For director Rob Reiner, bringing the quirky story and interesting characters of The Magic of Belle Isle to the big screen was a labor of love inspired by something he’d started exploring in The Bucket List – the idea that no matter what curveballs life throws your way, you have to find a way to live your life until you die because you only get one shot. The comedy-drama reunites Reiner with Morgan Freeman, who plays Monte Wildhorn, a famous Western novelist whose struggle with alcoholism has sapped his passion for writing. When he takes a lakeside cabin for the summer in picturesque Belle Isle, and befriends the family next door – an attractive single mom (Virginia Madsen) and her young daughters, he suddenly finds the inspiration to reconnect and embrace life once again.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I was able to speak to Reiner at a roundtable interview about making the film. He talked about how he went about finding the right cast and location, how the script changed once Freeman came on board, how he varied his directorial approach with each actor to get the best performance, and how improvisation played a role in the romantic direction the film took at the end. He also discussed his childhood and what it was like growing up in the shadow of his father, Carl Reiner. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Question: What do you want people to take away from this film?
Rob Reiner: Well, a similar kind of feeling that they had when they walked away from The Bucket List because it has a very similar theme, which is about embracing life no matter what your situation is, finding something good about life and celebrating it. In The Bucket List, it was two guys facing cancer, and in this, it’s a guy who’s basically given up on life because he’s in a wheelchair and his wife has died. He can’t write anymore. He’s drinking and he’s shut the door on himself. It’s what happens with this relationship with the woman next door and her children and the people in that community that actually get him to learn how to live again. And so, that’s what it’s about. It’s about no matter what your situation is, it’s finding a way to embrace life.
What I really liked about this movie was the quirkiness and the one-liners that Morgan delivers. In the original script, he was supposed to be a much younger guy. Did the script change much?
Reiner: It didn’t change a whole heck of a lot, but he was initially supposed to be somebody in his fifties, and Morgan, as you know, is in his seventies. I was originally going to go after maybe a George Clooney or somebody like that, but Lori McCreary called me up. She’s Morgan’s producing partner. We had done The Bucket List together and I enjoyed working with Morgan. We had a great time and she said “Is there anything you’re developing at Castle Rock that Morgan might be interested in?” I thought “Oh my God, what about this?” Morgan is so good that you don’t need to change it to make it an age thing because it’s really just about a person who’s given up and how he learns to live again. When I thought “Oh Morgan can do this,” I thought what an idiot. I should have thought of him to begin with, because if I could make every movie with Morgan, I would.
Was it different this time because you’ve established a shorthand after working together on The Bucket List?
Reiner: It wasn’t all that different in that when we did The Bucket List together, Morgan and I found out that we work exactly the same way. We’re both very, very fast. We used to come up with new scenes every morning on The Bucket List, and he’d look at it and go “Got it.” He would just process things so fast, and when you’d do a take with him, he’d nail it every time. It was never like we’d have to do many, many takes. And, I’m the same way. If we get it on the first take, let’s move on. Luckily, we had Virginia (Madsen) who’s also got a great craft and she could do it as well. So, to me, it was the greatest pleasure of all and really necessary on this film because we only had 25 days to shoot. You have to have people who are really up on their craft and able to do what they do. It was an absolute pleasure.
You got some incredible performances out of the kids and the dog. Can you talk a little bit about them?
Reiner: The dog was interesting because the thing about the auditions for that dog is you’ve got to get a dog that can lick its balls on cue. Basically, you’re bringing in these dogs, and they’re one after the other, and you have a trade secret where they put peanut butter. I didn’t put peanut butter there, but the trainers put peanut butter there and the dogs were more than happy to do whatever. That was a funny audition. I thought what am I doing for a living here? “C’mon, get that dog to…” That was fun. The other funny thing was they were retrievers. These are Labrador retrievers and the one thing they can do is fetch. With these dogs, their instinct was to go run after the ball, because the minute they see something to fetch, that’s what they do. And so, we had to train these dogs not to fetch. But when he comes after that ball at the end, that was his natural thing. If you throw the ball, he’ll go after it and get it.
How many dogs did you audition?
Reiner: We had a number of dogs. We had about five or six. They all could do the ball licking part, but they all looked a little bit different. I had to think about what dog would work well with Morgan and what was kind of a classic looking dog. They were basically typecast. It was all about their looks, very shallow. (laughs) It wasn’t their talent so much. It was just how they looked.
And the kids?
Reiner: The kids, well, that’s different. With Maddy (Madeline Carroll), I had worked with her before so I knew what she could do and I knew she would be perfect for the part of Willow. Then with Emma (Emma Fuhrmann) and with Nicolette (Nicolette Pierini), I had never [worked with them before]. I went through an extensive casting process, seeing many, many girls because I had a clear image in my mind of what I wanted for each of those. I was looking for a Scout type from To Kill a Mockingbird, that very cute, adorable tomboyish kind of girl and so Emma was perfect. When she came in and read, I went “Oh yeah, that’s it.” It was the same thing with Nicolette.
So it was immediate?
Reiner: I knew right away, but I had seen lots and lots of girls for those parts.
What is it that you see in an actor that makes you say “That’s it!”?
Reiner: You have a feel for what you want the part to be. I think of it like this. The script is like music to me. I approach it like it’s a musical piece and I hear how it’s supposed to sound when people say the words. There’s rhythms and there’s intonations and things, and so, when somebody comes in and hits the notes that I hear, I go okay. Or, they come close enough, and then I’ll say “Well how about you try it like this?” and if they have a good ear and they can pick it up, then I think okay, they’ve got it.
In this film, there are so many stories. Do they all come from you?
Reiner: A lot of it is Guy Thomas (screenwriter). A lot of this is based on an actual situation. He hadn’t written anything in 30 years. He wrote a screenplay many, many years ago called Wholly Moses with Dudley Moore and didn’t like how it came out and dropped out. He was living in Lake Malibu not doing much of anything and he met this woman that lived next door who was going through a divorce who had three daughters. He fell in love with her and loved these kids, but he never consummated his love for her. In his mind, he always viewed himself as being handicapped. It’s interesting that he put the character in a wheelchair because in his mind he felt emotionally handicapped that he could never do that. A lot of it was his, but we added a number of things. What the film says in the early parts is Monte has a eulogy that he gives. He says “There’s something about this place that brings out the best in people. That’s why we call it the magic of Belle Isle.” It really is about not just his relationship with the mother and the daughters, but all the people in the town. He affects them and they affect him and the aggregate of all of that infuses life back in him. He also gives them something. He gives Carl a good feeling about himself. He doesn’t have to be Diego, he can be himself and it’s okay.
One line put me on the floor: “Lose the bunny hop!”
Reiner: That’s the one thing. If you’re going to be Diego Santana, lose the bunny hop.
What was it like shooting in Greenwood Lake, New York? Was that always the location?
Reiner: No. This is what was really interesting. We knew we had to get two houses by the side of a lake and the odds of finding…and by the way, the houses were exactly described as the ones that you saw in the film. But, to find that, there’s no way you’re going to find two houses like that right on a lake next to each other. The only place that we could find anywhere in the country was that Greenwood Lake. We found those two houses and said “That’s it!” It was almost like it was put there for the film because, like I say, we didn’t have a big budget. It was five million dollars for the whole film, so we couldn’t build the houses. I [inaudible] we built the house across the street, the one that Maddy lives in, because again, finding a rundown house and a nice house across the street from each other on a suburban street is hard to find.
You mentioned that you and Morgan have good chemistry when you work. What do you do when you work with actors who don’t have the same technique? Do you change your technique?
Reiner: You work with every actor differently. It’s like if you’re a mother, if you have children, some children need more discipline. Other children you back off of a little bit and let them be. It’s the same way with actors. Some actors need a lot of hand holding. Other actors like to be let be and you let them go. Some actors like to be nudged just a little bit. Some actors don’t mind line readings. They say “How do you want me to say it?” Because I’ve been an actor, I can do that for them. I also hear how it’s supposed to sound. Other actors don’t like line readings so you don’t give it to them. Each actor is different. When I did Misery, Kathy Bates, who’s a stage trained actress, loves lots of rehearsal. Jimmy Caan, who basically grew up on films, likes no rehearsal. He wants to just get in there, and whatever happens at the moment, it happens. So I had to do more rehearsals than Jimmy liked and less rehearsals than Kathy likes. You find ways.
Do you use improv when you’re directing?
Reiner: If an actor can do it. Some actors can’t do it or don’t like to do it. Morgan and Virginia don’t like improvisation. But, with somebody like Fred Willard, he is an improvisational actor. I’ve worked with him. He’s done a lot of Chris Guest movies. He’s in Spinal Tap. It’s all improvised. With a guy like him, I let him go. He came up with lines like when Morgan says “I brought the Cheetos,” he goes “Nice touch.” That wasn’t in the script, but that’s him adlibbing. Or when Morgan says “Who among us knows the ways of the Lord” and he goes “You got that right, sir.” That’s not in the script either. Little things like that, when you have a guy who can improvise, then you let him do it.
You’re okay with however they work?
Reiner: Yes. If I know a guy who’s a really good improvisational actor, I’d be foolish not to let him because he’ll come up with goodies and all kinds of little freebies that you get. Now there is one thing that we did in this film that is not a dialogue improvisation, but is a big improvisation in that – and Virginia was not an improvisational actor – she had the idea to do that very romantic kiss with Morgan on the porch which wasn’t in the script. In the script, she gave him a kind of chaste kiss goodnight. It’s at the end of the summer and they’re saying goodbye. But, as the picture progressed, she felt that there was more of an undercurrent of real romance going on between them. So she gives him this very romantic kiss, which shocked the hell out of Morgan. You can see it on his face. He was like “What the heck is going on here?” They said, “If you want to go to what we had in the script, you can do it,” and I said “This really works.”
It really made sense and it definitely upped the stakes in the movie. There’s no question about it, and it made me change the ending of the movie because initially he was going to leave and not come back. But then, I thought how can a guy not come back if he’s got a woman who loves him? He’s got three kids that adore him and that he adores. The woman he cares about, he’s been writing these stories for her. And, he’s been inspired to write in this cabin. Why wouldn’t he come back? Then that’s when we came up with the idea that he sells the rights to [his book] which he said he’d never sell those rights, but now real life and the feelings that you have for people trump those kinds of things. I like how it turned out.
We haven’t seen Morgan in a romantic role like this before?
Reiner: I don’t think ever. That’s the other thing that was interesting, because he is very romantic. He’s got a very sexy quality to him even at an older age. He comes across very powerful and sexy and so it just made sense.
You have an extensive entertainment profile, a very admirable political career, and a family. How do you find a balance between everything?
Reiner: Well family is always first – always, always, always first. As a matter of fact, there was a time when I was thinking of running for Governor in California and I sat with my family. We all discussed it. It was with the three kids. We sat there and I polled 40 percent in my own family. I couldn’t carry my own family essentially and so that was it. I’m not going to run because they don’t want me to and so that was that. I find that the family comes first, and if there’s anything that gets in the way of that, then I don’t do it. I’ve taken my family when we’ve gone to make movies. Now they’re older. Two of them are out of the house. I still have my 14-year-old daughter who’s at the house. But if it took me away for any length of time, I wouldn’t do it.
What was it like growing up with your dad?
Reiner: Of the show business fathers that you could have, he was probably the best situation I could ever have because he was a real father. He was a home kind of guy. When I was a young kid and he was doing Show of Shows, this was a live television show that was on for 90 minutes every Saturday. But it was off for 13 weeks a year during the summertime. So, we went as a family on summer vacation. We were all together as a family. I saw him a lot, and when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, he was doing the Dick Van Dyke Show. In the summers, he’d let me come down to the studio and hang out with him which for a young teenage boy, it was like who wants him around when you’re doing your work, but he let me watch how he worked with the actors, how he rewrote scripts and things like that. I learned a lot from that. I spent a lot of time with him and it was as good a situation as you could have.
Did you dad recognize your talent as a youngster?
Reiner: No. No, he didn’t, not until I was 19 years old. As a kid growing up, he never thought I was talented at all. As a matter of fact, when I was a young kid, 8 years old, I used to play with Norman Lear’s daughter. I don’t even remember, but he tells me we were playing a game of jacks and I was announcing the game and doing some schtick or whatever. Norman went to my dad and said “Your son is really funny,” and my dad said, “That kid? He’s not funny. He’s not funny at all.” He never thought that way until I was 19 and I did an improvisational theater group that I wrote and directed and acted in and he saw me in that and I directed some plays. Then he said that then he could see it. He got behind me. He jumped on the band wagon.
When did you realize you had overcome the shadow of your father?
Reiner: Interesting question because it really didn’t happen until I did Stand By Me. I was in my mid-thirties already. I had been successful with All in the Family. I’d done a couple of movies, Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. But Spinal Tap was a satire, and even though it wasn’t a movie my father probably would make, he dug it. He was born, he was raised in satire, he did satire. That’s what he did. The Sure Thing was a romantic comedy and he had done those. Stand By Me was the first time I did a film that was completely an extension of my personality. It had a melancholy feel, but it was also funny. It had an emotional part to it. It had all of this and it was something my father in a million years never would have approached. It was doing that and being accepted and being validated because it was accepted, that was the first time I went “Okay, I’m breaking away” and I was in my thirties by that point. I’ve felt pretty good for a long time now, but that was a big turning point for me when I was about 37 or 38.
The Magic of Belle Isle is now playing in limited release.