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The Sunday Conversation: Kevin Costner

'Dances With Wolves' won seven Oscars, but the actor-director recalls how difficult it was to get financing.

January 23, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Costner stars in the 1990 movie "Dances With Wolves."
Kevin Costner stars in the 1990 movie "Dances With Wolves." (Ben Glass, Orion Pictures )

It's hard to remember that the 1990 western "Dances With Wolves," Kevin Costner's maiden voyage as a director, was derisively dubbed "Kevin's Gate" because of filming difficulties before earning him an Oscar for directing, one of the movie's seven golden men, including best picture. To mark its 20th anniversary, MGM Home Entertainment this month released a newly restored version on Blu-ray for the first time.

At the end of "Dances With Wolves," your character, Lt. Dunbar, leaves his home with the Sioux to meet the U.S. Army, which wants to hang him as a traitor. What do you imagine happened to him after that?

Captives never assimilated very well back into white society, so he would have taken her far away. That was the beauty of the West, that you could create a whole new identity 100 miles away because we didn't have telephones or faxes. It's also what made the West very scary, because you never knew who you were operating next to. And coming out of a very violent war, the Civil War, there was a lot of bloodletting and vengeance. That fed into whatever sociopathic tendencies they had. So the West was a very difficult place. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it; [screenwriter] Michael Blake did. He wrote a book about it called "The Holy Road."

You didn't have CGI when you made "Dances" 20 years ago, right?

No, we didn't. We did one special-effect shot, and it was a very dissatisfying experience for me. You can't hold wild animals, so we decided to augment our buffalo that were just grazing. There are estimates that 90 million buffalo roamed the United States. So I wanted to show a really large herd in a static position grazing before the big buffalo hunt, so we added [animatronics]. It was archaic. It wasn't cave drawings, but.... And then the special-effects guy said, "See that one up there moving?" We had one moving out of 3,000, and I remember saying, "I see the effect. I'm just looking for the special."

I read that the film cost $22 million.

No, it cost 16.

Even with inflation, that's nothing for a film epic these days.

When I tried to make it, I thought the budget would be $15 million. Every time I tried to make it, they'd say, "We'll make it, but can you make it for 12?" Then they got afraid because I wouldn't get rid of the [Lakota] subtitles, and I told them it would be long right up front. Everybody says, "Get 'em pregnant and then you can do whatever you want." I didn't want to be arguing about something I knew was going to actually happen. So we got $9 million overseas. The first people who believed in the movie were the international community. I went to Orion — I had just made "Bull Durham" for them — they gave me $4 million, and I eventually put in $3 million, so it was $16 million.

Westerns have died many deaths in popular culture but never for long. You've done several westerns.

I've done four.

And this year "True Grit" is considered one of the year's best films. Why do you think Americans seem to be so ambivalent about the genre?

Because mostly they're not done well. It was a very complicated time, and filmmakers tend to simplify them with the black hat, white hat. When they were enjoying their largest acceptance back in the '50s and '60s, [filmmakers] just got lazier and lazier. When they're done really well, there's a lot of dilemma because the way you and I live, if someone threatens us, there are three or four different layers that we can go to — the police, our politics, our PR person, our agent, our lawyer — to arbitrate our problems. Back then you had nobody to arbitrate your problems, and very often you found yourself even against the law because it's not a cliché for the lawman to have been bought back then. If somebody came and wanted your property, you had to make up your mind quickly. Very few of us have those instincts now about how we would behave. And so if you can create those in your story — the dilemma that men and women faced — then they can be incredibly entertaining.

You mentioned that "Dances With Wolves" got financing from abroad and your band, Kevin Costner and the Modern West, does a lot of touring in Europe. Is there more interest abroad in the American West than there is at home?

No, I just think they have a longer view of film than we do: "I believe in you. I'll make a film with you." They didn't run the models and go, "I don't know, no one has gone to see a western lately." That's what you run into in America. Certain auteurs go, "I'm going to make a western, and if they happen to be supported by a studio, it will get made."

Tell me about your script for "A Little War of Our Own."

"A Little War" is [about a sheriff] set against World War II, so it's something I want to direct. I'm not a very in-vogue person in Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination, so rather than wail at the moon I've spent the last four years writing and stockpiling what I think are really good commercial movies.

Do you have financing for "A Little War"?

No, I don't. I will make it because that's who I am. I will find the right person, and everybody will be happy at the end of the day that that movie was made.

When you do make that, it will be only the fourth film you'll have directed since you won an Oscar for directing "Dances With Wolves" your first time out. Why is that?

It's so hard to direct. [As an actor,] you get to come into a movie and you get to leave, and the director is just stuck with this thing. I do love it — "Open Range" and "The Postman" and "Dances" — and I probably will direct as I play out this part of my career.

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