Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Rob Reiner.
Nepotism can get you pretty far in Hollywood, and having Carl Reiner as a father was surely a benefit to Rob Reiner’s career. In the end, though, the younger Reiner still went to film school (though he got kicked out) and turned out some of the greatest movies of the ’80s and ’90s, all of his own merit. His varied work includes classics of the rom-com, horror, coming-of-age, courtroom drama, and mockumentary genres. They’ve been up for the Oscar for Best Picture and the Razzie for Worst Picture.
With more than 30 years experience as a filmmaker, on top of his half-century in the TV and movie industry as a writer, director, and Meathead (er, actor), he is a source for lots of great advice. Here are 11 of his best filmmaking tips:
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Rob Reiner
1. Study Anything But Filmmaking
Reiner is a genuine film school reject, having been kicked out of UCLA for skipping classes. He went on to do stand-up comedy and improv theatre before becoming a TV writer and star, then began his movie directing career in his late 30s. He learned a lot of the technical stuff as he went along, but he had a talent for storytelling and interest in different sorts of stories because he’d lived awhile and had other kinds of experiences before stepping behind the camera.
In a recent article for Moviemaker magazine on things he’s learned as a filmmaker, Reiner gives a few tips about what to study other than filmmaking. First:
“If you want to be a filmmaker, I would suggest you don’t go to film school. Go study humanities, or English, or art history, because whatever frames of reference you have, they’re going to come into play when you start making movies. The technical part of making movies, you can learn that. But what you can’t learn is different frames of reference.”
2. Take Acting Lessons
In another tip, he says you should you have to have loved and lost to do a love story. In another, he says director’s aren’t perfectly fluent in anything, just fluent enough in everything to communicate with all areas of production. And in another, he addresses how being an actor first has been good for him and other directors:
“I look at a lot of the directors that I admire, and most of them were actors to start with. I just feel like they have a closer connection to the human experience and what people go through. A director should take acting classes because then you understand what actors can and can’t do and what you can ask them to do. If you want to make these big action franchise pictures, or commercials, then you’re better off just studying the technology of it. I don’t find that to be as creative as telling stories about people and what they go through. If you’re making a film that’s CGI and the dialogue is ‘Get down!’ or ‘Run!’ then you don’t have to worry about it. But if you’re making a movie about relationships between human beings, then it’s good to know how human beings get from one moment to the next; how to talk to them and get them to do what you want.”
3. Alter to Fit
Also in that Moviemaker article, Reiner addresses how a film production is like a traveling circus made up of all kinds of people, but everyone is there to “serve the master.” The master is the film. As the director, you’re the ringleader guiding the whole thing to that goal, and that includes working on the script and altering it to fit everything that serves the big picture.
In the 2000 book “Directors Close Up: Interviews with Directors Nominated for Best Film by the Director’s Guild of America,” Reiner says the following about the process of bringing script to screen:
“I open the hood and get in there. Hopefully the writers are not too upset because they see that it’s not a director trying to make it into his film and ruin their material, but it’s really trying to shore up what they already have. I worked with Bill Goldman on ‘Misery,’ and it even got to the point where the last couple drafts, I wrote without Bill. To where he would say, ‘Go ahead, you know what you are doing here.’ And it doesn’t take anything from him, his name’s there, and everybody knows, he worked on it, and Stephen King wrote the novel, and it’s his story, it’s not mine. But if everybody understands the process is collaborative and there is no ownership on it, then you get in there and do whatever it takes. Once I have the script then obviously there are problems with locations that don’t work and because you can’t get things there, you alter things slightly to fit what’s there. A particular actor may have a problem with a certain kind of emotion so you alter it to help him, but always never to destroy what your main plan is to begin with.”
4. Don’t Be the Silent Schmuck
“You’re not part of the cast, and you’re not part of the crew,” is another important bit Reiner says in both the Moviemaker article and in the below video of an extensive interview at the New York Film Academy in 2016.
Near the end of the talk, he admits that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know something but also don’t be afraid to say what you want. Don’t let the crew think you’re an idiot. Don’t be the silent schmuck, as he was advised by Herb Gardner, but understand directing is a lonely job. There’s more great pieces of wisdom to be found as the segment goes on. Watch:
5. Approach Drama and Comedy the Same Way
Reiner has fluctuated well between dramas and comedies, and the key to that success is that he doesn’t treat the two genres as different kinds of movies. Asked about the difference between filming comedy and drama during a 2014 roundtable interview (transcribed at Cloture Club), he answered:
“In my opinion, there should be no difference. You’re trying to just get the performances that you want. I have fun on the set whether it’s serious [or not].”
Later in the same interview, Reiner answers a call to what makes a great comedy, and he suggests it’s mixing in drama:
“I like things that are real and make you laugh, something that works on a couple of levels. There’s an emotional underpinning to it and it’s also humorous … you can be very emotional and serious and still get big laughs! This is really cool! If I could ever do anything like that, that is what I would like to do.’ I try to find ways of doing that. If you look at ‘And So It Goes,’ there’s a son who had drug problems and he’s on his way to go to jail. He has a granddaughter that he’s never met and her mother has major drug problems. There’s a dark side to this and there’s a lot of laughs. Same thing with ‘Stand By Me.’ They’re going to see a dead body and the kid’s worried his father hates him, yet there’s a lot of laughs in that too. There’s vomit all over the place. You can do both!”
6. Make Sure Your Actors Can Hit the Right Notes
There is something different about the needs going into comedy compared to drama, however. In “Directors Close Up,” Reiner also discusses the keys to casting for comedies, which he says are “way, way more difficult” to make than dramas. He continues:
“There are not a lot of good people who do comedy. That’s why you have to see a lot of people, because somebody has to come in and just hit the right notes. It’s like a great studio musician. You look at a great studio musician, he’ll hit every note right, every time. And a great comedic actor will do the same thing. But you have to see whether or not they can do it. If they don’t have the rhythm, they instinct to do it, you can’t teach them.”
7. You Never Know
Reiner made many classics in the first half of his directing career, but since then he’s not been as beloved or as successful. What changed? It’s hard to say what about him has changed, because obviously he still want to keep making great movies. In a 2013 /Film interview, he’s asked if he knew certain classics would be classics. His answer:
“You never know. You just make films and do what you think is something you like and hopefully other people like it, but you have no idea. I mean you can’t really think about box office or critics or any of that stuff because at the end of the day, it’s about does this picture have any longevity? I mean does this picture, will it be discovered? Is it something audiences will attach themselves to? And I’ve been lucky I’ve had a couple of pictures that have stood the test of time and have been around for a while, but you never know. You never know when you go in, you never know what’s going to click with an audience.”
8. It’s Not Life or Death
This is a job, one that can cost people millions of dollars, but don’t let any of it stress you out. Reiner took a while to learn this, but most of the decisions you have to make on a movie set aren’t that big a deal. He writes in the Moviemaker article:
“Not every decision—and you have to make thousands of them as a director—is life and death. One of my favorite scenes in Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ is when the prop man comes and says, “Do you want the red cup, or the blue cup?” And the director is standing there agonizing, like if he doesn’t make the right decision the whole film is going to be destroyed. That means nothing—just pick something! As long as you’re not cutting into a vital organ, the patient will live.”
9. Enjoy Yourself
Not only is making a movie not a life or death matter, but it should something you enjoy doing. Here’s another tip from “Directors Close Up” on the experience during production day to day:
“The most important thing is to get people that you like to see in the morning. When you come to work and you’ve got a long schedule and it’s nice to say, ‘Hey, it’s that guy again that I like’ and ‘Hi, how are you?’ So the most important thing is people that you can get along with, that you enjoy spending time with. The film itself is for the public, it goes out there. But what you have is your experience of actually making the film. And that’s what you take with you through your life. So you want to surround yourself with people that you enjoy being with. Now, obviously, hopefully they can do their job as well, and they’re not just your friends and family.”
10. Get Lots of Rest
This might be the actual most important of all. In “Directors Close Up,” Reiner addresses some of the hardest parts of directing, including the challenge of avoiding the craft service table, the difficulty keeping a marriage together while you’re all-consumed by the work, and this:
“I always tell people the toughest thing about directing is the physical part of it. Get as much rest as you can, and sit down as much as you can during the course of the day.”
11. Just Do It
You’ve seen this tip from many filmmakers lately. They all know the truth: the tools are so accessible, and the reach of simple platforms for notice is such that you don’t need film school or a famous father in Hollywood or anything like that. You just need to do it. He explains in this recent Film Courage interview:
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
A lot, especially if you look over the whole Moviemaker article of his and watch the entirety of the two video interviews featured here and read all of his advice and lessons in the “Directors Close Up” book (including stuff about music and editing).
Of the tips we highlighted, though, the main things to take away are that you shouldn’t go to film school, you should just make something, don’t worry about sticking to the script, don’t worry about sticking to any genre, and you should also be educated in a variety of areas and be able to communicate with all the different fields of collaboration on a movie set. Be like a Meathead but not like a schmuck.
Additional research and reporting by Natalie Mokry.