Kevin Reynolds: Reynolds Rap
Director Kevin Reynolds is best-known for two of the movies he made with Kevin Costner; Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Waterworld. The two Kevins had a tumultuous friendship. Their collaborations frequently devolved into power struggles that spilled over into insults that appeared in the press. And yet, they kept coming back together. When Reynolds was interviewed for the August 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, he and Costner were no longer on friendly terms. He discusses his relationship with Costner and what it was like to see Robin Hood become a hit despite the fact he didn’t like it.
As a late-summer entry that must win the attention of ‘plexers already exhausted by the two-and-a half months of summer blockbuster wannabes, 187 carries some surprising credentials. Its only marquee name is Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s about a high school teacher who decides he’s taken entirely too much shit from gangbanger students and resolves to deal with savagery on its own terms. Forget about it if you’re expecting some Dangerous Minds-style entertainment–there’s no Michelle or happy ending here. The film’s title derives from the California Penal Code number for murder; 187 offers no cozy hope. The project was perceived as so risky that several top actors passed on it before Jackson stepped up to the challenge.
Maybe the movie’s biggest jolt of all, though, is that it’s directed by Kevin Reynolds. Remember the best offscreen Hollywood entertainment of 1995, Waterworld? Yes, this is the Kevin who clashed with the other Kevin during the making of that watery epic, and who announced about that other Kevin, “Costner should only appear in pictures he directs himself. That way he can always be working with his favorite actor and favorite director.”
Hollywood career paths seldom run narrow or straight. Yet even in an industry rife with fireballs who flame out and plodders who wind up as celebrated industry pillars, few directors have followed paths as tortuous–or as fraught with tension– as that of Kevin Reynolds. On the basis of his 1985 debut, Fandango, the wild-boys-on-the-road romp that introduced Kevin Costner, Reynolds was singled out from the hopeless and the hacks as a promising talent. But as early as this first film, Reynolds had also managed to butt heads with a fellow filmmaker–in this case Steven Spielberg (who, says legend, let Reynolds prevail on the movie’s final form then withdrew his name and support from its release).
Four years later Reynolds made the taut real-war thriller The Beast. The film didn’t do much business, but savvy industry watchers saw that it was unmistakably the work of an accomplished director capable of lean storytelling and resonant subtext. Perhaps that’s why it seemed like a stroke of improbability when Reynolds put himself on the map with a movie like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Whether it was because he locked horns with the screenwriters, or because he fought so bitterly with the executive producer that, during postproduction, he was supposedly not given a new key when the locks on the editing room got mysteriously changed, Reynolds’s big showbiz success was 180 degrees away from what anyone might have guessed he was destined to do. As if to embellish the bizarre quality of his career up to that point, Reynolds then veered off-road with Rapa Nui, an inadvertently hilarious “serious” historical take on the mystery of Easter Island. And then came Waterworld.
Reynolds is now back in Los Angeles briefly (he moved to Seattle after Waterworld) to talk up his new film. As we introduce ourselves and order lunch on the terrace of a Santa Monica beach hotel, I actively check the man out for telltale signs of wounded pride, emotional self-flagellation, arrogance. Which is a little tough because the sun is glowing and Reynolds doesn’t remove his shades. “A lot of what goes on inside Kevin is way under the surface,” someone close to him has astutely warned me.
“Do you recognize yourself when people describe you as ‘arrogant,’ ‘intractable,’ ‘hard-headed’?” I ask Reynolds. Mulling this over a half beat, he asserts, “I think some of that is probably deserved. But I also think you have to be that way to be a director. When you’re a director, you’re surrounded by people constantly second-guessing you and trying to shift you in another direction, for whatever their particular agenda is. Being a director means having a certain willingness to subject yourself to a process that’s like running a war campaign. A lot of it requires your having to put on blinders to stay true to your particular vision. Yeah, I’m stubborn. You have to know when to be stubborn and when to compromise.”
“Being seen as stubborn and slow to compromise may go with the job description,” I persist, “but being seen as ‘difficult’ is something else. Are you?”
“People who usually say that about others are people who would like you to bend to their will,” he observes. “When you don’t, you become ‘difficult.’ I admire directors who are absolute masters of tact. I don’t think I’m one of those people.”
Excepting its potential for controversy, 187 seems about as far from Waterworld as a director could possibly go. How did the project come his way? “They sent me the script in Seattle,” he recalls, the “they” being the production executives at Mel Gibson’s company, Icon. “I read it. I liked it. So they turned around and said, ‘OK, well, let’s make it.’ I was shocked and I sort of danced around it for a month or two. I wasn’t sure yet.”
Did fear fuel the dancing-around process? “I was very unsure after Waterworld,” he admits. “I second-guessed myself a lot. Finally, they were terrific and allowed me to come in and make it my own, working with the writer. It was such a great situation. I had to say, ‘I’m due one of these.’ They let me make the picture that I wanted to make.”
Originally, 187‘s story centered on a middle-class, Catholic, Caucasian guy from Brooklyn who gets knifed by a student, recovers and moves to L.A. where he works as a substitute in a heavily Hispanic, mixed ethnic school. Talk ranged around town that someone like Nicolas Cage or Gary Sinise might step up to the plate. “It’s tragic that some very good actors were disturbed by the material,” observes Reynolds, who refuses to confirm or deny the names of anyone who might have been considered for the role before Jackson. “I never had anybody in my head when I first read it, but because of the way the role was written, it never really entered anybody’s mind that Sam Jackson would be interested. But he got the script and called us. He was so passionate about it, I guess because his mother and aunt had both been teachers and he sort of grew up in that environment. This guy is a great actor who takes chances. He understood the pitfalls of taking on a character who gets involved in situations that are not entirely sympathetic. He was reacting based on his gut. How can you say no to that kind of passion?”
Reynolds sounds passionate, too, even when mentioning the irony–or is it a studio publicist’s dream?–that the California legislature has introduced a bill designed to alleviate school problems and the bill’s number is 187. “The important thing for me about this movie is, though,” says Reynolds, “that when I see a picture, I want to be affected somehow. This material is affecting.”
Reynolds grins when I tell him that it seems to me 187 is more a follow-up to The Beast than Waterworld. Made in 1988, The Beast was an intense, no-fat movie about a Soviet tank crew in Afghanistan. If Reynolds didn’t mean this film as his calling card, let alone his statement of purpose, it sure seems that way if you look at what led up to the film instead of what happened afterward. The son of a Waco, Texas homemaker and an Air Force experimental psychologist, Reynolds had abandoned, at around age 29, his Baylor law degree plus several years in speech writing and election law to attend USC’s film school. Once his student film, Proof, had attracted the attention of Spielberg and led to Fandango, Reynolds hoped he was headed toward making the sort of movies he liked: Doctor Zhivago; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Women in Love; Badlands. He’d written a Lord of the Flies-type script, only to have John Milius turn it into the paranoid Russkies-are-coming howler Red Dawn. But after the relatively lightweight Fandango, Reynolds was ready to come out swinging.
“If I had to pick one film up to 187, I think The Beast is my best,” he observes. The Icon executives who sent him the script for 187 were fans of that film, too. “The Beast was also probably the most frustrating experience, because it got no exposure. In fact, it got buried. It came at the end of a regime at a studio and the new regime didn’t care anything about the old product.”
While we’re talking about The Beast, what does Reynolds make of the film’s star, Jason Patric, who played a conscience-stricken Soviet tankman? “He’s a very talented guy, whom I like and with whom I continue to talk,” says Reynolds. “We talked about two weeks ago, and you know what I wish he would do and I tell him so? Comedy. He has one of the driest senses of humor in the world, and if he could find a good comedy, he’d show that he’s very witty.”
Because The Beast pulled some stellar reviews, didn’t it lead to a stellar offer or two? “I liked the film and there were people who also liked it, but, as you know, a lot of people who make the decisions and give you the money to do more pictures look at things from one standpoint: did it make any money? The Beast was not a financially, successful movie and I waited probably two years trying to develop and get something of my own off the ground.”
The unrealized projects of those years were smaller and edgier than the gargantuan stuff that came instead. “The problem is that movies like that have to rise up through the cracks to get made,” he tells me. “The studios could lose their shirts making good pictures, but they can stay alive making mediocre pictures that pull in the cash. I mean, how much has Sling Blade made so far? If the great unwashed out there would show up to see those things the way they show up to see Twister, the studios would make them. Nothing’s going to change until the American public’s taste changes. The American public’s going to have to go through some kind of seminal event that recreates the disillusionment of the ’60s, an era which, for me, started when Kennedy got assassinated. The whole mindset of the country changed, and when movie audiences were more open to the antihero, you saw this whole run of incredible films. Now, we’re sort of back in the Beach Blanket Bingo, Doris Day phase that preceded all that great stuff.”
“Is that why Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the successor to The Beast?”
“If I’d had my druthers,” Reynolds answers, “I’d have done things that were more personal. I had been involved in so many projects that were almost there, didn’t happen, nearly happened. When suddenly Robin Hood came together, I said: ‘I’m only going to agree to do this if it’s pay-or-play and you tell me within 48 hours.’ They did.”
Given the widely reported miseries of making the movie–the rush to beat other potential Robin Hood movies to the starting gate, which made for inadequate preparation and production time, the punishing weather on British locations, roiling star-and-director tensions–the movie looked disaster-bound. How did Reynolds react when it instead became a smash? “I was puzzled,” he says, with an ironic, mirthless laugh. “When you’re making giant movies like that, you’re making a product. It’s all about creating an event. If you get a studio chief to be candid with you, they [admit that] it’s mediocre and that, by and large, they’re trying to homogenize it for the greatest common denominator out there. I sat there in Robin Hood screenings cringing. Then the reaction cards came back and everybody was checking all the ‘Excellent’ boxes and writing in stuff like ‘Best movie I’ve ever seen.'”
I tell Reynolds I know he and Costner were once great friends, but that I’ve never understood the deal about the other Kevin — he’s always reminded me of the understudy shoved in front of the camera when the real star didn’t show up.
“A great actor and a star are not necessarily synonymous,” Reynolds responds. “The star has a charisma or persona that, for whatever reason, the public really responds to. They like him. The camera likes him.” The public and camera may get fooled by actors, but not all of their coworkers are. I mention to Reynolds that an actress he once directed commented off the record to me that Reynolds, not Costner, should have been in front of the camera. Reynolds blushes. “Who was that? You gotta tell me. Who was it?” I demur. “Mary Elizabeth?” he guesses, referring to his Maid Marian in Robin Hood. “Could be,” I answer, noncommittally. “I thought it might be her,” says Reynolds. “She’s great. Such a pro. She and Alan Rickman were just fantastic. Originally in the script, the sheriff was this Darth Vader character and, as I started rewriting, he came out this fiendishly outrageous guy that Alan really latched on to. We felt, let’s take a chance, maybe go over the top here and at least not bore people.”
“In other words–” I say. Reynolds cuts me off. “See, when Kevin came on the movie, he’d just finished Dances With Wolves and was completely exhausted, pretty spent. The way the picture took shape, Alan came to the forefront and I think that created some friction, not really when we were shooting, but when it was over and we started looking at what we had. That’s when things got difficult.”
Had Costner become a much different animal since their comparatively carefree Fandango days? Reynolds waves away this line of discussion. “Oh, I don’t want to get into all that,” he says. “We were great friends once. It’s over. I don’t want to keep conjuring it up because it’s like ripping off a scab over and over again. There’s almost a scar there. I’d rather it just heal.” He stares off a few seconds, then says, quietly: “After that movie, I was very run-down, physically. I lost 17 pounds. It took a while to recover from the experience.”
Wasn’t part of the recovery process complicated by his having been, during Robin Hood, in the throes of a love affair headed south? “You’ve been doing some research, haven’t you?” he says. “My personal life had been in turmoil. Life doesn’t stop because you’re making a movie. In the end, the way things turned out with [the relationship] was the way it should have. I had an idea for a film sort of based on the situation, a picture with a woman’s point of view, like Darling, and I wrote about half a script I haven’t touched for five years. At the time, it struck me as just emotional spew. I’m revisiting it again. I want to finish it. The distance may help.”
Has distance helped him look at Robin Hood? “I haven’t looked at it again. Too painful. When it became a big hit, it really made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing. The most joyous, selfish part of making pictures is that you’re making a movie for yourself. Hopefully, other people will want to go see it, too. The most tragic thing is when you make something you’re happy with that people don’t go to see or don’t respond to. You take it very personally. It is sort of a personal rejection. [But being lionized for a so-so movie] makes you think you don’t know what you’re doing, and it makes you take on the attitude that it doesn’t matter. Just get it on film somehow, it will work somehow and they are going to like it. You distance yourself from the material. You don’t have the same passion for it. I don’t know how other directors are, but that’s what it does to me.”
Rapa Nui, a South Seas historical adventure among the tribes of Easter Island, is Reynolds’s lovably demented attempt to make a picture for himself. Costner produced the film, which prompts me to ask why, if things got so painful between them on Robin Hood, they worked together again. “I think both Rapa Nui and Waterworld had to do with the fact that we had been very good friends. I think we both wanted to think there was a way to make amends and put it back the way it was.” Whatever his intentions, I tell Reynolds, Rapa Nui made me laugh harder and longer than any other movie that year. I recite for him such killer lines as this one uttered by the big Kahuna of the tribe: “I don’t need this, Priest. I have chicken entrails to read.”
“It’s supposed to make you laugh–hopefully in the right places,” Reynolds claims. I tell him I couldn’t guarantee I laughed in the right places. Not without good humor, Reynolds finally shrugs and concedes, “We probably went too far with the humor, to the point where it became campy, or whatever you want to call it. I actually liked the script much better than the final movie. I got about 35 percent of what my intention was on-screen. I bit off too much. I always loved the story of Easter Island, and, to me, it was like a Herzog film. I filmed on the most remote inhabited island on the face of the earth. It was an impossible situation, weather-wise, supply-wise. We had sailboats chartered from the coast of Chile to bring us food because we had eaten everything on the island. At one point, our caterer was picking corn in a farmer’s field by the light of car headlights so we’d have something to eat the next day.”
And what about Reynolds’s notorious debacle, Waterworld? “Do you think the movie got a bad rap?” I ask the director.
“Even before the picture came out, it was buried in the media,” Reynolds asserts. “People so wanted it to be a bomb that they created this whole feeling out there. There’s a perverse fascination with what movies cost. I’ll never forget that when it was screened in New York, they told me the reaction of a critic who left the screening room, going, ‘Well, it didn’t suck.’ Almost like he was disappointed. I didn’t do the final cut, as most people know. It could and should have been a much better film than what you saw up there, given what we had shot.”
Does Reynolds think Costner had become vulnerable from too much success? “He was definitely at a point where people wanted to blast him off his pedestal. It all created a whole atmosphere within the production, a scrutiny that just exacerbated what was, in the first place, a difficult situation. People like to denigrate any kind of excess. Rumors of what was supposedly going on were just rampant. Like most things, there was a grain of truth to those rumors, but it was all so blown out of proportion compared to what really occurred. People wanted to believe what they read because it was more interesting that way. All that aside, I think you and I have both seen pictures that were no better or worse but were considered hits.”
Would Reynolds ever do another big-scale movie? “I don’t want to say I’ll never do one again, but right now I wouldn’t unless the subject matter and story were fantastic–like The Bridge on the River Kwai or something. Anyway, no one’s going to offer me another $100 million action picture right away.”
Reynolds has to run. He’s got a meeting with Los Angeles radio deejay and Dream Works A&R man Chris Douridas, who wove, for 187 a hypnotic aural background from music by Massive Attack, Everything But the Girl and Miles Davis. Later he’s got a meeting at Warner Bros. As for what he’ll do when he’s put the finishing touches on 187 he’s not certain. He tells me how he lights out on diving adventures in such far-flung places as Guadalcanal and Tahiti in between movies. “It helps to make you realize how ultimately unimportant all this is,” he says, meaning a world of development deals, on-set screaming matches and intimate communications by cell phone and fax. “It’s just not a healthy thing to think this is it. You come here bursting with ideas, with things you want to say, but after you’ve been here for a certain period of time, all you end up talking about is the business. People here get stale because they don’t live, they just make movies. It’s important to try and get out there and do something so that hopefully you’ll discover something new or have something to say.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Nastassja Kinski for the April ’97 issue of Movieline.