Rob Reiner
Photo by Neilson Barnard

Rob Reiner: “I believe in it”

Short Profile

Name: Robert Norman Reiner
DOB: 6 March 1947
Place of birth: The Bronx, New York, United States
Occupation: Film director, actor

Mr. Reiner, out of the many iconic films you’ve directed, which one has stuck with you the most?

Well, the one that means the most to me is Stand By Me, because it was the first time I did a movie that really reflected my personality. It has some melancholy in it, it has some emotion and it also has humor in it and the music was of my time… I think people relate to it. There’s a line at the end of the movie where they say, “You never have friends like you do when you are 12.” And that’s a true thing. When you bond with your friends when you are 12 years old, it’s a very strong emotional bond. And I think that people can relate to that.

What about a film of yours that’s lesser-known?

Oh, there’s a couple I have a feeling for: one is a movie I made called Shock and Awe, which is about the invasion of Iraq, which, to me, is the greatest single foreign policy disaster in American history — that and the Vietnam War, those were the two biggest tragic mistakes that America made, where imperialism went up. Then I made a little film called Flipped, which is all about first love, what happens in the first romance between twelve year olds, and that one is another one I really love.

“When you make films, you never know what’s going to be a success or what’s not going to be a success. You just make them and you see what happens.”

You have returned to comedy-drama films again and again over the course of your career. The orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally is one of the most famous scenes in cinema.

Actually, the line that follows, “I’ll have what she’s having,” that’s my mother saying that! I told her when I shot the scene, “We’ve got a pretty funny scene here, because Meg Ryan is going to fake an orgasm in a public place and it should be funny, but you have the last line. And it has to top everything that went before it.” She said, “Okay, whatever, it will be fun.” And it became the funniest line ever. And the biggest kick I get out of it is that it’s ranked in the Greatest Film Lines of All Time! You’ve got Clark Gable saying “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and you’ve got Bogart saying, “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and then you’ve got Estelle Reiner! (Laughs)

What drove you to that genre in the first place?

My second film, The Sure Thing, was also a romantic comedy for young people; that was the first time I was doing something that my father, the comedian and filmmaker Carl Reiner, never would have even thought of doing. And it was more reflective of me and I thought, “If people like this, then at least they are going to like the kinds of things I want to do,” which is to blend comedy and drama, and find a way to do that.

You were concerned with what your father would or wouldn’t do?

Well, my first film, Spinal Tap, was a satire and my father had trafficked in satire when he was young. He played on television, on Your Show of Shows, and made big satires of things — so that was something.

Spinal Tap is one of those films that has stood the test of time, it’s the true definition of cult cinema. It even helped popularize the term mockumentary.

You know, it’s hard to explain the cult of Spinal Tap.  Now, you get generations to pass it on, it’s even got into the National Film Registry! The biggest kick I got was, maybe 10 years ago I was at a fundraiser and Elon Musk shows up. He’s got this new car, and he says, “Look, I want to show you this, it’s a brand-new car I’m going to come out with, it’s called a Tesla.” It was a really cool looking car, but he brings me over and sits me in the passenger seat, and he turns on the radio… And it goes up to 11! (Laughs) He says he put that in there because he loves the movie so much. And now it’s part of the vernacular, it’s part of the lexicon. But when the film first came out, people didn’t get it.

Because they thought it was real?

Yes, they thought it was a real documentary and people would come up to me and say, “Why would you make a movie about a band that nobody ever heard of, and one that’s so bad?” I said, “Well, it’s a satire and we are trying to make fun.” So it’s only over the years, it’s going to be 40 soon, that people have caught onto it, understand it and have come to love it.

How is it to grapple with the fact that sometimes it takes 40 years for your films to get the love they deserve? How do you deal with the fact that not all of your films are going to be that successful?

When you make films, you never know what’s going to be a success or what’s not going to be a success. You just make them and you see what happens. With Stand By Me, for example, we were just about to start shooting and Embassy, the company that was financing it, was sold to Columbia, and they said, “We don’t want this picture.” So we had a whole crew and a whole cast up in Oregon ready to shoot, what are we going to do? Norman Lear, one of Embassy’s former co-owners, ended up funding it himself. It was like seven and a half million bucks, and eventually we had a finished film — but still nobody wanted it! Not one studio wanted it.

“What’s going to happen first, are we going to destroy the planet or destroy ourselves? What’s happening first, or can we survive both? And that, to me, is the key.”

What did you do?

In the end, we went back to Columbia. They had passed on it already, but there was a new executive in charge and he loved it, he put it out there. So you never know. You start and all you want to do is make a story and you just have to think: I’ll make it and then somebody will either like it or they won’t like it. And you have no control over that.

So that unpredictability doesn’t effect you?

No, you know why? Here’s the thing that I learned very early on. I remember they were giving Billy Crystal the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in Washington. They held this dinner for him at the Supreme Court, and Anthony Kennedy, who was one of the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, was the host of the dinner. There was a cocktail thing and we were walking around, and he comes up to me and he says, “You know, you people in Hollywood, you make these courtroom dramas, and they are never good.” But he says, “I have got to tell you, A Few Good Men, that was really good. That, and My Cousin Vinny, those two.” (Laughs) So who knows! You just do what you think is good.

How have you managed to stay so open and so passionate, despite any challenges or tribulations?

I believe in it! I believe in it, you know, all I can say are two things: you’ve got the planet and the people who live on the planet. That’s it, so we have to do two things. First we have to protect the planet. And second, the people on the planet have to find a way to live in harmony. So I always say what’s going to happen first, are we going to destroy the planet or destroy ourselves? What’s happening first, or can we survive both? And that, to me, is the key.