Air Date: May 21, 2016
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Timely and timeless. Each week, that’s what we strive to be, since 1956. Our guest today, the epic filmmaker Rob Reiner, has produced and written pictures that, in your host’s estimation, achieve just that. Famous for his classic love stories, co-authored with creative partner Nora Ephron, as well as courtroom and political drama, like The American President and A Few Good Men, the award-winning director, producer, and screenwriter joins us today for a conversation. Co-authored by his son, Nick Reiner, Rob’s latest film, Being Charlie, grapples with the growing heroin epidemic in the U.S., a crisis we explored here recently with Center for Disease Control and Prevention Directior Tom Frieden. Today’s, though, is a more personal exploration, a story based on the Reiners own experience, father and son, an authentic portrait of the devastating and increasingly pervasive addiction. In development, too, Reiner’s next project is LBJ, an anticipated presidential portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson. So, we’ll ask how that’s progressing, but, but first I want to thank you for being here.
REINER: Hey, thank you, Alexander.
HEFFNER: So, you did watch The Open Mind with F’s or are you only familiar with one F?
REINER: [LAUGHS] Uh, I just know you.
REINER: No, and you, and your father.
HEFFNER: And my grandfather.
REINER: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: So, the LA Times had a very interesting take on your most recent picture.
HEFFNER: Exorcising the drug demons from your family. It’s a personal, heartfelt story, and I, I wanted you to just elaborate on… this is to the core.
REINER: [OVERLAP] Yeah, yeah. Well, we didn’t set, uh, set out to exorcise anything. It turned out to be that. I mean, we, you know, we entered into it as, you know, creative people do, where you draw from your own experiences and try to, uh, you know have it reflected somehow in your art in some way, and, you know, this is not exactly my story with Nick, but it’s certainly liberally taken from what we went through, uh, but what we did find is that, in going through the process, um, we did exorcise some things. We were able to, uh, certainly from standpoint, I was able to understand a lot more of what Nick went through, and I think he started to understand a little bit more of what I went through, and it did bring us a lot closer together, and, uh, it was, uh, the most extraordinary, uh, creative experience I’ve ever had. I mean, I, uh, I’ve never done anything quite this personal. Um, you know, we always take form your life, but this was a little bit closer to the bone than, than other things I have done.
HEFFNER: What was your most fundamental misunderstanding of heroin?
REINER: Well, you know, it’s not about heroin as much as it is about, uh, drug abuse and why people, uh, use, uh, whether it’s alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex addiction, why people, uh, overuse something, and basically it’s all about self-medication. It’s all about, uh, feeling bad about yourself, whether an emotional, uh, state that you’re in, and finding something that will make you feel better, and in fact, it does, initially, make you feel better, and then of course, if you don’t get to the root issues of what is causing that, uh, existential, emotional pain, then you’ll find… You’ll wind up feeling worse. So, that’s what I’m discovering. I mean, in going through this, it was never… It’s not about, in my opinion—this is just my opinion, because, uh, there are a lot of different, uh, approaches towards, uh, uh addictions and, uh, uh, overuse of, of drugs and alcohol. They talk about it as a disease. I don’t… I personally don’t think it’s a disease, and this is why I say that: a disease, if, if you, if… There is no disease where, you know, and the predominant, uh, uh, uh, treatment on alcohol and drug abuse is an A.A. model, and for many people it’s very good, and it works. Not for everybody, though, and, uh, the idea of using the prescription of A.A. as a way to cure disease or at least contain the disease, there’s no doctor that would say pray. You know, pray to God, or, you know, give yourself over to higher power. You know, you may believe in a higher power, and if you do, then A.A., I think, works really well for you. If you don’t, then there have to be other ways in which you can get at the root causes of why you’re taking what you’re taking. So, in my opinion, it’s the disease is the underlying issues that are making you take drugs or alcohol or, you know, I could say gambling, or doing anything in excess to where it just ruins your life. That’s the, that’s what, that to me is what, that, the mental issues is the disease part, and everybody’s different. Why people do something, why they, uh, continually do something that may be destructive to them, I believe is, is individual to each person, and that’s one of the things I learned, especially in my relationship to my son: that certain things would work for him and certain things not. Here’s an interesting thing: as a director, what you learn, in working with actors, is some actors need to be, uh, coaxed. Some need to be hand… Uh, you know, you have to hold their hands. High, higher maintenance. Other actors like to be left alone and go on their own, and as you, as a director, if you’re going to get the best performance out of them, you have to figure out what each person needs. It’s the same, on a much more complex and deeper level, with a parent and a child. I have three children, and the way I treat one child may not work as well with another child, and so it’s incumbent upon me as a parent to understand what, who my child is and what that child needs from me. Uh, and not to basically say, he’s gotta fit or she’s gotta fit into some cookie cutter way of living their lives, and so that’s what I learned more about this, and when you see the film, you can see that the father character in there is hell-bent on, uh, you know, doing what the experts tell him to do, which is, you know, you’ve gotta toe the line, you’ve gotta be strong, you’ve gotta be tough, you’ve gotta be tough love and all that stuff, and for some people that does work, and for others, it doesn’t, and so I basically threw myself into the hands of experts and not really, uh, you know, uh, trusted my own instincts about what I needed to do, and that’s the biggest thing I learned as a father. It made me, uh, at this stage, hopefully, a better father to my son than I was before.
HEFFNER: What did you learn were those underlying circumstances?
HEFFNER: For him.
REINER: You know, I’m not gonna get into that specifically about Nick, because, you know, that’s, that’s his personal stuff, and, you know, he’s dealing with that, and we all deal with our own, you know, personal issues, but, uh, I… The one thing I can tell you is that it’s different for everybody. It’s… There’s not one thing that causes somebody to overuse a medication or a, or, uh, alcohol or… There’s… It’s an individual issue for each person.
HEFFNER: And when we had Tom Frieden here, he’s also a native of New York, and familiar with the plight of drug abuse, and the increasing sensitivity to Caucasians who are killing themselves.
REINER: The, the one thing that we can kind of all agree upon is that the, this is, this should not be criminalized. People who are suffering with, uh, emotional problems should not be punished for having those emotional problems. It, it, it… It starts to destigmatize the whole idea of mental health and drug issues and so on, so that’s something we can all kind of agree on, and you see this on both sides of the aisle: Republicans and Democrats talking about reforming the criminal justice system to not incarcerate people who are being arrested for, uh, drug use, you know? But finding, uh, other ways of helping them cope with, with the problems they have. If you see somebody, uh, who’s hurt, or who’s injured, you know, if somebody, uh, you know, can’t walk, and they, there, there’s something wrong with their leg, you don’t say, “Well, just get up and run.” No, no, they can’t. They need help to… in order to be able to run at some point. So, that’s, that’s I think the biggest, the biggest part of it for me. That, that you… That, that’s what we’ve learned. You know? That, that… We need to decriminalize this and make this so that, you know, we can, as society, help people. Now, what you brought up was something really interesting. You said, uh, white people, and I believe that if this, what we call epidemic or whatever, uh, had not infiltrated itself into white suburban, uh, communities, we wouldn’t be talking about this, b… Um, if it was just in, uh, a ghetto neighborhoods, or, uh, African American areas or Latino, it’s because it’s hit white suburban America that all of a sudden there’s a lot of attention, and you see it in all of the campaigns.
HEFFNER: Oh. Absolutely. It’s true.
REINER: All the campaigns, there, there… You know…
HEFFNER: There was a racialized immersion to Ebola and, and Tom was able, Tom Frieden was able to reflect on that quite intelligently, having been in the trenches and now fighting this epidemic.
REINER: Right, but the question is, for me, the question is, what is causing this? What is causing the, uh, expansion of heroin, you know, which is the one drug that’s being… Now, you could say, make the argument, well, prescription drugs are more expensive.
HEFFNER: Right, that’s what he says.
REINER: Well, that, that…
HEFFNER: He says the over-prescription.
REINER: That’s, that’s…
REINER: That’s in terms of access to the drug. In other words, you can’t get the prescription drugs, it’s too expensive, so they’re not producing cheap heroin, people get… But still, why do you want the heroin? Why do you want the prescription drugs? That’s what we have to understand. Why do so many young people feel empty, feel, uh, uh, emotionally bereft that they need to fill themselves up with these drugs? What is the cause?
HEFFNER: Of the anxiety…
HEFFNER: From the outset.
REINER: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: Because it’s the anxiety that’s l… That’s leading them to the medicine cabinet.
HEFFNER: And then that medicine cabinet is exhausted.
HEFFNER: And then they go out on the street.
HEFFNER: And they find heroin.
HEFFNER: And that’s the cycle.
REINER: Right. And so, and so what is, what is causing that? What is it? And, and… I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t answer that question.
HEFFNER: You’re a sociologist of the screen.
REINER: Yeah. [LAUGHS] There you go.
HEFFNER: You might say.
REINER: There you go.
HEFFNER: But I did find the film to be useful from the perspective to you come at this as a humorist and there is the intertwining of romance and levity in the film.
REINER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] To some extent. How do you think that heart to heart, we can exchange solutions in a way that is, like you said, destigmatizing the process.
REINER: Right, well, what, what we’re doing here. I mean, the one thing that I always wanted to do was it for to be… For it to be part of the dialogue. Now… Uh…
HEFFNER: And we’re, and we’re sorry Nick can’t be here.
HEFFNER: Because I really did want…
HEFFNER: Intergenerational perspective.
REINER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HEFFNER: And you want you to embody that too…
REINER: And he has a lot of ideas. A lot of his ideas are expressed in the film. You know, when he, when his, when the character, uh, uh, you know, Charlie says, you know, these programs don’t work for me, you know, uh, you have to listen to your kids. I mean, a lot of times, you know, the drugs are talking and stuff and so they’ll tell you, you know, don’t listen to them because of the drugs, they’re more interested in the drugs, but you have to try to find your way through it and know who your kid really is, and say, maybe they don’t. Maybe you have to find another, uh, avenue and, listen, I’m not an expert. I don’t know. I couldn’t prescribe where… What people should do, but I certainly can be made… Can be part of the dialogue, and that’s why, hopefully, the film will be.
HEFFNER: When I think of the classic films, um, When Harry Met Sally…, and then the films that you acted in, um, that were also Ephron productions, I, I think of the state of comedy then and the state of romance being something tamer. Fair?
REINER: Well, I think so. I mean, if you look at what’s h…
HEFFNER: You know, there weren’t any needles that…
REINER: No, no, but if you look at…
HEFFNER: That, that Harry was giving Sally or vice versa, right?
REINER: No, no, no, but, no if you look at…
REINER: If you look at, uh, just generally, the, the, the movies, you know, everything’s been ratcheted up. The violence, the sex, language, all these things have been ratcheted up, because people need more of whatever it is you’re giving them, so, yes, something like When Harry Met Sally… looks kinda tame compared to, you know, uh, you know, the, the… Hangover.
HEFFNER: Orgies. [LAUGHS]
REINER: Hangover. Whatever the thing is. You know? It’s, it’s, it’s a little different. So, uh, yeah, things do get ratcheted up, but what I’ve tried to do, and with Being Charlie, I tried to do the same thing, is there are some dark issues, it is dramatic, it is edgy, but it’s also funny, and it can be, all, all, all of those things, and there is a romantic element, albeit one that is fueled by, uh, by drugs, but still, uh, these are all things that kind of blend together in, in real, in the real world, and so, hopefully it reflects a lot of what goes on in the real world.
HEFFNER: Uh, and do you yearn for that tamer culture?
REINER: Well, I don’t, I don’t think of that, in those terms. I think of, you know, what is it I’m feeling, what am I thinking, what, you know, based on what’s happening in the world and influences, how, what do I think about that, and then try to put it on the screen some way. In some, some…
HEFFNER: L… Larry David… Larry David… [LAUGHS] Has said, you know, in this, uh, coarsened, if you will.
HEFFNER: State of comedy, you have to throw in an F-bomb, an expletive, whatever he says, in order to have that given punch.
HEFFNER: What say you, Rob Reiner?
REINER: I don’t think you have to, unless the character is somebody who would talk like that. I mean, it’s interesting, if you look at, uh, uh, Spinal Tap or Stand by Me or When Harry Met Sally…, uh, they’re all R-rated films, and yet, compared to, like I say, uh, Hangover or, you know, some, you know, whatever the Spring Break, whatever the t… Films are, it’s not even close. I mean, it’s, but it’s just language and people, you know, get freaked out by language, I guess.
HEFFNER: How is your experience, most recently with Being Charlie, informing the way you look at a political thriller, and also, retrospectively, how you think about something like A Few Good Men … you know, to the extent that drugs intersect with the legal and political process … Quite intimately.
REINER: Yeah, well, I, you know, to me, they’re very different animals. I mean, the one thing that I’ve done throughout my career is I do a lot of different things. I mean, you know, if you look at Spinal Tap or Princess Bride and, uh, Stand by Me, they, they’re all, and, you know, A Few Good Men, they’re different kinds of things, so, each one is their own animal, and Being Charlie is its own animal. It, it basically is what it is, and I, I wouldn’t, you know, uh, compare it to any of the other films that I’ve done. I mean, the only element that is … You know, is similar is there is a father-son thing, and I’ve kind of hit on that theme a number of times in films, but never, uh, never like this.
HEFFNER: Was LBJ an alcoholic? I mean, did he drink? Did… He wasn’t this…
REINER: L, L…
HEFFNER: One of these evangelical sober types.
REINER: L… No…
REINER: No, LBJ drank.
REINER: But I don’t think anybody would think of LBJ as an alcoholic.
REINER: I mean, you know, the man was the President of the United States and he ran the country pretty well.
HEFFNER: Al.. Although I have to say, I, I defer…
REINER: Although, maybe he was drinking when he decided to ramp up the war in Vietnam.
REINER: [OVERLAP] I still hold that against him.
HEFFNER: Well, you ought to. I…
REINER: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] We ought to collectively.
HEFFNER: And Bush, President Bush found himself through the evangelical teachings, but he still…
HEFFNER: We, we, we see the genocide that…
REINER: Well, that…
HEFFNER: Was unleashed as a result of…
REINER: Well, that, that to me, I mean, when you t… Look at the Iraq War, uh, to me, I mean, in my lifetime, I never thought that we’d have, uh, we, I lived through Vietnam, I was of draft age during that period, and I was frightened because I might have g… And then to have that happen, way worse Iraq, way worse than Vietnam. Vietnam, you could make the argument, that there was, uh, creeping Communism and the domino theory and all, but Iraq was an absolutely necessary, uh, uh, venture, and it cost…
REINER: Th… Hundreds of thousands of lives and a trillion and a half dollars, at this point maybe up to three trillion, and that’s the next film that I’m hoping to make is, is, is a film I call Shock and Awe, and, uh, uh, that’s the film I wanna make next, which is about how we got into the Iraq War. To me, is one of the biggest, uh, foreign policy disasters in the history of the country.
HEFFNER: Well, I want you to reflect on LBJ, and I, and I understand what you’re saying, they’re separate entities.
HEFFNER: But, um, what you said about a drunken stupor leading to mass casualties, you know, to, to my mind, the portrait of LBJ in the Broadway production that was heralded…
REINER: Yeah, All the Way.
HEFFNER: All the Way. You know, it, it was a bit of a caricature.
HEFFNER: And, and I know that there are people who disagree with this. There are people who were senior advisors to LBJ who disagree with this, who thought it was eerily reminiscent of…
HEFFNER: Their memory of it. But, uh, how do you, how are you trying to portray LBJ in this film, relative to that? Because there was something uncannily weird a… About…
REINER: Well, I, I saw the, the play…
REINER: And I thought Bryan Cranston did a great job.
HEFFNER: Brilliant job.
REINER: Yeah, and, and, and there was certainly an aspect of LBJ, but LBJ w… Is a… Was a very, very complex human being. He was almost Shakespearean in, uh, in his nature, in that, coupled with this incredible strength and bravado and pushing people around and getting what he wants was an incredibly insecure human being, who was frightened that people wouldn’t love him and the… A book that I read that I… You know, because I read all the Caro books.
REINER: Which are brilliant and, you know, it was the, probably the most detailed chronicle… chronicler of LBJ. Uh, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book about LBJ and she was b… Brought down to the ranch, uh, ‘cause she had worked in the LBJ administration, and he called her down to wo… You know, to help with his, uh, biography, and there were a couple of nuggets that I found in there, which to me gave… An insight into who this guy was, and I wanted to make a film… Everybody knows that LBJ, uh, you know, became president, passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start… He… Tremendous, uh, achievements that, that he had, and everybody knows these things. They know the Vietnam War. He could… He didn’t run because of it, because, uh, he was frightened that Bobby Kennedy was gonna knock him off and, and the Bobby Kennedy dies, and he had let… Everybody knows that, but they don’t know, what is, what made this guy the way he was? What drove him and what kept him back, and so, the film that I made, and hopefully people will get a little bit of an insight, and it’s the things that I was able to pull out of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, so…
HEFFNER: And, and those are the questions that it’s aspiring to answer.
REINER: Yes, and I think you’ll see it. First of all, Woody Harrelson is insane how good he is. I mean, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and he gets to the root of what we think was at the core of LBJ’s drive and also fear, and, and, uh, hopefully, we, we, we get that in there.
HEFFNER: And is it a somber, solemn portrait, or is there…
REINER: Well, no.
HEFFNER: Because it’s, there’s no goofiness there. [LAUGHS]
REINER: No, no, no, we got… I mean, there’s a lot of laughs in this thing.
HEFFNER: Is there?
REINER: I mean, oh yeah. Oh, you know, we took the, you know, him ordering pants.
REINER: When he was a majority leader and talking about the size of his, uh, you know, the l… Larger than Donald Trump’s hands.
REINER: You know, but I mean, he talks about and that’s, that’s a known record. It’s on, uh, tapes, and we talk, you know, he used to have meetings with people while he was going to the bathroom, so we have those things, and it’s funny. There’s a lot of funny stuff in it, but it’s also very serious too.
HEFFNER: And Shock and Awe.
REINER: Shock and Awe is the picture that I’d like to do next. It’s, there’s four journalists that worked for the Knight Ridder News Service who got it right. They got it all right. They debunked the aluminum tubes, the yellow cake, the, uh, uh…
HEFFNER: Was one of them John Walcott?
REINER: Yes. Yes. Yeah.
HEFFNER: Good guy. Did you interview him for the…
REINER: Yeah, I met with all four of them. You know, it’s…
HEFFNER: I mean, he is a straight arrow.
REINER: Warren Strobe… Warren Strobel and, uh, and Jonathan Landay, um, Walcott, and Galloway. All… The four of them. They got it right. They got it right, and, and…
HEFFNER: Sounds like another Spotlight.
REINER: And, and nobody…
HEFFNER: In the making.
REINER: Yeah, but nobody listened to them. Nobody listened to them, because the mainstream media had bought into the, the, the, the, the lies that the Bush administration was feeding, feeding them, so this is, uh, a cautionary tale, but it also shows how, how you, how we got there, and how important it is to have an independent, free press. Not owned by big, uh, corporate, uh, you know, media companies, that to have that independent press, to be able to, uh, uh, elected officials accountable.
HEFFNER: When did you get together with them in planning the movie?
REINER: Oh, this was a couple years ago. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. You know, I’ve been thinking about this because, like I say, I, I, I f… I protested against the war. I was on the streets, because I just couldn’t believe. It was like seeing, your, uh, your child run into the street and you can’t stop it from getting hit by the truck, and everything that we knew, it happened. We knew there was 1400 year war going on between Sunnis and Shia. We knew that if you took the, the, the, the, the iron fist of Saddam Hussein out of the equation, you would unleash this, uh, sectarian war that had been going on for 1400 years, that Iraq was not a country, that it was a, an arbitrary piece of land that was drawn up by, uh, some British civil servants after the first World War, and that the predominant uh, uh, sect in, in Islam is Sunni, not Shia, but there happen to be more Shia in that area, and so all of those things we knew, this is gonna be a disaster, and it was not gonna be some, you know, uh, uh, you know … western-style democracy that was gonna be plunked down in the Middle East that was gonna proliferate and protect, ultimately protect Israel. We knew that wasn’t going to happen, and of course, it didn’t happen.
HEFFNER: We’re running out of time. I was going to ask you about their reflections a decade or so later, whether the press is getting it right now. Hold on that thought.
HEFFNER: While I ask you this.
HEFFNER: Are you going to bring some comic relief to these floor fights at the DNC and RNC, which, which loom large right now?
REINER: I don’t know that they’ll be floor fights at the DNC. I think that it’s, even though there’s a lot of fighting now because we’re in New York and Hilary and, and Bernie are going at it, you know, I think that when we get to the, uh, convention, Hillary will become the nominee. Now, for the Republicans, I think you’re gonna have… it’s gonna be a donnybrook, and I think it’s gonna be fun. Unless, somehow, uh, Trump can martial the 1237 that he needs—I don’t know that he can; if he can’t then Katie, bar the door. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
HEFFNER: So, now that I do have time, can you answer that…
HEFFNER: That, uh, more serious question about their reflections and the state of the media ten years after Iraq.
REINER: The guys, um, you know, they were questioning themselves during the run-up to the war, because they thought, are we the… How come we’re one of the only ones writing this stuff? Nobody else is writing these articles. Maybe we’re wrong. You know, maybe we have it wrong. They did doubt themselves, but I think that, hopefully, before we ever go into another war, that the press does their due diligence. I think, hopefully, the press learned a lesson that, uh, you know, before you send people into harm’s way, you better know what you’re doing there.
HEFFNER: Well, the story of the last two decades, unfortunately, is Wag the Dog.
HEFFNER: I mean that is the… That is quintessentially…
REINER: Absolutely. Absolutely. You find, you find something you want to do, and then you create the narrative to allow yourself to do it, but boy, I mean, they were great at that. You know, it’s like Andy Card said, you don’t, you know, you don’t roll out a new product in August. Uh, they knew how to market that war, but that’s one battle you’re winning, but then what it is, what are you doing, what are you trying to achieve?
REINER: And can you achieve it?
HEFFNER: And who was better, Bob De Niro or Karl Rove?
REINER: Uh, I don’t know. Karl Rove’s pretty smart. He’s pretty smart. Bob De Niro’s not a real… I mean, he’s a real actor.
REINER: [But he’s not a real person, though.
REINER: In the thing. Yeah.
HEFFNER: Which, which… So we can at least laugh at that.
REINER: [OVERLAP] Yeah. I think we have to keep, I mean you have a … You’re, you’re with a, a, you know, with an organization that is, a, a, a free press. I mean, there is a freedom at PBS. I mean, you can do it, but I’m worried about, uh, you know, NBC, ABC, CBS, that are owned by big conglomerates, and whether or not they are really free to do the, the, the real reporting that they need to do. In 1968, when, when 60 Minutes came on the air, that was the first time that, that networks realized they can make money from the news. That’s a dangerous thing. It used to be loss leader. Used to be that the, that, you know, newscasts were loss leader. Now, you can make money, and once you start making money off the news, you’re… It’s not good. Not good.
HEFFNER: Well, we appreciate you gracing us today.
REINER: Well, thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: And, uh, I also appreciate what you said about public media, because it’s, it’s vitally important.
REINER: Hundred percent important. But you’re, you’re, you know, it’s like, oh, we’re here, we’re here. You know?
HEFFNER: Thank you, Rob.
REINER: Thank you. Nice to see you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you, in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.