two days later I saw JERSEY BOYS. Then it occurred to me that you have Frankie Valli is in your movie. Why is he in this movie?
RR: It’s a total coincidence. His agent, who I’ve know for many years, calls me up, and says,“Frankie Valli is looking to do a part in a movie.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Do you have anything?” And I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I do. I have a little, tiny part where he’s a club owner, and she goes to audition for him.” And so he played the part.
Capone: He seemed to be going for a little more mobster in his performance.
RR: Well, that was the idea I had. The idea I had was that it was a throwback to club owners who are basically those kind of guys.
Capone: The young girl in the film, Sterling Jerins, is remarkable in this film, and in a lot of ways, she’s the lynch pin of the whole thing. She’s keeping these people together. When I looked up what she’d been, I’d seen WORLD WAR Z, I’d seen THE CONJURING. She has big roles in these movies. How did you find her, and what did you like about her?
RR: Well, she just came in and read, and I didn’t know anything about her. I saw, a lot of girls. 50, 60, whatever. A lot of girls. She came in, and I went, “Woah. This is a major natural talent.” And I didn’t know she had already done WORLD WAR Z, playing Brad Pitt’s daughter. And she was actually being considered for a part in I think it was PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1 MILLION, or whatever that number is, and she was deciding which one to take. She had a big part in that one, but she decided to do this, so I was really happy.
Capone: I know she’s got something coming out later this year in which she’s playing a younger version of Charlize Theron too. It’s coming out in September.
RR: She’s such a good actress.
Capone: What stood out about her?
RR: There was no falseness. She played the scene where she had to cry about saying goodbye to her dad, and she could do it on cue. You never had to coax anything out of her. It’s an uncanny gift that she has.
Capone: Speaking of discovering new talent, there’s a new actor playing this piano player here too [Reiner plays the part of Keaton’s piano player]. He’s got a terrific head of hair. I’ve started to see you more in things, like “New Girl” once or twice a year, and then showing up in WOLF OF WALL STREET. When you’re outside of your own films, when you’re deciding to act again, what needs to be in place for that to happen?
RR: Usually they need to call me up on the telephone [laughs]. I have turned some things down because I’m directing, but if I’m free, and I have a window where I have nothing to do, and somebody calls and says, “Do you want to act?”, it’s fun for me. I enjoy it. I don’t have the responsibility, I don’t have headaches, I just go in and do the job. And in this particular movie, I had a small budget to work with, and I needed to find somebody who could work for scale, and I looked around and found myself, basically. And any time I get a chance to wear a hairpiece that’s undetectable, I jump at that chance.
Capone: Michael I think makes a comment about it.
RR: Yeah. He says, “Here, go out and buy yourself a new hairpiece, a new rug.”
Capone: Back to talking about working with kids, you’ve always had really good luck working with young actors. Is there something different you have to do there? The thing that impressed me the most about Sterling is I could see that she didn’t have any tricks or even self-awareness about what her best side is, or something like that.
RR: Right. That’s the good part. They have instincts. If you find kids that can actually have some great acting instincts, they’re not jaded, and they don’t have bad habits. The downside is they don’t have a lot of craft. So they don’t know marks and hitting all those things, but I love working with kids, because they’re open to things. They’re open to letting you try things, so I love it. And when I did STAND BY ME, I had some kids with more experience than others, and I basically had acting classes. I did improvisations with them and had them working with each other. By the time I started shooting, they were a well-oiled machine. They were four interworking parts.
Capone: Not that long ago I saw a film called THE CONGRESS that Robin Wright is in. And it’s science fiction, but she’s playing herself, and it’s about the future of acting.
RR: She plays Robin Wright?
Capone: Yeah, she plays Robin Wright, but it’s about the future of acting and filmmaking, and if actors want to stay young on screen, they can have full body scans done, and they can be whatever age.
RR: It’s CGI.
Capone: But it’s like but then the real actor has to go away and never be seen again, while the youthful computer version of them act and stays young forever.
RR: That’s interesting.
Capone: But PRINCESS BRIDE is referenced constantly as in, you can play that character again now if you wanted to. And I wondered if you had heard about that, because it’s a fascinating film.
RR: I haven’t heard about it. I’ve got to see it. It’s scary though, in a way, because then where are the actors. That's hysterical. I’ll check it out.
Capone: It’s coming out soon. I was reading some old interviews with you in preparation for this, and you’re pretty open about, “We were trying to make this movie, and it didn’t happen.” And I thought you probably have the greatest stories of films you were involved with that didn’t come to fruition. I’m sure a lot of directors who’ve been working a while have those stories.
RR: You have certain things that are very hard to get made. There are two projects that I was dying to make. One was a musical. I’ve always wanted to make an original musical that was made for film. Not like a Broadway show like JERSEY BOYS or CHICAGO, or ANNIE or whatever. But something that was actually crafted for film. So I worked with William Goldman, and with Stephen Sondheim on it, and we just could never get it right. So that was one. And then there’s always been a baseball movie that I wanted to make, and we had an idea and I tried to get a script, and I couldn’t get what I wanted there. There was another one where I tried to capture what happened in the ’60s, and I tried many different drafts of that and could never get that one. So those are the three that I’ve been dying to make and could never get made.
Capone: I wanna see that musical, especially if Sondheim’s involved somehow. Obviously you don’t keep your politics a secret, but I feel like today we’re living in a world where politics is even more surreal than it’s ever been.
RR: I think that right now, we’re living in a time where it is as bad as I ever remembered in terms of a polarization and the inability to get anything meaningful accomplished, and it’s very sad, because there are huge problems facing us that we can’t even begin to face, and begin to start solving because there’s such intransigents. To give you the best example, after Newtown in Connecticut, you have the support of 90 percent of the American public, and 80 to 85 percent of members of the NRA in support of universal background checks, and you can’t even get it to the floor of Congress for a vote? That to me speaks volumes about how wrecked this system is right now. And for people who care about what’s going on in the country and want to improve things, it’s beyond depressing.
Capone: Is the answer more grass roots and less going the traditional political path to get anything accomplished?
RR: For me, I look for avenues that don’t involve elected officials. That’s why we brought this lawsuit against Proposition 8, because in a court of law, you can adjudicate this stuff. If we had to go through legislatures about striking down bans on marriage equality, we’d never get it done. But if you go to a court of law, there is no legal basis for not allowing people to marry the person that they love. None. And we’ve proven it over and over again, because every single time you go into a court of law, we’ve won. There’s never been a case where we’ve lost. We’ve now overturned marriage bans in nine states. We have marriage equality in another 20 places. So the majority of the country is now in favor of it, but you couldn’t do this through legislature. You just couldn't get it.
Capone: Mr. Reiner, it was a real pleasure to meet you.
RR: Very nice to meet you. It was a great conversation. I really loved talking to you.