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Jack Nicholson knows how to make phrases more interesting, colourful and just curvier, says director Rob Reiner, talking about their collaboration on The Bucket List – a film both men agreed they’d only have a chance to make the once.

On reading the very first reading of the script for The Bucket List, director Rob Reiner responded to the story in an immediate, deeply personal way and felt it addressed issues that many people can relate to. “The baby boom generation, in particular, are really starting to examine and evaluate their lives in a deeper way and the themes touched on by The Bucket List really resonate. Those of us who have parents or grandparents getting up in years can appreciate what it’s like to look back on the time spent and also to look ahead and really think about what we’re doing with the time we’ve been given. I knew this was a subject I absolutely wanted to tackle now.

"intimately personal human situations"

“There was just something about it,” he adds, citing the story’s potential for natural humor as well as intimately personal human situations, not to mention “the grand adventure that takes these two men around the world to figure out what’s been burning inside them their entire lives.”

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron of Storyline Entertainment, who had sent the script, weren’t surprised, having fallen in love with the story themselves after The Bucket List caught the attention of their head of feature development, Travis Knox, an executive producer on the film.

“It was just like any other weeknight when I took home a pile of scripts to read, but this was the first one in a long time that I could not put down. It was special, a unique blend of humour and heart. I had to be a part of it,” Knox says, recounting how he then took it to Zadan and Meron and suggested Reiner, with whom the producers had recently met on an entirely different matter and had struck an undeniable creative rapport. Acknowledging Reiner’s impressive body of work, Zadan recalls, “What we liked about Rob was his ability to find the humour in emotional subjects. It’s that depth that gives him such impact as a director and exactly what we all wanted for The Bucket List.”

Says Greisman, “This is a story about friendship and love and discovering what’s really important in life. It stirs a lot of emotions but at the same time makes you laugh and, ultimately, I think, says something significant about the human condition.”
Moreover it reminds us, as Jack Nicholson notes, “It’s always the things you don’t do in life that you regret most, not the things you do.”

In The Bucket List, car mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and billionaire Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) find themselves unexpectedly sharing a room in a hospital – one in Cole’s empire where the policy is two beds to a room. The two men learn they now have one thing in common: they don’t have long to live. In this initially forced companionship, Chambers begins to compile a list of things they had both long wanted to do before they kick the bucket – and Cole is adamant to execute the wish list, which ranges from ‘witnessing something majestic’ to sky diving and kissing the most beautiful girl in the world. These two virtual strangers check themselves out of the hospital - against the wishes of Chambers’ wife Virginia (Beverly Todd) – to hit the road on a trip from the Taj Mahal to the Serengeti, the finest restaurants to the seediest tattoo parlours in a life affirming dash.

"two unlikely travelling companions"

The developing—and often combustible—rapport between these two unlikely travelling companions is what propels the story. Although poles apart in background, temperament, experience and in innumerable other ways, what they share more than makes up for these superficial differences.

Morgan Freeman, who stars as Carter, suggests, “You bond to people with whom you have something in common and these two have something very important in common. They are holding the rest of their lives in their hands and they both know it. When Carter meets Edward, he is offered an opportunity to do things differently for the first time, to go his own way. For a man who feels he’s spent his life doing what’s best for everyone else, that’s very powerful.”

The list itself, from one of the college classes Carter attended before giving up his studies to support his family, “was an exercise in forward-thinking. It was meant to give young people focus by making them think about what was really important to them and what they wanted to achieve in life,” Reiner explains. It’s a concept that the naturally introspective Carter has often returned to and refined, idly, and he toys with it again as he rests in the hospital contemplating his options. Even if Carter had ever entertained the possibility of pursuing his bucket list items, he certainly doesn’t expect to do it now, and says so when Edward happens to see the list and asks about it. But Edward, unfamiliar with the concept of “no” and “too late,” proposes that they do exactly that. Immediately. He even adds his own items, in his own characteristic fashion.

Freeman notes how much, even in this, the two are different. “Edward approaches it as a practical to-do list. Whereas Carter’s wishes are more spiritually oriented, like ‘witness something majestic’ and ‘help a stranger for the good of it,’ Edward goes for the adrenalin, like jumping out of an airplane and kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Screenwriter Justin Zackham, also an executive producer on the film, was always flexible about the ideal age range he imagined for his globe-trotting protagonists, but says, “My contention was that you need characters who have lived a fair amount of life already. They should have some regrets. For someone younger it would be more conjecture.” Coincidentally, he reveals, even at the earliest stage, “I wrote the script with Morgan Freeman’s voice in my head.”

"Jack Nicholson..... a true wordsmith'

It wasn’t long before Jack Nicholson’s voice also became a factor. In the weeks preceding production, the actor met regularly with Rob Reiner to work through dialogue, scene by scene. Says Reiner, “Let me tell you something about Jack Nicholson that most people don’t know. Sure he’s a brilliant actor, everybody knows that, but he’s also a very good writer, a true wordsmith. He knows how to make phrases more interesting, colourful and just curvier. His point of view, like mine, was that we aren’t going to make a lot of movies like this—in fact, we’re just going to make the one—so we want to explore all the nuances and get it right. We worked through all of it before production and then even during the shoot we’d pitch ideas back and forth in his trailer.”

The challenge, Reiner concedes, was “to balance the humor and emotion of the story, to make it entertaining but not by cheapening it. It’s a serious subject and we wanted to treat it with the respect it deserves, but, at the same time, there’s so much potential for comedy and the energy of these two great actors sparking off each other is just a joy to watch.”

Published: February 21, 2008


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