Kevin Reynolds is best known for directing two major Kevin Costner projects – Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – and his filmography also boasts the terrific The Count Of Monte Cristo and the underrated Samuel L Jackson-starring One Eight Seven. In an exclusive chat with Den Of Geek, he talks about how Steven Spielberg gave him his break, the perils of that Waterworld shoot, and directing the famous buffalo hunt sequence in Dances With Wolves…
You seem to be a particular fan of the Ridley Scott film The Duellists, to the point where you appeared on television with Ridley over in America talking about it.
What is it about that particular film, has that influenced you in some way?
Well it did, it was just such a – you know, Ridley had such an eye, and at that particular time I don’t think anybody had shot anything that gorgeous before. I mean, just the framing and the light…oh, it was just…it was like a painting, the whole picture, and it made a distinct impression.
In fact, when the picture was first released I think there were only five prints in the entire US, and fortunately one of those prints was released in Austin, Texas, and I was a student at that time and I happened to go to some little art house where it was showing, and saw it, and was just blown away by the look.
And, of course, his follow-up project to The Duellists was always supposed to be Tristan and Isolde, which you ended up doing. Do you think there’s a kind of fate in there somewhere?
I don’t know! I suppose you could say that. I was quite taken by Ridley’s work and I guess he was somewhat taken by mine because he invited me to – you know…we tried to do a couple of projects together, actually. Oddly it was about twenty years ago when I first met him and he wanted to meet and we had breakfast and he kept trying to talk me into doing this one film, this script. I read it and I kinda liked it but I just wasn’t as enthused about it as he was. You know, he tried and I finally just said, “No really, you should do this”. And he did. It was Thelma and Louise.
Yeah. I never could have done the job that he did with it, because he had such a vision for it and I didn’t.Going back to yourself, your own background is in the law. You started off as a lawyer?
I did, for the lack of a better idea of what to pursue. I had a History degree, in University, I didn’t quite know how to make a living at that…and so I went through law school and I got it and practised for a couple of years and I just hated it. It wasn’t what I wanted to do and so I started making little films while I was working in Austin, at the University of Texas. And finally decided after a year of no sleep that I had to make a choice, and so I did.
It was Red Dawn that was the breakthrough for you, wasn’t it?
Well it was – I mean my goal when I went to film school with was to graduate and have a script I could show people and a film that I could show people, and my thesis screenplay was what became Red Dawn. And my student film, I was fortunate enough to get Steven Spielberg to see it. That really sort of got my foot in the door.
How tough a decision was it to throw away the legal career and do the switch to film work?
Well I agonised for a bit, but I realised ultimately that I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, I’m like, look, I can spend the next forty years wondering ‘what if?’ and doing something that I really don’t like…otherwise I can take a chance and chuck it all, see if I can be that one percent of people that make it in the film business. And I thought, “Well, somebody’s going to make it so why shouldn’t it be me?”And Steven Spielberg’s involvement got you to the full-length Fandango and also Amazing Stories.
That’s right, yeah.And what advice did he have for you? Where did he come in? How did he push you?
Well, he saw my student film…I mean, it’s not really supposed to happen, it’s like a dream, almost. I was still in film school and I was actually there and the chairman of the department came out one day and said, “Could you come into my office for a second?” and I walked in and he goes, “Steven Spielberg’s office is on the phone”.
No – so I get on the phone and Steven’s assistant goes, “Steven saw your film and liked it, and he’d like to meet with you”. I went, “Okay…”. So, the next day we talked for like an hour and a half. He said, you know, “What do you want to do?” and all this and I said, “Well, I want to be a director” and he was great.
So I went back and I was sitting in my crappy little apartment in Studio City and about two days later the phone rings and it’s Kathy Kennedy and she goes, “I just wanted to call and let you know that Steven’s making arrangements for you to do a feature-length version of your student film”.
How old you were at the time?
At that time I was like, 30.And he just calls you up and the following day you’re in a ninety-minute meeting with him?
That’s right.Fandango got you kick-started, it’s still got a popular audience now and you also tackled The Beast. What are your feelings on those two projects now?
Well, you know they weren’t financially successful, which was hurtful at the time, but I feel like the pictures themselves work. They’re very much a reflection of what I wanted to accomplish and it was a lesson early on that I learned that, oddly, a lot of times in this business the small pictures rarely see the light of day are the ones that you’re happier with, and sometimes the bigger ones, you ultimately have less control over.
Then Dances With Wolves comes in, and you directed what was really one of the pivotal, big-screen moments of the film. The one that really got talked about. What are you feeling at that point, when all that acclaim’s coming in?
I directed some of the buffalo hunt, I didn’t direct the entire thing, I went out there and I think I was there for three weeks or something like that. My feelings were that it was fun to be working out there on a picture that, and, you know, help a friend.I presume that’s the way the project came to you, that it was just a call from Kevin Costner, “Can you help out?” – that’s the story, anyway.
Yeah. It’s true. And I did and I went out there for about three weeks or so…
It’s an extraordinary piece of cinema, were the logistics quite straightforward on it or was it as challenging as it looks?
It was quite challenging, I mean having never worked with buffalo before!
Just to digress for a moment there was this one shot that I wanted to set up which was a big tracking shot with the buffalo running through the middle background, and Kevin pushing in on the buffalo and the camera was right beside him, and we pushed in with him, and he was going to move all the way in and then come over the shoulder of a buffalo and take a shot.
It was a very elaborate shot and what we had to do was square off a mile square segment of pasture, and we had a couple of hundred buffalo in there and usually they would herd them with…it’s hard for me to sort of describe…they would herd them with pick-up trucks, and we created a funnel with trucks behind the camera, so when they came over this rise they were sort of funnelled into this area. And there was a fence in the background and I just put the camera down low on the tracking vehicle, so the buffalos’ bodies actually hid the fence in the background.
And do buffalo get particularly angry in a circumstance like that?
Well, yeah…they did, I mean they’re very skittish animals, like cattle, so they came over the hill and we had the guys dressed as Indians and the shot just worked beautifully. First try we pushed in and came over his shoulder and he took the shot and I was like, “Wow!”. And I turned around to the cameraman and I said, “Did you get that?” and he was like hitting the camera with his hand and the battery had gone down. And it was shooting at eleven frames a second instead of twenty-four. Couldn’t believe it.
And so we had to set it up again, it took a couple of hours to set it up. We did it again, long story short, it wasn’t quite as good as the first time but it worked pretty well…turned round and the camera had gone down again. I was just furious, I said, “Get another camera, this is crazy”. We set it up a third time and the buffalo are going nuts.
Third time, anyway, we push in on him and the buffalo at this point know what’s coming. They turned away from us and took the entire fence down, ran off into the distance. The shot never made it into the picture – it was a beautiful shot but we just never got it. You look at eleven frames a second – they tried all kinds of things, optically, to make the first take work but…that’s what it was like.
After Dances With Wolves you came over to Britain and enjoyed the beauties of the British weather, the British planes flying over your set, and the joy of Robin Hood. I remember reading at the time a very big behind-the-scenes on the film, and to be honest it sounded like you were exasperated with it at the time, just the sheer mechanics of shooting in Britain.
You know, like every production there are problems, and I think the weather in particular was a problem on that shoot because we were shooting in the Fall, and especially up north, we had a lot of weather problems, all very rainy and all. But that’s part and parcel of what you have to deal with when you go to scenic locations. We were up on Hadrian’s Wall, in the New Forest, places like that, and yeah, it was bad at times. But I think ultimately we got the look that we were after.
There seemed to be an awful lot of pressure around the Robin Hood picture and Kevin’s star was on the rise, and there were two other Robin Hood stories at first but only one of the other ones made it to the screen. And then you had your cast change four days before. Did it feel like almost nothing else could go wrong here?
Again, yes, we had problems, but like I said, every picture I’ve worked on has had its own unique set of problems, so if you do it a lot you come to realise, “This is going to happen” and you just have to go with it and figure out how to get around those obstacles. That’s just part of filmmaking. It’s never perfect, and you have to go with the punches and move ahead and realise that the picture’s never going to be exactly what you conceived originally, but that doesn’t mean it’s not gonna work.
You mention on the commentary to the Count of Monte Cristo DVD how you like to ‘force the eye’, and your directorial has this energy and this flow to it, and there’s this scene in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, the one where they’re just making all the weapons, which could have been really quite a mundane little scene, but the flow between everyone, as we go from person to person all in one take, had a kinetic feel. Was the desire to put that energy into it right from the start?
Yeah, that’s something that you do staging-wise and editorially and all, but I’ve always tried to force the eye. It’s like when I sit down and visualise a scene, I see it a particular way in my own head – every director has his own style, I mean some directors just like to work with actors and they turn it over to the DP [director of photography], some directors just sit back and they put the camera down and just basically record the action, but to me the really interesting directors are those that use the camera in such a way to make you perceive a scene in a very particular way.
It’s as much about what they exclude from the moment as what they include, what they choose to emphasise. And people don’t really realise that when they’re watching a film, they just go, “Oh yeah, of course”, that’s how the scene is presented, but if you analyse it, good directors are very particular in what they’ll allow you or make you see in a moment. That’s what I’ve always striven to do, and what I think guys like Ridley do.How hard is it to hold your vision when there’s all this pressure coming around you? Do you often get pushed to a compromise you don’t want particularly?
Sure you do. That always happens, and again, when I was early-on in my career, I found that incredibly frustrating because months before I’d conceive a moment in a particular way, I’d pick the location and I knew how I wanted it to look, and I wanted to wait until a certain time of day when the light was a certain way and all. And inevitably, when you show up on the day, the location has changed somehow, they’ve cut the tree down that you wanted to stage it all under, or somebody’s forgotten someone’s costume, or it’s overcast so you don’t have any light, and you have to deal with it, because those are the cards that you’ve been dealt for that particular scene.
And like I say, it used to make me nuts. But ultimately I began to realise that you just have to move forward – and you’re still shaping it, you’re still influencing it, and making it reflect what your particular taste and vision is. It’s not exactly what you originally conceived. The great thing for me now is that at the end, after you’ve shot it and cut it all together, you look at it and go, “So that’s want it wanted to be”.
Every film takes on a life of its own, and it’s influenced by you, and it’s influenced by all the other players that are involved with it as well, and it is unique to that particular time and those people that were involved with the process. It would not be the same film if it had other people involved with it, or other days, because the circumstances change every day. To me that’s the wonderful mystery, and why films have a uniqueness to them. That just sounds like blather, I’m sure, but I do believe that.Going back to Robin Hood, we got the extended cut on DVD a couple of years ago, which was received exceptionally well. I’m wondering if you feel in any way – I’m not sure if ‘vindictated’ is the right word, or just ‘pleased’ – that you got a different version of it out there?
Well, yes and no – what you really wish is that the original version had been that, the original release had been your version. But yeah, to some extent I am happy that people saw more of what I intended. But…you’d make yourself crazy if you constantly dwelt on it. I sort of don’t understand filmmakers that can go back ten, fifteen years later and want to re-work their film or restore it, because you have to let it go.
You have to move onto something else. I remember when I was in film school, directors would show up and present their films and they would say things like, “You know, I haven’t seen that movie in 20 years. I can’t watch my films”. And I never understood that, I was like, “What do you mean you don’t watch your movies?”, but now I understand it completely, because when you’re a filmmaker and you sit down to watch your work, you’re not looking at it the way an audience does, you’re going, “Oh God, I remember the day we shot that, why did I do it that way?” and “Why did I make that choice?”. So it’s very painful – you don’t have the objectivity an audience does, and so consequently I think a lot of filmmakers probably don’t like to watch their work.The worldwide success of Robin Hood presumably gave you the clout to get Rapa Nui made. And that seemed like a very, very personal project.
It was, and I have to say in retrospect, looking back unfortunately that’s probably my worst film.
Why do you feel that?
Because I didn’t succeed, because I didn’t come close enough to what I’d originally intended, tried to do. I could blame it on a lot of circumstances and ultimately I have to take some responsibility for it myself, because I made a lot of the choices. But there were so many circumstances that went against that picture that it overwhelmed it, ultimately, and it was not close enough to what I wanted it to be.Presumably it was a much lower-budget picture, which presents different pressures?
It does, and that’s probably also the most difficult picture I’ve ever done, because of the remoteness of the location and the circumstances we were shooting under, it was like a Werner Herzog picture. Very, very difficult. You go into it with enthusiasm and you say, Well I can overcome everything like we were just talking about a moment ago, and you can’t. Sometimes you simply can’t overcome some of the obstacles. And that is sort of a case in point, that particular picture.
I’m fascinated, given the film that you did afterwards, that you think that Rapa Nui was the most difficult…It was really, really hard. You know, Easter Island, we had one flight a week from the mainland, and there were times we ran out of food to feed people, and things like that, it was…it was very bad.You went from what was, by the sounds of it, a small and very taxing project to a…
Big and very taxing project!
I read through some of the things you’ve tackled and there’s a real ‘glutton for punishment’ feel about it!
I say, “Those were my Werner Herzog days”.What pulled you to Waterworld, because I think even on paper, even if everything had gone perfectly, that must have looked the most horrifyingly, challenging film, or was that the appeal to it?
No, it wasn’t, and in fact I had committed to Waterworld before I went up to do Rapa Nui. I just liked the script, this notion of a world covered in water, because I fancied myself as this environmentalist – I mean there’s an environmental vein in Rapa Nui, and Waterworld just summed it up nicely.
So at what point did you realise that the problems were really going to kick in?
During pre-production. Because having never shot on water to that extent before, I didn’t really realise what I was in for. I talked to Spielberg about it because he’d gone to do Jaws, and I remember, he said to me, “Oh, I would never shoot another picture on water”.
When we were doing the budget for the picture, and the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg, we were talking about it and I said, “Steven told me that on Jaws the schedule for the picture was 55 days, and they ended up shooting a 155 days”. Because of the water. And he sat there for a moment and he said, “You know, I’m not sure about the days, but I do know they went a hundred percent over budget”. And so, Universal knew the potential problems of shooting on water. It’s monstrous.
There’s that great big gunfight scene with the Smokers blasting away. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics of that and how hard it was.
We had an entire navy, basically – I mean, this atoll was positioned about a mile off-shore in Hawaii, it was anchored to the bottom of the ocean so it could rotate. What you don’t think about are things like, you’re shooting on this atoll to maintain this notion that there’s no dry land, you always have to shoot out to sea. Away from the land. So we chose a location where we had about a 180 degree view of open water. Nevertheless, any time when you’re shooting, there could be a ship appear in the background, or something like that, and you had to make a choice. Do I hold up the shot, wait for the ship to move out, or do we shoot and say we’re going to incur this additional cost in post-production of trying to remove the ship from the background.
And at that time, CGI was not at the point it is now, it was a bigger deal. And so, even though if you’re shooting across the atoll and you’re shooting out onto open water, when you turn around and do the reverses, for the action, you had to rotate the entire atoll, so that you’re still shooting out to open water. Those are the kinds of things that people don’t realise.
Or something as simple as – if you’re shooting a scene between two boats, and you’re trying to shoot The Mariner on his craft, another boat or whatever, you’ve got a camera boat shooting his boat, and then the other boat in the background. Well, when you’re on open water things tend to drift apart. So you have to send lines down from each of those boats to the bottom, to anchor them so that they somewhat stay in frame. When you’ve got a simple shot on land, you set up the camera position, you put people in front of the camera and then you put background in there. But when you’re on water, everything’s constantly moving apart, drifting apart, so you have to try to hold things down somewhat.
And these are simple things that you don’t really realise when you’re looking at it on film. But logistically, it’s crazy. And each day you shoot on the atoll with all those extras, we had to transport those people from dry land out to the location and so you’re getting hundreds of people through wardrobe and everything, and you’re putting them on boats, transporting them out to the atoll, and trying to get everybody in position to do a shot. And then when you break for lunch, you have to put everybody on boats and take them back in to feed them.
You also had the day that the set sank?
There’s a myth about that. People think it’s the giant, atoll set and in fact it was not – it was a smaller set that was like a Smoker colony, it was the thing that looked like a bottle sticking up out of the water. They were lying in wait, and they killed some guys, and strung their hands up to look like they’re waving and all…that’s in fact the set that sank. But most people when they heard the ‘set sank’, they thought it was…you know.Well, it ties into my next question because that’s how it was reported at the time. I’m not sure how much of the press barrage you got on set…
It was huge, we were constantly fighting – people wanted to have bad press. That was more exciting to them than the good news. I guess the most egregious example of that that I recall was that the publicist told me that one day…we’d been out the day before and we were doing a shot where we sent two cameras up on a mast of the trimaran and we wanted to do a shot where they tilled down from the horizon down to the deck below. We’re out there, we’re anchored, we’re setting the shot up and a swell comes in, and I look over and the mast is sort of bending.
And I turned to the boatmaster and I said, “Bruno, is this safe?”. And he looks up the mast and he goes, “No”. So I said, “Okay, well, we have to get out as I can’t have two guys fall off from 40 feet up”. So, we had to break out of the set-up, and go back in a shoot something else and we lost another half-day.
Anyway, the next day the publicist is sitting in his office and he gets this call from some journalist in the States and he goes, “Okay. Don’t lie to me – I’ve had this confirmed from two different people. I want the facts, and I want to hear about the accident yesterday, we had two cameramen fall off the mast and were killed”.
And, he goes, “What are you talking about?”. And he goes, “Don’t lie to me, don’t cover this up, we know this has happened”. It didn’t happen! People were so hungry for bad news because it was much more exciting than…they just said it, and you know, it hurt us.Do you think there were people that were disappointed when the movie came out, and it was a good movie, and it made a profit?
Yeah, in fact I remember the reports of one of the first showings in New York, and the critics went to it, and the guys at Universal said this one critic walked out of the screening and he was kind of upset, he goes, “Well, it didn’t suck.” [Laughs]
You could almost sense the disappointment in the writing at the time.
Yeah, my own personal take on the picture is that I don’t think it’s any better, any worse than most summer blockbusters, it’s somewhere in the middle. I think yeah, it’s certainly got its faults, but I think, you know, on another level I think it works quite well compared to some of the other big films. But by the end, people…they wanted it to be a disaster. And in fact Lou Wasserman who was the head of the MCA at the time, he said he thought that the bad press on the picture probably cost us $50m at the box office.You left the project before the final cut was locked. Would your version have differed dramatically from what we saw on the screen?
Yeah, it would have differed from what you saw on the screen to some extent, and one of the things I’ve always been perplexed by in the version that was released, theatrically, although subsequently the longer version included it, and the reason that I did the film, was that at the very end of the picture, at the very end of the script, there’s a scene when they finally reach dry land and The Mariner’s sailing off and he leaves the two women behind, and in the script they’re standing up on this high point and they’re watching him sail away, and the little girl stumbles on something. And they look down and clear the grass away and that’s this plaque. And it says, “Here, near this spot, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest”. And that was in script and I was like, “Oh, of course! Wow, the highest point on the planet! That would have been dry land!”.
And we got it! We shot that. And they left it out of the picture. And I’m like, “Whaaat?!”. It’s like the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes. And I was like, “Why would you leave that out?”.You and Kevin Costner came back to record a commentary for the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves DVD a few years ago. Is it fair to say that most things are buried there now?
I think we’ve reconciled, we’re both a little older and wiser. We’ve put some things behind us and managed to sit down and talk about that project, so…it’s not as acrimonious as it was right after Waterworld, that’s for sure.Then you came to One Eight Seven, which again seemed smaller, more personal… it was brought to you by a real-life teacher?
It was actually brought to me by Mel Gibson’s company. They controlled it, and it was a script and I read it and was like, “Wow, this feels very real” and yeah it’s written by a teacher. So that kind of blew me away.
It had the look and the feel very much of almost an ‘anti’ Dead Poets Society. The was none of the gloss and the romance of the usual teacher…
It’s not To Sir With Love, no.
There’s a look and feel you were going for there, a really down-to-earth, gritty style to it.
Well there was, and in actual fact I wanted to hire someone who had never shot a feature film before. So I went this guy named Ericson Core who only shot videos, and he was great, because I wanted to take hige chances – I mean, after Waterworld, where to some extent you just got locked into what you had to do on a given day, I wanted to have the flexibility to really take some big chances. It was great working with Ericson. For example there was a scene in a classroom, and I said, “You know, I think it would be cool to shoot this whole thing like from a surveillance camera, like a crummy video camera, and just put it up in the corner and shoot like that”.
And Ericson goes, “Yeah, and for the close-ups, I know these toy video cameras and we’ll shoot it on that and transfer it to film”. And I’m like, “Great”. So we really fed off each other, like that, it was wonderful.
Did that feel almost like back to the student filmmaking days?
It did, it did, it was a great experience and it was exactly what I needed after Waterworld. And the picture didn’t make a dime.
It seems to have endured because of the DVD format?
Yep, and I think Sam was great. I think it’s one of his best performances.
I think it’s a very shocking film at the end, as well.
That’s why it didn’t work so well. People…that’s not the message they wanted to hear.The Count of Monte Cristo is a terrific film, and it’s one I stumbled across almost by accident several years ago. What attracted you to it? And also you got away with setting so much of it in a prison!
Yeah, and that was a challenge. The guys, in fact one of the producers on Robin Hood, asked me to come on board and I read it and I’m like, “Well, this is one of the classics, why not?”. The challenge of shooting in an enclosed space like a prison just like in a classroom in One Eight Seven, is how you make each scene distinct in some way, so that it doesn’t become repetitive and boring. Going back to the same location. And that is a challenge, so you have to find a way to make each moment fresh somehow, even thought it’s in the same place.
The other thing that seems to come across from The Count of Monte Cristo is you seemed to particularly enjoy directing Richard Harris.
That was one of the highlights of my career, getting to work with him. He was so wonderful, he’s such a character, so legendary…and he was such a pro. He knew what worked for him. And in a moment he knew how to turn a line, or just lay on a word, or lay off a word just to give it emphasis to the moment, and just to watch him work was just extraordinary. And I did, I really, really relished getting to do it and it was just wonderful.Was The Count of Monte Cristo was the first medium-budget film that you had control of from start to finish?
It was a different sort of venue to work in, and I find that that sort of price range, of the sort of $35-40m picture, that’s sort of my comfort zone because you don’t have the enormous pressures that you have on a much higher-budget picture. And at the same time, you have enough to make it, whereas on a low-budget picture, you have to scrimp a lot more. So I do, I think that’s a comfortable area to work in, although I think it’s harder in some ways for studios to sell those kind of pictures.
From the choices that you’ve made, it seems that period things interest you a lot – is that coincidence, or is that personal interest?
I don’t know if I’ve just sort of become the ‘go-to’ guy for swashbucklers or what, but truth be told, Ridley actually approached me about Tristan and Isolande before I went off to do Monte Cristo. And when that was over I thought, “Yeah, I still like this idea, so let’s try to make it happen”.
And again, was that quite relaxed by context against what you’ve done before?
No, that was actually a very difficult picture. The budget was a bit short, we had a lot of difficulties, not least the fact that our lead actor got injured three times and we had to shut down production.
How was working with the Scott brothers, as producers…?
It was good, it was great, I mean it’s great working with producers that are film-makers, they know what’s involved as opposed to kind of ‘bean counters’.
What kind of projects you’re on the look-out for now?
I’ve had a comedy that I wrote with a friend of mine, it’s a sort of a cross between Mediterraneo and The Pink Panther which we’ve been trying to get going for a couple of years with not much success so far, and another swashbuckler, potential swashbuckler with the same guys I did Monte Cristo with.
For a former lawyer, is there ever a legal thriller on the horizon, do you think?
No, I passed on that opportunity a long time ago!
I would have though that’s one of the first things they offered you.
Well, I did get offered one of those some time back, but I was just…I don’t know, it didn’t interest me. I would like to do something more contemporary, and not just get pigeonholed as doing sword movies, but we’ll see!
And one last question – to any budding film-maker who’s sitting at home in, you know, the YouTube, internet age with all this equipment around them, what advice would you give to them?
You have to be absolutely relentless if you want to succeed in this business. It’s more and more difficult, it’s not what it was when I was starting out a long time ago. I think there are a lot more people who want to be involved in it.
I was warned at the time when I got into it that the chances of success are minimal, it’s just such a tough business. And it’s true, it really is. But, the thing I think you always have to hang on to is the fact that somebody’s going to make it. Somebody’s going to succeed. And you have to say to yourself, “Why shouldn’t that be me?”. If you want it to happen, it has to be the core of your life for a long time. Unfortunately to the detriment of your personal life and everything else. You have to be absolutely obsessive to succeed.
Kevin Reynolds, thank you very much!