March 2003

Ron Maxwell's Gods and Generals

Director Ron Maxwell discusses his new documentary epic.

BY JERRY ROBERTS  

Director Ronald F. Maxwell on the set of Gods and Generals

There's commitment, and then there's real commitment. Director Ron Maxwell became so deeply involved in researching and realizing two authentically precise Civil War movies that they may end up as perhaps the legacy of his filmmaking life. And it's quite all right with him if his epics — the four-hour-plus Gettysburg (1993) and three-and-a-half-hour prequel, Gods and Generals, entering theaters this month — go down as his lasting achievements.

Though it took 25 years for him to realize his visions, he's not done yet. The director/writer/producer would like to complete his Civil War trilogy with The Last Full Measure, which is already on the drawing boards.

The chain of events that allowed him to make his first two films began and ended with the personal, historical and financial interests of Ted Turner. Unprecedented help also came from the filming-friendly auspices of the Commonwealth of Virginia, State of Maryland and the generosity of the National Park Service, townsfolk throughout the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachian Mountains as well as the enthusiasm of Civil War historians and reenactors.

Gods and Generals and the proposed final chapter (The Last Full Measure) were inspired via the unique flip-flopped circumstance of a film director being the catalyst to inspire a best-selling novel. Maxwell urged Jeff Shaara to trade his vocations of general contractor and coin collector in middle age, and try writing, taking up where his father, Michael Shaara, had left off.

Michael, who died in 1988, had written the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, the basis for Gettysburg. Jeff, who was in charge of his father's estate, tapped his own creative juices after Maxwell suggested connected novels, to write the bestsellers Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.
At the very least, Maxwell will need another five years and Turner's resources to make the epic conclusion, The Last Full Measure, which takes the Union and Confederate armies to the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederates at Appomattox Court House in Central Virginia, thus ending America's worst tragedy. The conflict had killed 600,000 men, wounded a million and a half, yet freed millions of African American slaves in the South.

Gods and Generals stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall as Lee and follows both North and South through the battles of First Manassas, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg in Virginia. The eventual six-hour DVD will also include the battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, the bloodiest single day in American armed forces history claimed more than 40,000 casualties.

"Had I known after I read The Killer Angels in 1978 that it would take 15 years to make Gettysburg, I may have quit," Maxwell said. "Now it has taken 10 years to get Gods and Generals made. If we end up making The Last Full Measure, God only knows how long that will take. So, it's become a life's work. It's been very joyous, at times very frustrating and very hard. It demands a lot; I've had to make big sacrifices. For me, from what I've learned is that I can look at a script and say, 'Is that worth the rest of my life?' I can answer, 'Yes.'

Maxwell decided that Gettysburg should not stand alone but that it should be the centerpiece of a Civil War trilogy. He approached Jeff Shaara, who agreed it was a project worth pursuing; when the book Gods and Generals became a bestseller, Maxwell began working on the script.

Robert Duvall (center) in a scene from Gods and Generals

Because Gods and Generals was such a huge bestseller, Ballantine Books commissioned Shaara to write The Last Full Measure, and, "we had our literary trilogy. I started long-range pre-production in western Maryland and Virginia. The only way to make this movie was for me to establish a lot of grass-roots support similar to the way I made Gettysburg. Otherwise, this movie would cost way, way more than $100 million, certainly as much as $150 million, if it were to be made in the United States."

Key to both the authenticity of Gods and Generals and its manageable $60 million budget was enlisting the aid of Civil War reenactors, most of them from throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

"If you have to costume an extra, give him props that fire, guns with bayonets, put facial hair on him, multiply that by 5,000, you just can't do that on our budget," Maxwell explained. "The only cost to us for reenactors was housing them in their tent city and in hotels in the winter, and feeding them. Now, why did we do that? They know that, first of all, they're going to see an authentic movie that doesn't make a soap opera out of the Civil War or make them look like clowns, one that makes caricatures out of Confederate officers. We treated everybody with their full humanity — white, black, North, South. That was the hallmark of Gettysburg and the whole trilogy — no good guys, no bad guys — very different from most war movies. This is all about human beings caught in a tragedy.

"We also treated each reenactor with respect, like each one is a living Civil War historian. They knew that they could make comments that would get to the director through the chain of command, and every serious comment was listened to. Without reenactors, this would not have been made in the United States. They came from all over the country, mostly from the East Coast — doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, nurses — civilian reenactors too, women and children."

Maxwell also insisted the production stay in the United States to maintain the authenticity, filming on the actual battlegrounds, many under the control of the National Park Service.

Maxwell prides himself on being a stickler. "We put in long years of pre-production in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland," Maxwell said. "Maryland and Virginia actually provided us with grants. When you get people to invest in your movie, you don't just have a film company coming in saying, 'Show me the locations; show me where the local crews are.' I knew we needed partners or we never could have brought this in at this price.

"So, it became a joint project, and we got unprecedented access and cooperation at every level — closing streets, police, fire, National Park Service. Normally, you can take over a town for a day, but you can't take it over for a week. We threw dirt on the streets of Harper's Ferry, redressed the town and took it over for a week. The central battle of the film, the battle of Fredericksburg, was a huge production. We could not afford to put up a set like that. So it was very important for us to have shot it on the ground or near the ground of the events it portrays." Maxwell feels that this authenticity to locale imbued within the cast and crew an added sense of responsibility to know that they were telling the story of hallowed ground, to be on a battlefield that had been soaked in blood. "You can't stand on it without feeling the waves of the past that kind of sweep over you. You have to be made out of stone not to feel it.

Director Ron Maxwell

"That translates into the added commitment that you can see in the crew that worked on Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. I'm not exaggerating. The level of commitment is astounding. Everybody's happy to be there and they give their 100 percent."

Most of the films Maxwell has done have been from other people's screenplays, but he said that there's something entirely different about the process and the dynamic if you are the hyphenate writer-director. "From the get-go, you're seeing the film as you're writing it," he said. "My scripts, because I'm writing them for myself, are very spare — not a lot of description in there. It's basically dialogue with a minimum amount of description, because I don't have to write a description for a financier or a producer or a reader someplace."

The directing team lived mostly in Virginia from the summer of 2001 through the holidays to cover historically accurate summer, fall and winter battles. William Wages, second unit director, shot some of the battle scenes, "and integrated everything beautifully," Maxwell said.

"Cinematographer Kees van Oostrum and I work in a classical style where every shot is meticulously composed, where we're moving the camera on a track or a crane — all of it rehearsed," Maxwell said. "There's not a single hand-held camera shot in the film. You can take the same subject matter and do the whole thing hand-held and make a fantastic movie. But we made a choice early on that the image was always going to be controlled and composed and lit immaculately. We wanted to catch thoroughly the performances of actors — that's the heart and soul of the movie. Everything works around that. And it's very tempting during the battle scenes to go out and use a hand-held camera. But, I feel you lose control of the frame.

"At the same time, the movie is violent, hectic, and frenetic. You're still in the middle of a tremendous battle, but it's controlled. Over two pictures, Kees (van Oostrum) and I have evolved the style. The look is fantastic; you feel as if you're in the 19th century. Kees did a fantastic job, so did Michael Hanan, the production designer. The first AD on the first unit, Donald P. H. Eaton, had to be a general. People say to me, 'How did you do it?' I say, 'It's easy — DGA.' You surround yourself with a good first AD that's the solution. Don loves the story matter; he's a historian himself, and so is Bill Wages. They know the story and feel that it's a privilege to work on a movie like this — and then they bring their skills."

Maxwell credits his team to accomplishing the shooting within the allotted 72 days. "Don's team was terrific," he said. "Ron Smith, our line producer, flawlessly executed the logistics — transportation, housing, thousands of people on and off the set, to lunch and back. Scott Easton, the UPM, and Dennis Fry, associate producer, were great in working with the reenactors."

As with Gettysburg, Gods and Generals is filled with big stunts and safety issues. "We used thousands of real muskets, shooting blanks, and with bayonets," he said. "Our cannons were real cannons. We had explosives all over the ground. Potentially, these were very hazardous sets. We had to move with great care. No shot or movie is worth hurting anybody or putting anyone or any animal at risk. Our attitude was that we would shut down for a day rather than put anyone at risk. Thank God no one was seriously hurt on this picture. A stunt man dislocated a shoulder when a horse backed up on him, but that was the most serious injury we had. We had no injuries from firearms or explosives. It was very clear — safety first, the shot second. The stunt coordinator was Chris Howell. His son is in the movie — C. Thomas Howell, who was, of course, in Gettysburg too — plays Chamberlain."

Birthdays of the stunt men were used to help choreograph the casualties in the battle sequences. "We'd say, 'If your birthdays are in January, April and September, you guys fall on the first volley; if you're in March and May and October, you fall on the second volley." Almost all the falls were by stuntmen; you don't want the reenactors falling on camera, looking like they're falling on a cushion, even though some reenactors were sprinkled in here and there by the stunt coordinator."

Gods and Generals originally received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for "extended battlefield violence." Maxwell wanted a PG-13 rating from the get-go, and strived to achieve that even though he was committed to accurately portraying the bloodiest massive battles on American soil.

"We gave the rating a lot of thought," the director said. "It's the Civil War — 600,000 people killed and a million and a half terribly wounded; with enormous disruption, suffering and pain. You've got to tell the truth. It's not a video game or a parlor game. It's brutal, it's terrible, and it's ugly. To not show the brutality would be an enormous disservice. It would be the biggest lie you could tell.

"However, I also feel it's very important for young people to see the movie. It's our heritage, our culture, our history. It would be a shame if this were an R-rated movie. Early on, I got on the phone with [MPAA chief] Jack Valenti. He said, 'Shoot what you want, just try not to get too graphic or gory, because you know then that you'll get the R. That's the best guidance I can give you. I can't tell you how to make your movie' — I didn't want him to tell me."

With that in mind, Maxwell consciously set out for a PG-13, realizing that shots involving artificial limbs, blood splattering, etc. are expensive to shoot and why shoot them if you can't use it in the film. However, even with their care, they were startled when they received an R-rating on the first go round.

"'How could they?' we thought. We were so careful," Maxwell said. "They told us that there was so much battlefield violence, so unrelenting, that we've got to give it an 'R.' We worked for three weeks, re-editing the film in subtle ways so that they could stand on some ground to give us a PG-13. It's war — it would be obscene not to show the horror of war. We asked them for a list of the most objectionable scenes, then we eliminated some and made some shorter."

Maxwell wants the chance to be his own general again. The box office for Gods and Generals and Ted Turner will have the final say on that. But he's already prepared, and he's gotten the commitments of his cast and crew to go back to Virginia for one final charge into the breech.

When contrasting an actual military leader to the job of a director, Maxwell said, "It's exactly the same. It's about command, discipline, and everybody doing their job."

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