Kevin Costner went to great lengths for realism in Dances with Wolves. He spent weeks tracking buffalo and hired indigenous actors who spoke the actual Sioux language. But when it came to the climactic hunt scene, Costner spent a fortune on fake animals.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the scene well. But in case you’re unfamiliar, the Sioux allow Costner’s character to go on a buffalo hunt. It’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking in its scope. The filmmakers used 30,000 real buffalo for the movie. But during the hunt, several are shot and fall, and to avoid risk harming the trained animals, Costner had animatronic buffalo built for $250,000. You can see how they were made here.
That scene was a logistical nightmare to shoot as well. It required a helicopter, 10 pick-up trucks, 24 bareback Native American riders, 150 extras, 20 wranglers, 25 recreated buffalo, and 7 cameras. It took 8 days to film, according to IMDB.
Before Dances with Wolves was released, it was being ridiculed in the press. It was way over budget, and Costner didn’t seem interested in reigning in the scope or expense of the movie. The press nicknamed the movie “Kevin’s Gate,” a reference to Heaven’s Gate. A movie that cost so much and made so little that it bankrupted United Artists as an independent movie studio. But Costner pressed on, even paying $3 million of his own money to fund budget overruns.
The Academy of Motion Pictures nominated Dances with Wolves for 12 Oscars in 1990. It won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kevin Costner.
Kevin Costner Talks Struggles of Acting, Directing
Kevin Costner is both the lead actor in Dances with Wolves and the director. He’s done both in a film a few times since, but this was the first.
And like every first-timer, he made some mistakes, he said. Emmy-winner Jake Hamilton posted a video in 2020 and talked with Costner about what lessons he took away from his older projects.
“I learned a lot as an actor and a director. I’ve only directed three movies over the course of my career … I didn’t give myself a lot of takes. I gave everybody else in the movie a lot of takes … feel like I rushed myself all the time because I was just moving to something else and I was just thinking ‘okay I’ll be alright, I know what I’m doing,’” Costner said.
Kevin Costner also talked about how important editing is in a film. While most Hollywood productions want short run times, Costner thinks that can sometimes take away from the subplots. Dances with Wolves is a little over three hours long. He admits to fighting heavily with the studio to keep the movie intact as much as possible during editing.