(Editor’s note: this story was written by David Rookhuyzen and was published in the Capital Journal June 13, 2014. It was 30 years ago in September 1989 that production and filming occurred around the Pierre and Ft. Pierre area.)
A $19 million budget. Initial run time of three hours. Estimated worldwide earnings of $424 million. Seven Academy Awards, including best picture.
That’s the kind of information the casual movie buff can pull off of IMDb.com about “Dances with Wolves” in 30 seconds. It’s interesting and informative, but doesn’t quite paint the entire picture of the 1990 movie that became an instant classic of the Western genre while painting a glowing picture of Lakota culture and showcasing the austere beauty of the Dakota landscape.
To understand how that happened, one needs to wander into the grasslands of South Dakota and speak to the Plains folk who live in and around Pierre. Plenty of them still remember a quarter century ago when, from June until September of 1989, Hollywood came to the Plains. Shooting at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch, De Grey, Spearfish Canyon and the Belle Fourche River, the film took advantage of the kind of resources – people and places – only South Dakota could provide.
The movie, based on Michael Blake’s book of the same name, follows Union Army Lt. John Dunbar from a failed suicide attempt to his posting at a remote frontier fort. Once out among the rolling prairies, buffalo and native peoples, he falls in love with the natural beauty of the plains and the Native American way of life.
With that story, there is little question about what brought the production to Pierre that summer: the proximity of Roy Houck’s Triple U Ranch, with its vast herd of bison and thousands of acres of untouched prairie.
Karen Kern, who worked at the Pierre Area Chamber of Commerce during the filming, said getting permission to film on that pristine land was done in a traditional fashion – at least for the American West. It was settled with a handshake.
“And they could not believe that. They were like ‘What? You don’t want a 20-page contract?’ Which, I’m sure, is what they eventually did, but when he found out what they were going to do, it was simply a handshake. And that was the way Roy did business. I always thought how funny, they couldn’t quite get that. They weren’t used to that.”
With the deal struck, the chamber became involved, helping the production find people to teach the actors how to ride a horse bareback or shoot the type of bows and arrows the Lakota used.
“One of the things the movie was very concerned about was that everything they did, as far as the Native American side of it, would be authentic. They were very concerned about that,” Kern said.
That demand for authenticity also resulted in a major change from the novel. The Native Americans in Blake’s story were Comanche, but became Lakota when the production located in South Dakota.
Pearl Stone, a native of the Rosebud reservation, was tapped to help recruit Lakota extras because of her connections on various reservations. The production placed a high priority on finding native Lakota to be a part of the film, she said.
“I think they really tried because first of all they had asked me about casting. They made the effort to go to the reservations and actually get people involved,” Stone said.
Through the chamber of commerce, the production also found Albert White Hat and Doris Leader Charge, instructors of Lakota language and culture at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud reservation, to translate the script and serve as consultants and language coaches.
“I was scared about doing this movie at the beginning, but it’s been a good experience. It portrays us as we really are. They’ve gotten it right this time,” said Leader Charge, who died in 2001, in an interview for an illustrated companion book to the film.
In that interview, Leader Charge said because Lakota is a difficult language with many strange sounds, when translating the script she substituted the written lines with ones using fewer, easier words. She also recorded each actor’s part on tape to help them practice on their own.
On the Set
As production geared up, it recruited heavily from the local talent pool for the cast and crew. Twenty-five years later these extras and hired hands provide a down-in-the-trenches view of making a major motion picture.
Jeff Mammenga, then the Capital Journal’s sports editor, got a call from a former gymnast he knew who was then working as an assistant casting person. The production was looking for thin people and Mammenga’s lanky frame made him ideal for the part.
“I was one of what was called ‘Cargill’s Men’ or ‘starving soldiers.’ My standing joke is that I was in four scenes in the movie and they were all cut from the three-hour version, so I contributed to one of the seven Academy Awards, but, unfortunately it was one for editing.”
“They said (filming) would probably take two days, but two days turned into four days and by then people were getting kind of tired of it. I said I was done, but they said they wanted me to come out again. And by that time the scene we were shooting involved the second unit and I said I would do it – and people ask how much we got paid and it was about $40 a day – so I said I would do it for $50 and a Dances with Wolves cap. And they gave me the money, but I never got the cap.”
Bill Stevens, who left state government shortly before filming started, spent months working as a production assistant. His main assignment was driving cast and crew between Pierre and wherever filming was happening, but he gladly pitched in whenever a spare set of hands was needed. The experienced thrilled him, but it was not all play.
“It was an exhausting time. It was the hardest I’ve worked, physically. It was 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. And for me there was always at least an extra hour or so to bring people to the dailies and see the dailies every day. So it wasn’t like a whole lot of sleep, which I’ve always been used to,” he said.
But one of the perks of a full Hollywood production is the craft services – the food – available for anyone working those kinds of hours. “Dances with Wolves” brought along a caterer that still causes people to remark on the bounty provided.
Jim Wegner, co-owner of Wegner Auto, which donated and leased 30 to 40 vehicles to the cast and crew, was one of several people to mention the up-scale restaurant experience out on the prairie.
“We got to go out to the set and they served their food with the finest china and silverware, white table clothes. And the special, this is what we ate that day, was grilled salmon, barbecue pork steak, mashed squash, spaghetti primavera.”
Those lucky enough to be on the set, such as Mammenga, also observed the detail and planning that went in making a movie, along with some of the film trickery involved to get scenes just right.
“The thing I learned the most was probably all the intricate detail that goes into making a movie. If somebody’s hair is blowing in the wind, more than likely there’s somebody standing six inches away from them with a little fan that makes their hair blow. One of the movie mantras, as you probably know, is ‘hurry up and wait.’ So lots of time it was standing around waiting for the conditions to be right to film,” Mammenga said.
According to Stevens, waiting for the right conditions in the Black Hills at the end of September almost moved the last bit of production out of state.
“If we didn’t get snow at a certain time, their back-up place to shoot the winter scenes, which is right at the conclusion of the film, was in New Mexico. And if they went to New Mexico that meant we locals that had been with them, there was less reason to take us to New Mexico. They not only needed fewer crew members, but they would just hire people there. My joke always was I would watch where the location manager Tim Wilson was. He was in Rapid City waiting for snow in Spearfish Canyon. If he was there I knew he wasn’t in New Mexico scouting. We ended up getting snow within a two- or three-day period that absolutely worked. It was just enough to have the winter scenes.”
Dave Hansen, who builds fencing at the Triple U Ranch, recalled that one of the biggest and most difficult shots in the entire movie involved corralling the ranch’s bison for the hunting scenes.
“That buffalo reveal scene involved so much preparation. It’s not there very long in the movie, but it was days and days of arduous effort and work and set up. And scanning the place to get it right and to bring (the buffalo) in.
“I built a fence down in the valley just out of sight from the view of the camera, hidden, and the buffalo then were chased into that enclosure, which was temporary at best, made out of old wire. They knew they would get about 10 minutes of captivity before those things burst out somewhere.”
Even then, the Houcks’ bison weren’t quite enough for the scale the director wanted.
“(In the shot) this batch in the foreground is the actual captive group that we had on hand. And then, in the olden days before computer-enhanced photography, they didn’t have a way to just Photoshop in a thousand buffalo… All those buffalo in the background that don’t move are painted, by hand, on (a) backdrop. So if you watch that movie again, you’ll notice all those buffalo in the front are milling around and it never comes to your attention that ones in the background are just still.”
Something that drew a chuckle out of nearly everyone was how a South Dakota summer into a Tennessee fall for the Civil War scenes. The crew painted the leaves and trees with fall colors and imported bags of fallen oak leaves. The newly planted corn was sprayed with Roundup to make it look dry and brown.
To keep the authentic touch they were striving for, the production also scoured the area for props, according to Lisa Etzkorn, whose family property in De Grey was adjacent to where the Civil War scenes were shot.
“The crew who set the props, they would see stuff that people would have maybe in their homes or businesses and would use them in the movie. I know they rented antiques from my mom. One little scene where he’s grinding the coffee in the coffee grinder, that’s my mom’s coffee grinder.”
One of the thrills of the movie being based out of Pierre was the casual brushes with the film’s producer, director and star, Kevin Costner. While in town he was so approachable that many still refer to him as simply “Kevin.”
Kern recalled one morning having to go to the production office to act as a notary, but found the person she needed to talk on the phone.
“So I sat down and this guy comes in, cowboy hats, jeans and boots and we visited for a good 45 minutes or an hour before the other guy got off the phone. And I saw later in the Capital Journal they put Kevin Costner’s picture in and that’s who it was. So I sat and visited with him and I asked (silly questions such as) “Well, have you been here before?” and he said “No.” It was funny things like that that happened. He never said who he was and we had the best conversation,” she said.
Like many people, Bill Markley, who joined with a reenacting troupe to be an extra in the Civil War and Fort Hayes scenes, found the star to be personable and down-to-earth.
“Costner was a great guy. He had a party for all the re-enactors here in Pierre when we finished with the Civil War scenes. And he hung out with everybody for four hours like a regular guy. And to me the telling things about character was when it was over he and his wife and some of the other people who were big in the film cleaned up the trash and the mess around there. How many people think of Kevin Costner pushing a broom and picking up trash?”
And although Costner rented a house in town for his family, the actor/director was a constant presence at the Ramkota, where the much of the cast and crew were staying and an editing room had been set up.
Rick Murray, the hotel’s manager, said the staff got to know Costner and became accustomed to his being in the building. However, that wasn’t always the case.
“We had one waitress who was working one morning and she was carrying a tray of food and she looked up and there was Kevin Costner in the restaurant. And she ran into the wall with all the food and dropped it all. He was kind enough to come over and try to help her a little bit.”
And it wasn’t the only time the star’s presence caused a scene.
“Then I remember one night Kevin Costner came in for a beer and we had a wedding here and one of the wedding party spotted him and they chased him out of the building. He went out and got in his vehicle to drive off – he didn’t want to cause a big stir from the wedding – and he drove off and they were chasing him in the parking lot,” Murray said.
That’s a wrap
Nothing as big as “Dances with Wolves” could come through town without having impacts.
Kern said one of the most notable was the cold, hard cash the film business brought with it.
“From that standpoint there was a lot of money left in the economy here. Because they bought all of their supplies, or as much as they possibly could, locally. And I can remember seeing them in Dakotamart and it would be nothing to have four, five, six carts absolutely packed with stuff for whatever they were going to cook for the next week,” she said.
Stone said the film wasn’t just a financial boon to the city, but to the reservations as well.
“Because some of the people, especially coming off the reservations, probably didn’t have jobs, so they were making money to help their families and sending it back home,” she said.
More than the financial help, the film instilled a sense of pride by lifting the Native Americans above stereotypes, Stone said.
Duane Hollow Horn Bear, an instructor of Lakota Studies at Sinte Gleska University, said the film accompanied a resurgence of interest in both the Lakota language and culture, both from the tribe itself and the wider world.
“Since that time with the movie coming out, the apparel the actors wore seems to have lit a little fire under people and their interests. It’s also inspired some of us to take a look back at our own culture,” he said.
Hollow Horn Bear has had students who, seeing the objects and set pieces replicated in the film, have asked about the repatriation of lost or taken artifacts. Places as far away as Europe and Asia have also expressed interest in the Lakota language programs because of the film, he said.
Today the tribe mandates the teaching of Lakota and the use of textbooks and orthography designed by White Hat and others, Hollow Horn Bear said.
In the whole movie there is only one minor cultural misstep he can find. It’s at the end of the movie when the character of Wind In His Hair calls down to Dunbar from a high cliff.
“What I learned from my elders is that people don’t holler out and blast out their names,” he said.
Katlyn Richter, a media and film representative with the South Dakota Department of Tourism whose position was essentially created when the agency helped scout sites for the film, said the film also marked a new high point in South Dakota’s history as a filming destination.
While films had come to the state before to film in the Black Hills or the Badlands, “Dances with Wolves” introduced filmmakers to the beauty of prairies and blue skies that go as far as the eye can see.
“It certainly seems it changed it from no-man’s land and turned it into rugged beauty that could be inspiring to people. I don’t know how often before people would come out and say I just want to see a field a grass. Now, still today, what people are asking to see when they want to see ‘Dances with Wolves’ scenes is a field of grass, maybe with some buffalo in it,” she said.
For Stevens and others, the experience of being part of the film remains a point of pride. When talking with anyone out of state that has a poor conception of what South Dakota is, he only needs to bring the subject up.
“I ask them, did you see the movie, the Kevin Costner film, ‘Dances with Wolves?’ ‘Yes, I love that movie!’ and I say: That’s where I live.”