Four preteen boys from Oregon set off on an overnight adventure to find a body - there are no girls, first kisses, huge revelations, or big-name movie stars in the film. Yet, from these stories about the making of Stand by Me, it's easy to see why the film is often regarded among the best coming-of-age movies in cinema history. If not for a few lucky breaks, however, the movie perhaps would not exist at all.
Stand by Me is an adaptation of Stephen King's 1982 novella The Body. Director Rob Reiner was coming off of the modest box office success of his mockumentary This is Spinal Tap and seemed like an unlikely choice to lead the project. However, the former TV actor was able to hone the raw talent of the four leads - Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell - making them appear as if they had been best friends their whole lives.
The production, like that of many great films, was filled with obstacles. No studio in Hollywood even wanted to make the film and, of course, plenty of hijinx and hard lessons ensued on the set. Not only did the characters grow up on their adventure to find Ray Brower, but the actors who played them grew up as well.
The film's four leads varied in their acting experience: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman each had at least five years in front of the camera; Jerry O'Connell, however - the youngest of the group at 11 years old - had mostly done commercial work.
To create the illusion of a long-standing camaraderie among the actors, Rob Reiner and the four boys went up to the filming locales in Oregon for two weeks of rehearsal. Reiner called this period "acting classes." He gathered the boys to play games based on Viola Spolin's book, Improvisation for the Theater. Reiner said of the games, "[They] develop trust among people, and her book is the Bible." The exercises were effective, as the movie sells the boys' friendship with ease. Reiner's rehearsal time helped to create magical chemistry that usually only comes with lifelong relationships.
O'Connell added, "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."
Before filming, Rob Reiner did everything he could to build a foundation of brotherhood among the four leads. His efforts were not in vain. During a 1986 interview, River Phoenix said of his director:
Rob kept us together. The first three weeks were the most fun. We took all the hotel pool chairs and threw them into the pool. We soaked Corey [Feldman]'s clothes in beer, and they dried, and he smelled like a wino. Wil Wheaton is a video whiz. He fixed the machines in the hotel, so we got free games. I took the blame. I said, "You do it for me, and I'll take the blame."
The boys grew so close they even fought like old friends. ''Just like in the movie, we had big fights, stupid stuff, boys and their egos, like who got to walk down the railroad tracks first. Always, toward the end of a movie, you get sick of each other," Phoenix added.
Wheaton agreed, ''When you saw the four of us being comrades, that was real life, not acting."
Perhaps the most heart-pounding scene in the movie is the one on the train trestle. When the boys are partway down the tracks, a train comes racing towards them. Since there is no safe place to jump off the tracks, the only way to survive is to outrun the locomotive.
Of course, the four young actors were not in any real jeopardy. Rob Reiner used a special long lens to create the illusion of the train being incredibly close, but because the actors didn't fear for their lives, Reiner wasn't getting the reaction he wanted. To elicit the proper responses, Reiner decided he had to scare them:
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 [off] you, I [will]."
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."
One of the reasons Rob Reiner was a great director was his history as an actor. In the emotional "milk money" scene - in which River Phoenix's character, Chris, tells Gordie about the ultimate betrayal of one of his teachers - Reiner was not getting the emotional response he wanted from Phoenix. The director took the young actor aside and gave him some sage advice: "[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."
Phoenix was able to use the advice and turn the scene into one of the film's emotional centerpieces. Richard Dreyfuss, who provided the voice of the older Gordie in Stand by Me, could see the raw talent in 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 [passed] so young that it was a real [shame]."