Kevin Costner Talks HATFIELDS & McCOYS, Dramatic License in a Historical Tale, and Future Projects

     May 16, 2012

hatfields and mccoys kevin costner

Hatfields & McCoys is a three-night, six-hour epic event – airing on HISTORY on May 28th, 29th and 30th – that tells the true American story of a legendary family feud that spanned decades and nearly launched a war between Kentucky and West Virginia. Devil Anse Hatfield (Academy Award winner Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) were close friends and comrades until near the end of the Civil War, when they returned to their neighboring homes and resentments soon exploded between the families. As retaliations grew and more and more family members were horrifically murdered, the feud made international headlines, changing the families and the history of the region forever.

During this recent interview to promote the mini-series, actor Kevin Costner talked about how he got involved with the project, his personal interest in American history, the extent of the research he did, how much he enjoyed working with this ensemble of actors, finding the right hat to embody the character, shooting such an American story in Romania, reuniting with his Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves director Kevin Reynolds for the project, and determining how much dramatic license you can take when telling a historical tale. He also talked about the eight-hour Western he would like to direct, and the characters that are closest to his heart. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Hatfields & McCoys Kevin CostnerQuestion: How did you get involved with this project?

KEVIN COSTNER: Well, I probably knew a little bit more about this story than the average bear. I like American history, so I was aware of the participants and a lot of it. Obviously, I became more aware of it as I read this script, and then doing my own research. I got involved with it the way I do all the projects that I get involved with. I liked the writing. It was the writing of the story. Great stories don’t often make great movies. Its’ a crafted art form. I felt the authenticity of the writing. I was surprised by the violence. I was interested in what was really going on, culturally, at that point and being able to immerse myself in that era.

With the research you did for this role, what surprised you, as you started to delve deeper into the character?

COSTNER: I was able to read about the participants. I also started to go a little heavier into the socio-economic issues that were going on, at that time. So often, audiences try to overlay their own sensibilities about something that was happening in the 1860s. We had come out of this terrible Civil War, and we realized that the repercussions of that lasted 50 or 60 years, or more. I’m told that for people in Libya, Serbia-Croatia, Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s going to be these blood killings in the middle of the night, for the next 60 years.

So, when we came out of the Civil War, there was incredible anger. People started to think of Hatfield and McCoy, as Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield. But, the more you study, you begin to understand that the children and the outside people were really the provocateurs of this feud that endured. Devil had 13 children and Randall had 13 children. For awhile, in America, that substantiated a farm. But, as we were approaching the end of the century, you realize that most of these kids should have been leaving for the big cities because these little valleys couldn’t support a clan of 70. They drank and they hung out and they got angry, and they created old feuds. They’d tear the scabs off of old memories, for their own purposes.

Kevin Costner Hatfields & McCoysI tried to get into actual human behavior, instead of putting my own sensibilities on it. I tried to go back to that time. There were 500,000 people that died in the Civil War, and 56,000 died in Vietnam while 6,000 or 7,000 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. You understand the magnitude of that time and what was overlaid there. We don’t even talk about post-traumatic stress. We understand, since Vietnam, that men coming out of the war are affected. Devil Anse and Randall McCoy both came out of a war where they participated in hand-to-hand combat. So, I tried to look at all these things, in my research, to make sure that the violence seemed right. There are a lot of ways I try to prepare for a role, and that’s one of them.

When did your interest and love of history begin?

COSTNER: I guess I was always thrilled by it. When I saw How the West Was Won, as a little boy, that put me on my way to long movies. I didn’t even leave during the intermission. I just sat there. I was seven years old and listened to the overture and waited for the second half of it to play. I remember seeing Jimmy Stewart in a canoe, and I thought I loved the idea of how the only possessions he had were in that boat. I went ahead, even though I was born in the inner city, in Compton, California, and built three canoes myself, and ended up going down the same rivers that Lewis and Clark went down. History is thrilling for me, along with the violence, the exploration and the resourcefulness that it actually took to cross America.

Hatfields & McCoys Kevin CostnerThis cast is such a great combination of veteran actors, and also younger and newer actors. Do you enjoy working with that mixture of more long-term actors and newer actors, and getting that vibe and dynamic from both?

COSTNER: Yeah. I’ve been on a few movies like this, that had big casts, and this one really reminded me of some of the great times I’ve had during those other movies. The guys were handsome and the girls were pretty, but they were all skilled and really, really dedicated. I think all of the actors – if you want to call them veteran actors – try to search out material like this, and hope that it comes along. It’s not easy to write something this long, and be as detailed as it was. And, the fact that we ended up shooting in Romania brought the cast even closer together because we were all a long way from home and the language was a barrier for us, as was the food and everything else. People really rallied around each other. And, this group has managed to stay fairly close and still is pretty much in contact with each other, long after this movie has been over, and that’s quite unusual.

What was it like to work with Matt Barr, as your son? What did you think of him, as an actor and as a person?

COSTNER: I spoke at the University of Texas, and he came. I don’t know if he was 12 years old or what, but we have a photograph of him looking up at me. He asked me about acting, and I think I signed something for him. He’s a really handsome guy, and he’s a very thoughtful person. There are a lot of handsome guys out there. With this cast, I probably come in eight now. But, he’s just a very, very serious guy about what he wants to do, in his career, and how he wants to approach it. I really think a lot of things will come to him. He’s a really fine actor, and he’s a better person. That’s not minimizing his talent. I just really appreciate him, and everybody else liked him, too. He fit so great. Everybody who played my sons were good.

Did you have to search for the right hat to play Devil Anse Hatfield?

Kevin Costner Hatfields & McCoysCOSTNER: Yeah, the hat was a very big deal. I remember, when I finally did put the hat on for the first time, I was in my room, I noticed that there was this great light coming in and I saw my shadow. I actually saw myself put the hat on that I liked. Back in that time, part of the way hats were worn, the front of the hat was flipped up. If you ever wear a baseball hat and you flip the front of it up, it looks like your I.Q. drops by about 20 points. So, I knew that that was the way I was going to wear the hat, but I had to not let it look corny or foolish. There is a lot to the clothes, to the pipe and to the beard. That certainly lodges you in place and time. The hat was important, as was how it was worn. I wore two hats. I wore a working man’s hat, for when I do my logging operation, and then I wore my hat when I go into town. The clothes are as much a part of how a movie is perceived as anything, if you ask me.

What did you think, when you found out that you were going to have to trek all the way to Romania to make this uniquely American story?

COSTNER: I should have thought it through clearer. When you fall in love with the girl, you’ve got to marry her, right? I fell in love with this script, and then found out that we were going to have to leave. I probably should have thought it through more because I have little babies and I was away for two and a half months. Normally, everybody goes with me on a movie, but we just felt that they were so young and we just didn’t understand what we might be running into back there, but you learn from everything. I really appreciated how we were treated while we were there. I was in Transylvania on a full moon. It doesn’t get any weirder or better than that. But, in a time when we’re fighting for American jobs, suddenly we find ourselves making a quintessential American movie overseas. How do we keep production in the U.S.? I don’t know. But, we were served very well by the people out there. They are really strong people. No matter what the weather conditions were, you looked and people were right there with us. It’s not how I would have drawn it. I would have preferred it to be in America. But, this is how it played.

How did Kevin Reynolds get on board with this, as the director, and what is it about your collaborative process with him that works so well?

Hatfields & McCoys Kevin CostnerCOSTNER: Well, I asked for Kevin to direct this movie, and they looked at me and could tell I was really serious about it. They said, “Okay.” I think he has a very unusual eye. I think he’s an artist. We had a really good document and a script. Sometimes there are people that just really know how to shoot, who are just in love with their camera, but the story isn’t as powerful as all of their camera moves. But, if you combine a great script with a very good cinematic style, it can be a really exciting offering, and I thought Kevin would give us that. We did it without a lot of bells and whistles. We did it in Romania. We weren’t living off any perks. I guess, if you would compare our budget to most cable things that are six hours, we would probably have a third of that budget. So, I felt that we were armed with our story. The play is still the thing, in my mind. I think we did a lot for a little.

When dramatic license must be taken to tell a story in this medium, how historically accurate can you be?

COSTNER: We ran into that. You want to be accurate, and you should be, but when you make a movie, there are going to be leaps, and we had to make some. Sometimes you make them theatrically, and sometimes you make them because nobody really knows. You have to go, “Well, what did start it?,” and you touch on a few things that could have started the feud. There were times where we had to compress. I never like to stick my neck so far out on the line and say, “This is absolutely authentic,” but its whole bent is towards authenticity and the participants. Time was compressed over 20 or 30 years. It’s important to me to be accurate, but it can tie you in knots, to the point where you can’t tell your story. Its aim was true. I’m sure that people could find fault with a measure of certain details.

Were you a fan of Westerns on television, like Lonesome Dove, and do you feel the pressure with this to live up to that?

COSTNER: I think that you try to raise the bar on whatever you do because you know, in this day of having to deal with a lot of reality TV, people say that scripted programming is dying, so you have to try to create something that can live in people’s minds, long after they see it. So, I started with the idea that I didn’t want to make something that could just be dismissed the next day, and that it’s maybe something that you want to revisit or share, the same way as when you hear a great song or read a great book and you go, “I’m going to tell somebody about this.” That’s what you try to do. When you try to portray people’s lives, you try to make sure you don’t portray them as clowns and that you give them a level of dignity. You don’t try to change their persona, but you try to understand that they had unique problems, set in a century that you don’t live.

Hatfields & McCoys cast Kevin CostnerDo you think that with a show or a mini-series like this, male viewers who are looking for something to watch other than reality TV will be satisfied with what they see and that this is a good alternative for them?

COSTNER: I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. But, as far as for myself, if people show up to see what I’m doing, I don’t believe they’re going to waste their time. I believe that they’ll see the reason why I did it. That’s the arrangement I try to have with an audience. I don’t want to waste people’s time. It’s on Memorial weekend. People are going to be drunk, right? So, you hope they find the Lay-Z Boy, and they sit down and watch three nights of Hatfields and McCoys.

It seems like cable TV provides a fine fit for your own directorial style of epic storytelling. With the experience of this mini-series and Open Range behind you, does the medium hold more appeal for you now?

COSTNER: I think it does, but you still need the resources. For instance, I have an eight-hour Western that I would like to bring to people, and most likely that will be in one of those formats. But, I want to shoot it in America, so unless the economics can line up with the kind of production value that I feel is important, it won’t happen. When I will do it and how I will do it remains a question.

Is there a certain area you’re looking at for that?

Kevin Costner Hatfields & McCoysCOSTNER: Yeah, this particular story is more Southwest. It deals with the Chiricahua Apache, so you want that red dirt look that’s just the big plateau. I’m very specific about the looks of what something wants to take on. It’s set in that region.

With all of the varied roles that you’ve played so far, is there a particular character or two that is especially close to your heart?

COSTNER: I’ve had the pleasure of playing in some movies that people continue to talk about, so that’s always really fun. But, if I had to boil it down like that, I really liked playing Billy Chapel in For Love of the Game, and I loved playing Charlie in Open Range. With this part, I was so surprised at how deep I was actually able to go, that I began to write a lot of music about it, about the era and time, and about this famous blood feud that occurred there. We wrote the theme song for the movie, and then we wrote a concept album that will come out about a week before the movie comes out. It’s called Famous for Killing Each Other, and it’s all about this story. I think it’s a very cool record, and one that I hope you’ll listen to. I’m as proud of it, as anything I’ve ever done.

Hatfields & McCoys airs on HISTORY on May 28th, 29th and 30th.