The Washington Times
February 22, 2003
PETER COLLIER: Movies are different from history per se: They are meant to entertain. How do you square the circle in terms of movies and history?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: Storytelling is intrinsic and essential to the human condition. Starting with the plays of Aeschylus and Aristophanes and Euripides, the secular part of theater – which is entertainment – and the sacred part are really one. It started out as a single human experience, and it continued that way over the millennia.
Although Shakespeare was very cognizant of entertaining his audience of the time, he was still dealing with the human condition in ways that resonate across the centuries.
The same is true in motion pictures. Of course, we have to communicate as filmmakers in a way that entertains and holds the interest of an audience – as storytellers and dramatists have from the dawn of time. But we must not forget that we are telling stories that are deeply important and that it takes a great seriousness of purpose.
And certainly in the making of “Gods and Generals” (the second part produced, but the first part chronologically of a trilogy on the Civil War), we understand that we are not just making entertainment, we are telling an epic story of the American experience, and we have to keep in mind the seriousness of that purpose.
PC: You could have told a story about a guy named Jackson Thomas who was a general in the Civil War, but you chose to tell the story of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, this real historical figure, this fascinating exemplar of a lot of Southern virtue and, I suppose, Southern vice as well. Why this guy Jackson? What was it that interested you?
RM: The original impulse, back in 1978, was reading Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels.” Those characters, that place, those events grabbed me viscerally the way that a filmmaker must be grabbed if you are going to commit yourself to what could be years – in this case decades – of your life to get it made. If you don’t have a deep commitment to a subject, you can’t survive all of the rejections that come in this business.
After “Gettysburg,” was released, first theatrically and then a year later when it appeared on TNT as a miniseries and received its incredibly high ratings – 38 million people saw it, a number unsurpassed to this day – I realized that there was an audience for this.
I came to realize – I would meet 12-year-olds that could recite the whole movie verbatim – that the movie had touched a chord among my neighbors and fellow citizens. And in the process, I realized that far from exhausting the subject, I had really only scratched the surface. So I suggested to Jeff Shaara that we do a Civil War trilogy building on “Gettysburg” as a centerpiece, taking its characters back to the secession and then through Appomattox.
Once we came to that concept, it became clear to us that you could not do the first two years of the war without including Thomas Jonathan Jackson, because he almost is an incarnation of the first two years of the war. That became the template for Jeff Shaara as he wrote those two new books, “Gods and Generals” and, subsequently, “Last Full Measure.”
Once Jeff had made his literary take on Jackson and continued his father’s literary take on the other characters, I finally realized I had to devote myself fully to continuing this work on the Civil War trilogy. So in the wake of a setback on a planned movie I had been working on about Joan of Arc, I made a phone call to Ted Turner to say I was ready to get back to “Gods and Generals,” which he and I had been talking about for years. We made that deal virtually overnight and began the process that we are continuing to this day.
I spent most of 1999 and 2000 researching and writing the screenplay. I had to make my own personal connection with these characters, before I could dare sit down and write a screenplay to give these characters voice. So even though this movie is based on the book “Gods and Generals,” it is very much its own animal, and the screenplay stands on its own.
In that process, I came to know and be fascinated with Jackson, and I got to the point in the research where I felt I could write his words. It is in the dialogue – the words that Jackson speaks in the film when they’re not exact historical quotations – where I believe the filmmaker’s poetic license resides.
It doesn’t reside in changing the facts. Things that happened you cannot change, and things that didn’t happen you cannot make up. Where poetic license lives is in creating the characterization, the emotional interaction between people, based on the actual diaries and letters and so forth.
In Jackson, I discovered an extraordinary man, a man of incredible devotion to his idea of patriotism, a man with a high sense of duty, a very ethical man, a man who had a living relationship 24 hours a day with his Lord Jesus Christ, a loving, caring relationship with his wife Anna Jackson. He was a man who inspired enormous confidence and admiration from the men who fought and marched with him, and a man at the same time who was capable of great severity.
He’s a tough character – he demanded that his soldiers march 20-plus miles a day, sometimes without being well shod. They became known as Jackson’s foot cavalry – he drove them so hard. Just like other Confederate officers, and some Yankee officers in the 19th century, he treated deserters by giving them the firing squad, and we have such a scene in the film.
I am not interested in putting Jackson or (Robert E.) Lee or (Joshua Lawrence) Chamberlain or any of these people on a pedestal. I am not interested in deifying them. I am interested in presenting them in their full humanity, and part of Jackson’s full humanity is that he was a tough, severe character.
We have a scene earlier in the film when he is arguing with Jeb Stuart that the Confederacy does not understand that they’re up against superior men, superior power, superior industry, and the only way they are going to win is by the policy of the black flag. Black flag meant “Take no prisoners.”
He was arguing that the Confederacy fight the same way that the Apache were fighting the Federal armies out west in Arizona and New Mexico. That idea was regarded as folly and an outrage by the Confederate high command and the Confederate politicians, and of course, it was never put into practice, but it gives you an idea of what a tough character he was.
PC: Are you saying that Jeff Shaara did these books because you and he had envisioned this film trilogy?
RM: Jeff Shaara had only written one thing in his life before “Gods and Generals” and that was a letter to me. He visited the “Gettysburg” set the summer of ’92, and he wrote me this really eloquent, beautiful letter a few weeks later that talked about the experience he had, and how visiting the set caused him to have a posthumous reunion with his father (Michael Shaara had passed away in 1988), from whom he had become totally estranged during their lifetime.
They were so estranged, in fact – I was a good friend of Michael Shaara’s – that Michael Shaara referred to his “dead son.” I never knew he had a living son until I met Jeff Shaara after Michael’s funeral. So coming to the set was a great catharsis for Jeff, and he took the CD of Randy Edelman’s magnificent score to his father’s grave site, and he sat there and played it and made peace with his father.
The great irony is that, when I came up with the idea of a Civil War trilogy and we were thinking of whom to approach to write these two new novels, I suggested he write them, and he was completely taken aback. He was a building contractor and a professional coin dealer and had never thought of himself as a writer.
So Jeff thought about it and decided to go for it, and then we established the structure, the template – deciding to start where the characters intersect, on the battlefield. That is where Chamberlain and (Winfield Scott) Hancock and Lee and (James) Longstreet and (George E.) Pickett and Jackson were brought together. That gave us Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville – those were the battles in the book.
Then in the film, I added First Manassas, because you couldn’t have a film without the battle where the first brigade and Jackson get their nickname.
Once we decided on the framework, then Jeff wrote his own book. I did not lean over his shoulder as he wrote the book, any more than he leaned over my shoulder when I wrote the screenplay.
PC: In a lot of the historical movies we see, ranging from Oliver Stone to John Sayles, there is an element of propaganda. I suppose I am picking out left-wing figures for obvious reasons here, but do you envision your film as in some sense a “conservative” movie?
RM: I assiduously keep my own politics out of the work. Now I am who I am, and my deep philosophical view of life is going to come through in every choice I make – how I write the script, what I choose to emphasize, how I cast it, shoot it, edit it. I don’t deny that. But there is nothing in this film that is overtly manipulated. That’s just not the role of the filmmaker.
The movies that have moved me the most, and helped shaped me as a human being are movies which pose questions. The motion picture is a terribly awkward and inadequate medium in which to answer questions. As soon as you try to answer questions, especially the big questions of life, it makes us uncomfortable as an audience. It veers into agitprop and propaganda very quickly.
The great films pose questions. You can pose little questions, you can pose big questions. This film poses the big questions. It is a meditation about patriotism and the sense of duty: What do you love enough to defend? To fight for? To kill for? These are big questions, questions being faced by our country and our fellow citizens right now, in a different context.
I try to keep contemporary politics out of it, because contemporary politics has nothing to do with the people in this story. The people in this story live in the 1860s, not in the year 2003, and it is my responsibility as a filmmaker to go where they live, not take them where we live. That would be a complete waste of everybody’s time and money.
I must take the audience into their moral universe. And then, paradoxically, once you are in that conflict in the 1860s, understanding them in that place where they live, then we understand ourselves in the modern era better. If all I tried to do was make those 19th-century people stick figures to represent us, we wouldn’t believe any of it.
PC: I am wondering if you are ready for the inevitable critical blow that you are going to take with this movie. Let me give you some areas in which I predict you are going to take a hit. One, somebody is bound to say “Why would I want to see a movie about three big battles and a guy that prays constantly?” Somebody else will say that this is a movie that glorifies the South – the mythic South, as well as the real South. And somebody else is going to say that there is a politically incorrect sort of take on black people here, who are shown not as being in any sense insurgent but as being organic in their relationship with their white masters.
So those are three areas where I imagine you’ll take some heat – political areas, really, for a movie that you have already explained is not a political movie.
RM: I am not saying for a second that it won’t be regarded as a political movie. I am just saying that as a filmmaker, I assiduously stayed in the 19th century with the characters and tried to be true to them. At the same time I recognize that this movie is going out into a very politically charged climate.
To a certain section of the population – black and white – they see the Stars and Bars, the battle flag of the Confederacy, and it is like somebody just stabbed them in the heart. They are as genuinely offended by it as Jews are when they see the swastika. And then you have on the other side people who see the same flag, and it inspires pride and heritage.
Both feelings are genuine. How do you reconcile them? Well, it is going to take us awhile as a society to reconcile that.
The movie is also coming out in a highly charged racial atmosphere – we’ve just been through the Trent Lott affair, and there are folks already out there criticizing Sen. (Robert C.) Byrd for playing a Confederate officer in this movie, because when he was 20 he was in the Ku Klux Klan. So there are people ready to jump on this film and attack it from all sorts of positions.
While I understand that, I cannot allow myself as a filmmaker to succumb to these pressures. I have to think of three things: I have to think of the here and now, of course, because this film has to go out into the marketplace in a couple of weeks. I’ve got to think about the generation this film is about. And I’ve got to think about future generations that will see this on technologies not yet invented – and those future generations will not thank me if I pandered, or caved in to the political winds that were blowing in the year 2003, which will be blowing differently in the year 2010, the year 2050 and 500 years from now.
That is the discipline that I must have, and I am trying to be true to these people. Jackson – I set him up in his full humanity, like him or dislike him. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an abolitionist. Through him, we understand that when the war began, it was a fight to preserve the Union and (Abraham) Lincoln was not fighting for emancipation, but, as I say in the screenplay, the war changed things, and by January 1863, it had become a war of emancipation.
Lee has a tough choice at the beginning of the movie: Stay with the United States or to stay with his state? All of them – Jackson, Chamberlain, Lee – are who they are.
The blacks in this film are not caricatures, the one-dimensional rebellious black or the one-dimensional black who is being flogged by his evil slave master. Those characteristics are part of the story. I love “Glory”; it is an important film. And other films need to be made about the pernicious institution of slavery. But this particular film is about Jackson, Lee and Chamberlain.
We might regard these people as racist in the context of our time, just like we could regard Lincoln as racist in the context of our time, but the paradox is that at the same time we may regard them as racist from our point of view, they are all ethical people. They are people trying to sort things out.
Jim Lewis (Stonewall Jackson’s mess cook) was treated well by Jackson. Jackson hired him as a free man of color, and the other African-American character in this film, Martha, a domestic slave, was also treated well by her masters, the Beales.
But it’s important to see that even when blacks were treated optimally, even when they were treated with humanity and kindness, it still was a pernicious, evil institution. Who would want to live in a situation where you were confined, ordered about, owned by another human being? But I don’t think that every time you have a movie about the period, you have to see sadistic people flogging other people to make the point.
We are telling the truth here, and the African-American characters in this film are historically real characters, as real as Jackson, Lee and Chamberlain. They are presented here in their total humanity.
What does that mean? Did they want to be free? Absolutely. They had no confusion about that. Jim Lewis talks about it in a scene with Jackson. Martha talks about it in a scene with Hancock. There is no equivocation there. They know they are being held in bondage. They know they want to be free, but at the same time they have real bonds of affection with the white people they are living with.
We can’t deny this. This is paradoxical, it is complicated, but I have sought to present the blacks, just like the whites, in their full humanity.
And if I am going to take shots for that, so be it.
July 7, 2011
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to write/direct these epic Civil War movies?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: My dad, a World War Two vet, was an avid reader of literature and history. In my youth I was taken to historical sites in New Jersey and New York State, from colonial to French and Indian War and American Revolutionary periods. As soon as I could read I too was reading history, biography and literature. By the time I was in Jr High School I was writing historical dramas and producing them with my own theater company. So, in a real sense, I’ve been doing this work all my life, long before it was conceived as a career or a way to earn a living. My interest in the literary life and the imagined world of fiction, whether expressed on stage, screen or on the printed page has never waned. I can hardly keep up with the number of books I want to read, mostly in English, occasionally in my second language, French.
My interests are not confined to American History. In fact, I’ve developed screenplays and motion-picture projects set in the French Revolution, in early 15th Century France, in 19th Century Mozambique, in 16th Century Algiers and in the Soviet Union in 1945, a Western, a World War Two mystery set in Paris, to name just a few. But yes, I’ve always been captivated by the American Civil War. So that when I read Michael Shaara’s stunning novel The Killer Angels, the creative ground had already been well ploughed. The preparation exceeded the study of the War itself. It included an education and an understanding of the epic form in literature, music and drama. I chose to approach both Gettysburg and Gods&Generals as epics, taking their modest place in a long line with a continuous pedigree dating from Greek drama and through the more than two millenia to the present. This informed every decision, from the length of the movies, to their echoes of past events, to the elegiac mood, the pacing, characterization and dialogue. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Joshua Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College, freely quotes from Lucanus’ Civili Bellum as he watches Burnside’s army cross the Rappahannock River in the winter of 1862. As the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme choses.”
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Gettysburg was your first film of the two, shot in 1993. Arguably it was the most well-known battle from the Civil War and one that had to be done right, if not then you face the wrath of thousands of historians. How did you approach the creation process? What type of research did you have to go through and how long did it take you before you felt like you had done the battle justice and you felt ready to start production?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: I first read The Killer Angels in 1978. The movie premiered in 1993, fifteen years later.
I worked on the screenplay until 1981 to get a first draft. Thereafter it went through multiple re-writes. From the get-go I sought out historians who read the various drafts and offered comment. These historians included Gabor Boritt, at the time the chairman of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. In addition to the half-dozen historians who vetted the script, we employed historical consultants who worked with us on the set as we filmed the movie, checking to be sure we had everything right, from big questions having to do with specific battle tactics to the smallest details having to do with military protocols or regimental insignias. This isn’t to claim we achieved perfection. That’s impossible. But we didn’t stint in our efforts to get it right and were always open to correction, improvement or change. We were making a movie, yes, but it was a movie about our collective national story – about our ancestors – so we had a big responsibility to get it right. Filmmaking is inherently about details. When it works well its like a finely crafted Swiss time-piece with the soul of a Renaissance painting. To be careless with the details, whether they are visual elements, soundscapes or emotional notes as expressed by the actors, is to ignore the incredible potential of the cinematic experience.
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Were there any obstacles that got in your way during production of Gettysburg?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: It was a big production with a lot of moving parts, an exceptionally long script and a relatively tight budget ($15,000,000). We had to prepare the production and shooting schedule with meticulous care and had no room for error. We were lucky in that we had five days of rain cover and that summer (1992) it rained five days. We had to move from set-up to set-up at an intense pace. Because we had so many explosives, real cannons, muskets and bayonets, we nevertheless had to move at a controlled and deliberate pace – never rushing. To rush a set-up or a shot would have put people and horses at risk – which we never did. We had a great crew and cast. Everyone was prepared and on top of their game. We finished filming on time at the scheduled 62 days.
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Gods and Generals was the prequel to Gettysburg. Many critics felt the movie brought too kind of a light on what the South was fighting for at the time; less emphasis on slavery and more on honorable values of soldiers fighting for their beliefs (and their states). For me, it felt like watching Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, where you understood the sailors were fighting for Germany, but the audience got to know the men at a human level rather than a generic ‘this is a German soldier’ level.
Is this the type of thought process you were shooting for with your audience when it came to southern side of the story in the Gods and Generals? How difficult was it to properly explain the Southern view point?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: I’ve written an essay which addresses these questions in detail. It’s entitled “For the Love of Tender Kinship,” and can be found at my website, www.ronmaxwell.com It’s also published as part of the 48 page booklet which accompanies the new Extended Directors Cut of Gods and Generals. But to briefly answer your question, yes, it is a challenge. Unless like Rip Van Winkle you’ve been asleep for the past twenty years, you know that political correctness has calcified into a sclerotic, suffocating noxious cloud permeating every corner of our lives. No filmmaker can afford to allow himself or herself to be crippled or shackled by its invisible censorship. Nor could I. There is no point in telling a story about people who lived a hundred and fifty years ago, only to place them in our world. Its the exact opposite of what a filmmaker should be doing, which is to take the contemporary viewer back in time into their world.
Of course, as soon as you enter their world, with as much fidelity and honesty as possible, you confront many things that surprise, discomfort and even shock the viewer. No generation of humans has a monopoly on enlightened human behavior or can claim moral superiority over generations dead and buried or generations yet unborn. The whole notion is just plain silly, as well as arrogant.
I’m accustomed to reading film criticism. Some of it is very well informed and very well written. David Denby, David Edelstein, Richard Schickel, Pat Stoner and Leonard Maltin come to mind. And they’re not alone. But most of it is really, really dumb. I never cease to be amazed by the idiocy which poses as film criticism. The sanctimonious nonsense written about Gods and Generals from critics who took it as an opportunity to condemn Confederate soldiers like Lee and Jackson just so they could burnish their own politically correct credentials was nauseating when it wasn’t comical.
Film critics are a vanishing breed. There were never that many good ones to start with, but with the expansion of the internet their influence recedes with every passing day. I’ll always read the thoughtful reviewers whether they like my movies or not. A mature person doesn’t rate critics by how complimentary they are to your own films. But I’m not at all sad to see the blow-hards and the smart-alecks lose their prestigious publishing platforms.
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Were there any obstacles that hindered the production process of Gods and Generals?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: We had financial assets available on G&G that permitted a bigger level of production than on Gettysburg. We needed the $65,000,000 budget, because unlike Gettysburg which essentially took place in open terrain and forested ridges over three days in the summer of 1863, G&G encompassed towns, multiple battlefields, all seasons and spanned three years. We also had to divide our production schedule between two base camps, one in western Maryland near Antietam battlefield, the other in the Shenandoah Valley near Lexington. We received extraordinary cooperation from the state and local governments in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.
DIGITAL CHUMPS: Finally, what’s next for Ron Maxwell?
RONALD F. MAXWELL: Working on two films, both scripted and nearing production. Belle Starr is a Western adapted from Speer Morgan’s extraordinary novel set in the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma in the 1880s, with a tour de force role for an actress in her forties. Copperhead is a Civil War story set in New York, which explores the anti-war movement in the North. It goes to the heart of the matter, a family torn apart by the war.