The 41st Chaplin Award is taking place soon at Lincoln Center. This year's honoree Rob Reiner has directed modern classics such as This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), A Few Good Men (1992), and The American President (1995), which have found die-hard fans in theaters and beyond. His films have earned well over $600 million at the box office and continue to find new admirers.
In 2012, Reiner attended the 50th New York Film Festival for a 25th-anniversary screening of The Princess Bride. Two of the film's cast members, Billy Crystal and Robin Wright, will return for the Chaplin Gala Monday along with Martin Scorsese, Meg Ryan, Michael Douglas, James Caan, and Michael McKean to honor Reiner, whose career has spanned film, television, and theater. Reiner spoke with FilmLinc recently, which is featured in a two-part interview. In Part 1 of the conversation, posted earlier this week, Reiner recalls his start in showbiz and making the move from television actor to feature-film director. In Part 2, Reiner looks back at his career and gives a glimpse at what's ahead. He laments that the films he made in past decades would never receive studio support today, but says filmmakers who want to make story-driven movies have hope.
The 67year-old Bronx-born actor/director/producer also talks about his tireless efforts at social activism, a pursuit he shares with his wife, Michele Singer Reiner. Their most recent high-profile sojourn into the political sphere lead to a monumental federal lawsuit against California's controversial Proposition 8, which voters in that state passed in 2008, banning same-sex marriage. The case reunited former legal adversaries Ted Olson and David Boies, who represented George W. Bush and Al Gore on opposing sides in the Bush vs. Gore case that decided the 2000 election. This time, the two reunited to overturn the proposition, which was captured in an upcoming HBO documentary, The Case Against 8.
FilmLinc: You were here at Film Society for the 25th-anniversary screening of The Princess Bride during the New York Film Festival in 2012. This film had a tepid response when it initially came out in theaters but has since it found its footing and a large fan base, which was obvious that night. There was such a packed theater of enthusiastic fans. What is it about that film and others that have cultivated that metaphorical “long tail?”
Rob Reiner: When you make a movie, you hope it lasts and stand the test of time, but you never know. Is this something I'm interested in? Can I connect to it in some way? If I feel that I can then I try to find those certain things in the project that are universal and people can connect with. When Harry Met Sally… is about finding your mate—that's something that most people can relate to. You never know if something you make is ultimately going to stand the test of time, but I have to tell you, it's awfully thrilling when something does.
Particularly with The Princess Bride… when I meet people or in Alice Tully Hall, it's pretty exciting because people love the movie. It's like a singer who does his hits because applause starts even before the song does. The biggest kick for me is to meet someone who first saw the movie when they were 6 or 7 years old and now they're grown up and they have little kids and they're showing the film to their kids. That's a tremendous kick.
Rob Reiner with Tom Cruise on the set of A Few Good Men
FL: The Princess Bride has so many quotable quotes and When Harry Met Sally… of course has one of the most famous quotes in movies, “I'll have what she's having.” Do people come up to you and have their whirl at saying their favorites to you?
RR: They do at times, yes. The two biggest are [“I'll have what she's having”], which ranks up there with “Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.” That gives me a tremendous kick. But the biggest recent kick came from the creator of [electric car manufacturer] Tesla. I know this guy and he told me he's a big fan of This Is Spinal Tap. He said that if you turn the radio volume up [in his cars], it goes up to 11. And it's true. He actually built that into the car. In fact, the air conditioning and the volume both go to 11. Those are big thrills.
Also, people often say, “What's on your bucket list?” People think that's a phrase that's been around for a million years, but it was actually invented for the movie. Now people say, “Well, what's on your bucket list?” Those are things that give a tremendous thrill. I love when people say lines back to me.
FL: Hollywood prognosticators have said that the story-driven movie is an endangered species. What do you think?
RR: It really is. To be completely honest, there's not one movie I've made that could be made at a studio today. Things have changed so much, and the only reason [The Bucket List] was made was because [producer] Alan Horn was a good friend of mine and he and others started Castle Rock with me. I've known him for 40 years when he worked with Norman Lear and he was the head of Warner Bros. at the time. Against the desire of every other executive at the studio he said that I could go ahead and make the movie.
I already had Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman—two pretty good actors I might add… Nobody wanted to make that film and certainly nobody today would want to make that film. If you go to a studio and say I've got a story about two 70-year-old guys dying of cancer, give me money to do that… No, they're not going to do it. I certainly can't make movies today at studios.
Rob Reiner with James Caan on the set of Misery
FL: So what is the outlet for you or others that want to make unique story-driven films?
RR: There are a couple outlets. There are a lot of independent films with low budgets and you can get those made because if you get a really good script, you can attract good actors. Actors just want to be in good material. They don't just all want to be in tentpole movies. Yes they do want to be in those because you can make a lot of money, but they also want to apply their craft of acting and you can't really do that in many of these [studio] movies.
I just finished this film [And So It Goes] with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton and they wanted to do it because the material is good and they wanted the chance to do something a studio won't do.
The other way to get [a good story made] is of course television quite frankly. Cable television is in the midst of a renaissance, which is no secret. It's a second golden era of television really. I go to dinner parties and everyone's talking about what television shows they're watching. They don't talk about movies—I mean, they do a little bit… Everyone wants to know, “Did you watch House of Cards or Homeland or Breaking Bad… There's so much good material on television. You can really do such good work. It's a tremendous creative freedom and you don't have to make a blockbuster. So a lot of actors and good directors are [attracted to it].
Those are the two avenues you have if you don't want to make a studio franchise tentpole or an R-rated raunchy comedy and animated work—those are the only things they make nowadays.
FL: Let's chat about your award April 28 at the Film Society. Charlie Chaplin was of course the first person to receive the honor, which eventually was named after him. He even came back to the U.S. to receive the award—that is quite a legacy…
RR: Well I mean, he's beyond iconic. He's one of the great founders in a way of the film industry. He made a mark that very few people even come close to achieving, so it's incredible to be thought of in the same sentence as Charlie Chaplin… I couldn't think of a more innovative and great filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin. There's D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin and the founders of cinema.
FL: Who are some filmmakers out there now that you're excited about?
RR: There are a lot of great young directors. The person who directed The Spectacular Now is very good. Sam Levinson [Another Happy Day] is another. I like Wes Anderson as well. There are a lot of great filmmakers doing great innovative work, but unfortunately, they can't get that done in the studios. I loved Philomena last year. No studio would make that movie. I also love documentaries. I can watch them all day long. I can't wait to see the Rumsfeld documentary [The Unknown Known by Errol Morris]. I hear he's completely unrepentant. I don't think he's going to do the Robert McNamara and do a mea culpa. I'm hoping one day Colin Powell will do a mea culpa. Somebody has to! Somebody along the way has to say, “Folks, we made a mistake.”
Rob Reiner in a scene from Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street
FL: This is a good cue to talk about your other big pursuits, which is your activism. Both you and your wife have been in the forefront of many issues for many years, which was impressed upon me most recently when you were at the world premiere of The Case Against 8 at the Sundance Film Festival. You've lent your name and effort to so many causes, even when they don't necessarily directly impact your immediate life. But causes like battling Prop 8 in California have been very important to both of you.
RR: Well we were horrified when that passed and it spurred us to do what we did. Michele, Chad Griffin, Christine Lahti, and I were sitting around and bemoaning the fact that Obama had won the presidency but we were stunned that, in California, they put in a constitutional amendment against gays and lesbians right to get married. We thought it was astounding that something like that could happen here and we were discussing whether or not we should run another initiative and we talked about the idea of doing a court challenge.
During that lunch, a friend of Michele's and mine came over and asked what we were talking about and later in the day she called up and told Michele, “You'd be surprised to find out, if you're thinking seriously about a court challenge, that Ted Olson agrees with what you say.” That was a shock to us! We thought that if that were true, that would be the political home run of all time. So we met with Ted in D.C. and then he came to L.A. and we sat with him. He was not only on our side but he was very passionate and articulate about how he thought we could win in court and he was committed to seeing it through.
He then suggested David Boies [to also work on the lawsuit]. We formed this foundation, American Foundation for Equal Rights, where we raised money to fund the lawsuit. Ultimately, we were successful and overturned Prop 8. We have also filed a lawsuit recently in Virginia and we just won a district decision there. And if that one reaches the Supreme Court, and we think it will, it will beg the fundamental question whether gays and lesbians have the right to marry throughout the country.
Let me tell you, here's Chad Griffin, whom I've known since he was 19 years old. He was working for Dee Dee Myers, at the Communications Office at the White House [under Clinton]. He later became the executive director of my children's foundation, Parents' Action for Children. I've known the guy for 20 years. He's like a son to me. I love the guy. How could I look him in the eye and say, “You deserve less than I have?” It was very clear that this is the right thing and one of the last fundamental legs of the civil rights movement that has been fought. We need to do this and finish this fight.
As we've gone along and educated people, you know, there isn't anyone in America that doesn't have a gay person in their family or a friend that is gay or someone in their workplace. I mean, how do you live alongside those people and say, “You're a second-class citizen, so you can't do it.” You have to do what's right.
Dancing with Michael Douglas on the set of The American President
FL: Along with Prop 8, there have been a wide range of issues you have worked on, and you've also been chided for that.
RR: Oh yeah, listen, whenever you wade into the political world, you're going to have people stepping all over you. I fought the tobacco industry and we won a big piece of legislation here in California that provided $600-700 million dollars a year for children 0-5 with childcare, healthcare, and pre-school education. Over $8 billion has been distributed as a result. We also went up against Washington Mutual to keep them from building a city in the Santa Monica Mountains, which is now preserved as open space. Now we're trying to protect Malibu from over-development. I don't vote out there, but I do have a house there. You know, you just pick things you're interested in and try and find a way to make a difference.
I don't like the idea of advocacy for the sake of advocacy because to me it's about getting things done and finding a path [to win]. If you figure out a way to do that, then you go ahead and do it.