Rob Reiner’s career as an actor began in earnest in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most notably playing Meathead, the liberal foil to Archie Bunker on the hit show All in the Family. Like a few other actors from that era – Ron Howard comes to mind – Reiner soon transitioned behind the camera as a director, with 1983’s This is Spinal Tap still being a mainstay among rock and comedy enthusiasts.
That led to a number of other movies that could be deemed classics, such as Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally…, although Reiner didn’t stick to comedy for very long. His 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery was a shocking thriller that earned Kathy Bates an Oscar, while his 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, earned four more Oscar nominations.
Reiner’s 1995 movie The American President helped him veer into even more political territory, and that’s where he returns for his latest film LBJ, which examines another American President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who’s played by Woody Harrelson. LBJ chronicles the time between John F. Kennedy’s election (with LBJ as his Vice President) and his assassination, which left Johnson with big shoes to fill as war continued to rage both overseas and at home. Reiner has also completed a second political film called Shock and Awe that again stars Woody Harrelson and was written by Joey Hartstone.
The Tracking Board sat down with Reiner a few weeks back, trying hard not to get too political despite that being the nature of his most recent work. As the interview began, I noted how the director has become quite prolific in recent years…
Rob Reiner: I enjoy doing it. It’s great experience and as you get older you realize the important stuff, all those clichés, turn out to be true, which is you better enjoy what you’re doing because that’s the time you’re spending on the planet. So be here now and enjoy the experience.
And hopefully you can still find scripts that you like.
I find them, and I also develop them, so there are things that I’m interested in.
I missed the movie in Toronto last year, but it would have been interesting to see it at the same time as Jackie, because the two movies have scenes in common.
Well, I can tell you it would’ve been great for you to see it prior to Trump becoming president. Then after Trump becomes president because it’s like even without changing a frame it becomes a completely different film. It’s just weird.
When it premiered at Toronto last September, we all just assumed he wasn’t going to win.
Well, sh*t, Hilary’s going to win. Everybody thought that, and we made the film quite a bit before that when Trump wasn’t even on the radar.
Was this movie something you developed from scratch or was it a script you found and chose to pursue?
A script was sent to me by my partners, one of them knew one of the producers that developed it and said, “Maybe you should take a look at this.” I first was not even going to look at it because I as a kid growing up I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, so to me it was like, “I don’t want to make a movie about him. He’s my enemy.” We never liked this guy, and I thought about it a little bit, and I thought I’ve lived a lot now, I’ve spent time in politics, I’ve spent time working on public policy. I actually had a job in the California government for seven years, so I got to understand how it all works and how you get things done and move an agenda forward. I realized that if not for the Vietnam War, Johnson probably would’ve gone down as one of the great presidents of all time because of his ability to move legislation and the sheer volume and the import of the legislation that he was able to enact, and second to maybe FDR the greatest achievements ever.
I was born after LBJ’s presidency so he was a real enigma to me, although you’d still hear a lot about Kennedy and what he did.
Well, Kennedy was loved and he also died in assassination and Johnson was well aware of the fact that the public was not going to accept him the way they accepted Kennedy. They loved Kennedy. He was handsome, he was sexy, he was charming, witty, and Johnson thought, “I don’t know if they’ll ever love me or accept me.” What he did know is that he had the ability to get stuff done, and he understood the nexus between government, politics, and policy, and how those three things intersected. So he thought, “Well, if I work hard”–which is what he always did. He thought of himself as a workhorse. “If I went to work and I worked hard and got things done for the people, they might eventually accept me.”
Which is the complete opposite of our current president…
Well, the current president is … I don’t even know what to say about him. He has no knowledge of how government works and has no interest in learning. He only cares about himself and how things affect him, and it’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point in this country where we could elect somebody like this.
That’s probably good since it’s meant he hasn’t been able to pass some of the more outrageous ideas he’s come up with.
Well, he’s tried to do some things through executive order. No, I agree. Listen, I’m glad he wasn’t able to completely destroy Obamacare, although he is trying to … he’s doing everything he can to try to sabotage it. And the Muslim band that was rejected by the courts. And now this … the transgender band for the military’s been rejected by the courts. And he can’t get the wall built, and I doubt whether seriously we’ll have any kind of meaningful tax reform. But it’s still scary because there’s a lot of tension around the world, particularly North Korea. And you don’t know what this guy’s going to do. He’s not stable, so it’s a scary time.
How long after you decided to make the movie did you decide on getting Woody to play Lyndon Johnson?
That didn’t take that long because he was my first choice. It was just a question of convincing him to do it because he had similar feelings that I had, which is he didn’t like Johnson for the war as well. And, so, I finally got him to … he read a few things and I got him to see that the guy was much more complex than he could possibly imagine. This one book that I read by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had read a number of the Robert Caro books, but this one gave me a real insight into Johnson. He had this recurring nightmare of being paralyzed, and I thought that was interesting considering how effective he was at getting things done. Then the other thing was, he had this relationship with his mother where her love for him was conditional. Only if he was doing things she wanted him to do that she would show him his love and otherwise she would withhold it. So he was always insecure about whether or not his mother really loved him, and I thought that was interesting. You kind of got a tale of two presidencies. The Vietnam War and his domestic accomplishments, but who is this guy. Who’s the guy in the middle of this. And, so, that was the impetus to make the movie.
There’s obviously a lot of different movies you could have made about Lyndon Johnson.
Listen, if you wanted to make a biography of Linden Johnson, you’d need 10, 12 hours, because it’s an enormous career from the time he was raised in a poor area of Texas, West Texas, the Hill Country. And, then, with his rise to power and all that. But I wanted to try to get into his emotional state and who he was as a person, so I picked this very small sliver of time, which is really from the time the Kennedies arrive at Love Field until the time Johnson delivers this landmark speech in front of a joint session of Congress. And a time at which Johnson is coming under the most pressure of having to assume the presidency. I think that was a good window into who he was because how people act when they’re under pressure usually reveals who they are.
I was curious about the decision to put prosthetics on Woody to make him look more like LBJ.
Well, we had to do prosthetics because there’s a certain image of LBJ, but also you want to have some of the Woody shine through, and you also want to give him the flexibility of being able to mobilize his face. You don’t want somebody who looks like a burn victim or something. You want it to look real. So we did a number of tests on it until we got it to where it was really working.
So the two of you decided to go in that direction? I know some actors don’t want to do a direct impression or imitation and there’s always a question how much they need to look like the person they’re playing.
Well, he’s never going to look exactly like him, but enough like him that you get the idea of who he is.
Because of the period you cover, you ended up having to recreate the JFK motorcade and funeral procession, as well as the interior of the house of representatives hall where LBJ made an inspiring speech.
With the house of representatives, we built a big section of it and then we used CGI to fill it out.
Did you know that the movie Jackie was happening while you were making this movie?
I had heard it, but that Jackie movie is basically about a woman planning a funeral, essentially.
It’s just odd to watch how each of you handled the same moments in history from a different perspective. In recreating those moments, what did you use as reference?
Well, it’s one of the most dramatic and disturbing moments in American history, and first of all, I lived through it. Second of all, there’s a lot of archival footage that you can look at to see what things looked liked.
But you have all the Washington D.C. monuments and things like that.
Yes, and well, those things exist, but they exist today, so you have to look at pictures of how they looked back then, and then you use CGI imaging to … it’s a lot of taking away of things that are now there, that weren’t there back in the ’60s, but I shot in D.C. I also shot in Dallas. We recreated the assassination at Dealey Plaza. We shot that at Dealey Plaza. I try to make it look as real as I can remember, and there’s only a certain amount of footage. There’s the Zapruder film, which is what most people see when they think about that sequence. I actually dressed a guy up as Abraham Zapruder, and I put him in exactly the position Zapruder was in. I gave him a camera and there’s some shots in the sequence that I took from his camera.
Oh, nice. You don’t actually see him though.
No, well, you see him, he’s tiny… way in the distance. You can’t really notice.
One thing I never understood about LBJ is something you see in the movie where he is friends with all these Southern politicians who would be for segregation, but he played a huge part in ending it and pushing for civil rights.
Well, he never viewed himself as a Southerner. He thought of himself as a Texan and a Westerner, but he was more than happy to assume the mantel of being a southerner as a way of trying to broker things between his southern colleagues and the Liberals in the north. So that was a tactic he used. But he was born in a very poor area, and he understood poverty. He taught at impoverish schools. And he always had a feeling for people who were born into poverty and wanting to lift them up and help them.
It may look like somebody who’s making a 180-degree shift at one point, but you can’t do that unless you have the antecedence in the beginnings of those ideas and feelings because not only did he pass the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act and Medicare and Medicaid and all these great society war-on-poverty programs. So it’s not something you just turn on a dime to do that. Knowing full well, by the way, when he passed Civil Rights Act that he was going to be spending a lot of political capital, which he did. He lost the South for many, many generations. It’s still in the hands of the Republicans. So he had those feelings and those feelings where there, and being the consummate legislator that he was, he figured out when the time was right. When Kennedy unfortunately died, he saw that as an opportunity to get this legislation passed because he argued, even in the film you’ll notice he argues in the Oval Office with the Kennedys. He said, “If you put this bill to the congress right now, it will never become law.” And he was right. He was right then and he was also right when he said, “Now’s the time to pass it.” And he barely passed it. Barely.
It sounds like you gained a lot more respect for LBJ while making this movie.
I have, because like I said, I’ve spent time in politics and working on policy, and I had a job in government, so I do know how difficult it is to get things done and to bridge divides. It’s incredibly tough, and so I do have a different respect for him. But you can’t take away Vietnam. It is there, and it will always be a part of his legacy as well, and like I say, it’s a tale of two presidencies.
And then you went right into a movie about George W. Bush.
And George W. Bush, I have a different take on, which he’s always seemed likable to me. A likable person. I’ve always seen George W. Bush as somebody who’s very likable and somebody who you wouldn’t mind having a beer with, and all of that. And, yet, I completely disagreed with his foreign policy and I think the invasion of Iraq. I said it then. I say it now. It was the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history.
So how do you handle that in a movie?
I wanted to make a movie about that ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And I couldn’t figure out my way in and how to do it. At first, I thought maybe I’ll do kind of a satire or Dr. Strangelove kind of thing, and that didn’t really work. And then I came upon this documentary by Bill Moyers who was Johnson’s press secretary, and it focused on these four journalists from Knight Ridder News, who got it all right. They wrote these stories that debunked all the arguments that the Bush administration was putting out for the war, and I thought this is interesting. Why they didn’t poke through, why couldn’t they emerge? I think given the state of affairs of journalism these days, and the free press is under attack, I think it’s more important now than ever to be able to talk about the importance of free and independent press in order to preserve democracy, which is what Bill Moyers says at the beginning of the film.
You mentioned earlier how you’ve been keeping busy. Besides these two political films, you’ve shifted genres and changed gears between movies in recent years.
Listen, I just think about what I’m interested in at a given point in time. I don’t really think about genres or what type of movie, I just think, “Oh, this is what I’m interested in now.” I don’t really think about it in terms of I was shifting gears or shifting genres. What am I thinking about at that point in time? What am I interested in at that point in time?
Recently, I rewatched Misery because a theater near me did a Stephen King retrospective, and man, that movie really stands the test of time. You talk about doing different genres, so did you ever consider going back to the thriller genre?
I love thrillers. I mean as a moviegoer, I’d rather watch a thriller than anything. They’re my favorite kind of movies and I only made the one. I have one other one that I’ve thought about making and I haven’t been able to get the financing for, but I found one that it’s really interesting and smart, and if I can ever get the money for it, I would do that. I studied it. There’s a certain grammar to thrillers, to film grammar. I studied all the Hitchcocks and looked at all how they were done, but the theme of that is what drew me to it, not so much the genre. It was the theme of it, which is being held prisoner by your own success, and how the fans get very angry at you if you stray from that.
Which is still very relevant, but almost more so because of Twitter and social media. It’s such a different thing now.
Absolutely. Yeah, just going after you like crazy, but they’re not doing it to your face, and they’re kind of anonymous.
LBJ may still be playing in a few theaters across the nation, but don’t wait too long to see it!
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor