Directing Redford in Legal Eagles Marks the Leap from Shlock to Sophistication for Ivan Reitman
Standing before the cameras while making Legal Eagles, Robert Redford seemed anxious about filming his next scene. For one thing, the costume people dressed him rather carelessly for a sex symbol. His bare fuzzy-blond legs, shod in preppy tassel loafers, poked out from under a short terry cloth robe. What’s more, he felt awkward. He couldn’t understand why he had to belt out Singin’ in the Rain while tap dancing and scarfing down a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Redford’s comments during most of the filming had run the gamut from “that’s cheap” to “that’s dumb.” If Ivan Reitman, a toothy scarecrow look-alike, hadn’t been there to direct, Redford might have canned the unscripted scene. But as it happens, Redford danced. “I haven’t seen Bob’s humor, charm and lightness in his work for a while,” says Reitman, who made an unusual concession to bring out those qualities. “I promised him that if he didn’t like the footage, we wouldn’t use it.”
Few crew members were surprised that director and star frequently went to the mat in what Redford calls “high road, low road arguments.” The real shock came in seeing the two together at all. Here was the class act of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were and All the President’s Men linking up with Hollywood’s undisputed master of shlock comedy. As the producer of National Lampoon’s Animal House and director of three Bill Murray farces (Meatballs, Stripes and Ghost-busters), Reitman found that a potent combined box office gross of more than $500 million couldn’t warm a decidedly cool reception from the critics. Redford, now 48, faced the opposite problem: After 25 years, he found his prestige pictures (Out of Africa, The Natural) slipping in appeal, especially with the younger audience. Legal Eagles would give Redford a shot at the kids and Reitman a much-desired chance to hoist his reputation with a switch to sophisticated romantic comedy. As with his earlier films, Reitman helped create the story (along with Top Gun writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.). This one cast Redford and Debra Winger as lawyers who spar sexually while defending an artist (Daryl Hannah) caught in a deadly scam. But Legal Eagles is the first film for which Reitman, now 39, insisted on having his name in the credits as a writer. With unusual seriousness, he states, “I wanted to express creatively the fact that I am getting older and more mature.”
From the early stages, Legal Eagles walked a fine line between the strong wills of Redford and Reitman. The film that Reitman originally dreamed up with his Malibu beach neighbor Dustin Hoffman was supposed to star Hoffman and Bill Murray as a legal duo. After both actors took on other projects, Reitman showed the script to Redford. “You don’t pick Bob,” he says. “You just hope he likes a project as much as you do.” When Redford requested some romance, Reitman went back to the typewriter. “We created a character for him,” says Reitman. “Bob’s a real moral guy. You know he’s on the right side. So we made him that way in the film, too.” When Redford confided to the director that he had a klutzy side rarely shown on-camera, Reitman wrote in scenes showing Redford stumbling, locking his keys in the car and messing up a kitchen.
There were times though when Redford wouldn’t give up his dignity to fit Reitman’s humor. Reitman admits that Redford had a lot of strong ideas about the directing. “But we agreed that the most successful film would result if we both compromised a bit,” says Reitman. In the Haagen-Dazs scene, Redford did. “He put himself into my hands,” says Reitman. “He did it with no script. I told him what to do in every shot.”
He also pushed Debra Winger into an uncharacteristic mode. “I thought it would be a good stretch for Debra if she played someone more professional than her blue-collar roles,” says Reitman, referring to Winger’s factory worker in An Officer and a Gentleman and her housewife in Terms of Endearment. He got his way. In one scene, Winger, tucked primly into a dark lawyer’s suit, addresses a courtroom in the tones of an earnest yuppie. Though Reitman and Winger got along fine for three months, their last month of filming sparked tempers. “Doing a comedy is not funny,” Winger commented at the time. “She got involved in a serious way with Tim Hutton during that last month,” says Reitman. (Winger, 31, and Hutton, 25, wed two weeks after filming wrapped.) “She wanted to get off the set and get on with her life with Tim. I had to be forceful to get her attention back to the picture, and she’d get very angry.”
Just under 6′ tall, the lanky Reitman looks like an easygoing guy who’d drop everything for a pickup basketball game. But on the set—and often in private—he comes across as wary and meticulous. He views revealing the names of his 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son as a severe invasion of privacy. He is similarly reluctant to tell what piece of the action he’s derived from his films(more than $2 million, plus a percentage on each). Genevieve Robert, 40ish, his wife of nine years who assists on his films and now plans to direct her own, sees Ivan’s better qualities. “I love his strength,” she says. “Nobody can bull—— Ivan. I always felt life with him would be challenging.”
Reitman’s defensiveness seems odd in light of his past accomplishments. At 4, in 1950, he escaped in a tugboat with his Jewish parents from their native Czechoslovakia. His father had feared arrest after the factory that he owned was taken over by the Communists. They eventually settled in Toronto, where Reitman’s father worked his way up from being a $35-a-week presser to owning various businesses. More than comedy, Reitman’s first love was music. He majored in cello, piano and guitar at McMaster University near Toronto. While there he also tried making a film, a $50, seven-minute series of images matched to a guitar piece he wrote. He liked the project so much that he soon raised $1,800 to produce Orientation, a 20-minute college spoof that Twentieth Century-Fox bought and presented as a short subject.
In 1969 Reitman graduated and made his first feature, Cannibal Girls, a monster-movie parody that developed a cult following. His next projects included directing a little-known Canadian TV show with then-obscure Dan Aykroyd as host and producing a show for his college mate Doug Henning that developed into the five-year Broadway hit The Magic Show. Reitman then produced the 1975 off-Broadway National Lampoon Show that launched the careers of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. “Belushi put together most of the show,” he says, “and I focused it.”
After exhausting himself with Legal Eagles, Reitman now takes time to enjoy the luxuries he earned. He plays basketball, swims and plays tennis on the property that surrounds his five-bedroom L.A. mansion. He chauffeurs his kids around town in a 1986 Jaguar coupé that matches the color of his wife’s gunmetal gray Jaguar sedan.
Reitman can’t decide what his next movie will be. His wife, who says that he dreamed up Meatballs and Stripes in the shower, expects him to step out of the stall any day with an idea. He might decide to direct the sequel to Ghostbusters already written by Aykroyd, but his fling with Redford and Winger (off to a great $8 million opening weekend and more positive reviews than he’s ever enjoyed) may inspire him to try romance again. Either way, Reitman is bound to exude confidence when he makes up his mind. “I remember the first time Belushi saw Animal House,” Reitman says, adding with utter disbelief: “He cried on a friend’s shoulder, ‘Oh God, I’ll never work again.’ He thought the movie was terrible.” As always, Ivan Reitman knew better.