KEVIN COSTNER - Going West

kevin costner

You’re a writer, right? You love to write. What if somebody was going to take that away from you? When you realise someone’s going to take away something you love, a way of life, however you feed your family, you’re confused by it and you try to make a sense of it. But, generally speaking, the kind of person that would take your life away from you is a sociopath. So you can’t even get inside their thinking anyway. You’re going, ’Why are you such an asshole?’ You’ve had it in your school life when you’re a boy, and you probably have it in your neighbourhood, and you think, ’What are you going to do about this?’

“The American West is not a fairy tale place. It’s not like it didn’t happen. It was settled by Europeans and they couldn’t speak the language. They were told the land was up for grabs, and if you were smart enough and you were tough enough, and you were violent enough, you could have what you didn’t have in England or in Italy or in Russia. So it was a rough place out there, the issues of land and the disputes over land were bloody, and it wasn’t that long ago.”

Lets start by talking about why you have returned to the Western at this point in your career.

 

“Well it’s nothing calculated, really. I felt like the last couple of movies I was in had not realised their potential. Not in box office terms, but from what I thought they were in the script. Somehow, in the final rendering, I felt that sub-plots and other things had not found their way into the movie, and they were not as strong as they should be. I do care about the box office. I’m not dumb, I have an ego, I would have liked the films to be big fat hits, but I was more disappointed that they weren’t more what they seemed like they were on paper. So, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that again, I’m going to find the best movie I can.’ I didn’t see any movies that I wanted to act in, though, so I just began to develop two Westerns side-by-side.”

Is the other one Horizon?

“Yeah. You’re the only person I’ve said this to -- you’ll think ‘bullshit’ -- but I don’t know if it’s going to be called Horizon. I just put that on as a dummy title, because I didn’t want people nosing around, trying to figure out where the script was and read it, because I was working on it. But that’s a name that was even in magazines in LA, so I might end up having to stick with it, you know what I mean? [Laughs]

But why do another Western? Even when you did Dances with Wolves, it was considered a dying genre.

“Yeah, it still is now. It’s not in vogue. I’m not in vogue. But tough shit, it’s a real genre. It’s just real hard to do it right. Most people when they make a Western, they make them dumb. They make them too convenient and they’re not current. And worse, they’re not relevant. And when a movie is not relevant to you, you’re not going to enjoy it or share in it. To make a movie relevant, not matter what genre it is, there has to be something that speaks to you out loud in terms of the characters and what’s happening. So even though it’s not considered a commercial genre, I don’t believe it’s not commercial.”

It did feel to me watching the film that it was very relevant within the current world situation.

“It was not that way for me, though. Not politically speaking, like, ‘Oh, America the cowboys, they go do what they want to do.’ You mean like that?”

kevin costner

Yes, plus the theme of revenge, and, in a sense, of regime change in the town.

“See, I don’t make a movie like that at all. That could be you and me out there talking about someone that’s bothering us. What the fuck are we going to do about this? You’re a writer, right? You love to write. What if somebody was going to take that away from you? When you realise someone’s going to take away something you love, a way of life, however you feed your family, you’re confused by it and you try to make a sense of it. But, generally speaking, the kind of person that would take your life away from you is a sociopath. So you can’t even get inside their thinking anyway. You’re going, ’Why are you such an asshole?’ You’ve had it in your school life when you’re a boy, and you probably have it in your neighbourhood, and you think, ’What are you going to do about this?’

“The American West is not a fairy tale place. It’s not like it didn’t happen. It was settled by Europeans and they couldn’t speak the language. They were told the land was up for grabs, and if you were smart enough and you were tough enough, and you were violent enough, you could have what you didn’t have in England or in Italy or in Russia. So it was a rough place out there, the issues of land and the disputes over land were bloody, and it wasn’t that long ago.”

That’s the interesting thing: Michael Gambon’s character, the film’s villain, is Irish and would probably already have had his land taken away from him in Ireland by the English.

“Yeah, and he became aristocracy out there in the West. He had an accent, people thought, ’Wow, he’s educated.’ He could have been shit on a stick in Ireland, but in America you could re-invent yourself. You could become king. That‘s what I loved about this story: it’s not a cliché, it’s real.”

 

This is a genre which can easily fall into cliché. What steps did you take to prevent that happening?

“Well, in every genre you have a formula, and the formula is how you recognise the genre. At least it is in my mind. So, for a Western, you have to get the trappings right -- the town, the clothes -- and I like to put my own spin on the authenticity of the details. But then when you make a Western, there’s an architecture, a formula. It exists in the horror film, too, for instance. I mean why the fuck don’t people get out of the scary house? So the formula for them is to stay inside while the wires get cut, trees get knocked down. Inside the Western formula there are the obligatory scenes that you have to have. You have to have a shoot out, you have to have an enigmatic lead character where you’re not sure where he’s from and what he’s about. So, inside the obligatory scenes, the hard thing to do is to try and lift them past the cliché. It was relevant to me in the writing, so now I have to make it relevant to you sitting in the dark. I start with behaviour and little things, like a sense of humour and a sense of violence, and a sense of survival. I try to appeal to your subconscious. For instance, in the final fight, why not shoot the guy that’s clearly the most dangerous first? It doesn’t add up to match, yet, subconsciously, you go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah‘ as opposed to watching and going, ‘No, no, no‘. You’re trying to get a person involved in the book, so to speak.”

 

You seem to be playing around with the notion of heroism with Charlie (Costner) and Boss (Robert Duvall). What makes someone a hero in your eyes?

“You know, the movie turns on a very small dime; it turns on the weather. Because the weather comes, their wagon gets stuck. Because the wagon gets stuck, it’s going to take them five days to find the cattle. Because it’s going to take five days to find the cattle, maybe we’d better get some food while we’re out here. By one guy going to get food, that changes everything. There’s not no big bell going off in my movie, it’s a small thing.

“I like to think that in our lives it’s just going to work that changes something for us. It’s very small things. I didn’t start out trying to make them heroic. I don’t even think of them as heroic, although I do think they possess a certain moral courage. They don’t have a lawyer to stand up for them. And they don’t have an agent. And they don’t have a publicity person that can fix this thing. They look at themselves and what are they going to do? You look at them and, I think, you admire their choice. You may not think it’s wise, but you admire it. Charlie, right there at the end, has met a woman who he could have a relationship with, he doesn‘t need to fight. So this guy, literally, is about to risk this relationship that doesn’t even involve a kiss to help his friend. I think that you would like to think, and I could be wrong, that you would be that kind of guy.”

Is that how you approach friendships in your own life?

“I do. I think it’s good to be loyal to something and to yourself; not to your popularity, not to your standing. It’s not always that hard to be what people perceive as brave. I don’t think it is really that hard to do, so that’s why I don’t think of it as heroic. I just admire it. Somebody stood tall when the wind was blowing the hardest.”

Do you have high levels of expectation in your own friendships? I’m thinking of your friendship with the director Kevin Reynolds, which famously fell apart during the making of Waterworld.

“We’re still good friends.”

Really?

“Yeah! because we will go at each other for artistic reasons. But I think he is one of the best directors there is, and he’s not getting his shots because he’s an artist, and his movie hasn’t made $100 million. I would make a movie with Kevin in a second. We’re friends.”

All the reports after Waterworld were that you were no longer friends.

“Well, we were mad at each other, you know? We were. But we knew why we were mad at each other. We were placed in an impossible situation between our own artistic feelings and a big old studio that wouldn’t take responsibility for anything. I understood completely why Kevin had to walk away from that movie, and I understood completely that I was going to have to stay with it. I knew completely that I would get killed for that. So were our feelings bruised? You bet. But he’s a very smart guy [thumps the desk] and he knows, and I knew, because I’m not like a dummy, ’It’s going to look like the actor that just wanted to take over’. But the changes that they wanted him to make, he couldn’t make. In his own mind he couldn’t do it. And even though he’s my friend, in fairness, because they had spent all this money, I felt they deserved to have their changes. I mean it’s not a $150 million art film; it’s a $150 million commercial film. The easiest thing would have been to walk away and go, ’It’s your problem’, but I didn’t want to do that. Anyway, it’s easy for me to stand up for him. And it’s easy for me to understand what my true participation was [in that movie] and I have to live with what I think I should do, but I still can be friend with someone.”

 

So you approach projects with a similar degree of loyalty?

“I do. The disappointment in certain projects that you’re involved in is that you’re not the director, so if the project doesn’t match up with what the writing is, it’s disappointing. I mean, I don’t even start a movie unless I think it has a chance to be great, and I know that it has a chance to be great in the writing. I don’t work in the opposite direction, which is: let’s get the elements together and then we’ll figure out the story. I’m, like, that was a good story, it had good subplots, and it had moments that were awkward and made the film interesting.

“What I’ve experienced is that some directors won’t stand up for their awkward moments in the film. They also won’t stand up for their subplots because they want to make their movie go faster, and get it down two hours. But probably the movie I liked was two hours and ten minutes. Have you ever had a book where the first 100 pages are hard but it’s a really good book once you get into it? I happen to think movies have that first 100 pages and that’s what makes them great. But I think what Hollywood does is they go after those 100 pages. For whatever reason, the movies I seem to like have those 100 pages of subplots or whatever, and then it all eventually tracks together. So the level of disappointment for me is when a movie isn’t what it was on paper.”

 

There are a lot of shots in the film looking into or out through windows. It’s as if the town in the film is a society where there’s very little privacy and hardly anywhere to hide.

“Well, my café scene, it’s filled to the brim with people. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the film. I hardly say a word, it’s all Robert, and I back him up. You can see that Charlie’s kind of formidable about stuff. I tried to make the town so that that’s the social place. So when it starts raining, people like to be together. These were only one-street towns; these aren’t make-believe towns, this is how America was built. They flooded and they burnt down, and they rebuilt them and they became, say, Chicago and St. Louis. I liked the street. I tear the street up. Big ruts going down the middle of it. People didn’t always build towns in the right spot.”

 

At the start of your career, you approached Richard Burton on a plane and you asked him if it was possible to be an actor and remain a good man. That same question seems to surround Charlie.

“I think Charlie’s a good man who thinks he’s bad.”

 

But is that question of whether it’s possible to be a good man in your profession or whatever still exercise you?

“Yeah. I think it does, and I think it has to. I’m not the only person that was divorced but in the press it feels that way sometimes [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? It’s painful. But I think that our children aren’t the only people that learn. We sometimes think that we have to educate our children, but I think as men you have to keep asking yourself questions like this all the time: Is this movie more important than my friendship? Is my friendship more important than my professional obligation? Am I behaving badly? And you also have to give yourself a few breaks, because you’re human, right? And you have all the emotions that go with being human. But it’s like are you going to ask yourself to get better? Because the chances are, as an adult, nobody’s asking you to get better anymore. Your boss might ask you to be on time or he’s going to fire you, but there’s nobody going to work on your character except you. Chances are, if you’re anything like me, your patterns emerge about when someone does something, how you react. And if you don’t like how you react, you’ve got to change how you react. In my life I would like to think I am enjoying some kind of personal growth, even if it’s an inch at a time.”

When you achieved stardom, did you find yourself having to struggle harder?

“No, I never did. Stardom came to me not as a 12 year old but as a 28-30 year old. So I didn’t find myself headed down Sunset Strip with my head out of a limousine, doing cocaine. I didn’t have that phase where I went, ‘Woohoo! Yipee!’ I was so glad to be working that I went to my next movie. I went from Silverado to No Way Out to Untouchables to Field of Dreams to Bull Durham to directing. So I never had that phase of going, ‘I don’t know what to do with my fame’ or whatever. I knew exactly what to do, which was to go to work, because that’s what I had been working for. I had spent seven years watching other people get parts.”

Is Christine Baumgartner, your second wife, to you what Sue (Annette Bening) is to Charlie in the film?

“Well, interesting question, because there is dialogue between those characters that I wrote that reflects our life a lot. I don’t want to be sitting taking credit for things but the stuff that occurs in the saloon when she comes in, the stuff where they’re on the porch and he says, ’I’ve done things’. His marriage proposal. Things like that. Him trying to make things right, you know?”

She kind of redeems Charlie and makes him able to accept himself.

“Well, she sees little things in Charlie that are valuable. She knows he’s rough and tough. He has tried to tell her. He tried to tell Boss. He didn’t tell Boss who he was for a long time. The next movie I do will have a character that’s similar to Charlie because that’s the formula. But my obligation, if I’m lucky enough to make that movie, will be, yeah, it all seems kind of familiar, but will I avoid the cliches? Will you go, ‘Yeah, he’s like a Charlie, but he’s a little different’? If people like Open Range and want to copy it, you’ll see more cliched versions of Charlie. You’ll see simpler versions of Charlie. They’ll say, ‘That was a successful movie, let’s do another Charlie.’ I say do another Charlie but do him in a slightly different way. Maybe he’s even more violent. Maybe he’s less redeeming. Maybe he’s whatever. But he has, in the Western genre, to be enigmatic. Because otherwise he is a farmer next door that you know everything about.”

But has Christine brought about similar feelings in you as Sue engenders in Charlie. We read all these stories about you in the press, and whether they’re true or not . . .

“Like what?”

That you had had a series of affairs and so on.

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

Well you hadn’t settled with anyone permanently since your marriage ended, and there was all this talk linking you to a series of women.

“I didn’t have any affairs. I didn’t have any girlfriends. You know, that’s always been the little bit of difficulty with the press.”

So affair’s the wrong word?

“Yeah, it really is the wrong word. Because, you know, sometimes the timing isn’t right. A single guy is going to go out with women, especially if he is a movie actor, probably. Your opportunities, let’s be really honest about it, at least I am, your opportunities seem to be greater because of this dumb-ass thing called celebrity, right? So yeah, I had a life, but Christina’s the first girlfriend I’ve had in nine years.”

Robert Duvall told me that when you’re in Hollywood, you can meet lots of women and there is a lot of choice, but  90% of the time they’re the wrong choices.

“Those women were not the wrong choices. They weren’t. They’re great women. It was my moment to explore being single. I didn’t have, like, what you called affairs. It’s probably not the right word. I wasn’t sure if I could have a girlfriend at a certain point because you have a wife and then you go, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’.”

Because you were divorced, was it difficult to find someone who you thought you could make that commitment to again?

“Yeah, that’s the hope, right? It’s kind of the hope, but you bring a whole level of experience, so you just got to let that get explored. I don’t know what the future holds. Just like Charlie, the character, I don’t want to be afraid. But the truth is I don’t know what my future is. I know I’m bound to make mistakes. I know that. Anybody that lives a life is going to make mistakes. It comes with the territory.”

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