When I was growing up, of the many things a little boy dreamed to be, a CIA agent was most certainly one of them. Every Friday night, I would sit down with my dad to watch The Agency, which ran from 2001-2003. During that time, I was captivated and excited by a show that was beginning to become a rival in the hardcore Law & Order household we lived in. Little did I know, several years later, I would be talking to the man that created and wrote the series, Michael Frost Beckner, who has now turned his talents to making something even more up my alley. He is going to be the writer, as well as one of the producers, for the much talked-about upcoming television miniseries, To Appomattox. We are going to see a lot of projects on the American Civil War over the course of the next four years, but none of them promise to be as endearing as this, a series with more than 50 prominent speaking roles and a team of 16 historical consultants working to make sure they have the most accurate script and screenplay possible. Among those is J. David Petruzzi, who I interviewed a few days ago.
This new project, To Appomattox, is currently in the pre-production stage, with filming set to begin next spring, and a release slated for 2013. Before he becomes too busy, I contacted Mr. Beckner in hopes of doing an interview, and he agreed. He has also written the screenplays for films such as Sniper, with Tom Berenger, Cutthroat Island, and Spy Game. Below is our conversation:
GC: When did you first realize you wanted to make a TV series on the Civil War? What was your inspiration?
MFB: I grew up in a home where I was told that when “Dixie” is played, you stand. Luckily, “Dixie” wasn’t played much in Studio City, California, because I’m sure I would have been laughed at by my fellow elementary school students. There have always been the ancestral portraits over the mantle and my mother and grandmother always attended their Daughters of the Confederacy meetings. On the other side of my family, there were the tales of my one-eyed, eye patch-wearing Union “General” great-grandfather. (I put “General” in quotes because I’m pretty sure he only ever made Colonel, but I learned at an early age not to contradict my grandmother on that one!). But, it was when I was working on my CBS series The Agency at Langley. My wife was with me and somehow the conversation got to the Civil War. I was telling a group of Agency officers that Professor Lowe’s balloons launched pretty much from where the CIA headquarters now stands; first American aerial recon! Later that night, my wife started asking me about the history of the war…and I guess I went on and on for the next day she told me I knew more about the Civil War than the espionage world I’ve made a career writing about. She was pretty forceful telling me it would be a crime if my next project wasn’t about the war. On one hand, when Anne gets an idea fixed in her head she’s relentless; on the other, I knew there’s no one in Hollywood who would ever do a Civil War film. And I need to write films that pay me. So in an effort to get around writing a film, I promised her I’d write her a play centered on the four times Grant and Lee meet over the course of their lives. Well, that got bigger and bigger, my passion for the subject unleashed—especially under the encouragement of my project mentor Dr. John Y. Simon, Founder & former Director (deceased) of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at the University of Southern Illinois, at Carbondale. Meanwhile, the deadlines I had discussed with the University of Richmond—where we had planned to premiere the show before taking it to London (there was no interest in a Civil War play in NYC)—I found to be tighter/stricter than my television deadlines. The play, To Appomattox, ultimately became the outline to something much bigger, which was first a two hour film. That was too breathless… Then I wrote a four hour mini-series…that showed there was too much left out…but where was the time to write it the way it needed to be written? During the Writers’ Strike of a few years back, that time became available. When that was over, I had finished a 13 episode series that seemed to write itself. The amazing thing with To Appomattox is, I realize now, this project, picked me… Not the other way around. Somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t writing this for Anne or for myself, nor—as with every other script of my career—was any of it my invention. It belongs to all of us and all our forebears; I’m just really a custodian of our shared history and I came to it not because I knew I could write it, but that it had to be written by me, because of my ability to get projects made, attach talent to what I do, get studios to finance my work: if I didn’t write To Appomattox no one was ever going to.
GC: Aside from hundreds of hours of research, what is the most difficult part of writing a screenplay for an eight hour series?
MFB: Making the choices of what to put in and leave out; who to focus on, who not to. And then once knowing exactly what that focus was and what I’d be able to tell well and properly, having the disciplince to cut five hundred pages out of the script and take 13 episodes down to the 8 we’ll now produce, and be secure in the knowledge that the 8 hour version is far better, dramatically, than the 13. The other difficulty is where my 20+ years of writing film and television craft came into play. Pacing the episodes scene by scene, opening and ending at the right moments. The film is straight history, but that crafting has allowed each episode to feel like a “movie.”
GC: One of the most important aspects of any war movie is the violence level– too gory and people will be grossed out, not gory enough and people will say it is inaccurate. How are you going to go about setting up and filming the battle scenes?
MFB: There is only about 15 minutes tops of war in each episode. Those sequences will be fully realized to historical accuracy. I get “grossed out”—and I think I’m similar to most people—when violence is gratuitous or created for “shock value.” At it’s extreme it’s actually desensitizing and—for example horror/slasher films—portrayed to get a sick laugh. There’s no place for any of that in To Appomattox. Think back to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. That was the most realistically portrayed warfare I’d ever seen. The violence was at the most extreme level I can remember. I was horrified and I was frightened and I was heartbroken. Tears rolled down my cheeks. It also gave me a deeper understanding of my country and countrymen…and that was cathartic. To understand the hearts of the men who fought in our Civil War, the meaning of it—going in and coming out—we MUST understand what they faced in battle. Portraying Civil War battles exactly as it was will pay them respect and honor; to be put in their shoes will allow audiences to come away from this series with a deeper emotional connection to who we are as Americans and why we are Americans, and why Americans are unique. As for network viewing, if we go with the cable network we’re now in discussions with we have no content problem. If we go with one of the two major “alphabet” networks with whom we’re talking, because this is straight history, we can broadcast with a “content warning.” Sort of like how they show Saving Private Ryan on network TV, although that’s a fictional story.
GC: How will you approach the battle of Gettysburg, especially since a full-length (and very popular) film has already been made about it?
MFB: Episode 5, “Reunion” focuses on Gettysburg. Because one of my overriding positions in writing and producing this series is to connect audiences directly with this past—to show that it wasn’t all that long ago and the people weren’t all that different from who we are today and that we are connected; also NOT to show it the way it’s ever been portrayed before—Episode 5 takes place during the present of the battle and at the same time over the course of three battlefield reunions. Another aspect of this hour, is that I’ve used it to examine the “mythologizing” of the war. How it happened, why it’s happened, how that’s effected our own conceptions of American heroism…for better, or worse.
GC: After all the hours of writing this series, have you developed any personal favorite characters?
MFB: I was reared to believe William Sherman was insane and evil. After writing this, I’ve grown quite fond of the general and am very sympathetic to him. Back when this was a play, I approached Lee and Grant the way I was taught: Lee was the greatest American ever; Grant was a drunk and a butcher. I have no greater respect for an American hero than I do for Ulysses S. Grant. Funny, though, it’s the characters I couldn’t tell the stories of (no room) that have become my favorites. There’s John Sedgewick, there’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, and my very favorite, Gouverneur K. Warren. In the latter’s case, I’ve begun writing a play, a courtroom drama, entitled Inquiry based on the Warren’s Court of Inquiry that convened on January 7, 1880. Also, there’s a movie in the illustrious life of Dan Sickles.
GC: Lastly, did Will Patton, Paige Turco, Richard Speight Jr., Jason O’Mara get involved in the project through their work with you on The Agency? How do you think they will adapt to their roles?
MFB: They’ve been close, close friends since The Agency. In fact, Will and Jason were attached all those years ago to star in the Grant/Lee play. This entire cast didn’t come together from “packaging” but from personal relationships and deep passion for this history. For everyone in the cast of To Appomattox this is a labor of love…for their families, their children, and their nation.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to conduct this interview! This really wets the appetite and makes one hope that 2013 won’t take too long to get here. It is also sad and true when he mentioned about Hollywood’s lack of interest when it comes to the Civil War. Ron Maxwell alluded to the same exact thing last month. You would think, with so many potential stories and dramas (even comedies) just waiting to be told, there would not be this severe reluctance to make a film about that era of our history. That is why each and every film done about it, when done correctly, is important to the telling of our history. This is a story, like many others, that needs to be told, and thankfully, Michael is here to do just that.
I will also be launching a new sub-page at the top of the site to keep track of the interviews and articles that get written about the show, much like my ‘Gods and Generals Archive‘. You can either scroll up or simply click here. And don’t forget to visit the show’s official website.