After growing up under the wings of Carl Reiner and Estelle Reiner, Rob Reiner was primed for a Hollywood career. His big breakthrough as an actor came as a regular on Norman Lear's sitcom All in the Family, but Reiner's ambitions led him behind a film camera for a series of projects now considered classics: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally..., Misery, and A Few Good Men among them. While continuing to act on occasion, and directing film after film, Reiner also co-founded his own hugely successful production company, Castle Rock Entertainment and became a liberal lion representing for the like-minded in Hollywood (perhaps most notably as a co-founder of the American Foundation For Equal Rights). Some of Reiner's many other films include The Sure Thing, The American President, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Bucket List, Flipped, The Magic of Belle Isle, and now And So It Goes. At the Castro Theater red-carpet premiere of The Case Against 8, in which Reiner appears, and the next morning's press day (at the Ritz-Carlton) for And So It Goes, we discussed his latest work and a life and career in Hollywood.
Rob Reiner: How are you?
Groucho: Good. I'm Peter Canavese.
Rob Reiner: Hi Peter. How are you?
G: I'm doing pretty well.
G: So, first, tell me about the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and what you've been able to accomplish working there.
RR: Well, we started the American Foundation for Equal Rights for the specific purpose of creating marriage equality throughout the country. And the first step was to overturn Proposition 8, which we were able to do. But more important even than that, which was a big thing for us, was an education process that we hoped to launch. Part of it is the film that everyone's going to see tonight.
G: And 8!
RR: And 8, the play that we did in New York and Los Angeles. To basically inform people about what's involved here. And once people understand, and you demystify everything for them, all of the prejudices start to melt away. And you see the advancements that have happened in the last few years; it's just exponential.
G: Yeah. You were involved, and sometimes around, during the events depicted in the film. Other than financial, what kind of support were you able to provide? And what do you most remember bearing witness to?
RR: Well, I mean, the biggest thing was getting Ted Olson, and then ultimately David Boies. I mean, we were concerned about the politics of this thing, and we wanted to take the politics out of it. And so putting those two together basically wiped that all away, and made it what it is, which is a civil rights issue. It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. So that was a big thing. I mean, part of the legal strategy was also part of the political strategy. And also the education process. They all kinda worked together.
G: Was there a moment during the case that stuck with you the most?
RR: I'll never forget it, because I was in the courtroom here, and I was in the courtroom at all stages, here at the District Court in San Francisco, the Ninth Circuit, and then also the Supreme Court. But the point at which Judge Walker asked the opposing side's attorney, Chuck Cooper, "What harm could be done, to anybody, if gays and lesbians were allowed to marry?", and he just said, "I don't know." And I thought, "Oh my God. He basically just handed us a victory." Because the reality is: there is none! And whenever we get into a court of law, we win. We've never lost in any level at a court of law. Because there's no legal basis to deny people equal rights. And the only argument the other side has is "Well, we just don't like this." And that doesn't work in a court of law. Yeah.
G: Right. Thankfully. So Hollywood's been very progressive on this issue. What more do you think Hollywood should be doing to change the culture?
RR: Well, I think it's doing it. I mean, you know, it's—the boat has sailed on this one. I mean, this is a fait accompli. It's going to happen. And it'll happen hopefully in the next year or two. It's like the snowball rolling down the hill. It's just picking up momentum.
G: Yeah. And I guess 8 was the first—it came before The Case Against 8 here.
G: How did that come together? Was that a manic kind of thing to put together?
RR: No, no! Oh, you mean, you're talking about the movie? Or you're talking about the case, the actual case?
G: No, the movie. The play, that was filmed.
RR: No, the—you're talking about the film or the play?
RR: Because the film was very different than the play.
G: The film 8.
RR: The Case Against 8 is the film; 8 is the play.
G: Right, right. So I'm talking about 8, the play.
RR: The play. Well, that came about because initially we were hoping to have cameras in the courtroom during the trial. And when they were not allowed, Lance Black said, "We've got to let people know what happened in this courtroom," so he actually crafted the play that we put on in New York. And then we did it in Los Angeles, we had a great cast. We had George Clooney and Brad Pitt and all these people. And it was put on YouTube. So millions of people saw what actually happened in that courtroom.
G: Right. Alright, thanks very much.
G: I'll see you tomorrow!
RR: Thanks a lot. Okay...
G: Anyway, talking about your new film that you’ve directed, is there something extra special about late-in-life love, do you think? Seriously, I’m asking, because I’m not getting any younger here.
RR: (Laughs.) There must be. I think there is because you, at that point in life, know what’s at stake. And so if you are willing to venture forward knowing the pain that can come ultimately from it—but are still willing to embrace it and enjoy it, then it’s probably got to be even more fulfilling, I would think.
G: Mm. Of course, your film also deals with late-in-life sex. Anything extra-special there that you’d care to mention?
RR: Umm, well, I think that the point is, and this is true, that you—we are sexual beings and we will be sexual beings until we go. And so it doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in—I mean, if you still enjoy it and, you know, check with your doctor before engaging in sexual activity, (chuckles) and if you do get an erection that lasts more than four hours, go to the emergency room.
G: (Chuckles.) Right.
RR: But aside from that, you should enjoy it.
G: It’s a great line in the film—it’s dealt with so honestly, I think, when she says “I’m gonna keep my bra on” and all that.
RR: Yeah. That was something that came out of a discussion I had with Diane where she said, “You know, when we do the sex scene, can I keep all my clothes on?” And I said, “Well, first of all, Diane, we’re not going to actually show—I mean, I’m not making a porno here.” (Laughs.) “And secondly, after—we are going to show the aftermath—it’s going to look weird if you have all your clothes on.”
RR: So that was what gave rise to that line where she says, “I’m keeping my bra on.”
G: Yeah. So tell me about the origin of the film. You commissioned this script, right?
G: Based on an idea from your producer?
RR: Well, it was an idea I had when I was doing the press junket for The Bucket List. And, you know, everybody asked us, “What’s on your bucket list?” Whenever they asked Jack Nicholson that question, he would say, “One more great romance.” And so that gave me the thought to do this which is—kind of makes it like an extension of The Bucket List.
G: Yeah. Uh, surely there must have been a thought of maybe Jack Nicholson playing this part at some point, though he’s essentially retired right now. Did you—
RR: Well that was the problem. He basically said he didn’t want to act anymore. And so, I feel it’s—you know, it’s a shame because you know, the guy’s one of the great film actors of all time. But, you know, that’s what he decided. And now I was very, very fortunate and lucky to get Michael Douglas because—
G: Oh yeah. He’s fantastic.
RR: He’s fantastic in the movie. He’s a great actor. I worked with him on American President, and I think he’s just getting better and better. I mean, I don’t know if you saw him doing Liberace—
G: Oh, yeah.
RR: Last year. That was an amazing performance.
RR: I mean, he’s so good.
G: Yeah, that's actually my next question. It was about Michael Douglas. Even before I knew I was going to interview you, a couple weeks ago I popped in The American President on Blu ray just because I was jonesing to watch it again. Such a great movie. And my point is you and he must get along like a house on fire because—
RR: Yeah. We do get along great. We’ve known each other since we’re young—in our young twenties. And we did a movie together years ago called Summertree, which is virtually unwatchable—
RR: Directed by Anthony Newley. One of those '60s campus-unrest movies. But no, we get along great. We’re really close and, you know, we share a lot of similar things. We both have fathers who achieved at a very high level. And we both came out of television—TV series. So yeah, yeah, we’re really—there’s a small club of people whose parents achieved at a very high level whose kids also did well.
G: Right. Umm, how did it happen that the script for And So It Goes so closely reflects his hardships? Is that highly coincidental? And did that give Michael Douglas any pause?
RR: It was coincidental. I mean we created this thing before we knew Michael was going to be in the movie, and then when he read it I’m sure it was an upsetting thing to read in there. But then he agreed to do it, and he said, “If I’m going to do this, I have to do what’s written here because I think it’s good.” And so, you know, yeah. But no question about it: it resonated in a very deep way with him, for sure.
G: So was Mark Andrus picturing Diane Keaton when he wrote Leah as a singer? It’s just a perfect fit.
RR: Well, the funny thing is that Leah, initially in the original draft, was not a singer. She was somebody who created these embroidered tapestries, and it was when we got Diane and she had the idea to be a singer—she thought that was a good idea, and I think it was. And I love the fact that she decides as our character that she’s gonna embark on a new career at that point in her life because it kind of plays in with the idea of embracing life at every stage. And it also resonated for me because my mother, at age sixty-five, started a singing career.
RR: Yeah. So it was kind of cool.
G: Keaton’s process fascinates me too. I was reading a bit about it in the press notes—what you said about it. Can you talk about how she works?
RR: Well, she basically, before we started shooting, she says to me, “You know, I don’t act.”
RR: She said, “I don’t act. I’m just who I am, you know.” And I said, you know, “Well, whoever you are, it’s pretty good.”
G: Yeah. People like it.
RR: It’s been good over the years. But what she was saying is that she really is just a completely instinctive actress. She doesn’t, you know—and it’s true. There’s no delineation between who she is offscreen and onscreen. I mean who she is is who she is. And she likes to play with the dialogue. I mean, she’ll take the dialogue and then make it her own. Improvise. And you get this Diane Keaton persona, which is wonderful.
G: Yeah. She just channels it through her for the character.
G: What’s an example of a Keaton neurosis in real life? You talked about how she’s kind of—
RR: In real life?
RR: Well, she’s probably neurotic about everything. You know, she’s so beautiful and wonderful and so talented and—but you can’t tell her that.
RR: I mean, she thinks “Oh no, really? You really think I was—was that okay?” She has tremendous insecurity but I think that’s also what’s endearing about her. I mean, she is just loaded with talent. I mean aside from her acting you can see she sings great and she you know—
RR: But she is like—she’s nervous about everything.
G: You’ve worked with a lot of child actors. You do again in this film. What’s the secret to your success with directing child actors?
RR: Well, I think acting, just in general, is allowing yourself to be a child. I mean you play. You basically dress up and play house. You know? Which is a very kind of instinctive thing for children. Now, children have these great initial instincts in what they do. And it’s very real and natural. The only thing they lack is craft. You know, they just haven’t learned to harness that. But if you allow them to be who they are, and you can kind of spoon-feed them on where to stand, and say it this way and that way, their instincts are so natural and real that it makes it really good. And some young actors come full blown. This girl, Sterling Jerins who plays in this thing—she was like a prodigy or something, you know? She’s very gifted. And she can cry on cue and all that.
RR: So she was born with craft, and that’s rare. That’s rare for a kid actor.
G: Yeah. So, do you play the piano or were you fulfilling some long-held fantasy of earning tips in a piano bar?
RR: I don’t play the piano, but I play one on television. No, my mother played the piano. I’ve been around a lot of musicians. I can see what it should look like when you’re sitting at the piano. So no. But I basically wasn’t going to be in the movie. I wanted Marc Shaiman, who’s done all of the music for all of my films. I wanted him to be the guy—but he was not available. He was working on another project, so I basically needed somebody who would work cheap—
RR: Because I had no money. So I looked around and I found myself.
RR: And then when you—anytime you get an opportunity to wear a completely undetectable hairpiece—you know—you jump at that chance.
G: Right. Oh, and to find yourself—that’s an opportunity too.
G: So something I’ve always wondered, because I’m a superfan of Sid Caesar and your dad—
RR: Oh wow. You’re too young to be a fan of Sid Caesar.
G: Oh no. I love Sid Caesar and Woody Allen and all those guys. Did you have any brushes with your Dad’s colleagues as a kid? Did you ever go down and watch a variety show being taped?
RR: Oh god. I spent hours and hours and days and days. I mean, when I was a teenager, and my father was producing The Dick Van Dyke Show, I went every single summer—I spent every single day at the studio watching and taking it all in.
G: Oh wow.
RR: And so—yeah. It is a great story—and I’m not telling tales out of school because Mary Tyler Moore put this in her autobiography. And she told the story on the Letterman Show. But I was fourteen years old. I grabbed her by the tush.
RR: I couldn’t help myself. My hormones were raging. And she was in those beautiful capri pants—she’s 24 at the time—and I just couldn’t help myself.
G: (Laughs.) And what did she do?
RR: Well, she told my dad on me. And so later on my dad called me in his office and said to me, “Did you grab Mary Tyler Moore by the tush?” And I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I did.” And he said, “Well, don’t ever do that again.” But he had a big smile on his face, I just want to point out.
G: (Laughs.) So it seems to me, looking over your filmmography—I might be wrong about this, but it seems that Misery is your most personal film in a way.
RR: Oddly enough. You know, a lot of the films are pretty personal. When Harry Met Sally is pretty personal. But you know, oddly enough, Misery is a very personal film, and most people—you’re the first person that ever said that to me because they always would say, "Well, how did you do Misery? You don’t do thrillers and all that." And the truth of the matter is I identified with that character. I knew at the time when I was trying to make the transition into movies as a sitcom actor—television people were looked down upon by the movie people. We were like second-class citizens. They were the royalty. We were the peons, you know?
RR: And you couldn’t make that transition. So I knew what it was like to want to do something other than what I had been typecast as. Just as Paul Sheldon was trying to break out of his rut of writing this Misery character. So I knew what he felt like to be essentially imprisoned by your success. And so, no—yeah, that’s why I was able to make that film.
G: And was that something that you had developed yourself, that film? Or how did you get that chance to do that?
RR: Well, the crazy thing about that film was that—I had made Stand By Me, which was based on a Stephen King short story in a book called Different Seasons.
G: Yeah. " The Body."
RR: "The Body"—originally called "The Body." Also the same publication that had "Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption," which became The Shawshank Redemption, which we also did at Castle Rock. But my partner, Andy Scheinman, was at an airport, and he was, you know, looking for a book to read to kill some time. And he went to the book rack and there was Misery. It was in paperback at that time. And he read it and he loved it, and he just assumed that it had already been bought for movie rights, but we discovered that it had not been bought—that this was Stephen King’s most personal book for him. And he would not sell it to anybody because he did not like what was done to his books and how they were translated into movies. But when he heard we were interested—because he loved Stand By Me so much and was such a fan—he said, “I will let Castle Rock have it if Rob agrees to either produce or direct it.” And so I agreed to do that. And that’s how we got that book. And then we then had this great relationship with Stephen King over the years. We made seven movies based on Stephen King books and he would always just option it to us for a dollar.
G: (Chuckles.) That’s amazing.
RR: That’s how it happened.
G: So you’ve had some good relationships not only with actors but with writers—with great writers like William Goldman and Aaron Sorkin. Can you talk about what it’s like to work with those guys?
RR: Well, you know—and also with Nora Ephron—
G: Oh, yeah.
RR: I’ve been very fortunate to work with great writers. And when you’re working with a great writer, the fun thing about it is they’re smart enough to know—first of all, they contribute like nobody’s business, but they’re also smart enough to know if you have a good idea—because I’m also a writer—that they will let that in. They’re so confident with their talent that they’re not overprotective. They don’t feel nervous about things being changed or whatever. And, you know, when we worked on A Few Good Men, we made some changes in—this is a play that had already been nominated for Tonys and stuff. And we made some changes in the story that was done for the film. And Aaron, to his credit—he said, "Wow, this is so much better and so much—you know we’ve plugged up some real plot holes here"...he went and changed his play and rewrote it for the touring company. So, I mean, this guy’s a brilliant writer—one of the great writers working today. And yet his ego—it doesn’t get in the way of trying to make something better. And same thing with Bill Goldman. Bill Goldman wrote—now, Princess Bride is really his. I mean, I really did very, very little work on that. That’s basically Bill’s. But on Misery—he did the adaptation on Misery. He wrote a first draft and it was solid. And then I said, you know, "Bill, I’m gonna take it now with Andy and we’re gonna rework and do—" and he said, "Yeah, go ahead. Go right ahead." I mean he had no ego about any of that.
G: That’s great. You’ve accomplished so much. You’ve made so many great films. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
RR: I like the process. I really like the process. I enjoy it. I enjoy the creative process. I love the writing part of it, the editing—one of my favorites. But I also like the production process. It’s just fun to do. That’s what I’ve discovered, you know, as I’ve gotten older. That’s really all it is. You know? There’s nothing else. When you’re young, you’re trying to get results. You want to achieve something—or to make your bones and all that stuff. But when you get older, you realize it’s all about process, and I don’t know if I’d mentioned this to you yesterday, but there’s this great line in this play The Best Man, which is—was made into a movie—you know, the Gore Vidal.
RR: And it struck me when I heard it the first time, but now I really understand it, you know, in a very internal way. Cliff Robertson and you know, Henry Fonda are both trying to seek the endorsement of this former president—like a Harry Truman kind of guy. And Cliff Robertson is this kind of Red-baiter, Commie-catcher, you know, just going for the jugular and trying to nail everybody. And he’s talking to the former president and the president says to him: “Let me ask you something, Joe...” The character’s Joe Cantwell. "Do you believe the ends justifies the means?” And he says, “I do, sir.” And he says, “Well, let me tell you something, Joe. There are no ends. Only means.” And, it’s true, you know? When you find something you enjoy, and you like doing, that’s it. That’s the process of doing it. And you’d better like all aspects of it. Part of it is promoting the film—what we’re doing now.
RR: And if you don’t enjoy that, then you’re not enjoying the whole experience. And so I like it all. So it’s all means. There’s no ends. There is one end. But then that’s the end end.
RR: Up till then it’s all means.
G: You’ve been around for a while in Hollywood.
RR: That’s what they tell me.
G: (Chuckles.) And as you said, you started out in TV as a TV star and made your way into directing films. How have you seen the industry change for better or worse?
RR: Well, it’s changed dramatically in the time that I’ve been around. I mean the first big change happened in 1975—around ’75, ’77, when Jaws came out and then Star Wars came out. All of a sudden the studios started adopting this blockbuster mentality.
G: A little salivating started.
RR: And everything was about let’s get that $100 million movie. Now, you gotta get a $100 million first weekend! I mean, the sticker price has gone up, but not that much. And so now the studios—they’ve been working very hard at trying to make this into a business. And forget that—it’s not show business—just business. And so you try to minimize your risks as best you can. And right now they make three types of movies. One is they make these big event blockbuster type, you know, superhero/action pictures—tentpoles. They make animated movies for younger audiences. And they make R-rated raunchy comedies. And that’s it.
G: This movie really bucks that trend. It’s a mid-level movie. They don’t make many of them.
RR: It’s not a studio movie. And I’ve looked at my—I was looking the other day—sitting in my office looking at all the posters of the movies. And I realized that there’s not one movie that I’ve made that could get made at a studio now.
G: It’s crazy.
RR: Yeah. Even A Few Good Men, with big stars. I mean they’re not interested in making adult-themed political courtroom dramas. They’re just not gonna do it.
RR: So it’s changed. It’s changed a lot. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do good work. It doesn’t mean you can’t do the kind of things you want. You just have to go outside the system a little bit and look for independent financing—which is difficult at times—but you can do it.
G: Yeah. What sorts of films have you wanted to make and not yet found the chance to or that you look forward to making?
RR: Well, I’ve always wanted to do a show that really captured what actually happened during the ‘60s. There’s a documentary out now on CNN. But, I mean, something—a dramatic—a theatrical show—that would do that. That’s one thing. And then I’m playing around with an idea now that I’ve been thinking about since we went to a war in Iraq and it’s—oddly enough, it’s coming back up again. Because, as a baby boomer, I just never thought that in my lifetime, we’d be embarking on wars that made no sense—you know, that were based on lies and made absolutely no sense. And then, when we went into Iraq in 2003, I was thinking, "I can’t believe this is happening." And of course I started looking at what was being said and what was being told as being the truth. You know, if you looked closely enough, you could discover that there was no real evidence of mobile labs; there was no real evidence that the aluminum tubes would be used for anything but—not for enriching uranium. There was no yellow cake. All of those things: weapons of mass destruction where you had a Hans Blix coming back and saying, “No, we don’t have anything. There’s nothing there.” And yet we marched right to war and we found a complicit press—
RR: In the process allowing this to happen. Except for these guys who were in—working for Knight-Ridder. And they were kind of out of the mainstream, and they got it all right. And they were the only ones that got it all right. So I think there’s a fascinating story to be told about—from the first time the first plane hitting the first building to the first bomb dropping in Bagdad. How did we get to war? What caused that to happen? What happened to the independent free press? And where did it go? And are we in danger—is the democracy in danger of crumbling because we do not have this independent free press—or at least it’s diminishing now? So I think there’s a story in there, and as I describe it—it’s an impossible story to get funded, you know. But I’m gonna try. And see if I can get it done.
G: Yeah, that’s hopefully not quixotic. That would be worth fighting for. You made that film The American President. Had you been a guest at the White House prior to making that film? I’m sure you have at some point.
RR: I’ve been a guest at the White House, but not prior to making the film. But they did give me access. It was during the Clinton administration, and it was 1993, I think, that we went in there. And we were given complete access to, you know, the West Wing, the residence—and we even got to see in the Situation Room.
RR: And then we reproduced the White House virtually down to the molding to the way it is. So yeah, and then subsequently I’ve been—I’ve been to a number of White House events, but I got to actually stay there, which was really a kick.
G: So what has been your most surreal moment in your career?
RR: Okay, the most surreal moment was when we were making The Princess Bride. We had an ending initially where after Peter Falk finishes reading the book and he says goodbye to his grandson, the boy was going to pick the book up and start leafing through it again. And he was going to hear some noise outside his window, and he was going to look out his window in the dark night, and he was gonna see the four white horses with our four heroes suspended in the air and kind of waving at him. And we decided not to do it because we didn’t want to mix the two—we had an ending with "As you wish." But in order to film them—we actually filmed it. We had four white horses, we were on a soundstage in Shepperton, and against a black background, but Andre the Giant was so big—he weighed like five hundred pounds—there was no horse that he could sit on. So we had to rig a pulley system to lower him from the ceiling, so that we’d just rest him on the horse and we could paint the cables out later, you know?
G: (Laughs.) Yeah.
RR: And the day we shot this, the Nouveau Beaujolais came out. And Andre—you know, he never got drunk, but he drank like crazy. And during the course of the day, he drank like twenty bottles of this Nouveau Beaujolais. And at eight at night, I was going—they were showing me a test of this thing, and they brought me down to the end of the studio—it was dark, at night—it was getting dark—and it was misty rain, and they opened the doors to the sound stage, and I see this giant being lowered from the ceiling who’s a little tipsy—
RR: Going “Hello boss,” like that, and I’m going “What is this? What job do I have?
RR: This is a strange job.
G: Well, that’s a good place to end.
G: Thank you so much. It’s been terrific.
RR: Okay. Thanks.