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Rob Reiner Takes On 'Misery' : The director follows his hit comedy 'When Harry Met Sally . . . ' with a chiller, his second film taken from a Stephen King novel

April 29, 1990|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Movie makeup or not, James Caan looks terrible. With a nasty black eye, a swollen cheek, welts along his neck and a huge gash across his forehead, he looks like he's staggered through a bloody 10-round welterweight prizefight. Stretched out on some rumpled sheets, his legs encased in heavy metal braces, the veteran actor is rehearsing a difficult scene from "Misery," an unsettling new Rob Reiner film shooting

here about a best-selling romance novelist who is imprisoned by a crazed female fan. (The bruises and broken legs are from a car-crash scene earlier in the film.)

Today, under Reiner's watchful eye, Caan is practicing throwing himself out of bed. A big bear of a man, Reiner stands behind the camera and calls for action. Awkwardly flopping out of bed, Caan hits the floor with a loud thud. He slowly begins a painful crawl across the room, dragging his shriveled limbs behind him.

"That's good," Reiner says, laying down on the bed after Caan has finished. "But I want the legs to follow behind you when you fall." Eager to demonstrate exactly how he envisions the scene, Reiner tumbles off the bed and hits the floor with a wallop.

"Yeh!" he says with a gleeful, surprised laugh. "That's what I'm looking for."

Still on the floor nearby, Caan wags his head. "Great," he says in his Bronx subway drawl. "And then what?"

Reiner studies the hardwood floor, looking for a mark. "Then you crawl to here. This black dot. If you go any further, you'll get too close to the camera and we'll lose you."

Caan squints at the distant spot. "Yeh, I see the black dot. No problem."

But there is a problem. The camera crew wants Caan to crawl a little farther. Barry Sonnenfeld, the film's sly director of photography, picks an appropriate spot and spits on the floor. Without missing a beat, Reiner says, "OK, Jimmy. You crawl to the loogie. "

Caan grimaces. "I can't believe you guys. You hocked a loogie . "

Sonnenfeld rubs the gob of spit into the floor with one of his sneakers. "When you feel a certain dampness, Jimmy, just stop there."

Reiner cackles. "Right. Stop at the schmutz. "

Caan is beside himself. "You guys are unbelievable," he groans, starting to giggle a little himself. "Just stop at the schmutz ! This is the only movie ever where I have someone hocking my marks!"

No one stands on ceremony on Rob Reiner's movie sets.

A bespectacled New Yorker who also shot Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," Sonnenfeld teases the burly director about his favorite outfit--Nike tennis shirt and baggy sweats--by saying, "You're wearing another one of those shirts. What is it--you have a deal with them?"

Between shots, Caan regales the crew with Francis Coppola stories: "He called me up to do 'Apocalypse Now' and he tells me what an epic this movie's gonna be out in the jungle and how it's only going to be 16 weeks work. And I say, 'Francis. Who do you think you're talking to? 13 weeks. Maybe 13 years .' "

When visitors--even Hollywood heavyweights--stop by, they're treated with polite indifference. Even when Reiner's mega-agent, Michael Ovitz, visited the set, he has to wait patiently until someone takes notice and points him in the right direction.

"Misery," which stars Caan and stage actress Kathy Bates and is due out this December, is a big step in a new direction for Reiner. But if the 43-year-old director is feeling the pressure, it isn't showing. Of course it helps that Reiner is riding a crest of critical and box-office success that began with the rock satire "This Is Spinal Tap," and has continued through boyhood fables ("Stand By Me"), fantasy adventure ("The Princess Bride") and romantic comedy ("When Harry Met Sally . . .").

As his directing career has blossomed, Reiner has achieved a hard-earned sense of security and self-confidence. Some friends credit it to his happy marriage to photographer Michele Singer. Others point to the firm control he exercises over his films, thanks to Castle Rock Entertainment, a production company formed in 1987 with managing partner Alan Horn, Reiner and three other partners, which gives the director freedom from studio interference.

But Reiner clearly acts more at ease than in past years. In past press encounters he seemed somewhat wary about his media image, which had typed him either as Carl Reiner's upstart son or as the loutish "Meathead" character in "All in the Family."

Now he's so relaxed that when he spotted his visitor admiring his baseball memorabilia, he insisted he pass a trivia test ("Name the five players who hit 500 home runs and had a .300 career average") before the interview could begin.

"I'm definitely more at peace with myself," he acknowledged, relaxing in an airy pool house at his Benedict Canyon home. "I think when 'Stand By Me' was a success, it helped calm me down a lot. It was the first time that something I did which came completely naturally had done well and was accepted.

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