Ron Maxwell, "Giving History a Voice"
Catching up with Ron Maxwell to do this interview was tricky. His schedule was filled with tying up the loose ends of Gods and Generals. In fact, we had postponed this interview so many times that I began to wonder if Ron Maxwell was merely a pseudonym and perhaps that was the real story I should pursue. But fate finally intervened and Ron, stuck in traffic on an L.A. freeway while on his way to a sound studio, was finally all mine.
Largent: You are very passionate about history-specifically the Civil War. Was there a single event in your life that triggered this passion?
Maxwell: I don't think there was a single event. While growing up, my dad took my younger brother and I to a lot of historical sites of the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and other colonial sites. I didn't really visit a Civil War battlefield until after I read The Killer Angels in '78. I visited [Gettysburg] with Michael Shaara and we spent a couple of days walking through the battle.
Largent: How did you come to meet Michael Shaara?
Maxwell: Well, after I read the book, I just felt right away I had to tell his story. So I had my agent track him down, he was living in Melbourne, Florida at the time, and he flew up to New York a few weeks later; he wanted to meet me first before he would agree to let me option his book. Subsequently I optioned it and we became very good friends and stayed good friends until he died in May of '88.
Largent: We loved Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain and Stephen Lang as Pickett in Gettysburg and I've heard we'll be equally impressed with seeing Lang as Jackson in Gods and Generals. When you made these casting decisions, did you do so intuitively or was it with much thought and consideration?
Maxwell: Both. Casting any movie is intuition or gut feeling and you have to think things through-it's all of the above. You're never just casting an individual, you're casting an ensemble, especially in a situation like with these Civil War movies. But the attention was, and continues to be, to reenlist all the actors who were in the earlier film to reprise their roles in both Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure. We knew we had to cast a new role in Gods and Generals-that being Stonewall Jackson, as well as women and African Americans. Once we got the green light to do the picture in January '01, we got on the phone and alerted everybody. We were able to clear just about everybody's schedule so that everyone who was in Gettysburg was back and there were only a couple of exceptions: we needed an Armistead, who was played by Richard Jordan. [Jordan] passed away before Gettysburg came out. That role is now played by John Prosky. And we could not clear the schedules of Tom Berenger or Martin Sheen, although we tried and they tried. So we had to recast Lee and Longstreet, which will be played by Robert Duvall and Bruce Boxleitner, respectively. For Jackson, it's no secret we tried to get Russell Crowe. He was very interested for many, many months. It wasn't until six weeks before filming we got the word that Russell was going to take the next six months off; he was not going to do any movie and true to his word, he went back to Australia…We were really up against the wire then and I went to Ted Turner at that point and said "Ted, can you back me up and let me cast the best actor I can find…let me go with the best actor I know who can do it." I had already gotten Stephen Lang to stand by to reprise Pickett in Gods and Generals…And then I called him up and said, "Stephen, I want you to play Stonewall Jackson." He was quite taken aback. I thought he could do it and Ted thought he could do it and by golly he did it. I think everyone's going to be very impressed. And when he moved to Jackson, Pickett was then played by Billy Campbell who played Colonel Pitzer in Gettysburg. Pitzer is not reprised in this film. You remember Colonel Pitzer-he has the biggest laugh in Gettysburg. It's when Chamberlain is on Big Round Top and he asks, "Where are we going to be placed?" and Pitzer says, "You're going to be moved to the safest place in the battlefield…right smack dab in the middle."
Largent: There are Bible verses that are recited by both Jackson and his wife Anna in the film. Were they picked at random or were they actually Jackson's favorite verses?
Maxwell: Well, the one he recites from Corinthians is noted in a couple of biographies and the whole farewell scene with Anna Jackson (when leaving VMI) is really right out of historical record-including when he asks her to pray together and read from the Bible. Other Biblical references are mostly my own. I knew I was dealing with a character that was extremely well-versed in the Bible. At other places in the film, when he really quotes scripture, there were just some things I thought would be appropriate in the moment. Other times he's not quoting scripture but just praying. Knowing the kind of man that he was, there were things I thought he could have prayed about.
Largent: Women played a significant role during the Civil War-both in the North and South. Women such as Mary Edwards Walker, Fanny Ricketts, Elizabeth van Lew, Kady Brownell and Captain Sally Tompkins. Do you plan to acknowledge any of these women in The Last Full Measure?
Maxwell: You just named a bunch of women-any one of whom could have a whole film about them. After all the battle scenes I've shot, nothing would be more appealing to me (laughing). And I must say, even though it's a great challenge and thrilling to recreate battles like First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville..The filming I most enjoyed was when we weren't shooting guns, but when we were on what we in the Civil War world refer to as the "homefront." That was the time back with the families, the women, the children, the old folks who had to stay home and make it all work and keep the wheels of society turning. The one character I did add, that is not in the book, was Jane Beale who as you probably know kept a diary around the time of Fredericksburg. And she is a wonderful supporting character.
Largent: What made shooting "homefront" scenes so special to you?
Maxwell: To me it was refreshing to deal with those scenes where you just had a different energy in the room and you could see how the whole southern society was held together by the women. Nineteenth century women, North and South, but especially the South, went through an accelerated kind of liberation…they really had to do things that women never had to do before. And so the responsibility that women took on during the Civil War accelerated a great social change in the United States…Another thing I enjoyed about the film was both relationships with the scholar soldiers-Jackson in the South and Chamberlain in the North. What you see is two really loving couples, Anna with Thomas and Fanny with Lawrence, and I think that in itself is really rare to see in a motion picture; couples that are really standing for one another in the face of terrific pressures on them. Again, those scenes were very, very satisfying for me to film because you get intimate relationships between men and women that are tried by unusual circumstances and separation.
Largent: You have such an unwavering devotion to the characters in these scripts. When writing, do you ever experience an unusual "presence" that you feel is guiding your creativity?
Maxwell: Yes, I have to say yes because I have probably spent more time in the 19th century than I have in the 20th and 21st over the past couple years. And it's not an exaggeration, but I feel as close to these characters as I do the flesh and blood people in my own life. Every time I see the film, it moves me to tears. And it's not that I'm crying over the marvelous work we did…I'm weeping because I'm with those people.
Largent: What do you think were the strengths and weaknesses of the press during the Civil War-both North and South and do you think it had an effect on either side?
Maxwell: Sure. I just read about this in passing…about journalists in the war. At one point, I got so involved in Walt Whitman that I almost wanted to make him a character and I had to say, "Ron, cut it out. That's a whole separate movie." The journalist-or the people who would just write diaries-it's a fascinating story in and of itself…I'm particularly attracted to the poets and the writers and the song writers of the time…Certainly journalism had an affect. Mostly it enflamed the situation, certainly it enflamed it in the Ante Bellum period on both sides…it's strident, provocative and downright insulting to people…Not just editorials, but how things were reported in the press. Of course Lincoln was caricatured by the Southern press, but if you read the Northern press, the Copperhead press, you'll see stuff that will make your hair stand on end compared to today's press…The press is the press and they'll always be the press.
Largent: Historian Gordon Rhea, a noted author who's working on a five-volume series on the Overland Campaign, was recently quoted as saying, "The turning point of the entire Civil War would be when Grant took command." Most historians have credited Gettysburg as the turning point. What are your thoughts?
Maxwell: Well, I think there's a lot of truth to both. There's a whole school of history that says individuals don't make a difference-that it's the forces at work and individuals happen to be there at the right time. Well, I think the more you study history, the more ridiculous that theory of history seems to me. Certainly there are forces that you cannot stand against. If you are in a torrent, you're not going to swim up the waterfall. But having said that, the more I study any history, not just the Civil War, you see that individuals did make a difference. And if Stonewall Jackson made a difference, Robert E. Lee made a difference and Grant-of all the Yankee generals-made a difference. And I think another person who made a difference, unquestionably, was Abraham Lincoln. If he had not been as relentless as he was, the war might have ended differently.
Largent: If you could meet with one person from the Civil War and effect a change, who would it be and what change would you make?
Maxwell: That's a tough one. I would like to meet any number of people, but not necessarily to make any changes but just to ask them questions like, "What really happened here? What were you doing here? What were you thinking here?" Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I'm writing. What were they thinking? What were they planning? What kind of emotional impact did this have on them?
Largent: What do you think was going through the soldier's minds as they were walking in columns into battle? What do you think led them to put one foot in front of the other and move directly into the path of canister?
Maxwell: That's ultimately incomprehensible and the more I write it, the more I study it, the more I film it, I really can't get that answer myself, except to say it is an abstraction. It's like when they're going up into the cannon they're saying, "You can kill me, but you cannot kill us…You can deter me, but you will never deter us." And although certainly people were highly motivated in the Civil War, and had a great sense of personal sacrifice, I think once they got engaged and were in the thick of it, I think there was an extreme form of atavistic violence that took over.
Largent: Now that you have two of the three Civil War films under your belt, what will you do differently when you begin filming The Last Full Measure.
Maxwell: We learned a lot during Gettysburg that we brought to Gods and Generals and we learned a lot more this time around. It's a huge trial and error process…I think I've learned every day on this project to have a sense of humility and a sense of openness and a sense of always listening. I know it's a cliché, but the more you study, the less sure you are about things…But certainly the more I study, the more compassion and understanding I have for everybody from that generation-whether they were wearing blue or gray, male or female, black or white. That's one big lesson. The other lessons are technical things, logistical things like how you shoot a scene, how you organize a production, how you exercise leadership on the set. With all those things, you get a little older, a little wiser in the process. You also learn what not to shoot and what not to spend your time on.
Largent: Any chance we can lure you back to Pennsylvania to shoot The Last Full Measure?
Maxwell: Well, I'm open to where we're going to shoot that picture. I had a great time in Pennsylvania when we filmed Gettysburg and I made some wonderful friendships. And I can say the same from the experience we had in Maryland and Virginia on this one. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision. The most important is the actual historical location. You want to be on or near the actual historical location that you're filming, that's important to me as everyone knows. That's why we filmed it in America and didn't go to Romania. After that, it's the matter of the level of cooperation you get from the local community, financial incentives and help and kind services. It all works together before you make your decision.… A special thank you to Ron for taking time from his busy schedule to speak with me