'Dances With Wolves' shows Costner as director with eye for detail

December 26, 1990|By Richard C. Morais | Richard C. Morais,New York Times

LONDON -- "It was very much like the Hardy Boys or something," says Kevin Costner of his new film. "It was like, 'Hey, let's do a show.'"

"Dances With Wolves," a three-hour epic about the frontier West, is not only directed by the 35-year-old Costner; he is also the star and co-producer. As he describes how the movie came about, Costner switches on the easygoing charm that makes him so watchable on screen.

"I wasn't looking for this particular subject, for this particular movie. It was just there," he says, leaning back in a canvas chair on location outside London, where he is starring as Robin Hood in "Prince of Thieves," now being filmed.

Perhaps, but Costner's laid-back, folksy style disguises what is self-evident to anyone watching "Dances With Wolves": his directorial debut reveals a film maker driven by an attention to detail.

"Dances With Wolves" is an adventure story set in the 1860s, during the final years of the Indian wars. A Union soldier, Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) is transferred to the farthest edge of the Western frontier after a brutal Civil War battle.

Isolated and lonely, Dunbar finds himself befriending animals and ultimately a Sioux tribe. As he is slowly adopted into its way of life, shedding his uniform and marrying, the once-loyal Union soldier eventually collides with his former military career.

"Dances With Wolves" is a big film: made over five months in 27 South Dakota locations on a relatively small $19 million budget, it fills the screen with 300 horses, 3,500 buffalo, 250 Indians, 150 cavalry, 48 speaking roles. The star of the film is, however, the American frontier. "Kevin wanted to offer a West so vast, so wild, so untamed, almost larger than life itself," says the production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft.

The origins of "Dances With Wolves" were modest. Costner's screen debut was in the 1981 low-budget gambling film "Stacy's Knights," written by Michael Blake and directed by Jim Wilson.

The actor went on to star in a string of hits -- "The Untouchables," "No Way Out," "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" -- but he stayed in touch with his early associates.

In 1988, Wilson, who, according to Costner, "never wanted anything from me" over the years, sent the actor a copy of Blake's new manuscript about the frontier. Costner was hooked immediately.

It was the character of Lieutenant Dunbar, whose isolation is reflected in his journal, that seduced him.

"It wasn't anything like bravery or courage," says Costner. "Those are vague terms. What drew me to the script was lines like, 'I decided to assign myself cleanup duty tomorrow.' I was charmed by that, that he would go forward. Or else, 'I want to see the West before it is gone.' It wasn't search for yourself or personal growth; it had to do with 'I encountered an Indian, and he was afraid of me.' I loved the simplicity of that."

Wilson and Costner sat down and developed the script for less than $70,000, the bulk of which was contributed by Costner. Financing the film turned out to be more difficult.

Finally, after selling the foreign rights for nearly $9 million, the team decided to push ahead without additional backing. Two weeks before shooting began, Orion Pictures Corp. came in with $10.5 million for the U.S. rights. Costner took a $3 million salary, but says he put $2.5 million of his fee back into the film.

He also says he originally had no intention of directing. "I never had a burning desire to direct," he says. "But everyone I showed the script to knew what the film didn't need, what should be cut. But I knew this was a three-hour film."

Costner was soon in charge. When Lieutenant Dunbar first visits the Sioux village, the camera pans over a ledge to reveal a village of tepees on the banks of a river. Horses fill almost every inch of the screen -- drinking midstream, grazing in fields, galloping across the plains -- to bring the frontier alive.

On such occasions Costner revealed himself to be a film maker who knew what he wanted. "It was not a piece of cake," says the film's 34-year-old co-producer, Wilson. "Kevin is a perfectionist. He didn't cut a great deal of slack."

For example: Wilson managed to drum up 250 horses. Costner was not happy. He demanded 300. The tension abated only when the extra horses were found. "This was not a gun-rich tribe," Costner says of the Sioux. "They were horse-rich."

The vast, wild world of the Sioux was also evoked in a sequence of scenes involving buffalo. "I wanted to hark back to a period where there were millions of buffalo," he says. "Diaries show that wagon trains sometimes had to wait six, seven days for a whole herd to go by. That's how long it took. No one risked disturbing a million buffalo."

To create a similar world on film Costner shot on the 55,000-acre Triple U Ranch outside of Pierre, S.D., where a privately owned herd of 3,500 buffalo exists.

Costner has earned praise for avoiding the usual Hollywood depiction of Indians. The casting director, Elisabeth Leu-stig, scoured the United States and Canada looking for Indian actors for the leading roles; the rest of the cast are local Sioux from South Dakota.

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