VARIETY - ‘Stand by Me’ Oral History: Rob Reiner and Cast on River Phoenix and How Coming-of-Age Classic Almost Didn’t Happen
BY Brent Lang
It’s been three decades since “Stand By Me” became the little drama that could, catapulting River Phoenix to stardom, establishing Rob Reiner as a director on the rise, and racking up big ticket sales on a paltry budget.
The story of four friends from small town in Oregon, hiking into the countryside in search of the body of a boy who has been hit and killed by a train, is an unlikely coming-of-age tale. Yet in Reiner’s sensitive hands, it becomes a meditation on mortality — one that transcends its 1950s setting to have a universal appeal.
“Stand By Me” is unique in other ways. For one thing, it rivals “The 400 Blows” in its ability to evoke complex characterizations from young actors. Not only Phoenix as spiritual leader Chris Chambers, but co-stars Wil Wheaton as sensitive Gordie Lachance, Jerry O’Connell as wisecracking Vern Tessio, and Corey Feldman as hot-tempered Teddy Duchamp, provide finely wrought portraits of boys on the cusp of adulthood.
For Reiner, best known at the time for playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic in “All in the Family,” it was a chance to step out of the shadow of his father, legendary comedian Carl Reiner, and to position himself as a director of depth and nuance. It launched a career that would see him directing the likes of “Misery,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” and “The Princess Bride.”
But though it is now considered a classic, “Stand By Me” struggled to make it to screens. Financed outside the studio system after the cult success of “This is Spinal Tap,” after nearly every Hollywood player passed on the script, the film was nearly derailed after its funding collapsed right before filming. It then had to hustle to find distribution. To mark its 30th anniversary, Variety spoke to the cast and creative team behind the film.
Bruce A. Evans, producer and co-writer: Every studio in town had turned us down. The consensus was that no one would be interested in a story about four 12-year old boys on a railroad track. It was dark, there was not a girl in it, no one knew how to sell it. Of course, what attracted us to it was that it was a coming-of-age story without girls or buying rubbers or first kisses or all of that. It was about kids becoming aware of their own mortality.
Raynold Gideon, producer and co-writer: We ended up at Embassy. Embassy at the time was the last station before the desert. After that there was nothing.
Rob Reiner, director: Originally Adrian Lyne was involved in it and he had just finished “9 1/2 Weeks” and he was really exhausted. They sent me the script and I thought, there’s a lot of great characters here, good dialogue, but there’s no focus to it. I spent the next four days riding around Los Angeles, trying to think of a way to make it work. It was giving me headaches trying to figure it out.
Andrew Scheinman, producer: The huge turning point was realizing that the focus on the script needed to be on Gordie and not Chris. It’s a story of a little kid feeling unappreciated by his father and then he realizes that’s his father’s problem, not his.
Reiner: In the initial version, Gordie was just one of the four characters. He was an observer. He wasn’t the main focus of it. Then I was like this is about a kid who has insecure feelings about himself. He’s driven to go see this body, because he never cried at his brother’s funeral and his father always paid more attention to his older brother who died.
Evans: We resisted it at first and then we saw where he was going. Rob does that stuff very well. Maybe it’s part of his personality, growing up with a father who was very famous.
Casting the four young leads was a painstaking process, with the directors sorting through a litany of up-and-coming actors, reading the likes of Ethan Hawke and Sean Astin, before finding the right crew of boys. That wasn’t the only casting headache. Even after shooting much of the film, Reiner became convinced that he needed a different actor to play the older Gordie Lachance, who narrates the story and appears at the end.
Wil Wheaton (Gordie Lachance): It felt like the audition process went on forever. They settled on a dozen potential actors and were mixing and matching us together. A couple years before that, I had been taken to an actor coach, and I remember asking what you do if you can’t cry in a movie, and he said, ‘they’ll just put lemon juice in your eyes or onions.’ It was a terrible answer. It really freaked me out. I remember saying in one of the callbacks, ‘I’m not comfortable crying in movies.’ And then I walked out of the room and one of the writers, Ray Gideon said, ‘you’ve got to go tell the director you’re joking, because that’s an important part of the character.’ I almost lost the role all because of that terrible acting coach.
Reiner: We saw so many people. I can’t remember them all. Mostly, I remember being incredibly moved by River when he came in to read for Chris Chambers.
Jerry O’Connell (Vern Tessio): I was practicing with my mom and dad, and they said, ‘you’re going to have a meeting with the guy from ‘All in the Family.” I thought I was going to meet Carroll O’Connor.
Reiner: Jerry was so good and so natural. He came in and said, ‘hey you’re the guy from Channel 5.’ That’s where they showed ‘All in the Family’ reruns.
Evans: The hardest part to cast was Corey Feldman’s. We couldn’t find anybody that could be that angry. River was so good that we thought at one time about switching him to that part.
Corey Feldman (Teddy Duchamp): When I did it, Rob was impressed a lot by the reality in my delivery. I didn’t have any problem getting to the emotional places. My life was such turmoil and havoc. I didn’t have the best home life. I didn’t lead a normal life. I was aware of that from a very early age. I remember being 7 years and coming home from school thinking, am I going to get abused today? Am I going to get beaten today? Most kids don’t have to think about this kind of stuff. They’re not thinking they’re going to get hit by their parents because they’re not doing well enough in school, which will prevent them from getting a work permit, which will prevent them from being an actor.
Reiner: Finding the narrator was tricky. There was a guy named David Dukes and he did great, but his voice wasn’t what I wanted. It didn’t have the right tone. So I tried other actors, friends of mine that came in. Ted Bessell from ‘That Girl’ came in and Michael McKean, but they never had the right voice. Then I thought of Rick Dreyfuss. He suggested, ‘why don’t I just shoot it. I don’t have to just be the voice. I’ll be the guy at the end too.’
Richard Dreyfuss (Older Gordie, Narrator): I don’t really remember it. It was 30 years ago, if you’d asked me yesterday, did I do the voiceover? I would have said ‘yes.’ Did I appear in it? I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’
Wheaton: The goal was all about getting us out of our own way, so we could relax.
Reiner: You never know with kids. They have no craft. Sometimes they have great instincts, but they have no craft.
O’Connell: Rob was so great with kids. He was like the fifth boy in ‘Stand By Me.’ For the first two weeks, we didn’t say a line. We didn’t rehearse. He locked us in a room and we just played games and hung out and we became friends.
Reiner: After the two weeks, by the time we got to shooting they were a well-oiled machine. There’s one scene in there, it doesn’t look like anything, because you just watch a movie and you don’t know what’s involved with it. Teddy is going crazy and he’s screaming at the junk man, “my father stormed the beach at Normandy.” They’re walking away and it’s a four shot. And there’s no cuts until the very end. If you look at the way they talk to each other, they all pick up their cues at the right time. The rhythm is just right. There’s a pause at one point and Vern starts singing “Have Gun Will Travel.” It’s like comedic timing. It’s a professional that knows exactly when to come in. We did it in one take.
Wheaton: All four of us were very much like the characters that we were playing. I was a weird kid. I was shy, I was incredibly sensitive, and I was really awkward. It was really easy to make me cry. I was the one they picked on. Corey picked on me all the time to the point of it being like cruel. I remember River telling him to stop, and I remember Rob or one of the producers telling him to get off my back.
I don’t hold any bad feeling towards Corey at all. We’re not close, but I don’t dislike him or wish him ill. He had a really f—ed up childhood and he suffered a lot. As a 44-year old father I can see he was a young person who was in just an incredible amount of pain and didn’t have any way of dealing with it.
Feldman: Wil was shielded by his parents. When River and I were running around the hotel and left to our own devices, Wil was locked away with his parents.
O’Connell: One of my fondest childhood memories is July 4th at River Phoenix’s house. We bought a carload of fireworks, because you can legally obtain them in Oregon. We lit them all night long and we all had a big sleep over.
“Stand By Me” almost never made it out of the station. Days before shooting was to begin, Embassy owners Jerry Perenchio and Norman Lear sold the company to Columbia. The studio at the time was owned by Coca-Cola and executives at the company had no interest in making a coming-of-age story with no major stars and dubious commercial prospects. Lear and Reiner worked together on “All in the Family,” which Lear created.
Gideon: We got the word three days before shooting, close them down. Come home.
Reiner: We were up in Oregon. The whole cast and crew were there and we had built whatever we needed. And they decided they didn’t want the picture. So we had nothing. The whole budget was $7.5 million. It was nerve-wracking because we had all these people up here and we’ve got nothing. We’ve got no financing.
Gideon: [Disney film chief] Alan Horn was the chief financial officer of Embassy. He said, ‘Norman, God, you have no distribution. You have no video deal. You have nothing, nothing. You’re totally exposed. Financially it’s a crap shoot.’ Norman said, ‘I like the script. I like Rob. I like the boys.’ And out of his pocket he gave us seven and a half million dollars to make the film.
With financial catastrophe averted, Reiner and company set about chronicling the boys’ journey across rural Oregon. There would be action sequences, notably one involving a massive train barreling down on the four friends as they cross a narrow bridge, and gross-out scenes, such as a sequence that finds the teenagers stripping down and pulling out leeches from intimate areas after wading through a swamp. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Reiner was getting his youthful actors to open up emotionally at key moments. One difficult scene found Phoenix discussing his family’s bad reputation in town, ultimately breaking down while telling Wheaton about being punished for trying to return stolen milk money.
Reiner: River did [the milk money scene] a couple of times, and it didn’t have that emotion to it. I just took him aside and said, ‘you don’t have to tell me what it is, but think about a time that an adult, somebody important to you, let you down and you felt like they weren’t there for you.’ The next take is the one that’s in the movie. I never knew what he thought about. I assume it was his father or his mother, but I don’t know. He never said it to me.
O’Connell: The first day on set, I’m there and it’s the scene where Corey Feldman gets into the fight with the junkyard guy. We’re standing there and Corey goes to attack him. I didn’t know what it was called back then, but we were doing the master, the big group shot, and Rob Reiner calls, ‘cut’ and he comes up to me. And he went, ‘what are you doing?’ And I went, ‘nothing. I’ve got nothing to do in this scene. I don’t have any lines.’ He said, ‘I don’t care if you don’t have any lines, if your friend was in a fight, what would you do? You’re as much a part of the scene as all the people who are talking. You have to listen and I want to see how you interpret that as your character.’
Feldman: The junkyard scene was my big scene and it was cut down from what it was supposed to be. I was upset, because I thought I’d get to show off my acting chops, but I was insecure because I’d never done actual tears on camera. I kept thinking, how can you make yourself cry? I don’t think I pulled it off. I ended up faking my way through it.
Reiner: One time I lost it. I did it as kind of an act. There was the scene where they’re running on the trestle and the train is coming. The truth is the boys and the train were never on the trestle at the same time. I used such a long lens, and so the boys had jumped off the train track before the train even entered the trestle. It was so far away from them that they weren’t scared.
We had some guys, it was very hot, 90 degrees out, and the guys were pushing this dolly down the track to follow these boys running and they were supposed to be hysterical, just crying and panicking. We did it a bunch of times and they kept not getting worked up. Finally, I start screaming, ‘these guys, the crew, are exhausted because you guys keep messing up and if you’re not worried that the train is going to kill you, I’ll kill you.’ They started crying and we started rolling and then they ran off the track and gave me a hug and said, ‘we did it. We did it Rob.’
Feldman: For the leeches scene, they said, ‘we’ve got a clean lake in the middle of the forest. It’s been made by us and it’s all movie stuff, movie water and movie dirt. We dug a hole, encased it in plastic and filled it up with fresh water.’ The thing they failed to realize was they built this at the beginning of the shoot and by the time we actually got to that scene, it was six weeks later and they’d left it there uncovered. It was no longer man made, as far as all the worms and the bugs and the leaves and the raccoons, they were all in there. Nature took its course.
Wheaton: It was cold and really gross and it skeeved me out. There were water slides in this mall and the day that we shot the leeches, we went to go play on the water slides like we always did, and they wouldn’t let us in because they thought we had open lessions on our skin.
Feldman: You’ve got a bunch of young boys running around in their underwear, reaching into their pants and pulling things off their testicles. That’s advanced stuff and it’s kind of homoerotic. It’s a touchy thing. I don’t know if they’d get away with that in cinema today.
Reiner: In the book, when they have the face-off at the end and they stare down the gang of older boys who want to take back the body, it was Chris Chambers who picks up the gun. As we were going through, Andy Scheinman said ‘What if Gordie picks up the gun?’ Keeping with the whole idea that it’s Gordie’s journey. When we screened it for Stephen King. He says, ‘When you had Gordie pick up that gun, I thought, why didn’t I have that?’
Dreyfuss: I do remember from the novel, a piece of information that’s given away very early, is that Chris dies [as an adult]. I think it’s one of the ways that Rob improved on the story. You don’t know that until the end and it breaks your heart.
After shooting wrapped in the summer of 1985, Reiner and the producers faced another hurdle. The sale of Embassy left them without a distributor for “Stand By Me.”
Reiner: We sent it to every single studio. Everyone turned it down.
Evans: Everybody passes. Paramount passes. Universal head Frank Price walked out half way through. Warner Bros. sensed it wasn’t their kind of movie. [Columbia Pictures production head] Guy McElwaine says to [CAA founder] Mike Ovitz, who was helping us at the time, ‘I passed. Why would I change my mind?’ And Mike said, ‘look I got you the job. You’ll be on the street again. I think you should see the movie.’
Reiner: The last place we went was Columbia, because they had already passed on it originally. We figured, they’re not going to want it, but it was a new studio head that had come in. He wasn’t part of the original decision. He screened it for some friends at his house and he was crying when he saw it. He said, ‘I just want this picture. I don’t know if it will make money or not.’
Evans: What happened was McElwaine wasn’t feeling good, so he had the movie shown at his house. He brought all the marketing people and the executives, but the crucial members of the audience were his two daughters. About halfway through they were in love with River Phoenix.
Gideon: That’s the only way we got distribution. Otherwise we would have opened up at the Vista here and the movie would have been gone in a week.
Reiner: It was the first time that I did anything that was closely connected to my own personality. It had some melancholy in it and also had some humor in it. It was more reflective, and I thought, if people don’t like this, they’re not going to like what I like to do.
Feldman: I remember talking to Michael Jackson at a certain point. It was right after we’d gotten home. He sent me a message, saying, ‘Hey I just saw your movie. Great work.’ They were asking if they could use one of my songs in the film or he was going to write an original song for it, and it was around that time that they decided to go with an all-50s soundtrack.
O’Connell: They didn’t have a premiere for this movie or anything. I went to see it on Fifth Avenue with my grandparents at a noon show. It was kind of an empty house. And the lady selling tickets said, ‘Aren’t you in the movie?’ And my grandfather said, ‘we were all there. We were there for the shooting.’ And she took us back over to the window and said, ‘movie stars don’t pay.’ And she reimbursed my grandfather and grandmother for the money. I’m in a movie that’s about to be a classic and all my grandfather would tell people was about how the lady in the movie theater gave us our money back.
Scheinman: It opened to $3 or $5 million and it did that same thing week after week. It just stuck around.
Wheaton: One of the things that I was unprepared for was coming home one evening with my family and there were three boxes on my doorstep and they were filled with fan mail that had been sent to the studio for me.
Scheinman: We were in London making ‘Princess Bride.’ We weren’t around when it came out. When Rob got back to the United States, he was the director of ‘Stand By Me.’ People treated him completely differently. There was a newfound respect.
On the success of “Stand By Me,” several of the cast members lined up big projects. Phoenix co-starred with Harrison Ford in “The Mosquito Coast” and received an Oscar nomination for “Running on Empty.” Wheaton became a cast member on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” before segueing into writing. Feldman scored with “The Lost Boys,” only to have his career threatened by battles with addiction. Clean and sober, he’s re-emerged as a musician, recently releasing a new album, “Angel 2 the Core.” O’Connell attended NYU and later lined up prominent roles in “Scream 2” and “Crossing Jordan.” He recently guest starred on “Billions.”
Despite emerging from “Stand By Me” with the highest profile, Phoenix abandoned the clean-living image he had maintained as the child of hippie parents. In 1993, he collapsed outside of the Viper Room, a popular Hollywood club, and died of a drug overdose. He was 23 years old.
Gideon: When we shot ‘Stand By Me,’ River wouldn’t drink chlorinated water. He had to be so natural and pure. What the hell happened?
Reiner: I stayed in touch with River. I saw him a couple of times. He was already getting into drugs. I remember him coming to visit me in a hotel somewhere and he was like really high, and I thought ai yi yi, what the hell is going on with this kid?
Wheaton: I stayed mad at him for a long time. He was the one who was going to have the Tom Hanks career. He was the one who was going to be the $20 million a picture movie star. I was so mad because I worked so hard to not even approach the level of opportunity he had, and I was so angry he wasn’t going to use it, and then I was really angry that there was no one around to save him.
I’ve lived my life in this industry and, especially around young people, there’s a group of f—ing parasites that surrounds a person who will let them get close. Those are the people who should help that person and not let them overdose in front of the f—ing Viper Room. But they don’t want to rock the boat. They want to get as much as they can out of it. Because when a person’s sick and you tell them to get help then you’re cut out. I don’t know who was around him at the time, but I hope it woke them up.
Feldman: I ran into my time of troubles and went to rehab. I came out and was told River had a severe drug problem and was at risk of losing things. I was told by an A.D. on a film that I was working on. She’d just done ‘My Own Private Idaho’ with River and said he was not in good shape.
I reached out to help him, because I was much stronger and was sponsoring people in the 12 step program. We did speak on the phone a couple of times. The first time I talked to him, he didn’t believe it was me. He sounded rather out of it. I said, ‘I heard you’re having problems and I’ve been through it and I want to help.’ He was one of the only ones who spoke up when I was arrested. He spoke to People Magazine and said ‘You know Corey’s a really good guy. No one wants to see him in jail for having personal problems.’ I wanted to be able to return the favor. The plan was that we were going to get together in L.A. when I got back from my location shoot. It was only about three months after I returned that he passed away.
Dreyfuss: There are certain actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. When Philip died, what we were grieving about was not only that he died, but that he took a very well known future away from us. We knew he had all these great performances to come. That left a big hole. The same thing is true of River Phoenix. He was, without question, the best of that group of actors that came up at that time. Movie stardom is not just acting talent. It’s not just your ability to move an audience. It’s a combination of a lot of things. And he had it. He died so young that it was a real theft. A real robbery.
In the 30 years since it opened, “Stand By Me” continues to enjoy a reputation as a finely crafted portrait of the often awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. Cast members and Reiner say that hardly a day goes by without someone approaching them to talk about the film’s impact on their lives and the fondness they have for its characters.
O’Connell: I’m married to Rebecca Romijn, a beautiful model. She’s way out of my league, a million times out of my league. About three months into dating, my wife is from Berkeley, and I went up there to met her high school friends. We got a little drunk and her high school best friend said to me, ‘you know, ‘Stand by Me’ is Rebecca’s favorite movie of all time. You know she had posters of it all over her room growing up.’ She never told me that.
Feldman: It’s become a cult classic. It’s brought up all the time, ‘why don’t you do a sequel.’ It could only be made if Rob wanted to do it. I’m not saying there should be one, but it’s certainly something that could warrant one.
Dreyfuss: It’s one of those films that whenever you happen to catch it, you’re caught and you can’t turn away.
Wheaton: It’s complicated. How lucky I am and how wonderful it is that I have this incredible movie in my body of work and it’s been there since I was a kid. There are actors who will go their entire careers without ever having an opportunity to work in a film like ‘Stand By Me.’ The other side of that is that it’s basically turned the rest of my life into a sophomore jinx. For the longest time, I really struggled with figuring out how I could just accept it and let it be its own thing and not feel this obligation and existential need to top it or equal it or best it.
O’Connell: It was magical to make. Just being a kid up there with these guys. It was such a bond. It’s just like the movie says, you never have friends like you did when you were 12.