CARL REINER: EXCLUSIVE MOVIE MAXIMUS INTERVIEW March 26, 2015
The legendary Carl Reiner has had a storied career as an actor, writer, producer and director on stage, on television and in movies. I was fortunate to work alongside Bud Molin, Carl’s longtime editor, on four of Mr. Reiner’s movies over a period of eight years. I began as Bud’s assistant editor. I was later encouraged to cut individual scenes in movies before Bud graciously asked me to co-edit his last film with Carl, Fatal Instinct (1993). The wealth of what I learned from both Carl and Bud about storytelling, comedy, editing and life in general is inestimable. Carl, now in his nineties, is still an active performer and writer. Although busy promoting his latest volume of memoirs, I Just Remembered, and his new children’s book, The Secret Treasure of Tahka Paka, he generously agreed to sit down with me on March 26, 2015, for a discussion about movies. Rather than get into details about such blockbusters as Oh, God! (1977), The Jerk (1979) and All of Me (1984), I wanted to touch on underappreciated gems like Where’s Poppa? (1970) and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).
STEPHEN MYERS: What is the first movie you remember seeing?
CARL REINER: The first movie I remember seeing, believe it or not, was a thing called Faust (1926. F.W. Murnau, dir.). I was about six years old. My parents didn’t know what they were going to see. I was under the seat!
SM: This was a silent film. But it was scary.
CR: Yes! Then after that we went to see all the comedies.
SM: Who were your favorites?
CR: Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were my favorites as a kid. And then of course Harold Lloyd everybody loved. And then when I really got to know what I was looking at it was the Marx Brothers. And then the Ritz Brothers. I love those guys.
SM: When you were working on Your Show of Shows Sid did a lot of movie parodies the most famous probably being From Here to Eternity. Do you recall specific ones that you either wrote or appeared in?
CR: You mention one of the best. We did so many. We did foreign movies, we did Italian movies, French movies.
SM: You did silent films, too.
CR: Those were particularly difficult because it was live and in an hour and a half we did an hour and a half. We wore ourselves out because silent films were herky-jerky. The actors weren’t herky-jerky but the film was [because of shooting at a lower frame rate and projecting at a higher frame rate]. To give the impression of herky-jerky we had to act it and we got headaches at the end of it. It was so hard.
SM: You wrote and acted in The Thrill of it All (1963) and The Art of Love (1965) both directed by Norman Jewison. You also had a big acting role in The Russians are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966). I just saw Alan Arkin being interviewed on Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival.
CR: I did, too.
SM: He was talking about what a supportive familial environment Jewison created. He said it was the best he had ever been in.
CR: I think it was one of the best I had ever been in. Everybody was in love with everybody.
SR: Do you think working with Norman on those movies affected your decision to go into directing yourself?
CR: No question about it. Norman is a good template too. He was always friendly, always allowed the actors to express themselves. Anyway, I had been doing The Dick Van Dyke Show so I knew how to let actors use their heads. Norman was fearless. He would climb up poles and get his camera in crazy places. He was a very creative director.
SM: The first movie you did as a director was Enter Laughing (1967) based on your novel which was adapted as a stage play.
CR: I directed that because I wasn’t crazy about a movie I had written and it was directed not to my liking. So I thought “I’d better direct it myself.”
SM: Alan Arkin played the lead on Broadway. How did you find Reni Santoni for the movie version?
CR: That character is a very difficult thing to find. It should have been a 17- or 18-year-old boy. We kept interviewing people and Reni came the closest to looking like he might be the guy. And he did a very good job. He’s a brilliant actor.
SM: The character of David in Enter Laughing is loosely based on your own early experiences on stage. Did you yourself have an obsession with Ronald Colman?
CR: Oh, yes! As a matter of fact when I did impressions as an actor later on in the army I always did Ronald Colman, Akim Tamiroff, James Cagney, and all of those guys.
SM: How did you and co-writer Aaron Ruben come up with the idea for The Comic (1969)?
CR: Somebody had come to us and had an idea to do this and they had a very bad script. We tossed it and we started research about comics. We found out all great silent movie comics had one thing in common: they were much married, much divorced and did a lot of drinking. We based it on two or three people. Neil Hamilton, Buster Keaton and a few other guys. One of the stories was about a guy who married somebody he didn’t remember marrying. He got drunk one night and he married a girl. One of those guys did that in Mexico.
SM: One of the things that interests me most about the movie is you might think because it’s you and Dick Van Dyke that it’s going to be this lighthearted look at the silent film comedians.
CR: We found out that all these guys were miserable and we decided to do it for real.
SM: The idea of mistaken identity is often fodder for comedy but in this instance it’s tragedy. He mistakes the house next door for his own house and trashes it. He mistakes a little boy for his own son.
CR: One of the things that the picture really does is it shows the extraordinary depths of talents Dick Van Dyke has. He performs that so brilliantly in all its aspects. This goofy guy, a serious guy and a guy who fools himself to the very end.
SM: He’s totally self-righteous. The voice over tells us that he never learns anything.
CR: Aaron Ruben was so good. He was always an ascerbic guy and his voice is so strong in that movie. At the very beginning of the movie in front of the mortuary Mantan Moreland said, “Who checked out?” “Billy Bright.” “Billy Bright? I thought he was dead.” That actually was said of a comedian. At the very end his [Billy Bright’s] voice is talking from the grave. He’s expecting a funeral like Valentino if “I had gone out in my heyday… Look at that − four cars.” One veers off. “Three cars.” I remember shooting that. I loved it.
SM: Mickey Rooney who co-stars in the movie was really in silent movies when he was a little kid.
CR: One of the greatest actors who ever lived.
SM: Did he contribute anything in terms of telling you how it was?
CR: It was one of the hardest jobs he ever had. I said “Cockeye − the only man who could play that is Mickey Rooney.” The first day of rehearsal I said, “Mickey, I don’t want you to cross your eyes except in the close-ups. Every time we do a long shot you’ll be looking down. When I want to see your eyes I’ll come close.” He says to me, “I can’t cross my eyes.” I laughed. I said, “Mickey, you can play every instrument in the band, you sing, you dance.” He said, “I can’t cross my eyes. I never could.” I said, “You’re kidding me. I can teach anybody to cross their eyes.” I said, “Take your finger, put it at the bridge of your nose and look at your finger.” He couldn’t do it. And that cost us more time and money. We had to get a contact lens that was crossed. He said, “By the way I can’t put anything in my eyes. It gets red immediately.” So any time we had to do a thing with him I had an eye doctor on the set. I would say, “Roll camera. Action. Put the eye in.” We’d do the scene very quickly. “Cut.Take the eye out.”
SM: My memory of the first time I saw The Comic, I thought that Billy Bright died while he was watching his old movie on late night television. But when I saw it recently he’s still watching at the end of the scene.
CR: No we never had him die. I loved the idea I took from my father. When he was visiting he always had soft-boiled eggs. So I had Billy Bright get up in the middle of the night, had his eggs and watched the movie. I wanted to go out having him watch the movie. When the camera pulls back he’s watching himself walking away with the kid and the blind girl.
SM: When I went to college Where’s Poppa? (1969) was a favorite cult movie. Could you talk about the unique writing style of Robert Klane and about the perfect casting of Ruth Gordon?
CR: When they came to me with the book and I read it I said, “There’s no way you can make a movie out of that. That’s the reason we should try to make it.” So he wrote the screenplay. It’s all Robert’s. And then the casting of it. Finding the right girl, Trish Van De Vere, was another thing. I must have seen ten or fifteen girls. She was so perfect. Of course Ruth Gordon was perfect. I had seen her on Broadway. The thing that was so funny about that, there was the kissing of the ass and she said, “I won’t do that unless I’m ordered to.” And I said, “I order you to do it!”
SM: Another of your movies that doesn’t get the recognition it should is The One and Only (1978) with Henry Winkler, Kim Darby and Herve Villechaize.
CR: That was written by Steve Gordon. He wrote an absolutely great script. Brilliantly written. [Gordon later went on to write and direct Arthur (1981) starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli].
SM: Starting with The Jerk (1979) you did four movies in a row with Steve Martin. Had you met him when he was a writer with Rob [Reiner] on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour?
CR: No. He called me in on The Jerk (1979). Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias had written a script and Steve had never done a movie. He had done a short, The Absent-Minded Waiter (1977). So I came in. The script needed work and I did the amount of work a director is allowed to do without getting credit. I really made it into a workable script. I was really proud of what I had done to it but it was good to begin with because it was based on his act — “I was born a poor black child.” And it had a lot of goodies in it because Steve and I went to work every day in the same car and we came up with stuff by talking it out on the way to work.
SM: I watched Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) again recently.
CR: That was my favorite because it was a labor of love watching all those movies. Steve was making Pennies from Heaven (1981) at the time so he wasn’t with us. George Gipe and I for six months looked at film noir. We got the films and watched them in the screening room. We kept saying, “There’s a line we could use.” And we knew our hero had to have black hair because the back of the actors’ heads we were using all had black hair, Ray Milland, etc. So we had to dye Steve’s hair black. John DeCuir was our art director and he was a genius — literally a genius. He was also a scientist. He was the most unforgettable man I ever met in my whole life. He had to imagine what the other side of the sets would look like. He used to go to the scene dock and he remembered a train set [for a scene with Cary Grant] that he had used. He found that train. He saw it hanging way up in the rafters! When John was a kid he loved to draw and paint and he was a prodigy violinist. In New York we’re looking for locations and we needed a nice apartment. We rented Isaac Stern’s apartment for a shoot and lying there on a table is an open case with a Stradivarius in it. It’s a million, two million dollars. And Stern’s wife was there. I said, “When did you play last?” He said, “About thirty, forty years ago. I haven’t kept it up.” I said, “Do you think you can still play?” He said, “Your fingers don’t forget.” We asked her could he pick it up. He picked it up and started to play! It was amazing.
SM: The other thing I wanted to mention about Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is the work of cinematographer Michael Chapman because he had to match the lighting and lenses that were used.
CR: I hired Michael Chapman because he had done a black-and-white movie [Raging Bull (1980. Martin Scorsese, dir.)] and I said, “I need somebody who knows black and white.” He says, “You’ve got the wrong guy. That was torture for me. I know nothing about black and white.” And I said, “Well, you did it. You’re gonna do it again.” He liked the project so much he said, “Okay, okay.”
SM: And there’s The Man With Two Brains (1983).
CR: One of my favorite movies. You know it’s a good movie when a little girl on the street [Mya Akerling aka Mya Stark] we gave fifty instructions. “Repeat it back.” I thought we were going to be there all day. She did that in one take!
[pullquote-left]”People who don’t do comedy don’t know it’s hard. To other people it’s kidding around.”[/pullquote-left]
SM: All of Me (1984) was a huge hit and Steve Martin won both the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics awards for best actor. That’s recognition that is seldom given to an actor in comedy. Why do you think comedy isn’t given the respect of drama when it’s so much harder?
CR: People who don’t do comedy don’t know it’s hard. To other people it’s kidding around. It’s fooling around. I think they’ve changed their mind about that lately.
SM: I hope so.
CR: In a drama, even in a play, you don’t know it isn’t working because there’s silence. In a comedy if you don’t hear laughter you know it isn’t working.
SM: Summer Rental (1985) was the first movie I worked on with you and Bud and what I remember so much about it was how funny and how much fun John Candy was.
CR: John Candy was a force of nature. He was one of the sweetest human beings ever and he knew he wasn’t going to live long. He said there was a gene in his family that doesn’t allow them to live long. He was going to Pritikin and losing weight and we had the production catered by Pritikin. And after the show was finished for the day he would buy buckets of shrimp! He was a sweet man with a lovely wife and two children.
SM: I read that his daughter Jennifer is doing standup.
SM: I saw something about it online.
CR: I wish her well.
SM: Another movie I worked on, Summer School (1987), doesn’t always get much respect but when I talk to people who were kids in junior high at the time, they remember it fondly. They love that movie.
CR: That was with one of the dearest men ever, Mark Harmon. I love that guy. And then we found Kirstie Alley. She was so great in that. [Carl later cast Kirstie as the lead in Sibling Rivalry (1990)].
SM: Bud Molin [Carl’s long time editor] told me, “You can cut any scene in Summer School.”
CR: He was awful good. And he was so giving. When he had a young assistant, he taught for real.
SM: I read the script of Summer School [screenplay by Jeff Franklin] and there’s the scene where students Chainsaw and Dave scare off the substitute teacher with horror makeup effects inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I said to Bud, “That looks like a lot of fun. That’s the one I want to do.”
CR: That was a great scene. You cut it great, too.
SM: It was all with Bud’s coaching. When I started it I was cutting everything too fast. He said, “You can’t see it. It has to register.” So I started lengthening the shots and by the time he approved it, it was really perfect. That scene and your recommendation got me my first solo editing job [976-EVIL (1989. Robert Englund, dir.)].
SM: Another movie I worked on with you and Bud was Fatal Instinct (1993). It was a spoof of both the original films noir and the more recent erotic thrillers.
CR: That was a labor of love. That was written by David O’Malley. He’s one of my favorite people. We had a lot of fun with it. That was with Sean Young.
SM: You had mostly actors who weren’t known for comedy. How did you work with them?
CR: You don’t need comedy actors when you’re doing a spoof. You want it straight. The comedy was in the writing. And you wanted Armand Assante doing it straight.
SM: And Sean seemed to be willing to do anything.
CR: Sean was extraordinary. She had a reputation that preceded her by a guy who lied about her. I called a director in London [who had worked with her] and I said, “You’ve got to tell me about her because I’ve heard things.” And he said, “Let me tell you about Sean. We had an English actor playing an American and he wasn’t very good we had to let
him go. She heard about it and she says, ‘Don’t fire him for a day or so.’ She worked with him for half an afternoon and he kept the part. That’s who Sean is. She’s a very giving person.”
SM: I’ve seen you on talk shows say that you and Mel Brooks watch movies together. Is there any little gem, any lesser-known movie that you guys were really knocked out by?
CR: There’s a movie that I think is the most romantic movie ever made and if you don’t end up with a smile and a tear on your face you’re not alive — Random Harvest (1942. Mervyn Leroy, dir.) with Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. I just bought two copies of it because I’m an MC [Master of Ceremonies] and I love to say to people “Look at this!” just to watch their reaction to something that’s that good. Random Harvest is my favorite movie of all time.
SM: Are there any more recent movies you and Mel have seen that you liked? [pullquote-left]”There’s a movie that I think is the most romantic movie ever made and if you don’t end up with a smile and a tear on your face you’re not alive — RANDOM HARVEST” [/pullquote-left]
CR: We love every movie with Liam Neeson where he gives a comeuppance. The best comeuppance movie to me is The Count of Monte Cristo (1934. Rowland V. Lee, dir.) where the villains get it in the end. The best movies have the best villains and the best villains get it in the neck by the heroes. I love Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (2001. Robert Luketic, dir.). I watched it the other day. That’s another one of those comeuppance movies where everyone who was mean to her she gives them the finger at the end. It’s a great, great movie. There’s a movie called Bad Words (2013. Jason Bateman, dir.). It’s a story about a spelling bee with Jason Bateman. It’s got the greatest comeuppance ever. It’s about a 48-year-old guy who goes into a spelling bee because he never finished grade school. It’s a wonderful movie. You should see it.
SM: There’s a movie Rob [Reiner] did a few years ago that didn’t get much notice that I liked a lot called Flipped (2010). It’s a love story about young teens.
CR: Robbie made one of my favorite movies of all time: The Princess Bride (1987). Every frame of it is funny.
SM: People on the street quote lines to the actors.
CR: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” He made some of the best movies ever made. A Few Good Men (1992). American President (1995).
SM: The Princess Bride is probably the most beloved.
CR: How about the first one he made? This is Spinal Tap (1984) with Christopher Guest and those guys.
Three days after our interview Carl made a personal appearance at Larry Edmunds Bookshop (http://larryedmunds.com) in Hollywood for a Q&A and a book signing of his most recent volume of memoirs I Just Remembered. At the signing he announced the release of a new volume of memoirs titled I Forgot to Remember available on April 22, 2015 from Random Content Publishing. You can order both the new volume and I Just Remembered directly from the publisher: http://www.randomcontent.com/memoirs.