The Dumas Redemption
Once a Pal of Costner’s Director Kevin Reynolds Returns With A Tale of Friendship Betrayed and Vengeance Sought
By Diedre Johnson
Waterworld Weight. Ask Texas-born director Kevin Reynolds about the problems on “Waterworld” and he’s ready to talk. The long-held Hollywood scuttlebutt was that Reynolds and star Kevin Costner, pals since collaborating on ‘Fandango” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” came to heads over the vision of “Waterworld,” resulting in two edited versions: Reynolds’ and then Costner’s. As Costner took more control, Reynolds disassociated himself from the project, and when the movie was released, it proved a critical and financial disappointment. The Reynolds-Costner friendship tanked too.
“We had a difference of opinion on cuts of the picture. There’s no doubt about that, I don’t think that’s a secret,” Reynolds offers in his East Texas drawl.
What he remembers of the 1994 shoot is technical problems, false reports of deaths on the set, and others’ overwhelming belief that “Waterworld” would bomb.
It was discouraging,” he admits, “because when you take on a project, you have to believe somehow that you can overcome all the difficulties and prevail. But there are times, you learn in a situation like that, that you can’t.”
“All you can do is the best that you can do; sometimes there are forces greater than yourself. That was a project that, for whatever reason, people were hoping was going to fail. People just fed on the hugeness of it all and Costner was at a point in his career where everybody was ready to cut him down. People wanted to believe everything bad about this project whether it was true or not.”
Neither career has particularly flourished in the wake of the troubled 1995 sci-fi actioner. With projects like “The Postman,” “Message in a Bottle,” “For Love of the Game,” “Thirteen Days” and 3,000 Miles to Graceland,” Costner has yet to appear in any post-“Waterworld vehicle as high-grossing as “Waterworld.” Reynolds’ follow-up, the 1997 urban thriller “187,” meanwhile met mixed reviews and garnered a paltry $6 million in U.S. cinemas. But Reynolds — whose greatest commercial success remains his decade-old take on the merry men of Sherwood Forest — may again be on the brink of box office gold. Disney was pleased enough with the filmmaker’s second swashbuckler, the Jan. 25 release “The Count of Monte Cristo,” to unveil the period costumer to exhibitors at a Nov.2 ShowEast screening. Many in the notoriously critical crowd of motion picture professionals were quick to shower the film with kudos, some hailing it as the best movie screened at the four-day confab.
Doing Dumas. Based on the 1846 novel by Alexander Dumas, “Cristo” is the oft-filmed story of Edmund Dantes, a naive young sailor in Napoleonic France who is deceived by his friend Fernand Mondego and illegally imprisoned for 13 harrowing years.
Dumas’ The Three Musketeers” and The Man in the Iron Mask” are set more than 140 years before the author’s birth, but “Cristo” is a tale far more connected to Dumas’ life and times. The writer’s father was a general in the army of Napoleon, a figure central to Edmund’s supposed crime. And like Edmund, Dumas was raised in poverty, grew wealthy* and came to build a lavish chateau de Monte Cristo on the outskirts of Paris.
The book is very much a product of its author’s era, but deals with themes still popular in contemporary storytelling, and at least one issue Reynolds has visited before.
“If you ask me is there a recurring theme in my pictures, I guess you’d have to say that’s what it is; the loss of innocence that every human being goes through as they grow older and mature,” says the filmmaker, who just turned 50 himself. “Call it the Peter Pan syndrome of wanting to be a kid forever. It makes me sad that that’s what happens to a human being who starts so young and fresh and full of vision, but then life’s trials and tribulations kind of wears one down. As you become more experienced, [losing innocence] is inevitably what happens.”
Casting Count. The film stars Guy Pearce as the duplicitous Fernand, Dagmara Dominczyk as Mercedes, the beauty who comes between Edmund and Fernand, Richard Harris as the wily inmate Abbe Faria, and Jim Caviezel as Edmund — potentially a star-making role for the actor who essayed Jennifer Lopez’s otherworldly love in “Angel Eyes,” Dennis Quaid’s grown son in Frequency” and a young, idealistic soldier in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.”
In Reynolds’ “Cristo,” Caviezel’s protagonist is a hero whose virility and charisma only seem to swell during his 13 years of captivity. Though hardly a household word, Caviezel was cast because the filmmakers were taken with his range.
“It was a tough task for Jim,” says Reynolds, “because he had to go through such a transformation — from a sort of naive innocent to this wronged guy who’s lost all hope, to this really embittered, passionate man. Then he puts on this facade of the count, then becomes older and wiser. It was quite an arc.
“The real challenge when you shoot a film like this, out of sequence, is to try to remember what the appropriate state of mind is for this character on any given day that you’re shooting, and it’s very hard for an actor. So the challenge was to remember, in any scene, where he was emotionally.”
Pearce, the Australian actor who made his mark stateside with “L.A. Confidential” and “Memento,” again gets an opportunity to play against his good looks, portraying an over-the-top villain whose envy of Edmund will come to consume him.
“He was a fop. I liked it,” Reynolds says of Pearce’s performance. “He was fun to watch because there were moments where he was a bit large and then there were other moments in which he was very subtle in his performance. One of my favorite scenes is when Mercedes tells him that she is leaving him. It’s very subtle but just watch the range of things on his face when he goes up to her.
Reynolds also wanted to show what happens to someone who does something awful, then has to spend years living with the misdeed.
“l wanted to create a character who had, later on in life, essentially indulged too much in women and wine and those typically extravagant things. So when we see Fernand later on he is a bit craggy. He thinks he is a bit of peacock but his teeth are gamy and yellow.”
The movie remains true to Dumas’ book in that the story still focuses on Edmund and Fernand, but it also adds much to the Mercedes character that wasn’t in the original tome.
Reynolds explains that he and screenwriter Jay Wolpert wanted to “open up” the character by dramatizing and changing a few events in her life. He says he wanted to show how strong she is by the sacrifices she makes. “As a man, my heart tends to go out to her because she is somewhat of a victim and you hate to see what is done to her.”
Harris, the colorful Irish actor currently on a career roll with prominent roles in “Gladiator” and the “Harry Potter” movies, plays Abbe Faria, the elderly, imprisoned priest who serves as young Edmund’s mentor and educator. “If you look at the Abbe and you ask, ‘Who would be the perfect actor for this role?’ It would be Richard Harris,” says Reynolds. “You wouldn’t even have to dress him up, he could play the role straight. The fact that we were able to get him was very fortunate, and it makes the cast such a great ensemble.”
Language Liberties. The director read Dumas’s intricate, 1,500-page opus after perusing Wolpert’s script, and says he gained at that point a “new appreciation” for the screenwriter’s efforts to cinematize the story, to bring the characters and the time to life.
“To me some of the best stories come out of history,” says Reynolds. “People tend to think that things in the past are so remote and they can’t understand or relate to them — but the reality is that human behavior does repeat itself. We can see situations that are familiar to us happening a thousand years ago; all just human nature.”
Though the story begins in 1815, Wolpert elected to use modern phrasing to contemporize the novel’s dialogue, and the director worked to build on the script’s up-to-date feel.
“One of things I don’t like about period pieces is that people feel that the characters have to speak in a sort of flowery language that makes them inaccessible to an audience,” notes Reynolds. “The reality is that even though they spoke in a different language, their behavior was very similar to our own. People interact the same way. That’s always the challenge in period pieces: to make contemporary audiences see themselves in the same roles, rather than feel pushed away by odd sounding dialogue.
Cliffs & Castles. Most of the film was shot in and around Ireland. Sprawling sets were constructed, including the staircases and prison cells that distinguish Chateau D’if, the vast, dank prison off the Mediterranean coast. Fernand’s lavish townhouse set was constructed in the same area.
Exterior and aerial views of the isle prison so central to the story were found on the island of Comino, off Malta. When filmmakers secured a castle perched upon Comino’s steep 160-foot cliffs to stand in for the prison, Reynolds ordered a small script change. D’if’s misbehaving inmates, originally thrown from prison battlements, would instead be pitched off the towering cliffs to the dark waters far below.
Period ships were used for scenes at the Port of Marseilles and an early 18th century carriage used as Mercedes’ transport was imported from Spain. Medina, a preserved town in the middle of Malta, doubles as Rome in one of the opulent party sequences.
Reynolds’ recollections of period houses in Paris inspired the design of Fernand’s chateau. The director took designer Mark Geraghty to lunch in the area and ultimately directed him to build some recreations in Malta.
Instead of Marseilles, Malta’s Dockyard Creek served as the location for the 17th-century dockyards. “Malta still retains a very unique look with all the old forts that are made out of huge stone blocks,” says Reynolds. “We were very fortunate to find Malta. It’s a remarkable place because they’ve pre- served a certain look there that you can’t find anyplace else in Europe. It is very unique.
Reynolds Rap. Scouring Malta for pre-Victorian prisons and staging sword duels in Ireland may seem a universe away from Reynolds’ early career as a lawyer and speechwriter in Austin, Texas — at least until one discovers that the filmmaker holds an undergraduate degree in history from Waco’s Baylor University.
“I loved getting a history degree but later it was like, ‘Well, how do you make a living with a history degree?’” he recalls. With his parents’ blessings, he earned his law degree and even practiced for years in Austin. Still, the lure of cinema beckoned, and he soon found himself enrolled in University of Texas film classes. “That’s when the bug really bit seriously.”
So seriously did it bite that in 1979 the young lawyer relocated to Los Angeles to attend USC’s film school. Reynolds’ master’s degree screenwriting thesis was so well received it eventually mutated into a movie, the 1984 Patrick Swayze actioner “Red Dawn.”
Reynolds’ first student film, a 1980 short titled “Proof,” was similarly lauded. Steven Spielberg liked it enough to shepherd its transformation into Reynolds’ feature directorial debut (and Costner’s first starring vehicle), a feature-length 1985 road comedy titled “Fandango.”
The director’s second feature was 1988’s “The Beast,” a little-seen war thriller about a Soviet tank crew in Afghanistan. He followed it with more Costner projects: the 1991 Robin Hood epic, 1994’s “Rapa Nui” (a prehistoric Easter Island saga produced by Costner), and, of course, 1995’s “Waterworld.”
Spyglass Strategy. Spyglass Entertainment – the 3-year-old Disney allied production concern behind ‘The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “The Insider,” “Mission to Mars’ and Shanghai Noon” (among other high-profile projects)- thought Reynolds, with his extensive body of experience with period actioneers, a good match for “Cristo.”
**If “Red Dawn” seems dissimilar to the rest of Reynolds’ body of work, one can look to the fact that the script was re-written and directed by fellow USC alumnus John Milius. ‘l sort of had a different take on it,” confesses Reynolds. ‘l wanted a ‘Lord of the Flies’ thing.’
Hungry for a hit, the director was quick to see the project’s commercial viability. “The title is well-known throughout the world, which gives it an automatic audience,” he points out. It has all the elements of a riveting story. [It has] friendship and betrayal, love and heartbreak, action and adventure.”
He also notes the source material posed challenges, and Reynolds found montage a useful tool in overcoming the sheer enormity of the novel. One memorable sequence — in which the escaped Edmund, having reinvented himself as the wealthy count, entertains old enemies at a party — flies by at a near-dizzying, almost comic clip.
This kind of editing not only speeds things along, says the filmmaker, it effectively underscores the tragicomic gullibility of people who have lived with their wealth and power too long.
One of the problems was how to tell this story in a two-hour framework,” says the director. “We had to take a lot of shortcuts and a lot of it’s played as montage. And yes, we did play on the idea that people are gullible and they want to be close to famous people, and are thus more easily swayed, whoever the celebrity of the moment is.”