Lincoln, To Appomattox, and Copperhead are just a few names of Civil War film or television projects being thrown around this winter, with filming either scheduled to begin or end somewhere around this coming spring and summer. However, there is another one that is flying under the radar, titled, 1863, which is something that we will be following very closely on this blog, along with Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead. Because the only information of this new project has come from this blog, I thought it would be best to actually conduct an interview with the screenwriter and producer, Justin Dombrowski, an enthusiastic and energetic Civil War buff who has been so busy lately that the “clutches of hell” would not allow for this interview to have taken place any sooner.
There may be people wondering why they should get excited about this venture, because there are no major names surrounding it as of yet, and they might not have heard of the writer. All I can say is, have faith. This project has legs and will be hitting pre-production before you know it. The very experienced actor and historian, Ed Mantell, who helped me to identify several World War II uniforms a few weeks ago, is also on hand as a co-producer. I have read the powerful script, and I will speak for most when I say it is going to come as a pleasant surprise when all is said and done. I speak to Justin on an almost daily basis, as he has filled me in on the goings-on behind trying to get a film off the ground. This has been very enlightening for me personally, because I have seen the tremendous amount of work that goes into making even a lower budget, independent film, much less a $50-million Hollywood epic. For this interview, I had the pleasure of asking Justin a multitude of questions concerning what goes into writing a screenplay, what his inspiration is, and much more in our conversation below:
GC: What is it like writing a screenplay? Has long did it take you to finish preliminary drafts of 1863?
JD: Well, when it comes to writing a screenplay it involves a lot more work than some people think. Usually for me, I’ll take a lot of notes. Basically just jotting down ideas and different characters that I envision or am basing certain individuals off of. If it involves any research (which every script does for me) then I’m pouring over massive amounts of materials to do what I can to ‘get it right’. For a topic like the American Civil War, or any other for that matter, there’s always a tremendous amount of research just waiting to be looked through. Once I start the research, I usually compile it together in chronological order through folders on my computer or through hardcopy files that I keep in a filing cabinet. An essential element to this is making sure that everything is as close to historically accurate as possible. Should there be any discrepancies, I always have a supply of Historians and others who are experts in their own fields, who are eager to offer their help should I need to ask. I’d say on an average, once this process is done for me, it can be weeks, maybe even months until I’m finished or comfortable at least to move on with the knowledge I’ve obtained.
From there, I usually start with outlining characters, creating back stories, working out a plot outline, and also a log line. Through this process I also evaluate scenes that I’d like to personally see in the story and I can shift my elements around in any order I wish, and of course, any order that allows me to properly tell the story to my audience with the proper flow and execution. After that, it’s onto a rough draft which usually takes me about 1-2 weeks. The next step is something I usually take my time with when it starts with letting my mind relax. Then I dive into the script and start to pick it out piece by piece. Between these steps I’m always reading other screenplays, learning and making notations for future use, and also watching films to look for certain angles. Also I’ll spend a day or two going in public and just watching how random people talk. To me, the two most important aspects of a script are dialogue, and your scene descriptions. A lot of people think scripts tell you a story. And that’s not right. A screenplay shows you a story. Telling a story is what novels are for, and the two get mixed up A LOT by aspiring screenwriters.
After that draft is finished, I usually keep going until I feel pretty comfortable with the entire project as a whole. If something is unsettling to me or doesn’t ‘jive’ with the flow of the rest of the story, I either make a sacrifice and cut it, or trim it down to where it fits in perfectly. And lastly from that point I go onto make a final draft and before finishing it, polish it up and let it sit. Often I’ll revisit it from time to time to make corrections here and there because even though it’s to its final stages, there are never any definitive final drafts. On most cases you’ll be rewriting the script all the way through production. So it’s a timely process of making it right and involves plenty of hours, and also you have to deal with those days where you have no motivation to want to write, but you’ve gotta put something out anyway. Any writing, even bad, is still detrimental to your overall script.
For 1863, I started a rough draft probably about 5-6 years ago when I was nearing the end of my senior year of high school. Looking back at my work then, compared to now, of course I have a stronger writing ability and I’ve mended into a better writer in a lot of ways, but as of right now the current draft is in its fourth stage (where I’m polishing it up, taking out scenes that are not needed), but in all reality, it is more like an eighth or ninth draft. Overall, the best part about it is that you’re able to write your own story, with your own characters, settings, and events, and you get to use your imagination. I can’t think of anything better than being able to do that.
GC: What were your major influences when writing this script?
JD: There’s so many. I’d have to say that older Civil War films, such as The Red Badge of Courage (Huston’s version and the 1974 version with Richard Thomas) Gone with the Wind, North & South, The Blue and the Gray. Now of course those were major influences because although they had a good audience for each one, it was more a matter of what didn’t they get right when writing the script, and/or filming the actual piece. That’s where I think Historical films today either succeed, or they bomb, with the historical accuracy. It’s more about whether films take the route of setting aside time to be accurate, or to just forego it all together. It can be forgiven because back then, we didn’t have the best or widest knowledge about everything we do now, but that’s no reason to not learn from it and not follow the same path and make the same mistakes.
As far as influences in any other ways, I was really struck in today’s world how those who have come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have responded to adjusting to society. In many ways, I imagine it’s hard for these heroes to lead a normal life again, let alone have to remember everything they did in combat. So that struck a chord with me when I thought about what was this like back during the Civil War. What did these men really witness? What did these men really see? And a small portion of the film, 1863, does deal with that ‘aftermath’ of how does a veteran of the Civil War survive once everything was over. Just walking into any museum that has images of the young men and boys who fought in the Civil War was a huge influence as well. Writing this, you see their faces, you see their struggles, and I have this folder on my computer where I have a few images of faces that stood out to me. Every few minutes while writing this, I’ll pull it up and let it “digest”, then go back into it.
GC: I know you are limited in what you can tell us about the overall project, but if you could say one thing to entice potential moviegoers, what would it be?
JD: Very limited, unfortunately. The major thing I never like to do is put the cart before the horse. Yes a movie is exciting, and yes there’s many things that, if I could tell the world, that I would. For potential moviegoers I would have to tell them, first and foremost, that this is a film that not only proclaims to get it right, but it backs it up. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t think I could have it be accurate or if I didn’t think it could be done right. I would also tell them it’s a great drama that, as it unfolds, drops you in the world of these characters and you experience what they experience. You feel what they feel.
As far as the overall project, the script is in its last stages with tweaks, a polish, etc. There’s been some very promising developments as far as who we can attract as far as funding, production and even how we’ll go about getting to that point. I never like to put that cart before the horse and automatically declare a Pre-Production date, filming schedule and release date. It’s premature to do so. So when will this film be released? I really can’t say. But if it continues to go down the road I think it’s going, you could at least see it start to get filmed by next year at the latest. Our goal is to get at least some, if not all funding, wrapped by the end of this summer/fall.
On the contrast, this film will not be a big budget. And also there’s roughly 2-3 battle scenes. As much as I love battle scenes, it’s something that you have to watch while coming up with it. If it’s too long, it gets boring, if it’s too little, then it’s disappointing. So while writing it I had to keep that in mind, but also make the story revolve around it and keep that interest towards the audience, too. There is not really any romance. Scenes will hint at a romance involving the main character, but it won’t be a romance story set during the Civil War. I think it’s a bit cliché to have a story with that type of backdrop because the whole “We were in love during the war” deal, as interesting as it may be, has been hacked to death over and over.
The battle scenes, although probably not even surpassing about 20-30 minutes total screen time, are very graphic, and not in a horror-style type of way. Just the way it’s shown, how it’s shown, and the visuals involved, we’re going back to the basics of what it was really like. I have the feeling that even in some of the most modern Civil War films, there really hasn’t been that chance or opportunity to show the truth of what happened to these men as they walked literally into their own deaths. I read thousands of accounts which helped me write the scenes and, although there are some tense moments, it’s something that I think needs to be shown to an extent. And frankly it’s something that still hasn’t been explored to its full meaning, which is something I hope we can change.
GC: Can you give us an update on where the production currently sits?
JD: Production is really around the last time it was when I had been asked questions about the film before. Still early stages, although there have been a small amount of actors who myself and partner Ed Mantell, have discussed and contacted. We have in mind a Director we would like to have, a Director of Photography, as well. So we have the thoughts of who we want, it’s just a matter of the funding and being able to contact them and get the ball rolling. As far as the script goes, like stated previous, it’s going through small tweaks and a final polish. So nothing too drastic will be different up to this point. Once that’s done then we’ll start the next big step, which is making this happen.
GC: Why a movie about the Civil War? What attracted you to it?
JD: I’ve always been a history buff, I guess you could say. My father who has played a big role in my life, has always loved history and studied it. So I followed in his footsteps to an extent. And also the Civil War has a personal meaning to me as I have both family members who fought with the North and South. My Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas Carnahan, actually fought and was wounded at Fair Oaks on May 31st, 1862. He was with the 101st Pennsylvania Volunteers. He survived getting shot and was discharged soon after. And I keep his photograph on my computer as a “reminder” that not only did this happen not too long ago, but that my ancestors participated in this event which shaped the nation. Another attraction was the men themselves. I would look over websites and books for hours upon hours, looking into the faces of these men. We know only some of their stories, but for some we’ll never know. A lot of their faces are also unknown. We wonder if they died, did they have loved ones at home who missed them. The questions go on and on, but the fact that this struggle from 1861 to 1865 is something that not only shaped our country, but shaped us. It’s fascinating that while we killed each other on distant battlefields, that we overcame our differences and grew as a nation from it. To me, that’s the most fascinating thing of all about it.
GC: What is your favorite Civil War movie, and why?
JD: There’s quite a few. I grew up watching Gettysburg. Religiously as a kid I would always watch it over and over. And since I always went to Gettysburg, and still do, it holds a soft spot in my heart. I would have these 1/72 scaled IMEX Civil War figures (which you can still purchase) and I would reenact Pickett’s Charge, or the Charge of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top as a kid whenever I had nothing to do. For hours I would pretend I was in the movie and it brings back a lot of good memories. John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage also holds a spot close to my heart. Although very inaccurate it was a cool film I used to watch as a kid, especially the battle scenes. The Conspirator isn’t too bad of a film considering the small budget they had. I thought it was very well done and put together with what they had. So at least in a way films are starting to head in that general direction.
GC: Is there any type of era, historical/non-historical which you would like to write?
JD: I don’t think the French & Indian War gets enough attention, nor the Korean War. But another era which doesn’t get a lot of film mention in movies is the American Revolution. With Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, and all due respect set aside, I think there’s still great potential out there to make a dynamic and accurate film about the beginning of America. I’ve always had a thing for 1930′s gangsters and the prohibition era. There’s just that ‘mystique’ about it to where it’s so fascinating because you have different characters and events. But I have screenplays in development dealing with different events with each of those I’ve listed, so maybe someday we’ll get the chance to be exposed to more historical film work.
GC: Do you have any other upcoming film/television projects?
JD: I have quite a few coming up. There’s been some Independent film ideas of mine that I’ve written and have been kicking around. A stop-motion short here and there. There is a subsequent supernatural television series called Grey Angel which I’ve co-written two pilot episodes for. That is under way to get funding and once finished, will be pitched to a particular channel/network. Another, which is a really big film project of mine, bigger than 1863, is called The Red Roses of November. It’s a story based on true events that take place in the late 1880s revolving around a group of detectives who hunt a serial killer. A historical drama which as of right now, stands to be around three and a half hours long. Even that is also something I can’t delve too much into the specifics of.
As far as stuff I’ve done which I can disclose is, as many know, there was an episode of American Pickers where they visited Erik Dorr’s “Gettysburg Museum of History’. Well, the opportunity arose to come on board for a pilot for a proposed mini-series dealing with just Erik’s museum. It’s a fresh, unique and fascinating approach at how Erik runs his museum. It’s really Pawn Stars meets American Pickers but it takes the best of those programs and really has a fascinating twist to it. So I helped write a script for that which was used. The pilot for it has already been finished, so it’s a matter of just awaiting final word. And as far as the other ones I’m attached to, I’ve got several projects in development which will be great to be a part of.
I would like to thank Justin for taking the time to conduct this extensive interview! I wish him luck on all his future ventures, especially 1863!