Kevin Costner, a return to directing, and fighting to get things made

Kevin Costner directing Open Range
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Kevin Costner is back in a familiar position with his upcoming western Horizon: battling to make the kind of movie Hollywood’s not really touching anymore.

There are some websites that try and objectively report movie news as and when it comes through, and I have nothing but respect for them. Trying to keep a level head when a sequel to something you don’t like is announced, or trying to stay calm when something you’re really excited about is announced? Well, let’s just say I’m not very good at it, and thankfully others are.

My Friday last week then was absolutely made by the news that a filmmaker I’m rather a fan of, Kevin Costner, is returning to directing. He’s going to be filming later this year what’s being described as his ‘passion project’, a period western called Horizon. It’s reported that it’ll follow a ‘15-year span of pre- and post- Civil War expansion and settlement of the American west’. As Costner himself added, “Horizon tells the story of that journey in an honest and forthcoming way, highlighting the points of view and consequences of the characters life and death decisions”.

Costner hasn’t been near cinema much for the last few years, save for the underappreciated thriller Let Him Go (well worth seeking out, that one). Instead, his screen attention has been on the television drama Yellowstone, that’s up to its fourth season and building up a head of acclaim. He’s also not directed a feature since 2003. And whilst the announcement of an indie drama from a huge 90s movie star – in an era where another, Bruce Willis, is basically selling himself ten minutes at a time in direct to demand action films – might not make many ripples, count me for one as hugely excited.

Costner, to date, has directed three films. Two of them were particularly uphill battles to get made, relying on independent, primarily non-American money to tell very American stories. The one that sent lightning bolts through his career was, of course, Dances With Wolves, his three-hour, 1990 western, a good chunk of which was subtitled for good measure. It was remarkable even then that he chose to gamble on the picture, completely ripping up the rulebook for what fast-rising movie stars were supposed to do (and blazing a fresh trail for actor-directors as he did so).

At the end of the 1980s, Costner’s career as a leading man was after all bubbling up off the back of films such as The Untouchables, No Way Out, Field Of Dreams and Bull Durham. Offers were flying in for bigger projects – he’d been offered The Hunt For Red October, for instance – he went very much off track to make the film. It’d be the equivalent now of someone like Tom Holland – a terrific actor, so this is no slight on him – disappearing for a year to make a film that on paper looked like career suicide.

Kevin Costner directing Dances With Wolves

Costner did that. Dances With Wolves, during production, was described infamously and snootily in the Hollywood trade press as ‘Kevin’s Gate’, a nod to the infamous box office disaster Heaven’s Gate. The feeling was he was heading for a massive fall. But he stuck to his guns, delivered the film, won Oscars, and earned a huge hit into the bargain. One that – as a very welcome side effect – rejuvenated the western on the big screen.

The subsequent box office run that Costner went on made him, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, the biggest movie star of the early 1990s. Naturally enough, this led to a target being painted on his back, and potshots were duly aimed when 1995’s Waterworld ran over budget, leading to him taking over the editing, and also becoming Hollywood’s pantomime villain of the moment.

Still, Waterworld made money (it remains an oft-quoted myth that it was a box office flop), and as such, it wasn’t quite as much of a challenge for Costner to raise the funds for his second movie as director.

In the only one of his directorial outings funded by a major studio, Costner turned his hand to the post-apocalyptic western The Postman, and this time, the snipers hit their target. The film genuinely flopped, lost the studio money, and whilst the reviews weren’t savage, they also weren’t kind. The film’s had a mild resurgence in recent times – the old adage that a film gets its harshest criticisms in the immediate six months after its release, then finds an audience – but it’s still undeniably quite the dip from Dances.

The Postman

The Postman

The subsequent years would see Costner’s box office pulling power drop, and thus when he decided to press ahead with 2003’s Open Range, he was working to a more modest price tag, and independent funding once again.

The Blu-ray releases of Open Range are mixed, but the German edition comes with extensive and very candid extras, where you sometimes see an exasperated Costner explaining just how much of a struggle it was to stretch the funds for the film. I’ve covered the film in a podcast episode here, and once again, this was an uphill struggle to get made.

It brought to mind an interview Costner did a few years ago, where he was asked if a film like Dances With Wolves could get through the system today. His argument was it didn’t really get through the system in 1990: it relied on someone willing to fight to push the metaphorical boulder up the hill. That’s just what he had to do with Open Range, and I think the film is outstanding. I think, on reflection, I’d even position it just about Dances With Wolves.

Co-starring Robert Duvall, who takes the lead role, it’s a drama well, well worth seeking out, with an excellent and not particularly conventional shoot-out in the midst of it. It also turned out to be an eyebrow-raising modest hit at the US box office, and some reported it as something of a Costner career rehabilitation.

Open Range

But even at his commercial peak, following box office fortunes rarely seemed to be at the top of Costner’s to-do list. Sure, he picked some commercial projects, but was also making films like JFK and A Perfect World at a time when more projects akin to Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and The Bodyguard would have been safer options.

It’s something I’ve always admired about his work. That he used his commercial clout to get films made that simply wouldn’t have got through at the scale they did. I like rather than love 1994’s Wyatt Earp, for instance, but can you imagine Warner Bros stumping up $65m for a three hour western as a summer blockbuster if it hadn’t been Costner at the door?

Costner’s come close to directing at least one other film, just before Open Range. That’d be the excellent Cuban missile crisis drama Thirteen Days, where he ultimately handed the helmer’s megaphone to Roger Donaldson instead (who did a superb job on the film: a podcast on that particular production is here). And, of course, westerns have permeated his career. From his supporting turn in the wonderful Silverado, to the TV show Hatfield & McCoys (he turned to TV at a time before movie stars were crossing over so regularly), and right up to Yellowstone via the Netflix movie The Highwaymen.

But with Horizon, it feels like – in the best sense – he’s come full circle. The very existence of the project, at a time when ‘adult’ dramas (not like that) are struggling to garner box office attention feels like he’s swimming right against the tide again. I can’t imagine, from the description, that Horizon is going to be a 90 minute film either. Are there any movie studios actively looking for long westerns to programme on cinema screens in 2023? I doubt it. But once again, Costner finds himself with a boulder, a hill, and the need to be the one to push the former up the latter.

I’m really excited about the film, and about him returning to direct. As maligned as The Postman is, he took one hell of a swing with the movie, and he held his nerve to pace it the way he felt it should be paced. He knew what he wanted: real characters, a broad cinematic setting, and a patient film. But that runs through his three directorial efforts to date. That, and a willingness to go against the kind of films focus groups are demanding, and to go with his heart.

Not every Kevin Costner film works. But I do think the vast majority of them exist for non-cynical reasons. I also think too he’s an Academy Award-winning director whose love for the cinema screen is clear. And however Horizon ultimately turns out, I’m also absolutely sure that there’s nobody else out there that would have even tackled it.

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