The Constancy of Sorrow
Native Texan Kevin Reynolds taps loss of innocence, from Cold War Commies to 'The Count of Monte Cristo'
Director/screenwriter Kevin Reynolds is probably best known for his work with friend Kevin Costner on films like their mutual 1985 breakthrough, Fandango; 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; and, four years later, the logistically cursed and critically panned (but still epically entertaining) Waterworld. Taken as a whole, however, Reynold's cinematic curriculum vitae tilts less toward the typical multiplex blockbuster fare than it does toward a far grander directorial era in Hollywood's past.
His 1988 film, The Beast of War (aka The Beast), is a minor masterpiece of the form, a violently suspenseful psychological war movie that leaves viewers feeling as though they just watched some great, lost Samuel Fuller-David Lean collaboration. His 1994 film, Rapa Nui, takes place on an ancient Easter Island, presaging Mel Gibson's similarly themed Apocalypto by more than a decade, and Reynolds' last two films, a rollicking 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and 2006's Tristan & Isolde (ill-cast but still unique in its take on the perennial star-crossed lovers), have been equally, eloquently grandiose in their conception if not, ultimately, their execution.
Reynolds is a director of the old school and proudly so. His cinematic canvases are large enough for him to paint outsized characters but detailed enough to invoke the primal intimacies of war, love, and legend with an intimacy most modern directors have long since sacrificed in favor of better box office and bigger names above the marquee. It's the audience's loss.
The Austin Chronicle spoke to Reynolds about his body of work, war, and the film industry's current stagnation on the eve of his appearance in town for the Austin Film Festival's Made in Texas series.
Austin Chronicle: Storywise, your films have been all over the place. Is there a single unifying theme throughout that you'd care to point out?
Kevin Reynolds: I guess if I had to pick one thing that seems to reoccur in a lot of my work, it would be an obsession with loss of innocence – the inevitable disillusionment that just living life encompasses. I think you can find that in just about all the pictures I do.
AC: Where does that come from?
KR: I guess, when I was a kid, I never wanted to grow up and sort of sensed that it was going to be more fun to be Peter Pan than it was to be an adult. You can see a lot of that in [Kevin Costner's character] Gardener Barnes in Fandango.
AC: You went to UT-Austin, then to Baylor Law School, and then to USC to study film. What prompted the jump from being an attorney to being a filmmaker?
KR: From an early age, I always liked to write. I loved stories, I loved literature, and I really loved film, but it seem[ed] too out of reach, too much of a fantasy occupation. So consequently, I felt like it wasn't something to pursue because I was never going to get there. I went to law school because it seemed like the respectable thing to do. I had to make a living, but I didn't like it at all. When I got out of Baylor, I realized I was faced with either four years of doing something I don't even like, or I could take a chance and go back to film school, because that's what I really enjoyed. I started making little films at UT. I was practicing law in the daytime, and then at night I would go over to the film school, and I'd be there from 6 at night until 2 in the morning. And after a year of that, I realized I had to make a choice, and so I applied to USC film school, got accepted, quit my job, and went back to school.
AC: Your father was the president of Baylor at that time. What was his response to your decision to abandon the legal profession in favor of film school?
KR: At the time, my parents were clearly concerned, as I think most parents would be. Ultimately, they were incredibly supportive, and they couldn't have been nicer about it. They never said, "No, you can't do this." They respected the fact that I was an adult and I was going to make my own choices. But yeah, they were concerned. It seemed pretty far-fetched to them, too.
AC: "Proof," your thesis film at USC, which eventually morphed into Fandango, briefly aligned you with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. How did that come about?
KR: My goal when I went to film school was to end up with two things: a screenplay I could sell and a movie I could show. I got really lucky, and my first screenplay sold, and I got an agent off that. I'd just finished the film, and I asked him if he thought he could get it to Steven Spielberg. I honestly didn't think anything was going to happen. And then literally about two weeks later, I was in the courtyard at USC, and the chairman, Mort Zarcoff, comes over and asks me to come to his office, which I do. He says: "Steven Spielberg's office is on the phone. They want to talk to you." I get on the phone, and it's Kathy Kennedy [his then-assistant, who executive-produced the film], and she says: "Steven really liked your movie, and he'd like to meet with you. Do you think you could come down tomorrow?" And I'm like: "Yeah. Sure."
So [Spielberg and I] ended up talking for an hour and half. He was great. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a director and so on, and then I left. Two days later, I get another phone call – I'm sitting in my crappy little apartment in Studio City – and it's Kathy Kennedy again, and she says, "I just want to let you know that Steven is making arrangements for you to do a feature version of your student film."
I hung up, and I sat there in my chair for half an hour, and then I called her back and asked her to repeat what she'd told me, because I just couldn't believe it. It was like a fairy tale, and things don't usually happen that way.
AC: I have to ask you about your involvement in John Milius' infamous Commies-invade-the Heartland film, Red Dawn. Which you wrote, correct?
KR: That was my thesis screenplay. I desperately wanted to direct it, but it was too expensive, and so United Artists decided to give it to Milius. You know, John has his own unique political point of view, and it colored the picture in a way that I would not have taken it.
AC: How had you envisioned it?
KR: I wanted to do Lord of the Flies. My whole reason for writing it – and this was at the height of this resurgent Cold War fervor – was that I noticed there was a lot of jingoism going on, and everyone wanted to kick the Russkies' butts. But people in this country had no idea what it would be like to fight a war in their own back yard. At the time, there was talk about the Europeans and how lame they were, but we forget that they have fought wars in their back yards, literally, and they knew what it was like. And so I wanted to depict what it would be like to have it actually happen here, and, as I say, do more Lord of the Flies. The script as I wrote it was not a celebration of violence. John took it in another direction.
AC: What's your take on the finished John Milius film?
KR: I'm not happy with it.
AC: One of your films that rarely gets the credit it deserves is The Beast, which is about a wounded Soviet tank and its crew being hunted by a vengeful band of mujahedeen in the waning days of the Soviet-Afghan conflict. For obvious reasons, The Beast is contemporary all over again and has plenty to say about both the viral madness of warfare in general and, more specifically, war in Afghanistan. If anything, it's more relevant right now than it was when it was released in 1988. Was the war still on at the time you made the film?
KR: It was, yeah. The Beast was written by a great playwright by the name of Bill Mastrosimone. It was sent to me in a 50-page outline, I read it and thought, "Wow, this is cool," and then I found out it was a play. So I went to see the play – they had this big wire contraption onstage to represent the tank, which meant you had to kind of stretch your belief to buy into it. And I thought, this isn't a play, this is a movie. So Bill and I spent a couple of months adapting it into a tight script and went to Israel to shoot it.
AC: It's one of the most gorgeous-looking, almost poetic war films I've ever seen.
KR: Not foreseeing where we were going to be 20 years on, at the time I saw the Soviets' situation in Afghanistan as something akin to their Vietnam. Which is why I chose to portray the Russians the way I did, which was as Americans speaking American accents. I know that threw a lot people at first, but I think that after the first five or 10 minutes, you kind of forget it. What that does, though, is allow the audience to find those characters very accessible. And that's what I wanted to do: Make people realize that they're just like us and that their situation was analogous to what we Americans had experienced in Vietnam.
AC: Having said that, and knowing as much as you do about the Soviets' disastrous Afghan campaign, you must have some concerns about our current imbroglio there.
KR: That's a complex issue, and greater minds than I are trying to deal with it. But I do feel that to some extent it was a huge mistake. You can't go over there and just defeat these people militarily. You're talking about trying to change an entire culture's mindset. I spent a couple of weeks in Pakistan before shooting The Beast, and it was like going back 200 years. They're very dogmatic in their beliefs, they don't really want to know Western culture, they're a bit narrow-minded, and they're very different from us. If they're not battling the Russians or the British or us, they're fighting each other. And that's just their culture. I think we've got a no-win situation on our hands. You'd have to pour so much time and money into the entire culture to try and change that mentality. And at the end of the day, you have to ask, "Is it right for us to go in and impose our system on them?" It's a quagmire, and I think it's sucking the blood out of us.
AC: Both the business and the craft of making movies has changed dramatically over the past decade, with the introduction of affordable pro-sumer HD cameras, digital editing, and so forth allowing virtually anyone the ability to make a movie, for better or worse. What's your take on the so-called "digital revolution," and what do you think it implies for the future of filmmaking?
KR: Quite frankly, what I think it has done is make films less special. You're right: Anybody can make a picture now, whereas it used to be very difficult to do so. The problem these days isn't so much getting the picture made anymore; it's getting it seen. That's incredibly difficult now, even for big filmmakers.
AC: Theatres are starting to dry up like the drive-ins of yore.
KR: It's really depressing, because that's what I fed on when I was young and in love with pictures. I remember when I first went to UT, and I would go to the old Dobie Theatre, and they would show everything from Japanese to Italian neorealist films, Philippe de Broca pictures, and it was fabulous, because you were exposed to all these different points of cinematic view from around the world, and you saw them on the big screen as they were intended to be seen. That's gone now. [Outside of markets like Austin] people just don't go to see those types of pictures these days, and as a consequence, they're not even being made in their native countries anymore. American cinema has dominated the marketplace to the exclusion of almost everything else. There's been a mass-homogenization of cinema, which I don't think is healthy at all. I don't think it's a particularly good time in cinema.
AC: So what would you advise young or emerging filmmakers do?
KR: Well, you know, they all want to get out there and make movies, and they want to do it right away. What I tell them is: First, go to school, get a good liberal arts education, and then go out and travel the world or fall in love or what have you. You need to have something to say before you go into making pictures, because otherwise, you're just parroting technique that you've seen elsewhere. You're not really experiencing life and then commenting on it, like the best pictures do. You need to go out and live. The great filmmakers are guys who experienced war, experienced tragedy, experienced the whole of life, and then came home and wrote about it or made movies about it. That's what made those films profound.
The Austin Film Festival presents Conversations in Film with Kevin Reynolds on Wednesday, May 13, at 6pm at the AT&T Conference Center (1900 University Ave.), followed by a screening of Fandango at 7:30pm at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum's Texas Spirit Theater (1800 N. Congress). For ticket info for both events and for more about the AFF's ongoing Conversations in Film lectures and Made in Texas Film Series, visit www.austinfilmfestival.com.