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Leaving A Mark Behind: Kevin Costner on Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1

With “Horizon: An American Saga,” Kevin Costner once again heads west.

A sweeping epic of expansion, conflict, and conquest on the American frontier that Costner has spent over 35 years trying to make, “Horizon” could be his magnum opus, provided he’s able to complete filming on all four installments and convince audiences to saddle up alongside him in theaters.

Spanning 15 years of westward expansion on either side of the American Civil War, as white settlers pushed relentlessly into the frontier to stake their claim on tribal territories — and coming into conflict with Indigenous peoples they left with no recourse but to defend their ancestral homelands — “Horizon” (the first chapter of which is now hitting theaters) will intertwine the stories of gunslingers, pioneers, and cavalry officers with those of Native tribespeople, aiming to present a panoramic perspective on how the oft-mythologized Wild West came into existence.

For the 69-year-old actor and director, shepherding “Horizon” to the big screen required impressive commitment and personal investment; Costner famously mortgaged property to put up what he has estimated as $38 million toward the $100 million production of the first two films. “Chapter 1” sets the story in motion while introducing a vast ensemble of characters across three hours, with “Chapter 2” following in theaters on August 16. As for the third installment, Costner has already started filming, and he fully intends to make the fourth, even if that means personally investing further in the project. 

Few actors of Costner’s generation have done as much to keep the Western genre alive on the big screen. He’s dreamed of making “Horizon” since the release of “Silverado” in 1985, even before the success of his Oscar-winning “Dances with Wolves,” which similarly found Costner betting on himself as both an actor and director. Originally, he had envisioned “Horizon” as a single film set in one location, and he came close to making it at Disney before disagreements over financing led it to fall apart. Collaborating with co-writer Jon Baird, he began re-developing the script in 2012 as a four-part film series, ultimately kicking off the production ten years later. 

“Horizon” arrives in theaters just days after Costner confirmed his departure from “Yellowstone,” one of the most popular shows on television, on which he starred as family patriarch John Dutton. At this point in his career, Costner could be riding off into the sunset, but that’s never quite been his style. Indeed, the reason he’s given for parting ways with “Yellowstone” because its shooting schedule conflicted with his commitment to “Horizon,” which he couldn’t allow. After all, as the Iowa cornfields of “Field of Dreams” once whispered to him, “If you build it, they will come.”  

That’s certainly his hope, at least, with “Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1” finally galloping into theaters this week. Ahead of the release, Costner sat down with to reflect on his reasons for revisiting the West on such a massive canvas, the influence of John Ford’s filmmaking on his own, and what he considered in crafting one of the first chapter’s centerpiece sequences.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The “Horizon” of the title suggests a wide-open expanse, but it’s also a specific setting in the film — a settlement in Arizona’s San Pedro River Valley, a site of importance to multiple Native tribes including the Apache — where many of your characters set out to secure their future. Tell me about that frame for these films, of grounding abstract Western ideas in real estate.

Yeah, well… What happened was that I had commissioned an original Western in 1988, and it was set there, in Horizon. There was the town, and there were many of those same characters in it. But, at the end of the day, I started thinking along with my co-writing partner that, in Westerns, we’re always seeing these little wood towns and never seeing how they actually got started. We don’t see the displacement of people. We don’t even understand what happened, and we are numb that we did that to others. 

And so, what happened is that I started thinking, after not being able to make the first one, “What if we reverse-engineered that story and showed everything about what it took for a town to even bubble up in some place where it was not intended to be?” And so that was the genesis of switching our thinking to that idea: “Why don’t we discuss the idea of what got this town started and debunk the myth of what everyone else thinks has happened there?” 

The myth of these “great, open spaces” is that, actually, they were already occupied by people. There were people who were doing quite nicely there, without us. And this national appetite to move across the country caused all this chaos and heartache. While one group is being broken in half, torn apart, and obliterated, another group is expanding and succeeding, but in a very tough, harsh environment. So, that really appealed to me.

Your love of John Ford is all over “Horizon.” Not to equate them too directly, but if “Dances with Wolves” was your “Cheyenne Autumn,” this feels like your “How the West Was Won.” You filmed in the eastern Utah areas where “Rio Grande” and “The Searchers” were shot. Tell me about Ford’s influence.

Yeah. A few nods to a couple of people, including John Ford. It’s just a bow, for me. I was never able to meet him. Jim Harrison, who wrote “Legends of the Fall” and “Revenge,” there’s a line I give out of respect to him, and Lawrence Kasdan, [who directed “Silverado” and “Wyatt Earp,”] there’s a little nod in there too to what he did. I go make my own movies, but I’m aware of people who have been influential to me, and a lot of times, it’s just a silent, cinematic way of saying thank you.

With Ford, specifically, listen… Anything can miss the mark on certain levels, but there are other things that are just really dead-on. Where he chose to film, taking the Western out of Chatsworth and the Simi Hills in Los Angeles, where all the Westerns were shot. People were shooting by rocks or shooting out in the desert. But, in actuality, people made their homes near water. These great settlements, where these issues were decided and fought over, were where our great American towns sit now. 

Somebody put a stake in St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago, and it was like the proverbial anthill that I stuck the surveyor’s stake in at the beginning of “Horizon.” And look what comes out of it: the warring and the destruction. Ultimately, it was taken over. I didn't like the Westerns where the costumes weren't right. I didn't like the Westerns, where they were just in a Chatsworth area. I love that John went out to these places that fire your imagination.

And with “Horizon,” you achieve a classical sense of grandeur: all these low-angle shots of the sky, all this striking scenery of open plains and mountain ranges. What was required to pull that off? 

Hundreds of hours of scouting, of looking, of trying to distance myself from anything that felt like civilization… You know, modern civilization. It’s nice to know that some of these places still exist: these mountains, these rivers, these valleys. I loved the harshness of the landscape, where people were having trouble making 14 miles a day. Things were hard back then. We don’t think about that enough. 

I needed language, though. I needed language more than I needed a gunfight. I needed a woman bathing just to stay clean more than I needed a gunfight. I needed a woman speaking over her dead son's blanket about how she's going to join him more than I needed the gunfight. 

And I have that stuff, still. I knew, intuitively, I was going to have my battles and characters being confronted by bullies, in a very odd way. I knew those scenes. They highlight the West as gunplay, if you will. But I need the humanity of some old guy saying, “The rain follows the plow,” and a younger guy turning around and going, “That's bullshit.” [laughs] Every century, you know, we’re arguing with the generation before us, right? “That's bullshit.” [laughs

Those things tickle me. And people etching their name into a rock was important to me. Maybe not to anybody else; that's why my movie expanded a little bit. [pause] I like exploring the reality of people leaving a mark behind.

It’s what makes “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” brilliant: those little touches of humanity; the tensions flaring between John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin; the cactus rose on Doniphon’s coffin.

The whole reason that “Liberty Valance” was successful was because of the writing, because it was basically one of the first stage-play Westerns. They shot a lot of it on a stage, so you didn't have the trappings of the landscape, but the dialogue was so severe and so on point that you got swept up in it. Language is the secret weapon in the Western, not the gunfight. It is. I mean, God, when people talk, when dilemma is created, you create drama out of that! 

I mean, in “Liberty Valance,” it’s over the steak. You have Lee Marvin about ready to fight John Wayne, and you don't know who would actually win that fight, to be honest. And so you reach this weird impasse. And who breaks it up? Jimmy Stewart! He says, “There! Now, it’s picked up!” And he diffuses that situation that was going to either turn into a fight or reveal somebody, because somebody was going to have to back down. So you have this great scene where no gunfight happens. You see what I’m saying? No gunfight happened at all. 

I don't know. I’m not sure. I know this: it took me 106 days to shoot “Dances with Wolves,” and it took 113 days to shoot “Wyatt Earp,” though I didn’t direct that. But this one was shot in 52 days, less than half the time. And why I think that was is that I trusted my story more than I was waiting for good light. I just needed my story to rise above it. Much like, because of the dialogue in “Liberty Valance,” it didn’t matter that it was shot on stage, because what was being said was compelling. 

I’d never want to shortchange [J. Michael Muro,] my DP. Visually, I thought he did an incredible job, and he was being rushed constantly. To handicap that, I just don’t know anyone who could have shot a movie like what we just did in 52 days. But we did it. I don't know anybody who thinks they could do that.

My script for me is everything. I leave what I call a window of opportunity, which is that, when I'm out there, sometimes there’s an opening that I can step through, so I'm not so trapped in a lane that I can't step out of, if I don't want to stay there. But I really have trust in my document. It's the literature of the West that I think is compelling. I really do.

“Horizon” features a 45-minute sequence of an Apache war party decimating the titular settlement, setting fire to its tents, scalping people, and murdering men, women, and children, and—  

Did it seem too long to you? Because I worked really hard on the writing to make it flow. 

I think it flows. You’re capturing multiple perspectives, specifically those of a family caught in the midst of the attack. But there’s also a sequence that parallels it at the end, of a band of white mercenaries massacring an Apache settlement. Can you talk about capturing these cycles of violence throughout “Horizon,” why these scenes were important to you and what considerations you had in staging them both?

Well, you know, even in the montage at the end, you see them counting scalps, and you realize it’s just become commerce. A black head of hair could come off a Mexican, off a Hopi, off a Navajo. I wanted people to understand that it was commerce that allowed us to be numb enough to obliterate these races. It just became commerce, and they had no value. They were an inconvenience on their own land. 

But we start with the fighting that you’re talking about, and that’s just one tent too many, one nail too many. The fact that the [Apache] saw a fellow Native American cut down over a single deer when that should not have been a problem. But those guys putting their tents up created this problem. And now, tribes that weren’t interacting with each other because they long ago settled boundaries are forced into survival mode. And what it was is that it just hit a boiling point. What you see is angry people. They were just angry, and they had been put upon. 

I wanted that sense of “no one’s coming to help you,” that feeling, to exist. I wanted a man to see a son make this incredibly fatal choice not to go down in the hole with his mother and explore the power and pride that a son would stand with you, but know it’s a fatal move he made. And, down below, the mother and daughter are sharing a breath at a time to survive. Those things are interesting to me: the man who destroys himself rather than seeing his family torn apart or raped—a man whose last grasp is of his fiddle. I don't know if that’s important to others, but those people were important to me, so I was willing to let it play.

But then, on the reverse end of the film, you see a group of individuals just wiping out a Native American town. And it wasn’t about anger. It wasn’t about a flag. It wasn’t about your neighbor. It was commerce, period. It served the government's agenda, and in their eyes, it “solved the problem.” 

To take that back to the Western, you see who people are on an elemental level in so many classic examples of the genre; within those concepts of manifest destiny and individualism, what you’re also seeing is people reduced to reactionary impulses. 

What happens is, when you see it, you’re reminded that that’s what it was. It was just core reactions, as opposed to phony costumes and phony locations and phony storylines. That was the West.

“Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1” opens in theaters June 28.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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