Rob Reiner may indeed be responsible for the direction of some of America’s finest films, from the seminal Stand by Me to the film which redefined the nature of romantic comedy, in When Harry Met Sally. But as successful as a director he is, Reiner will forever be known as Meathead from All in the Family. Paul Fischer spoke to him about this and other seminal matters while the director was talking up his latest film, Alex and Emma.
Rob Reiner was looking remarkably thin. The director of classics such as This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Stand by Me and When Harry met Sally, and the former star of All in the Family, had been doing some rigorous dieting. “I’ve been on this Zone Diet,” explains the good-natured Reiner, while on the hustings promoting his first directorial effort in four years, Alex and Emma. “It’s essentially like a modified Atkins except here you basically eliminate starch carbs. You don’t eat bread, pasta, potatoes, rice but rather eating basic fruits, vegetables and protein. And then you have – and there’s no secret – it’s like any good diet. You’ve got to exercise. Talk to me in a year, and I’ll tell you whether or not I’m successful. I’ve been at this weight now for about four or five months,” says a very slimmed down Reiner. No wonder he is feeling good about himself, having decided that now, more than ever, was the time to go on a major diet. “I have young kids and am 56 years old. I’ve got a twelve-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a five-year-old, and I want to be around for them, that’s what it comes down to.” Reiner, married since 1989 to photographer Michelle Singer, whom he met on the set of When Harry Met Sally, says that his priorities have changed over the years. “Well, you don’t spend a lot of time spinning your wheels on things that aren’t going to be productive, I can tell you that. What I’ve always been pretty good at, is when I come in the house, usually around 6:30, that’s it. I’m home and not at work. I’m not taking phone calls. But when I’m at work, I’m at work and I don’t want any stuff coming from the home. But I’m not one of these guys that ‘s with my kids every minute during the day and then when I’m at home I’m taking phone calls. When I home, I’m with my family and that’s it.”
Perhaps Reiner’s sense of family has to do with his decision to spend less time behind a movie camera, but the director says that in the past four years, he has been kept busy on a different kind of stage – local politics. “Four years ago I passed the ballot initiative here in California, Proposition Ten, which generates about $650 million a year for early childhood development, early care and education. I was then asked by Governor Davis to chair the commission and oversaw the implementation of that program and that’s what I’ve been doing for four years. So now we’ve got programs up and running all over the State of California.”
Reiner was relieved, though, to leave his political passions behind to return to directing. “It’s funny because I went from being an actor to becoming a director and people would ask me what do I preferred, and I said directing is much more satisfying and engaging. I use much more of my talents, but acting is fun. It’s like being on a recess on the playground. Now, I look about directing that way. When I got back from making Alex and Emma, it was like wow what a pleasure and what a fun feeling. You’re with actors, making up stuff, which is kind of fun and you’re playing.” Reiner returns to the directorial fold with Alex and Emma, that revolves around a novelist with a gambling problem, Alex (Luke Wilson), whose debts have landed him in a jam. In order get loan sharks off his back, he must finish his novel in 30 days or wind up dead. To help him complete his manuscript he hires stenographer Emma [Kate Hudson]. As Alex begins to dictate his tale of a romantic love triangle to the charming yet somewhat opinionated stenographer, Emma challenges his ideas at every turn. Her unsolicited yet intriguing input begins to inadvertently influence Alex and his story and soon real life begins to imitate art. Alex & Emma is loosely based on the story behind the creation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short novel The Gambler, and Reiner says that intrigued by “the real life story of how he met the woman he married which was this woman he hired as his stenographer, so that became what would be the interesting basis for a romantic comedy. When I read this, I thought wow, this is fascinating because it’s an opportunity to really explore and talk to the audience about how the creative process works. I mean, you see this guy, and what happens in his real life, and how it informs his work, then how his work ultimately folds back on him and informs his life. I thought this is a wonderfully new way of telling a romantic comedy.” Having made some of Hollywood’s most inspiring romantic comedies, he says that “it’s hard to find an original way to tell something that has its own integrity that has intelligence to it and is grounded in some kind of reality. So, this was like a wonderful breath of fresh air.”
Reiner says that he has often directed films that reflected who he was at a particular point in his life. “I take what’s happening in my life and I try to have it reflected in the piece. In Alex and Emma there’s a guy who takes what has happened in his real life and starts to put it into fiction, who says ‘I like writing because you can make things happen and turn out the way they never do in real life.’ But, what happens is it does because what he’s doing as he’s writing this book is reflecting back onto him in his real life which is exactly what I went through when I went and made When Harry Met Sally,” says Reiner “It was a movie about everything I had been through. I had been single for ten years, been making a mess out of my dating life, and I’ve made a movie. I said I’d make a movie about what this is. So, I make a movie about this and, for the life of me, I created a bad ending in my mind. I had the two of them get together because I had never been and couldn’t get with anybody. I said how does this happen? How can this happen? It doesn’t happen. I can never be with another woman and be friends and also be romantic with her. It’s not going to happen. So, I just made that happen because I think people don’t want them to not be together and so we’ll just do it. So I fell in love with my wife while I was making the movie, met the woman I wound up marrying, and I’ve been married 14 years.”
But before Rob Reiner stumbled onto directing, and before marital bliss came his way, Reiner was an actor. From 1971-1978 he was better known as Michael ‘Meathead’ Stivic in the classic All in the Family, even though he had previously dabbled as a director at age 19. “I formed my own improvisational theatre group that I directed and also acted in with Richard Dreyfuss and a few other really good actors. I also directed some theatre here in Los Angeles, and got a job as a writer on the Smothers Brothers’ Show when I was 21. So I was writing and directing those, and that was the direction I thought I was going to be going, then I got this job in “All in the Family” and it was just fun. I thought well it will last 13 weeks and then I’ll get back to doing what I want to do. Then eight years later I’m still doing it. But it was a great experience, I learned a lot and it helped me in my directing work.” Even today, almost 30 years later, fans still call Reiner Meathead. “I make this joke all the time: I can win the Nobel Prize and it’ll say Meathead wins.”
As to the future, Reiner assures us that we won’t have to wait another four years for his next film. “The one that I’ve been working on this summer is an idea that I’ve had for over 30 years, and I’ve just in the last ten years started very actively trying to work it out. It’s a thing called “Imagine.” and it’s about an astronaut who goes up into space and has a life-changing experience up there that affects how he relates to his son, and who has a greater understanding of who he is in relationship to his family and the rest of the world. That changes how he is going to relate back to his son.” Like his previous work, this, too, will reflect who he is in his current life, which is possibly why it has taken him 30 years to bring it to the screen. “Certainly there are things to draw on, as it becomes a story about a man who is able to work through issues that he has with his father in order to be a better father to his son. Probably why I haven’t been dealing with it actively until right now is because I now see how I am with my kids and how it’s being played out in relationship to how my father played things out with me. So, now I can maybe make this movie”.