By Iain Blair
Director/producer/actor Rob Reiner has long been one of Hollywood’s most reliable, successful and versatile talents. Over the past three decades he’s created a beloved body of work in a diverse mixture of styles and genres that includes comedy (When Harry Met Sally, The American President), fantasy-adventure (The Princess Bride), satire (This Is Spinal Tap), suspense (Misery) and drama (Stand By Me, A Few Good Men).
Now the co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment, who first found fame as one of the stars of the long-running hit series All in the Family, has taken on the timely subjects of political in-fighting and civil rights in LBJ. After powerful Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (Woody Harrelson) loses the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), he agrees to be his young rival’s running mate. But once they win the election, despite his extensive legislative experience and shrewd political instincts, Johnson finds himself sidelined in the role of vice president. That all changes on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy is assassinated and Johnson, with his devoted wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, is suddenly thrust into the presidency.
As the nation mourns, Johnson must contend with longtime adversary Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and one-time mentor Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) as he seeks to honor JFK’s legacy by championing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In addition to an all-star cast that also includes Bill Pullman, Reiner assembled the below-the-line team of DP Barry Markowitz, editor Bob Joyce and composer Marc Shaiman.
I spoke with Reiner about making the film, which is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz — particularly for Harrelson’s performance — and his love of working quickly.
You don’t seem like someone who would jump at the chance to direct a film about LBJ. So what was the appeal of making this?
You’re right. I didn’t initially think I’d ever make a film about Johnson because I was draft age during Vietnam, and I hated LBJ. He was my enemy and could send me to my death. But I’m older now, and I’ve spent a lot of time in politics and crafting policy, and it’s given me a far greater understanding of what he was able to accomplish — domestically, at least, because his domestic policies and accomplishments are only second to FDR’s. You can’t ignore Vietnam of course, but had it not been for the war, he’d have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
So I thought, let’s take a look at him and really examine the man. I always thought of him as this bully, and a bull in a china shop, boorish and holding meetings while he’s using the toilet, and so on, but I did a lot of research, read a lot of books and got a much fuller picture of this complicated man. And two things struck me; he had a recurring nightmare where he was paralyzed, which I thought was very strange, and there was his relationship
with his mother, who withheld her love to him. It was very conditional, and he often felt unloved by her, which is also very interesting. So I wanted to use this narrow sliver of time, when he was facing his most challenging moments, to examine the man and his true nature.
Casting the right actor as LBJ is obviously crucial, but what made you choose Woody — who’s brilliant and a revelation — as Johnson?
No one thought it made sense when I told them Woody was starring. It was like, ‘Really?’ But first of all, he’s a Texan, and he’s a great actor, so I knew he could deliver the whole range needed, as he also has this very sensitive side. He also has this humanity and great sense of humor — so it was this all-in-one package.
Were you surprised by just how timely it’s become?
Completely, especially since we shot this way before Trump became president. It’s now become a different film, which is bizarre. I’ve never had a situation before like this, where I finished it, it was the film I set out to make, and then a few months later I’m looking at a totally different film — and I haven’t changed a frame. It’s so weird.
What were the main challenges of the shoot?
We did most of it in New Orleans, some in DC, and some in Dallas, which was the biggest challenge logistically. They only gave us six hours to shoot the motorcade assassination scenes in Dealey Plaza, so I planned it out very carefully and we used four cameras and 12 different angles. Period pieces are always tough, getting rid of modern stuff especially, so going in we knew all the problem areas with our locations and we had all the CGI stuff and post integrated into the budget and schedule from the start.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love shooting, but pulling together all the material with your editor and doing all the post is where you really make your movie.
Where did you post?
We did it in a couple of different places. Bob Joyce and I did the cutting at our Castle Rock offices, and then we did some other stuff and the DI at Local Hero, and I’m very involved in the DI. We spent a lot of time going through every shot. And I love working digital, as you can manipulate every frame if you want. (Local Hero’s Leandro Marini used Assimilate Scratch on a Silverdraft Demon workstation for the DI.)
Joyce cut your last feature film, Being Charlie. Tell us about that relationship, and the editing challenges.
He wasn’t on the set. We sent him dailies back here in LA, and he knows what I want. I don’t even talk to him. He did a rough assembly and then we start cutting when I got back. I don’t even look at dailies because I know exactly what I’m shooting. I start editing in my head as I go, but Bob might suggest getting an extra shot, and I’ll do that. I shoot very quickly, and we did this in just 27 days.
That’s amazingly fast for a film of this size and scope. Is it true you also edit quickly?
You won’t believe this, but we actually edited this in just one week. There’s a lot of interlocking pieces, but I’m a puzzle guy. I love crossword puzzles, all that stuff, and I knew exactly what I wanted. So we had our first cut in a week, then you show it and make changes. But they were all minor. We didn’t do any reshoots. Sometimes we’d add CGI and some archival footage. There was a whole section with civil rights protests on TV, and we also added a scene at a lunch counter, to add some flavor.
Period films always have a lot of VFX. Can you talk about them?
We built a certain amount, like the whole White House interior set, and then one of my favorite VFX shots is the whole motorcade coming out of the White House at the end. We shot that on a parking lot in New Orleans, and Pixel Magic composited in all the background, the White House, the gates and so on. Then the opening shot of Air Force One was a composite — we had nothing there. Same with the big scene at the Lockheed plant. Most of the planes there were VFX, and they also extended the hangar where we shot.There’s a lot of clean-up, changing store fronts, and we added crowd people to the extras in various scenes.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
I’ve done nearly every film with composer Marc Shaiman, who’s brilliant and so versatile. He wrote a great score, and then (supervising sound editor) Lon Bender has worked with me for a very long time. They’d build more tracks than I need, and then I would start weeding stuff out because I don’t want it too busy. My big thing is get the birds out of there. Too many birds!
I’ve got this idea for a 12-part streaming historical drama series, but it’s still a secret.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.