Tomorrow evening, Kevin Reynolds – the director behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld – will sit down in front of an eager audience to talk about his first film, Fandango. As part of Austin Film Festival’s Conversations in Film Series, Reynolds will no doubt give some great advice to aspiring filmmakers on how to get into the business and how to stay there.
Luckily, I got a chance to catch up with Reynolds beforehand to steal some of his gems of wisdom in order to share them with all of our readers that don’t happen to live in Austin. However if you do, you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out the conversation tomorrow evening followed by a screening of Fandango.
What does it feel like to look back on a college film? To look back over such a long history of filmmaking to the beginning?
You mean to look back at Fandango after all this time?
Yeah, especially considering that it’s a college movie based on something from your youth.
To be honest, I haven’t watched it in a long time. I tell people the story, and I never understood this when I was in film school, directors who would come and talk. You’d ask them what they thought about their movies, and they’d say ‘Oh, I never watch my movies,’ and I never understood that. Now I understand it completely. It’s just too painful.You know you always wish – you watch them and think ‘Why did I shoot it that way?’ or ‘Oh, I remember the day we shot that,’ and you can never watch a picture the way an audience does. Your perspective is totally skewed so consequently, I don’t go back and watch them. I haven’t seen it in a long time.
I remember, what little objectivity I have about it, it was a picture that was very much from the heart. It’s that sort of quintessential coming-of-age story that every director has to get out of his system before he can move on to anything else. As far as where it fits with other college pictures, you know – if you wanna recall like an Animal House or something – I don’t know. I guess I’d have to leave that to other people to figure out.
Well, for my question I meant it specifically in a personal way. Specifically because it was your first film, and it was something so rooted personally for you. I wonder, there’s gotta be certain point in this film and others that you can watch and not just wince at – questioning different ways you could have done things. Certain moments where you think, ‘God, I remember loving making that moment.’
Oh yeah, there are moments like that, too.
Can you bring up any specific ones from Fandango?
Yeah, that’s sort of what you do it for. You hope for those few moments where you’re making a picture, and something magic happens in front of the camera. It’s just all these combinations of elements coming together, and it just happens. You can’t really put your finger on it, but it’s really special when it does. I don’t know why, but there’s this one beat in the film, and it’s just a little beat toward the end – they’ve actually gone back to this place called Chata Ortega’s, it’s burned down now. [One of the characters] is getting kind of wistful, and he moves away from the others. As he moves away, this flock of birds flies up.
To me, it was really just this sort of magical moment. It was so perfect. A lot of people see it and asked how many takes we had to do to get those birds to do that. Well, we didn’t. The birds were just there. They just flew up like that. It was just kind of a magical moment. I’m sure most people will see it and not really perceive it that way, but for me, that’s a moment that I remember.
I’m sure the alternate theory is that they were just highly trained Hollywood birds.
You mention that there’s a coming-of-age or college story that every young filmmaker has to get out of their system. I talk to a lot of directors that intimate the same thing, especially those that go to film school. What did you feel or do you know what it was about this particularly story that set it apart from all of those other hundreds and hundreds of student films that were getting made? What got it to the next level?
I don’t know. I mean, I wish I could give you better answers, but I don’t. That movie was just sort of a product of me and my experiences – as every filmmaker’s picture is when it’s a film you get to write and direct on your own. I think when you first start out making pictures, you’ve got so much pent up inside you that you want to express, and sometimes you don’t understand why you want to express it, but it’s just a product of your life and you want to say something about it. Fandango was certainly that for me. It just came out the way it did – it’s all filtered through characters that are a combination of who I was and people that I knew, people that I wished I was. Whatever it was that was inside of me that had to get out just came out through that picture.
The original short film was just the action sequence, just the parachute scene. Spielberg wanted me to go back and make an entire picture around that sequence, which is sort of a back-asswards way of working. You gotta write a whole picture around that. But as I sat down to do it, I think something more poignant came out than what everybody expected. Again, it was just a product of my own experiences.
Was it fulfilling or scary to have those products of yourself extrapolated in that way?
It wasn’t scary. I guess if you filter it through characters and events, sort of exaggerated and all, it’s sort of a safe way to do it. Again, I guess you just want to express how you feel about the end of an era. When you get out of college and those intense friendships that you have and how they sort of come to an end. You’re trying to hang onto all of that, but something inside you tells you it’s never going to be like this again. That’s really what the picture was about. It’s the end of an era for these four, and some realized it more than others.
Which works really well with the backdrop of Vietnam. My generation sort of has this idea of college ending and a diaspora there – going to whatever cities we’re going to and whatever jobs are lined up. But this was a very real national crisis where as soon as some of those characters stepped foot off campus, they’d have to head to Vietnam.
Did you ever have the feeling that you’d go from intimate stories like this to more epic storytelling?
I kind of hoped so. I think the best pictures that you do are a function of where you are at a particular time in your life. I think you have to respond to what you’re interested in. At that particular time, here I had this opportunity to make a picture, but I also had all these feelings that I wanted to express. That came together and was Fandango. Then later on I got interested in other subject matters, and I wanted to do pictures about those. I think anyone who – and I hate to use the term ‘artist’ because I certainly don’t feel like an artist – but I guess that anyone that delves in creative things, you have to respond to the muse inside of you that says ‘This is fascinating to me right now’ because you’ll be that much more passionate about it then trying to just do something you’ve done before or something that someone else would like you to do.
So I was interested in the personal story, and then later I got interested in the epic stories. You change. You know, I’ll be interested in comedies and all kinds of things.
Do you have any advice for younger filmmakers or aspiring writers on how to keep interested in new things after you’ve made personal stories?
Well, what I always tell people that are starting out in the film business, because everyone wants to know ‘How do I start out?’ and what strikes me about people going into film now is that they go right out of school, and they go right into film school, and that’s what they want to do. I’m always reminded of this moment that I went to USC Film School – I had something similar – they sat me down and said, ‘Listen, we’ll teach you how to make films. We want someone who has something to say.’
That really just rocked me back. I’d never thought of it that way, but it’s so true. The great filmmakers of the past, so many of them had come from a variety of life experiences – they fought in combat or they’d ridden the rails, had great love affairs and all – before they became filmmakers. So they had so many stories to draw upon. I think any young filmmaker would be better served to go to school, get a degree, then go out and work for a couple of years or travel the world or fall in love. Just do anything. It’s out of those experiences that you’re going to come up with the story that you’ll make later on. I think a lot of the kids that come into films now have a lot of technical expertise, but they don’t really have anything to say.
So you’re officially endorsing that young, aspiring filmmakers go ride the rails for a while?
Yeah, just do something. Go get a job. Work as a roofer. Go join the army. Jump on a ship and work in the galley. Go on an ocean cruise. Because I promise you, out of that will come great stories.
I’m sort of partial to the hobo-ing life myself.
See, I’m longing to meet filmmakers that have something to say – that don’t set their stories in L.A. about the filmmaking industry.
I hear ya. Or something that’s not set against green screen that’s about a super hero. I’m sick to death of that. Maybe I’m dating myself, but I sit there and watch them, and they’re just visual noise. Ultimately, for me, nothing’s in jeopardy. Nothing’s at risk. The stories follow a formulaic pattern, and you know how it’s gonna turn out. Because everything’s not real, because it’s not couched in reality, there’s no real jeopardy. You don’t feel anything for anyone. I guess that’s why I don’t particularly care for any of the current state of filmmaking.
I’m more interested in stories that are couched in reality.
I think there’s sort of a classic tip to your filmmaking. Taking on stories like The Count of Monte Cristo and Tristan + Isolde speaks to more of a classical storytelling with these old, ingrained, antique characters.
A lot of people don’t like that anymore though. I had a great moment when someone was cutting my hair, and she asked what I did. I told her, and we started talking about movies. After a while, I finally asked her, ‘what kind of movies do you like?’ and she thought for a second. Then she says, ‘I like movies where I don’t have to think.’
How devastating is that to hear?
That’s the audience unfortunately. A great portion of the audience.
Well, there’s a decent amount now that’s growing of people that are looking for movies that you have to invest in to get more out. Are there any modern film that you do like now? Is there stuff that you’ve gotten into?
Not a lot. I do enjoy some of the Coen Brothers’ stuff. The movies that really inspired me – aside from the Kubricks and Ken Russells and people like that – I really got into foreign films. I remember being in Austin down at the old Dobie Theater. Every week, two or three different pictures would come in from all over the world. There’d be French films, Italian films, there’d be Japanese. It was from everywhere, and it was really great to see this point of view from a different part of the world. You don’t get a lot of that anymore, I’m afraid. Movies have sort have become homogenized. The American movie-making dreadnought has sort of taken over the world’s box office.
At least in remaking foreign films into American films.
Exactly. Who would possibly want to see a film in its original language and format? We’ve gotta re-make it, and make it palatable for an American audience somehow.
Well, it’s tough to read subtitles and watch a movie at the same time.
For some people, yeah.
Alright, I gotta ask – why Kevin Costner? You’ve worked with the guy so many times. Why is that partnership there?
That’s strange. I’ve had a couple people tell me it would take a team of psychologists to figure that one out. I met Kevin when I was in film school. He came in and auditioned for my student film.
And he didn’t get the part…
He didn’t get the part. I met him a few years later for Fandango. We just, I don’t know, we were just simpatico in a lot of ways. We had very similar taste in material. I’d go up, he had this place in Northern California, and we’d go fishing and stuff, just kinda hung out.
And you felt guilty for not casting him in your student film. It haunted you all those years.
[Laughs] I actually didn’t to tell you the truth. He came in when I was casting for Fandango, and I remembered him. We talked about it. Sort of laughed, but I did not feel guilty. It was funny though because within the first three or first lines during the reading, I knew he was the guy. He had matured and changed in such a way that made me go, ‘wow, he’s the guy.’ It just evolved from there. We still talk now.
We’ve been talking about doing another one.
What are you talking about doing?
I don’t wanna jinx it. We don’t know yet.
But something on the horizon? The thought’s there?
The thought is there. We’re talking.
Are you working on anything else right now? I was trying to catch up with you on IMDB.
Yeah, I don’t like to publicize stuff too much. There’s another project with Richard Gere that we’re trying to get off the ground if we can get the money together. A couple other irons in the fire. I’m not the kind of guy that can develop seven or eight things at once. I have to pick one or two and just focus on them. To see them through.
Are you planning on doing something pretty large-scale again or are you going back to a smaller scale?
One of them is a comedy so it’s sort of – it’s not a big epic – but it’s sort of an action comedy. As far as large-scale pictures, someday I’d like to do a Rock ‘n’ Roll Western. There’s actually a genius screenplay that Costner and I developed about fifteen years ago that’s still out there. It’s about the true story of the hunt for Blue Beard the Pirate. It’s from Marc Norman, the guy who wrote Shakespeare in Love. It’s a genius screenplay. But it’s expensive.
And that’s a problem.
It’s a big problem these days.
If I can run back real quick, a Rock ‘n’ Roll Western? I’m trying to wrap my mind around it. Is this something like Six String Samurai?
No, it’s more like – I know that this sounds like a complete anachronism – it’s like Unforgiven with Rock ‘n’ Roll. Imagine Unforgiven with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin music. I know that sounds really odd, but I know it can work. I have the whole thing in my mind, and it’s like I’ll get a scene in my head or an image, and I know it can work.
I think that’s a key to directing – having something that sounds odd, but if you can make it work, it’ll be great.
Yeah, because I think audiences want to be surprised. You want to see something you haven’t seen before. As a filmmaker, you want to see something you haven’t seen before, too. That’s sort of what you strive for. You want to surprise yourself.
Do you think that ten years from now you’ll be doing a Waterworld retrospective?
No, no. Oh, a retrospective? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s gonna want to talk about it ten years from now.
I do have one last question. You mentioned modern stuff earlier. I was wondering if you’d checked out some of the more modern – from ’85 on – college films that had been made. If you had, what was your reaction?
I’ve seen a few, and some of them are good. Again, technically they’re very proficient. They’re clever. One of the things that strikes me now – I have a thirteen year old son, and he loves Youtube. He loves watching clips, and he loves to watch short films, things that are a few minutes long. Where you can just consume them like candy. He likes that kind of thing. In some ways, he’s more intrigued by the feature format. So I don’t know, maybe if that’s where it’s headed or what. Cinema’s an art form and it evolves. It’s gonna transmogrify. I don’t know if that’s the direction it’s headed or if it’s going to become more abstract where story is less important or what.
Well, thanks a lot. I appreciate your taking the time.
I appreciate the interest. Thanks a lot.