Unlike most of his critics, Rob Reiner doesn’t divide his career into the categories pre-North and post-North. In fact, when Total Film chats to him there’s a sense he’s genuinely proud of everything in his career.
We sat down with him to look back on some of the best movies made in the last twenty years, and credit them to one of the most understated directors still working today.
Rumour Has It boasts a strong concept. Is there any truth to the Hollywood myth that The Graduate was based on real people?
Rob Reiner: When the book came out, rumours spread through Pasadena as people speculated who the real Robinsons were.
Well, we found out as we made the movie that Charles Webb, the author of the book, really had based his novel on people living in Pasadena in the ’60s! Our film posits that these are the people it was based on; the tagline is, ‘Based on a true rumour.’
You always say a film has to personally resonate or you can’t bring yourself to make it. Was this true of Rumour Has It?
Reiner: This was a little different because I was brought in two weeks into production. Alan Horn, who works for Warner Bros, basically asked me to come in and help out with a picture that was in trouble [original director Ted Griffin exited amid reports of ‘creative disagreements’ with supporting player Kevin Costner].
We threw away that film and started from scratch, but I inherited the material so it was almost like an exercise for me: to take the skills I’ve acquired over the years and put them to work; to see if I could actually make something out of this. It wasn’t how I normally go about making a film.
Did you find anything to plug into?
Reiner: I eventually hooked into a universal theme and something that I believe to be true – certainly I know it to be true for myself – which is, you can’t make a meaningful connection with someone until you understand who you are.
Jennifer Aniston’s character has to go through an emotional journey to discover who she is in order to give herself over to Mark Ruffalo. I identified with that and said, “Okay, I can tell this story.”
You experienced such a journey between your divorce from Penny Marshall and your marriage to Michele. It’s a journey that informed When Harry Met Sally...
Reiner: That was a very confusing time because you think, “How do I make this work?” At first, you’re not really ready to get into anything serious because you’re hurting… and then you figure, “I may not be ready for anything serious but I certainly want companionship.”
So you try to find ways to be with women but the sexual issue always comes into play. It’s very confusing until you meet the person you love and wanna be with forever. When Harry Met Sally... was about the awkward dance we all do with each other.
Like the bond that eventually forms between Harry and Sally, the love between the characters played by Aniston and Ruffalo is pragmatic, built on friendship...
Reiner: Yes. I think there’s something comfortable with the character Mark Ruffalo plays and Jennifer’s frightened she’s just gonna get married, have a bunch of kids and become a part of Pasadena.
In her mind, it’s like the death sentence. She has to go through a journey of self-discovery to learn there’s no place like home.
Let’s go back to the personal hook of all your movies. Did you connect with Misery because it’s about an artist trying to grow?
Reiner: Yeah, that was my motivation for making that film. I had experienced a real struggle trying to break away from the success I’d had playing Meathead in All In The Family [US sitcom, 1971-78]. In those days, people working in TV were viewed as second-class citizens.
I wanted to be perceived as someone who could direct a film. But it was tough, so I could understand what Misery’s Paul Sheldon [James Caan] was going through. He’d had tremendous success doing one thing and was frightened to death of breaking away to establish himself doing something else.
Is that why you’ve hopped from genre to genre, to avoid being pinned down?
Reiner: No – I don’t do it consciously. I’m drawn by a theme or a character, not a style. Take A Few Good Men. It wasn’t like, “Let’s try a courtroom drama”; I was drawn by the fact the central character, Daniel Kaffee [Tom Cruise], is the son of a very famous, accomplished lawyer.
He’s terrified of testing himself and the climactic scene hinges on him doing something his father would never have done, which is to put Jessep [Jack Nicholson] on the stand.
The whole movie shifts at that point. It becomes a film about Kaffee coming to grips with himself and breaking away from his father. I can connect to that.
This father-son theme is also present in Stand By Me and North...
Reiner: My father [Carl] was a very big force. He created The Dick Van Dyke Show and was a big director of movies like The Jerk, All Of Me and The Man With Two Brains. People regarded him in the highest way, so that was a big shadow to come out from under.
Stand By Me’s Gordie describes himself as “the invisible boy”. Is that how you felt growing up?
Reiner: Yeah, I did feel that way at times. Dad’s a great guy and I love him, but he had such a high-powered career… It kinda took him away and a lot of times I didn’t feel noticed.
I had this feeling that my father didn’t love me. I’ve now been through enough analysis to know better – he does love me and I love him and we’ve got a good relationship – but that’s how I felt as a kid growing up.
Stand By Me was a starting point. It was the first film that you felt was your own...
Reiner: It was a seminal thing for me. I was 37 or 38 and it was the first time I’d done anything that was different from what my father would have done. I mean, I was proud of Spinal Tap because the whole film was improvised and we created a genre unto itself – the ‘mockumentary’ – but my father had toiled in the field of satire.
It was the same with The Sure Thing: I loved it but Dad had made romantic comedies. Stand By Me, while funny and quirky, had a melancholy to it. It was the first time I’d done something reflective of my own personality and its success was a big thing. It validated me.
It must have been strange as the scales tipped. Misery trounced your father’s Sibling Rivalry at the box office and When Harry Met Sally... eclipsed Bert Rigby, You’re A Fool...
Reiner: Yeah, but I never think about it. I do remember when Spinal Tap came out in the same year as All Of Me and both films made tons of Best 10 lists. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of the movie business where a father and son not only made films simultaneously but had them regarded so highly.
Now you both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame...
Reiner: Yeah, they’re right next to each other! Twenty years ago, I would have gone, “How come I can’t have my own spot?” but at this time in my life I think it’s great… A really cool thing.
Conventional wisdom has it that you earned your star for your work in the ’80s and early ’90s. Do you care that critics have been less kind to your later movies?
Reiner: No. I don’t care what they say because some of them say good things that are wrong things and some of them say bad things that are wrong things. They don’t know what you were trying to do when you set out and if you achieved it or not. It’s just one person’s opinion, right?
Do you agree, though, that it becomes harder to focus on filmmaking as you get older?
Reiner: Yes, yes, yes… absolutely.
Surely there came a time when it began to take a back seat to your marriage, children and political work?
Reiner: There’s no question that my priorities changed as I got older. I went into filmmaking to have an impact on people, but I can now create public policies that’ll directly affect people, to get them an education or health care.
It’s very fulfilling. And yes, having kids changes everything. I love making films, really love it, but it doesn’t cure cancer, y’know?
Do you now have casting battles? Your early work employed nobodies while your films are now powered by stars...
Reiner: Well, there was no place for stars in Stand By Me or The Sure Thing but, yeah, movies have changed since I made those pictures; I don’t have the creative freedom anymore.
As I’ve said a million times before, there are four types of movies: good movies that make a lot of money; good movies that make no money; bad movies that make a lot of money; bad movies that make no money. You might as well make some good movies!
Rumour Has It doesn’t look set to reverse your current critical fortunes. It’s getting mixed reviews...
Reiner: I knew it would. It was always going to get good reviews from some while others trashed the hell out of it [laughs]. But the movie works.
I’ve watched it with audiences and they laugh at the funny things and then, by the end, they’re hooked in and it’s very emotional. Critics can like it or trash it, but I think audiences will be very satisfied.