By Harlan Jacobson
Rob Reiner interviewed
Here's a sentence Rob Reiner never hears: So, how's it feel to be the son of Estelle Reiner? Now this is not Estelle's fault; she did lots of things well, apparently—play the piano, dabble in art, put up with a joker husband and his nutball friends. So how come Rob never talks about his mother? "Because she wears army boots," he snorts. "She just got a pair at Bendel's. Norma Kamalis." We're in a conference room at Fox's offices in New York, wolfing down pastrami and turkey sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli. It feels like Stand By Me's backstory: I'm at Rob's and we're twelve and making combat-boot jokes about our mothers. Next we're going to sing "Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts" and flick boogers at each other.
This is a man—6'2/1 and a couple hundred pounds—who wants to be liked but sits anywhere he wants to. And before you ask what's that got to do with his filmmaking, stop to consider his brief directing career, as it arrives at The Princess Bride.
First comes Spinal Tap in 1984. It is, as he calls it, a "close to the bone" cut that satirizes more than rock-'n-roll culture. It goes on to wipe out documentary filmmaking for its pretentiousness. And then, since its power resides in its conviction that you might as well be watching the fall of Rome Redux with the Spinal Tappers as with Rod Stewart—both the bogus and the real rockers are essentially penises poking up through their collars to wink and fiddle—Spinal Tap also reduces American culture to cannibalism, to (sigh) marketing. In it, Rob plays a gasbag director making a rockumentary that takes the Spinal Tap trolls for trailblazers. Meaning: there's no one here to trust.
(Or, as the Man in Black tells beautiful Buttercup in The Princess Bride, "Life is pain, Highness; anyone who says differently is selling something." All good and well, you think, in light of the emergence of Reiner fils. The kid is a chip off Dad's old block: sharp, funny, a killer around vulnerability—the quality we Jews know as cynicism.)
Except, then comes Rob's second film, The Sure Thing, and it sits on this side of the divide, along with Stand By Me and now The Princess Bride: it wants to be sweet. It makes clear just how much Spinal Tap was the collaborative work of Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean with Reiner offering himself up as the pin cushion. Because Spinal Tap takes no prisoners.
The Sure Thing a year later seems more truly to be Rob's first film, tentatively sniffing out the youth marketplace as the breeding pool ofJohn Hughes at the shallow end and Ron Howard at the "deep" end. In it, Reiner earnestly, maybe mawkishly, connects up sex and love in the head of a kid who passes up a freebie with a cheerleader in favor of More with the girl who has gotten under his skin. Best of all, teach reads his story about the incident to the class, an echo of Reiner's favored approach to storytelling: narration. But above all else, The Sure Thing was a film that said, "Like Me, Girls. I'm Into Intimacy." It was a Personals writ large: "SJM, funny, hates ads. You must be 22, slim, serious but luv to laff. Or willing to fake it."
The Sure Thing
But don't sell Rob short. He dug deeper in Stand By Me. The pivotal scene occurs not at the end of the quest by three adolescent friends, confronting "The Body" (the name of the original Stephen King short story), but rather in a junkyard. Dog-tired, sore, hungry, scared by their independence, they are chased out by the grizzly proprietor and his snarling dogs. It is the image of the adult world in these kids' eyes: outside looking in on an Alps of junk tended by a corrupted heart. "I'll rip off your head and shit down your neck," screams one kid at the junkman. It's the line that sticks, like peanut butter, to the roof of your mouth.
The subject here is parents causing their children pain, either through misdeeds, misspent lives, or misplaced priorities. At times River Phoenix, playing a kid whose father is a wreck, had to deliver lines too weighted with wisdom, but Stand By Me explores how one learns to accept worth in a friend's eye when, back in the house, the lights are on but nobody's home. Or nobody who knows you very well. Ah well, they had the Great Depression; we get the little ones. It does not take a shrink to see what Rob saw in the project.
This is, after all, the kid whose sense of humor was discovered by family friend Norman Lear; the actor who auditioned for his father for the lead in Broadway's Enter Laughing and didn't get the part; the guy whose ex-writing partner on The Smother Brothers, Steve Martin, has made four films with his father to one bit part Rob got in Where's Poppa? Perhaps all this is as it should be—one should audition for any part—the dynamic comes out in the son's films, which practically dare critics to find a way around "A Heartfelt Fable for the Whole Family." Even Dad.
The Princess Bride had a hell of a time being made. William Goldman's script, based on his book, bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half, with at least one stop at Norman Jewison's desk, a pingpong tour of the studios, and on budgets that went up and down like a binger's calories. Its time has come. Lots of good Garment District shtick puncturing the polite gentile balloons of a fairy-tale world, with curtsies to Mel Brooks here and there. Everything, even the Dread Pirate Roberts, is a franchise. Like Stand By Me, The Princess Bride has a narrative wrap, this time featuring a kid and his grandpa reading the central story. Unlike Stand By Me, the wrap is not about trusting the audience. It even pokes fun at itself.
Rob and I hit the street, and are blinded by the sun. We walk up Fifth Ave. and tell stories. Does he know the creature that lives in a cave and only comes out for ice cream and sex? I stick out my tongue. He knows a major-league pitcher who threw a no-hitter. On acid. Rob wins. Maybe I can come over again. —H.J.
The Princess Bride
It was hard getting someone to say yes to this 'Bride.' How come?
I read The Princess Bride when it first came out—I was about 26—and I fell in love with it. One of those experiences where you feel someone is speaking in the same language and has the same sensibility as you have. I read it again a dozen years later and I wondered if that would be a good film. God, I thought, it still holds up, I still like it.
I was real naive, I went about trying to find out if anyone ever tried to make it. It turns out there were a million people. For some people, though, the budget was too high. When Norman Jewison was preparing to make it in 1981, he projected $22- 23 million; six years later we made it for $17 million. Other people were afraid no one would understand a film like this. The book is a lot more satirical and harder edged than the film, but it is a tricky film to pull off. . .
What did you do?
We beefed up the love story. The book starts with Buttercup and Wesley falling in love, being torn apart; he's been "killed" on the high seas by pirates. Then they reunite and fight to overcome the evil prince. In the screenplay that I read, you didn't know about Wesley and Buttercup until about 50 pages in. It opened with Buttercup being introduced to the crowd, and you didn't know what the back story was. I felt that the audience would be more involved and have more of a rooting interest in Wesley and Buttercup if they know the guy in black is Wesley. The film is about a little boy who is sick in bed and his grandfather comes over to read him a book. And the little boy is resistant to seeing his grandfather and to hearing the book read to him. And by the end of the film he's brought closer to his grandfather and he is now interested in books. That's what the film is about. Even though the story of The Princess Bride is taking up 85-90 percent of the running time, the film is really about that wraparound 10-15 percent. Because we're not saying these things are happening—at a giant could carry three people up a mountain. We're saying that this is in a storybook and that to me is what grounds it.
It also differentiates our film from something like Ishtar, where the audience is told that this is something that really happened. I have a hard time believing that two 50-year-old guys, one of whom looks like Warren Beatty, are struggling to become songwriters. Because I know who struggles to become a songwriter at age 50. They're the guys who drive cabs in New York and say, "Mr. Reiner, Mr. Reiner I could write songs. Listen, listen to this." They don't usually get beyond doing what they're doing. And they don't look like Warren Beatty. But we're asked to believe that reality in Ishtar, and that's a tough buy. You have to give the audience a reality base somewhere. Then you can go as wild as you want. And that's what I feel works with The Princess Bride. It is a classic device of storytelling.
Yes, we had a narrator in Stand By Me, but it's a little bit different. There the narrator is the writer of the film we've seen who is recounting his childhood and what led him to become a writer. If you read the original story, "The Body," you see it's a character study, and semi-autobiographical. Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans did a very faithful job transferring it into screenplay form, but there was something lacking in focus. There was no real point to it. Then I started thinking, what made Stephen King write this? What happened in that two-day trip that led that little boy to eventually become a very successful writer? And that's what I decided to make the focus of the film.
It wasn't so much that I wanted a narrator. It's that the narrator was best used to tell this particular story. That's the way you have to work with all films: you find the best way in which to tell that particular story. You don't work from the outside in. You ask yourself: What story do I want to tell? And what's the best way to tell the story? To me the story is about a little boy who's reluctant to see his grandfather, and by the end of the film he is asking his grandfather to come back and read it again tomorrow, and the guy says, "As you wish"—which says, "I love you, and of course I will."
Do you remember your own grandfather?
I don't really remember my grandfather on my mother's side, because he died when I was two. But I do remember my grandfather on my father's side quite well. He was an inventor; he developed a clock that could keep perfect time for a hundred years. Hard to market a clock like that. I didn't have experiences with him like the boy in The Princess Bride. But I do have wonderful memories of my mother's brother Eddie. Every Sunday morning, in the Bronx, my sister and I would wake up bursting with excitement because we were going to have breakfast with Uncle Eddie. Aunt Sylvia would make us these great pancakes and Eddie would tell us these stories. And what was great about them was that we'd be in the stories.
Spinal Tap seemed much more like something your father might have done, only 30 years later.
No question about it. Spinal Tap was created by the four of us: Mike McKean, Harry Shearer, and Chris Guest. And it's very much like what they used to do on Your Show of Shows: just hard-core satire. Of course in Spinal Tap, the satire is finer, closer to the bone, just ever so slightly tilted. On Show of Shows they took really big right turns.
But one is no better than the other. It's just a different style of approaching it. In fact, Show of Shows and, after that, Caesar's Hour were brilliant, brilliant television. And I've seen a lot of them, not just the ones they could legally put on cassette. People see Honeymooners episodes over and over—and The Honeymooners were very funny—but they can't touch the intelligence and sophistication that came out of Caesar's Hour.
Was your father writing them?
My father was hired on as an actor, but he was let in on all the writing sessions and was a major contributor. They had the greatest writers in the world, I mean, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Joe Stein, Mel Tolkin. Woody Allen eventually wrote a little bit for them. The greatest comedy writers in the world just happened to come together.
Do you miss not having that in Hollywood now?
I sure do. I've always wanted to do a comedy variety show, just to prove it can be done. In fact, I had one called The TV Show, which was like SCTV, satire of various things on television. But I don't know if broad, broad audiences really get satire. I mean, how many people love Gary Larson? How many people love Garrison Keillor, who may be the best satirist in the country—he's Mark Twain, this guy. But either they never heard of Garrison Keillor or they love him. There's no middle ground. And that's the broad ground TV wants to hit.
Would you ever do your dream variety show instead of films?
No, I like both. But I don't have any preference for one or the other. The reason I do film is that they don't let you do good stuff on television. I'm not saying that films are the greatest thing in the world—because for every Ordinary People you get a Rambo, or a girl running around with tits. But you can do better work on film; they let you do good work if you're capable. Artists go where they can best express themselves. I'll go anywhere I can have a free rein and express myself I'd much rather do it on television, because TV reaches more people. Even a bomb of a television series reaches more people than a film. But they won't let you do it easily.
It's not that easy in film either, where everything has to sell to payoff the cost of the production. So you don't get great innovative risks being taken.
It costs a lot to put a film out. Even if you make a film for $4-5 million, it's gonna cost you up to $10 or more. There's no real small investment. That's what makes it tricky. But there are always a few good things that filter through, no matter what. Nobody wanted Stand By Me. We were lucky to get it made, and we were lucky to get it picked up by a studio. Nobody wanted it.
Stand By Me
This is chicken-and-egg: Nobody makes the "good stuff" because the public won't come. Of course, they don't come because there isn't enough "good stuff' to create an appetite for it.
Here's my theory. There are four categories of film: garbage-y films that make shitloads of money; garbage-y films that make no money; really good, classy films that make shitloads of money; and really good, classy films that are disasters at the box office. Nobody has proven to me that, if you set out to make only good, intelligent, classy movies, you couldn't make a lot of money. I believe you can. I believe that some of the movies you make will be successes and some will be failures, just as some of the blockbuster or garbage-y types are successes and failures. Ultimately you will turn a profit. And what you will also have done is not litter the screens and people's minds with this garbage. Say I'm a studio head, and I set out to make just good films and I made Room with A View, Trip to Bountiful, Tender Mercies, Stand By Me, Chariots of Fire, and I don't know, Stranger Than Paradise. That's my slate, I wind up with a Stand By Me, that's going to gross close to $75 million worldwide, and Room With a View, that's $68 million, and I don't know how Chariots of Fire has done worldwide and I have these other films that didn't do as well, but they're all decent films, they're not polluting anybody's mind. You may like them or dislike them, but there's nothing that's excessive violence, that's not thoughtful, that doesn't have something to say, that isn't about something. You'd be very, very successful.
Why is that a disrespectable position to take if you're a studio executive?
Because everyone is looking for the real home run—the Beverly Hills Cop or Ghostbusters. And none of those pictures do that kind of business. They're more interested in finding the $200-300 million film. But you know what David Picker said: If I had made all the films I had passed on, and passed on all the films I made, I'd pretty much end up the same as I am now. Well, if that is so, and I believe it to be so, why not make just good films? Make good films. So you fail at half of them. You're gonna fail at half anyway with the rotten films you make.
Your films are often described as "personal." They quest rather than comment. Do you think that's what differentiates you from your father?
It's not that he isn't interested in those problems, it's just that our minds run in different modes. My father is a performer at heart. He loves to make an audience laugh. He gets a tremendous thrill out of performing. He really thrives on it. I get a kick out of it too, but not the way he does. I'm trying to find ways to like myself I'm struggling my fucking ass off to try to feel good about myself. If you're doing that, you make these films that have these quests. Ten years from now, there may be other things I'm thinking about. It's true, though: The Sure Thing, and Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride—there is me in there, no question about it.
The Princess Bride
Even in The Princess Bride, you use a line about masks to refer to some fairly dark feelings.
There was a line that said: "Who says life is fair? Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death." And my feeling was, I don't know that. I do believe that life is pain—mostly pain, with a lot of moments of joy and happiness here and there. But that's my perception, and someone else might say, "You're just a morose asshole. I think life is joyous and happy and wondrous." And I would say, "Yes, it is at at times, but for me personally most of the time it is a vale of tears and all those other cliches."
Like when you got divorced?
Those things are rude awakenings for you. You could go a long time feeling fine and then something really painful will happen to you and it changes the way you think about it. It doesn't make life any less precious or any less interesting—even through the pain it's fascinating—but it definitely changes how you perceive things. I'm wary of people who have terrible tragedies happen to them and bounce back immediately. Part of living life is accepting the pain.
A quest is a good thing, because in the last eight years that's what I've been going through, it has been defining something: me mostly. But also defining love. And maybe if I ever get to a point where I'm happy and content, I'll make some other kind of film. I don't know.
I've also resisted doing films that don't have some comedy in them. Stand by Me does have less comedy than the others, and it is more reflective of me. I'm closer to it. At times, making The Princess Bride, I felt I wasn't really going in the direction I wanted. I thought I should be going in the Stand by Me direction. But I had committed to the picture, and I always live up to my commitments. I was cursing when I was making it, because making any film is very painful work, physically taxing, and no matter how much I love the film at the start, I wind up hating it because it's causing me such physical and emotional pain. And I say God damn this thing. But now I'm so proud and grateful that I made it. And it may be that now I'm starting to accept the comedy parts of it that came from my father.
If this is also hard—apart from spending the money—how do you get up each day, go out on the set, and present yourself as in charge?
I'm not great at anything, but I'm real good at a lot of things. I'm a pretty good actor, a pretty good writer, I have pretty good music abilities, pretty good visual and color and costume sense. I'm not great at any of these things, but as a director I have the opportunity to utilize all these things in one job. Which is why I like doing it. I don't like having to act like an authority figure all the time, which is what you have to do. Luckily for me, I'm smart enough to pick people who are tolerant of me, because I do have moods and I do get depressed a lot. They know I'm not evil and mean; I'm just struggling with myself. I pick people who are creative and gentle and are willing to struggle along with me a little bit if I'm not exactly sure. People say it's a real sin for a director to ever admit he doesn't know what he wants. But I'm as confused as the next guy.
The director is the one guy on the picture that is worse at what everybody else does. The guy who yells focus, the guy who lights, the editor, the production designer— they all do their jobs better than I do. The one thing I need to have is an overview. If I have in my mind what is the film about, what is the specific vision of the film, that's all I really need to know. They say, "How do you make a statue of an elephant? You cut away everything that isn't an elephant. " That's all I have to be able to do.
Stand By Me
How about working with actors?
Actors I have it easy with, because I know what they go through. I know how embarrassed and naked they feel, so I know how to make them feel comfortable. I try to let the staging of the actors dictate where the camera goes rather than the camera dictate where the actors go. There's nothing more difficult than to be making arbitrary moves that don't connect with what you're doing.
How do you tread the line between enticing an audience and then showing them things about themselves they may not want to see?
We spend so much time in our business creating images, trying to get people to like these things. Obviously, there wouldn't be Madison Avenue if the world didn't buy into fantasies—we'd buy into perceptions. But I think there is an audience out there that likes to be told more how things are. I don't think you can give them the harsh realities—people have much too tough a time with that—but you can get closer to the bone than a lot of films do. It's a lot of people's idea that you can't even remotely get to the bone. Stand By Me gets pretty close; we heightened it slightly—with the leeches—but not very much. You can get close to the bone and still make it something the audience wants.
Do you think there are fantasies that shouldn't be put on the screen?
No. If something is done in the right context, and there's a real point of view behind it, and it's there not just to shock or excite, then no. I think anything can be done as long as there's a viewpoint. I object to showing images for shock, or trying to jerk the audience around. The really good work is when we manipulate less, and let the moviegoer make more of an investment himself.
I read something in Omni which is depressing but true: that people's attention spans are so short, you have to do everything for them. We're getting images that don't stay with us. With MTV they don't stay with you. I try to give them something that will stay with them a little bit. I had a great experience recently. This guy walked up to me and said, "I just want to tell you that you and your father have given me 35 years of pleasure, and I just want to thank you." And, for the first time, I let it in. Something has happened to this guy; because of my existence on this planet this guy feels a little bit better. You have x amount of days on this planet, and if you've given someone more pleasure than he would have gotten, wow, what a thing to be able to do! It's pretty fucking great.
The Princess Bride
So how come nobody ever asks you about your mother?
Well, obviously, they never ask me about my mother because of who my father is.
Can you tell the parts of you that are your mother?
Sure. She's a great musical person; she's an artist. She's very smart and very sensitive, a talented person. I've got a lot of her in me. But they always ask about my dad because he's more visible.
And there is always the assumption of struggle to differentiate yourself from him.
And it's true.
Men of that generation tended not to be introspective. They didn't look for motive, or look inside.
I think my father has, though not nearly to the extent that I have. Different generations face different challenges. The generation just prior to my father's generation were the immigrants. Just to survive was their thing, to get a foothold in America. And the next generation, my father's, was to be successful and make money so that their children would never want for the money and food and clothing they wanted for. And I think our job is to give our children what we never got—more of an emotional foundation, a little more emotional support. That's a much more difficult job.
How does that jibe with making movies for the marketplace?
The hippies, the political unrest, the sexual revolution, and the women's movement of the Sixties were all about self-realization. The generation before didn't have the time to do that, they needed to make a living. It didn't matter whether you liked it or not, you got a job. Now we value doing the thing that you love, that you were meant to do. And to do that, you really have to know yourself.