Rob Reiner has a joke about the Forward. We’ve just wrapped up our interview on his new film, “Being Charlie,” and he pauses mid-way out the door to ask me if I know an old saying about the paper.
I shake my head.
“If there’s a big story comin’ out for The Jewish Daily Forward, the editor yells out ‘hold the back page!’”
(Because it’s written in Hebrew. Took me a second, too.)
Reiner is every bit what you hope he’ll be. Familial, a good talker, the kind of guy who makes you vaguely wonder if you once shared a family Seder with him.
But there’s a darker side — one that’s explored in “Being Charlie,” a dramedy loosely based on his son Nick’s struggle with drug abuse. Co-written by Nick and directed by Reiner, the film tells the story of a troubled 18-year-old plagued by addiction and a crumbling relationship with his father.
I spoke with Reiner about working through painful memories on screen, the favorite film he’s made and why it would be really hard to make “When Harry Met Sally” today.
I read that you thought about making this film while Nick was in rehab, but couldn’t bring yourself to write the script.
I didn’t really feel like I had enough perspective on it. I was kind of in the middle of it, I couldn’t see the forest from the trees. After Nick got out, he started working with this guy who he met in rehab, this guy Matt Elisofon, and they wrote a half-hour comedy about their life in rehab. They showed it to me and I said, it’s funny but don’t you want to go a little deeper with this? It’s a tough subject and maybe you want to add some dramatic elements to it. So, they went back and they wrote an hour comedy-drama. We couldn’t get it going anywhere. And then I came back to the idea I had initially, which was how substance abuse affects a family, not just what the child goes through, but how the parents are affected by it. What was interesting was working with it in that way gave me an opportunity to really understand what Nick was going through and he started to understand more what I was going through.
How difficult was it on a personal level to recreate those memories on screen?
It was difficult, it was painful at times, there was elation at times. But it was the most creative, fulfilling experience I’ve had. We didn’t set out to have a catharsis, or make this a therapeutic thing, but that’s what it turned out to be. For me, I told Nick this when we were making this film, I said it doesn’t matter what happens to this film, if it ever gets seen, if it ever gets into theaters, we already won. Whatever it is that we have learned and gone through, this has made it better for us. We didn’t start out to do it for that reason, but that’s what happened.
What did you learn about yourself as a father from the experience?
If you’re willing to allow yourself to really see your child, they can make you a better parent just by virtue of doing that. As a director, this is something I’ve always known. You work with a lot of actors, some actors need a lot of attention, some actors want you to leave them alone, some actors want you to hold their hand and others say let me find my own way. You learn as a director to treat everybody differently, the way in which you can get the best out of them. It’s a little simpler obviously, because you’re not emotionally connected in that way, but with children it’s the same thing. Every child is different. Ultimately, you want your child to be themselves and feel comfortable with whoever they are, and it may not necessarily be how you see things.
You’ve spoken about the way the film industry has changed and how difficult it is to get financing. Do you think a film like “When Harry Met Sally” could be made today?
We’ve had [Reiner’s production company] Castle Rock since 1987, next year it’ll be 30 years. Not one of the films we made would ever be made in the studio now. We’re talking about “Shawshank Redemption” and “A Few Good Men” and “When Harry Met Sally.” We wouldn’t get them made in the studio because they don’t make those kind of films. They don’t get financed through the studio system, you have to find independent financing. It’s tougher, it’s much, much tougher.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has their own favorite film of yours. Which of your films would you say means the most to you?
“Stand By Me” is the one that means the most to me. I don’t know if it’s the best film or not, but it means the most to me. It was the first time I did a film that was really reflective of my personality and sensibility. It has humor to it but it also has this sad, melancholy aspect to it and that’s kind of a mixture of what I am.
The first film I did was “This is Spinal Tap,” and that was a satire. I grew up with satire and I was in improv groups, and did all that. The second one was “The Sure Thing,” which was a romantic comedy. Both of those were things that my father used to traffic in. [“Stand By Me”] was the first film I did that was separate and apart from anything that my father would have done. It was reflective of something that was mine.