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Sunday, February 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Getting the Picture: Kevin Reynolds becomes a Northwest transplant to make a life — and a movie — of his own

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There's magic in movies. How else could a Texas-bred election-law attorney become a Hollywood director, move near Fall City and then take a $40 million crack at a classic revenge tale from 19th-century French literature?

In fact, Kevin Reynolds hadn't even read Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" until a studio approached him. When he did read it, he found it almost impenetrably complex.

"I suspect 90 percent of the people who say they've read it haven't," said Reynolds, a laconic 50-year-old with a leftover trace of Texas twang. "A lot of the book is people walking into parlors spewing exposition at each other. That's not very cinematic. Our task was to figure out how to condense this enormous thing that would take a week to read into a movie that wouldn't be 30 hours long."

Yet, the book has been filmed many times, and Reynolds was happy to take a stab. His first version came in at three hours. The final cut, premiering two weeks ago, is a two-hour CliffsNotes version featuring elaborate sets, exotic locales, backroom plots, spurts of action and a charismatic performance by Mount Vernon native Jim Caviezel as the count. Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert hit the high points, but also took creative license, a sin to some diehard fans of the classic book.

The lure of being a director is that, for better or worse, you get to tell the story and set the scene. That's why Reynolds and his wife, Cathy, who spent years working in story development for a film-production company, left Hollywood for the outskirts of Seattle in the mid-'90s. They wanted a better place to raise their two young children, but also a separation from a company town where make-believe is serious business.

"I wanted to live in a place where not everything revolved around show business," Reynolds says, "and where not every waiter is an aspiring actor."

He says the timing was coincidental, but the escape from L.A. coincided with "Waterworld." Not only did the ambitious movie about survival after polar-cap meltdown turn into a famous flop, but it was the last straw in Reynolds' longtime friendship and collaboration with Kevin Costner.

• • •

AS IN GOOD cinema, Reynolds' career has had its arcs and ironies. Steven Spielberg was so taken with Reynolds' student film at the University of Southern California 20 years ago that he helped him turn it into a 1985 feature movie, "Fandango." While casting for the student film, Reynolds met Costner, who was then a stagehand and wannabe actor. He liked Costner, but didn't hire him. Then, when it came time for the feature version, he not only gave Costner the plum role, he elicited perhaps his most likeable performance.

In 1991, the pair produced a hit in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," but feuded over the movie's editing. Reynolds shot the rampaging buffalo scenes in "Dances With Wolves," for which Costner took the directing Oscar.

While even the most casual film-watcher is aware of the troubles with "Waterworld," Reynolds' best, more heartfelt movies received virtually no audience.

Before "The Count of Monte Cristo," he directed "187" for Mel Gibson's production company. "187" — the California penal-code number for murder — starred intense actor Samuel L. Jackson. An unflinching, controversial look at violence in schools, it was also depressing and did nothing at the box office.

Reynolds has kept the bow used in "Robin Hood," but few other movie knickknacks. The most prominent memento in his home office is a poster for "The Beast," a powerful film about the war between Russia and Afghanistan. Reynolds told the dehumanizing story of war through the bleak, vast landscape and a skirmish between a Russian tank unit and a band of Afghan tribal fighters. It was probably the best reviewed film of his career, but it never made a fraction of the money that Sylvester Stallone raked in for his Afghan-carnage picture, Rambo III.

After battling through the Hollywood wars and winding up in Seattle, Reynolds has learned that when you make a studio movie, you're not as in control as you would like to be, even when you're the one framing what the eye can see.

"About 50 percent of directing," he says, "is about subjecting yourself to the process."

• • •

REYNOLDS IS SO hype-averse that he seems far more Seattle, or Austin, than Hollywood. He's a slim 6-foot-1, square-jawed, friendly and matter-of-fact. He and his wife joke with mock horror that their outgoing 8-year-old daughter might grow up to be an actress.

The television sets in his upscale home are often turned to a business channel with stock prices scrolling along the bottom of the screen, but it is the history channel that most preoccupies Reynolds, who holds a history degree from the University of Texas. There is also a certain preciseness about him, perhaps a legacy from his strong, imposing father, Herbert, who grew up during the Depression, served in the Air Force, did experimental psychology work in the space program, and eventually became the president of Baylor University.

Growing up the oldest of four children, Reynolds was absorbed by David Lean movies like "Doctor Zhivago," Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" and later Terrence Malick's arty, visual work like "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven." While working through college, he regularly sampled independent and foreign films at the campus theater.

He dreamed about making movies, but it seemed a fantasy. So he went to law school at Baylor. He hated law school and, despite what his friends kept assuring him, he hated practicing law even more. He promptly was hired by then Texas state attorney general and future governor Mark White, and became a bureaucrat. The job was dull, but it gave him a 9 to 5 schedule and time to attend film school at night.

Almost as a lark, and despite warnings from a mentor and veteran director who called directing "the toughest job in the world," Reynolds applied to the highly regarded film school at the University of Southern California in 1979 and was accepted. He resigned from the attorney general's office and moved west.

He went with two goals: to write a screenplay he could sell, and to make a student film he could show. The screenplay, called "Ten Soldiers," was an attempt to show the dehumanization of war by hitting home, with Soviet forces invading middle America. After he sold it, the movie was rewritten to give it a jingoistic slant. It became "Red Dawn" and starred a buff Patrick Swayze.

The student film project turned out better. "Proof" was a comedy about college buddies and a sky-diving prank. Spielberg, preparing to begin filming "E.T.," saw it and set up a meeting with Reynolds.

"He asked me what I wanted to do, and the next day his production assistant calls and says, 'Steven is making arrangements for you to make an expanded version of Proof,' " Reynolds said, shaking his head, still amazed. "I hung up and sat in a chair for about an hour. Then I called her back and asked, 'Could you please repeat everything you just said?' "

Reynolds had to expand a short, basically one-scene film into a full-length feature. He decided to make it a coming-of-age tale among young men about to serve in Vietnam or dodge duty. Spielberg disagreed, and his name was missing from the film when it was released. Some in Hollywood said Reynolds had "defied" Spielberg, but Spielberg hired Reynolds a year later to direct an episode of the short-lived TV show "Amazing Stories."

"The Beast" came next. The story of war in bleak Afghanistan introduced Reynolds to Seattle, of all places. It was based on a play written by William Mastrosimone, who lived in Belltown at the time. Mastrosimone, known for the fervor he puts into his work, spent a week with Afghan rebels during research, but was amazed by the passion Reynolds brought. "It was one of those rare collaborations where the director was truer to my word than I would ever have been," he told the L.A. Times.

Columbia Pictures gave Reynolds $8 million to shoot the film, but after filming began, the studio leadership changed hands. The new regime decided to put little effort into promotion because it didn't see how an audience would be interested in a war picture that didn't involve Americans or take sides.

The '90s started with a blockbuster hit in "Robin Hood." Then came an ambitious, if anonymous, flop about Easter Island, called, "Rapa Nui." The production was so arduous that Reynolds called it "self-flagellation." After that came "Waterworld," with all the complications of water shoots. All three films involved Costner. Their relations had been stretching thin throughout, but the partnership snapped when Costner, backed by the studio, took over the film's editing from Reynolds.

Plenty of sharp words were exchanged at the time, but Reynolds now regards it as history, something to learn from. If anything, the only lingering resentment he seems to hold is that the disappointment became such a cause celebre.

"To a large extent it's water under the bridge, but it was a tough experience, no doubt about it. For whatever reason the press early on took glee seeing this thing fail. They wanted it to bomb. When there was good news, no one wanted to hear it. It was more exciting for them to see it fail. Ultimately, when people went, they were surprised because they were expecting something worse than what they saw."

• • •

REYNOLDS LEARNED from the logistical nightmare and runaway budget of "Waterworld." He sought to return to the small films and came out with "187," a character-driven examination of violence against urban teachers. It struck him as uncompromisingly honest, with no convenient happy endings. With its small budget and support from Icon Productions, Reynolds and Jackson were free to make their film.

"It was the most depressing film I ever made, but the happiest production I had ever been on," Reynolds says. "It was more the size of picture I want to do. I'm proud of it, but nobody saw it."

Now, two decades after "Proof" made him something of a golden boy, Reynolds tries to balance passion with wisdom, naïve energy with the inevitable compromises. "The Count of Monte Cristo," his first movie in about five years, seemed the right project at the right time, a healthy mix of adventure and smaller expectations. It had a substantial budget, but not so big to make the studio, Buena Vista, overly edgy. The story of betrayal, revenge and atonement is set against a sweeping backdrop. Although Caviezel and co-star Guy Pearce are hot Hollywood properties and veteran Irish actor Richard Harris is an icon, there were no superstars who threatened to become bigger than the production.

A few weeks before the L.A. premier, Reynolds sipped coffee as his young children, Nicole and Dylan, invaded his home office. He was relaxed and resigned enough to joke about production shortcuts and adjustments. A spectacular sword maneuver took 50 takes. A knife-fight scene had been designed for a right-hander, but the actor turned out to be a southpaw. The finale was shot in a beautiful field of waist-high golden wheat, but it needed reshoots. When Reynolds, Pearce and Caviezel returned, the field was lush green so the ending had to be entirely reshot.

Purists complained about how the film strayed from Dumas' work, and critics picked on inadequacies, but Reynolds wound up with a handsome production and some engaging performances.

"When I first started out, I'd approach projects with a vision in my head, like we'll shoot on top of a hill, amid a stand of trees, and the actors will show up on time and know their lines. It will be sunset and their hair will be blowing a particular way. Invariably, you show up and it's overcast, no sun, the trees have been cut down and the actor can't hit the line to save his life, and you've got a schedule, and you're scrambling just to get something.

"I still try to push it in a particular way," he says, "but ultimately it takes a life of its own, so when you finally cut it all together and look at it you say, wow, so that's what it is."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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