For Kevin Costner filmmaking is a serious business, because films are so potentially powerful an experience. “Movies at their best are about moments that you never, ever forget,” he told a Dallas audience after a screening of his latest directorial effort, “Open Range,” in which he also stars with Robert Duvall and Annette Bening. “I’ve always believed that sitting where you sit is the opportunity for something great to happen, something magical to happen. I don’t that there’s anything as special as sitting down in the dark and having the curtain open, and something magical happens, you go someplace you didn’t know you were going to go and you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who cares about your experience.”
Costner prides himself on making different types of films–he noted that he’d never made a sequel, or what he called “a tentpole picture,” a fact that he acknowledged might have negatively impacted his career. “I’ve always tried to make different movies and movies in different genres,” he said. “I’ve really indulged myself. When you make a movie, you set out to do the very best you can inside that genre, and if you’re not trying to do that, then you’re probably up to something else, and that doesn’t fit into my psyche.”
In his new film, Costner has returned to the western for the fourth time (following “Silverado,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Wyatt Earp”). He called it “that particular genre that a lot of us love, [but] that’s not made very often…because a lot of times they’re not relevant.” But, he added, “I think they’re Shakespearean. I think there’s a poetry in the western.” The script by Craig Storper, based on a novel by Lauran Paine, is about two cattlemen, Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner), who take a stand against a greedy rancher (Michael Gambon) when his men attack their herd and their small crew.
“Boss and Charley are very emblematic of the enigmatic westerner,” Costner said. “You don’t exactly know where they come from, all the possessions they own are on their backs or on their horses. And in a typical western you don’t find out about them–they ride in and they ride off… What was important during that time was how you behaved when you were with somebody. Could you depend on them? The west was ripe for violence–it was ripe for the taking and also ripe for violence. And these two men exist in a way that has a lot of dignity–they have pride about what they do. They’re the kind of men that look like they can be pushed around a hundred yards, maybe really about 99. They can be pushed around, but then they have one yard that’s theirs. That’s what happens with civilized men, men of character and morals. They can be pushed around 99 yards, but then there’s a moment in time where you say, ‘No more.’ These are those kinds of men.” The encounter ends with a climactic gunfight, a protracted, bloody episode. “I wanted to show that there’s a fallout when guns go off. Guns are loud, and they’re scary, and it’s messy,” Costner noted. But he added: “It’s really a very gentle movie in my mind, although the violence is severe as it moves forward…I’m not trying to anticipate what it is you want, how it should end for you, but how I think the story should naturally end.”
Costner emphasized that it’s the human element in “Open Range,” as in all his films, that matters. “What I try to do in my movies is to bring human behavior to bear,” he said. “I believe in stories. I believe in making them and I believe in sharing them. I have to believe that the most important movies are about men and women, talking…I think there’s value in what men say to one another.” What’s central to this story, he emphasized, is the dilemma the two cowboys find themselves in: whether to give in to evil or stand up against it, at great cost. “Boss is tough as nails, and Charley’s a good man who thinks he’s bad,” he said. “If you’re not able to relate to them, then the picture’s lost. You have to see yourself in them. The best thing you can do in a movie–and it’s hard to do this–is to orchestrate moments to where, when you’re sitting in an audience, you say to yourself, truly, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I were in that town.’ We wish, sitting there, that we could be that heroic in our lives.”
Kevin Costner believed so strongly in the story of Boss and Charley that he bankrolled the $20 million film himself.
“Open Range” is a Touchstone release.