I got to the point where I was actually getting kind of disgusted with myself, because I wasn't writing much, I wasn't writing well, and I had just sort of fallen into this laconic malaise. One day, I woke up and I was lying in bed thinking, "I gotta get my shit together." And I got a piece of paper and I wrote at the top: "Justin's list of things to do before he kicks the bucket: Get a film made at a major studio. Find the perfect woman, convince her that I'm not a schmuck, get her to marry me." I tacked it up on the wall, and then gradually it sort of faded into the wallpaper. About two years passed.
I was in a book store one day, and I don't know what happened. It was like, "Pow!" I sat down and I tore blank pages out of a couple of books, and I just started writing.
I wrote the whole story of
The Bucket List. Ultimately the story is these two guys have their own list of things that they wanna do with the short time they have left, but the one thing that's not on either of their lists that they're both missing is a true friend. They find that, and that's what the movie is about.
I wrote it very quickly, just in a few weeks. I gave it to my agents and they said, "This is great, but nobody's going to buy this."
Normally your agents will send a screenplay to one producer with a deal at each studio. We sent it to fifty producers, and forty-eight said no. Two of them said, "We don't think anyone's going to buy it, but we think it's really good, so we'd like to give it to studios." All the studios said no, but one of the producers said, "I really think if you get this in the right hands, this could get done." They said, "Given any director in the world who you'd want to shoot this, who would it be?" I was like, "Rob Reiner's made some pretty good movies."
So they sent the script to his agents at CAA, and three days later he calls up: "Hello? I've read thirteen pages of this thing, and if it's okay with you, this would be my next movie." He and I worked on the script for probably a total of six months, off and on.
I had written the movie with Morgan Freeman's voice in my head. Rob got Morgan's number and called him up and said, "Hey I've got this script you should read." A week later, Morgan said yes. You know Rob Reiner already said yes, and now I get Morgan Freeman—it was just ridiculous. We'd been talking about who would play the other character, and Rob and I weren't sure. Morgan said, "Jack Nicholson and I have talked about always wanting to work together, and if I had a bucket list, working with Jack would be on that list." What are you gonna say to that?
Rob had worked with Jack on A Few Good Men, and obviously that had turned out pretty good, so we sent the script to Jack, and a week later, he called: "Yeah, I'll do it." I had separated myself from any notion of reality at that point, and I still haven't come down.
The greatest twenty-four hours of my life was September 3, 2006. I got married in New York. The next morning, I woke up at five, kissed her goodbye, got on the plane, flew to Los Angeles, and drove up to Jack's house. I walked in and sat down at his dining-room table, and there was me, Morgan Freeman, Rob Reiner and Jack Nicholson. Rob started to read the stage direction, and the minute the two actors talked to each other ... goosebumps. It was absolutely the most indescribale feeling. It was perfect.
Crazily enough, it was a year to the day after I went out with the script that we started principal photography—and that just doesn't happen. That will never happen again to me.
Justin Zackham, as quoted in Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories