No one can say what life was really like in the English forests of the 1190s, but this painstakingly created set of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest camp must come close. Low-lying hovels are covered with brown grass; a bull is led reluctantly to a post; birds and rabbits hang in preparation for cooking; children push each other into the mud as they play; a hunter plods along with a deer slung over his shoulder; and women throw tired-looking vegetables into a huge pot.The voice of an assistant director is urgent over his bullhorn: ”Special effects-there is a canister in shot. Okay, clear the skyline. Keep your white collar inside your tunic, that woodsman over there. Keep it quiet. Stand by to shoot.”
Total silence. Cameras roll. Action. Kevin Costner, in the faded leathers of a 12th-century woodsman, opens his mouth to speak but stops as he hears a distinctly 20th-century sound: the whine of jet engines. The sound gradually swells to a teeth-jarring roar, and an enormous 747 sails just a few thousand feet above the clearing on its landing approach to London’s Heathrow Airport. It’s the third jet to pass overhead in the past 10 minutes; an unusual change of wind has forced air traffic controllers to divert flights from their normal routes to a path directly over the set in Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire, just 10 miles from the runways.
This is the first day of shooting at the Sherwood Forest location (not the real Sherwood Forest, which is in Nottinghamshire to the north), but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is already behind schedule and the filmmakers are under pressure. The 747s are the least of their problems. Attempting to take the latest flyby in stride, Costner flashes his easy-going smile, and in moments filming resumes. But later, taking his lunch break picnic-style on a blanket spread out on the forest floor, he doesn’t hide his growing concern. ”It’s very dangerous to be (working) so fast,” he says. ”We are relying on the weather, and every time the weather turns against us we could get behind. When that happens there is always the feeling that certain people want to do something about it to shorten the filming time. That is not always the cure.”
Director Kevin Reynolds is doing his best to maintain a sense of calm, but he also knows he’s struggling to keep chaos at bay. ”Are things going as planned?” he says, repeating a visitor’s question. ”Ha! You always start with a picture in your mind, and it is a compromise all the way from there. We have been struggling from Day One. We are trying to finish by Christmas, and the days are getting shorter. It’s horrible.”
If the two Kevins had known on that autumn day how much tougher their work would become by the end, their misgivings would have been even graver. They began the project as friends. Reynolds had given Costner his first big break, a lead part in the director’s 1985 coming-of-age movie, Fandango. And, when Costner’s reputation was on the line directing Dances With Wolves, Reynolds pitched in, directing the challenging buffalo hunt, which became one of the hit movie’s most memorable scenes. In fact, if not for their long-standing friendship, it’s doubtful either one would have been involved in Robin Hood at all.
”To be honest, I was never a giant Robin Hood fan,” Reynolds admits. ”But I liked the story and the time period. I thought it would be intriguing to do a medieval action picture.” With just two films to his credit – Fandango and The Beast, a little-seen 1988 feature about the war in Afghanistan – he could hardly turn down a $50 million production, but he had no illusions about why he was chosen. ”I’d done two pictures that hadn’t made a dime, so I kind of knew they wanted me because of my connections with Kevin,” he says.
Kevin Costner, 36, had his own doubts about doing justice to the rakish Robin Hood. The first time he was offered the script, he turned it down. But when Reynolds called to say he’d signed aboard, the actor reconsidered. ”I felt Kevin was such a good filmmaker I would do it,” he says. ”I’d never dreamed of doing a movie like this, but I thought this was a different Robin Hood. It told the story in a new way, without repeating it or making a joke of it.”
Both the director and the star knew that they’d be up against a brutal production schedule, one that left little time for planning, rehearsals, or second thoughts about how to shoot. To their credit, the movie that opened last weekend (Owen Gleiberman’s review is on page 38) bears little sign of the woes that attended its creation. But Robin Hood took its toll in other ways. Even before it was finished, Costner was the subject of embarrassing rumors that his performance was too laid-back and his accent more L.A. than U.K. Most disruptive of all, a last-minute recutting to bolster his on-screen presence led to a nasty battle between Reynolds and the producers. Just weeks before the first big picture of his career was to hit the theaters, Reynolds walked out on the project.
At the end of May, when Warner Bros., Robin Hood’s distributor, first previewed the film to the press in New Orleans (where Costner is filming director Oliver Stone’s JFK, Reynolds was conspicuous by his absence. ”I’m disappointed he’s not here,” Costner admitted. ”And I think he’s disappointed that he couldn’t make everything be exactly his way. If you don’t have final cut, that’s going to happen. But I thought he directed a really wonderful movie.”
Several days later, sitting in a deli in Studio City, Calif., Reynolds took little pleasure in the compliment. In his late 30s, dressed in jeans and a T- shirt and looking more like a clean-cut member of the crew than a director on the verge of a blockbuster, he seemed at pains not to inflame the awkward personal situation. ”You know how Hollywood is-‘You go along, you get along’ is sort of the attitude,” he said philosophically. ”Sometimes you just reach a point where you say, ‘I’m not going to go along anymore. I think I’ve compromised enough.’ So I’ve moved on to other things.”
Considering that the story has been around for 800 years, mounting yet another screen version of the Robin Hood legend (the first was in 1909) was startlingly like a Saturday matinee cliff-hanger. The notion of creating a ; Robin for the ’90s first occurred to British writer-producer Pen Densham, who summed up his idea as “Robin Hood a la Raiders.” In August of 1989, Densham hammered out a 92-page outline that he and his producing partner, John Watson, then turned into a screenplay. They broke with the traditional account of Robin as a devil-may-care adventurer (best embodied by Errol Flynn in 1938) by reimagining him as a rich kid transformed into a socially conscious rebel by imprisonment in Jerusalem during the Crusades. “There was gold on the page,” insists David Nicksay, president of Morgan Creek Productions, a four-year-old independent with a reputation for successful midsize movies like Young Guns and Major League. Morgan Creek chairman James G. Robinson was so enthusiastic that within 24 hours of receiving the script, the company bought the property for $1.2 million on Feb. 14, 1990.
“We didn’t look back from that point – we just kept going,” says Robinson, clearly proud that his small company is taking on the big studios in the blockbuster game.
With both Twentieth Century Fox and Tri-Star Pictures threatening to launch Robin Hoods of their own, Morgan Creek dispatched Watson to England to start lining up a crew and scouting locations even before a director and star had been signed. The rival films eventually fell by the wayside – the Fox version became a TV movie; the Tri-Star effort ground to a halt – but in 1990, there seemed no time to spare.
Sept. 3 was decreed the last possible start date to beat the competition to the screen and finish shooting before the English winter set in. By the time he was hired, Reynolds had only 10 weeks for preproduction. Costner, who was held up putting the finishing touches on Dances With Wolves, arrived just three days before filming was to begin. Rehearsals were out of the question: Costner, Morgan Freeman (who plays Robin’s Moorish partner, Azeem), and Christian Slater (as Will Scarlett) had a single read-through of the script. Two other key roles, Maid Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham, weren’t even filled. Alan Rickman soon signed on as the villainous sheriff. But Robin Wright, cast as Marian, had thrown the production a last-minute curve when she announced she was pregnant (with Sean Penn’s child). The frantic search for a replacement turned up Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Class Action), who was already in London working on a BBC-TV production of Uncle Vanya. “I was here, I had a phone call, and then there was a script in my hands,” Mastrantonio says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Reynolds and Costner were at odds over how much of an accent the quintessentially American actor should attempt. Costner was determined to sound English. Reynolds, fearful that would prove distracting to audiences, urged him to drop it. The issue was never resolved: Costner’s English accent surfaces in some scenes and vanishes in others.
Costner was also concerned that Reynolds’ script revisions hadn’t devoted enough attention to Robin, embellishing the sheriff’s role instead. Reynolds admits that, contrary to Densham’s original formulation, “what I did not want to do was Indiana Jones. That has been done already.” He felt Densham’s sheriff was too one-dimensional, a medieval Darth Vader, and worked for weeks to inject some wit into the role.
Alan Rickman, best known to American audiences as the icy terrorist in Die Hard, couldn’t have been happier about the sheriff’s growth. “At first, I thought, ‘Robin Hood – again?’” he confessed during a break from filming. “But this script is changing – my lines are, anyway.” He tore into the part with a gusto that bordered on glee, storming through Nottingham Castle, barking such commands as “No more merciful beheadings! And call off Christmas!”
While Rickman was playing it to the hilt, Costner stuck to his far more subdued, naturalistic style, a juxtaposition that risked making the flamboyant villain more appealing than the well-intentioned hero. “Rickman’s acting Costner off the screen,” one crew member muttered after a particularly extravagant turn. Rickman disputes that. “It’s not a competition,” he says. “Kevin’s responsibility is very different. If I were playing Robin Hood, my responsibility would be to be as romantic and heroic as possible. It’s important that there is a lighter tone to what I am doing.”
Reynolds approaches the topic of Costner’s performance delicately, but he does suggest it may have lacked vigor. “Kevin was pretty tired, and understandably so, after Dances With Wolves,” he says. “But he did the best he could do. He threw himself completely into the character, even though there was no time for him to assimilate the part.”
As moviegoers poured out of a Robin Hood test screening in Sacramento in April, they left the filmmakers with a real problem. Although the movie scored a resounding approval rating of 92 percent, the producers weren’t at all merry. When people were asked their favorite character, they picked not % Costner’s Robin but Rickman’s sheriff. While Costner had been robbing from the rich, Rickman had been stealing the movie. After his success with Dances With Wolves, Costner was Robin Hood’s drawing card, and the producers didn’t want him upstaged. They demanded that more Costner be put back in.
Reynolds strenuously protested. Having already enhanced Costner’s role in an earlier round of changes, he felt he’d altered the film enough. “The test results speak for themselves,” he says. But since he was scheduled to fly back to London to supervise the final dialogue dubbing, the producers took matters into their own hands. Actually locking Reynolds’ film editor, Peter Boyle, out of the cutting room, they sent in their own team to trim some scenes and beef up others.
When Reynolds was shown the results upon his return to Los Angeles, he came to a tough decision. “I didn’t feel like it was an improvement at all,” he explains. “I thought in a number of places it was pretty awkward and embarrassing.” He was particularly disappointed to lose a subplot in which the sheriff learns that the witch Mortianna is his mother, and with it the sheriff’s curtain line: “Who was Dad?” So he walked away from his film, abandoning the final editing, scoring, and mixing. Costner, deep into his role in JFK, kept at arm’s length from the dispute. Reynolds is convinced his friend could have effectively intervened on his behalf if he had chosen to.
Costner suggests that bruised feelings go with the territory. “We solved the problems,” he says, “but we didn’t solve them in a way that either Kevin or I found mutually satisfying. But you just hang in there. You tough it out. You fight it out and work it out.”
Do he and Reynolds remain friends, then?
Costner replies quickly, but tersely, “Yes.”
Reynolds pauses before giving his answer to that question. “We haven’t really talked,” he says. “I think it’s been a pretty painful process for both of us.”
With Robin Hood poised to become one of the summer’s top hits, most of those involved in it will probably forget the production’s myriad problems when the box office figures roll in. But for the two friends who made the picture possible, the wounds of making Robin Hood may take longer to heal.