The prevailing logic in Hollywood 25 years ago was that Westerns, while long on history and sometimes successful, were not a genre moviegoers were clamoring to see.
Any filmmaker who did get the green light would need to keep the project within budget, under two hours, and, of course, keep all the dialogue in English. Dances With Wolves defied all of that.
1. IT STARTED AS A NOVEL THAT NOBODY WANTED TO PUBLISH.
Inspired by books he’d read about the Plains Indians, screenwriter Michael Blake pitched Costner on the idea for Dances with Wolves. Once finished, Blake submitted Dances with Wolves, to numerous publishers, all of whom passed on his manuscript. Finally, after more than 30 rejections, a small publisher called Fawcett accepted it.
2. IT BECAME THE FILM THAT NO STUDIO WANTED TO FINANCE.
Turned down by American studios, Costner looked abroad for help, eventually securing startup funds from a handful of foreign investors. With only a fraction of the movie’s $15 million budget secured, he began filming. Orion Pictures eventually stepped in with $10 million, but Dances with Wolves ended up going more than $3 million over budget. Costner covered the overage out of his own pocket.
3. COSTNER TRIED TO FIND ANOTHER DIRECTOR BEFORE TAKING THE JOB HIMSELF.
After deciding to go ahead with the project, Costner gave the script to three prominent directors, hoping that one of them would be a good fit. But each of them had parts they wanted to cut that Costner considered crucial. So the actor decided to step in and do the job himself.4. A COMMUNITY COLLEGE TEACHER SERVED AS THE FILM’S DIALOGUE COACH.
More than a quarter of Blake’s script had to be translated into the Sioux Lakota dialect. Costner heard about a teacher at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University named Doris Leader Charge, who taught the Lakota language and culture. He sent the script to her and got it back three weeks later, fully translated. “I’d never even seen a script before then,” the then-60-year-old teacher said in the behind-the-scenes feature. Since none of the actors spoke Lakota, Costner brought Leader Charge onto the set for further guidance and even offered her a speaking role as Pretty Shield, the wife of Ten Bears. Leader Charge initially declined, saying she needed to return to work. So Costner called up the president of the college and got her stay extended.
5. THE BUFFALO HUNT WAS PARTICULARLY COMPLICATED.
There were no trick shots or CGI wizardry behind the film’s centerpiece: That really is a herd of 3500 buffalo storming across the prairie. The crew got only one shot at filming the stampede each day, since the animals had to first be rounded up and then, once they started running, would go for miles before stopping.6. THE WOLVES WERE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH, NATURALLY.
The crew employed two wolves—Buck and Teddy—to play Two Socks, the wolf that Costner’s Dunbar befriends. But even with trainers, so called “trained” wolves are notoriously temperamental.
7. IT BECAME THE HIGHEST-GROSSING WESTERN OF ALL TIME.
Over the course of six months in wide release, Dances with Wolves took in $184 million domestically, rocketing it past Young Guns, Silverado, and other Westerns to become the highest grossing film in the genre. Twenty-five years later, it’s still at the top of the chart, just ahead of 2010’s True Grit. Interestingly, in all its weeks in theaters, Dances With Wolves never topped the box office charts.
8. THE SIOUX NATION ADOPTED COSTNER AS AN HONORARY MEMBER. Criticism aside, the Sioux were pleased with a portrayal that focused on the peaceful, day-to-day life of their tribe. So they honored Costner with official membership.