COSTNER TAKES A STAND : He's Made a Western. It's Three Hours Long. It Has Subtitles. And He Likes It Like That.

Elaine Dutka covers the film industry for The Times.

IT IS NEARLY 100 DEGREES in the flats of Hollywood. Kevin Costner is sitting in his modest, un-air-conditioned office on the lot of Raleigh Studios, next to a table fan working overtime. Propping his rawhide-tipped, two-tone cowboy boots on the desk, white polo shirt setting off his steel-blue eyes and California tan, the 35-year-old actor leans back and gives his icy assessment of the movie industry. Record heat notwithstanding, he's the epitome of cool.

"I'm not in the hit business," he says, in that engaging, straight-on manner that evokes comparisons with another paragon of cool, Gary Cooper. "To me, a flop is a bad movie, not one that fails at the box office. There were five flops this summer that will make $80 million each."

The topic of conversation is movie-making and risk-taking--more specifically, Costner's biggest gamble yet: co-producing, directing and starring in "Dances With Wolves," an $18-million epic scheduled for release Friday. Mere mention of the word gamble , though, is enough to set Costner off. A testiness shows around his eyes. The confident tone veers toward cocky. As he sees it, he has simply made the movie he wants to make--now, as always, playing the Hollywood game his way.

Defying a business that's based on dues-paying, Costner has jumped from featured actor to auteur in near-record time. Five years of notable roles such as the rambunctious cowboy in "Silverado," an antiseptic Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables," a steamy double agent in "No Way Out," an over-the-hill, bush-league catcher in "Bull Durham" and the Iowa farmer in last year's sleeper, "Field of Dreams," dropped him on the brink of superstardom. But unlike such Hollywood eminences as Paul Newman and Robert Redford, he didn't stop to solidify his status before moving behind the camera.

And if he slowed down to listen to Hollywood's conventional wisdom, it's clear he didn't heed it. "Dances With Wolves," the story of a U.S. cavalry officer living among the Sioux Indians in the 1860s, ignores the industry's edict that Westerns are out. A full third of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota, the Sioux language, so audiences will have to wrestle with subtitles. And for good measure, this movie is long: The film logs in at a couple of minutes under three hours--a full 50% longer than profit-oriented studios and theater owners deem ideal.

By deferring his actor/director salary to the tune of several million dollars, Costner has put not only himself but his bankbook on the line. He's already met the skeptics head-on. When word leaked out last year that his film was over budget and behind schedule, the press dubbed the project "Kevin's Gate," a reference to "Heaven's Gate," the industry synonym for an epic flop.

Jim Wilson, a producer and director of low-budget features who created Tig Productions with Costner in 1989, knows what the insiders are saying. "These are Kevin's golden years. Hollywood is paying huge sums of money to leading men, of which there are not many. Kevin has taken 18 months of his life, made himself unavailable to do anything else, just to make this movie. It's a high-wire act in full view of the industry."

Costner is forced to agree--at least in part. "It's a dumb first movie," he says with a grin. "Full of kids, animals, first-time actors speaking in a foreign language. A period piece on top of that. But I'm just offering up the film, letting the people decide.

"My only concern is whether the movie is good. And I think it is," the actor continues, dead serious. "I have no control after that. My friends are afraid I'm going to be eaten up. They know I've put my heart in it, up there on the block for anyone to do with what they will. But I don't care what Hollywood thinks. You can underline that."

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE THAT Costner is staking his reputation on a Western. Part Cherokee on his father's side, he has always been drawn to the image of a man on a horse, self-sufficient, all his worldly possessions in a bedroll. At 18, he built a canoe, and he and a friend traveled the country, boat strapped to the top of their car, driving and paddling some of the routes taken by Lewis and Clark. A high point of the trip was a stop at the site of Custer's Last Stand in southern Montana. Still, Costner wasn't on the lookout for a story about Native Americans. This one literally fell into his lap.

It was 1986, and Michael Blake--a screenwriter and friend of Costner--was sitting on the actor's living-room floor complaining that the scripts he'd written were never picked up. "Write a novel," advised Costner, pointing to a stack of 20 scripts piled in the corner. "If you write a screenplay, it'll just end up there."

Blake was penniless and had nothing to lose. So he spent the next eight months writing--while Costner, Wilson and their friends fed him and gave him a place to stay. Each night Blake read aloud to his hosts, who became increasingly convinced that there was a great film in his story of Lt. John J. Dunbar and his adventures among the Sioux. Still, they made no promises. When Blake finished the book, he moved on to Arizona to take a job as a dishwasher. "Next thing I knew," he recalls, "there was a call from Kevin telling me to get started on a screenplay. He was involved every step of the way." Costner, Blake and Wilson sat down and worked through six drafts of the script for 2 1/2 years, laboring over it line by line until it rang true to Costner's ear.

They took the first draft of the screenplay to Nelson Entertainment, where it languished for half a year; then they approached Island Pictures, which kept it for another six months. In both cases, the companies were interested but couldn't come up with the budget. Finally, Costner and Wilson decided to raise the production money themselves. They peddled the foreign rights first and, with enough cash in hand to finance 40% of the film, went into pre-production. Two weeks before shooting began, they signed a deal with Orion Pictures. Costner came away with the money to finish the film and the right of final cut--what appears on the screen will reflect the director's choices, not the studio's.

Costner resists the notion that he's on unfamiliar turf. "I've worn two hats whether I've had the title or not," he asserts. "I'm always involved in the overview. Directing isn't a statement as much as a logical extension of what I've been doing all along. The film has always come first. I've never aspired to be the head flea on a dead dog."

"Kevin has the ability to see himself in the third person," says Roger Donaldson, who directed him in the 1987 thriller "No Way Out." When the question of Costner's hairstyle in the film arose, the actor and the director spent a week trying to decide whether Costner should wear it short, befitting a Navy officer, or longer, to enhance his golden-boy good looks. "Vanity didn't enter into it," Donaldson says. "It was as though we were having a creative meeting about someone else." In the end, Costner opted for close-cropped realism.

Costner sees himself as a storyteller; to him, the script has always been sacred. "I'm very careful about what gets altered," he says. "If you don't give the material a chance, you cheat yourself and the audience. No one slips changes under my door."

In "Dances With Wolves," he lets his characters talk and allows the plot to unfold slowly, European-style. One scene lingers on two characters quietly talking as a mutual attraction takes hold. No quick cuts, no special effects, just two faces, a conversation and chemistry. "I'm a more-is-better type of director," he says. "If something is good, I don't want it to end. All the camera work in the world can't disguise the lack of story. We've become factories, giving up the idea that good stories are good for us. I try to keep things as intimate as possible instead of dazzling people with my camera work. Anyhow, technical skill is something I don't possess . . . so I'd get caught."

Costner talks a lot about "getting caught." A perfectionist, he's obsessed with making things conform to his vision--and seeing that those around him do, too. The point he emphasizes is that even in the illusion business, truth is at the center of every good story. Certainly, he acknowledges, movies are "the purest form of marketing. We're not talking about chairs or desks here but ideas pulled out of thin air that can make $100 million. If that's not Barnum & Bailey, I don't know what is." But what Hollywood hasn't realized yet, he says, "is that truth is as marketable as lies."

And truth for Costner is in the details. "I promised myself that I'd never shoot a gun more than six times because a gun only holds six bullets," he explains. "And I don't like girls running in high heels--I'd rather have them kick them off." In "Dances With Wolves," Costner carries realism to a level that scares the accountants. You won't find a single Jeff Chandler swathed in rust-colored greasepaint: Native Americans are cast as themselves--and speak in their own tongue. "We explored doing it another way, but it just didn't jell," says the director. "We're dealing with a love between two people--a U.S. cavalryman and a white woman raised by Indians--who are unable to communicate. If they both speak English, it's a fraud."

Costner, say his colleagues, likes shooting the breeze and thrives on debate. He's no intellectual, he'll tell you, but both on and off camera he has ideas about things that he's not shy about sharing--about law ("a convenience for people but also used to destroy"), about movies ("Just because they're called talking pictures doesn't mean you have to be afraid of silences").

But ask him to talk about the plot of "Dances With Wolves" or to provide insight into the character he plays, and the actor suddenly comes up dry. You play a cavalryman, he's prompted after a substantial pause. "Who goes west on his own," the actor adds haltingly. Period. End quote. "I've never been gifted with the ability to do a poster," he explains, with a reference to "Field of Dreams." "I'm not a 'Ray Kinsella is searching for his dreams, and one day his dreams come searching for him.' I don't think in shorthand."

He'd obviously prefer to let the movie speak for itself. Smiling suddenly, he gets up to pull out a videocassette, a teaser for the film. "Want to see some of it?" he asks rhetorically. "Just watch," he warns as I pick up a pen and prepare to take notes. "One man, two worlds," a voice blares over lyrical travelogue footage of South Dakota and Costner riding, as he puts it, "like the wind surrounded by thousands of buffalo."

Later, he offers to screen the second reel of the film. From that and conversations with his less-tight-lipped colleagues, a bare-bones synopsis emerges. Costner plays Lt. John Dunbar, who is decorated after a skirmish in the Civil War. Offered any assignment he wishes, he heads west to see the frontier. There, among the Indians, he encounters a medicine man who, foreseeing white expansionism, counsels communication and cooperation; a warrior who resists any attempt at conciliation, and a white woman brought up by Indians after her parents were killed by another tribe. She serves not only as a bridge between the two cultures but emerges as Costner's love interest as well.

Costner didn't consider "Bull Durham" a baseball movie, and he hesitates to call this one a Western. "I've said it's about how the West was lost," he admits. "But I'm not trying to set the record straight. Like all of my movies, it's about behavior. About a people ill-equipped to deal with what was coming. About the bigoted mentality of the soldiers in the West. We've had a lot of films portraying Indians as the enemy, a few showing that they were cheated. This film explores how they felt being cheated. It's a very intimate approach to a very big subject."

Shot in the outback of South Dakota in 106 days (a month over schedule), the film is epic in scope. The cast of 500 includes 48 speaking roles and parts for 150 Civil War soldiers and 175 Sioux. The Native Americans were recruited through ads in the Lakota Times and auditions held throughout the United States and Canada. He found a few of his actors closer to home. "That's my dad," Costner says with evident pleasure as the face of silver-haired Bill Costner flashes on the screen. "Cindy (Kevin's wife) and my three kids are also featured extras. All of them are wiped out--so they won't be in the sequel, that's for sure."

Though there was no doubt who was boss, collaboration between director and cast was encouraged. "Kevin knows what an actor can bring," says Mary McDonnell, the female lead. "Instead of protecting his ego, he'll adopt other ideas if he's convinced they're better than his."

Costner built in a three-week rehearsal period, as he'd seen Lawrence Kasdan do with "The Big Chill," expecting his actors to use the time to learn their Lakota dialogue and enough archery to shoot a bow and arrow while on a horse. Then there was the matter of professionalism among a largely inexperienced cast. When the Native American cast members showed up without knowing their lines, says Costner, "I reminded them that this was a project about their people, that if it didn't turn out, they'd be embarrassed, not me. I warned them that if they were cavalier with my time, there had better be good reason." He stops mid-thought. "I guess I can be tough."

"The crew took the lead from him," Wilson recalls. "If he was willing to get up at 5, turn in at midnight and go out in his shirt sleeves in subzero weather, you follow the idiot." Blake agrees: "Kevin gives the impression he's just a regular guy, which puts people at their ease--but he's an adventurer, curious to see how far he can go. 'Dances' pushed him to his outer limits."

Physically, as well as mentally, it seems. Costner was on horseback, directing a buffalo-hunt scene, when an Indian rider lost control of his horse and crashed into him. The impact knocked Costner out of the saddle and twisted him around backward midair. "He hit the ground as hard as you can hit it, bounced two or three feet in the air and rolled over like a sack of grain," Blake says with a shudder. "If a buffalo had been behind him, he would have been killed. If the horse rolled over him--which it nearly did--he would have been seriously hurt. Everyone held their breath as Kevin sat up, brushed himself off, got on another horse and continued. He never said a word."

Actually, says Costner, Day 1 was his most profound test. "Everyone told me to make sure I knew where to put the camera so the crew would feel I was in charge," he says with a smile. "I'd set up the first two shots weeks in advance, but two minutes into things, I knew that the geography was working against me, that my calculations were wrong. Instead of locking in, I proceeded to move the camera to another spot. That was the moment I knew I could do it, that I wouldn't be constrained by any insecurity."

COSTNER'S FRIENDS describe him as "street smart," an outgrowth, no doubt, of his early years. Because his father, an executive with Pacific Bell, was frequently transferred, Kevin attended four different high schools around the state and felt perpetually on the periphery. "The fact that I was 5-2 as a sophomore didn't help," he says. "I'm 6-1 now but still relate to those feelings. I didn't date in high school and didn't get my growth until college. I never got over being short."

Always what he terms "performance-oriented," Costner sang in an all-boys choir. "That's when I first realized I could manipulate audiences," he says. "Music has always made me very happy. You get an immediate response from people." Sports, too, were an ego boost for Costner, who earned varsity letters in baseball and basketball. "I did feel special as a kid," he says. "Not better, but special. . . . And there's no crime in that."

After graduating from Villa Park High School in Orange County, Costner enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, arbitrarily choosing marketing as his major. Pledging Delta Chi, he met Cindy Silva at a fraternity party. She was the first woman, he says, that he "really dated." The two of them became inseparable and were married 2 1/2 years later, while they were still in college.

Costner didn't consider acting until his senior year. Fighting sleep in an accounting class, he picked up a copy of the college newspaper, saw a casting-call notice and decided to try out for "Rumpelstiltskin." "I had grown a bit, so I knew I couldn't play the dwarf," he deadpans. "But I knew there had to be a prince. I lost the audition because I had no tools. Good looks didn't help me at all, which is why I never counted on them. I knew right then, though, that I wanted to be an actor more than anything, to be behind that door. There seemed to be something magical there."

He headed for the South Coast Actors Coop once, then twice, then five times a week. In his first serious effort--Arthur Laurents' "Invitation to a March" at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse--"I was horrible," he says. "But in acting, you reserve the right to improve--and I've always gotten fueled by my disasters."

Costner took a job in a family construction business--a position he disliked immediately and abandoned after 30 days. While Cindy stayed in Orange County to finish school, he headed for Hollywood, attending a film-budgeting class at UCLA and sleeping in the back of a truck in a parking lot at Sunset and La Brea. Cindy soon followed--albeit with trepidation. "The vows say 'for better and for worse, richer or poorer,' " he says. "She probably thought it was 'worse' and 'poorer' from the outset."

Costner became a stage manager at Raleigh Studios, an independent, all-purpose production facility that makes commercials, features and videos, where he coordinated the equipment for each production. Answering ads in Drama-Logue, he lined up bit parts in two low-budget, lower-caliber films. The experience was a turning point, of sorts. "They started with the lowest common denominator--and settled for less than that," he says. "There was a noticeable lack of invention. From that point on, I resolved to hold out for only the best. It's easy to have convictions when you're powerful, much less so when you're a nobody, which is when it counts."

Costner started saying no early on. Hired to pose as a young Luther Adler for a photograph to be used in the 1982 film "Frances," he was ultimately offered a small walk-on role. His one line--"Good night, Frances," delivered to Jessica Lange--would have earned him a Screen Actors Guild card, a prerequisite for union auditions that had eluded him for six years. When it came to delivering the line, however, Costner balked. "Frances had all these autograph hounds around her, and I didn't want to interrupt. I didn't know how to make the line work. It drove everyone crazy. 'Just say it,' they yelled--and finally I did. But so quietly that the sound guy shook his head."

Later, Costner passed on a chance to read for the Tom Berenger role in "Platoon" for fear of offending his brother, a decorated Vietnam War vet. He also turned down the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Fat Man and Little Boy" because he doubted that anyone would believe he had an I.Q. of 160. "Like Steve McQueen, with whom we both share an infatuation," says director Kasdan, "Kevin has always had a clear sense of his abilities and what was right for him."

It was Kasdan who gave Costner his first big break, casting him as the suicide victim who sets the plot in motion in 1983's "The Big Chill." Though only a shot of Costner's forehead and hairline survived, Kasdan made up for it by casting him as Jake in "Silverado"--which brought him to the attention of the general public and caught the eye of a number of critics. It was a role, says his former agent, J. J. Harris, that reflected "a lot of the real Kevin, the uninhibited, wild side that he doesn't get to express in real life because he has to be responsible." That his subsequent movies--"No Way Out," "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams"--made him a star, Costner says, matters less than that he likes them. He acknowledges that he has more misses than hits and characterizes his career as "flawed." "What's most important is that you convey the sense it's the first time you're ever doing a role," he says. "Most of the time I fall short."

In the case of "The Untouchables," some critics agreed, which came as no surprise to Costner. "Eliot Ness was the toughest role I ever played," he says. "I had to be a hero without the usual quotient of charisma and power."

When it comes to the physical, however, Costner knows he's a natural. "I'm a run-and-jump actor," he says. "I like to swing from things, to go get the bad guys and have them chase me." Donaldson was impressed by Costner's athleticism in "No Way Out": In a scene in which he was being chased by some CIA types, it was actually Costner smashing into the windshield head-on. "He hit harder than expected, and I was pleased," says Donaldson. "But the producers whispered a few comments in my ear" about wanting their actor to survive.

Stunts are one thing, sex quite another. When discussing the film's red-hot limo scene, in which he's seduced by Sean Young, Costner displays the vulnerability critics say makes him play "masculine" instead of "macho." It's a quality that, as the cliche goes, makes men like him and women love him. "I feel comfortable on a horse or on the windshield of a car--but not in the back seat," he admits. "I guess I'm modest. I didn't even feel comfortable taking my shirt off in that bedroom scene. It's difficult for me to compete with someone who spends years in the gym. I'm no slouch, but I don't have the figure you see in commercials."

A love scene with McDonnell in "Dances With Wolves" proved equally traumatic. "I had to set up the shot, take off my clothes and walk out there, relying on other people to tell me if you could see too much," Costner recalls. "Then I had to watch it all in the dailies." His co-star remembers it well. "Kevin was so sweet," she says. "He came up to me after the shot and said: 'The woman always starts out nervous, then she's fine. I don't think about it--and by the third take, I'm a wreck.' Part of Kevin's confidence is his ability to be open. I love that he can admit things like that--even when he's directing."

COSTNER has struggled to stay normal in what is essentially an abnormal business--to keep his personal life separate from the hype. He makes his home with Cindy and their children, Annie, 6, Lily, 3, and Joe, 2, near Pasadena, instead of in hallowed Beverly Hills or Malibu; heads for local movie theaters every weekend instead of private screening rooms, and, in the trendiest of towns and glitziest of industries, cultivates a look that is far more L. L. Bean than G Q.

Still, Costner admits, "something has seeped away with success"--the obvious things: a certain spontaneity, privacy, time for himself. Though he is reluctant to complain about his "high-class set of problems," he allows that directing has turned up the heat. "A movie is a glacier moving along inches at a time. It's a 24-hour-a-day gig," he says. Yes, he acknowledges, the job takes its toll on his family, but he seems increasingly comfortable with the choices he's made. "Cindy is smart and knows that I had to grow up and do something with my life and that this life opens doors for her, too," he says. "I have a genuine love of getting my hands dirty with film. Still, the baggage that comes with it no one could have counted on."

"Dances With Wolves" must weigh heavily on Costner. In unguarded moments he'll joke about his worst-case scenario: The critics will pan it, and no one will come. At the mention of "Kevin's Gate," he defensively calls this movie a bargain, even at $2 million over budget. "I got a lot on the screen for that, far more than a studio could have," he says.

"I don't know why I set myself up for such scrutiny," he says softly. "In the privacy of my room, I'll wonder if I've bitten off too much and whether I'll make it. There's a nauseousness that goes along with it. I have to answer for all this."

Would he direct again? "Sure, if something interested me," he shoots back. "Directing is about passion . . . not about the next available moment." He's already traded in his spurs for tights, playing Robin Hood in "Prince of Thieves," a $30-million venture directed by Kevin Reynolds in England. (The actor is reportedly getting close to an $8-million advance against a percentage of the film's gross revenues.)

Meanwhile, Orion has sent out posters to movie theaters, heralding the release of "Dances With Wolves." One features a surreal nighttime shot of four stampeding buffalo and the high-concept tag line Costner can't--or won't--attempt for himself: "Inside everyone is a frontier waiting to be discovered."

Particularly appropriate, in this case.

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