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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

[INTERVIEW] Reign Over Me (2007, ***)

I WALKED AROUND THAT NIGHT AND THERE WERE ALL THESE PEOPLE CRYING AND YOU KNEW THEY HAD LOST SOMEONE,” writer-director Mike Binder says of his experience the day of September 11, 2001 in Manhattan. “A couple of years later, I was in New York with my family, and I just thought, ‘There are still people wandering the streets who lost someone that day.’ Everyone else has moved on, but these people are still living with it. What’s that like?” Earnest research and many conversations resulted in Reign Over Me, a powerful Adam Sandler-starring drama about a widower unable to forget the loss of his family. “We were looking for people who have suffered a loss that was so traumatic,” Binder says, “that they couldn’t get off the couch, even after several years.” Like the Detroit-born writer-director’s The Upside of Anger (2005), complicated emotions and generous digressions make for unusually intelligent and involving drama.
reign_pan_235-3456.jpgSandler plays Charlie Fineman, who had been a successful dentis, but now lives out his days on a motorized scooter through mostly-deserted Manhattan streets, listening to songs that mattered to him in that time called “before” that he does not want to forget, 1970s rock like The Who’s “Reign O’er Me” (a cover of which by Eddie Vedder provides a drenching crescendo to the movie under the end credits). One day, an old friend, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) sees Charlie on the street, a mop-haired, wild-eyed mess, but he doesn’t seem to remember Alan—even though they were college roommates. Alan is married with kids, life seems good with wife (stern Jada Pinkett Smith) despite an unspecified chill between them. Alan has a colleague in the same professional building, a therapist (quietly empathetic Liv Tyler) whom he peppers with inappropriate questions, and later leads Charlie to visit in hopes of coming out of his angry rituals of denial. (Sandler readily goes from shattered to shattering; the wells of emotion in Punch Drunk Love were not an anomaly.)
The two men begin to spend time together, mostly in the deep twilight of Charlie’s life, bounded by his iPod, movies, a videogame filled with battling titans. “To me, the whole movie boils down to a piece about communication and kind of the restoring powers of having someone to talk to,” Binder says, “and the flip side of the damage that can slowly accumulate of not having someone to talk to.” The location shooting is extensive and gorgeous, enabled by the Panavision Genesis high definition camera. Visually, the film swaddles you in Charlie’s closed-off melancholy. The abandoned night streets of Manhattan have a dreamy immediacy: without the need to light as extensively near and most effectively, far, the perspective emulates what you’d see walking out the door of an apartment, a café, a bar. The camera system also favors Charlie’s shaggy, sallow look, the tiny Pinkett Smith’s imperious cheekbones and the powder pale of Tyler’s skin, a much different manner of stylization than the yellowed, brittle newspaper clippings palette of Zodiac.

“I think not being a New Yorker helped,” Binder says of his perspective when I ask if he was relecting the “We Are All New Yorkers” ethos of the immediately post-9/11 America. “I was in New York that day and I was stuck there for five days after. My sense of the movie… I’ll tell you how this movie came about. I was stuck there. I was actually on ABC with Diane Sawyer doing an interview when the first plane hit. I was sitting next to Sarah Ferguson, Fergie, actually. She said, ‘I just left the World Trade Center.’ We thought it was a small plane that hit. Her office was there. If she hadn’t left to go be on ‘Good Morning America,’ she’d be dead.”
But he took a different perspective when he wrote. “We wanted to shoot the movie from the sidewalk up so you always felt like you were inside a canyon of buildings,” the former comic says, “and you really felt what it was like to be walking the streets. When we found out about this Genesis camera, we did tests and realized that we didn’t have to light blocks and blocks to see blocks and blocks. So we were looking for that, but I just started to like the look. It looked so stark and so much like what it is really like when you’re walking down the street.”
There’s another universal that he insists upon. “We weren’t looking in our research exclusively for [survivors of 9/11 victims]. This is historical fiction and we weren’t looking for a guy who lost three children. We also wanted the piece to be about people who lost people in Oklahoma City and Katrina. I wanted it to be more about how we all put the spotlight on a tragedy and then the next tragedy comes up and the spotlight goes to the next one and these people are still wandering the streets still living in the first one. We talked to several people. I’m glad we did due diligence because now that we’re showing it to people [to whom] this [hits] really close to home. They’re seeing it as real and I don’t think if we hadn’t done the research and hadn’t really worked through it, it would have been sad right now because I think there’s a chance for this movie to have a real healing effect. I know it’s just a movie, but I really do think there’s a side to this movie that is beyond entertainment. “

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon