Kevin Costner
Photo by Robby Klein

Kevin Costner: “The script will sustain us”

Short Profile

Name: Kevin Michael Costner
DOB: 18 January 1955
Place of birth: Lynwood, California, United States
Occupation: Film director, actor

Mr. Costner, over the course of your career, you’ve acted in and directed several Westerns films and series. Where does your love of the genre stem from?

I guess I have always had a level of understanding of the genre, I had a high level of interest in it and how to portray it. All the details and the little things in a Western, they're very American. And no one's ever confused me with anything other than being an American — so I get it. I have a world view of things, but I am American. I was also very influenced by John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers… I love George Stevens, I was really influenced by him as a filmmaker. Jim Harrison, who wrote these great short stories like Legends of the Fall, and Revenge. Lawrence Kasdan, whose work helped me get started in my career. I did it for him. So if ever you think I was copying him, I wasn't — I was celebrating him!

You do much of your own riding too, right?

(Laughs) I actually direct out of the saddle sometimes! I’ll have to go 100 yards that way and sometimes I just tire of walking over there, saying this and that, and walking back, so I ride.  I'm an average rider, but I don't consider myself a cowboy. I'm not afraid to do it, I may look like I know how to do it well, but I would never pretend that’s who I am.

“I get the final cut, I decide what’s going on, I can leave some of the scenes that we don’t need. At the same time, the fact that I don’t have to answer to anybody doesn’t mean I don’t listen at all.”

Your own Western epics haven’t always been understood, however. You won two Oscars for Dances with Wolves, but also had a couple of underappreciated movies that resulted in a break from filmmaking for almost two decades. How does it feel to be back in the director’s chair after so long?

You know, I’ve always thought that other people can direct better than me. But on this particular film, Horizon, almost no one believed in it, not even another director. So I decided that I would direct it! I started the process in 1988 when I commissioned a script, and I was going to make it in 2003, but the studio wouldn't make… But I was stubborn. Then about six years later, I started thinking about the movie a lot again, and one of the things I started to think about was that in all the Westerns we’re watching these days, we always come to a town that's already there. Why is that? People must have lived there successfully, you know, the first people indigenous to that land for 15,000 years, they knew where the good water was, where it was easy to cross the river… And so there was conflict over how these towns even emerged. So that’s something I wanted to explore.

Horizon is even going to be a four-part film saga

That’s right! I thought, “Well, they didn't like the first one. What do you think about these four?” (Laughs) But no one thought they were that good either. They said, “Nobody can make four.” We have to make four because the story's not over till the fourth one! But they said nobody does that, so I decided that I was going to make all four investments. That's how it started. And I’ve now finished the second one, and I have started filming the third one. And now I have to figure out where I can get more money to finish this project.

But investing your own money must surely have its perks. It comes with a lot more technical freedom and creative liberty.

Well, it’s not completely that I don't have to answer to anybody — I do, because I have had a couple investors come in with me. And so I feel my responsibilities to them, and to get their money back for them. But I do get the final cut, I decide what's going on, I can leave some of the scenes that we don’t need. At the same time, the fact that I don't have to answer to anybody doesn't mean I don't listen at all. I mean, I think there's a difference in collaboration. It isn’t like: “If you don't take my idea, you're not a good collaborator.” I don't believe that. I have to create the kind of atmosphere that allows you to give me an idea; whether I take it or not, is not as important as you not having any fear in saying, “Kevin, I think I have this thing, take a look at this, maybe we should try this.” I want to keep that open.

“I’ll step through a window of opportunity, but if I don’t sense one, I’m very comfortable with what the script is. The script is what will sustain us.”

Taika Waititi says that some of the best ideas come from that innate openness, but he also says that sometimes the ideas you dream up as a result aren’t always better — and that’s okay too.

And not every good idea can even get into a film! Look, I'm not a good artist, right? I can't draw very well at all. And every time I try to draw, my line gets thicker, because I can't really make it look like an elephant. And pretty soon the line gets so thick trying to make it better that I have to throw the paper away. It just doesn't always fit the film. I work really hard on my scripts, harder than I think most people would ever think; I'm so anal about it, mostly because I don't want to change the script once we're out there. I feel like it's our Bible, it sustains us. But what I do try to do as a director is not be so rigid that I don't leave a window of opportunity to step through. Meaning we're out here and go look at this, let's try this. And so I'll step through a window of opportunity, but if I don't sense one, I'm very comfortable with what the script is. The script is what will sustain us.

That seems like a really honest way of working. Is it important for your role as a filmmaker to set a good example for your kids, who are also starting to work with you on set?

You’re right that my son is in my most recent movie, but I try not to put my children in parts where I know that there are serious actors that want these parts. Because I know how much that means too, these are coveted things. So when I have a chance to put them in something, it's mostly because I want to have them close to me. I miss them, so I find that way to trap them. (Laughs) But I have a responsibility that lasts a lifetime with my children, so as I conduct my professional life, it's important for my children to see how I behave. It's what we leave behind that is a lesson. They know that I love my work, and they know how I go about it. And I hope that they find work that they love, because nothing can compare to watching your child succeed.