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Toughest Call Ep. 104 - Making the Hollywood Blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (with John Watson) - TRANSCRIPT

John Watson  00:04

The big thing was, they wanted us to produce the movie, at least they were willing to let us produce the movie ourselves, which was what we really wanted to hear.


Chaz Thorne  00:15

Welcome back, or Welcome to toughest call, a podcast for organizational leaders, where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz. In this episode, I'm talking with john Watson about a tough call he faced in the making of his movie Robin, starring Kevin Costner. JOHN is a Hollywood producer with credits including backdraft blown away mall Flanders, the outer limits, Harriet, and the last full measure. JOHN talks about a particularly tough call with a tight timeline he and his partners had to make in the early days of their movie Robin Hood, this decision had significant ripple effects, both good and bad, that would be felt for decades to come. Join, let's start at the point where you decided to write this script for Robin Hood and why


John Watson  01:20

my writing partner, my producing partner, Pan densham, and I had moved from fairly successful documentary career in Canada out to LA and had been making our way slowly into the biz, we'd made three low budget films with minimal success, but we'd written well, three of them. And we'll begin to get a little bit of a reputation as screenwriters. We both grew up in England, and we both had a fondness for Robin Hood. And we were kind of, I guess, inspired by Indiana Jones and thought, wouldn't it be kind of fun to do Robin Hood in the style of Indiana Jones is an action adventure. fun story. So we came up with a plot and thought we had a pretty good pitch. And we went around to the studios, we were at this point where we could get into the room to pitch our stories in Hollywood, but without an instant sell. Right? They weren't like hungry for watching Belgian movies, but they you know, they were willing to listen. So we thought this was a pretty damn good pitch. And it turned out that it just fell flat. And then No, no one was interested. The general reaction was medieval times Men in Tights in the forest. But no, no, no, no, no, no many types. No, not that this is like the whole This is reality. These are like real, real guys living in the forest, you know, living rough, try to make it well, why can't you set it to the future? Like, what are the greatest sci fi movie? How about, you know, Robin Hood on Mars? We don't know. No, no, no, we got this vision. We want to do this. So we got, we did some soul searching. And after getting rejected a few times, we decided like, this is great. You know, Penn had written up an outline of the script. And let's just go for it. You know, let's just try. We've been mostly going for it since we got out here. So it was like, Alright, one more time, you know, who knows, we'll get paid. And it'll get made. But it's a good idea. Let's try it. So we start writing and one. My house is actually being remodeled. And well, this is overstatement. We're having a few repairs done to my house. So we had to move out. And I was temporarily living at my agents house. So I'm writing the script one night, he comes as what are you working on? And I go, oh, Robinhood he goes, What, Robin? You're out of your mind? Forget it. Robin Hood is being made next summer. This was like now January, it's being made this summer it 20 Century Fox and make it like, Oh, my God, john mccain is directing it, you know, forget about it, try something else. So you know, I call Pat and we go, I don't know, we're so far into it. Let's just go for it. You know, let's see what happens. So we finished the script. And it feels really good. And it's like Now, second week in February. In fact, the big event, the big decisions that I'm coming to actually came down on Valentine's Day, which is kind of


Chaz Thorne  04:22



John Watson  04:24

We, we share the script with our partners and the people at the company and everybody's getting going over the moon. This is red, this is great. This is fantastic. And we're starting to think we really have something and we showed it to the agent, the same agent who said we shouldn't do it. He was in and out. He was now in a moral dilemma because he had a directing plan. It was going to direct the revenue that he had these writing slash producing glads who had written one so he can like be decided like I got to support you clients, let's see if we can sell this thing. So he had came up with a strategy of putting it out to the marketplace. And he gave everybody. It was a time when the context was actually there was a Writers Guild strike right before this, that there was a real shortage of scripts. Right? Okay. And this was just coming out of the strike. So the studios were very hungry for material at this point. And there were a number of bidding wars being set out, but he thought he could create this movie, The script was strong enough that he can create a little bit of a bidding war for the script.


Chaz Thorne  05:36

And what year was this?


John Watson  05:38

  1. So he sent the script out to Well, first of all, we had a first what was called a first look deal at a studio, we will get receiving a certain amount of our overhead paid for by Paramount, and they got to look at the script before anybody else did. And they wrestled with it for 24 hours, however long they were given. And kind of reluctantly, I was like, Yes, I think we're gonna but No, we're not. We're like, you know, I have a doubt that we would know we were really struggling filmmakers, right. I mean, we would try to be had young families, we were trying to make ends meet. And so every decision was, like vital, and we were really, really on tenterhooks, no. And so that Paramount said no. And so then he went out to another marketplace. And this was remarkable day on February, the 14th 1990. Where we were getting word through our agent, all through the day, oh, this Junior executive at Warner Brothers liked it. And he's passing it on to the senior executive. And then two hours later, the senior executive likes it, he's passed it on to the President. The President is out to dinner right now. But as soon as he gets back, he's gonna read the script. So this was going on at about four or five studios. At the same time, we got some early passes, people weren't interested, but we were down to like, three or four. And finally, like, it was late in the evening, at 10 o'clock at night, we got a call saying, we have three buyers. And so we're all excited. And, and the next day, we started analyzing the three bids, and one didn't seem very realistic, and we kind of one was dismissed. We ended up essentially with two choices. And there, they turned out to be very, very different choices. One, Warner Brothers were interested through Joel Silva, who's very successful producer at the time, he was making a lot of films and making a lot of money all in the kind of action genre, right. And his basic deal was he was offering us a lot of money. I wanted the dollar amount, but it was mind blowing. To us young struggling filmmakers. It was a life changing number. And, but he was going to produce it. And we were going to go away, we wanted to be attached as producers, we produced the three low budget movies we've made already. Everything we ever made in Canada, we had produced ourselves. So the idea of stepping away from our own movie was not something we were keen on, but the money was alright. It wasn't exactly retirement money, but it was like it was life changing. So that was intriguing. And Dell silver, didn't have any interest in talking to us. He didn't want to meet with him or talk with us. It was like pay, get labor, you know, like, throw the money at them. Right. And simultaneously, we got an offer from this company called Morgan Creek, who had a reputation for being a little bit eccentric, they had had six success with a couple of films in the in the previous year. And it was perceived that the success was due to Joe Roth, who was a partner in the company. And Joe Roth was now running 20th Century Fox, which, if you remember was the company that was about to make Robin Hood that summer. And the company is now being run by Jim Robinson, James G. Robinson. And he was a somewhat of a maverick had no background in the film business. He's made a lot of money in the car and car business and he was like, pouring his money into film. So there was a suspicious voice sufficient boisterous, based on some quarter said, Jim was going to buy the film, take it off the market for his friend, Joe. And the idea was to bury the script. Okay, so we didn't know what to do. But anyway, so we went in and had a meeting with Jim who's a very strange character. And, and he brought in, you know, all the heads of his company and we sat around and he basically convinced That's that he was serious. In fact, we figured out that his motivation was actually to prove that Joe Ross wasn't the power behind Jim Robinson. And we got, and we we really know whether it Believe it or not, but that was the impression that we got from it was, it was a giant su to Joe Roth, and he wanted to get make this movie. See, the big thing was, they wanted us to produce the movie, at least they were willing to let us produce the movie ourselves, which was what we really wanted to hear.


Chaz Thorne  10:34

So this is really your your tough call it's, do we take this very large amount of money and go away? Which is oftentimes how things work in the in the studio system, especially with with writers, or do we remain involved, much riskier. Some question marks around the true intentions of Jim at Morgan Creek, and significantly less money.


John Watson  11:04

So also a massive, perceived difference in terms of viability, Joe Silva. If Warner Brothers bought the script from Joe Silva, there was a very high percentage chance that we're going to get made. And we're still contingent on the budget being right and getting the right actors and a lot of other factors like that all the chips falling into place. But it was perceived to be a much higher percentage chance of happening worthwhile, the peak was really a giant unknown. And they made it pretty clear that they weren't going to make it unless you got the right director on board. Unless you got the right actors on board. Unless the budget was at a substantially lower place, then the gel Silva was willing to do so there were a lot of other factors of unknowns about the reality of the model create situation,


Chaz Thorne  11:53

when you finally made that decision, can you point to what was really what did it really hinge on? What finally made you go, this is the direction we're gonna go.


John Watson  12:07

I think it was to do with, I mean, certainly, I've been speaking for myself, it was to do with my identity, as a filmmaker, as a creative individual. It was more of the the opportunity to go make a movie that I was passionate about cannabis that was more important to me than the money. You know, I had a young family, I had a baby just born and three older kids. So it wasn't a minor thing, but I wanted to look at what do I want to leave behind what was my net worth, I go in life career goal as a filmmaker.


Chaz Thorne  12:50

So, you make the decision. And in this particular case, the decision was to and obviously, this is public record. So that decision was to make it with with Morgan Creek, and to remain involved in not sell, sell the sell the project. So when you move into that, that next phase of things, so the decision is made, what happened next as you moved into, you know, preparing the film and, and production and so on.


John Watson  13:28

This is bizarre how design chaos happens, you know, from this situation where nobody was interested in us script about Robin Hood and wanted to, you know, didn't want to make a movie set in medieval times. Suddenly, there were three other projects out there literally, and we were wonderful Robin Hood's so we had to be we had to be first and it had to happen quickly. Anyway, what happened fairly quickly in the process is Morgan great got a call from the legendary Michael ovitz agent at CAA saying Kevin Costner wants to be Robin Hood. And we all go Hey, great, but it all depends on who the director is. You know, he will do the movie but he's the director is and he has been talking to McKinnon at Fox and he's been talking to the TriStar the third film, and you know, it's a race. So you want Kevin? Make it happen?


Chaz Thorne  14:32

So how did you go from that call to knowing you're in a race and knowing that okay, this this next step in the process, this next big commitment, it has to be the director. There was a young


John Watson  14:45

director called Kevin Reynolds who happened to be represented by our agency, who had done a movie with Kevin Costner called Fandango, which was only marginally successful and He kind of liked the script, and said he was interested. But he was attached to a movie at Universal at the time. That was supposed to be a go movie. And he thought was going to get made that summer. So he was just someone we're having a conversation with. And I thought it was a it was a good route to get Kevin cast, because I knew the two of them really liked each other, wanted to make movies together again, right? We're good friends. And they went on vacation just diving, deep sea diving and vacations together and stuff. And I thought, well, this is, this is great. And he'll probably keep us within budget, because he's not, you know, he's not not a big time director. So that seemed like a good option. But it wasn't going anywhere. I persuaded walking creek that we should go ahead and start acting like we were making the movie. So I went over to England and started prepping the film as if it was going to be happening, even though at that time we didn't have a director. So I'm going on England try to find locations. I'm trying to I'm meeting up with all the best production designers, the best cinematographers the best, the best of everything, trying to line up who our personnel would be, because I realized we were looking at a potentially a very short, prep time. In this process, I got a call from Kevin Costner on a Friday evening saying, sorry, not Kevin Costner, Kevin Reynolds. I had never spoken to Kevin Costner at this point. By the way, this was just, he was the big target, right, who I couldn't actually have a direct conversation with. I have a conversation with Kevin rentals. And Kevin Reynolds says, I think this movie is falling apart. At university. It's not going to happen. I just got out of a budget meeting. They said my budgets too high. They don't want to make it. So if you're still interested, let's talk Robin Hood.


Chaz Thorne  16:51

So you finally now you've now secured your your director, you would go on to obviously secure the other Kevin, Mr. Costner as well. What was just overall? What was the experience of actually making the film?


John Watson  17:16

Well, I would say in short, it was a nightmare. It was both the best and the worst of times. Morning, Simon was there on the plane, we're flying to London. Rental says to me, is Kevin Costner say the right guy for this movie? saying to myself, II see any reason you're involved, you're sitting on this plane with me is because of your relationship with Russia. And you're questioning that. And then having told the studio the day before, that he there's nothing wrong with the script, immediately started talking about potentially massive changes in the script, like sufficiently big that I'm going, how can we be shooting this movie while this still leaves on the tree? Right. Whether we start shooting in four weeks, we can't be changing thing. And it got worse and worse. I mean, he says he disappeared for a week, just before we started shooting. And it completely rewrote the script, and then demanded that we read shoot his version of the script. And we ended up shooting some of his version, some of our version. And then Kevin Costner arrived late because he'd been finishing Dances with Wolves. And he had changes he wanted to make two or he liked preferred version, he didn't understand why we were changing it. He got crazy. And we started shooting sufficiently late in the year that a lot of our favorite scenes, they literally were to the leaves on the trees. In fact, some of those scenes, those leaves are physically stuck onto the tree branches. And we ended up with this massive coup of getting Sean Connery to play the king for the last scene of the movie, right? And we had this one day to do it. And it was not November sometime. So we came up with a fallen leaves strategy and got truckloads of leaves that had people standing off camera throwing leaves,


Chaz Thorne  19:17

movie magic.


John Watson  19:21

Anyway, there's lots of stories. I thought it was tough. We shot 60 weeks for over 100 days. And it was originally supposed to be 60 days, which I know speaks to a number of things that need to get into but it was very, very difficult.


Chaz Thorne  19:40

What do you think it is about the film that people connected to then and still do I see a come up every once in a while still?


John Watson  19:51

Yeah, I think it had a combination of sensibilities that really, really appealed. I mean, I think I think the vast majority of people really enjoyed care. The costs are in the lead. And in spite of his accent, in spite of all the critics, and this movie is pretty well, critic proof we haven't had not done but we didn't do terribly well with reviews. I think the single biggest appeal of the movie has always been Alan Rickman is the sheriff and most people who talked to me about the movie, just love Alan Rickman. And I have to give a lot of credit to Kevin Reynolds for the bad portrayal. He really encouraged him to go for it to a degree beyond where I was necessarily comfortable. I was like, Okay, let's try it. But is this gonna work? It's an incredible performance is over the top trail actually got to work in the movie that is essentially grounded. And I think the Morgan's presence in the movie is, is a huge plus. I mean, he's just so gracious. And he just changed the perception of Ramadan in a very significant way, by having a Muslim at the heart of this movie, I think, a black person at the heart of Robin Hood, that's like that was a that was a breakthrough concept. What affected


Chaz Thorne  21:10

making Robin Hood have afterwards though, in terms of doors, that it open for you, and so on. So I guess really what I'm getting at is, even if the making of that particular film was, was really, really difficult.


John Watson  21:32

And it was it was a massive difference. absolutely massive, I might have been able to get paid good money to write scripts, because of the success of the script, if it had been made by Joel Silver and had equivalent success in a couple of hypotheses there. But if it had been made, I would have had a successful career as a screenwriter for a while, it would have been very hard for me to get going as a producer. Whereas it success with myself and my partners as a producers. We'd like open doors beyond imagination. You know, we were now perceived to be the hot young producers in town. So particularly given the back backdrop came that was equally six, almost equally successful, same year. It was massive, it changed everything.


Chaz Thorne  22:22

If one of your students came to you, and they presented you with a with a similar tough call that they were were faced with? What advice would you give them around that?


John Watson  22:43

I always say go for the gut. Go with your gut. Go with your instincts. Yes. Look in the mirror, what do you want to be? What's the next step in your career? Where do you see yourself being in a few years from now? What is the what's the best route to get you there? You can't be scared of the hard work. You can't be scared of the pain. I tell them this, I tell them the story or elements of this story, that the decision that I've made is helpful, you know, because it makes it tangible. Don't second guess yourself? You just got to go for it. And if you know whatever it is that you want to be? How do you get yourself to be that person? What are the decisions you have to make to get there.


Chaz Thorne  23:25

If you'd like to learn more about john and his work, check out his profile on and take a watch of some of his movies and TV shows. And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to toughest to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to toughest call. Please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.

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