Now, here he is in London, with a new film, 187 (reviewed on page 10). His cuttings suggest an excessive, intense personality, a reputation gained before he ever set foot on Waterworld, on less publicised, equally gruelling shoots. If the rumours are true, he's changed. His last film hovers at the edge of every sentence, like a brewing storm-cloud. But Reynolds remains as he first appears: a tall, lean Texan of 44 who, for his own sake, wants to tell the truth. 187 is the smallest film he's made in years. It stars Samuel L Jackson as a teacher who, stabbed in a Brooklyn high school, moves to its vicious LA equivalent, until the pressure shivers him apart . Reynolds makes 187's filming sound like a holiday, like a reward. He feels a bond, too, with Jackson's bruised soul.
"To me, he was a guy who was constantly trying to do the right thing," he says. "Where others around him were weak and fell by the wayside, he refused to be beaten. He's a tortured soul. He's a guy who's snapped. One of the things that interests me is the loss of innocence, the disillusionment that every human being seems to go through. We're born with all these expectations, this blank slate of personality, and as you bump up against life" - he smacks his hand - "that passion gets whittled away somehow. I also wanted to do this because the budget was smaller, and I could have more control. I was tired of butting my head against Hollywood. I wanted to go back and rekindle my passion as a film-maker, because I'd lost it. I wanted to remind myself of why I wanted to make movies in the first place. I feel that 187 reflects who I am. I think it harks back to how I started out."
187 does share a bond with Reynolds's other work, a theme at its heart. The image that stays with you from his new film isn't of schoolyard brutality, but of heat: a school that looks like a desert wasteland, a place where you're exposed on every side. Jackson's teacher breaks apart when the sanctuary of his classroom, the place where he needs to feel safe, is stripped from him. It's a concern with environment, with man's relationship with what surrounds him, that obsesses Reynolds. The image that informs all his films is of lone human figures, dwarfed by landscape.
"My directing hero is David Lean," he explains. "One of the things you always see in Lean's pictures is that human beings and all their endeavours are so futile against the backdrop of history, and place just overwhelms them. I feel the same way, that if you look at human endeavour in the context of the bigger world around it, it seems futile. We've insulated ourselves from nature through technology but, in the end, nature will prevail. Nature doesn't care. If it takes nature five million years to get rid of us, heal the planet, and come back with a whole new species, that's what nature will do. We need to gain some perspective. We need to realise how insignificant we are." Most people, of course, yearn for significance. Reynolds's work is littered with characters who won't accept that environment has beaten them. Does he think they're stupid? "I think they're admirable. They're what's admirable about the human spirit."
Rapa-Nui was the film in which Reynolds tried most fiercely to express his convictions. The story of how Easter Island's isolated inhabitants utterly destroyed their environment, he saw it as a metaphor for humanity's destructive nature. It's a compelling film, but not as compelling as the story of its making, a metaphor for Reynolds's own untamed nature, the demons that would lead to Waterworld. Reynolds insisted on shooting on Easter Island itself, the most remote inhabited spot on earth. He employed extras who knew nothing about acting, he suffered horrific weather. He cut himself off from all studio entreaties, sent his budget soaring, countenanced physical danger for himself and others. He was alone with his film, until he could hardly remember why he was making it. When Reynolds talks about it now, it's with wonder, as if he's realising what he did as he speaks.
I suggest that he wanted the film's making to excite him, to endanger him, to equal its subject. "Yeah," he says quietly. "Sometimes. Which may be a very Herzogian way of looking at film-making. I guess I am like that. I don't feel like I've done everything I possibly can unless I've pushed things to the limits." Does he think there's a point to taking unnecessary risks, to expending more energy than he needs to? "Sometimes." So when Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, the most notorious of all shoots, causing danger and suffering to everyone involved, does Reynolds think he was right? "It depends on what your motivation for doing it is. If you're doing it just to torture yourself that's madness. And I've been guilty of that. Rapa-Nui was an incredibly masochistic experience, a Fitzcarraldo- like experience. The crew started to go a bit mad after a while. It became too much. I was never able to realise the story and script I had in mind - I got lost." Did the experience of making the film consume the film, in the end? "I didn't want it to be like that," he says. "It just turned out that way."
Reynolds had barely recovered when Waterworld dragged him down still further. He had wanted its story of a world drowned after ecological catastrophe to say something important, to express his own philosophy. He had wanted its hero, the Mariner, played by Costner - though their friendship was by now horribly strained - to be a loner, barely human at all. "We had discussions about how much of a big action hero Mr Costner should be," he says acidly. The film went to sea, as awesome and insane an idea for a location as Easter Island had been, without a finished script. Egos clashed, budgets ballooned, tempers frayed. Finally, Waterworld's terrified investors and powerful star took Reynolds's film away from him. He could feel it slipping through his fingers, and let it go. "When it starts to be taken away from you, you pull away from it," he says. "Because it's not yours, and you're wasting your time and passion. It's going to hurt too much. So you go numb." Did he disconnect before he got close to making the film he'd wanted to? "Yes. Yes, I did." Does he regret that? "I do. But I couldn't do anything else."
Reynolds left Waterworld's editing to Costner. He found the star's behaviour during shooting unforgivable, and will not speak to his one-time friend again. He wouldn't want to set eyes on him. Looked at with a little perspective, the film he helped make out on the water isn't bad, and it was a massive hit, against all expectation. It still hung like an albatross round Reynolds's neck. Until 187 came along, and redeemed him. "I used to think, the hell with anything else," he says. "I'm going for the vision. It was the all- important thing in my life. In 187, we managed to keep the angst in front of the camera, where it belongs. I paid attention to the story. I paid attention to the characters. It's less painful this way." Did he gain something as a person on his previous films, while the films lost out? "Yes." So is he putting less of himself on the line now, on the film's behalf? "You're exactly right. Every film changes you. Making films is how I live my life. 187 put me at peace with myself." And those other films, the films that nearly finished him? "They're still part of my life. They're still me. I may make one like that again. No one's in control of their fate"n