Mike Binder, like most people in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when the terror began. ”I was with Diane Sawyer being interviewed live on ABC when the first plane hit,” recalls the writer/director of 2005’s The Upside of Anger, and Reign Over Me, opening this weekend. ”I wandered the streets and ended up spending five days here. It was just numbing.”
It is numbness that forms the basis for Reign‘s central character, Charlie Fineman, played by Adam Sandler. Having lost his wife and two daughters aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Fineman is emotionally stunted, unable to properly grieve or continue either with his professional or personal life. At the beginning of the film, Fineman is discovered still stuck in this stasis by his old college roommate, Alex Johnson, played by Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda). Johnson, a successful but disgruntled dentist, is stuck in his own rut and is watching his marriage buckle under the pressure. Together they revive their former friendship and begin to help each other rebuild their lives.
While Binder remembers being ”blown away” by the events of 9/11, it wasn’t simply his own feelings of sadness or separation from his L.A.-based family that inspired him to explore the kind of loss faced by Charlie Fineman. ”One memory I have is of a woman in Bryant Park just crying her eyes out and everyone trying to calm her down, just assuming the worst of what this woman lost,” says Binder. ”I was with my family three years later and I thought, you know, there are still people for whom that day never ended, that are still wandering these streets, that are still numb — but the world has moved on.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Neither Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center nor Paul Greengrass’s United 93 had been released when you conceived of this idea. Was there any trepidation on your part about tackling the subject of 9/11?
MIKE BINDER: There’s always reasons why you shouldn’t do something. They’re always so clear to me when I’m reading the reviews [laughs], or the movie has bombed and I’m having trouble getting my next movie made. But when I’m making it, I don’t believe in looking down and seeing how far the fall is to the ground — especially in this situation because that’s what made it interesting to me. It was a story worth telling.
How did you prepare for the character of Charlie Fineman?
Research. Reading, and talking to therapists and people who had gone through similar things. Sandler did so much research to the point that I thought, ”Boy, he’s crossing the line with some of these people.” He’d get to know some people so well, he’d tell me, ”I sat in on a therapy session today. I just sat in the back and listened.”
Were these group sessions?
No. One on one. I believe this was a guy who walked away from a horrible plane crash. He had survived and members of his family didn’t. We weren’t only talking to 9/11 survivors. We were talking to people who had horrible hops of the ball in life. That’s what I was interested in: ”I’ve been working since high school, 30 years at my career, I raised a family, I have insurance and taxes and medical, and tried to do everything right. What happens when the sidewalk comes up and hits me in the face one day with something that I completely didn’t expect?” That to me is what’s interesting about Charlie’s life. Charlie got a hop of the ball that hit him straight in the face. And he cannot get off the couch.
You both wrote and directed The Upside of Anger as well as Reign Over Me. Do you think that’s simply the best way to realize your particular vision, and is it difficult?
I have a spot on the horizon that I’m trying to hit: To write and direct adult dramadies. First of all, there’s really not a big market for them. Second of all, it’s like cracking a diamond. You’ve got to do it right. I could probably give you three people who have done it well [in] the last decade. So yeah, there’s a side of me that says, ‘Just find a good script with a big star and swing for the fences,’ and I might do that one day. But things like Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me — I’m proud to try. Sometimes I fail miserably, but I like the idea that I’m really going for something. I have this dream that one day, I’m going to write and direct the perfect adult comedy.
Who do you feel has hit that spot?
Cameron Crowe. I loved Almost Famous. I loved Jerry Maguire. I think some of Alexander Payne’s work is interesting and really good. I loved Woody Allen in his heyday.
Personally, I would put The Upside of Anger in that league.
Tell a friend. My movies don’t make any money and they don’t really light the world on fire. But I’m really lucky because I’ve gotten them made. I have my own little group. I have my producers. I own my own editing room and my equipment and we kind of circle the wagons and make our own movies. I don’t think that this movie is going to be a big hit. And Upside of Anger sure wasn’t. Almost Famous wasn’t a big hit. Jerry Maguire was because he had Tom Cruise. But Woody Allen’s best movies weren’t hits.
With something like Upside of Anger you might think that at least it reaches a specific, underserved audience.
I would think. Nobody loses money on my movies. I make them cheap. All told, Upside of Anger cost like $9 million. This one was more expensive because it was Sony, but Sony’s not going to lose money on Reign Over Me. When you keep that kind of equation going, it allows you to go, ”Okay, well, 9/11 might be a risky background for this film, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
What made you think of Adam Sandler for Charlie Fineman?
At one point Javier Bardem was going to play Don Cheadle’s role. Bardem was in my office. We had gone to Tom Cruise [with the role of Charlie Fineman] and Tom Cruise didn’t want to do it. So, Bardem and I were throwing out ideas. He walks over to the shelf and he looks at the Punch Drunk Love DVD in my collection on my wall. Bardem doesn’t know a lot about American cinema, and he says, ”Who is this man, this actor? He’s brilliant.” And I say, ”You don’t know who that is?” And he says, ”No. I’ve only seen him in this movie, but I love him.” And I go, ”Wow, you really don’t know who Adam Sandler is? Dude!” And he says, ”Think about him. He’s so wounded.”
So you initially wrote the part of Alex Johnson for Javier Bardem. What happened?
By the time we set a start date, Adam had to be in and out by a certain time, and Bardem had another movie that he wanted to do and didn’t quite tell us about [laughs]. I was bummed for a minute. And then Cheadle came in and I had to completely rethink the story. But Cheadle turned the boat in the direction it needed to go. It became such an American story.
Your HBO series The Mind of the Married Man (2001-2002) was the source of considerable discord between my wife and me while it was on the air.
Poor Chris Rock. Chris Rock is wildly talented and an American genius, but to do a movie called I Think I Love My Wife? Whoops. To do a show called The Mind of the Married Man? Who wants to take their wife to something that’s going to [cause] a fight afterward? Did you ever get into a fight over Sex and the City at your house? I’ve never once said to my wife, ”Do you think like that? Do you do that? Is that true?” [while watching Sex in the City]. Desperate Housewives — there’s no man on the planet that takes that personally, but if it were Desperate Househusbands, they would shut ABC down.
My point is, I want to do these really well-drawn-out male characters, but you get killed for doing it. It’s the third rail of comedy. There was a lot of truth in Married Man, but it just wasn’t easy to do. The critics did not support it. A lot of male critics beat the hell out of it just hoping it would go away. It was touching on something that is just universally hard to have in the living room — especially on a Sunday night because, really, television is in the bedroom on a Sunday night. But I’m past that anyway. I’m lucky because I’ve done all my sex comedies — at least for now. I’m trying to dig a little deeper.