Kevin Costner may be the Oscar-winning director/star of "Dances With Wolves," but in Hollywood the 1990 film is ancient history. It's been six years since he directed "The Postman" and received a critical drubbing. Recent films such as "3,000 Miles to Graceland" and "Dragonfly" came and went to little effect.
So when Costner was putting together his new film, "Open Range," he had two problems. First, there was his lack of recent box-office success. Second, the movie is a western, a once-popular genre that has fallen on hard times. Other than "Dances with Wolves" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992), the few westerns that were made in the past decade haven't stirred much excitement. However, Costner is hardly the only filmmaker to head west this year. In addition to "Open Range," at least a half a dozen westerns will test the genre's endurance, including "The Missing," with Tommy Lee Jones, and "The Alamo."
Costner not only directed and acted in "Open Range," but was one of the producers, bringing the story of a battle for the soul of a town in for $20 million. "If I was 'in,' people would have been racing to make this movie, hating it just the same," says Costner. "If you don't make $100 million hits, you're going to struggle."
As for making a western, it's a genre he loves, but it's an uphill battle getting young crowds to give them a chance - especially since for every "Magnificent Seven" there are plenty of bad westerns on video shelves. "I believe Westerns are poetic at their best," Costner says. "I believe they are Shakespearean. They're more than 'yep' and 'nope.' "
In "Open Range," Costner and Robert Duvall play "free grazers," taking their cattle across open fields. They face a rancher (Michael Gambon) who wants to close off the land for use only by his cattle. He runs the town, and people who get in his way end up dead. The story leads to a climactic gun battle likely to rank with classics of the form, precisely because Costner knew the clichés and then strove to avoid them. "The formula of the western is: You have to get to the gunfight or you don't have a movie," he says. "I wanted to get to the gunfight as much as anyone else," but he wanted audiences to get a sense of the characters. Before the showdown, Duvall's character makes a point of buying some expensive chocolate to feed a sweet tooth, an action that would have been unthinkable for, say, John Wayne.
The action, though violent, doesn't glorify the violence. "I didn't want to do it in slow motion or closeups," says Costner. "I like that it's messy, that they hide behind horses. It's not glamorous. Violence, if you've ever seen it, is ugly."
He also wanted a woman's perspective, and cast Annette Bening as a woman whose chances for marriage are passing her by - until Costner's character arrives. More than a love interest, he wanted her to be "a voice for women in this genre."
As producer/director, Costner was involved in many aspects, including the decision to shoot a film in this most American of genres in Canada. "The difference in getting this film made was Canada," he says. Though savvy to the requirements of the business, Costner is more comfortable talking about movies as an art form. "I love the movie experience. I love sitting in the dark," he says. "The true value of a movie is, do you want to share it with a friend four years from now?"