Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dances With Wolves 20th anniversary

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the filming of "Dances With Wolves" in South Dakota. To me, "Dances" is the state's most important film of all time.

There are two distinct eras in South Dakota's film industry - pre-"Dances With Wolves" and post-"Dances With Wolves." The film was a watershed event in the way South Dakotans thought of their state as a potential movie location, of themselves as actors and crew members, and how the state promoted itself to the film industry.

When I explained my theory about this to a friend, he said, "I don't see it that way. I see it as all the other movies, and then 'Dances.'" Either way, I don't think the importance of "Dances With Wolves" to South Dakota can be overestimated.

When Kevin Costner decided to bring his pet project to the prairies of central South Dakota, he influenced an entire state. The ripple effects from the movie are still being felt today and not only in the filming industry. "Dances" created a feeling of pride among the Native American community, the beginnings of a reconciliation between whites and Indians, gave South Dakota a new identity in promoting itself to visitors, and even gave a boost to what at the time was a fledgling gaming industry in Deadwood and on the Indian reservations.

Almost immediately after filming the movie, Costner purchased a building in historic Deadwood and remodeled it into a casino and high-class restaurant. His brother moved here and his parents moved here, so "Dances" had a big effect on him and his family as well. He announced plans for a giant resort in Deadwood that never materialized, but created a lot of buzz for many years.

Some of these effects have been long-term and some were short-lived, but there's no denying the impact the filming had on many, many people.

Here, Costner directs one of the Civil War scenes filmed near Pierre.

In the "pre-Dances" era the state really did nothing to advertise itself to the movie industry. There may have been some cursory feelers sent out to Hollywood, but nothing in the way of an organized campaign to recruit filmmakers.

During the filming and after the blockbuster success of "Dances With Wolves" the South Dakota Department of Tourism created a film promotions position and decided to pursue further film projects. Gary Keller was the state's first Film Commissioner and has promised to give me some good behind-the-scenes stories for future posts.

If you look at the South Dakota Filmography in one of my earlier posts, you will see that the number of movies made in the state "pre-Dances" and "post-Dances" are surprisingly fairly equal. What's not equal, however, is the amount of time for each of those eras. "Pre-Dances" was 76 years, while the state has generated roughly the same amount of films in just 20 years since. I would have to say that South Dakota's film recruiting campaign has done very well for itself.

My own personal involvement with "Dances With Wolves" was as a newspaper reporter/photographer. Costner and crew held a media day on the set of the Lakota village east of Sturgis back in 1989. I was there and witnessed the filming of the wedding scene for the movie. This is Ben Glass' publicity shot of that scene.

I will be digging out my own photos of that day and there will be undoubtedly be more posts about "Dances With Wolves" in the future.

As with any of the South Dakota movies, if those of you who were involved in "Dances With Wolves" would like to tell your stories, please leave a comment here. I would love to hear anything you've got to share.


  1. Howdy! I worked on the film "Dances With Wolves" and I took a few photos behind the scenes and scribbled a bunch of pictures in a sketckbook I had with me. Bill Markley of Pierre wrote a book called "Dakota Epic" about the experiences and used my sketches to illustrate it.You should interview him about it and put it on your blog.(He has a web site)Incidently I do have a lot of behind the scenes photos of films & TV shows filmed in South Dakota between 1989 and 2009. I can be reached at
    Nice site here.
    Jim Hatzell

  2. Howdy Jim,
    I've been planning to contact you, just hadn't got around to it. I'll be calling you soon.
    I bought Bill's book not too long ago and talked to him briefly about it. He will definitely be the subject of a future post.
    Thanks for visiting!