'Dances With Wolves' at 30: Kevin Costner on flunking his first shot and employing Neil Young's bison

1Three decades later, it’s strange to hear Kevin Costner talk about the insecurities he faced while making his directorial debut Dances With Wolves, which was released exactly 30 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1990. Not only was the Untouchables and Field of Dreams actor already a bona fide movie star at the time, but he would also ultimately win a pair of Oscars for the Western drama, Best Picture and Best Director.

He had to know he was onto something special, right?

But Costner, who also starred as a Union Army lieutenant who connects with a Lakota Sioux tribe midway through the Civil War, had his confidence as a filmmaker shaken on Day 1.

Kevin Costner holding an American flag in a scene from the film 'Dances With Wolves', 1990. (Photo by Tig Productions/Getty Images)
Kevin Costner holding an American flag in a scene from the film Dances With Wolves. (Photo: Tig Productions/Getty Images)

“I was nervous enough being a director on it,” he told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2014 Role Recall interview (watch above, with Dances With Wolves starting at 3:55). “And I remember the very first day, the very first shot I set up was even wrong. That’s the shot you’re supposed to get right, the first shot, because the whole crew’s watching you. Like, ‘Does he know what he’s doing?’


“And I really debated whether I should say that, or just shoot it wrong, so I didn’t look bad.” Costner made the right call and had the crew do a 180. It wasn’t until a few days later, when he first saw the dailies, that he could breathe easier: “I went, ‘This looks like a movie.’ I was desperately hoping that it would. I don’t know, I had never done one.”

Dances With Wolves also starred Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell, who, along with Costner, scored acting Oscar nominations for their roles, and of course a whole lot of bison — including one borrowed from a rock icon.

Neil Young’s pet Mammoth played the arrow-struck creature that John J. Dunbar (Costner) stalks. Mammoth, also, battled some major nerves on set.

“He didn’t like being in a herd with the other buffalo because he wasn’t raised with buffalo,” Costner says. “So wherever I saw him in the herd, I went and chased him. So now he’s really flipped out — he’s with buffalo he doesn’t want to be with, and one guy in particular, me, keeps chasing him. So if he wasn’t paranoid before he got there, he was paranoid after.”

The actor-director says they corralled Young’s buffalo with a carton of Oreo cookies. “I don’t know, that’s what Neil said. He’ll come for these. So we’re out in the middle of the prairie shaking this thing. … At that point you just believe anybody because you want to do your movie.”

Dances With Wolves is currently streaming on Amazon.

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