I conducted this interview with Mike Binder, the director of Reign Over Me. For any of you guys who have never checked out his work, he’s worth seeking out, a particular little gem is his 1993 film Indian Summer. He’s building a really interesting body of work and he’s quite a nice guy. So without further ado here’s the interview.
You are a man of many talents, writer, director and producer. What made you get into the industry and why wear so many hats?
Well, from very early on, I had always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. It was my passion, it was my goal. It was a world I was simply infatuated with. So, as soon as I could, I moved out to LA chasing after my dream. And it was all finally coming alive for me, I was loving it; but you soon realize how difficult it is to put your life at the hands of others. I decided the only way to really have the independence I wanted (and needed) was to teach myself to write comedies. It wasn’t easy, in fact, it was very difficult, but after a few more years, I was finally able to get a script produced. At that time, I had no idea how important the right director was for a script, and that’s a lesson I learned the hard way. As a writer, it’s very difficult to just hand your script over to someone else, especially if you have to watch them hurt it, and that’s when I decided I would direct my own work.
Who are your Heroes within the industry, past or present?
Well, Woody Allen of course. I guess you could say I wanted to be him. But then also Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, Neil Simon, Bill Wilder, among others.
You tend to write and direct a specific type of film, really interesting story and character driven pieces. What types of films do you personally enjoy watching?
I enjoy all sorts of movies, but of course, I’m drawn to comedy. It doesn’t matter how large or small, just that it’s well performed, well directed, well written, well done.
How do you develop your ideas from idea to script and then script to screen?
I always start with an outline. They typically run 10-12 pages. I’ll hash out the entire story. I think when you go in to a project knowing you will direct it, you have a pretty good idea of how you want it to look while in the writing process. I’ll start the actual writing and finish the initial draft, but then I’ll spend time rewriting, which I tend to do a lot of. I don’t really do shot lists anymore. I like to get on the set and feel my way around.
How long does it take for you to develop a project before it reaches the screen?
It all depends on the project. After I finish the script, we’ll start sending it to potential cast. Once we start attaching people, we can get a better idea of how long it will take to develop. After that, we may have to go out and pitch to different studios or look for independent financing, etc. Like all movies, it just depends how quickly you can get the money together.
What are the day to day workings of your job as writer director? Talk me through a normal day.
Typically, I’ll wake up, head in to the office, see what’s needed as far as maintaining business goes (calls, scheduling, etc.), then venture off into my personal office, where I’ll sit down, throw on some music, and just start going. I’ll usually re-read the last scene(s) from the day before in order to pull myself back in, then I’ll spend hours just writing, writing, writing. I’ll probably leave the office at about 6:30-7:00pm and head home.
Which do you find more difficult, working on lower budget films or larger star driven vehicles like, say Man About Town?
Well, both have pros and cons. Obviously, having a bigger budget can provide you with what you want as a director, though it can also come with more politics and the watchful eye of executives. On the other hand, with a lower budget, you definitely have more creative freedom without studio interference, but there are many areas where you may need to sacrifice strictly due to budget concerns.
You’ve made a lot of films with very iconic stars including Steven Spielberg, Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise amongst others- do you ever get nervous/ infuriated when meeting with such large personalities?
I mean, you’ve got to feel a little nervous when you first meet Spielberg. The guy’s an apparition. But at the end of the day, they’re just people.
What are the main challenges in your job as a director?
Multi-tasking, maintaining balance on set, focus and concentration.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process, are there any projects have been disappointed you when they have moved from script to screen? What do you think the reasons for this might have been?
I don’t feel like I have created a comedy I’m completely proud of, and to do so is an ongoing goal for me. They may have scenes, characters, sequences, etc. which work for me, but overall, I’ve yet to relieve that itch. I will say though that the first script I wrote, Coupe de Ville, disappointed me, but then again, that was the moment I decided to direct my own projects.
What do you think has been your greatest professional achievement?
Honestly, being able to do what I love while making a living at it.
Do you feel that you can often do a lot of the hard work and others get the fame and adoration of the general public or are you happy enough with the appreciation within the industry?
In my opinion, that’s really not what it’s about. It’s not strictly about work, because while I may work hard, others do as well. Anyone who can really have success in this industry has to work their ass off. This idea of “fame” is really only based on who your audience is.
Do you get nervous on the opening weekend of one of your films or are you used to the feeling by now?
Opening weekend can still make me nervous, but it’s something you just have to deal with. You want the film to do well, you want it to be well received, but at the end of the day, it’s now out of your hands, so just hope for the best.
In the film business you often have as much success as failure, how do feel when a film doesn’t succeed financially?
It’s not a great feeling for a film to suffer financially, but you can’t sit and mope about it. You just have to just move on to next project – I try to always be working on a new project when my last one hits the theaters.
Do you feel that DVD now gives these films a new lease of life?
Absolutely. If I take my wife to a movie, that costs about $20.00. For the same price, I can own the damn thing. If I’m going to see a movie in the theater, it better be something I have to actually see in a theater. I can see how my films tend to fall in that realm of, “I’ll check it out when it gets to DVD,” so yeah, the DVD window really helps.
You’re obviously a very busy man, what do you do in your spare time to relax?
I spend it with my family.
How does it feel when you’ve completed a film and you see it in the cinema for the first time?
It’s a great feeling, but also a scary feeling, because you’re sitting in the theater listening to the audience’s reaction. However, I do a lot of test screenings too, so by the time it hits theaters, I’ve played it with an audience so many times that I have a pretty good idea of which jokes play. I guess that makes it a little less scary.
Do you actively seek out new talent or do you try and work with people who you are familiar with?
I love working with people I’ve had great experiences with, but at the same time, I love to work with new people. However, usually it will be someone I’ve seen in another movie and really liked. So, I guess you could say, at least for the lead roles, I typically look at people I’m more familiar with.
What projects are you currently on?
I’m writing a movie for Julia Roberts called The Friday Knitting Club, which I’m adapting from the novel, writing a movie for Disney called Great Times with Mr. Lincoln, where an electrical storm hits The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, IL, bringing Lincoln to life. A tour guide basically takes him on a ride back to Washington for school. I’m also trying to get a few projects off the ground, including a movie called The Emperor of Michigan. It’s like The Upside of Anger, but funnier.
What advice would you give to young writers/directors/producers trying to break into the industry?
Most importantly, never give up. Seriously. You have to keep at it. You have to.
This Interview with writer/director Mike Binder first appeared on Collider in 2007.