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In Defence of The Postman

What goes up must come down and nowhere is that more relevant than in Hollywood. Everyone loves a superstar but what the media and public love more is to build that star up as high as they can and then watch them tumble. After all, the bigger they are the harder they fall. The rise and decline of a movie star sells papers and has fascinated the public for as long as there have been motion pictures and now in an age of TMZ and Perez Hilton this has never been more true. And in the 1990s, the last decade before the internet revolution brought forth file sharing, streaming and downloading, one of the biggest stars in the industry was Kevin Costner. Having first gained acclaim in the late 1980s with the tense thriller No Way Out and fantasy Field of Dreams, Costner’s directorial debut Dances with Wolves – a three-hour epic about a disillusioned lieutenant’s growing friendship with a tribe of Lakota Indians – became the unexpected success story of 1990, earning unanimous critical praise and seven Academy Awards. His popularity increased with the swashbuckling adventure Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, conspiracy drama JFK and romantic thriller The Bodyguard, but as his most ambitious project to date, a post-apocalyptic fable called Waterworld, neared its release the knives were out ready to attack its star before a second of footage had even been viewed.

‘If you believe the oceans of bad press that Kevin Costner’s Waterworld has received then the movie, opening Friday, is certain to be one of Hollywood’s all-time financial disasters. Certainly, the potential is there,’ declared the New York Daily News just prior to its debut in 1995. With Roger Ebert one of the few critics that defended the picture, it would seem that the decision had already been made that the movie was a colossal failure and its star’s out-of-control ego had finally been succumbed to the realities of moviemaking. Yet Waterworld would not be the complete failure many had predicted, with the film making back its $172m budget internationally, while coupled with domestic sales its total came to a respectable $264, making it the ninth highest-grossing movie of the year and surpassing such blockbusters as Jumanji. In their summary of the year’s big successes the Independent refused to acknowledge the film’s achievements, instead dismissing it as ‘obese’ and commenting that, ‘luckily he’s seen sense and is now working with his old Bull Durham director Ron Shelton again,’ referencing Coster’s casting in the golf flick Tin Cup. Yet while for many the film may have fallen short of its Mad Max comparisons, from a technical point-of-view Waterworld was an impressive accomplishment and would ultimately become the event movie of the year.

While Waterworld had been directed by Coster’s Robin Hood collaborator Kevin Reynolds, for many its failure fell on its star. Most of Hollywood would no doubt have retreated to smaller or safer projects after falling under such scrutiny but Costner was Hollywood’s biggest star and refused to be intimidated by his naysayers. ‘I could have done films like Bull Durham 2, Tin Cup 2 or Bodyguard 2. I was asked and it would have been like a little money pot,’ he told the Express earlier this year. ‘If certain careers are on the wane then you revisit the third or fourth version of the same movie and reclaim your audience. I do not think that is a bad way to go – it is just not my way…If I had only wanted to stay popular, it would have been considered a risk to ignore such offers. But just wanting to be current, or in or best dressed and hot seems to take a lot of energy.’ So with the dust barely settled on the media frenzy of Waterworld and with the recent commercial failure of his Wyatt Earp biopic, Costner returned to the director’s chair for the first time in seven years for another depiction of a dystopian future and the one man who rises against the oppression.

The source material for this ambitious project would be The Postman, a best-selling and award-winning novel from David Brin published a decade earlier to critical acclaim. ‘It’s a post-apocalyptic story about a character – one of my best characters – who’s wandering around the wasteland of ruined America,’ explained the author in a video interview. ‘There was war, disease, a combination of factors because no one thing could knock America down all the way. And now you have your classic situation of isolated villages struggling to survive.’ Much like Costner’s character in Waterworld, Brin’s protagonist is not a traditional hero but merely a man attempting to survive, in this case taking on the appearance of a postman merely as a means to stay warm as he travels through the ruins of the country performing renditions of Shakespeare in return for food and supplies. Ostensibly a nomad, the postman soon becomes a symbol of hope for survivors desperate to believe in the return of the old world. ‘The postman must decide if he is willing, in his new role of hero, to fight for the fledging society that he has inadvertently created,’ explained an article published in Jet following the movie’s release.

The Postman by David Brin

The Postman by David Brin

While the depiction of a post-apocalyptic future may have originated in the writings of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, ever since the 1950s filmmakers have become obsessed with the end of the world and how society or an individual may surivive in the aftermath. Many of these earlier explorations focused on alien invasions but it would be the classic novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, first published in 1954, that would provide the blueprint for the traditional post-apocalyptic depiction; a man alone struggling to survive and encountering either relics of the old world or monsters of the new. This has continued to be a recurring theme in cinema, from older pictures such as Planet of the Apes to more recent offerings like Mad Max: Fury Road. The Postman, both the movie and its literary counterpart, would adhere to this tried-and-tested formula as its titular character would roam the desolate landscape in search of food and warmth, although his attempts to remain isolated from whatever civilisation remains proves futile as he encounters both the poor and hungry and those that oppress them.

‘Most post-holocaust novels are little-boy wish fantasies about running amok in a world without rules,’ explained Brin to Metroactive as the big budget adaptation of his novel entered production. ‘In fact, such lonely ‘heroes’ would vanish like soot after a real apocalypse. The moral of The Postman is that if we lost our civilisation we’d all come to realise how much we missed it and would realise what a miracle it is simply to get your mail every day…That’s the message I tried to get at in The Postman, the ultimate irony that we’re cantankerous individuals because of a warm, decent, generous, terribly imperfect society that taught us those values and created circumstances allowing self-righteous individuality to thrive.’ The prospect of Costner portraying the hero in Brin’s story would come from the author himself who had attended a screening of the 1989 drama Field of Dreams and had been advised by his wife that the actor would be perfect for the role. Much like The Postman, Field of Dreams was about redemption, society and a need to belong and Costner’s sensitive portrayal of a man yearning to reconnect with his dead father shared similarities with a man wishing to connect with a world that no longer existed.

Despite the insistence by his wife that Costner would embody the characteristics of the postman, it would be by mere coincidence that the actor would ultimately be cast in the role several years later while also making his sophomore feature as a director. The task of adapting the novel fell to Eric Roth, who had previously won an Academy Award for bringing Winston Groom’s story Forrest Gump to the big screen and Brian Helgeland, whose greatest success was the horror sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. ‘I got hired on The Postman by Ron Howard to write it for Tom Hanks,’ Helgeland told BAFTA Guru. ‘He was in post on a movie called The Paper at the time we were working on the script and there was a script on the coffee table called Apollo 13 and I would thumb through it during the day while he was off checking the mix and stuff. And he came in one day and said, ‘What do you think of that script?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s interesting,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but you know how it ends, you can never make that movie’ and we’d be back to work on The Postman. And then a month later I got a call from him saying, ‘I’m doing Apollo 13.’ It was a movie I couldn’t get fired from, usually a writer can manage to get fired from a movie but I couldn’t get fired from that movie. I have a lot of stories about it, but I won the Razzie for screenplay for that year at the same time I won the Academy Award for L.A. Confidential.’

Even prior to Costner’s involvement the development of The Postman had become infamous around Hollywood. ‘The resulting script – despite at least half a dozen dubious rewrites – became notorious in Hollywood, discouraging even such figures as Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, who had been attracted by the overall concept,’ stated Brin on his official site. ‘After helplessly reading successive drafts, each more bizarre than the last, I finally concluded the project was dead. Following the advice of many past authors who were disappointed with Hollywood, I determined to shrug my shoulders and walk away.’ But as history has proven, a troubled pre-production has not always guaranteed that the movie would ultimately be a disaster, as both James Cameron’s epic drama Titanic and Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller Gravity would have a difficult journey to the big screen but would become box office and critical sensations. And so with both Howard and Hanks having backed out of the project, Costner would step in as director and star, following his tremendous achievement in multiple roles with Dances with Wolves.

The Postman

The Postman

‘People kept phoning and writing to me, asking about ‘film rights to your wonderful novel,” claimed Brin. ‘Richard Dreyfuss, for instance, enthusiastically offered me first crack at the screenplay before I even had a chance to interrupt and break the news that rights were already gone…Then something happened. Kevin Costner came aboard, bringing all his might and prestige to the project. Though I was never consulted, he nevertheless agreed with my own impression – that an evil, incoherent and rapacious central character might be a bad idea! Instinctively realising that the tale ought to be about decency, heroism and hope, he threw out all the dismal old drafts.’ Helgeland would have his own interpretation of the hero, ‘The Kevin Costner character in my script was a con man. And it was post-apocalyptic in these little towns and he had found a dead body with a postman’s uniform on it and he wore it. He said that the government has been reformed, ‘we’re delivering the mail again, can you give me something to eat, can I sleep with one of the girls here?’ It was a scam to get fed and entertain people. It became a movement and the only person who didn’t believe in it was him.’

Costner approached the directing of The Postman much as he had done with Dances with Wolves by constructing it as a western. While The Postman was a fable its protagonist, a wanderer feeding off scraps and fighting for survival, drew parallels with the outlaws of the Wild West who travelled the frontier searching for any means to stay alive. Having previously starred in not only Dances with Wolves and Wyatt Earp but also a supporting role in the 1985 flick Silverado, Coster’s love of westerns was well known and would have a significant influence on his adaptation of Brin’s novel. Within the first few minutes all the key elements of the story are established – the reluctant hero, the intelligent villain and the fact that there is no one with the strength or the courage to come between them – and from there the director took his character on a journey from lone scavenger to saviour of humanity through necessary manipulations. Hope in the story comes in the form of Ford Lincoln Mercury, an enthusiastic and passionate young man whose naïve eyes we see the postman through, as Ford vows to assist in his good work by helping to restore order in the land. Through his belief an army of likeminded postmen are assembled, their rising in power angering the totalitarian military that rule over the weak and oppressed citizens.

In retrospect The Postman would be the ideal vehicle for Coster. For the previous decade he had specialised in playing the reluctant hero, whether it was returning from the Crusade to lead a group of downtrodden villagers against the evil sheriff in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or becoming a father figure to his hostage in A Perfect World, Costner often embodies a dominant-yet-kindhearted character at the centre of his movies. And with The Postman, as he finally comes to realise the hope that his lies has created and his responsibility to these actions, Costner once again rises up and leads an army against a force that dominates and destroys. Thus, this hero would be a culmination of several key Coster characters: the man looking for hope in Field of Dreams, the wounded spirit running from civilsation in Dances with Wolves and the scavenger feeding off others in Waterworld. Brin’s novel, published before Costner had found success, would inadvertently provide the blueprint for much of his screen persona. Perhaps it was no surprise that the author’s wife had found the ideal actor to play the role while watching Field of Dreams.

‘You pick what you think is an original movie,’ explained the actor to the Hollywood Reporter. ‘There’s so much about The Postman that I love. I probably made a mistake with Postman: I should’ve started it with, ‘Once upon a time,’ because it’s a modern-day fairytale. I liked it very much. And I understand forensically exactly what went on with Waterworld (but I don’t regret it).’ Like many authors whose work is adapted into a big budget motion picture, Brin has mixed feelings about the end result. ‘My best analogy is this: watching Kevin Costner’s three hour epic is a bit like having a great big Golden Retriever jump on your lap and lick your face, while waving a flag tied to its tail. It’s big, floppy, uncoordinated, overeager, sometimes gorgeous – occasionally a bit goofy – and so big-hearted that something inside of you has to give,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, some sections stretched far too long. Costner needed to have people around him unafraid to say which scenes were bloated and which others were self-indulgent – e.g., the stuff with Tom Petty. There were missed opportunities to have a little fun. And I’d have written the final battle scene quite differently.’

Kevin Costner and Larenz Tate

Kevin Costner and Larenz Tate

If there is one flaw in the movie it would be the last half an hour. With the postman grieving over the deaths that he has caused through his lies he disbands the faux postal service and attempts to flee the area with the assistance of former rock star Tom Petty, but as with all Hollywood blockbusters the hero must eventually face his nemesis. A more poignant ending to the story would have been if, instead of Ford delivering the postman’s letter of surrender to the enemy, Costner’s character had taken it personally and given himself over to the villain, leaving his fate somewhat ambiguous. ‘The film version of The Postman is, like most good adaptations, streamlined,’ explained Michael Reed in a positive retrospective for Den of Geek. ‘For one thing, there is a well-defined hero and a definite, singular villain. In this role, Will Patton’s General Bethlehem was a point of derision by critics of the time, but I suspect they misunderstood what he was trying to do. He is by turns both frightening and vicious, but there is always the hint of a pathetic Richard III type – a photocopier salesman who became a tyrant when the opportunity arose.’ In 2013, as he was promoting his supporting role in Man of Steel, Costner reflected on the movie in an interview with Huffington Post. ‘I always thought it was a really good movie…I thought it was a pretty funny movie set against the idea of a Superman — somebody stepping up. But in this case, it’s a very humble guy who’s nothing but a liar — delivers mail and burns half of it just to stay alive. So, I like the movie.’

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