It may seem like just another movie about a group of friends, but 1986’s Stand by Me proved to be more than just a coming-of-age story about four boys looking for a body. Based on a book by Stephen King, the film captured not only the spirit of the original story but also the hearts of people for generations to come.
Even though it’s already been over 35 years since the film came out, there’s still more to learn about the cast, the making of the movie, and what happened afterward. From financial struggles to the cast’s antics, the legacy of Stand by Me continues. Join us as we go behind the scenes of this cult film.
It Started With the Body…
It all started with a body. Well, more like The Body. Stand by Me was a film adaptation of a novella by Stephen King called The Body. Plans for adapting King’s story to the screen began in 1983, three years before the movie was released. And the man who produced the film, Bruce A. Evans, was the one who had the original idea to make it into a movie.
Evans was inspired to adapt the story after reading a copy of the book, which he sent to Karen Gideon, the wife of his friend and writing partner Raynold Gideon, as a gift for her birthday. Gideon and Evans became fast fans of the novella and decided to contact King’s agent, Kirby McCauley, to start talking film rights.
Stephen King Wanted $100,000 and 10%
McCauley told them that it would only work under King’s terms, which were $100,000 and 10% of the gross profits. Reportedly, the money wasn’t an issue, but the share of gross profits was considered excessive, especially when you consider the fact that no stars were to be featured to help sell the movie. Still, the project was on its way to becoming a sealed deal.
Evans and Gideon wanted an established director. One of the selling points for adapting the novella was having director Adrian Lyne on board, who by then had at least one successful film under his belt – Flashdance. The trio approached several studios, but everyone kept turning them down.
It Sounded Like an Adult Film or Horror Film
The only studio that kept their door open was Embassy Pictures. It took four months of negotiating the rights with McCauley, before finally settling on $50,000 and a smaller share of the profits. Evans and Gideon spent eight weeks on the screenplay.
Evans’s initial plan was to bring the novella to life and make the film as true to the story as possible. He even wanted to keep the title the same. However, Columbia Studios didn’t like the title. Screenwriter Raynold Gideon commented on the working title, saying that it “sounded like either an adult film, a bodybuilding film or another Stephen King horror.”
Rob Reiner, who eventually took the reigns as a director, selected “Stand by Me” instead, which was based on the classic Ben E. King song.
Rob Reiner Was Fresh in His Directing Career
Lyne was set on taking on the movie, but he was exhausted after wrapping up production on 9 ½ Weeks and needed a break. Although he was already attached to the new project, he promised himself a vacation after 9 ½ Weeks. He asked to start the production of Stand by Me in 1986, but producers could not work with that timeline and decided to pass the project to director Rob Reiner to complete.
At the time, Reiner was better known for playing Michael Stivic in All in the Family. He had only just started his directing career with comedies like This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. Reiner’s initial reaction was that the script looked promising but had “no focus.”
Reiner Clearly Knew What He Was Doing
Lyne withdrew, and Reiner signed on. In a 2011 interview, Reiner discussed how he knew from the beginning that he wanted to focus the story on Gordie (played by Wil Wheaton and narrated by Richard Dreyfuss). Reiner explained that, in the book, it was about four boys, but he decided to center the movie on Gordie – the “kid who didn’t feel good about himself and whose father didn’t love him.”
He continued: “And through the experience of going to find the dead body and his friendship with these boys, he began to feel empowered and went on to become a very successful writer. He basically became Stephen King.”
The Production Was Canceled Days Before Shooting
Shooting started in the summer of 1985, but days before they were about to start, Embassy Studios was sold to Columbia Pictures, which had apparently made plans to cancel the whole production. Norman Lear, a co-owner of Embassy and the developer of All in the Family, put up $7.5 million of his own money to keep the film alive.
Production went forward, but since Embassy was also supposed to distribute the film, once it wrapped up, they had no distributor. The only reason that the head honcho of Columbia Pictures, Guy McElwaine, signed on was because his daughters liked the movie, which he screened at his house because he was feeling ill.
Getting the Four Boys to Become Actual Friends
The heart of Stand by Me lies in the friendship between the four young boys. Without their “bromance,” the movie just wouldn’t have worked. Reiner took extra measures to get the perfect cast. He also wanted to ensure that the young actors would accurately depict their friendship on screen.
It was June 1985, and out of the 300 boys who auditioned, Reiner chose his favorite four: Wil Wheaton (Gordie), River Phoenix (Chris), Corey Feldman (Teddy) and Jerry O’Connell (Vern). He got the four of them in a hotel suite in Oregon to play games based on Viola Spolin’s “Improvisations for the Theater.”
They Spent a Week Playing “The Bible” of Theater Games
To Reiner, Spolin’s Improvisations for the Theater were “the bible” of theater games, and for a solid week, Reiner did nothing but play games with the boys. Occasionally, the writers and some members of the crew would join.
At the end of that week of games, Reiner had accomplished what he set out to do. He not only had fun with the boys and gained a rapport with them, but he also got them to become actual friends. Wheaton later recalled, “When you saw the four of us being comrades, that was real life, not acting.”
River Phoenix was “Cool,” and Jerry O’Connell Was the “Funniest”
In a 2011 interview with NPR, Wil Wheaton attributed the movie’s success to Reiner’s casting choices. “Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played. I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive.”
He then described how the other actors were also like their on-screen characters. River Phoenix was “cool and really smart and passionate” and was even like a father figure to them. Wheaton described Jerry O’Connell as one of the “funniest people I had ever seen in my life.”
Corey Feldman Was in an “Incredible Amount of Pain”
As for Corey Feldman, the kid was “unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain,” which Wheaton said was due to a terrible relationship with his parents. Feldman spoke about Stand by Me in an interview, recalling how his home life translated into his on-screen character.
“Most kids aren’t thinking they’re going to get hit by their parents because they’re not doing well enough in school, which will prevent them from getting a work permit, which will prevent them from being an actor,” Feldman explained.
Wheaton Recently Revealed the Emotional Pain He Was In
in May 2021, Wheaton revealed that his painful childhood fueled his performance as Gordie. “Through a combination of an incredible emotional abuse from my father and a lot of manipulation, using me, from my mother, it really put me in that place,” Wheaton said, adding that his actress mother forced him into a show business career at an early age.
Since Phoenix died in 1993 and Wheaton says he’s no longer in touch with Feldman, Wheaton and O’Connell are still good friends. “One of the reasons I believe Stand by Me is so enduring is that Rob cast four young boys who were our characters,” Wheaton said. “I guess I want to be a writer so that makes me Gordie. I never realized until I was in my 40s that I was Gordie because I was Gordie.”
Casting Hits and Misses
Before settling on Richard Dreyfuss to narrate and play the role of the adult Gordie, Reiner considered other actors, including David Dukes, Ted Bessell, and Michael McKean. Reiner told Variety that finding the narrator was tricky.
“There was a guy named David Dukes, and he did great, but his voice wasn’t what I wanted. It didn’t have the right tone.” That’s when Reiner turned to his dear high school friend, Richard Dreyfuss.
Fun fact: River Phoenix originally read for the part of Gordie, and Ethan Hawke auditioned for Phoenix’s role as Chris Chambers.
Stuntwomen Were Used in the Train Scene
The unforgettable train scene is one of the most gripping scenes of the movie. It goes without saying that, in reality, the actors were never in any real danger. Production made sure everyone was safe by hiring adult female stunt doubles to portray the kids.
Wearing the boys’ clothing and with very short haircuts, these women performed the stunts in place of the boys. Also, the approaching train was nowhere near any of the stuntwomen. The crew used a telephoto lens to shoot the train from a great distance.
The Tears Were Real
Reiner went to lengths to bring out the young actors’ best performances. Like tapping into River Phoenix’s sadness for the campfire scene (we’ll get to that soon), he also employed scare tactics for the train scene.
Wheaton spoke about that scene: “We weren’t taking it seriously, and it was hot, and it was hard,” he began to explain. He remembers Reiner yelling at them that they were “ruining his movie.” They immediately burst into tears, and Reiner rolled the cameras. It worked. “When it was over, I just couldn’t stop crying. All the adrenaline, everything was overwhelming. Rob hugged us and thanked us for our good work, and I still couldn’t stop crying.”
The Pond Was Fake
Of course, you remember the pond scene, so I won’t recount it. What you should know, though, is that scene took place in a man-made pool. Corey Feldman (Teddy) explained how the fake pond became part of the surrounding natural forest.
“The thing they failed to realize was they built this at the beginning of the shoot, and by the time we got to that scene, it was six weeks later, and they’d left it there uncovered.” He explained how the pond was no longer “man-made.” It had become a creature of its own. Worms, bugs, leaves, raccoons – they were all in there. “Nature took its course.”
Jerry O’Connell and His Special Cookies
Much like their on-screen characters, the four young actors got into all kinds of trouble on set. In one instance, Jerry O’Connell found himself in a strange situation. Kiefer Sutherland, who played Ace Merrill, shared a memory from the set.
On Jimmy Kimmel Live! Sutherland spoke about the time during production when O’Connell experienced one legendary night. One day, O’Connell apparently wanted to go to a fair, so he tied his babysitter to a banister, snuck out, and bought some cookies. But not just any cookies. These were laced with marijuana. “They found him crying in the park, lost and completely disoriented, and we had to shut down production on the film for two days,” Sutherland recalled. “He was stoned for a little while.”
The Director Made River Phoenix Cry
Even at such a young age – he was 15 at the time – it was hard to deny River Phoenix’s talent. Reiner shared a memory of one particular scene when the actor blew him away. He had asked Phoenix to think of a time when an adult had let him down.
Reiner elaborated: “When someone that you really looked up to, and really loved, wasn’t there for you…” Reiner recalled Phoenix crying after the scene was shot. “I had to go give him a hug. It is a hard scene to play and then snap out of.” Phoenix died at the age of 23 in 1993.
The Lead Actors Got Into Trouble On Set
It only makes sense that these four kids had fun when the cameras stopped rolling. As it turns out, behind the scenes of Stand by Me was full of pranks and shenanigans. One memorable prank involved the guys placing all the furniture from their hotel in the facility’s swimming pool.
“We didn’t just dump the furniture in the pool,” Wil Wheaton explained. “We arranged it as if it was meant to be that way like it just happens to be underwater.” Wheaton, by the way, turned 13 during the production of the film. O’Connell was the youngest of all at 11.
It Doesn’t Stop There
One of O’Connell’s favorite memories from his time on set was setting off a carload of fireworks with his three buddies/co-stars. The young actors took advantage of the fact that fireworks were legal in Oregon, where the movie was being filmed.
“It was the happiest moment of my adolescence,” O’Connell, who is now in his late 40s, said. “We loaded up a car with them and went to River’s house and lit those up all night long.” The actor also divulged that ever since, he and his family (he’s married to Rebecca Romijn) have kept up a firework tradition. “The light in the summer sky in July right now is exactly the same as it was when we were shooting the film.”
Feldman Experienced Some “Firsts” on the Set
For Corey Feldman, shooting the film was something really powerful, and he experienced a number of “firsts.” For one, he and Phoenix smoked pot for the first time. “This was an amazing time, and an especially amazing time for River and I [me] to form a bond,” Feldman said at the age of 45 – four years before his death.
He was 14 when he made the film and was away from his “abusive mother for the first time, and I was running around like a bird freed from the cage.”
Phoenix and Feldman Went to Dark Places
Feldman described how he went to his “first nightclub, got drunk for the first time, kissed a girl for the first time, shot a music video for the first time, with River for his music, and even smoked weed for my first time, again with River” — also his first. Drug experimentation led both Phoenix and Feldman to dark places.
Both battled addiction, and Phoenix succumbed to an accidental overdose seven years after Stand by Me was released. While they both bonded during the shoot, they lost touch afterward. “I was sad when it was over, and we didn’t remain close,” Feldman said. “It was probably because of our mothers and the inherently competitive nature that is wedged into the relationships of children in the industry.”
Phoenix Was Truly Dedicated
Wheaton recalled a specific moment while filming that proved just how committed and mature Phoenix was, despite his age. There was a scene where Sutherland grabs Phoenix and throws him to the ground, holding a cigarette to the kid’s face.
Sutherland purposely didn’t put the cigarette too close to Phoenix’s face, as Wheaton recalled. But Phoenix told his co-star: “Just put it right in there. I trust you… I want to use the fear of it.” Wheaton said he remembers thinking it was a “really mature and bold and risky thing to do as an actor… He exuded this wisdom.”
They Smoked Cabbage Leaves
Obviously, underage actors aren’t forced to smoke actual cigarettes. In Stand by Me, the boys were not smoking cigarettes. Instead, Reiner had to come up with something else. Corey Feldman used a memory of the movie in his campaign to reverse an e-cigarette ban in California.
He said: “I regret the cigarette smoking image that we may have projected to kids at the time, even though the cigarettes smoked by the boys in the movie were made from cabbage leaves.” He explained that Rob Reiner, an avid non-smoker, campaigned for anti-smoking laws in California and thus insisted on it.
The Purposely Over-the-Top Pie-Eating Scene
Believe it or not, the notorious pie-eating scene nearly didn’t make it into the film. Apparently, Reiner wasn’t sure how the scene would play out. The scene was supposed to be a story told by Gordie, the aspiring, young writer.
Reiner had to decide what kind of storyteller Gordie would be. “Ultimately, in my mind, he became Stephen King. And Stephen King is a great storyteller, and most of the stories he tells are supernatural, or there’s horror involved.” That’s why he decided “to go over the top with it and make it rather cartoonish, the way it would appear in a young boy’s mind.”
The Art of Making Projectile Vomit
Once the decision was made to make the scene as exaggerated as possible, the crew got to work on bringing Reiner’s vision to life. The scene included residents of Brownsville, Oregon as extras. As for the vomit, it was created with huge mixtures of large-curd cottage cheese and blueberry pie filling.
The pies they used were purchased from a local bakery and packed with extra filling. To really nail the projectile vomit effect, the crew used four or five guys to press down on a giant plunger that sat on top of a cylinder, which then pushed all five gallons of pie, filling up a vacuum hose. Tada!
Michael Jackson Almost Got Involved
MJ somehow made his way into many movies from the ‘80s. But Stand by Me happened to be one classic ‘80s film that Jackson didn’t make his way into. While the filmmakers were creating the soundtrack for the movie, they reached out to Jackson to create music for it.
Feldman later shared that he even spoke with Jackson and mentioned the production company reached out to ask if he would either compose original music or use one of his songs. Jackson also reportedly was asked to do a cover of the song Stand by Me. In the end, the producers decided to stick with the original version and went with a ‘50s-themed soundtrack instead.
The Kids Only Saw the Body While Filming the Scene
Directors use different techniques to get genuine reactions from their actors – some better, some worse. It may involve scaring an actor, letting actors improvise their lines or even tricking them with false scenes and direction.
In this movie, the body discovery scene was a pivotal one as it became a major turning point in the film. Reiner wanted to capture that moment as genuinely as possible. That’s why the boys weren’t allowed to see Ray Brower (Kent W. Luttrell) until they unveiled him on camera. Watch the scene again, and you’ll see it worked.
Stephen King Was Moved to Tears
Many of Stephen King’s books have been adapted for the screen (since 1976), which means that over the years, he’s watched many of his stories come to life. While his reactions to those films have varied from adaptation to adaptation, watching Stand by Me was a special experience for the veteran author.
King stated that the film was “true to the book… It was moving. I think I scared Rob Reiner. He showed it to me in the screening room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When the movie was over, I hugged him because I was moved to tears, because it was so autobiographical.”
The Leeches Weren’t Real
As fans of the movie can attest, the leech scene was pretty gruesome, and if you’re anything like me, you couldn’t get the scene out of your head. Who can forget seeing these boys covered by the creatures all over their bodies? Yuck.
Just as the lake was man-made, well, so were the leeches. Wheaton confirmed that while they seemed very real, they were just well-made props by the special effects team. Reiner went to lengths but using real leaches on his main actors wasn’t something he was going to put them through!
The Deer Scene
In a much more subtle moment in the film, Gordie shares a quiet yet touching moment with a passing deer. The scene only lasted a few seconds, but it really resonated with the audience. As quiet as that scene was to watch, filming it wasn’t.
Wheaton recalled the crew trying to attract the deer into the scene with grapes. After the scene was supposed to end, though, the deer just wouldn’t leave. “All these people on the set start banging things together. In the film, it is just an incredible, beautiful moment. But on the set, it starts out as a peaceful moment and then just got really noisy.”
Reiner Named His Production “Castle Rock”
Rob Reiner felt a deep connection with the film, even after it was complete. He ended up founding his own production company in 1988 after seeing just how successful Stand by Me became. He named his company Castle Rock Entertainment after the fictitious town featured in the film.
Reiner told the Archive of American Television that Stand by Me was “the film that meant the most” to him. He co-founded the company with Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman, Glenn Padnick, and Alan Horn. Hulu has a show based on King’s works, also titled Castle Rock, by the way.
The “Stand by Me Day” Annual Celebration
Since 2007, Brownsville, Oregon has celebrated its claim to fame as a filming location for the movie. The town established an annual Stand by Me day, which involves events from the film, like a pie-eating contest.
They even place a penny on the street for visitors to find, in tribute to Vern’s scene from the film. For the film’s 25th anniversary, the cast revisited Brownsville for interviews, contests, and even an outdoor screening of the film. By 2013, July 23 was the official and permanent Stand by Me day.
Rebecca Romijn Was a Fan Before She Met Her Future Husband
Stand by Me became a significant part of the lives of so many of us growing up, including the actors. For instance, the movie was Rebecca Romijn’s childhood favorite. She went on to become Jerry O’Connell’s wife.
O’Connell told Variety how he found out his own wife was a long-time fan of his and the movie. After three months of dating, he went to Berkeley to meet Rebecca and her high school friends. “Her high school best friend said to me, ‘You know, Stand by Me is Rebecca’s favorite movie of all time. You know she had posters of it all over her room growing up.’”
Wil Wheaton Today
It seems like Wil Wheaton is best remembered for his role as Gordie. But he’s done some other roles in his career. He had a long-running part as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which started a year after Stand by Me came out.
The now 48-year-old appeared in dozens of films and shows over the years, including Flubber, The Guild, and a recurring role as himself on The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton also lends his voice to animated characters, like Mike Morningstar/Darkstar in the Ben 10 universe. Wheaton is also a blogger and has written a number of books, too.
Corey Feldman Today
Feldman had a prolific acting career as a kid, with roles in The Goonies, Gremlins, and The Lost Boys. He and his friend (and fellow teen idol) Corey Haim worked together (Dream a Little Dream and Two Coreys) before Haim’s death from pneumonia in 2010.
Feldman, now 49, is also a musician who has released a number of albums throughout his career. In 2013, he published his memoir in which he detailed his struggles as a child star and the sexual abuse he and Haim were subjected to in Hollywood.
Jerry O’Connell Today
Stand by Me was O’Connell’s debut role, and damn good one, too. Thanks to this role, he went on to enjoy a long and successful acting career. O’Connell appeared in dozens of films and shows, including Sliders, Jerry Maguire, Kangaroo Jack, and others.
In 2009, he took a hiatus from acting to enter law school. He later dropped out to star in the legal show The Defenders with Jim Belushi. In recent years, he was the voice of Clark Kent/Superman in the Justice League films.
River Phoenix Died in 1993
Phoenix became a household name after Stand by Me. He took on more adult roles, and even earned an Oscar nomination at just 19 years old. The nod was for his role in the 1988 film Running on Empty. He also appeared in My Own Private Idaho, Dogfight, and Sneakers.
Sadly, the young and promising actor died of an accidental drug overdose in late October 1993, at the age of 23. He and his brother Joaquin and sister Rain, were at an L.A. nightclub – the Viper Room – together. After Phoenix collapsed, his sister tried to resuscitate him but was unsuccessful.
Kiefer Sutherland Today
His role as Ace in Stand by Me was one of his first major roles. Afterward, Sutherland starred in The Lost Boys (with Feldman) and went on to have a successful acting career. He’s perhaps best known for his counter-terrorist agent character Jack Bauer in the series 24.
Sutherland is also a singer and has toured behind his 2016 country album Down in a Hole. For those who watch Netflix, you probably saw the actor play President Tom Kirkman on the political drama series Designated Survivor.