Interview: Rob Reiner on “LBJ”

Posted on November 1, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Rob Reiner’s new movie, “LBJ,” stars Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Johnson, focusing on the months between the tragedy of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, which catapulted him into the Presidency, and the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964. The film opens in theaters November 3, 2017 and it is an illuminating and warmly human portrayal of a complicated man who was a genuine leader. In an interview, Reiner talked about how his own views of President Johnson have changed since the 1960’s and how he was able to bring about one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in history.

Copyright Nell Minow 2017

It’s an unexpectedly gentle portrayal of a President who was a polarizing figure when he was in office.

It’s an odd film for me to be making because I hated LBJ during the 60’s. I was of draft age and I was against the war, I marched in protests. So I hated him.

It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in politics, I grew up, I actually had a government job in California for seven years and then I got to understand what LBJ was able to accomplish. He was like a tale of two Presidencies. He was probably except for FDR the most successful domestic legislative president of all time and had it not been for Vietnam he would have gone down as one of the one of the great Presidents of all time.

So I wanted to look at this man and see what else there was about him that we didn’t already know because the image that we always had besides the fact that we didn’t like him because of Vietnam was this kind of bully, a bull in the china shop, arm-twisting crude guy showing his scar, picking the beagle up by the ears; was there more to this guy?

In doing the research aside from reading the Robert Caro books, in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, it became very clear that there was definitely another side to this guy. There were two things that I teased out of that book. One is that he had this recurring nightmare of being paralyzed and the other was that he had a fear that his mother didn’t love him or at least conditionally loved him and only loved him when he was doing what she wanted him to do.

So it made for somebody who had serious doubts about himself; fears of not being loved, insecurity. If we can get that across, whatever his political legacy is we’ll at least capture who this guy is.

We decided to use a very small sliver of time which is to take it from Kennedy’s landing at Love Field in Dallas to Johnson delivering the speech about the Civil Rights Bill in front of the joint session of Congress. In that time Johnson has to assume the Presidency. That’s a pressure point that will bring out who this guy really is and we see it. He is paralyzed at first but then he’s able to move forward.

Was Kennedy’s death significant in pushing the Civil Rights Act to the top of the legislative agenda?

Many people think that. There were reporters at the time that were on the floor that worked on Capitol Hill who said that there was no chance that bill was getting out of Committee; it was locked up in committee. As we point out in the film, Richard Russell who was the head of the Southern caucus, the Democratic caucus in the South said, “I’ll stop this thing, I’ll make it so that it never reaches the floor.” But as events happened, the fact that Kennedy was assassinated which was horrible and made the country mourn and made us all so upset it also provided a legislative path forward. And Johnson was able to understand it because he had a consummate knowledge of how to move policy forward. He said, “You never underestimate the power of a martyr’s cause.”

He knew at that point he could move it forward and even then it was touch-and-go because he knew he was going to lose the Southern Democrats. He said, “We’re going to lose them for a generation,” and it’s been way more than a generation. It’s been over fifty years and the South is still controlled by the Republicans because of that Civil Rights Act, so he paid an enormous price politically to do that. He thought it was worth it.

Was he a true believer in the cause of civil rights?

Yes, but his belief was hidden by the fact that he had to say what was necessary to keep his seat. He never viewed himself as a Southerner, he viewed himself as a Texan and as a Westerner; he came from the West Hills section of Texas. He was raised in poverty, he understood it, that was the cornerstone of his Great Society and the War on Poverty. He taught in impoverished schools so he understood that, but it was buried and submerged for a long, long time until he saw the opportunity to let it come forward. There’s Head Start, there’s Medicare, there’s Medicaid and there is the Voting Rights Act; all of these things that he in a very short period of time.

As you show in the film, he was famously crude. Was he clueless or was that an intimidation tactic?

I think it was part intimidation but also part of the way he was. He was a very down home kind of guy. He was not a sophisticated guy and that’s one of the things that frightened him so much because he saw the Kennedys as being upper crust, Eastern, from great schools, loved, handsome, beautiful, and articulate. He thought they were show horses and he was a work horse. That’s who he was but he also knew how to show power and how to execute power.

Originally published on HuffPost

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And So It Goes

Posted on July 24, 2014 at 6:00 pm

12 June 2013 Photo by Clay Enos – © 2013 ASIG Productions LLC

A second marriage is, as Samuel Johnson famously said, “The triumph of hope over experience.” And as lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote in the song Bing Crosby sang in “High Time,” “Love is lovelier the second time around.” In this slight but endearing new film, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Mark Andrus (“As Good as it Gets”) bring us an autumn-years love story. Oscar-winners Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton play two characters with little in common but the experience of great loss, the knowledge that love carries great risks, and the fear that there may not be another chance.

Douglas is Oren, a successful realtor and even more successful misanthrope. He insults people.  He is bitter.  He shoots a dog with a paintball gun.  He does not like anyone and no one likes him, with the exception of his longtime colleague played by the invaluable Frances Sternhagen.   Keaton plays Leah, a widow experimenting with singing at a restaurant.  She is universally beloved, especially by her neighbors in a fourplex and her loyal accompanist (played by the director himself).  Oren lives in the fourplex, too, ironically named “Little Shangri-La,” and is revealed early on to be the owner as well.  He hopes for one last big-ticket house sale so he can retire and move away and never deal with anyone ever again.

But life has a way of entangling those who most try to rid themselves of obligations and relationships — at least in movies.  Oren’s long-estranged son arrives to inform his father that (1) he is no longer a drug addict, (2) he has a daughter, and (3) he needs Oren to care for her while he serves a prison term.

Oren refuses, saying “I already tried to raise a kid and it didn’t work out.”   So Leah steps in and says the girl can stay with her.  She is Sarah (Sterling Jerins).  And anyone who has ever seen a movie (or read “Heidi”) knows that the girl will charm her grandfather and open the hurting hearts of both Oren and Leah to her and to each other.  Oren finally admits to Leah, “I like you and I don’t like anyone.”

Despite contemporary references like “Duck Dynasty” and “Hoarders,” this film has a musty, retro feel, like a script that has been sitting in a drawer for a couple of decades.  The plot is predictable and creaky.  An attempt to return Sarah to her mother goes exactly the way you think.  The caterpillar Sarah collects is exactly the metaphor you think. The pregnant neighbor provides exactly the opportunity for Oren’s showing what he is capable of that you thought but hoped you could avoid.  The racial humor is painfully out of date, so you didn’t predict it, but that does not make it a good surprise.  Far from it.

What the movie does have, though, is Douglas and Keaton, and they triumph over the limitations of the material, making us believe that the greatest love in our lives may still be waiting for us.

Parents should know that this film includes  sexual references, some crude, childbirth scene, some strong language, some racial insults, drinking, drug abuse, references to sad deaths

Family discussion: Why was it so hard for Oren to be nice to people? How did Leah make Sarah feel at home?

If you like this, try: “As Good as It Gets” and “Something’s Gotta Give”

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Comedy Drama Romance

Interview: Rob Reiner of “The Magic of Belle Isle”

Posted on June 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

Rob Reiner (“The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “The American President”) is co-writer and director of the heartwarming new film, “The Magic of Belle Isle.”  Morgan Freeman plays a bitter wheelchair-bound writer who moves to a small town and is befriended by a single mother (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters.  Reiner spoke to me about why this story was so important to him and the challenges of shooting on a very low budget.  It is available now On Demand and will be in theaters July 6.

Tell me why you chose this project.

When I turned 60 a few years ago, I started thinking more and more about my mortality—that’s what happens when you get older.  I thought of myself as a very, very, very young old person, like the beginning of old age. You start thinking about how finite your life is and how it becomes more precious, and that led me to wanting to make “The Bucket List.” No matter what your situation is, you try to find a way to enjoy your life and live it the best you can until you die. It was very similar when we got this script, it came in as a spec script and when I read it I thought, “Wow, this is also about a guy who has basically given up on life, he’s in a wheelchair, his wife just passed away, he can’t write any more and he’s drinking, and he basically shut the door on himself.”  I love the idea of moving into this lakeside community for the summer and over the course of the summer his interactions with the woman next door and her children and the people in the town make him learn how to live again. I love this whole idea that no matter what your situation is, you have to find a way to celebrate life.

I like that too, and I like the fact that the movie has a lot of really nice people in it. It’s so easy to make everyone crabby. 

There’s a speech that Morgan gives early on at this memorial service for one of the townspeople where he says, “You know, there’s something about this place that brings out the best in people.”  The speech was written by the Fred Willard character, but he has Morgan say it.  That’s why we call the movie “The Magic of Belle Isle,” because it’s all about how these people from this community interact with each other and do bring out the best in each other.

Fred Willard is one of my absolute favorites, and I was so delighted to see him in it.

He’s brilliant, he’s a great improvisational actor, he was in “Spinal Tap” and the Chris Guest movies, which have a lot of improvisation  So he gave me a few freebies—that’s what I love about Fred. When Morgan comes to the memorial service, he says, “I brought the Cheetos” and Fred goes, “Nice touch…” He ad-libbed that!  Not everybody can improvise the way he does, but when you hire him, you know you’re going to get a lot of freebies.

Tell me about working with Virginia Madsen and how she developed such a natural relationship with the girls who played her daughters. 

I’m going to credit Virginia for a lot of that because she took it upon herself to spend a lot of time with the girls when they weren’t working.  She really took it upon herself to make a family out of them and make them feel like she was their mother, and so I give her a lot of credit for that. I’ve always wanted to work with her in a bigger capacity than I did when I did “Ghosts of Mississippi” and this was a great opportunity.  She brought so much to this movie. She actually changed the ending of the movie because she did something that wasn’t in the script when they’re about to say goodbye on the porch at the end of the summer; in the script it just called for her to give him a little peck on the cheek, kind of a chaste kiss and she felt like her character had evolved to a point where, even though she had shut down emotionally and was going through a divorce and didn’t see herself getting romantically involved with anybody, this man had brought out all these feelings in her, had re-stimulated these feelings in her.  So, when she gives him that big, passionate, romantic kiss, Morgan’s reaction is very much the way I reacted, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!” And she said, “Well, if you want, we can do it the way it is in the script,” and I said, “No, you know something? I think you’re right, I think your instinct is right.  I know it ups the stakes of this movie but I think it’s the right thing,” and it made us have to change the ending of the movie, which is that he comes back. Initially, he was just going to drive off and leave them.

You always have a real gift, I think, in your musical choices for your movies. Do you want to talk a little bit about the music in this?

Mark Shaiman did the music again like he’s done for so many of my movies. Ever since we did “When Harry Met Sally” together, he’s worked on every one of my films.  He’s terrific and he’s incredibly versatile, and it was his idea at the end to bring back the Beethoven piece.  We had a piece of score, but he said, “No, no, we’ve got to bring back the Beethoven piece there!” And also using that kind of Dobro blues guitar was also something that we worked on together. I love working with Mark because he’s incredibly versatile, he can do any type of movie.

Was there anything in making the movie that was tougher than you expected?

Initially I thought it was going to be very hard to shoot it in 25 days because we only had 5 million dollars.  It was a small budget and a very short schedule, but I was very lucky because I had Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen, who are incredibly gifted, have great craft, and are able to nail it right away so we could move on very quickly, and that’s the way I love to work. If we get it right the first time, let’s move onto the next thing, and so that turned out to be okay. The bigger challenge was because we had such a small budget, we didn’t have enough money to buy two wheelchairs, and there was only one wheelchair.  The only place that made that wheelchair was a factory in China and at one point, the wheelchair broke down, and we literally had to call the factory in China and have it Fed-Exed to America and wait a day to get it.  That was a little bit of a nerve-wracking thing, but other than that we had a lot of rain and stuff, so we had to jump in and out of the houses, but we dodged rain drops and it was okay. It was the most glorious summer there and I had the greatest time.  It was like summer camp, like movie camp.

What do you want people to take away from this film?

I want them to take away the similar feeling that they had when they saw “Bucket List,” which is that you live life and—unless you’re Shirley MacLaine—you only get this one life, so you’ve got to live it to the fullest. You have to celebrate it every step, no matter what your situation in life, you have to find a way to celebrate it.


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Directors Interview Writers

Giveaway: ‘Flipped’

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I am delighted to have five copies of one of my favorite family movies of the year to give away. Flipped, directed by Rob Reiner has wonderful performances by Madeline Carroll and Callan McAuliffe in a story set in the 1960’s about two kids who meet as second graders and go through a range of feelings about each other and their families as they reach their teens.

Send me an email at and tell me the name of your 8th grade crush (first name only!). Don’t forget your address. I will pick five names at random on December 16. Good luck!

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