If you go

What: 30th anniversary of “Stand by Me”

When: 7 p.m. reception, 8 p.m. screening, Friday

Where: Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend

Cost: $15 plus fees for screening, $25 plus fees for VIP on-stage reception

Contact: towertheatre.org or 541-317-0700

The 1986 film “Stand by Me” holds a special place in both popular culture and Oregon history. Directed by Rob Reiner and shot in the summer of 1985 in the small Linn County town of Brownsville, the coming-of-age tale starred several talented young actors, among them River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, John Cusack and Kiefer Sutherland.

For award-winning cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, the film holds much personal significance: It provided impetus to move his family to Oregon 20 years later as he neared retirement.

In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, the Tower Theatre in Bend will hold a special screening of “Stand by Me” on Friday. Del Ruth, 74, an active member of the American Society of Cinematographers, will speak at the screening in a Q&A between himself and his wife, Patricia West-Del Ruth.

“I’ll tell the audience in the theater basically about how complex some of those sequences were to shoot, and what was required in order to do it,” said Del Ruth, interviewed earlier this month at his west Bend home. “There are elements of the film that were challenging, and we were proud of the outcome. But as with all films, no one ever really knows if it’s going to be successful. You hope, but we had no idea that it would become essentially a classic and revered in so many areas — around the world.”

Getting started

The film’s director, Reiner, was already well-known as an actor from his role as Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the sitcom “All in the Family.” Reiner, son of Hollywood talents Carl and Estelle Reiner, was also a force behind the camera as a writer, producer and director. By the mid-1980s, he had proven himself just as capable on the large screen with his well-received 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” and the 1985 teen comedy “The Sure Thing.”

Del Ruth, too, descended from Hollywood royalty: film director Roy Del Ruth and actress Winnie Lightner. Del Ruth began working behind the camera in TV and film in the 1960s, serving as assistant camera on such movies as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Planet of the Apes.” He met Reiner while working as cinematographer on the 1982 TV movie “Million Dollar Infield,” which Reiner co-wrote, co-produced and starred in.

Later, Reiner saw Patricia West-Del Ruth at a Little League game in Southern California, where the Del Ruths lived with their two sons at the time.

“Rob ran into my wife, and he said, ‘Oh, hey, Patty … I’m getting ready to do a film, and I wonder if Tom would be interested.’ Patty of course said, ‘Yes,’” Del Ruth said. “Rob called me up and asked me to read the script. I did, and I thought it was wonderful. Plus, it was a Stephen King thing, so that’s not something you really ever want to turn down, because it had tremendous promise.”

‘Like puppies’

“Stand by Me” began its life as the 1982 King novella “The Body,” and told the tale of four friends who set off on foot from their hometown in 1960 (changed to 1959 in the film) to find the rumored body of a missing boy.

Phoenix, Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman play the quartet of boys in the film.

“It’s like having puppies in a basket,” Del Ruth recalled of working with the young actors. “You get one in a basket, another jumps out, and then you bring that one in and another one jumps out … and finally everything settles down.

“But they were very spontaneous, very polite; no edges and no theatricality to any of the kids. River was specifically wonderful because he had such depth of character as a performer. They were all highly disciplined while they were working, and they accepted direction from Rob beautifully,” he said.

Del Ruth noted one tragic parallel between the film and the real world. In the book, Wheaton’s character, Gordie LaChance, is the only one of the four boys to survive into adulthood.

“Rob made some changes, of course, in the story,” he said. “But Rob felt that (three deaths) was unrealistic for an audience to accept, so he reduced it to one, and it was eeny, meeny, miny, moe, and it just wound up being River, and ironically, River is the only one who died” young in life.

While no one could foresee the acclaim Phoenix would go on to before his 1993 death, “We thought that River potentially could make a substantial career for himself, because he had all the nuances of performances that were necessary tools, emotionally, in order to progress as an actor,” Del Ruth said. “The other actors as well, in the film, but not to the degree that River had.”

Legacy

Upon its August 1986 release, “Stand by Me” was largely lauded by critics, and has a critical score of 91 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Brownsville holds an annual Stand By Me Day in July. (This year’s event included a race, the Ray Brower Memorial 5K, named after the dead boy in the film.)

“There were several hundred people there,” Tim Williams said of this year’s event. Williams is executive director of the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television, also known as Oregon Film, which advocates for, supports and works to increase the presence of film and TV in the state. Williams will host the VIP reception during Friday’s event at The Tower, which includes the Del Ruth’s pre-film talk.

“A fair amount of people come through Brownsville for ‘Stand by Me,’” he said, but it’s Astoria that draws the most fans. “People go up there every year for ‘The Goonies,’ in the thousands.”

In terms of fans descending on towns to see locations of their favorite films, the legacy of a movie can be positive and negative, Williams said.

“You look at Astoria, and they’re still getting money from tourism based purely on ‘Goonies.’ And they get a little bit of ‘Short Circuit,’ ‘Free Willy’ and ‘Kindergarten Cop’ — that’s all Astoria as well — but at the same time, they’ve had to shut down the street to the house because there’s too many people coming,” Williams said. “I think Brownsville is nicely in the middle, where it’s a quaint little town that hasn’t been disrupted. It still retains the charm they saw when they shot the movie, and it hasn’t been overrun by people. I think they get enough for that size of town without it being crazy over-the-top.”

Later career

Del Ruth went on to shoot such films as 1987’s “The Running Man” and 1989’s “Look Who’s Talking.” He narrowly missed the chance to shoot another Reiner classic of the era, “The Princess Bride.”

“I couldn’t get a permit to shoot because of the union situation in England,” Del Ruth said. “(Reiner) was forced to use a British DP (director of photography), which are certainly the equal of any of us as well, so there was no sacrifice in doing that.”

After that, Reiner and Del Ruth drifted apart professionally. Del Ruth worked on a number of landmark TV shows in the ’90s, including the 1993 pilot of “The X Files” and several episodes of “ER” in 1994. He served as cinematographer on the popular Aaron Sorkin drama “The West Wing,” earning back-to-back Emmys in 2000 and 2001.

“(Reiner and I) separated for a long, long time, until 25 years later, he started another film in ’09, called ‘Flipped,’ which was the bookend to ‘Stand by Me,’ and he thought, ‘Wow, it’d be a good idea if Tom did it, because he did the original,’” Del Ruth said. “‘Flipped’ is the last time I worked with Rob. It’s also the last time I shot anything in the business — I retired right after that.”

Playing their song

Del Ruth said that “Stand by Me” will always hold special meaning — and that includes the Ben E. King song “Stand by Me.”

“Patty and I have always thought that the theme song, ‘Stand by Me,’ was almost an ode to our relationship, and that’s essentially been our theme song ever since that film,” he said. “‘Stand by Me’ was significant because Patty and I really enjoyed working on it, and that was basically the reason that we ultimately wound up moving to Oregon, because of the beauty of the surroundings. I thought this might possibly be a wonderful place to retire, when and if that happened.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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