Movie Article

Tome on the Range

''Dances With Wolves'': From novel to film -- We talk with ''Dances'' author and Oscar nominated screenwriter Michael Blake about his transformation into a hot Hollywood property

''I created Lieut. John Dunbar,'' says writer Michael Blake, ''so I could see the buffalo. So I could be friends with a wolf. So I could have a horse I loved.''

There are those who scoff that Blake, 45, actually wrote his 1986 novel, Dances With Wolves, just so his friend Kevin Costner could make a movie, but Blake, who also wrote the screenplay, says he wanted to tell the story of a white man who learned to appreciate the rich but vulnerable culture of the American Indian, as he himself had. ''One of the things that had fascinated me about Indians was that they took great pride in the fact that they were partners with nature,'' says the author, who started reading histories about the frontier Indians and their bitter conflicts with white soldiers about seven years ago. He first met Costner in 1981, when the actor starred in the low-budget romance Stacy's Knights, which Blake wrote and Dances producer Jim Wilson directed.

''The Indians' sense of community was something I had never had in my life,'' says Blake. ''Like so many other people, I come from a broken home. I didn't starve — but spiritually, I didn't have very much to sustain me. The Indians had hard lives, but they always had the spiritual thing going.''

Until 1987, when Costner and Wilson decided to try to make his novel into a movie, Blake had little more than his artistic principles and the generosity of friends to keep him going. He had spent 20 years writing mostly unproduced screenplays, and Dances, his first novel, was never even reviewed. In what seems like a scene from a B-movie script, he was working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in Bisbee, Ariz., when Costner called and asked him to come back to Hollywood to write the film. Now his screenplay has been nominated for an Academy Award, his book (Fawcett, $4.95) has been No. 1 on The New York Times' paperback best-seller list for 11 weeks, and the man who has never had a permanent home has more work than he can handle.

''I'm a hot commodity in Hollywood right now,'' says Blake, a fourth-generation writer whose accent still betrays his North Carolina origins. ''That's fun. I had a reputation as a very good writer who didn't write things that were high-concept enough to get produced. After not being able to get arrested here for so many years, now there are so many people who want me to work for them. ''

Blake, who lives in the Santa Monica Mountains with two horses, two dogs, and a cat, claims he's not particularly interested in the trappings of sudden success. While he just bought his first VCR, he has resisted the purchase of the obligatory car phone. But he is enjoying the new freedom to choose his projects. He is currently finishing a film adaptation for Universal of Poodle Springs, by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, and is about to start a screenplay for the same studio about the recent slaughter of 500 mustangs in Nevada. He has also founded his own publishing house, Seven Wolves Publishing, which will print his second novel, Airman Mortensen, about an 18-year-old flier awaiting court martial, later this year. (Newmarket Press, which published the movie tie-in book, will release Dances in hardcover this spring.) But he says his greatest satisfaction is the way Indian communities have received the movie.

''These are people who had everything taken from them,'' Blake says. ''I see the pride these people have for this film and it fulfills me beyond words. I'm just thrilled they've made this movie their own.''

Originally posted Mar 08, 1991 Published in issue #56 Mar 08, 1991 Order article reprints