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45 Things We Learned from Kevin Costner’s ‘Open Range’ Commentary

“I think if I never made another movie, I would be happy that this was my last one.”
Open Range
By  · Published on March 6th, 2024

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Kevin Costner’s second masterclass in the western genre, Open Range, via the filmmaker’s commentary.

If you’re a movie lover, particularly someone who enjoys a great western film, then the recent trailer premiere for Kevin Costner‘s upcoming two-part western epic, Horizon: An American Saga, has probably left you very, very excited. Costner’s directorial debut was the Academy Award-winning Dances with Wolves (1990), and he followed it seven years later with the under-appreciated The Postman (1997). His finest film, though — and his final film until this year — came six years later with 2003’s Open Range.

A thrilling, emotionally satisfying tale of friendship, integrity, and justice at the end of a scatter gun, Open Range is a masterpiece of the genre. Costner and the great Robert Duvall play cattlemen caught up in a conflict with the bad men running a scared little town. Everything from the cast and dialogue to the cinematography and score absolutely sing, and it all leads up to one of the big screen’s best shootouts. The film’s always worth a rewatch, but this time we tossed it in with Costner’s director commentary playing.

Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Open Range (2003)

Commentator: Kevin Costner (director)

1. He thinks one of the things that strikes you the most about westerns is the music. “Whether it’s The Big Country or Magnificent Seven, the great westerns have that great music.” Michael Kamen‘s score here is pretty great.

2. The valley from the film’s opening was scouted by Costner from the air, and there were no roads in or out which made for quite a haul during filming.

3. He wanted to capture the little things that are of interest to him, and that includes the details of setting up a camp.

4. The opening storm sets off a minor theme that Costner set throughout the film regarding “certain sounds that startle you.” It’s thunder here, and gunshots come later.

5. He wanted cinematographer James Muro to have his credit over the shot at 4:10 — “that’s a really pretty shot” — but it didn’t work out in the editing. Curiously, the onscreen credit at that moment is instead for editors Michael J. Duthie and Miklos Wright. Costner met Muro when the latter was a Steadicam operator on Field of Dreams (1989), “and I said, ‘Look, I’m thinking I’m gonna make this movie [Dances with Wolves], and if I do I’d like you to come along.'” Muro repeated his Steadicam duties there, and when Open Range came along he decided to give Muro the opportunity at handling the cinematography.

6. The first dialogue clue as to what Open Range is ultimately about comes with the line from Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) to Button (Diego Luna), when he says “A man’s trust is a valuable thing, you don’t want to lose it for a handful of cards.” Costner says it’s about the “kind of integrity that one needs to try to conduct himself with.”

7. One of his favorite shots in the film — he understandably has many — comes at 6:01 as Charley Waite (Costner) is approaching a horse with his hat in hand.

8. “I really wanted people to settle down with this movie, with this place, and let them absorb our rhythms, the rhythms of the time,” he says, regarding the film’s atypical pacing.

9. He laments not getting a certain shot, one showing Boss from behind as he looks down over the horses, but “it’s so difficult to get those damn horses to stay on their marks.” Every attempt left problems matching from one shot to the next. “That’s the big difference between making a cartoon and making a movie.”

10. “The movie is probably never as happy after this particular moment,” he says at 8:57. “I asked Michael Kamen to shamelessly hit this hard.”

11. Button originally mumbled “fuck!” at 10:53, but “everybody wanted to move away from that word,” so they added an ADR line instead of him saying a much softer expletive. “The scene never played quite as well.”

12. The dog’s name is Tig, which is also the name of Costner’s production company. It was named after his grandmother. He grew up thinking her name was Tig, but it was just a nickname while her real name was Lily. Coincidentally, Costner named his own daughter Lily before learning that truth. Costner tries to include Tig’s name whenever he can in a film without it feeling forced. He even added it to The War (1994) in the form of a verb when he mentions a character’s hair being pulled straight up, “tigging it up.”

13. The horse he’s riding is Baby, the same horse he rode in Wyatt Earp (1994). “Just a favorite little horse of mine, she’s just a joy to ride.”

14. He mentions that watching the film has him thinking about things he would do differently, “but in the heat of the battle, trying to make the dates, trying to be on time, you make decisions under a certain amount of pressure, and I never for the most part leave anything that I’m not really happy with.” He adds that it’s probably a function in everyone’s life, thinking choices made were the best only to reflect on them later and wish more time was available.

15. The profile shot of Boss at 15:03 was “just a grab,” as Costner noticed Duvall standing against the light and asked him approach a horse.

16. He made the intentional choice to not include any Native American characters in this town, and ultimately in the movie, because he felt that this particular town and its racist citizens wouldn’t even allow a Native person to be walking the streets. “It wasn’t an omission.”

Open Range

17. “I love this little actor,” he says about Michael Jeter who plays Percy. Jeter sadly died before the film was released. “He really comes out of the finest tradition of supporting actors. You could put him right in there with Walter Brennan or Ward Bond, and if you know anything about movies you know that John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper wouldn’t act in a movie unless somebody like this, those kind of guys were in the movie, because they were so colorful and added so much to the movie and allowed Cooper and Stewart to play more laconic because they were actually doing this dance.”

18. “There she is, there’s our girl,” he says on the arrival of Annette Bening. “She’s Susan Hayward, she’s Maureen O’Hara, she’s Kathryn Hepburn, she’s Diane Keaton, she’s all the great ones. And I obviously have missed saying some, so if you’re watching this and you’re a great actress, my hat is off to you and my apologies.”

19. He shouts out production designer Gae Buckley for her fantastic work on a minimal budget. “She just found that right edge between minimalist and practicality.”

20. Seeing the doctor’s house with the white picket fence, Costner talks about how while Native peoples lived “very light on the land,” European settlers arrived and went the opposite way creating roads, towns, buildings, fences. “They marked their territory… it’s a different mentality that came to this continent and altered it forever.”

21. He uses the river and valley as geographical marking so audiences have a sense of space and where the various parties are located in relation to each other. Similarly, the tree at 28:05 was transplanted to that spot as a marker that “always lets you know where you are when you see it.”

22. “The movie changes right here,” he says a half hour in, adding that for him “the first hundred pages of the book have just happened.” His comparison is to how people will often generalize the tough entry into a novel, the first hundred pages, as groundwork that we don’t always enjoy in the moment while waiting for something “to happen.” He says it’s a battle he fights as a filmmaker sometimes too.

23. “No one likes this kind of thing right here,” he says about the reveal that Tig has been killed. “I don’t either, and it’s not easy for me, and thematically I’ve done this before in Dances with Wolves.” This leads him to talk about test screenings with audiences leaving comments, saying what worked and what didn’t, and eventually leading to changes made to the film. “I kind of disagree with that, I would prefer that you see what I want you to see out there, that you feel what I want you to feel.” Test screenings for Dances with Wolves only saw negative comments about the deaths of the wolf and horse (and the guy using the journal pages for toilet paper). Executives suggested they lose those three scenes and would then have “a perfect movie,” but Costner said no because he’s not an idiot.

24. “I think this is ninety-five percent of what I wanted,” says, adding that he doesn’t think he could live with himself if it was closer to sixty.

25. The scene with Boss and Sue Barlow (Bening) talking about Button sees Costner mention that sometimes when he’s watching a scene he finds himself caught up in the strong performances. That’s fine in general, but it sometimes happens when he’s in the scene too and he realizes later that you can see him nodding in approval to the performances. “Of course I can’t use that take.”

Open Range

26. “We had to decide where we were gonna put our money,” he says, adding that two of the big concerns were the town itself and the flood scene down its main street. The latter cost them over $300k.

27. The man taking their plates at 56:40 is played by Herb Kohler, the hugely successful head of the Kohler Company. He and Costner were friends — Kohler died in 2022 — and he was part of a family who immigrated to this country, started a company, and carried it forward as an independently owned company known for the opportunities it offered its employees.

28. The line about Charley and Boss not being able to fit their knuckle into the tea cups came from Costner’s memories of his father always talking about bare-knuckle boxing or or telling young Kevin he might lose a knuckle if he reaches across the dinner table one more time.

29. He likes to keep one or two things from a production as mementos, and here it was the chloroform bottle from the doctor’s house. “I also kept my guns.”

30. There was talk of adding a flashback scene at the beat where Charley is asleep and possibly dreaming in the doctor’s house, but “I haven’t very many flashbacks work in my film career.” He adds that when he sees flashbacks they’re typically being used to cover up holes or issues in the film.

31. One of the actors who auditioned for the role of Sheriff Poole brought a fiddle to play during the audition, and while Costner eventually went with James Russo for the role instead, he borrowed that character trait for the character. Costner mentions that he thinks the actor was Ted Demme, best known for directing 2001’s Blow, but if so, Demme wouldn’t have been able to take the role anyway. He died of a heart attack in January 2002, and filming began on Open Range in June of that year. (It’s entirely possible I’m mishearing the name as Costner only says it once and the only additional context is that the actor was working on a series in Vancouver, BC at the time. Demme has four acting credits from around this period, but he has no television series on his IMDB after 1997, though, so consider this one a low maybe.)

32. The scene where Charley picks up the mud he tracked into Sue’s house before noticing her in the mirror is “this movie’s sex scene.”

33. He was surprised and disappointed that the film received an R rating. “It didn’t have any sexuality, it didn’t have a language problem. I think they based that decision on our gunfight, which I think actually isn’t even as violent as a lot of movies out there.”

34. Costner had to ADR himself at 1:34:46 because he had lost his voice for over a week “although the people listening to this DVD might not believe it because I never shut up.” He hates the result.

35. One of the appeals of the script and film for him was seeing this window of time where these two cowboys actually talked to each other. “They probably talked more with each other these last three or four days given the circumstances than they probably have in the nine years of riding together. The circumstances forced it.”

36. “I’m a slow study as an actor,” he says, adding that he’s not that quick at learning his lines. He knew the last thing he’d want while directing the film, though, was worrying about his lines, so he made an effort to learn them all before filming even began.

37. The big gunfight in the back end was filmed over several days, and to avoid continuity issues they added digital clouds to the blue sky.

38. He requested some of the buildings be placed very close together so that the space between them was minimal — which in turn made for more striking imagery as the bad guys come pouring through, and later, where Charley hustles through. Members of the crew made the choice of widening them, thinking they were doing him a favor, and he quickly corrected them.

39. “I’ve always had a thing about reloading in movies,” he says, and he hates when characters shoot off more shots than the gun actually holds. That said, he admits that the start of the shootout sees Charley unload on a guy by “fanning” his revolver and firing more than six shots. “The fanning is such a mythical part of the western, and I hadn’t seen it in such a long time, that I had no way of justifying other than hell’s bells I wanted to do it.”

40. He loves the beat where Boss shoots the bad guy through the wall with the blast sending him several feet to hit another wall. “It was very important for me to have him twitch when he hit the ground. Probably the best single kill I’ve ever seen in movies.”


41. The outhouse kill is a little homage to Clint Eastwood, and he mentions that the bit in Waterworld (1995) where his character hangs off the boat and extends out his body was a nod to the very acrobatic Burt Lancaster.

42. One of the things he felt was important was to follow the main street shootout with a look at the aftermath. “There are consequences for violence. Horses get killed, people are injured, the little girl with the father talking to her, there are psychological repercussions that come from violence, and while conventional wisdom is ‘come on, let’s get on with it,’ I wanted to touch on it.”

43. It was suggested to him that he should cut the scene after the fight with Sue going to the saloon to see Charley, but this wasn’t Costner’s first rodeo as director. Or as a man.

44. He shares a few thoughts on screenwriting including how his collaborations leave him unconcerned with who contributed which beat or added the best scenes. The script is the priority, and to that end, he says focusing on writing the best screenplay and characters you can is important as it increases the odds of you attracting the best acting talents in the world. “That makes your job [as director] so much easier.”

Open Range

45. “Making a movie, there’s a lot of people that can weigh in, and probably one of the hardest thing to do in American cinema today is figure out how to end your movie.” He says that there were potentially a few other points where the film could have ended, but “I wanted to see those two together more than I wanted to imagine them together.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Our gunshots are exceptionally loud, which they are in real life.”

“I purposely didn’t try to speed things up.”

“I don’t do that very much, I don’t settle.”

“It’s a footnote in history, but we’ll probably never know how many Americans, immigrants, actually died settling this country from just crossing and drowning in a river.”

“Making your way west was no easy thing. You died because a map was wrong.”

“Cowboys were like musicians, you didn’t necessarily wany your daughter to go out with one.”

“The movie, hopefully, to this point, has been a pleasant experience.”

“We’re not taking every opportunity to fight.”

“I could hear Robert’s voice in every line.”

“I love the movie, so it’s difficult to say which scene is my favorite.”

“Person breaks out a shotgun and it changes the dynamic of a gunfight right away.”

“Hey Becky, I got a raft, you wanna go out?”

“Sometimes showing violence is the best example of why not to have violence.”

“A movie doesn’t have to be what everybody wants.”

“And you end with big music because you’re done.”

“I think if I never made another movie, I would be happy that this was my last one.”

Final Thoughts on the Open Range Commentary

As I said above, Open Range is a masterpiece. The western genre dates back a full century and is loaded with brilliance, and I’d argue that Costner’s feature can hold its own against the best of them. Happily, the commentary is equally great as Costner shares production anecdotes and technical details alongside bigger ideas about westerns, cowboys, filmmaking, and more. Bring on Horizon: An American Saga!

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.