Fit, suntanned, and with faint wrinkles in all the right places, at 64, Kevin Costner still looks every bit the movie star that he was through the ’80s and ’90s. It’s hard to believe that the iconic baseball film Field of Dreams turns 30 years old this year and his Best Picture winning directorial debut Dances with Wolves will hit that milestone next year.
The maverick filmmaker is part of a group of stars this year (Julia Roberts is another) that you once never would have imagined seeing in a TV series. But Costner not only took that plunge with Yellowstone, from Hell or High Water and Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, but also tested the streaming waters with the Netflix film The Highwaymen.
Back when you were a top Warner Bros. star, could you have seen yourself starring in television? It almost seemed like an insult in those days.
That’s actually not true at all. I was originally going to do Wyatt Earp as a six-hour thing. It was really, really good that way, and written to be that long. I was never afraid of story, and if anything, I feel propped up by story, and I’m not really worried how people are going to group me. I am going to direct much more going forward, and I put all my faith in story.
Your first TV gig was Hatfields & McCoys. How surprised were you when it became such a big cable hit on History Channel?
I was surprised. I didn’t think of myself as a leading man there, as much as a big presence. I liked it, but I said, “I feel like it’s missing about five scenes, and instead of making you guess at them, I’ll write them. If you like that, I’m in.” At that moment, the trend format was two nights. I don’t care about trends. I care about story—beginning, middle, and end—and I have a lot of faith in an audience not going anywhere if what you’re doing is compelling.
Had you made The Highwaymen as theatrical instead of Netflix, how would it have been a different movie?
They’d be pressing you more, the people who have an audience on their shoulder a little bit more than they need to. If you were following the history of Hatfields, that was a 15 to 20-year-old script. The Highwaymen maybe 10 years old.
Legend has it that it was going to be the last pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
I heard that, too. When it first came to me, seven, eight, or nine years ago, I didn’t feel like I was right for it.
Would a period movie like that, that takes its time, stand a chance theatrically today?
I don’t think so. I think it will be received by an audience on Netflix because of that, and the understanding we were after something special. But getting people out of their homes? I don’t think that movie makes it. So what would happen is they have to make it for such a low amount, you’re going to lose the production value, and lose the premium viewing experience.
What was the difference between Netflix and any other movie company on The Highwaymen?
It seemed exactly the same to me. I didn’t see any difference at all.
But there’s a lack of transparency at Netflix, which wants to be accepted as a moviemaker but won’t divulge how many people actually see their films.
I just know that people will find it now; far more people will see it than would have ever seen it in the theater. That’s sad to me because it looks great on the big screen. But seeing that story told, with a little bit of reverse engineering on who Frank Hamer actually was, was nice for the family whose reputation was murdered along with all the people.
He was a legendary lawman, thought of as maybe the greatest Texas Ranger, and yet he was made a buffoon by Bonnie and Clyde, to the point where his wife got a Texas lawyer and said, “We’re going to go sue Warner Bros.,” and they did.
Frank Hamer died a year before I was born, but they murdered his memory in that ’67 film. It’s a convenience that we do in Hollywood sometimes, combining characters. You say, “Look, these three f*cking characters can be one person and we save paying for two rooms and two airplane tickets.”
Boy, did the scales fall from my eyes when I actually saw how brutalized a real man in history was where this was concerned. It was a tragedy, and they paid the price for it. They settled. They knew. But the family never recovered.
Disney+ is coming and in two years we’ll have services from Comcast, AT&T/Warner Media, Apple, maybe more. What’s the appeal for storytellers looking to take their time, as was done with both The Highwaymen and Yellowstone?
Well, it certainly lends itself to that material that I gravitate towards: an epic kind of high adventure, that’s steeped in character, and that takes a long while to lay out.
I have a Western saga in mind where I’d like to shoot all three as features and have them come out every three months, because it’s a continuum. It’s four [movies], and then let it go to TV, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t even be thought of as a premiere there because all the groups of people that don’t go to the theater can now sit home and go, “I’m going to watch this all, in a pure way.”
So there are lots of ways for it to seem like the first time and not have it diminished. But the West looks so nice on the big screen. Big narrative lends itself to the type of filmmaking I like to do. Where no one’s going to interfere with the tone of it by trying to jam it into another rating system thing where we can get a bigger audience if we drop down to PG-13. And then you lose your core audience if you drop it to PG-13 because those things matter.
You don’t have those discussions with Netflix. And that’s really encouraging to me, that the films can speak for themselves rather than have a committee speaking for them.
Netflix sounds like a good place to do what you are talking about. Do you think you can get it financed as a traditional theatrical film?
I’m going to figure out how to get it financed. I’m going to go find the right partners, or I’m going to do it myself because I do think it should be a feature. I have to look at the realities, though that’s never really stopped me before with most of the things I have pushed uphill. This is a big screen epic.
Should Netflix or other streamers get strong consideration for Oscars even though the model is for them to be streamed and consumed on television screens?
Well, Roma and The Highwaymen were shot as movies, but Netflix is a streaming brand.
Listen, I’ve never been a big one to have your film come out in a few theaters, the last week of January, to qualify and see if it catches on. If you have the goods, bring it out in September, October, November. Take your shot, or else it’s a contrivance to bring it out for a small amount of time, anyway.
This debate about what is a movie or isn’t, I understand both sides, but my mind is on something else: making the next great movie, if I can. And getting people to see it. If you can get that to happen on a big screen, great, but get it made and see where it lands. Good storytelling in whatever form, that’s where it lays out for me.
I’m not a dinosaur, and I would not like to see movie houses shut down. Because I would miss the curtain opening, which has to me always been a metaphor for: something great is about to happen. I wish there was room for more of those kind of movies, and the only trick is making them better so it’s undeniable. That’s what I want to do with my Western.
How helpful is Yellowstone, and having your face on a TV screen before a big audience every week, to make all this happen?
I don’t process it that way, but the only way that would hurt is if what you’re doing isn’t good or inventive. Yellowstone moves fast, and sometimes I am not privy to where it’s all going. It keeps with the promise you make, to create images and words that you never, ever forget. That’s what happens when movies are at their best. What I’m going to do is direct a lot more of them in the second half of my career here.
Your Oscar-winning directorial debut, Dances with Wolves, went against conventions of limitations in subject matter and length.
I still don’t know limitations. I think you are limited only if you don’t have a great story. If you do, it’s like you’ve got this great secret in your pocket; a twist or an ending where you just feel, they’re going to love this. I’ve directed three films: The Postman, Open Range, and Dances, and I don’t feel more equipped. Listen, I tried to get three people to direct Dances with Wolves. I won’t say who, but they are people you know, and they all had issues.
So it’s this weird pride of authorship. If a director hasn’t written something, they can completely go in with a fine-toothed comb and take out everything that means the most to you. I didn’t make that movie long because I wanted it to be long. It’s just that it was the story of a long journey. I don’t think being on the side of the movie is exclusive from commerce, which some people think. If they think that I’m making an artsy-fartsy decision, they’re so full of sh*t. I’ve invested my own money, because I so believe in the nuance, and the thing that breaks with convention.
Movies are like salmon heading upstream. What dooms some of them? There’s a metaphor. There’s the kid fishing with the three-prong hook that catches you right in the mouth; there’s the gillnetter; or there’s a plant that dumps chemicals and that gets some, and maybe one jumps at the wrong time and a bear gets it. Movies are like this. So many things can affect a movie, and all you have to do to prevent that is you believe so much in your story that you won’t let those things affect it.