“After making two epic Civil War pictures, I found I was still interested in the subject,” Ron Maxwell says with a smile, when asked what drew him to Copperhead. Renowned for not only writing but also directing the massively-scaled, hugely popular epics Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), a deeper challenge remained.
“I wanted to explore something more intimate. My previous pictures focused on officers and leaders, but, in reality, the war was fought by teenage boys, most from small towns whose families ended up devastated by the war even if no battles were fought nearby.
“In the past, I’d contrasted two dominant viewpoints, charging at each other with bayonets. In the South, you had the Secessionists, who were willing to die for the rights of American states to break away from the union, while to the North you had the Unionists, who were just as bravely committed to defending a ‘United’ States. During the time-period of this film, in 1862, the abolition of slavery became an additional Union war aim.
“What has remained unsaid, and what Civil War films never fully show, is that within each society, North and South, there were many, many factions. You had Southerners with no interest in owning slaves, or seceding from the union. To the north, you had differences of opinion that were just as fractious, even violent. Not everybody who hated slavery or loved the U.S. Constitution was willing to send their children off to die or be maimed in a bloody battle against fellow Americans. That fascinating reality is the force driving Copperhead.”
“If there’s a political point to the film,” says screenwriter Bill Kauffman, “it’s a defense of dissent.”
Kauffman is himself a heretical political thinker and prolific author whose books (such as Ain’t My America and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet) have been praised for their rigor and honesty by such diverse figures of the American spectrum as Christopher Hitchens, Ron Paul and Gore Vidal. The late liberal Senator George McGovern called Kauffman: “A conservative of the highest order, unlike the false brand now conducting our national affairs.”
As Ron Maxwell has long been yet another admirer, the pair had for several years explored other screenplay ideas before Kauffman proposed Copperhead. Both were aware of the 1893 novel by Harold Frederic. Kauffman, as a native of the upstate New York region where the novel is set, had long been aware of the works of Frederic (1856 – 1898) who had witnessed firsthand the Civil War-era events that he later transposed into his novel. Maxwell knew of the book because he’d come across it as part of his voracious reading in preparation for Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.
Both sparked to the intimate scale of a story set in a small town hundreds of miles from the war and centered on a man who is a sympathetic human being, even as he stands against what we now know to be the tide of history. If anything, Maxwell and Kauffman felt Abner Beech to be all the more sympathetic to a mass audience precisely because he must fight for his beliefs without knowing how things will turn out.
“There are huge, consequential choices before us at every turn in history,” says Maxwell. “We have to choose without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Bill and I wanted to explore this important aspect of human life, which has not been sufficiently explored in the popular culture. You have a guy saying ‘no’ when everybody around him is saying ‘yes.’ His stand is thoughtful and principled, yet to his colleagues, his neighbors, eventually his family, he is viewed as a pariah, even a traitor.”
Kauffman and Maxwell believe that too often dissent is dramatized in films by centering on the one person in a hostile society whom history has later proved to be right.
“Everyone says they’re in favor of dissent,” says Kauffman, “but you’re flattering an audience, and falsifying history, if you stack the deck so that all the right-thinking people of today already agree with your dissenter – if he or she alone is defending Darwin’s theory of evolution, say, or standing up to the mob that wants to hang the witches at Salem. It’s much harder, more truthful, and introduces more interesting complications if your protagonist is like Abner and opposes the very thing we now know that history has ratified: the war to uphold the United States and end slavery. It raises the moral question, not of slavery, but free speech: ‘Okay, lovers of Dissent: Are you going to defend this guy?’”
Kauffman stayed close to the structure of Frederic’s novel, its cast of characters, and rich sense of spoken language. As Maxwell observes, “That line where an ear of burnt corn is described as ‘tougher than Pharaoh’s heart’ is so good you’d be crazy to cut it. The book was filled with them, illuminating a time and a place and a mind-set that’s been positively informed by the memorizing of scripture.”
Their one radical departure was to provide a more tragic fate for the passionate, ultimately violent abolitionist, Jee Hagadorn. “Frederic quite possibly based him on a relative he didn’t like,” says Kauffman. “We gave him a darker, more costly loss to deal with at the end and let him choose his fate within that. This allowed us to give our audience a deeper sense of Jee’s humanity without violating the integrity of the world as Frederic observed and re-created it.”
Toward this humanizing end, the actors chosen for Abner and Jee were essential. “You live or die by who you cast,” says Maxwell. “For Abner, you needed an actor who could, at a glance, make you feel the man’s warmth, his groundedness, his gravity, his honesty. Billy Campbell has all those qualities. I’d worked with him well on both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and thought of him right away for Abner. I’d also been long aware of Angus McFadyen because of his terrific work in Braveheart and elsewhere. He was ideal for Jee. There’s a tornado in Angus – he’s such an inventive actor, so alive to what’s happening at any moment. He takes Jee into the historic but larger than life rage of a John Brown, wherein a person becomes capable of deadly violence for their ideals.”
Another key piece of casting was Peter Fonda, as Abner’s neighbor Avery. This role is built up beyond the simpler character-sketch provided in the novel, for two reasons: “There was a need to articulate Abraham Lincoln’s point of view in a way that was organic to small town life of the time,” says Kauffman, “but we didn’t want to fall into the trap of imposing a character who is an alter-ego for 21st century thought. Avery provided us an opportunity to keep the argument local and true. Casting Peter Fonda also enriches the film in terms of his particular screen presence. You’re free to think of his Dad playing Young Mr. Lincoln, or Peter himself as the man ‘in search of America’ in Easy Rider.” One of Kauffman’s prized possessions is an original poster for that film, which fills one wall of his office.
Maxwell had done such extensive location-scouting for both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals that he could draw on a deep database of first-hand memory for those places in North America that had either preserved or restored their 19th century architecture to “living museum” level, the better to evoke upstate New York in mid-1800s without capsizing the budget. One place in particular stood out: King’s Landing in New Brunswick. “That place made Copperhead possible,” says Maxwell. “To build even a tenth of it from scratch would have pushed us into the 50 million dollar range or beyond.”
The one set that needed to be constructed was the burnt ruin of a village home, after the climactic scene. “We weren’t about to harm any of the historical buildings,” explains Maxwell. A charred skeletal replica of the existing house was instead constructed close by on the same property. “We shot all the scenes that take place inside the ruins first, then we burnt them to the ground as part of the riot scene – all while the King’s Landing Fire Department stood behind us, with their big hoses.”
To achieve a persuasive 1862 in this setting meant “peeling away, not building.” Anything of a later period was carefully removed. The large cast of mostly young actors rehearsed for a week before shooting began. This not only included table-readings of the script, the better to grow familiar with long-ago rhythms of speech – but lessons in wagon driving and barn dancing.
Because Bill Kauffman is “a born and bred native of upstate New York,” the dialect coach urged the actors to study his accent – a prospect, in his view, that makes him laugh just thinking back on it. “My wife, who’s from Los Angeles, said that if they were serious about learning my accent, all they have to do is ask me to say ‘Halle Berry.’” (Kauffman pronounces it: “Hailey Bairy.”)
To cast the key parts: Abner, Jee, Avery; and the young people: Esther, Jeff, Ni, and Warner, Maxwell freed himself to choose from the entire pool of English speaking actors, using Skype to meet and audition many, such as Angus McFadyen from his home in Panama, or Lucy Boynton and Augustus Prew in England, both of whom are very experienced young actors. Francois Arnaud, who plays Warner the returning war veteran, was already well-established elsewhere as Cesare in Neil Jordan’s Showtime series “The Borgias.”
The rest of the cast (Genevieve Steel, Andrea Lee Norwood, Mary Fay Coady, and Hugh Thompson, among others) was assembled from the wealth of talent in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Maxwell is particularly proud of discovering Casey Brown for the role of Abner’s son Jeff, who had been acting in student films at USC, and of young Canadian actor Josh Cruddas, who plays Jeff’s adopted brother Jimmy.
The actors bonded well during the seven weeks of shooting through the spring of 2012. This was particularly gratifying for both Maxwell and Kauffman. Kauffman, who was present for four of those weeks, says: “Stubborn as he is, Abner comes to a deeper understanding of the value of his community,” says Kauffman. “That’s not going to come across unless the feeling is there among the people onscreen.”
Maxwell could not agree more – citing what both men see as the key exchange of the film that comes when Avery, taking Lincoln’s position, directly challenges Abner’s antiwar stance. He asks: “Doesn’t The Union mean anything to you?”
What Abner says in reply grows out of a deep bond between all the characters that Maxwell and Kauffman so vividly create in this long-ago time that could just as easily be this morning:
“My family means more to me,” Abner tells his loyal opponent. “My farm means more. Even though we disagree, Avery, you mean more to me than The Union.”