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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

"Before then, I'd done things which were pure comedy, which was OK, but it wasn't really me. I knew I had other things inside me. I just didn't know if people would accept them."

It's easy to see why he was so attracted to the idea of making "Misery." Taken from a Stephen King novel with a script by famed screenwriter William Goldman, the film is--on one level--a thriller about a famous writer being held captive by a deranged fan.

But the story isn't just about our frantic obsession with celebrity. It also portrays a writer battling to break free of his audience's expectations and blast off in a new direction.

"I really identified with a guy who needed a new challenge, who needs to push himself and grow," said Reiner, sipping a soft drink. "It can happen to anyone, but you really feel it in Hollywood. We're all pretty insecure people and when you've been successful doing something it's hard to break away from it. In this town, all you hear from industry people is the numbers. The box-office. So the pressure is relentless to keep your stock up.

"I remember when I finished 'All in the Family,' they came to me and Sally Struthers and wanted us to do a show just like it. And they were throwing around lots of money--$1 or $2 million a year, which back in 1979, was a lot of money. But I just couldn't see doing that. I was determined to find out if I could be a good director."

Reiner shook his head. "That's what attracted me to 'Misery.' That terrible fear you have when you go through a change. I was already working on 'Misery' when 'Harry Met Sally' came out and not a day went by when someone didn't say 'Keep making those kinds of films.'

"And I kept thinking, 'Geez. What are they going to think when this movie comes out?' "

You could probably win a barroom bet someday by asking: What director has made--not one--but two films from Stephen King novels? The answer: Reiner, whose 1986 film, "Stand By Me," was taken from a King book called "The Body."

Still, "Stand By Me" was a boyhood reverie. "Misery," at least in book form, is a deadly chiller, forcing a bedridden writer to battle wits with a psycho-fan. "We got rid of the most gory and horrific parts," Reiner admits. "I wanted to concentrate on the idea of this chess match between the artist and his fan."

"You definitely see in this film why fan is short for fanatic. It's tricky, because to some degree, getting attention is a real compliment. But if you go one step farther. . . ."

Reiner fell silent. "When you're an artist, you need an audience. You want people to love you." He chuckled dryly. "You just don't want them to love you too much."

Reiner's earlier association with King came in handy. His Castle Rock partner, Martin Shafer, bought "Misery" in a book store, but assumed the rights were taken. As it turned out, King had refused to sell the book because of the way his previous novels had been handled--or mishandled--by the studios.

"I remember we had a private screening of 'Stand By Me,' and Stephen got very emotional, because the book was so close a part of his own life," Reiner said. "He told me it was the best film that had been done from his books. Before I could get too excited he quickly added, 'But that isn't saying very much.' "

Though Reiner spent considerable time working with Goldman on adapting the script, it turns out a third party was involved: Warren Beatty. "He was really interested in the part for a while," Reiner said. "He had some great ideas for the character of the writer, making him a lot less passive. Warren's very smart, but he's tough to pin down. So it just didn't work out. Either we weren't far enough along or he had a little fear of making a commitment."

Reiner doesn't have to worry about casting a superstar to get his films made. Columbia Pictures (now owned by Sony) and Westinghouse own 49% of Castle Rock, but Reiner and his partners have a controlling interest in the company, allowing them extraordinary control over their projects.

"We function basically like a studio, " explained Reiner, who said "Misery" is budgeted at about $18 million to $20 million. "It's such an incredible situation that I sometimes get nervous. I mean, there's nobody to fight with. I don't have to argue with studios over marketing decisions. I don't have to yell at anybody over dailies they don't like."

When it comes to making a movie, Reiner says the opinions of all five Castle Rock partners carry equal weight. "The only difference," he says with a laugh, "is that on my films I get four votes. Or is it three? Let's just say if I wanted to do a Hitler musical, they could stop me. But it would have to be 4 to 1."

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