Created on 15 May 2013
Independent film director and writer Ronald Maxwell talks the Civil War, fatherhood, filmmaking, and artistic vision.
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. 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.
FILM DIRECTOR RONALD F. MAXWELL
knows the Civil War inside out. His three most famous films (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Copperhead) all center on the defining years of 1861 through 1865 in American history. But Maxwell knows a lot of other things, too: the fifteenth-century French language, literature, and culture of Joan of Arc (for his epic Joan of Arc, Virgin Warrior); how to get the most from actors such as Dennis Quaid and Kristy McNichol (The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia); and how to be a good, single dad to young children while working (not something one would have expected of a director more than thirty-five years ago).
"I was one of the first single dads in America," he says, referring to his mid-1970s divorce when his daughter, now thirty-nine, and his son, thirty-seven, were ages four and two. "They were either eight and six or nine and seven when they came to live with me full time. I was a part-time filmmaker and a full-time dad. I learned to make lots of breakfasts—but I had to bring home the bacon figuratively, too, as the kids went to private schools at $12,000 apiece in the 1970s."
With a little prompting, Maxwell also enjoys quoting favorite verses from the Civil War poetry of Stephen Vincent Benét, Walt Whitman, and Sidney Lanier.
Based on what actor Brian Mallon (General Hancock in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) says about being a director, one might see a lot of similarities between that and being a good dad: "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. 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."
An Artist's Vision Revealed
This is classic Ron Maxwell: the artist's quest for truth is critical. Looking around his vast library at his Virginia country home after hearing him talk about visiting the great libraries of Europe, one sees authors ranging from Pliny and Plutarch to Goethe and twenty volumes of Thomas Carlyle—along with biographies and history books for young readers that Maxwell saved from his New Jersey childhood. His father, who was in the US Army Air Corps and with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, read to him and took him to nearby New York war-related sites such as Fort Ticonderoga and Fort William Henry.
"It was a seamless transition from reading literature to filmmaking," Maxwell says. "It was easy to visualize stories as films." This ongoing interest in history is reflected in other books on his shelves, such as Ernest Gellner's Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion; David G. Chandler's The Campaigns of Napoleon; and James Fenimore Cooper's History of the Navy of the United States of America. Fluent in French, he did his own translations of Middle French when he was researching Joan of Arc. With a little prompting, Maxwell also enjoys quoting favorite verses from the Civil War poetry of Stephen Vincent Benét, Walt Whitman, and Sidney Lanier.
He was writer as well as director of the 1993 film Gettysburg and the 2003 film Gods and Generals. The first (based on The Killer Angels, a novel by Michael Shaara) is the story of the decisive, three-day battle of Gettysburg. One of the longest films ever released by a Hollywood studio (four hours, fourteen minutes), it became an all-time top grosser in the home entertainment market and a staple of classroom history lessons, despite not doing well in theaters. Gods and Generals (based on the novel of the same name by Michael Shaara's son, Jeffrey Shaara) depicts events that take place prior to those shown in Gettysburg. Some Civil War aficionados prefer Gettysburg to Gods and Generals because they like the all-male battlefield film, whereas Gods and Generals encompasses not only military life but life at home during 1861 to 1863 with women, families, and slaves as part of the epic.
Maxwell explains, "Both Fannie Chamberlain (wife of Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain) and Anna Jackson (wife of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson) are in Jeff Shaara's novel [Gods and Generals], and they're part of my attempt to explore the home front, to broaden the perspective of what life was like, and to 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].
"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 fifteenth-century moral environment, so I put Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain 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 [April 9, 1865], 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."
Emotions of September 11 And Antietam
Interpreting a war always brings emotions to the surface, but September 11, 2001, turned out to be an ironic day for filming a major Civil War battle. "We were filming the Battle of Antietam [Gods and Generals], the bloodiest day in history on an American battlefield," Maxwell says, "and September 11 turned out to be one of the most devastating days for civilians in American history."
Everyone in the film crew on September 11 was quite aware of the highly charged emotions on both sides of the twelve-hour battle of Antietam—which ended the Confederacy's first invasion of the North and led to Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, twenty-first-century emotions connected with those of 1862. "We broke the crew midmorning so that people could make phone calls about the whereabouts of loved ones," he says. "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."
Maxwell hopes to have, eventually, a third film—The Last Full Measure—to complete his Civil War trilogy; but another big epic means at least another $50 to $60 million of funding, monies not easy to come by in any economy and certainly not in the economy of the past five years. Still, Maxwell says, "Not a week goes by that I don't work on it."
Copperhead: Story Of Antiwar Resistance In The North
His most recent Civil War film, Copperhead, isn't then a conclusion related to his first two Civil War films. Based on the epic novel by Harold Frederic, Copperhead is a probing story of the war at home—of a family ripped apart by war, of fathers set against sons and daughters, of a community driven to an appalling act of vengeance against a man who insists on exercising his right to free speech during wartime.
Maxwell's timeless, deeply moving examination of the price of dissent illustrates that what he hopes to accomplish as a director is showing people as they seek to know the truth through the generations. "This is the way we add to the sum of our understanding and compassion," he says. "None of us stands alone nor would we want to."
To see the full article in American Lifestyle, click here.
Martha Steger is a Midlothian, Virginia-based freelance journalist who regularly covers the arts, historical sites, authors, and travel destinations for a variety of print and online publications.
text: MARTHA STEGER, photography: CHRIS REARDON