Nick DeNinno spoke to Rob Reiner about his career and his most recent movie THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE, now on demand.
At a 1998 Friars Club roast of Reiner, comedian Brett Butler told PEOPLE, "Actually, I don't know what's so funny about Rob Reiner. He's so accomplished, he's happily married, he's got beautiful children. What the hell's funny about that?"
That’s the thing about Rob Reiner. He walks such a fine line between a funny scene one moment, and some of the sweetest moments in film history the next.
Rob Reiner was born a member of Hollywood television and film "royalty," the son of famed actor and director Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Estelle Reiner, an accomplished actress. Reiner grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and eventually moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he attended high school with actors Richard Dreyfuss and Albert Brooks.
Reiner appeared in a number of movies and television shows, including "All in the Family," which was the most-watched tv show in the U.S from 1971–1976. After that, Reiner became known as a director of films such as STAND BY ME, MISERY, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, and THIS IS SPINAL TAP, an all-time personal favorite of mine.
Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest / THIS IS SPINAL TAP (MGM)
His latest film, which comes out on July 6th, is THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE a love story featuring Virginia Madsen and Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays Monte Wildhorn, a wheelchair-bound Western novelist struggling with alcoholism and the loss of his wife, who finds that writing is just not what it used to be.
Monte rents a lakeside cabin for the summer in picturesque Belle Isle, where a kind of small-town timelessness measures the days by neighborly visits and music under the moonlight. The character of Monte Wildhorn himself is a throwback to an earlier era -- a formerly successful writer of Western novels set firmly in the past, since the death of his wife, he finds himself unable to even begin a story on his old, manual typewriter. “I love the speech that he gives about why he likes to write on that as opposed to a computer, because he loves feeling the keys in his hand, he loves feeling the bite of the letters into the paper and all that,” adds Reiner
Monte befriends the family next door -- including Charlotte (Madsen), a lonely single mother going through a divorce, and her three young daughters -- who help him find inspiration again. It’s a very old-fashioned romance in a certain way, and in another way it’s a very unusual kind of romance because the viewer doesn’t expect these two people to wind up together.
Nick DeNinno: Your movie was our June Indie Movie Pick of the month.
Rob Reiner: Oh great, that’s good.
Nick DeNinno: Can you tell me how the story got on your radar screen?
Rob Reiner: It was sent to us as a spec script from a fellow named Guy Thomas who hadn’t written anything in 30 years. He had written a picture a long time ago called HOLY MOSES with Dudley Moore, and he was very soured on the movie business.
He was living by himself at this little tiny place on Lake Malibu and this woman moved in next to him that had three daughters. She was going through a divorce, it’s very similar to the story, and he had feelings for the mother and the daughters, so he wrote this story about it. It’s interesting that he made himself handicapped, because I guess he felt he himself was emotionally handicapped in some way.
Morgan Freeman / THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (Magnolia Pictures)
He sent the script and I immediately sparked to it because when I made THE BUCKET LIST a few years ago I had just turned 60 and I started thinking about my mortality and about how precious life was and about how limited the time we have on the planet, it is finite, and how to embrace life, celebrate it with the time that we have, and that lead me to making BUCKET LIST and when this came in I said, this is a very similar theme, it’s got great writing, but it’s also about a guy who’s given up on life and feels like there’s no point in living. He’s drinking and he’s in a wheelchair, his life’s just passed away, he can’t write anymore. He learns through his relationships with the woman next door, her three daughters, and the people of the town of Belle Isle, to start embracing life and living again.
Morgan Freeman, rob Reiner/ THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (Magnolia Pictures)
Nick DeNinno: You mentioned THE BUCKET LIST, how is it working with Morgan Freeman again?
Rob Reiner: That was the best part of it. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve gotten to work with who I think are the two best American film actors alive, which [are] Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The opportunity to work with him again was just thrilling to me because we had such a great time on BUCKET LIST and we also work the same way. We both work very quickly, we like to get it done. If it’s right the first time we don’t have to belabor it and go over and over and over. We both work that same way, we enjoy each other’s company on the set, we love to do crosswords together, and we sing standard tunes. We love doing that. If I could make every movie with Morgan Freeman, I’d be a happy man because he’s such a pleasure, so easy to work with.
Morgan Freeman, Emma Fuhrmann / THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (Magnolia Pictures)
Nick DeNinno: Finnegan, [the middle daughter] played by Emma Fuhrmann, and Freeman have such amazing chemistry in this movie.
Rob Reiner: That to me is the real key to the whole movie. The emotional ballast, and really the emotional through line in the movie is his relationship with this 9 year-old girl who helps him regain his passion for writing. Her curiosity and wanting to know where stories come from, where is imagination and how do you tap into your imagination. In helping her, it gets him to start getting reconnected to his own writing process. The relationship that they have with each other is like a grandfather and a granddaughter and they get very close. It’s really the emotional ballast of the movie.
Nick DeNinno: Virginia Madsen is so likeable and perfect for this role.
Rob Reiner: Yes, she’s such a talent. She’s incredible talent. I worked with her in a movie called GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI, she only had a small part. I’ve always wanted to do more with her. She’s so talented, and I loved her in Sideways as well, and I always felt she’s been underused. When I got a chance to work with her on this, this was really a gift. She brought so much to this part, much more than was there on the page.
To give you an example, and this was a really critical thing which has never happened in any movie I’ve ever made, but she basically changed the story, and changed the ending of the film by what she did in the scene at the end when she’s on the porch with him and they’re recounting the summer and she’s basically saying goodnight to him and eventually goodbye. It was scripted, only had her doing a very chaste peck on the cheek kind of thing, and she felt, as the movie had progressed, that these feelings that which were lying dormant in her character, who at that time basically shut down also because she’s going through a divorce, never felt she could love again, just wanted a peaceful upbringing for her children and to cut herself off. All of a sudden these feelings started stirring up in her, and she went and gave him this very romantic kiss, which was not in the script.
Virginia Madsen / THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (Magnolia Pictures)
When she did it, you could see Morgan’s reaction, it’s like he never expected it either. They both said, if you wanted to do it the way we have it, which is to do this more chaste version of it, we can do it. I said, you know something, I think this is right, it makes sense to me. This is what it’s meant to be, and so it definitely upped the ante in the film and it made me change the ending of the film, which was initially going to be that he was just going to leave having touched their lives, them having touched his life, and he moves on. Then I thought, how can a guy who basically thinks he can never be loved again, all of a sudden getting this love from this woman and these kids that he loves, and he’s now found his writer’s voice again, how could he possibly not want to come back there? That’s why we changed it. We had him sell the rights to his book so he could buy that little shack.
Nick DeNinno: We’re wondering why you and Magnolia premiered it On Demand before going to theaters?
Rob Reiner: That’s something that Magnolia does. That’s their release pattern, and it’s worked really well for them. Since it’s a very small movie, you don’t want to be spending tons and tons of money advertising for a movie that cost $5 million [to make]. The best way to do it is you bring it out On Demand first, then you put it in the theatres and that boosts the On Demand. You wind up with a much bigger audience. They’ve done a number of pictures that way. It’s a very successful way of doing it, and I think it’s the perfect way to do this film.
Nick DeNinno: Would you say that you’re never too old for the power of imagination?
Rob Reiner: Absolutely. That’s the beauty of imagination, it’s like we say in the film, it’s the greatest power invented by mankind. You don’t need any money for it, you don’t have to be rich to have one, and you use it and not only does it fulfill you creatively, but it also can basically get you in touch with ideas and thoughts and feelings that you’re having that can make you grow as a person.
Nick DeNinno: Great. Well thank you so much.
Rob Reiner: My pleasure, it was great talking with you.
Nick DeNinno is a producer based in Carlsbad, CA. DeNinno worked for National Lampoon from 2001-2007, is a member of the Producers Guild, and was inducted into the Friars Club in 2011. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickODW.
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