You hire Jim Hatzell when you absolutely want to get your movie right.
- Written by Bill Markley
- Published November 05, 2012
“Did you sketch this picture of my daughter?” Cindy Costner, Kevin’s wife at the time, asked a Union soldier during a lull in the Dances With Wolves filming in 1989.
“I did,” answered Jim Hatzell, a Western artist from Rapid City, South Dakota.
“May I see your sketchbook?” asked Cindy, who then began flipping through his sketches and commenting how much she liked his artwork.
Hatzell and I had met as the film crew positioned us for Lt. John J. Dunbar’s hospital escape scene. We later worked together on the Fort Hays and final search for Dunbar sets. Many True West readers know Hatzell’s work; they voted him “Best Living Western Photographer” in 2009.
Hollywood would see him more as a modern-day Joe de Young. A Montana boy who legendary cowboy artist Charlie Russell took under his wing, de Young got hired on a handful of movies, some of the best-looking movies ever. One of them is 1936’s The Plainsman; its plot is nonsense, but the clothes and the guns are right. De Young sketched the costume designs for the main actors. He also sketched the sets for 1953’s Shane, which looked like they came right out of a Russell painting, and he designed the costumes (all fantastic, excepting Shane’s hat, which was supposed to be a Boss of the Plains Stetson, but they put a John Wayne fedora on him).
Hatzell doesn’t shy from this association. “If someone wants to get it right, I’ll bust my butt to get it right,” he admits.I recently visited the artist at his home to discuss his role in Western films.
BM: What helped you gain credibility as a film re-enactor?
JH: All those years of being a film re-enactor, I walked around the sets sketching people, watching the crews and learning. That’s how I started getting the set jobs. I worked on Wyatt Earp as set dresser for the buffalo hide wagon. If you pile 40 buffalo robes in a wagon, it’s going to fill up. But they didn’t have 40 buffalo robes, so we piled straw bales on the wagon and covered them with a layer of buffalo robes.
How did you get involved in Dances With Wolves?
I happened to have a cavalry outfit and sent a photograph of me wearing it to Andy Cannon, the re-enactor coordinator. Cannon then hired me for Dances With Wolves’s opening Civil War scene and kept me on for additional scenes.
What was your take on Kevin Costner?
I thought he could do no wrong. It was a bad first movie to do—it spoiled me. When Costner filmed the Civil War scenes, he was behind schedule and losing money. The critics were saying, “A Western? Nobody goes to Westerns anymore.”
The film crew figured it would be 10 a.m. before they got the re-enactors through wardrobe and makeup and had assistant directors place them. By using Civil War re-enactors, who operated by military discipline and were on set by sunup, Costner was able to make up lost time and save money.
On the Fort Hays set,...
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