Rob Reiner: Independent by nature and more

Stewart Oksenhorn
Film director Rob Reiner will be honored with Aspen Filmfest's Independent by Nature Award on Sept. 30.

As a TV actor hoping to become a film director, Rob Reiner got about as much respect from Hollywood as Mike Stivic, his put-upon, freeloading “All in the Family” character, got from Archie Bunker.

“At the time, people who worked in TV were seen as second-class citizens by the film people,” says Reiner, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “It was tough, but I really wanted to do it.”

Reiner’s entrance into the film director’s chair came through an idea he had developed on the small screen. As a writer and actor on “The T.V. Show,” a short-lived sketch show that satirized television, Reiner created a spoof on “Midnight Special,” a rock concert program. His sketch was a backstage look at England’s loudest band. Combining his concept with characters conjured by Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, this became Spinal Tap.

“This Is Spinal Tap,” released in 1984, kicked off one of the finest runs in recent American cinema. Between 1984-’92, Reiner directed seven films, each one a classic of its kind. (The winning streak could probably be considered ended with 1994’s “North,” a family film about which Roger Ebert famously wrote, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”)

As Filmfest is honoring Reiner with its Independent By Nature Award, we’ll stick here to those eight years when everything he shot became cinematic gold.

Before he ventures off into thrillers, fantasies, romantic comedies and coming-of-age tales, Reiner helps invent a genre: the mockumentary. Using the dimwitted-but-sincere trio of David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and Derek Smalls (Shearer), Reiner creates a fake documentary of a heavy-metal band making an ill-fated comeback. And Reiner plays Marty DiBergi, a filmmaker documenting the return of Spinal Tap. The film’s best gags ” the amp that can be cranked up to 11; the band saying “Goodnight” to the wrong city ” have become imbedded in rock lore. And Spinal Tap didn’t end with the movie: the band actually played a ’90s reunion tour. (The lead actors are all accomplished musicians.) And Spinal Tap turned up at the center of a classic “Simpsons” episode.

“This Is Spinal Tap” was nearly pre-empted. Reiner and Shearer were first going to do a film, “Roadie,” based on Reiner’s idea for a backstage look at a rock tour. “Then ‘Roadie,’ came out, with Meat Loaf, so we couldn’t do that,” said Reiner. “So we combined forces, these characters and my backstage view.”

The mid-’80s were littered with one-note teen comedies, and Reiner wasn’t about to throw another on the heap. “There were a lot of dopey teen sex comedies at the time, guys just wanting to get laid,” he said. “I thought, if I was doing that, it had to have more substance, it had to be almost high-brow, wrestling with these questions, how sex comes into play, and how to talk to a woman.”

It’s not quite high-brow, as college freshman Gib (John Cusack) road-trips cross-country with uptight Alison (Daphne Zuniga) for his “sure thing” (Nicollette Sheridan). But the film’s riffs on college life, mismatched car-mates and baby names are enormously quotable, and Reiner begins making his reputation for finding warmth and smarts in unlikely genres. Yes, that’s Tim Robbins in his first notable (though small) role, as the show tune-singing Gary.

Reiner takes an obscure Stephen King novella, “The Body,” and somehow re-imagines it as a coming-of-age classic. Nostalgic, moody, accessible and spot-on in its observations of adolescence, “Stand By Me” expands King’s story to focus on four, small-town kids ” played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell ” hiking through the woods to find a dead body. Of course, what they find is themselves ” but in a way that transcends every cliche of the genre.

In King’s story, “It’s four kids sharing the experience,” said Reiner. “They all had their own issues. What I decided was to take Gordy’s story and make it about his self-discovery, that he could get acceptance and support from friends when he couldn’t get it from his father. That gave him the ability to become a great writer.”

Reiner enters the land of evil kings, beautiful princesses, and Rodents of Unusual Size. He knew he had a winner ” and he did; “The Princess Bride” is a perfect fantasy ” but he’s also got marketing issues.

“Fox had no idea, no trailer. It was just weird; we had no marketing tools,” said Reiner. “I yelled at [studio executive] Barry Diller, ‘I don’t want this to be like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ “

Reiner meant he didn’t want “The Princess Bride” to be overlooked on first release, as “The Wizard of Oz” was ” to be embraced as a family classic only years later. But Diller probably gave Reiner some good advice when he told Reiner, “Rob, don’t let anybody hear you say that you don’t want it to be like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ “

The marketing was a problem: college kids, who proved to love the film in test screenings, wouldn’t turn out for a film titled “The Princess Bride,” and it did only decent business. But numerous TV reruns have made the multifaceted film endearing to all audiences.

The typical romantic comedy bears no resemblance to real-life romance. So perhaps what makes “When Harry Met Sally” so beloved (No. 25 on AFI’s list of the top 100 American romances) is that Reiner drew completely from real life. His own.

“I had been divorced for ten years, and that movie was an extension of my miserable attempt to make a relationship work,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out how to be with the opposite sex, and be friends with someone I wanted to sleep with.”

Through his two protagonists, played by Reiner’s best friend Billy Crystal, and Meg Ryan, Reiner seems to have worked out those issues. The year “When Harry Met Sally” was released, Reiner married Michele Singer. The two are still married and, presumably, still talk and sleep with one another.

Reiner’s return to Stephen King as a source features more typical King fare, the story of a popular author (James Caan) imprisoned by his deranged “No. 1 fan” (Kathy Bates, in an Oscar-winning performance). Reiner amps up the horror; no viewer will forget Bates taking a sledgehammer to Caan’s feet. But Reiner’s main interest was in the idea of an artist hobbled in his effort at creative expansion.

“It was the theme of the movie ” being trapped by your own success,” he said. “I had been a success in ‘All in the Family,’ and I had a heck of a time convincing people I could direct movies.

“Paul Sheldon had something so much more personal and connected to his artistic ability. He feared that if he tried that, his fans would hate him so much they’d want to kill him.”

When he adapted the military justice drama “A Few Good Men” from Aaron Sorkin’s play, Reiner, as any good film man should, tinkered with the original. The surprising twist is that Sorkin loved Reiner’s changes so much that he incorporated them into the touring stage performance.

“I don’t know that that’s ever happened ” that a playwright changes his play based on something someone did with his movie.”


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