Kevin Costner: Back in the saddle again

As Kevin Costner's new film - a Western - awaits a UK release, Leslie Felperin asks him how he fell from Hollywood grace
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The Independent Culture

We may never get a chance to see Open Range in a cinema in the UK. That would be an awful pity, because it's a big-country, old-fashioned Western that proves they do sometimes make 'em do like they used to, with good guys, bad guys, and drawling old-timers, with panoramic vistas of grass-covered plains, tailed with a complex shoot-out in a dirty frontier street. Open Range went down well when it closed the San Sebastian film festival last week. Robert Duvall is typically magnificent in the lead, supported by Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, and the young Mexican actor, Diego Luna, from Y Tu Mamá También.

So why hasn't a UK release been announced yet? Firstly, it didn't perform brilliantly in the US when it was released last August, although it got mostly good reviews, and has so far earned about $57m (£34m) at the box office there - not bad, but not great. Secondly, despite numerous efforts to revise the Western ever since Unforgiven's path of glory in 1992, the genre continues to seem out of step with the times. And then there's a court case hanging over the film, with one Howard Dratch claiming that the film's screenwriter and executive producer Craig Storper squeezed him out of a producer's credit and the consequent remuneration Dratch feels he deserves.

But in the end, the biggest problem may be the negative image that hangs like a squally cloud of schadenfreude over the film's director and star, Kevin Costner. Once hailed as the new Gary Cooper after he opened a string of hits, including The Untouchables, Field of Dreams and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, not forgetting his multi-Oscar-winning directorial debut Dances With Wolves, somewhere along the way Costner turned into the star every critic loves to revile and few punters want to see. His last film, Dragonfly, came and went theatrically here in a wingbeat; the one before it, 3,000 Miles from Graceland, went straight to DVD and video. Maybe the ill wind started blowing with the notorious Waterworld, for which Costner took over the direction and got stuck with the blame. Meanwhile, his second official directing gig, the sci-fi parable The Postman, was the victim of a negative media feeding frenzy.

The damning adjective that seems to crop up most in conjunction with Costner is "humourless", and indeed when one meets him he's not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. But then, neither is Tom Cruise, or even Bill Murray or Rob Schneider. By this point in his career, Costner is almost an underdog, and when he talks about the morality in Open Range, in which his character and Duvall's take a stand against the violence inflicted on them by Gambon's evil rancher, there's a pugnacious sincerity about him that makes him rather likeable.

Clearly this was a very personal role for him. "I've had some movies that have been ridiculed, but that's OK with me. I don't feel that really defines me. Should I change who I am to be popular?" he asks rhetorically. "And so this movie represents the same thing. These men are not going to change. We stand our best chance of leaving a legacy to those who want to learn, our children, by standing firm. In matters of style, hey, swing with the stream. But in matters of principle, you need to stand like a rock."

There's a slight edge to his voice. He speaks in a torrent, as if to head you off at the pass where you might try to fire an awkward question. But taking a stand, on he talks: "That's what the Western represents in a way, it's one of the last kind of genres where you go in and sit in the dark and measure yourself against another man. We sit there and watch a movie and go, 'I hope that I would behave the way they did, with that kind of courage.' I've played men that are smarter, tougher and braver than me, but I still learn from the screen images that I've seen my whole life. I know how to behave because of the movies. The movies have taught us how to be heroic. If somebody cheats in real life, there are a lot of people who will pat him on the back - that's got to stop. And I don't how to do that, but in a Western you see that stopped. Two men take a stand and we admire that. That will never be out of fashion, and that's why I think the Western will always live, because it intellectually speaks to us."

For some, Open Range's one flaw is its drawn-out happy ending after the climactic shoot-out. If the last 20 minutes were lopped off it would be thrillingly bleak. Does he thinks those criticisms are justified? "Well, of course not," he laughs. "I don't want to be influenced by the studio, or even by how I think audiences want it to end. Every movie has a tone, and it was important that we didn't just end it with the street fight. The violence in the alley is very raw and real. And I don't need to try to please everyone who would want it to end a certain way. This is my voice and in this particular movie, it's Capra-esque."

While Waterworld and The Postman had famously massive budgets, Costner points out that this film only cost $26m (£16m) to make. Did working with a lower budget inspire him to be more creative? "I've always been fiscally responsible," he insists. "Sometimes you have to understand where these budgets came from. I did Dances with Wolves for $16m (£10m). I put my own money into this movie. I had to be creative."

He pauses, and perhaps mulls over the criticisms of the ending raised earlier. "I could make an ultra-violent movie," he says eventually. "I could make one that would surprise a lot of people, because I believe in violence, in the vulgarity of it, I believe in how clumsy it looks. And I believe with a good script, I could make it. I haven't found that particular movie yet. I'm glad movies aren't going to please everybody, they can't. But what they have to be is recognisable. I don't equate myself with a master painter, but I think you can recognise my films."

We get to talking about who he admires, and he talks about Abraham Lincoln. "He thought his presidency was a disaster, and it's too bad no one could ever say to him, 'You were strong and you were right.' He was the greatest speaker and he was ridiculed for how he looked, you know?"

Later, I ask Robert Duvall, a director himself as well as an actor, what it's like being directed by Costner. "He's like any director - it's his vision," Duvall says. "He does what he does and then we come in and do what we do. You always question any process that might get in your way as actor. But he has his own style, he's very set in what he wants. Probably a bit like the old directors. He thinks of the overall arc." In the overall arc of Kevin Costner's career, Open Range may prove to be the point where the curve startsclimbing again.