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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Kevin Costner is pursuing his western dream. Will audiences follow?

Kevin Costner poses for a portrait in Carpinteria, Calif., May 11, 2018. Costner’s sprawling four-film western epic, “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1” is set to debut Friday, with “Chapter 2” hitting theaters less than two months later, on Aug. 16. He said his commitment to “Horizon” means he won’t be able to continue with “Yellowstone,” the hit television franchise that revitalized his career. (Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times)

By Nicole Sperling

Oh, to have the self-confidence of Kevin Costner.

There are few actors in the final chapter of their career who would turn down a consistent $1 million-an-episode payday to pursue the vagaries of the Wild West. Yet there are few actors who are as single-minded as Costner.

For the 69-year-old star and director, who has made a career of taking the road less traveled, has embarked on what many would call a foolhardy quest to turn his long-percolating story of the settling of the West post-Civil War into four theatrical films. It’s an endeavor he’s undertaking without the true support of Hollywood: No legacy studio wanted to finance his sprawling epic. And it’s one that comes at great personal cost, both financially, with Costner investing $38 million of his own money, and professionally, with his commitment to the films causing a schism with the producers of “Yellowstone,” the television franchise that revitalized his career.

There is no guarantee his grand experiment will succeed. “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1” is set to debut Friday. And in an unprecedented move, “Chapter 2” will hit theaters less than two months later, on Aug. 16. Both features cost in the $100 million range. Warner Bros. is releasing the films in the United States, Canada and some international territories in a service deal calling for Costner to pay for the marketing costs while collaborating with the studio on the creation of the marketing materials. (Warner Bros., according to a representative who was not permitted to speak on the record, has a small financial stake in the production of the first two films.) The deal’s structure means that should the movies backfire, there will be little financial downside for the studio but much risk for Costner himself.

But as he has put it, letting go was never an option. He first commissioned the script back in 1988. He almost made it with The Walt Disney Co., but the two parties couldn’t agree on a budget and the movie didn’t go forward. Then, instead of retooling one movie to fit the parameters of potential buyers, he and screenwriter Jon Baird turned it into four. To partly finance the films, he mortgaged a 10-acre piece of undeveloped coastline in Santa Barbara that he’s owned since 2006.

“It’s hard to fall out of love for me. I don’t do that,” he told journalists during the online debut of his teaser trailer in February, and added, “There’s a lot of people out there that know I’m a little bit of a hard-head or something. When no one wanted to make the first one, I got the bright idea to make four. So I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” (Costner declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Costner has been dreaming of “Horizon” since his breakthrough role in “Silverado” in 1985. This was before Costner bet big on himself in “Dances With Wolves,” the 1990 epic he pursued in place of the hefty paycheck he would have received to play Jack Ryan in “The Hunt for Red October,” an offer he described to GQ magazine as “more money than he had ever seen.” (The role went to Alec Baldwin.)

Instead he gambled $3 million of his own money on his ability to direct a film about a Civil War soldier’s relationship with a band of the Lakota tribe, the film that grossed $424 million worldwide and won seven Oscars, including the crucial best picture and best director prizes. Costner gave directing another go in 1997 with “The Postman,” an R-rated postapocalyptic drama that also involved an investment of his own funds. That movie, which cost $80 million, earned only $20 million at the box office and landed him in director jail for a good number of years.

And so it went for Costner, who continued toiling in Hollywood to greater and lesser success. In 2015, he also personally invested in the drama “Black or White,” a movie The New York Times described as “timid but honorable”; it earned $21.7 million at the box office. Costner chipped in $9 million and starred in the film opposite Octavia Spencer.

But “Horizon” may be his biggest bet yet.

The film was scheduled to go in production as Costner’s star was rising again, this time atop Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” franchise: He played the prickly patriarch John Dutton in television’s most popular show. Something of a unicorn itself, “Yellowstone” saw its audience grow during its last 4 1/2 seasons on the Paramount Network, and it earned Costner his third Golden Globe. Yet, that relationship has now come to a bitter end because of a scheduling dispute between Costner and Sheridan, precisely because of the “Horizon” films.

Sheridan told The Hollywood Reporter he was “disappointed” by Costner’s departure, adding that “it truncates the closure of his character.” Paramount in a statement said: “While we had hoped that we would continue working with him, unfortunately, we could not find a window that worked for him, all the other talent and our production needs in order to move forward together.” A source at the studio said that a shortened schedule was offered to Costner along with a hefty payday but that he only responded with “unrealistic and ever-changing demands.”

A representative for Costner said he had no comment.

When the second half of Season 5 begins airing in November, Costner will not be part of the Dutton ensemble. He made it official in a video posted on Instagram on Friday, saying that in the “long year and a half” of working on “Horizon,” he realized that he wouldn’t be able to continue with “Yellowstone,” which he described as “that beloved series that I love that I know you love.”

Instead, he will be back in Utah, filming the third installment of “Horizon.” It’s unclear whether he has the money to finish the movie and whether anyone will bail him out, especially if the first movie doesn’t perform at the box office.

“It’s one of those weird things where it’s not about the money, it’s about believing in your story and the film that you want to make,” said actor Danny Huston, who played opposite Costner in “Yellowstone” and has been cast in the “Horizon” saga as a Civil War colonel. “But it is about the money,” he added with a laugh, “because the dream is a rich one.”

Costner debuted “Chapter 1” last month at Cannes, where it received a standing ovation. Yet critics have not been kind in early reviews. Time magazine called it “curiously undistinguished.” The Hollywood Reporter deemed the near-three hour film a “clumsy slog,” pointing out “the uncomfortably long time” it takes to add context to the portrayal of its few Native American characters.

It is currently tracking to open at $12 million, an inauspicious start for an expensive film, but insiders at Warner Bros. believe the tracking services are not reaching Costner’s audience for these films, primarily older men living in the middle of the country.

Costner himself remains undeterred.

“I’m out there heading west again, pushing a rock uphill trying to make the third one,” he said at the trailer event. “I know I’m a little bit of a joke, or it’s maybe humorous to even watch me because it’s like, ‘Whoa, I wonder when he’s going to ever stop digging.’

“I’m terribly satisfied in my own life that God allowed me to get these first two done,” he added. “If I’m hit by lightning, who knows what happens. At least I went west.”

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