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Home on the Range: A Conversation with Kevin Costner

Academy Award-winner Kevin Costner is no stranger to Westerns. He’s loved them ever since he was old enough to wear cowboy boots. Growing up a devotee to cowboy classics such as The Searchers, Red River, How the West Was Won, and The Magnificent Seven, he fondly remembers how, as a young boy, he used to jump from his mother’s couch and tackle his dog, imitating his childhood hero, Western-movie legend Burt Lancaster. ‘My mom would go, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ but I was Burt Lancaster,’ Costner recalls. ‘I did all those things.’

Of course Costner no longer needs to vault from living room couches and tackle dogs. He can do it from a real horse, having followed closely in his hero’s footsteps. He’s become a hugely successful actor and filmmaker, slinging guns and riding horses in movies much just like Lancaster himself once did. ‘I just enjoy the different genres that exist out there, and I’m not afraid to dabble in them, both as an actor and as director,’ Costner says.

Costner first worked with the Western genre in 1985 when Lawrence Kasdan cast him in his gunslinger saga, Silverado. Five years later, Costner explored early America in Dances with Wolves. Soon after, Kasdan again cast him, this time as the title role in Wyatt Earp. Open Range marks his return to the ‘Code of the West,’ in another tale about a way of life that is all but gone.

In Open Range, Costner plays Charley Waite, a man trying to escape a violent past, along with his close friend, Boss (Robert Duvall). They have lived together among the freedom of the open range for ten years, driving cattle in a land where nature makes the only laws. Charley and Boss always abide by the ethics of the West and avoid unnecessary bloodshed. But one tyrannical frontier town boss changes their lives through a merciless act of violence and forces them into action. Amidst the chaos, Charley meets the affectionate Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), a woman who captures both his heart and soul.

Open Range immediately caught Costner’s attention, but before he agreed to do the project, the script needed to reach a certain quality and completeness. ‘There was a lot of work that I thought would need to happen in order to attract me,’ he admits. ‘I just have my own feelings about what’s theatrical where Western is concerned. I have my own style.’

Costner wanted the script to adhere to classic Western themes, but he knew it would take hard work. ‘It’s high entertainment, but it’s hard to make,’ he says. ‘I wanted to continue to put my stamp on the American Western, in this particular instance, both with the notions of friendship, and of violence.’ After five months of working continuously with the writer, Costner decided that he would do Open Range. ‘I thought that it was in shape,’ he continues. ‘That’s really the power of writing.’

Acting in the movie isn’t all Costner committed to, however; he also directed and produced Open Range. Wearing ‘three hats’ isn’t new to him – he also produced and directed Dances with Wolves, which earned seven Academy Awards. Due to the commercial and critical success of Dances, he had confidence in his ability to direct and produce this film as well. ‘I feel that’s something I just do naturally,’ he says. ‘Whether I’m directing or not, I always watch the production to see if we’re moving right. I’m not a careless person with people’s money, whether it’s mine or not.’

Costner’s first priority as director and producer was to abandon many of the tedious conventions of modern Westerns and recreate the solid characterizations of classic Westerns. ‘It has become a costume parody of hats, stubble, facial hair, guns, and women with corsets,’ he says. ‘It’s a genre that threatens to bore, and most of the time it does. No wonder kids think that it’s boring, because the ones on television are boring. That’s not to say that classic movies haven’t been made, but in my mind, not a lot have been.’

Determined to make a rich, authentic Western full of engaging drama and suspense, the director threw out modern Western stereotypes and decided to explore more than just a gunfight. ‘The easiest thing in the world is to put the white hat or black hat on somebody,’ he says. ‘Start a movie with a man’s family slaughtered, which gives him the right to go through the whole movie exacting revenge. While we understand those themes, they’re a little too simple.’

Though, Costner knew that Open Range would need to revolve around the gun-slinging finale. He simply wanted the violence to be an integral part of the story, not just a visual effects extravaganza. ‘I know a movie has to be entertaining. I know these movies lead up to their gunfight, without a doubt. If they don’t, you’ve made a mistake,’ Costner says. ‘I knew I was going to get to the gunfight, but I wanted to make sure [the characters] resonated in some way… that they were not boring. I just believe in character. I just believe that it’s entertaining.’

In creating authentic, three-dimensional characters, Costner emphasized their human characteristics and the sensibility of their actions. ‘I am in love with stuff like digging out the wagon, and inside the wagon, I’m happy to see a young boy who’s just dicking around, which young boys do… There’s a reality there. If you take it a step farther, and deal with the boy playing with a dog, you have behavior that we all recognize…’

Costner also feels that humor is essential in creating authentic Western characters. ‘I happen to believe men and women can be humored by two men who can’t even get their fingers in a teacup,’ he says. ‘You have behavior that you can recognize in yourself.’ Costner also understands the need for drama and suspense. ‘If I think I can just make a movie with guys touching teacups… that’s not true,’ he continues. ‘But if I think that those teacups aren’t as important as the gunfight, then I have not included you.’

Eventually, Open Range does lead up to an intense and climatic gunfight, therefore, Costner felt that he needed to include more than just guys firing guns – he also wanted to explore the human aspects of violence. ‘I wanted specifically to show how I perceive violence in the west… and break with some of the forms I’ve seen,’ he says. ‘I believe in the chaos, and I also believe in the survival instinct… If your life is threatened, there isn’t one person who wouldn’t go after the person who they thought would be the most dangerous, as opposed to letting the gunfight wind down and then see who the fastest is.’

Costner breaks modern Western conventions in more ways than one. He also deals with the aftermath of the gunfight, ‘which is not – in conventional wisdom – a place people want you to go after a battle,’ he says. ‘They want the movie wrapped up.’ But Costner sees things more practically. ‘When bodies were left in the street, you’d see people gathered around… and those bodies don’t just disappear. People have to pick them up and take them away.’

When it came to the staging of the gunfight itself, Costner abandoned preconceived expectations again. ‘I was not interested in doing a fight in slow motion, I wasn’t really interested in the blood aspect, and I wasn’t really interested in doing it in close-ups,’ he explains. ‘When people see violence, they see bits and wisps of it… they can tell by the
movement that it’s violent. What you feel is almost a vulgar violence. Not what you call terribly heroic in the classic sense of heroic…’

Even if it means taking a few risks, Costner always abides by his own style. ‘It might not make it a summer blockbuster, and that’s okay, but what I do want desperately is that someone can pull this movie off a shelf ten years from now and say, ‘This is what I mean about a Western,” Costner concludes. ‘We probably won’t see many unless people make good ones, and that’s what I hope I have done. If people are recognized for being in these movies, I think you’ll see more important actors move toward our ancestral past – our oldest genre.’

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