"When I turned 60," Rob Reiner said, "I started thinking about my own mortality. I thought of myself as a very, very, very young old person." We were talking about Reiner's latest film, "The Magic of Belle Isle," a love story featuring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen. In the film, Freeman plays Monte, a famous wheelchair-bound novelist whose struggle with alcoholism and the loss of his wife have sapped his passion for writing. One summer he stays in a lakeside cottage and befriends Charlotte (Madsen), a lonely single mother of three daughters who's got her own set of emotional tribulations. Both characters unwittingly help one another re-engage in life.
"It's something I started exploring in 'The Bucket List,'" said Reiner, "the idea that you live until you die; that no matter what situations are presented to you, you have to find a way to embrace your life." "The Magic of Belle Isle" is a somewhat more winsome variation of the same theme as "The Bucket List," a film Reiner had to fight to get produced. Said Reiner to The New York Times: "You go to a studio and say: 'I've got this movie about old guys dying of cancer. Give me $45 million,' they're not going to do it so fast."
Reiner has had a long, illustrious career starting as an actor in the TV role of "Meathead" in "All in the Family" and moving on to directing. His extensive credits include the classics "When Harry Met Sally," "A Few Good Men," and "Sleepless in Seattle." Reiner is also well-known for his political activism in support of numerous liberal causes, including same-sex marriage, funding for subsidized pre-schools and tobacco taxes. His activism was the target of a South Park episode "Butt Out," which Reiner took in stride. "I think it's fun," he said. "I love that they're equal opportunity satirists."
Huff/Post50 recently spoke with Reiner about "The Magic of Belle Isle" and his own Third Act.
What drew you to this particular script?
When I turned 60, I started thinking about my own mortality and how precious life is. Unless you're Shirley McLaine, you only get one shot at this. You want to live life as fully as you can. That's what led me to make "The Bucket List." When this script came in, which was a spec script, it had a very similar theme. Here's a man who's given up on life. He's drinking. He's in a wheelchair. His wife has passed away. He can't write anymore and he shut the door on himself. I thought, "what a wonderful story about somebody who, because of his interaction with the people on this summer community on the lake, learns to live again and embrace life." The theme is basically that no matter what situation you're in, you only have a finite amount of time on the planet, so you have to find a way to make a good life for yourself.
It's about re-engaging in life during one's so-called Third Act.
Exactly. And even if people aren't faced with the kind of problems as Monte, a lot of them kind of give up on life. You get to a certain age and you say, "well, I'm tired, I'm retired, I don't do this anymore," and you don't really enjoy your life. I love the theme about living your life until you can't. You've got to try to squeeze every ounce of joy out of your life.
You're interested in these existential and redemptive themes. Have they become more pertinent for you with age?
Yes, very. When you get older, you start feeling your own mortality. You really start sense that. You say to yourself, "wait a minute, I don't have very much time left. I've got to embrace this life the best I can."
One thing that struck me in "The Magic of Belle Isle" is the fact that the interracial nature of the love relationship between Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen isn't evoked at all. Was that a conscious decision?
Totally conscious. I think the vast majority people in this country don't see race anymore. Certainly it hasn't gone away -- and for a big chunk of people it will always be there -- but it was interesting when Obama ran for President. I'm 65 now and I lived through the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Loving vs. Virginia. I couldn't imagine that a black man would become President of the United States. Yet my children were thinking, "what's the big deal? Why is that an issue?" They hadn't lived through that. They didn't understand why anybody would even question a thing like that. I thought, "Wow, that's interesting. It really is shifting, things are moving." So it would have almost been old fashioned in a way for me to bring up the racial part of this in the film. Because it's totally irrelevant.
Ditto for the case with gays? On that note, you've been very involved with Prop 8.
That's exactly right. We've been very heavily involved in the Court challenge to Proposition 8. We started the American Foundation for Equal Rights. We hired Ted Olsen and David Boyes and all that. I've said on many occasions when I've had to speak to different groups that there was a time less than 100 years ago when women couldn't vote. There was time when blacks couldn't marry whites. We look back on that as ridiculous. And there will come a time, in a very short period of time, when people will think the same about gay marriage. I think we're going to look back at this point in time and say, "what was all that fuss about?" If you look at the polls now, well over 50 percent of this country believes that it's OK for gays to get married. These things have a way of building critical mass pretty quickly.
So what's on your personal bucket list?
I've pretty much done what I wanted to do. I know who I am now. I have a great marriage. I've got three great kids. There are traveling places that I haven't been to that I'd like to go to, but I believe that wherever you go, there you are. If you're happy with yourself, it doesn't really matter where you go.
That sounds a bit Buddhist of you. You're Jewish, but you once mentioned to Bill Maher that you have no religious affiliation.
Yes. It's interesting that you should mention the Buddhist thing, because it's the one religion that kind of makes sense to me. I don't believe in organized religion, but I do believe in a lot of the concepts of Buddhism. I'm not a practicing anything, but those things make sense because it's all about how you find spirituality inside you and how you treat others. It's all about finding meaning. That's what life is all about.
(Check out the slideshow below for highlights from our favorite films director by Reiner.)