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

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.

"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."

Back on the set, Reiner is sipping bottled water as Sonnenfeld kids him about wearing yet another Nike shirt. Reiner gestures toward Sonnenfeld's colorful swirl-patterned tie, noting that he has so many ties that he's never been spotted wearing the same one twice. "Come on, Barry," Reiner says, munching on a cookie. "How many ties do you actually have?"

Sonnenfeld thinks it over as he eyes his crew setting up a new shot. "At least 100."

"And you never wear the same one?" Reiner says.

Sonnenfeld nods. "They usually last the whole movie, though when Penny Marshall's last picture went 87 days I was getting a little worried."

Reiner has another cookie. "So if you did a David Lean picture, you'd be in trouble."

Soon it's time to get to work. Reiner is shooting a scene with Caan in bed, writhing in pain as he listens to his captor leave the house and drive away.

Caan is on the bed, taking deep breaths, trying to capture the right blend of agony and resignation. As the crew falls silent, Reiner stands behind the camera, speaking to Caan in a hushed whisper, like a hypnotist putting a patient under a spell.

"You see the door close," he said in a low, soothing voice. "You hear the lock. Then footsteps . . . the sound of the motor outside. You see the car driving by, heading away. It's going . . . going . . . gone. "

Now completely in the mood, Caan lets his eyes dart anxiously around the room. He grimaces in pain. Finally he slides over and tumbles off the bed, crashing to the floor.

Reiner watches with pleasure. "That was real good, Jimmy," he says. "Let's do it again. This time, don't just show me the struggle. Show me the pain. "

Reiner heads toward the hallway to watch the next take on his video monitor. As he lifts himself up off the floor, Caan good-naturedly growls, "Where are you going? I can't work when you're not in the room."

"Don't worry," Reiner says, ducking his head back in the room. "I'll be watching."

Caan turns to a crew member. "Keep an eye on him," he says, flopping back down on the bed. "If I'm gonna kill myself here, someone should at least make sure he hasn't gone home."

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