As Michael “Meathead” Stivic, Rob Reiner played the impassioned, political, and socially active foil to Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted father-in-law, Archie Bunker, in Norman Lear’s classic 1970s sitcom All in the Family. Comedy and compassion were in his genes.
His father—actor, producer, and writer Carl Reiner—worked with Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and famously played television star Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show; Reiner Sr. also paired comedy with social relevance.
Learning firsthand from dad and from Lear, Rob found opportunities to explore political power and social issues as a director, with such films as The American President, Ghosts of Mississippi, as well as the soon to be released LBJ, starring Woody Harrelson as the Texas senator who becomes president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and faces an America embroiled in turbulence. With a career that also includes such beloved films as Stand By Me, This is Spinal Tap, Misery, When Harry Met Sally… and The Princess Bride, Reiner is one of the few moviemakers who can balance social relevance with emotional poignancy—because the heart of his storytelling is real people and their relationships. He shares that wisdom here.
As told to Ted Elrick
1. I have a lot of favorite movies: The Godfather, the first two—I pretend the third one never happened. Citizen Kane is a movie that anybody who has ever made a movie looks to as the Bible. All the President’s Men I’ve seen 20, 25 times. I’ve always had a big place in my heart for It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve seen it 40 times. As you get older the movie takes on greater meaning. That’s what I always look for in movies: The movie doesn’t change, but you change and how you perceive the movie and what you get out of it changes. I like a lot of Elia Kazan’s movies: On the Waterfront, one of the great film performances of all time, by Brando. I love a lot of Woody Allen films, and I’ve always been a fan of Truffaut and Hitchcock.
2. If you want to be a filmmaker, I would suggest you don’t go to film school. Go study humanities, or English, or art history, because whatever frames of reference you have, they’re going to come into play when you start making movies. The technical part of making movies, you can learn that. But what you can’t learn is different frames of reference.
3. Your films are like your children. Even the black sheep, you like them, because they’re your kids. You never know what pictures are going to last and which ones aren’t. Luckily, I’ve had a few that have stuck around. I get such a kick out of kids who saw The Princess Bride when it first came out, when they were eight or nine years old, and now they have kids that are that age and they’ve introduced them to it. And Stand By Me has always been a very important movie to me.
4. There’s that crazy nexus between living long enough to have enough wisdom to be able to inform the movies you make, and being young enough to have the energy to make them. I look at people like Clint Eastwood—he’s inspiring because the guy is getting close to 90 and he’s still making movies. Or Woody Allen.
5. To make a love story, I think you have to have been in love and been dumped, and dumped somebody. If you have been through that, you have a greater understanding of what’s at stake between men and women.
6. When I made LBJ over a year ago, it seemed like it worked and the audience would like it, but now that Trump is in the White House it takes on a completely different meaning. I was of draft age during LBJ’s presidency so I hated him because he could have sent me to my death. But time has gone by and I have spent time working in government, working on public policy, and I have a greater respect for what he was able to accomplish. If it had not been for Vietnam, he would have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
7. If you’ve got a really good script and you’ve cast it right, you’re 90 percent of the way there. It’s up to you to mess it up at that point with the production designer and so on.
8. I look at a lot of the directors that I admire, and most of them were actors to start with. I just feel like they have a closer connection to the human experience and what people go through. A director should take acting classes because then you understand what actors can and can’t do and what you can ask them to do. If you want to make these big action franchise pictures, or commercials, then you’re better off just studying the technology of it. I don’t find that to be as creative as telling stories about people and what they go through. If you’re making a film that’s CGI and the dialogue is “Get down!” or “Run!” then you don’t have to worry about it. But if you’re making a movie about relationships between human beings, then it’s good to know how human beings get from one moment to the next; how to talk to them and get them to do what you want.
9. Moviemaking is like a traveling circus. You’re all thrown together with a bunch of people and their personalities are all different and you’re all there to serve the master. I may not see eye to eye with them politically, but you’re there to create a story and work together. You don’t have to be best friends with everybody, though it’s great if you can. I made my last two movies with Woody Harrelson. If I could make every movie with Woody Harrelson I would because he’s just great to work with.
10. Not every decision—and you have to make thousands of them as a director—is life and death. One of my favorite scenes in Truffaut’s Day for Night is when the prop man comes and says, “Do you want the red cup, or the blue cup?” And the director is standing there agonizing, like if he doesn’t make the right decision the whole film is going to be destroyed. That means nothing—just pick something! As long as you’re not cutting into a vital organ, the patient will live.
11. You’re the one who knows the movie you’re going to make. You’re not part of the cast, and you’re not part of the crew. You’re looking at it from 30,000 feet. You have to see the whole thing. So there may be things that you do that the DP doesn’t like, or the production designer doesn’t like, but they’re not standing at 30,000 feet.
12. If you’re good at directing, you’re not really great at anything. Everybody is going to be smarter than you in their area. You’re hoping the actors are better than you. You’re hoping the DP can light better than you. You’re hoping the guy creating the music is a better musician than you. You just have to be able to communicate in the different languages and get by. You don’t have to be perfectly fluent in everything, but you have to have a sense of how to talk in each language.
13. Any time my movies come on TV, I don’t really watch the movie—it’s like a home movie. It’s like, “Remember the day we did that thing? It was raining?”—the memories of it. You get to play house, and they pay you to play house. MM
LBJ opens in theaters November 3, 2017, courtesy of Electric Entertainment. Photograph by Sandro Baebler.