After working together on The Bucket List, Morgan Freeman and director Rob Reiner are back again with another feel-good family movie about finally living your life just as it’s coming to a close in The Magic of Belle Isle. Freeman plays an irascible writer named Monte Wildhorn, who hides out on Belle Isle one summer after his wife dies, determined just to drink his life away, only to find new inspiration when he’s no longer looking for it. Freeman and Reiner chatted with Vulture about stories they’d kill to get the rights to do, wanting to wear Batman’s cape, and what movies in Reiner’s catalogue might get sequels. (Sadly, one of Reiner’s most noted collaborators, Nora Ephron, passed away after this interview, but Reiner got back to us to say this about her: “She had the greatest ability to observe men and women and how they behaved with each other — and translate that into words that would reach the very core of our hearts. She always had a way of finding fun in life, and that’s what made her writing so good.”)
There’s a certain element of Misery in this movie, with the isolated, semi-immobilized writer who wants to leave his most-loved character behind — although the tone and outcome are different.
Reiner: That’s exactly right. After we did Stand by Me, my producer partner Andy [Scheinman] was waiting for a plane and he went to the airport bookstore and bought Misery in paperback. And after reading it, he was like, “I wonder if anybody has the rights to this. Somebody must have.” But Stephen King hadn’t sold the rights, and the reason the rights to Misery were still available, that he hadn’t sold it, was because the story was so personal. It was about his own struggle to break away from writing about horror and the supernatural, and feeling imprisoned by his fan base, who was personified by Annie Wilkes. So he didn’t want to give the rights to just anybody. And the reason he allowed us to do it was because he trusted we would do well by it, and the stipulation was that either I had to direct it or produce it. My name had to be on it. And since then, we’ve had a great relationship with him.
Have you ever had a situation like the scene in the film, where you’ve tried to get the rights from someone who just won’t relent?
Reiner: Absolutely. One of the first projects that we ever wanted to make at Castle Rock was Driving Miss Daisy. I had seen the play Off Broadway, and Morgan was in it, but we lost the rights to another company. We felt so bad, because we loved that project. But at least now Morgan and I have worked together since.
Freeman: I’ve had a number of times where I’ve read a book and called the writer and bought the rights. It’s not that much of a struggle: You either get it or you don’t. I’m trying to develop a script of Bass Reeves’s life story, but that’s public domain, so the rights issue is a lot easier. As a matter of fact, I went to the University of Oklahoma archives to research the idea, and they’re really excited about it, because he’s been buried in the shadows for the longest time. I’ve only done the one western [Unforgiven], so this would be ideal.
So you’re not doing the Magnificent Seven remake as your next western?
Freeman: No. I’m not getting any younger. The older you are, the harder it is to get on a horse!
There’s a western film called Jubal, which might explain the name of the character in Monte Wildhorn’s stories. But did you choose that name to also be a reference to Jubal of Stranger in A Strange Land?
Freeman: [Laughs.] That didn’t occur to me!
Reiner: [Laughs.] No.
Freeman: Although they have a few things in common, Heinlein’s Jubal and our Jubal. I should have said, “I grok something” at some point. Now it’s going to be all over the place.
Reiner: Originally, the saga of Jubal was going to play a more prominent role. We were going to have him come to life, like as a fantasy element. But then I really started to focus more on the theme that I had started playing with in The Bucket List, which is an idea that hit me when I turned 60, about the preciousness of life. You realize you have a finite amount of time on the planet, unless you’re Shirley MacLaine. So even though Monte’s a man in a wheelchair, Jubal could do all the things that Monte couldn’t do in real life.
Even though Monte used to write westerns, he’s rejuvenated when he writes a story about aliens. It seems like you guys would be more sci-fi fans yourselves …
Reiner: Morgan loves sci-fi. I love nonfiction myself, actually. But I just love reading. Remember Running With Scissors? I’m reading a book right now by that author, Augusten Burroughs, about his experiences in rehab called Dry.
Freeman: You morph as you go along. In my youth, I was very high on westerns, and I still am — but with where I am in my own history and what’s going on in space exploration and my show that I’m doing on Science, Through the Wormhole, I’m getting more and more into sci-fi.
Which explains why you’re doing Oblivion with Tom Cruise. Did you shoot in New York or Iceland for that?
Freeman: No, I did all my work in New Orleans. A lot of green screen. It’s an exciting story, with a lot of big issues that it’s raising.
Such as? The story’s been kept under wraps, so it’s hard to tell based on the descriptions so far.
Freeman: Cloning. That’s all I can say. [Laughs.]
That could be the theme of the next When Harry Met Sally sequel — if vampires don’t work, how about clones?
Reiner: [Laughs.] Maybe for The Princess Bride 2. But other than Spinal Tap, because they could have a reunion tour or something, for the most part, my movies don’t lend themselves to sequels — intentionally. If you’re telling a story, then this is the story, and that’s it. Plus, I don’t like to plow the same ground that’s been explored already. Maybe financially that’s not a good thing, because we’re living in a world of sequels, but artistically.
Not all sequels are necessarily evil. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman/Dark Knight series, for instance. Anything you’re going to miss from those films, Morgan?
Freeman: The toys. They go pretty far north into the future with those. Most of them don’t do anything in real life, they’re all CGI, except for the Tumbler. I’ve sat in the Tumbler. You can’t really drive it, though. I would have liked to worn the cape, because you can fly with that, like a bird. I’d like to try that, like hang-gliding.
Have you seen what Tyler Perry looks like as Alex Cross? What do you think?
Freeman: No, have you? I don’t think about it. I feel like Alex Cross is kind of mine, but kind of not mine. People might think of me when they seen him, but that will pass in time.
And for you, Rob, what are your next films? You’ve got a movie about Prop 8 in the works and a thriller as well? And are you still looking at doing Next to Normal?
Reiner: I’m working with Dustin Lance Black on a dramatic film based on the whole lead-up to the trial. We had the readings in New York and L.A., and now we’re seeing if we can expand it. And I just finished the script to You Belong to Me, which is my first psychological thriller since Misery. Depending on the actors, we’re going to shoot that in the fall. I’d love to do an adaptation of Next to Normal, but they haven’t decided yet if they want to make it into a film. I’ve seen it three times now, and I would kill to do it.