In Columbia Pictures’ Reign Over Me, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) and Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) are old college roommates who randomly run into each other years later. Johnson soon learns that Fineman lost his wife and three daughters on 9/11 and hasn’t recovered or even dealt with the tragedy. Meanwhile, Johnson is overwhelmed by his responsibilities of being a father and a husband and sees Fineman as a way to escape. The two revive their friendship and discover that their amity is exactly what they need to get through the critical time in their lives. The film was written and directed by Mike Binder and also stars Jada Pinkett Smith and Liv Tyler.
ComingSoon.net met up with Binder and the cast recently in Los Angeles to talk about the drama.
Comingsoon.net: Can you talk about the idea of “I’m my brother’s keeper” and talk about what you thought the themes of the movie were?
Mike Binder: I’m not really sure about “I’m my brother’s keeper.” To me the whole movie boils down to a piece about communication and kind of the restoring powers of having someone to talk to and the flip side of the damage that can slowly accumulate of not having someone to talk to.
Don Cheadle: Well it was kind of interesting to me. There was a lot of debate between Jada’s character and my character in the movie that it went from a very selfish standpoint to growing and being real concerned about someone who was friend. At first it was just a way to get out of the house and escape and a great excuse. No, he’s in pain. Really it was about I want to have some fun and play some video games and play drums. I thought it was a great progression from someone who was completely selfish and was really vampiring off of his needs and to realize no this is something that’s actually important.
CS: And Adam?
Cheadle: Adam didn’t read the script.
Adam Sandler: I don’t know. I like what these guys said.
CS: What was the emotional state while you were shooting the film and how did you get into that mode?
Sandler: I prepared for a long time and I tried to stay as focused as I can be. It was painful to do. I know it was very important, the part, and to feel as much as I could so I tried to just be prepared for every day. It wasn’t like movies I’ve done in the past where I’m laughing and having a great time on the set. It was definitely heavier.
CS: Can you talk about how you made the issue of post traumatic stress something we could see in the film, but not to the point where it was overboard?
Sandler: Wait a second Mike. You voted a particular way. I just tried to play scene to scene with what Mike had in mind.
Binder: I was talking to my wife about it this morning because the job at hand for what Adam had to do was so layered in the complexity at the same time; he had to make it very simple. What I was so impressed with, right from the beginning in the early days when we started breaking down, was his work ethic and his ability to just completely dive into the water and do what it took to get on the other side of this character so that he could just become this character. He would call me late at night and go, “Would my guy do this? Does my guy think like this?” And I’d go, “Well, when I’m up tomorrow I can probably answer that question.” But there was a focus and even with all of the research there was just a focus and I think that my sense of Adam as an actor was that he had done so much footwork that by the time he got on set it wasn’t so much about, “Okay, today’s scene I have to get in this place.” The footwork was there that he had to just be in each scene. It wasn’t so much about, “Okay, this is the level of PDST this day.” He just put the work into [it] so the guy felt very real to him.
Sandler: I was terrified. Once I agreed to do it, I was the most scared I’d ever been. I remember talking to Don. We would rehearse on our own and at the end of our rehearsals I would say to Don, “Do you have any idea who your guy is yet?” He’d say, “No, no.” I was so afraid.
Binder: You guys were both calling me. “I don’t know who my guy is.”
CS: For Liv and Adam, did you research therapy at all?
Liv Tyler: I was really excited to be playing a doctor and therapist because I’d never in my career had not been the girlfriend. So I was very nervous as well. I know it’s a small part, but it was something I took very seriously. The story as a whole touched me so much and I thought that it was so important that it was very real and not the caricature of what that would be like. I actually have a shrink in New York who I love. I spent a lot of time with her, hours on end. It was weird because I was actually learning some of her tricks and it suddenly made it very weird for me. Yeah, I really enjoyed it. She actually told me once that if I ever wanted to quit my day job I would be an okay shrink. I was like, “I think there something wrong with you saying that, but thank you so much.”
CS: Adam did you talk to people who have lost their families?
Sandler: I met a lot of people, yeah. Through therapy sessions and what people were going through. I did that, yep.
CS: They let you come into these therapy sessions?
Sandler: Yeah. Dealing with this issue. Just one on one stuff. It’s actually post traumatic stress disorder or something that these people were going through. They wanted it to get out into the public more so it wasn’t easy for them. I would only come inside if they were okay with it and if they needed me to leave, I would leave, but normally they would just let me sit with them and listen. They just wanted to get the word out about what they were going through.
CS: Does it take years to get over?
Sandler: Yeah, yeah. Some people who I met are still going through it five years later. Seven years later.
CS: Did you meet people who lost family in 9/11?
Binder: Adam and I did. We weren’t looking in our research exclusively for that. This is historical fiction and we weren’t looking for a guy who lost three children. We were looking for people who have suffered a loss that they couldn’t get off the couch from several years later. We also really wanted the piece to be about people who lost people in Oklahoma City and Katrina. I wanted it to be kind of more about the movie, 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 have to say I’m glad we did do diligence of this because I think now that we’re showing it to people that this is really close to home to. They’re seeing it as real and I don’t think if we hadn’t done the research we did then and hadn’t really worked through it, I think 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.
CS: Don and Jada, can you talk a little about working opposite of each other and what you feel the other brought to the table?
Cheadle: I had a great time working with Jada. We had a very collaborative relationship. The whole process with Adam, Liv, Jada and myself, Mike, it was a very collaborative effort. A real team effort and there wasn’t a day when we showed up on set where we just had a scene and we said, “Okay that’s the scene. Let’s go shoot it.” We would always be talking about the nuances of the scene, the ways to get things out of it and kind of talking about our own relationships. “Okay, how does it go down at your house? This is how it goes down at my house. How does it go down at your house so I can try to find the best way to realize this relationship?” I’m on stage 8 and I came in and said “I had this exact argument last night,” and she said, “I did too.” We just had that same beef at home with our loved ones so it just felt very real and it was real comfortable to work with Jada.
Jada Pinkett Smith: It was so easy.
CS: Which argument in the film was it?
Cheadle: Seeing how I have to go home tonight
Binder: I will say on this level I was lucky that my kids went to kindergarten through fifth grade to the same elementary school that Don’s kids did so I kind of knew Don for a lot of years, not as a guy in show business, I just knew him as a father with kids and a husband. To me the first call was to Jada. I never even met with another actress for the role or wanted another actress. I just love Jada. I think she’s great, but I also know that she’s a wife and a mother and I wanted that real mix. As real as we wanted Adam’s side to be and Liv’s side to be, we wanted these guys there in the morning saying, “No, that’s not the way it is. Here’s the way it is.” They bring a lot as actors to the role, but they also brought a lot I think as parents and people in a marriage.
Smith: Working with Don is just like, I don’t know. It was so easy. Mike, there’s a bathroom scene where you said, “You guys just go in there and do something,” and we created that scene on the day. It was just so natural and so easy.
Binder: And that’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie too. I love the interplay between you guys in that scene.
CS: Jada, would you see your character as being supportive of your husband or of needing support from your husband?
Smith: Janeane is very interesting because you’re dealing with a relationship where you have two people who are no longer talking. There is this riff that has been created between the two people and I think she really needed more of his support and was pretending to be supportive. I think that was the biggest problem in their relationship was that they had lost the sense of honesty and they’ve grown apart. They really didn’t know each other anymore which is one of the reasons I was really attracted to the movie. The overall message of the of movie of this friendship and the idea of loss and these two people who have lost something and how through their friendship, they confront their losses and then they can learn to see the other side of the loss. Adam’s character being able to see that there might be life after this tragedy and Don’s character being able to see, okay, my relationship is not where I want it to be right now. I’ve lost some elements of happiness and infinity and then being able to go, but I’m going to move on the other side of that and find the life and love again.
Cheadle: That was really tricky about the part too. Mike at one point should have just moved into the guest house because he was over at that house so many times with us just trying to figure it out. Mike said, “I’m not really sure what’s going on with this guy. I’m not really sure what the problem is, but I don’t know if I really want to define it either because you don’t always know.” It’s just nebulous sometimes. There’s just something that’s not there. It was frustrating as an actor to try to go into the part. There’s something that’s just not there and it’s designed for there to be something that’s not there, but I don’t know what that not there is. It just took a lot of constant checking in to try to figure out what that was. Ultimately, I think it plays.
CS: Can you talk about the music choice in the film and Adam did the music help you form and create your character?
Binder: The music is a big part of the movie for some many reasons because I feel like he’s hiding in a simpler time in his music. That’s the music I love and we did clear all the music. A lot of these guys know Adam. We went and talked to Eddie Vedder about covering The Who and that was kind of a fun story. We got that and the music I another character in the movie. When I first saw those headsets on Adam with his hair grown out, they feel like such protection. They feel like such a way to hide from the world. We all know these little bugs do it, but these really say go away! It just was the right thing and then having that iPod and all that music on that iPod, it just really felt like I can be in the world and I don’t need the world. I think that helped because he was listening to that music all the time on the set. He always knew the kind of music we were going to use.
Sandler: When I would hang out with Alan Johnson or pre-my family so it wasn’t bringing back any memories. It wasn’t any songs that I shared with my family. It was just stuff that I grew up on.
CS: How much fun did you two have in that jam session?
Sandler: That was great. I had no idea how great he was. He is unbelievable on drums, on horns, on base. It was cool.
Cheadle: I had a ball.
CS: So you guys just went in and got crazy?
Cheadle: Mike said and then you guys have a jam session. How do you direct exactly what to do? As soon as I met Adam I was like well I want to do it because there was an immediate friendship and it’s just kicked off and it’s been that way since. There’s another scene in the movie theatre where I really almost peed on myself laughing. That’s one of the hardest things to do in a movie. It’s much easier to cry or be angry, but to really laugh and genuinely be buoyant and laugh. That’s hard if you don’t really feel that way and we would just look at each other and it would just kick off. So that was another great part of the film was to have a movie about rekindling friendships and happen to actually like the guy you’re going to do that with.
Binder: I have a yearly hot dog party in my backyard and these guys were both there. They were laughing about something and I could just see in their eyes that they really liked each other and I was so happy. You can’t fake some of this chemistry. Even when you get a guy and a girl and they’ve got to be together. These guys really liked each other and the more I got to know them, they have so much in common. When we did that jam scene, they were really good together. They’re both really musical. What was great was, they actually went in and made up this song. It was so funny. They went on and on. It didn’t work for the movie, but these guys wrote a song and they were just sitting there and they wrote the song and it’s great.
CS: Put it on the DVD.
Cheadle: Yeah it will be on the DVD.
CS: Adam why did you want to do this part?
Sandler: I read the script a while ago. The first time I read it, I thought it was a pretty incredible movie, but I was afraid of it so I just put it away. I told my guys, “Tell that guy thank you, but I can’t do it.” I was kind of scared of it. Then one night like a month later it was next to my bed and I read it again. It was very moving to me and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to challenge myself so I talked to my guys and said, “can you ask Mike Binder if he’s still interested in doing it.” I can’t articulate why I like it so much, but it hurt my heart when I read it so much. It also made me laugh. I just wanted to accept the challenge of doing that role.
CS: You’ve already done “Punch-Drunk Love,” so why were you afraid of taking on this role?
Sandler: I think I had to just create a guy and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was pretty sure on “Punch-Drunk Love” I could do it. When UTA gave me that script and he was telling me about it, it was “oh, okay, I can do that.” This movie, every time Mike would tell me “hey, you can do it. You can do it,” in my head I was like “I don’t know if I can do it. I hope I can do it. I sure want to. I don’t want to let you down. I don’t want to let anybody down who has been through this tragedy.” So, I put a lot of pressure on myself and I think maybe that is what I was afraid of. But, I committed to it eventually.
CS: The little motor scooter was almost a character in the film. Why did you have him riding the scooter?
Binder: It just looked fun and it seemed a thing that Charlie would use. I was trying to do the Silver Surfer. I wanted Charlie to be the Silver Surfer surfing the streets of New York at night and I wanted him to pretend to be the Silver Surfer.
CS: Don, were you worried about getting on the back of the scooter with Adam?
Cheadle: Well, a funny thing happened on our way to the scooter [laughter]. About six weeks before I started on this movie, I tore my Achilles so there was a lot of questions as far as was I going to be able to walk and run around; things I had to do in the movie and the scooter was a potential liability and especially the way Adam drove it [laughter].
Tyler: And it was so fast. It went like forty miles an hour or something.
Cheadle: So, it was a little scary but it was a hell of a lot of fun to ride it.
CS: Can you talk about the selection of “Colossus” as the video game that Charlie becomes fixated by? Was there a formal reason?
Binder: Did you ever play the game? It’s amazing. Somebody showed me that game and I called Sandler and said “I found the game. You’ve got to see this game.” If you have a chance, you’ve gotta play this game. It’s like a whole other level, such a quest, fighting monsters and demons and it was such a great analogy for Adam’s character and it was just a fun game. I love that thing where the big monster comes up and you just feel that’s what Adam’s character feels about the world and the evil that’s out there.
CS: Can you talk about shooting with a digital camera.
Binder: I’m not a New Yorker. I grew up in Detroit. A lot of people out there think it’s one big city but they’re completely different. I think not being a New Yorker helped. 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 and I was sitting next to Sarah Ferguson, Fergie, actually. It’s a little known fact. 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. We were there and we were stuck there for a while and that night there were all these people walking around. I remember seeing this woman and she was just crying hysterically. People were trying to calm her down and I could only imagine who she had lost. I went back there a few years later with my family and I thought, “I wonder if there are still people walking the streets that that day has never ended for?” So, when I wanted to tell that story and do that research, I remember my brother and I talking. We didn’t want to get any helicopter shots. We wanted to shoot the movie from the sidewalk up so you always felt like you were inside a canyon of buildings 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.
CS: Don are you doing the Peter Green story?
Cheadle: The Peter Green story will be out in July. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. I don’t know what impact that will have but I hope people enjoy it. I think it’s a really entertaining film.
CS: Mike, you ride a thin line between drama and comedy with this and “The Upside of Anger.” Can you talk about how you craft that?
Binder: You try to. I tried to. I never wanted to do just comedy or just drama. When I was a kid I loved Neil Simon’s stuff and I loved Woody Allen’s stuff. I really like the stuff James Brooks was doing. Sometimes, going back and forth you can get yourself in trouble which happened to me on other things so you’re always trying for a delicate balance. I also think that they compliment each other so well. There are issues in this movie that are really tough to watch; moments that are hard to deal with. I think it is important for us, as people, to be really sympathetic to people that are going through all these different versions of loss in life. You want to do a movie that shows that and, if it’s too dry, nobody wants to see it. It’s too hard to watch. So, if you can throw comedy in there, you make it more of an uplifting experience and you hope that, by doing that, you’re allowing people to become just a little bit more aware of what other people in the world are going through.
CS: Did you write it with Adam in mind?
Binder: No. I didn’t write it with Adam in mind. But, when he wanted to do it, I thought he would be perfect. Then he didn’t want to do it and I thought, “he’s an a**hole’ [laughter]. I hate Adam Sandler.”
Cheadle: We’ve all been through similar things.
Binder: And then when he wanted to do it again I thought, “you know, he’s not such an a**hole.”
Cheadle: Then, in the negotiations, he thought again . [laughter].
Binder: But, as soon as Adam’s agent brought up the idea, I thought “That’s a great idea” because I loved “Punch-Drunk Love.” And I also like how vulnerable Adam is even when he’s at his craziest. There’s something about Adam. We’ve gotten really close working on this movie and I know why Adam is such a big star. There’s no mystery about it. When you get to know Adam you don’t think, “boy, this guy got lucky” or “this guy’s been smart.” There’s a humanity to this guy that people are smelling and seeing coming off the film and I was getting that and thought Adam would be the perfect guy to play Charlie Feinman. Whatever that is coming off the film…
CS: Adam after this, are you looking for more things that scare you?
Sandler: Uh, no. I was hanging out with Cheadle the other day and Don said “Any other serious stuff coming?” and I was like “you know, after that one, I’m cool with just staying away from that for a while.” I had a headache almost every day on the set. I was in my trailer… normally on movies, I go to my trailer and have ten guys hanging out with me and we’re laughing and they’re like “Adam, come to set” and I’m like “Aaa, I gotta go do this.” On this one, I was there all alone.
Tyler: With your iPod?
Sandler: With my iPod. I was learning how to play the drums every day. It was a lot of work, man and, emotionally, I don’t cry in real life. I’m just pretty light and I don’t get too heavy. I snap a lot but I get over it pretty quickly. With this guy, he had to hold his pain and I tried to do so throughout the shoot as much as I could so I’m in no hurry to do it again. But, I’ll tell ya, I did not know how funny the movie was going to be. When Binder would talk to me about scenes and say, “it’s gonna be funny when blah, blah, blah,” I was always thinking Binder was crazy. I don’t see this being funny, man. I don’t get it at all. I don’t know if Don thought that. I knew there were some light moments and I probably saw about five percent of the comedy. Mike would talk about the movie and go “do you think that’s gonna kill?” and I was like “I don’t know what he’s talking about, man” and then I saw it play in Seattle for the first time and it was getting all these laughs and I was baffled by it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so concentrated on my character and his pain and what he was going through and how much Don’s character meant to him and being with him and just blocking everybody else out that I didn’t know it was going to be
Cheadle: Didn’t you stand up and say “this isn’t funny!”
Sandler: I yelled at the crowd, yeah. How dare you.
CS: Adam, you keep your hair short in real life and, in this film, you have this sort of Bob Dylan hair. How was that for you? Was it a wig?
Sandler: Yeah. I would slip it on.
Tyler: He doesn’t let them glue it. You’re supposed to. He likes to take it on and off like a cap.
Sandler: I’m not good with that. I can’t sit still when people are touching me so I put in on in the morning and put my headphones on and I liked having it on. The long hair helped me hide and stay away from people and that felt good. If I grew my hair out that long, I think it would be covering Cheadle’s head right now if it grows out a little more.
CS: Where do you go from here? Do you want to do just comedy then?
Sandler: I don’t know. Eventually, I might get caught up in something that I didn’t know was coming but, I’ve done some comedies since this movie, just doin’ what I do.
CS: Liv, are you going back to work again?
Tyler: I’ve just done two movies. I did “The Strangers,” which is a scary movie and then I did a movie called “Smother” with Diane Keaton.
Reign Over Me opens in theaters on March 23.