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Rob Reiner: “Every movie is a startup”

SmartBrief CEO Rick Stamberger talks to Rob Reiner about his new movie, managing actors' egos and his experience co-founding Castle Rock.

12 min read


"Shock and Awe"

James Marsden and Woody Harrelson in "Shock and Awe" (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Rob Reiner stopped by the SmartBrief office in Washington, D.C., on Monday to discuss producing and directing movies, the creation of Castle Rock, and his newest project, “Shock and Awe” (a DirecTV exclusive from June 14 to July 11, in theaters July 13).

The film explores the efforts of Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief John Walcott, played by Reiner, and his reporters before the 2003 Iraq War as they questioned the true nature of the Bush White House’s justification for the invasion. Walcott, now at Reuters, has also served as chief content officer and editor-in-chief at SmartBrief.

While Reiner is well known for his many television  (“All in the Family”) and movie roles (“This is Spinal Tap”), he has also been a successful director and producer for decades.

SmartBrief CEO and President Rick Stamberger spoke with Reiner about his role as a business leader in a highly competitive industry. Excerpts of that discussion follow.

Why make “Shock and Awe”?

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

RICK STAMBERGER: I asked John [Walcott], “Why should a conservative Republican watch this film?”

ROB REINER: What was his answer?

Because nobody should go into war lightly. And they ought to go out to Section 60 Arlington [Cemetery] and see the cost —

There’s a line in the movie that I say, playing John, and that John actually in fact said to his journalists, right there at the newsroom. They had been watching this “Meet The Press” show in which Dick Cheney was giving the rationale for the war to Tim Russert, and the main journalists Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel were starting to question their reporting, wondering, were they getting it right? And John gives this incredible speech, which he actually gave and we wrote it.

But the line’s that’s the most important and the line that really resonates not only then but now is, “If the government says something, you have only one question to ask: Is it true?”

And that is the job of the journalist, to find the truth. Because unless we inform the public as to what is true and what is not, we cannot hold our elected officials accountable for the policies that they might put in place that could cause people to meet with their deaths. Especially when it comes to life and death, you really have to hold public officials accountable. That’s what the movie’s about.

Leadership lessons from film-making

You did “A Few Good Men,” which was also, I think, a leadership and moral lesson. Thinking of yourself as a businessperson, you’ve watched this film. What’s the message out of this?

I think the message is the American public not having the truth can be extremely costly. And even on a business level, if you don’t have something that is a truthful product in some way, you may have short-term gains but, ultimately, you’ll have big losses if you don’t put out something that’s based on honest research, honest performance, and so on. And I think that’s what this is about. It’s about telling people the truth so that we can have better-informed lives and less costly, in terms of life, blood and treasure.

And, when you looked at and heard what was going on with the leadership of Knight Ridder during this time period, what’s your take on that situation?

Tony Ridder, what I heard from John, was that he said, “Go get ‘em.” He trusted John, that John was gonna do the right thing, and he gave him full support, and that’s great leadership.

The reason I started Castle Rock with my partners was because — again, when you’re starting up a new company, you have to find something that you’re gonna do that nobody else can do.

And so our thought, and the reason we had the lighthouse as our logo, was we wanted to send a beacon out to artists, filmmakers, creative people, that this was a safe place to come. That studios are cookie-cutter, they’re a certain kind of mentality, but if you wanted to come to our company, we were gonna respect you, we were gonna allow you to do what you do, we were not gonna be intrusive. Just like Tony Ridder did with John Walcott, saying, “OK, you can do your thing. I’m hiring you to do your thing.” And that’s why we did it.

I did it for selfish reasons because I didn’t have a place that I felt I could go to do the kinds of work that I wanted to do. So, in a weird way, it was like protecting myself.

You had what, a couple hundred people on set [for “Shock and Awe”]?

No, no, that you would have on a big, big set. I don’t know what we had, 75, 80, something like that.

That’s still a good number of folks.

[Editor’s note: Rob’s wife, Michele Reiner, joins in here.]

Michele: He runs a very congenial, relaxed, very nice set.

You’ve been elsewhere to see other experiences, or you’ve heard, certainly, of others.

Michele: Yeah, and heard about a lot of other directors. And he’s just basically a really — and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband —  he’s a very nice guy. … And he tries to make the hours not grueling, and people love working for him because he doesn’t go over time, he doesn’t do a million takes, and he just knows what he wants and he gets it.

Rob: I want to hire people where I walk into work and I go, “Hey, there’s that guy! I like that guy.” Or, “There’s that woman, I love her,” or whatever. The other thing that I’ve learned that, if you create a good atmosphere, and it makes it good for everyone, it’s gonna be better for me!

On managing “stars”

It is a testament to you that you get a cast like the one in this movie, and you’ve done it before. [in jest] I can tell, you’re shy, reserved, it’s kinda hard for you to be infectious about anything. How do you get a Tommy Lee Jones? How do you get a Jack Nicholson?

I think the actors, the first thing they want is the script is something that — if they’re of a certain caliber — they want to be part of something that is of value. That has some kind of artistic value that will become part of the cultural tapestry and that they can be part of that. And there’s a part for them to play and they feel they can play it.

Secondly, they look to see a director that they respect and they feel is going to realize that script in a way that they’ll feel good about it. And, so, as time goes by and they see certain things I’ve done. It’s like, when Martin Scorsese — I did a part in “Wolf of Wall Street” — when he says he’d like you to be in the movie, you just say, where do I show up? Because you know he’s gonna do something of value, something that’s interesting and of value and you want to be part of it.

I’m lucky in that I made some things that people like and then they say, OK I want to be part of it.

And these guys and women are not exactly shy and retiring violets. The entire management of creative stars is its own subtopic for leadership.

It is. It’s well-known that actors have big egos. But if they have a respect for the work, the script, and they have a respect for the director, people tend to park the egos at the door and say, OK, we’re all in this together for this common good. And it’s rare, I mean, I do see it, I’ve seen it where people will act out. But what I find is that people will act out if they feel that the daddy or the mommy — whoever the director is — is wavering, is not sure. Then they’ll start acting out because then they don’t feel secure.

What I tell a lot of first-time directors is, even if you don’t know what you want, say, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” Make a decision and do it, and then as you’re doing it, you may say, “Ooh, that was wrong. You know, wait a minute, we’re gonna do this,” so that at least they always feel that you are in control and you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t know sometimes.

Act as if.

And then you figure out what the right thing is. But give them a sense of confidence that you’re on top and you know what you’re doing.

SmartBrief CEO Rick Stamberger and Rob Reiner (Joe Webster/SmartBrief)

On TV and movie production as an entrepreneurial activity

You’re an entrepreneur. I said this to John [Walcott] over the weekend, every time you’re putting a movie together, you’re going through the steps of starting a business.

Every movie is a startup.

And you’re actively involved in the whole experience of running the set, and the culture around that, and hiring.

Every movie’s a startup. And unless you’re in the studio business of franchise, they’re all new.

And the math on that, if you’re producing films, there’s a certain economics on that.

The economics on producing films is whatever profits — you’re putting out production costs, you’re putting out marketing costs, you’re putting out publicity costs, and then whatever revenues you’re gonna get from, at that time, the theaters. At that time, there was DVDs — not so much now — and foreign sales, and all of that, and then whatever would come in, that would then cover.

Now, television’s different. In television, you’re producing all these television shows, and at that time you would be a deficit financer. In other words, you get a license fee from any one of the networks, and then if you ran over, you provide the deficit. And, as a deficit financer, you’d own the show, basically. Now, networks are allowed to own their own shows. But in those days, you owned the show.

So, we owned “Seinfeld,” so that was a good thing.

Everybody thinks you start a company, and it’s a home run and it’s automatic. But last night, I was watching the Tonys, and said, “You see those people who are coming up behind? Those are the investors.” And, I was sitting with a friend, and he said, “Why are they there?” And I said, “Because the likelihood of a success on Broadway is tiny. They want their moment in the sun.”

If it’s a new project, yes. … for any kind of new project, it’s scary.

And I would think the same’s the case for film.

Without question, without question. What I say to people who want to be in the film business is, you should want to be in it for other reasons than to make money. I don’t know now, but there was a profit margin of like 3%, which is not a business. But, if you own a studio, a huge library, you have an asset, and you’re building an asset. You may not have, on an ongoing basis, you may not have great returns, but you’re building the asset. It’s like owning a sports team. And so you’re adding value to the asset by putting new material into the library.

On the challenges of financing a movie

So in this movie, you decided you wanted to do this, and you figured out, here’s the angle. And, my understanding was it was a little challenging getting the financing on this. Is that correct?

It’s always challenging when you’re independently financing, because you start out with no distributor, so you’re cobbling together pots of money from different places —

You’re selling a vision, basically.

Yeah, and many times you’ll do foreign presales. You’ll hire a foreign sales agent. They’ll give you guarantees based on what they think they can sell in foreign presales, and then you can bank like 75% of those foreign sales towards production costs, and so on. So you cobble together all this stuff.

Now, luckily for us, we had a relationship with Matt George, who was one of the financiers of the picture I did before about LBJ. We had a good relationship and a good experience there, so we were able to put together a similar kind of package for “Shock and Awe.”

Michele [Reiner] and I, there was a shortfall as we were heading toward production … when we put up some of our own personal money. And they tell you never, ever, ever, ever put your own money into your own films.

That’s what they tell entrepreneurs.

But to me, it’s like you have to accept the idea that every penny you’re gonna put in is never gonna come back. A lot of things that we do — we do political things, we’ve done many things over the years — we do put a lot of own money into those things because we think there’s value, that there’s value beyond whatever artistic, intrinsic value. There is societal value on some level.

And we felt that way. We said OK, we want to tell this story because it’s important in this day and age. And the election actually was going on while we were making the film … so we saw what was happening there, and it became all the more prescient and resonate.


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