'Bucket' kicks off; Globe noms are Oscar shortlist


Rob Reiner: The holiday season brings an interesting mix of product with low budget specialized movies targeted to awards voters and high profile studio films seeking mainstream audiences.

One title from the latter group to check out later this month is Warner Bros.' new comedy drama "The Bucket List," directed by Rob Reiner and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. "Bucket" kicks off in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on Dec. 25 and goes wide Jan. 11 at about 2,200 theaters. The film, which also stars Sean Hayes and Rob Morrow, was written by Justin Zackham and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Alan Greisman and Reiner. It was executive produced by Travis Knox, Justin Zackham and Jeffrey Stott.

Having enjoyed Reiner's films for many years, I was happy to be able to spend some time last Saturday afternoon talking to him about the making of "Bucket." In the film, Nicholson and Freeman play two cancer patients -- a corporate billionaire and a working-class mechanic -- who are sharing a hospital room at this crossroads in their lives. What they find they have in common is the desire to get everything done now that they had ever wanted to do before they "kick the bucket," so to speak. So, ignoring doctor's orders, they check themselves out of the hospital and embark on the worldwide adventure of a lifetime, guided only by their shared passion for life.

When I asked Reiner what had made him decide this was the movie he wanted to make, he explained, "It's just a gut feeling that you have when you read something and whether or not it triggers feelings and things that you're thinking and going through at a particular time in your life. It resonates with something that you're thinking about and experiencing as you go through your life. I'm now 60 and I've been thinking for a while about, 'Has my life had meaning?' You start thinking about your mortality more as you get older. You know, 'Have I done the things with my life that I want to do?' because you realize now that your time becomes a little bit more limited and finite.

"Those ideas and thoughts had been going through me not just in terms of the films I would make, but just how you're living your life. And then all of a sudden this script comes along and you go, 'Oh, my God, this is what I'm wrestling with in my life at this point and here's this film that expresses those things."

It was producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits include executive producing the Oscar-winning best picture "Chicago" and producing "Hairspray," who sent Justin Zackham's "Bucket" script to Reiner. "I had met with the two of them on another project," Reiner recalled. "We didn't do that project, but we had a great time and a great meeting and then when this script came to them they thought of me. Travis Knox, who works in their office said, 'What about Rob Reiner?' and they said, 'Wow, that's a perfect idea.' And they sent it.

"I knew what the subject matter of it was and I read the first 10 pages and I was immediately taken by the quality of the writing. I could tell it was a real writer at work. I ran into my partner Alan Greisman's office and I said, 'Let's do this.' He said, 'Maybe you want to read the rest of the script before you jump so fast.' The thing I felt about it was even if there were problems with the structure and the story or the characters -- which there were some (of), sure -- I knew there was a writer at work and that I could work with him and fix whatever problems we had. And oddly enough, I found out that Morgan Freeman had read it months before I received the script and had passed on it. When I read it, I thought, 'I can't see making this movie unless Morgan would agree to do it because he's the only person I thought could play this part.'"

The first thing Reiner did was focus on getting the screenplay in shape: "Justin Zackham and I spent about three months rewriting it and working on and fixing the problem areas and then we sent it to (Freeman again) and he reconsidered it and then agreed to do it. I independently thought that Jack would be good for the other part and then in my conversation with Morgan he said, 'What about Jack Nicholson?' I said, 'I've been thinking the same thing.' So we decided to send it to Jack. We had worked together on 'A Few Good Men.' We had a good experience there. He had never worked with Morgan before and he was interested to do that. I think also the subject matter made it compelling (for him). But as he said, it was tricky because we had to strike just the right tone. You know, he said, 'We're not going to make six of these. We're going to make one and we've got to make it right.'"

The film's subject matter posed some special problems. "To make a movie about death and about a serious subject matter like this and also find the humor in it is a very, very tricky thing to do," Reiner told me. "Also, (it's not easy) to balance it in a way that doesn't have the humor undercut the seriousness of the subject and at the same time not have the subject become so sentimental and sappy that it becomes not life-affirming.

"At the end of the day, this was a movie about living not about dying and it was to celebrate life. So finding the right balance was very, very tricky for us. But you have an instinct about it and, luckily, with Jack I had a real collaborator there. I tend to be a little sweeter and he tends to be a little more edgy and between the two of us I think we did find a real good balance there."

Reiner and Zackham worked together, he said, "for about three months before we sent it to Morgan and then from that point until the time we started shooting was actually many, many months (more). We had to delay it five or six weeks because Jack got sick and had to go in the hospital. And that became interesting because he brought a lot of his experiences that he had in the hospital to the part. Then we did some more work with Jack. When we were shooting, every single day before we shot a particular scene I'd spend anywhere from a half an hour to an hour in Jack's trailer reworking the scenes before that day's shooting."

Initially, the project wasn't tied to a studio at all: "When it came to me, I felt that unless I got two actors that I thought would be attractive to a studio I wouldn't submit it because I didn't think the idea of going in to any studio and saying, 'We've got a movie about two old guys dying of cancer, give me $45 million" was going to go over so well. So I basically got Jack and Morgan, who I knew would be ultimately attractive (to a studio). And then luckily I have a relationship with (Warner Bros. Entertainment president and chief operating officer) Alan Horn that I've had for many, many years (going back to 1987 when they were both among the founding partners in Castle Rock Entertainment). He was a good friend at court and he agreed to take a shot here."

Asked how he works while directing, Reiner said, "I don't really storyboard except in certain action sequences. For the skydiving and the racecar stuff (in the film) we did do some storyboarding, but other than that I don't usually work that way. I'll stage a scene with the actors. We do rehearse and work through the script before we start shooting. And then on the day of the shoot I'll rehearse the actors and get the blocking down that I like and that dictates where the camera's going to go. Then I'll make a shot list up based on the way I see the scene blocked out. My basic rule of thumb is, 'Put the audience in the best seat in the house.' For every moment that you're going to have in the scene, give them the best view of what needs to be seen. So that dictates my shot list."

Shooting the film's skydiving scene was one of the challenges Reiner faced during production. [Watch how that scene turned out at left.] "We did have to storyboard that because we knew we were going to marry stunt doubles with (shots of) Morgan and Jack," Reiner explained. "So we went out on location and shot those stunt guys actually jumping out of a plane. All the footage that you see of them floating (through the sky) was all done on real locations in the air. And then you've got Jack and Morgan on a soundstage with motion control. They feed into the computer every shot that you're going to match (these visuals) to so that the camera is moving exactly as their bodies are moving with the stunt doubles. It's all done against green screen and they're actually clothed all in green because basically all you want to do is photograph their heads. You blow a lot of wind into their faces so it looks like they're actually falling and then they do a thing called head replacement. You take Jack and Morgan's heads and you put them on actual people that are falling.

"Well it certainly sounds easy," I joked, to which Reiner replied, "Yeah, it's a snap!"

How long does it take to do something like this? "It took a whole day on the soundstage with Jack and Morgan," he replied. "But it also takes a whole day out on the actual location. So it's a couple of days."

Looking back at production, Reiner said one of his other challenges "was creating a trip around the world without leaving the parking lot of the old Goldwyn Studios (now Warner Hollywood Studios). We used the Santa Monica Mountains for the Great Wall of China. We were lucky because we found the Taj Mahal was sitting at The Arboretum in Pasadena so that was very fortunate that it was transported from India -- no, I'm just kidding! But we shot on top of a parking structure on the lot. We built a piece of the Pyramids. We built a piece of the Great Wall up in the Santa Monica Mountains. It's all made to look as if (it's the real locations). We're not featuring any of these things, but it looks like they're actually in these locations."

Of course, that's exactly what Hollywood used to do. "That's to me the interesting thing about this," Reiner observed. "In the old days they would do pictures on the back lot, but the technology was such that you'd see Hope and Crosby on a camel and there was weird rear projection. But audiences didn't seem to mind. They watched it and they were swept away by the story. But as things became more sophisticated in the '60s, '70s and '80s, filmmakers said, 'We can't have people doing that. We've got to go on the real locations.' So that was the production method of the day -- to go out and shoot everything on real locations. Now you've got technology that's so sophisticated that you can actually shoot on the back lots just the way they used to do it and now it looks like you're actually in these places. It's better for the budget of the film and also you can control things a little bit better."

So it's a win-win? "I think it is," he agreed, "except for the fact that you don't get to go to these locations, which is kind of fun."

Everything went really smoothly in production, he said, thanks to having two pros like Nicholson and Freeman working together: "When you have two people who have got the experience that they do, the talent and the craft, it makes it very, very easy. They both come (on set) completely prepared and they know what they're doing. They're also not threatened by a director telling them, 'Try this' or 'Try that' because they're so secure in their own abilities that they can make an easy kind of adjustment. Plus, they loved working with each other. That was a great thrill.

"Morgan loved to be hugged and Jack's not a big hugger. I used to hug Morgan every day. He loved getting that big hug in the morning and that was a fun thing. I liked that, too. So the last day of the shoot we're sitting there and we'd just shaved Jack's head in the last shot we'd done. They're standing there and we're calling a wrap and Jack looks at Morgan and he says, 'We're not going to hug, are we?' because they'd had this great experience. And Morgan looks at him and he says, 'You know, this has been a dream come true for me.' And Jack looked at him and he said, 'Likewise.' And then they hugged each other. That was really nice."

Golden Globes: With its Golden Globe nominations spread among a dozen best picture nominees in the drama and musical-comedy categories, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has, in effect, created a shortlist of films for Academy members to consider before making their own noms.

Unlike HFPA members whose job it is to see movies throughout the year and report on them for media outlets around the world, Academy voters are filmmakers who typically are too busy making movies to see very many of them.

"It may encourage them to look, but I don't think it will influence their decisions," was how one Academy member I spoke to Thursday morning replied when I asked what effect the Globes' shortlist would have on Oscar voters. Although he feels it's not going to "influence" Academy nominations, I think he actually makes my point by agreeing "it may encourage them to look."

Most Academy watchers will tell you the members vote for the films they like. Well, there's no liking something you haven't seen -- and seeing movies is a major problem for many of the Academy's approximately 6,500 members. The fact that so many Oscar contenders are late winter releases makes it even harder for Academy voters to catch up with them. Timing, as they say, is everything. With tons of screenings around town every night of the week and with stacks of DVDs turning up in voters' mailboxes, even the most-dedicated Academy members will have trouble seeing everything.

Moreover, there's a very short window during which Academy members can watch whatever they decide they want to see. It's already mid-December. Many Oscar voters are escaping L.A. for winter vacations in places like Aspen and Maui, which means they'll be gone from, say, Dec. 21 through Jan. 2. Oscar nominations ballots are being mailed Dec. 26, so they'll arrive when many members aren't here to work on them. These ballots must be returned by 5 p.m., Sat., Jan. 12.

What that means is if you return from holiday Jan. 2, take a day to unpack and catch your breath and want to mail your ballot back by Dec. 9 to make sure it's received in time to count, that gives you all of six nights to see movies. And that's six nights if there's nothing else going on in your life and you're willing to devote all six nights to moviegoing. For many people that really means they might have four nights in which to see films.

Watching DVDs is a good alternative for many Academy members because you can see more films this way and you don't have to watch them right to the end if you don't like them. DVD watchers could probably work their way through 15 or so movies in four to six nights. But the problem is they've probably got 50-some screeners waiting for them to look at. How do you know which ones to take the time to watch?

Here's where the Globe noms come in handy. If you're an Academy member and you haven't seen all seven best picture-drama Globe nominees, you're almost certainly going to watch the ones you haven't seen yet before you look at anything else in your DVD stack. After all, HFPA members have designated those seven dramas as being the year's best and how can you do a proper job of Oscar nominating if you haven't at least looked at all the movies that Hollywood's other major awards event of the year is considering?

Academy members don't usually give comedy much respect, but if they're going to look at any comedies or musicals they're probably going to be the five that just received Globe noms. It just makes sense to check out what others are honoring as the year's best if you haven't already seen them.

Now I'm not suggesting that Academy members will simply rubberstamp the HFPA's nominations. What I am saying is that for films that received prime Globe noms, their Oscar nominations potential is elevated because Academy members are more likely to see and consider them than would have been the case if they weren't Globe nominees.

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From June 4, 1990's column: "The guessing game over 'Dick Tracy's' boxoffice prospects became easier late last week when Buena Vista/Touchstone began showing the film at small daytime screenings on the Disney lot to select media people without the distraction of guests...

"Being asked to have an early look at it immediately tipped the scales toward positive expectations. After all, studios hide pictures they don't have confidence in. If the typically astute Touchstone management believes in a film enough to screen it well before its opening for the very media people who can either make it or do it in, the likelihood is that the film has merit.

"I'll leave it to the critics to assess 'Dick's' artistic merits when it opens June 15 at 2,000-plus screens, but having seen it I'm expecting its boxoffice impact to be considerable. Of course, the question on Hollywood handicappers' minds is whether 'Dick' will turn out to be another 'Batman.' While there's no certainty it will, it's shaping up as the kind of event movie that does stand a solid chance.

"(Warren) Beatty has given it the scope and dimension a movie must have if it's to be regarded as having a shot at grossing $250 million domestically. As with 'Batman,' people are going to be talking about the way 'Dick' looks. Its production design by Richard Sylbert and its cinematography by Vittorio Storaro are two of its biggest assets. The unique unreal two-dimensional world Beatty, Sylbert and Storaro have created has the perfect look of comic book reality.

"Where 'Batman' drew criticism for being to dark a movie visually, 'Dick' is brighter. Its use of the seven primary colors used by the comic strip creator, Chester Gould, is already something people are talking about even at this early point. There certainly could be Oscar nominations for production design and cinematography ..."

Update: "Dick Tracy" was a hit for Disney, but didn't come close to doing "Batman"-sized business. The film opened June 15, 1990 to $22.5 million at 2,332 theaters ($9,667 per theater) and went on to gross $103.7 million domestically, making it the year's ninth biggest movie. On the Oscar front, "Dick" won for best art direction-set decoration, makeup and original song. It also was nominated for best supporting actor (Al Pacino), cinematography, costume design and sound. It was a Golden Globe nominee for best picture-musical or comedy, original song (two noms) and supporting actor.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.