Rob Reiner (Writer, Producer) and Justin Zackham (Writer, Executive Producer) Q&A
Could you talk about how this project came your way and what was it about this film's themes that drew you to this project?
ROB REINER: Well, it was sent to me as a script that basically came in over the transom. And I had met with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, two of the producers on the film, who produced Chicago and Hairspray. While another project didn't work out, we had a very good meeting. And then Travis Knox, who was also in that executive story line, had read the script that had been submitted. It was a spec script. He read it and said, ‘Boy, this would be something maybe Rob would be interested in.’ They sent it to me and I read the first ten pages. I knew what the subject matter was when they sent it to me. And after reading ten pages, I said, ‘I want to make this movie.’ And my writer partner, Alan Greisman, said, ‘Maybe you should read the rest of the script,’ because I always jump very fast. I said, ‘No, no, because I know what the subject is and I can see there's a real writer at work here.’ I mean, you can tell in a few pages whether or not there's somebody who has a unique voice and somebody who has a really unique, creative way of expressing themselves, not just in narration, but in dialogue.
You can tell. So I said, ‘Whatever problems there may or may not be in the rest of this film, I know that there's a writer here who certainly knows what he's doing. And I can work with that writer if there needs to be work.’ And the interesting thing about it, and this is something I learned about subsequently, I had learned from Justin that Morgan Freeman had read an earlier version of that script and had passed on it, had said he wasn't interested. And I finished reading the script and I thought, ‘There's only one person that can play this part and that's Morgan Freeman.’ It's written for him, the way the character is described and I couldn't see anybody else playing the part but Morgan. So I thought, ‘We've got to find a way to get it resubmitted to him.’ And then I met with Justin and we spent, I don't know, two, three months maybe, reworking it. There were some structural things that we worked on, some character development and making sure the arc of the characters were right, reworking, reworking.
And then we sent it back to Morgan and at that point he agreed to do it, and that to me was like the big victory. Now, at that point we said, ‘Well, we now have to get another actor to play the other part,’ and we had talked about different people. Independently, Morgan and I had discussed Jack Nicholson. That's somebody who was way high considered for us. And so he said he would love to do it. He had never worked with Jack before. He'd love to do that. And it was at that point that I sent it to Jack. And Jack, who had never worked with Morgan before, said, ‘Oh, I love the idea.’ Now I had worked with Jack before on A Few Good Men, so we had a good situation there. And he liked the idea of working with me again, but he had never worked with Morgan and that was a big, exciting thing for him. And then Alan Horn, who I've known for over 30 years, and we started Castle Rock together, he said, ‘All right, I'll take a chance and take a fly at it.’ So, we were very lucky. We had a friend in court at Warner Bros. and then we had, in my opinion, the two greatest actors on the planet. So, you know, there you have it.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: The director wasn't too bad either.
ROB REINER: Well, that's how it got started. That was the genesis. But you should ask him how he came up with the idea for the script. That to me is fascinating. I'm not going to tell you which questions you should ask, but you should definitely (laugh) that question because that predates this. You should tell them.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: I had gone to film school in New York and came out to L.A. and messed around for a number of years, sort of the extended adolescence that Los Angeles breeds. And I, after a couple of years, just got so disgusted with myself that I just sat down one day, got a piece of paper and wrote Justin's list of things to do before he kicks the bucket. It was like, ‘Grow up, take out the trash, get a movie made at a major studio, go to see the pyramids and the Taj Mahal,’ and all these things. It went up on the bulletin board, and I was able to cross a couple of small things off. And then one day, a couple of years later, my grandmother had passed away, and because I was able to have an incredible conversation with her, actually videotaped her, about three weeks before she died, the things she was saying were just staggering. That tape is the most precious thing my family owns. And so I just came up with the idea of these two guys and messed around for a couple of months. And then when I finally sat down to write it, it was just like a few weeks. And the draft came out and we sent it.
ROB REINER: I love the idea that one of the things on his Bucket List was to write a script that becomes a Hollywood movie and then this list that he made up becomes the subject of the movie he ultimately writes and then it does get made.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: It was not too shabby.
ROB REINER: Yeah, it's pretty good.
How many things are left on the list?
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Well, it continues.
How does it feel?
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: This is surreal so I can't even tell you. But I think the whole point to these lists is that you keep adding. It's never supposed to be enough. The whole point is to keep propelling your life forward. And the whole notion of this whole thing is that I think so many people wake up and they're halfway through life and they've stumbled into a job that they didn't necessarily want, and it's to really just sit back and think, rather than play the cards I'm dealt, I kinda wanna take control. And so it's a constant thing.
Did you expect to be read by somebody who would end up getting into the hands of Rob Reiner?
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Well, I didn't. We went out to 50 producers and 48 of them said no. The two producers that were interested brought it to the studios, as it works, and all the studios said no. And I, quite frankly, don't blame them. And then, as Rob said, Travis Knox and I talked and he said, ‘Why don't you make a list of directors and we'll get it out.’ And so we made this list and we were on the phone.
ROB REINER: The Bucket List.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: The Bucket List, exactly.
ROB REINER: Another list.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: People to work with before we kicked the bucket. And he's the guy. So who do we go to? And I was like, ‘Do you think we can get Rob Reiner to read it?’ And a couple of days went by and CAA loved it, and then Rob called just a few days after that and we sat down. And it was, remarkably, almost a year to the day that we started production from the day that we actually went out with the script in the first place, which is just mind-blowing. It will never happen again.
ROB REINER: Yeah, that's very unusual.
I was just hearing that Morgan is a big hugger and Jack is not.
ROB REINER: He is a big hugger. Morgan loves to hug. As a matter of fact, I haven't seen him in a few months and I just saw him and I got a beauty just now, a beauty hug he gave me. Every day when we come to he set, he would give me a big hug. I remember one day I was distracted with something, and I walked on the set and he says, ‘Hey, hey, hey, where's my hug?’ And so we gave a big hug. And so now we're at the last day of the shoot with the two of them there and we had just shaved Jack's head, the last thing we did. And they're standing there and Jack looks at Morgan, he goes, ‘We're not going to hug, are we?’ They had a great experience, but he says, ‘We're not going to hug, are we?’ And then Morgan looked at Jack and he said, ‘This has been a dream come true for me.’ And Jack looked back at him and he said, ‘Likewise.’ And then they hugged. It was a great moment. For Morgan it was like he had got to cross off something on his list, which was to work with Jack Nicholson. So it was a really good moment.
At this point in your life and career, do you find that this is material that you would approach differently than, for instance, if you'd gotten it 20 to 25 years ago when you were in your Stand By Me phase?
ROB REINER: I probably wouldn't have done it. And it's interesting that you bring up Stand By Me because when I first got this project, and I don't even think I've ever told Justin about this, but here I am now, I'm 60 years old. I just turned 60 this year. And you do think about your mortality. You do start thinking about, you know, have you led a meaningful life? Have you done the things in your life that you should be doing? What are your relationships with your family and your friends like? And all those things do come into play.
And I don't think I would have done a movie like this 20 years ago. Twenty years ago I made Stand By Me and Stand By Me was about friends on a journey and their first experience with death. And they go to see a dead body, and they've never seen a dead body before. And it's the emotion that is brought up in this context that these two friends, particularly Gordie and Chris, best friends, where they help each other. Gordie helps Chris when he learns about the teacher who stole the milk money. And there's a moment where Chris, throughout the thing, is helping Gordie to feel good about himself. He doesn't feel good about himself, doesn't feel his father loves him. And helps him see that he's worthwhile and that he can go on to become a great writer.
That's about two friends on a journey with death as the underlying theme and how they help each other through a tough time in life. Here we are at the end of life, two characters who become friends, on a journey facing death and helping each other work through the issues they need to work through before they pass away. So they're very complementary in that way, and also in tone. There's humor and there's emotion in both, and they both hit that same kind of tone. But fortunately I got the two best actors in the world here. It was a little tougher doing it with four young actors nobody had ever seen. Now I think it's a little bit more palatable because we have Jack and Morgan. But it deals with themes that are something that I've thought about and this is, you know, in a weird way, a companion to that at the other end. I never mentioned this to you, but that's the thing that crossed my mind. And when I first read it, I went, ‘Oh, my God, this is the same stuff about two friends who help each other work through the issues they need to work through before they pass away, just like it was two friends helping each other in that context.’
What's left on your Bucket List?
ROB REINER: Well, it's interesting. I don't really think about a Bucket List in those terms because I've had a really good life and I don't care. It's about going to places to me. There are a lot of places I'd like to go to, but there's a line from Buckaroo Banzai, which was originally written by Lord Buckley, who says, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ But what's been on my list for a long time ago, it's on it now and it will be on it forever, is, Am I doing what I need to do with my family and the people who are closest to me? Are those relationships as good as they can be? Number two, Am I using whatever abilities and talents I have been given to do the best work I can and touch people in the best way I can? And as a public figure, am I doing anything to help the world in terms of public policy and those kinds of things? So that's always on my list, and it's always something I'm striving for because I think at the end of the day, and I've heard people say, older people who are ready to die, if you've lived a life, you don't mind passing on. So, it's always striving to do the things that you feel you're meant to do. And you don't regret things you do in life.
You regret things you don't do. It's always striving to maximize whatever it is I have to offer in the areas of family and friends, my work and then my public, political work. Those are the things I think about. I'd love to do a musical in my work thing, but if I don't do that, it's not going to be the end of the world. One buddy asked me a question. He said, ‘What's the thing about directing over the years have you gotten?’ I said, ‘One thing you learn is that it's not life and death. The only thing that's life and death is life and death. Everything else is just a problem and you try to solve it, and you learn to take those things in stride.’ So, if I get to do that, fine, or not. But the other areas, those other things on the list, are the things that I really want to keep trying to achieve. What about your list? I mean, you still have things on your list?
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Oh, I got a bunch.
ROB REINER: I bet your list changes though as you get older.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Well, yeah, completely.
ROB REINER: You say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe that one isn't so important.’
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Oh, absolutely. The thing I want to say also about the movie is that it ultimately is not about is the list. The one thing that those two guys don't have on the list, which is the one thing they really get, is a best friend. They don't put it down, but yet at the end they've got someone who loves them, who they've been through this experience with. They've taught each other. They've grown from it. And the thing for me is the line that really started the script for me. Morgan says in the opening voiceover that you measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you. I wrote that about my group of friends. And sort of just like Rob said, are you doing the best with the people who love you and who you love in the world. Everything else on the list, that's driving yourself, but to me that's what the movie's about. We talked about that over and over and that's really what the spirit of it is.
ROB REINER: You had to help a complete stranger for the good. Now they were strangers and they do help each other for the good, but they ultimately in the process become friends.
One last question, Rob, were there any differences in your two experiences directing Jack Nicholson?
ROB REINER: Well, there was a tremendous difference in that A Few Good Men, that was a play that had been on Broadway and had been refined to the nth degree. So, by the time Jack Nicholson was offered that part, this was already a full-blown thing. In this, it's a work. It's a collaboration. When you make a movie from an original screenplay, there's a lot of collaboration that goes on. So, there was a lot of interacting with Jack in terms of reworking scenes and so on. But the main difference is that he had 15 years of life that he brings. He's an artist. He's a true artist and he brings his 15 years of life experience to a new character and that all was brought to bear, and plus he has his own experiences with hospitals and what he's been through. So, he wants to have those things reflected in the film. So those things were there. Thank you.
JUSTIN ZACKHAM: Thank you.