Depicting history: Interview with Ron Maxwell, Film director, Rappahannock County

Director reflects on the Civil War and the current battle among potential movie sites

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Print this page by Martha Steger

When renowned Civil War historian James I. Robertson called “Gods and Generals“ — a film based on the novel by Jeffrey Shaara — “the greatest Civil War movie I have ever seen,” it was no idle compliment.  The Virginia Tech professor says he’s seen them all. 

Considered a prequel to the 1993 motion picture “Gettysburg” — based on the novel “Killer Angels” by Shaara’s father, Michael — “Gods and Generals” was filmed 10 years ago on historic locations in Virginia, West Virginia and around Sharpsburg, Md. (site of the Antietam Battlefield).  It represented 30-plus years in the filmmaking business for director Ronald F. Maxwell, who wrote and directed the movie just as he had written and directed “Gettysburg.” Media mogul Ted Turner provided virtually the entire $65 million budget (the Virginia legislature provided $500,000, and Maryland contributed as well). 

The economic ripple effects of “Gods and Generals” in Virginia may give us some idea of what to expect when Steven Spielberg films “Lincoln,” a movie based on the book “A Team of Rivals,” later this year in Richmond.

The Virginia Film Office says the filming and production of “Gods and Generals” brought in more than $5 million in direct spending to the state’s coffers.  Civil War tourism inquiries rose 36 percent in the 12 months after the film was released, according to the film office’s director, Rita McClenny. 

The tourism effects from the Spielberg film could be even more pronounced this year since it is the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
As “Gods and Generals” was being filmed in 2001, another tragic event in American history took place, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

The finished film includes many familiar faces and not all of them are actors. Several U.S. senators at the time, including George Allen of Virginia, Phil Gramm of Texas and the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, had cameo appearances.

Having a film flow from a director, according to Brian Mallon — who played Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals” — means having a director who is a guide for his actors. “Ron has a reputation for getting highly trained actors, putting them in the right environment and protecting them so they have the possibility for fully becoming their characters,” Mallon says.  “Actors can do a good, basic job with almost any role because they’re professionally trained — but if you want them to take emotional risks — to inhabit their characters — you have to be a guide.  Ron Maxwell is a guide.”

Virginia Business interviewed Maxwell at his 100-acre Flint Hill farm in Rappahannock County where he was surrounded by the dogs that he refers to as his “three boys and two girls” — two West Highland Terriers, two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and a Labrador mixed-breed. 

Virginia Business: Why did you decide to buy land in Virginia, and what do you like about life here now that you’ve lived in Rappahannock County for eight years?

Maxwell: Ever since I was a teenager and saw Tony Richardson’s [1963 film] “Tom Jones” with Albert Finney and Hugh Griffith, I identified with Squire Western [played by Griffith].  I was always living in cities — you have to live in cities when you’re young.  But when I was preparing for “Gods and Generals,” I found this place near Flint Hill, off a scenic byway, and fell in love with it.  I get to New York, L. A. and Paris regularly, but I love the country life.  I don’t have to worry about traffic.  It’s very social, but unlike living in the city, you’re mostly getting together in people’s homes.  You could be gone every evening to something having to do with horses or the arts — but at the same time, if you want to be a recluse, you can be.

VB:  Do you miss living in New York?

Maxwell: I had a duplex in New York for many years.  The city has a stranglehold on you, and you think if you leave for a weekend, you’re going to miss something.  Now that I’m out of it, I wonder how I was ever so hesitant to leave.  I’m still in touch with that world.  I have all of the tech devices, the iPad and iPhone — but you have to have a private life — so the devices don’t use me, I use them. Technology can be a deprivation instead of an enhancement to your life if you let it run you.  We should all use the simple ethic, “Be with the one you’re with.”

VB: What factors influenced your decision to film a major motion picture in Virginia?

Maxwell:  First and foremost, it’s where the story took place.  If we had based the decision on financial considerations alone, we would have gone to Eastern Europe, where “Cold Mountain” [a Civil War movie set in North Carolina] was made — or Canada.  I had to argue that it was important for the history and for the physical terrain — the look of the land — to make “Gods and Generals” in Virginia. 

I don’t think I would have won that argument if I’d been dealing with anyone other than Ted Turner.  It was still a hard decision.  We had to do budgets, but the aesthetic arguments prevailed because the tradeoff would have been the loss of authentic locations such as VMI, Washington & Lee and the Virginia countryside.

VB: How does Virginia stack up in the filmmaking world given the competition — including financial incentives — from so many other places?

Maxwell: I’m not really in a position to address this, as it’s been nine years since I filmed in Virginia, but I have followed the new incentives that Gov. McDonnell and the Virginia legislature have put into place.  These are absolutely essential to being competitive as a film location today. Nothing like this was in place at the time of “Gods and Generals.”  We were most fortunate to get wonderful state and local cooperation — but that was a [unique] situation and not due to anything in place to attract films at that time. “Gods and Generals” brought millions directly to the state as a result of filming here, plus an incalculable amount of revenue in perpetuity as far as tourism is concerned.

VB:  You were filming the movie on 9/11.  Please go through that day on the battlefield.

Maxwell: On Sept. 11, 2001, we were filming the Battle of Antietam — the bloodiest day in history on an American battlefield — and 9/11 turned out to be the bloodiest day for civilians in American history.  It was after the second plane hit that we knew it wasn’t an accident.  We broke the crew midmorning so that people could make phone calls about the whereabouts of loved ones.  We agreed to reconvene at one o’clock after the lunch break.  We had thousands of extras on hand and people who were in [military] reserve units.

After lunch I addressed the crew and said we were making a movie about history as we watched history unfold around us that day.  The making of the movie itself stood in opposition to the people who were trying to bring us down.  I wasn’t about to let those people interfere with the making of the film.  I told the crew I would be there by my camera the rest of the day but said that anyone who didn’t want to return to work for any reason would be excused.  Everyone stayed — with the exception of the handful of reservists — and we worked the rest of the day, with even greater resolve.

VB:  Though that must have been the most affecting day of filming, did other emotional scenes occur off-camera during “Gods and Generals”?

Maxwell:  When we were on location for the Battle of First Manassas, we received a visit from Stonewall Jackson’s middle-aged, great-great-great granddaughter.  Stephen Lang [who played Stonewall Jackson in the movie] gave her a big hug, and she said it was one of the happiest days of her life.  She was very moved.

VB:  Why did you want to make films about the Civil War?

Maxwell:  People today look at the Confederate flag and think of it as a symbol of slavery.  Yet the American flag was a symbol of slavery for almost 100 years after a national flag was adopted — and many of the colonies had been a symbol of slavery before that. I thought the causes of the war needed a closer look.  The war was also a great visual story when you look at events such as the Great Train Raid of 1861, on U.S. Route 11 between Middleburg and Strasburg, and the First Battle of Manassas, followed by the Battle of Gettysburg two years later.

VB:  How do you respond to Civil War aficionados who say “Gettysburg” is the better movie because all the characters are men, and the women in “Gods and Generals” are distractions?

Maxwell: “Gettysburg” was the story of 3½ days in one place.  “Gods and Generals” spanned 1861-1863 so there was no way you could have that much time elapse without women and families as part of the epic.  Both Fannie Chamberlain and Anna Jackson are in Shaara’s novel, and they’re part of my attempt to explore the home front, to broaden the perspective of what life was like and put the war in its context.

I had come upon the diary of Jane Beale — who was caught in the terrifying invasion of Fredericksburg — so I added her, as well as her domestic slave, Martha [played by Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy].  I also added Jim Lewis, hired by Stonewall Jackson in 1862 as his cook and personal valet, who stayed with the general until Jackson’s death from pneumonia in 1863. “Gods and Generals” was more interesting for me because all of the group scenes have African-Americans in them, simply because the Confederate Army moved on the backs of African-Americans.  They were the teamsters, the cooks, the quartermaster corps.

VB:  What is your vision as an artist?

Maxwell:  Human beings are wired to know the truth because it’s a matter of survival; but for the artist, truth is a further refinement of that instinct.  I can say that I was surprised at the virulence of the attacks against me for portraying honorable men like Robert E. Lee, who fought for the South.  I attribute the attacks to the fact that over the past 20 years or so slavery has been taken for granted as the only cause of the Civil War. Those who fought with the South were firmly embedded in the psyches of the chattering classes — journalists, politicians and average citizens — as Nazis.  With 30-plus years in the motion-picture business, the criticism leveled at me went beyond criticism of filmmaking.  I welcome criticism of my films.  The attacks were moral judgments intended to delegitimize the film.

As a filmmaker, I have to put myself in the shoes of all of the characters — and the further you go back in time, the harder it is to immerse yourself in the characters.  Just as I put Joan of Arc in her 15th-century moral environment, so I put [Union Colonel] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [“Gettysburg”] in his. When you start putting people into scenes, you take the leap of the imagination.  You’re putting together the shards you’ve unearthed, and you understand that when Joshua Chamberlain accepted the surrender at Appomattox, everyone accepted it.  There could have been a guerrilla war that went on forever.  The magnanimity — the wisdom — of the generals who fought the war is amazing.  I’m not into dogma.  I’m into living, breathing people.  The truth is always complex, surprising and fabulously interesting. 

VB: What in your life helped prepare you for doing these epics?

Maxwell: My father was widely read and in the U.S. Army Air Forces with Eisenhower in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.  He read to me as a boy and took me to places like Fort Ticonderoga and Fort William Henry.  I still have my childhood books on Stephen Decatur and Daniel Boone.  I read accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s father crossing the Blue Ridge into what is now West Virginia.  It was a seamless transition from being a reader to being a filmmaker.

VB:  What is happening with the third Civil War movie — “The Last Full Measure” — that you’ve said would complete your trilogy?

Maxwell:  “The Last Full Measure” is another big epic.  It could cost anywhere from [$50 million to $75 million] and is not funded.  Not a week goes by that I don’t work on it, but filmmaking is like a Rubik’s cube — unless you have everything aligned exactly right, it’s not going to happen. 

VB:  What are you working on in the interim?

Maxwell:  My next subject is “Copperhead,” an original screenplay by Bill Kauffman about the anti-war resisters in the North [during the Civil War] who were derisively called Copperheads.  They backed Little Mac [Union Gen. George McClellan] for president in the 1864 election.  If it hadn’t been for the back-to-back victories by federal armies at Gettysburg and Vicksburg [July 3-4, 1863], the New York draft riots would have brought about a different election result the next year. “Copperhead” is an intimate family drama of how the war divides a family and a village.

VB:  Which film directors do you most admire?

Maxwell:  Ones who have made movies on the cutting edge — Ang Lee, Danny Boyle, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick.

VB:  Do you have any idea what Spielberg will do with Lincoln?

Maxwell: Not the faintest — but if it’s half as good as “Schindler’s List,” I’ll be there on opening day.

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