Justin Zackham was a few years out of college, in his early 30s, living in Los Angeles and “doing anything but furthering my career,” explained the screenwriter in a phone interview from his home in Vermont.
“I had wasted my 20s and it was time to do something with my writing.”
To create some motivation, Zackham wrote down all the things he wanted to accomplish and experience before he died. He called it the “List of Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket.”
Included on the list was “getting a movie made by a major studio.”
Zackham later shortened the title to “Justin’s Bucket List,” which came to inspire the title and the script of his 2007 film, “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.
The script was not an instant hit; several producers turned down the script before it landed on producer/director Rob Reiner’s desk. He read it, and it took only 10 pages in before Reiner knew that the film would be a winner.
“We started playing with the title and other people told us that no one would know what a ‘bucket list’ was,” Zackham explained, “but Rob said ‘they will after this movie.’”
Reiner, of course, was not only correct, but the term “bucket list” has become a permanent part of our lexicon and the concept a permanent part of our culture. You can now find “bucket list” in both Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Since that first film, Zackham has written several others including “The Big Wedding” (2013) and the recently released “Second Act,” starring Jennifer Lopez, which he wrote and produced.
Lopez portrays a 40-year-old woman struggling with unfulfilled dreams until she gets the chance to prove that street smarts can take her to success.
“My movies are mainly character-driven,” Zackham said. “It’s become my niche. It wasn’t my intension, but I gravitate toward character-driven stories.”
The popularity of his films has allowed Zackham to revise his bucket list, which includes visiting every country in the world with his wife, Katherine, and sons, 5-year-old Cole and 10-year-old Finn. So far, the family has checked off 20 of the world’s 195 countries.
Zackham’s sons are home-schooled, so travel fits nicely into their curriculum.
“We did a trial run last fall and visited Spain, Morocco and Portugal, and did a driving trip cross-country. Our kids loved it.”
There were plenty of historic sites on the itinerary and “you can’t get that kind of experience in (regular) school,” Zackham said. Also, “we’re going to do volunteer work in every country we visit, and we’re looking to interview people who have had an extraordinary life. We want (travel) to be a lesson for our boys — showing them people who have done extraordinary things.”
How long will it take to check off those 195 countries?
“We think we can see them all in three years. In February, we’re going to the Bahamas, then will travel to Central America and South America. There’s still a lot to figure out.”
As yet unsettled: How to see the countries that are on the danger list for Americans.
“There are about 10 countries in world where it’s not safe to go to — like Honduras. That’s one country to avoid, but there is the island of Roatan off the coast, where it is safe. Yemen is another country, but there is the island of Socotra off the coast that is part of Yemen. We have 185 countries to knock off before we have to figure out how to see the final 10.”
And if it’s impossible to complete the list?
“It’s O.K.,” Zackham said. “It’s the journey that’s important.”
Follow the Zackham family’s globetrotting on Instagram @thisbucketlistlife.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.