Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Kevin Costner

Back in the Saddle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Over the 20th century, the Western genre somehow evolved from Hollywood's most lucrative genre to its least lucrative genre. It's almost as if Westerns give modern Hollywood executives a rash.

Fortunately for us, a few people still have enough clout to get them made. Clint Eastwood is one, with ten Westerns under his rawhide belt.

Kevin Costner is another, with four. Silverado, Dances With Wolves and Wyatt Earp make up his first three. His newest, Open Range, also happens to be his best.

Costner stars as Charley Waite, a cattleman working for Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall). When a wealthy, crooked cattle baron gets wind of their nearby campsite, he attacks. Duvall and Costner are left with no choice but to seek revenge.

Though Costner is used to making large-scale epics -- such as Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp and The Postman -- Open Range is unusually low-key. "We tried to focus on smaller things -- stuff that was just precious," he says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "I hope it resonates. It tries to break with convention on a lot of things."

The main difference between Open Range and other Costner films is that Duvall has the spotlight, playing the leader with all the best lines. Costner plays the strong, silent type, and he does get the girl (Annette Bening), but Duvall steals the picture.

Costner says that he knew Duvall would nail the role. "I wouldn't want to be giving stuff away to people who missed the point. It would be like giving him a fastball down the middle and have him miss it."

Duvall recently finished directing his own picture, Assassination Tango. But Costner says directorial conflicts between the two artists never came up. "Any director coming off a movie is happy to have someone else direct. There's just so much to it. You're also happy if someone else has control of the material. You can just concentrate on acting."

Even though Open Range marks Costner's third outing as director, he says it doesn't get any easier, even with Duvall taking over part of the spotlight. Costner controls every aspect of filmmaking and even worked with screenwriter Craig Storper for five months previous to filming to make sure the script was to his liking.

Mostly, Costner made sure his character was a man of few words. In one scene, Charley's crew is camped with the cattle on a hillside outside of town. Three unknown riders appear on the horizon, scoping out their camp. Later, when Costner's character checks again, one more rider has appeared. His line? "Country's filling up."

"I love that line," Costner smiles.

The actor/director, who counts among his favorite movies The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Red River, has another Western in the pipeline that he hopes to make soon, this time on a much larger scale.

In the meantime, he stands tall in his fancy pair of well-worn cowboy boots. "I never used to be that excited about cowboy boots," he says, "but when they get broken in, they're really a comfortable shoe."

July 25, 2003

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