Michael Bergeron
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Rob Reiner on “LBJ”

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Rob Reiner screened his latest film LBJ at the LBJ library in Austin last October. Luci Baines, one of Lyndon Johnson’s two daughters, was in attendance. “After the film was over, she’s very formal, she stood up and said ‘The man I saw on the screen tonight was the man I knew,’” says Reiner to Free Press Houston in a phone interview. Baines also told Reiner his film captured the way her father and mother interacted with each other.

LBJ opens this year’s edition of the Worldfest Film Festival, which begins Friday, April 21 and runs for 10 days. Reiner will appear at the premiere as well as receive Worldfest’s honorary Remi Career Achievement award.

“We wanted to show how complex a person he was,” says Reiner. “People have an image of him as being a tough negotiator, an arm twister, a larger than life kind of guy. The truth is he was all those things, but he was also incredibly insecure.”

Reiner brings up Robert Caro’s book, the definitive biography on LBJ, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

“But the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin [Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream] really gave me some insight into the inner workings of his emotional makeup. He apparently had this reoccurring dream where he was paralyzed.

“You could see this play out in his initial inability to make decisions and to agonize over the right thing to do,” Reiner says. “Eventually when he does make up his mind he’s full steam ahead, and all those aggressive skills he has come into play. Prior to that there’s a real insecurity and a fear of not being loved. Another thing that I took from her book was that he had a very complex relationship with his mother. She loved him, he loved her, he idolized her. But there were times when she withheld her love from him because she didn’t approve of certain things he was doing. I wanted to do an overall picture of Lyndon Johnson not just a two-dimensional look. He did have some boorish and crass ways but he also had this incredible sensitive side to him,” Reiner adds.

LBJ takes a “very small sliver of his life that covers the time from the assassination until he delivers the famous address to the joint session of Congress on wanting to pass the Civil Rights Act. That all happened in less than two weeks,” Reiner says.

(That particular speech to Congress was on November 27, 1963.)

LBJ employs some brief flashbacks, once to the time Johnson was majority leader of the Senate, another when Johnson was running for the Presidential nomination against Kennedy in 1960. “Basically it focuses on having to assume the awesome burden of becoming the president.”

When the production lensed in Dallas on location at Dealey Plaza Reiner was able to recreate the assassination with great accuracy in regards to where everybody and everything is located. “There’s so much archival stuff that you can look at, so many people who are experts on where the cars were, where the people were standing,” says Reiner.

“The difference is that we were more or less trying to do it from Johnson’s point of view. He didn’t see much because after the first shot rang out his secret service guy [Rufus] Youngblood jumped on top of him and pushed him down to the floorboard.”

Set-ups were shot with up to four different cameras. “In one of them I had the cameraman dressed up to look like Abraham Zapruder and had him standing where Zapruder actually stood. He’s in the distance so you can’t tell what kind of camera he has.”

Reiner first read the script by Joey Hartstone after it came highly recommended through associates at his Castle Rock office. Hartstone was a 2024 winner for The Black List, an industry award for un-produced scripts.

“I was hesitant at first because as a kid growing up I hated Lyndon Johnson. I was draft age during the ’60s,” says Reiner. “To me, Johnson was just a guy who was overseeing a war that I thought was immoral and illegal. Now that I’ve gotten older and spend a lot of time in government, and politics and working on public policy I’ve started having a different feeling about him.

“Had it not been for the Vietnam War he would’ve gone down as one of the great Presidents of all time. His legislative accomplishments are unparalleled,” says Reiner.

“When I worked on the script with Joey was when we started adding the nuances about his insecurity. Johnson grew up in the hill country, he knew about poverty and his legislation like Medicare, and Head Start was designed to lift people out of poverty,” adds Reiner.

LBJ had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is set for release latter this fall. The cast includes Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Johnson and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird.

Meanwhile, Reiner already has another even more politically charged drama in post-production. Shock and Awe recounts events of the 2024 invasion of Iraq. Shock and Awe follows a real life group of Knight Rider reporters who exposed holes in the then administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction. James Marsden plays Warren Strobel, Harrelson plays Jonathan Landay, Tommy Lee Jones plays Joe Galloway, and Reiner, in addition to producing and directing, plays John Walcott. Joey Hartstone penned the script.

“They uncovered the truth and they were completely ignored by the mainstream media. It’s a cautionary tale about how you need an independent free media to be able to get to the truth of things,” says Reiner. In some ways the Shock and Awe is a passion project that Reiner has been developing for over a decade.

“Especially now more than ever, you have fake news from hostile countries and even out own media throwing fake news around. It’s very hard for the public to disseminate what’s real and what’s not.

“I couldn’t understand how in my lifetime we went to two big wars, world changing in a way both made by lies. First was Vietnam, then Iraq,” says Reiner.

“Our institutions are breaking down in front of us. We have a little bit of free media left and the courts.”

Reiner will be on hand when LBJ premieres Friday night as the opening film of Worldfest–Houston International Film Festival at the AMC Studio 30. Festivities start at 7 pm, screening is at 8 pm.