A Director With A Pipeline Into Your Heart
By Beverly Cohn
Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
ob Reiner, son of the iconic Carl Reiner, cut his acting chops as
"Meathead" on the "All in the Family" television
series. Since then, Rob has more than carved out his own unique creative
niche and has become one of Hollywood's most sensitive directors. "When
Harry Met Sally," "This is Spinal Tap," "Misery,"
"Alex & Emma," "The American President," "The
Bucket List," "A Few Good Men," "Ghosts of Mississippi,"
"The Sure Thing," "The Story of Us," "Rumor
" "The Princess Bride." These films are the
voice of Rob Reiner.
A most gregarious Reiner recently sat down with a
few select journalists to discuss his latest film, "The Magic of
Belle Isle," the story of Monte Wildhorn, a wheelchair-bound Western
novelist (Morgan Freeman) who spends the summer at a lakeside cabin
where he fills his days drinking and babysitting a dog. The somewhat
surly Monte is ultimately rescued from his darkness by his neighbor
(Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters in what turns out to be a
win-win situation for all. (Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann & Nicolette
The following has been edited for continuity and
The phrase "Bucket List" has made its
way into American vocabulary when people refer to what they would like
to do before they die. Courtesy Photo
The "Magic of Belle Isle" is a sentimental
film. What kind of feeling would you like the audience to take away
Reiner: A similar kind of feeling that they had when
they walked away from "The Bucket List" because it has a very
similar theme which is about embracing life no matter what your situation
is and finding something good about life and celebrating it. In "The
Bucket List" you had two guys facing cancer. In this film you got
a guy who's basically given up on life because he's in a wheel chair,
his wife has died and he's can't write anymore. He's drinking and has
shut the door on himself. So, it's what happens with this relationship
with the woman next door and her children and the people in that community
who actually get him to learn how to live again.
Was what we saw on the screen much different from
the original script?
Morgan Freeman plays Monte
Wildhorn, a washed up novelist battling alcoholism. Photo:
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Reiner: It didn't change a whole heck of a lot but the
Morgan Freeman character (Monte Wildhorn) was initially supposed
to be someone in his 50s and Morgan, as you know, is in his 70's. I
was originally going to go after maybe a George Clooney or somebody
like that. But Morgan's producing partner called me up. She asked if
we were developing anything at Castle Rock Entertainment that Morgan
might be interested in. We had done "The Bucket List" together
and I enjoyed working with him. And I thought oh my God. Morgan is so
good that you don't really need to change the script to make it an age
thing because it's really just about a person who has given up and how
he learns to live again. I thought I was an idiot because I should have
thought of him to begin with because if I could make every movie with
Morgan, I would.
Because of having worked with Morgan on "The
Bucket List," was it different working with him this time?
Reiner: You know it wasn't all that different. Morgan
and I found out that we work exactly the same way. We're both very,
very fast. I would come in with new scenes every morning. He'd look
at it and say, 'Got it.' He would process things so fast and when you
do a take with him, he'd nail it every time. I mean it was never that
we had to do many, many takes. And I'm the same way. If we get it on
the first take, I say let's move on. It was really necessary on this
film because we only had twenty-five days to shoot.
You got some incredible performances out of the kids
and the dog. Could you talk a little bit about the dog?
Reiner: The dog was interesting. Think about the auditions
for that dog. (Laughter) You gotta' get a dog that can lick his
balls on cue (Laughter) so basically you're bringing in these
dogs one after the other, and here's a trade secret, they put peanut
butter down there. I didn't put the peanut butter down there but the
trainers applied the peanut butter and the dogs were more than happy
to do whatever. That was a funny audition and I thought what am I doing
for a living here. (Laughter) The other funny thing was these
are Labrador Retrievers. The one thing they can do is fetch and their
instinct is to, run after the ball, so we had to train these dogs not
to fetch, but when he goes after the ball at the end, that was his natural
What about the kids?
Reiner: With Maddy (Madeline Carroll), I had
worked with her before so I knew what she could do and knew she would
be perfect for the part of Willow. For the other roles, I went through
an extensive casting process and looked at many, many girls because
I had a very clear image in my mind of what I wanted for each of those
roles. I was looking for a scout type from "To Kill a Mockingbird."
You know, that type of very cute, adorable, tomboyish kind of girl so
when Emma (Fuhrmann) came in and read, I said oh yes, that's
it and the same with Nicolette (Pierini).
What is the genesis of the story and did you do some of the writing?
Reiner: A lot of this is Guy Thomas. He hadn't written
anything in thirty years. He wrote a screenplay many years ago called
"Wholly Moses" which starred Dudley Moore and didn't like
how it came out and dropped out. He was living at Lake Malibu and not
doing much of anything and met this woman who lived next door who was
going through a divorce who had three daughters. He fell in love with
her and loved these kids but never consummated his love for her. In
his mind he viewed himself has being handicapped. It's interesting that
he put the character in a wheelchair because in his mind he felt emotionally
handicapped. So a lot of it was his, but we added number of things.
It's really about not just his relationship with the mother and the
daughters, but all of the people in the town. He affects then and they
affect him and the aggregate of all that infuses life back in him and
he also gives them something.
When you work with actors who don't have your technique
of working, do you change to accommodate their way of working?
Reiner: You work with every actor differently. It's
like if you are a mother with children, some children need more discipline,
while with other children you have to back off a little bit. It's the
same thing with actors. Some actors need a lot of handholding; other
actors like to be left alone; some actors like to be nudged a little
bit, and some actors don't mind line readings. They say, 'How do you
want me to say it?' So, because I've been an actor, I can do that for
them and I also hear how it's supposed to sound.
Reiner directed this spine-tingling drama starring
James Caan and Kathy Bates.
When I did "Misery," Kathy Bates, who is a
stage-trained actress, and loves lots of rehearsals. Jimmy Caan who
basically grew up on films likes no rehearsals. He wants to just get
in there and whatever happens at the moment, happens. So, I had to do
more rehearsals than Jimmy liked and less rehearsals than Kathy liked.
Do you use improvisations in your directing style?
Reiner: Some actors can't do it and don't like to do
it but if I know someone is a really good improvisational actor, I'd
be foolish not to take advantage of it as he'll come up with all kinds
What was it like growing up with your famous dad?
Reiner: Of the show business fathers that you could
have, it was probably the best situation that I could ever have because
he was a real father, a home kind of guy. We were all together as a
family and I saw him a lot.
Left: Rob's dad Carl Reiner, one of America's treasures;
Right: L-R: Stars of "Show of Shows," Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar
and Imogene Coca. Courtesy Photo
When I was a young kid, he was doing "Show of Shows,"
which was a live television show on for ninety minutes every Saturday.
But it was off for thirteen weeks a year during the summer so we went
as a family on vacation. When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,
he was doing "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and he'd let me come
down to the studio and hang out with him and he'd let me watch how he
worked with the actors and how he re-wrote scripts, so I learned a lot.
I spent a lot of time with him in as good a situation as you could have.
Did your dad recognize your talent as a youngster?
Reiner: Not until I was nineteen years old. As a kid,
he never thought I was talented at all. When I was an eight-year-old
kid, I used to play with Norman Lear's daughter. We were playing a game
of Jacks or something and I was announcing the game and doing some shtick.
Norman went to my dad and said, 'Your son is really funny.' My dad said,
'That kid?' (Laughter) He's not funny. So he never thought I
was funny until I was nineteen and did an improvisational theatre group.
I wrote and directed and acted in some plays. Then he could see it and
got behind me, and jumped on the bandwagon.
L-R: Rob Reiner ("Meathead",) Jean Stapleton
(Edith,) Carroll O'Connor (Archie Bunker,) Sally Struthers (Gloria).
When did you realize that you no longer stood in
your father's shadow?
.."Family is always first." Courtesy
Reiner: Interesting question. It didn't really happen
until I did "Stand By Me" and I was already in my mid-thirties.
I had been successful in "All in the Family," and had done
a couple of movies, "This is Spinal Tap" and "Sure Thing."
"This is Spinal Tap" was a satire and even though it was a
movie my father probably wouldn't make, he was raised in satire. "Sure
Thing" was a romantic comedy and he had done those. "Stand
By Me" was the first time I did a film that was completely an extension
of my personality. It had kind of a melancholy feel, but was also fun.
It also had an emotional part to it and was something my father, in
a million years, would have never approached. It was doing that and
being accepted and validated was the first time that I felt I was breaking
How do you find balance between your career, family,
and your political activism?
Reiner: Well, family is always, always first. As a matter
of fact, there was a time when I was thinking of running for governor
in California and I sat with my family and polled 40% in my own family,
so I couldn't carry my own family essentially. (Laughter) So
that was it. I'm not gonna' run because they didn't want me to, so that
was that. The family comes first so if anything gets in the way of that,
then I don't do it. I've taken my family when I've gone off to make
movies. Now they're older, two of them are out of the house, but I still
have a 14-year-old daughter at home, but if it took me away for any
length of time, I wouldn't do it.