Kevin Reynolds: Reynolds Rap
How did Kevin Reynolds, who brought you the bloated Waterworld, come to direct this summer's 187, a high-intensity drama about vicious kids in the L.A.school system?
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."