Q&A: Rob Reiner Talks Comedy, Inspiration and the Meaning of ‘Life’

by | June 15, 2012 at 9:53 AM | Interviews, Movies, Xfinity On Demand

Morgan Freeman in THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE, now available on XFINITY On Demand. (Magnolia)


Name a genre of film and there will be a classic on that list with Rob Reiner’s name attached to the project.

Comedy? “This is Spinal Tap” stands the test of time. Romance? “When Harry Met Sally.” Thriller? Try “Misery.” Drama? “Stand by Me” and “A Few Good Men” spring to mind. How about a kid’s pic? “A Princess Bride” continues to be capture new generations of viewers. Movie buffs can usually quote any or all of these pictures.

These days, Reiner is getting more philosophical, directing his latest movie “The Magic of Belle Isle.” The film reunites Reiner with Morgan Freeman, who he worked with on “The Bucket List,” and follows the story of an alcoholic novelist who has given up on life but renews his will to live after meeting a woman and her three daughters in a small upstate New York lakeside town.

The movie, according to Reiner, was a tribute to celebrating life as you get older and continues a theme that the director established in “The Bucket List.” “You should never give up because you have this limited time on the planet and you want to make the best of it,” he says.

“The Magic of Belle Isle” hits the theaters on July 1, but is already available to Xfinity audiences On Demand. Click here to use xfinity.com/tv to get the movie on your TV now.

What drew you to this project in particular?
When I did “Bucket List” a few years ago, I turned 60 and when you get older you start thinking about life being a lot more precious. Suddenly you realize you have a limited time left, so everyday becomes more important. People ask me what my favorite film is and I always tell them “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the reason is because it celebrates life and tells you that everybody’s life is worthwhile and you should never give up because you have this limited time on the planet and you want to make the best of it.

As I have gotten older that film has gotten better for me. The film has not changed, but I have. And so, when I did “Bucket List” it was about exploring these two guys that basically were going to be dying of cancer, but they decided that they would not be depressed about it, but celebrate life. They say whatever time we have left on it, we are going to make the most of it and enjoy ourselves.

So this movie has a strong relationship.
This project was similar in a certain way in that it is about a guy that has given up on life. His wife has passed away, he is a writer, he stopped writing, he started drinking, he is in a wheelchair and through this experience that he has over the course of the summer with the woman who is going through a divorce and her three daughters, he learns to live again. He learns to start to write again and live again.

To me, I love this theme of no matter what your situation is you can make something good out of it and you can enjoy yourself. Really, that is all we have is this time that we have on the planet and so we have to find ways that we can feel good and embrace it. So, that’s what drew me to it.

I love the writing. It was written by this guy named Guy Thomas who has not written anything in many, many years. I think he kind of dropped out like 30 years ago after “Wholly Moses!” Anyway, I just love these characters. He writes in a very kind of unique way. Then there was the opportunity to work with Morgan again. I worked with him on “Bucket List” and he is the most enjoyable actor that I have ever worked with in my life. I have been very lucky in that I think that I have worked with the two best of film actors living today, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. So those things are the reason I did it and you know, I had the greatest experience. I basically spent the whole summer by the side of a lake with wonderful actors and a great story and people who like it.

How does technology play into the character’s evolution?
Morgan’s character is 70-something years old and he is used to writing when they had manual type writers. He started writing when he was in his 20s and they had manual type writers and that is what he is used to. There are a lot of people who have gotten older who shun the world of technology and they are living in their current reality and that sticks with them. I kind of have fun with that, but I think that as you notice that by the end of the movie, he starts to learn how to text and use the iPhone and all of that. I love the speech that he gives where he talks about I love the way the letters bite into the page. I love the fact that you feel that there is a person doing an honest day’s work. He has this very poetic way of describing his relationship with the typewriter.

Speaking about technology…how do you feel about the ability to open a movie on Xfinity and its 20 million homes instead of in theatres? How does that play with you?
I love it. The whole reason you make movies is that you want people to see them. If people watch it on Comcast and like it, they may go tell their friends who will see it in the theater and vice versa. It’s kind of this wonderful relationship of where one venue feeds another. Like I say, if you are a filmmaker, you want your film to be seen by as many people as you can. So you know, it’s great for this particular film, I think it’s works well.

What are some of the subtle details that you put in the movie that a viewer might miss that are special to you? What kind of hidden things should we look for from the picture?
Well, I think by and large the main thing you look for is look at Morgan Freeman’s performance. If you have a chance to really look at it. And, I am very fortunate because as a director, you sit in the cutting room for days and days on end and you watch things over and over again and if you don’t have as a talented and interesting and engaging actor as Morgan Freeman, it can get very boring pretty quickly. So, for me, just watching the little things and very subtle things that he does with his eyes and his face, that was the joy of this movie. Those are the kinds of things that would go by a lot of people if they are not really looking for it. Listen, I am not asking that people should pay for it more times than once, but if you do like the movie and you really want to see a brilliant all-time actor doing his best work, I would suggest you really watch what he does from scene to scene. Little tiny eye movements and facial movements that are so beautiful to watch. When I describe Morgan, he is effortless. There is never a forced movement . Every moment is filled in, He doesn’t push anything or try to create something that isn’t there. It is so honest and so real that it is such a pleasure to watch, so that is what I would be looking for.

Did you have a favorite scene in the film?
I have a number of favorite scenes. I love the scenes with Morgan and Emma Fuhrmann, who plays Finnegan. That whole relationship to me is great and when he has to say goodbye to her, that scene gets me every time because it is really this 9-year old girl who basically gave him back his courage to write again and, as he says, “gave him his legs back”. You know he is in a wheel chair. They have this very, very special relationship that is beautiful to watch and the scenes with her I love watching the most. There is this one scene in particular where he tells this story of how he got in the wheel chair. That is the scene that gets me every time because if you watch Morgan’s performance in that it is just so effortless and so beautiful and so emotional and he tells you this whole story of why he is where he is and how he gave up on life and how she has helped him reengage. I would look at that scene as probably my favorite scene.

Who would you say this movie is for?
It is a family picture. You have a number of generations. You have very young kids, and people who are middle-aged and got older people. It is really multi-generational. I think the family can watch it. It is all about the strength and closeness that you get from family and how that can reenergize you and make you want to live. Yeah, I think it is for all ages.

Obviously you have been involved in some epic comedies and just some fantastic dramas. Where do you see this movie fitting into your body of work?

Well, that is for other people to decide when they watch it. But, it is certainly is good as anything I have done. I like the focus of character driven movies that are about people and what people are going through. “Stand by Me,” and I love “Flipped,” although nobody saw that. It’s one of my favorites and this one I think it fits in all of them. I really love it. I think it’s one of the best things that I have ever done, but that is for other people to decide.

Where do you see the state of comedy right now, both in the movies and on television?

I think oddly enough I think there is a lot of stuff that is happening in television. The real funny stuff is happening on television. With movies, basically the comedies of they are making R-rated. They are all watching. Listen, I love “Bridesmaids.” I thought it is really funny. I have liked a lot of the Judd Apatow stuff, especially “Superbad.” I love those two films, but I think like I said there is a lot better funnier stuff happening in television.

Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I love “Family Guy,” I think “South Park” is good. For some reason I guess when you do cartoons you can get away with a lot more. But then again, “Modern Family,” I think is a really good show. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I think that is really smart and funny. I think the show “Girls” is pretty good and interesting. So there is a lot of good stuff on television.

Movies for some reason, especially with the studios, they have had to keep upping the ante so much in order to get audiences. It is just turning up the volume on everything because it’s they are trying to get an audience, especially with comedy. The stuff that I like is the really subtle stuff. I love this movie ”The Intouchables.” I thought that was really good and it had a lot of really good laughs in it but it is all human stuff. It’s not over the top and I think that most of the studios like to do stuff that is way over the top because they are fighting to get the audience in there. I like subtlest stuff far better. The kind of stuff that I did with “Spinal Tap.” I like Sasha Barron Cohen’s movie “The Dictator.” I thought that was pretty funny. For the most part you don’t see too many subtle things happening in movie comedy.

You were one of the first hosts of “Saturday Night Live,” what was it like being in the writers room with those talents?
I did it in 1975, the third show that was ever on the air. That is pretty wild. At that time everybody was trying to figure out what the hell the show was. I remember in the middle of the how we were running long and we were cutting sketches that we were planning to run and we just said “okay, we can’t do this one because we were running long”. I don’t think they had those problems. It’s been on now for over 35 years, so they have got their act down pretty darn good. It was like in those days everybody was trying to find their way along. It’s amazing that it has been on for as long as it has. They have a pretty good batting average. It’s hard to come up with an hour and a half of comedy. Even if it is for only 20 or 22 weeks a year.

So you mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life. If you can name other movies that inspire you?

Everyone talks about “Citizen Kane” and I look at that film and if you ever want to be a filmmaker that’s one of the films that you have to look at. Generally speaking, Eli Kazan’s body of work, “On the Waterfront,” and “Streetcar” and “Face in the Crowd.” I grew up also watching Woody Allen, “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” were terrific. One of my favorites of all time is “Stardust Memories,” which not a lot of people talk about but I love that film.