From director Rob Reiner, the political drama LBJ showcases what happened after Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson) lost the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), but agreed to be his running mate. After they won the election, Johnson found himself sidelined as Vice President, but that all changed on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson, with his devoted wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, became the President of the United States and set out to honor JFK’s legacy while also establishing his own.
At the film’s press day, Collider sat down with the iconic longtime filmmaker to talk about why it was important to him to humanize Lyndon B. Johnson, why he wanted to win over Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines, what led him to want Woody Harrelson in the role, and the physical transformation the actor went through. He also talked about what he gets out of test screenings, why he doesn’t want to make sequels for any of his previous movies, the 12-part streaming TV series that he hopes to do, and why he finds it so hard to get financing for the types of films he wants to make.
Collider: This film really humanizes Lyndon B. Johnson, in a way that we typically don’t see him portrayed. Why was that important to you?
ROB REINER: The goal of this was to try to really understand who Lyndon Johnson was. People have this image of him being this bull in a china shop, arm twisting guy who gets things done. What I discovered is that there’s a lot more there to him. I’ve gotta say, personally, I was prejudiced initially, myself, because I was of draft age during the Vietnam War. I didn’t like him, and I thought he was a bad guy and a bully. It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time in politics and working on policy and actually worked in California government for about seven years that I got to understand what this guy was able to accomplish.
I discovered that it’s a tale of two presidencies, essentially. There’s the Vietnam War and there’s his domestic agenda, where except for maybe FDR, no one has been as successful. I wanted to know who he was, so I read the Caro books. When I read the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, I got a real window into what he was like. She worked for him and she worked on the biography with him, at the ranch, after he had left office. There were two things in the book that I read, which made him really interesting. One is that he would have this recurring nightmare where he saw himself as being paralyzed. I thought that was strange. And she described his relationship with his mother, which was conditional. His mother withheld love, unless she felt like he was doing what she wanted him to do, so he didn’t know if she loved him or not. And then, there was this idea of him being paralyzed, when he had to make a decision. I thought, if we take a look at this guy, at a time in his life when he comes under the most pressure, we’ll be able to show his true character. Hopefully, people come out of this thinking they’ve got a little better understanding of exactly who Lyndon Johnson was.
When we first showed the film a long time ago, before Trump was in office, at the LBJ Library. Luci Baines, Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, was sitting in the front row, and I was so nervous about how she was going to react to this because I’m making these interpretations of what I think. She’s tiny and she’s a very formal woman, and she said, “The man I saw on the screen tonight was the man I knew,” so that was it for me. And then, later, I talked to her and she said, “The way you had him with my mother is the way that they were with each other.”
What led you to Woody Harrelson for Lyndon Johnson? Since he doesn’t really look like LBJ, how did you decide how much you wanted to change his appearance?
REINER: When I tell people that I made a movie about LBJ and they ask me who plays LBJ, I tell them it’s Woody Harrelson, and they say, “What are you talking about?! I don’t see that.” I tell them to see the film because you won’t believe how good he is. I picked him because he has a sense of humor, which Johnson did. He also has the strength that Johnson showed, and he’s able to show the sensitivity and the insecurity. Plus, he’s from Texas. As far as the make-up, we wanted to make him look enough like Lyndon Johnson, but still have some of Woody coming through. It took two hours in the chair, every day. We worked very hard at getting just the right make-up. And then, he also had to wear contact lenses because Woody has blue eyes. Every day, he listened to tapes of Johnson, as he was getting made up, to get him into that frame of mind.
There is a lot of information in this film, in a surprising 98 minutes. Was it hard not to make a three or four hour movie?
REINER: It could have been a 10 or 12 hour movie. If you’re going to do a pure biography of Lyndon Johnson, you’d have to do it on television. This is not a biography. This is more of a window into who he was. The picture actually only takes place over a two-week period. We have flashbacks to when he was the Majority Leader and his stint as Vice President, but it really takes place in the time between Kennedy lands at Love Field airport until Johnson delivers the speech on Civil Rights in front of the joint session of Congress. We wanted to look at that because that was the focal point where he really did feel inadequate. He felt like the country loved Kennedy, and he was handsome and sexy and funny, and he thought they’d never love him like they loved Kennedy. He talked about being a workhorse, and he knew the only way that he could be accepted or liked was if he actually got things done, so he went at it full bore and was able to pass domestic legislation.
Do you do friends and family screenings for your films, and do you have a go-to list of people that you look to for feedback, or do you prefer bigger, anonymous test screenings?
REINER: I would just go play it for an audience. There are different audiences. I do play it for family and friends, but what I get is listening to how they react. I can feel whether or not they’re shifting in their seats. You can get a sense of everything. Focus groups don’t really help me because it’s not a real situation. You’re asking people to be critical, but it’s not what they really felt. What happens there is not genuine. But I can tell from watching the audience, if they’re with it or not with it.
Is there one of your movies that’s changed the most, as a result of a test screening?
REINER: Not that much. Usually, I have in mind what I want to do. I shoot pretty economically, so I’m not shooting tons of stuff that I could change, all that much. I’ll cut something or add a little something back, but not too much. This is maybe the producer part of me, but I’m always worried about the budget, so I shoot what I know I need to shoot for the film.
With so many legacyquels happening, has there been any attempt to remake or reboot any of your classic films, like The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap, or any of the others?
REINER: Oh, yeah, all the time! They say, “Why don’t you do When Harry Met Sally to see where they are today, or another Spinal Tap?” But to me, I did those things already. I like to go, where is my mind now? Where is my heart, my head and my soul? What am I thinking about now, and what can I put out there? It’s very expensive, so it has to be some extension of what you’re thinking about, at that point in time. That’s the way I approach it, rather than saying, “Let’s go make that again!” When you get older, you realize that you don’t have that much time, so you don’t want to do something that you’ve done already.
Are there any of the movies that you’ve done that you would like to see somebody try to do a remake of?
REINER: No, I hope they don’t do that, but I’m sure somebody will do something. You make the movie, and then it either has a life beyond when you first release it or it doesn’t, and it’s always a surprise. The Princess Bride is such an oddball movie. It’s a weird mixture of satire, romance and adventure. Who knows what people will think about and remember? It gives me a kick when I meet somebody who saw the movie when they were eight or nine years old, and they have kids now, who are eight or nine years old, and they’re showing their kids the movie.
You’ve said that you’re working on a 12-part TV project that you’d like to do for a streaming service.
REINER: I am, and I’ve pitched it to Amazon and Netflix, so we’ll see if they want it. I don’t know.
What made you want to get into long-form storytelling for streaming?
REINER: This particular thing lends itself to it. I love what’s happening in television. Some of the most interesting and best things are happening in television. I started in TV, so that doesn’t matter. I always think of, what’s the best way to show this thing, and this particular thing needs to have that. You could watch it, one or two or three at a time, but if you watched the whole thing, you could get the full scope of it.
Are you interested in streaming because you like to binge-watch?
REINER: I like to binge-watch. I wish I had more time. I love it. I came late to The Wire. I saw it years ago, but I was late to it. I also came late to Breaking Bad, but I love that. I see all kinds of stuff. I’m watching the Swedish/Danish version of The Bridge. It’s great! I watch Line of Duty, which is a British show. I watch a lot of the British shows. Spiral is good.
Do you know what you’re going to be doing next, film wise?
REINER: If I do this 12-part thing, that will take up a couple of years. That will probably be the next thing. And I have a thriller that I like, but I haven’t been able to get the financing for that.
Are you finding financing harder and harder?
REINER: Oh, yeah, for me, it’s really hard. I make the joke, all the time, that if you have the word “man” and a number in the title, like Batman 2, Spider-Man 2 or Iron Man 12, you’ll get it made. The kind of movies I make, studios don’t make them. I’ve made a lot of movies, and at Castle Rock, we’ve made 125 movies. None of them get made at a studio. I’ve got to scrounge around for money, every time. I just like to tell stories. I’m a storyteller, so I want the most people to see it.
LBJ is now playing in theaters.