EDIT: Click here to read our second interview!
Over the last few months, as I tried to find a way to come into contact with director Ron Maxwell, I thought about how I would introduce him had I ever got the chance. Well, now that the time has come, just how does one introduce Ron Maxwell? Just take a walk through the town of Gettysburg and you will realize how much this man means to the Civil War community, due to his work on Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. This is a genre of film rarely ever told, and rarely done correctly at that, so it is no wonder why he is such a revered figure. His film career began in the 1970’s, with two made-for-television films, Sea Marks and Verna: USO Girl, which starred Sissy Spacek. From there came Little Darlings (1980), The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981) with Dennis Quaid, Kidco (1984), and The Parent Trap II (1986).
However, it would not be until 1993 with the release of Gettysburg did his name become world-renown. The project was a massive undertaking that took nearly two decades to come to fruition. The result of this was the last of the old-fashioned war epics, which contained battle scenes filled with real people instead of CGI figures, and large, swooping camera shots. Ten years would pass before the film’s prequel, Gods and Generals, would be released, and though it was essentially a box office failure, perhaps it will be the most endearing of his film projects. After waiting an additional eight years, the full 280 minute version was released in May, prompting me to inquire about an interview like I did for several cast members. After viewing the new version, and taking into account this massive piece of storytelling, I can now say that my favor for this film trumps that of Gettysburg, and this was not an easy decision to make.
Without Maxwell, the Civil War community would be even more starved for films on their favorite subject. Though I did not ask him about the possibility of producing The Last Full Measure (a subject that has no doubt been beaten to death), the sequel to the trilogy, I can only hope, like many of us do, that some way, some how, it will get done in the future. Hopefully I will be able to meet him in-person at the film premiere event on July 22-23, as he is arranging to get me tickets. Please enjoy our interview below:
GC: How long did it take you to get Gettysburg to the big screen?
RM: Start to finish, 15 years from reading The Killer Angels to the theatrical premiere: 1978-1993.
GC: What was the most difficult part of filming such an epic movie?
RM: Financing, getting the script right, deciding on where and how to film the movie, budgeting, casting, filming, editing and post-production, marketing & distribution, are all equally demanding. There’s a newly published book entitled Combat Films by Steven Rubin which has a chapter on Gettysburg, which describes in detail the long saga of getting the film made.
GC: Was there ever any thought in the pre-production of Gods and Generals to make it into a mini-series?
RM: It was originally commissioned as a mini-series, which is why the screenplay was as long as it was, with the first draft at roughly 250 pages. After the script was written, Ted Turner decided to make it as a motion-picture. We then cut more than fifty pages and still went into production with a screenplay of 180 pages or so. We knew going in we had an epic scaled movie that would require an intermission, as with Gettysburg. Among the scenes we cut from the original script and never filmed were an opening scene of Jackson’s monumental funeral procession in Richmond as well as the 1858 raid on Harper’s Ferry, where we would have been introduced to John Brown, Frederic Douglass, Robert E Lee, J.EB. Stuart, John Wilkes Booth and Thomas J. Jackson.
GC: Unfortunately, Gods and Generals did not do as well as we all hoped it would do at the box office. We have heard reasons from critics and fans, but as the director, what do you think was the reason?
RM: We hit the trifecta of obstacles at the theatrical release. First, it is common knowledge in the industry that a movie costing in excess of fifty million dollars requires a major box-office star (or two) to “open” the picture. We were fortunate to have first-class actors of great stature, really wonderful and talented people, none of whom were regarded as being able, on their own, to “open” a picture at that budget level. We made offers to such major stars for the role of Jackson, but circumstances and timing didn’t work out. Steven Lang was cast at the last minute, when we switched him from Pickett to Jackson. Of course, he nailed the role and I wouldn’t trade him for the world – but this was well before Avatar and he hadn’t yet established himself as a major box-office star. Second, almost two generations of movie-goers had grown up without ever having attended a movie with an intermission. In my youth, such movies were commonplace, and not just historical epics like Ben Hur, Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia. There were musicals like The Sound of Music, West Side Story and My Fair Lady. At three hours and forty minutes, plus a twenty minute intermission, audiences were simply intimidated. Theater going habits have radically altered since the fifties and sixties. The previous major studio movies with intermissions were Gettysburg (1993) and Gandhi (1982). Thirdly, as I’ve written in some detail in my essay, “For the Love of Tender Kinship,” most film critics went way beyond the normal parameters of film reviewing and attacked the film on political grounds. They were simply incapable of accepting any Confederate officer as an honorable person caught up in a horrific war. The film wasn’t merely criticized. In many quarters of the main-stream press it was vilified. Although there were some extremely favorable reviews from a handful of respectable film critics writing for major newspapers and television companies (which can be read on my website), the unmistakable impression was one of near overwhelming condemnation. Obviously it does no good to complain. That’s just the PC reality of our times. I think as the years turn into decades, the film is being seen more for what it is than for what the critics wished it to be or wished it weren’t. In any case, their collective reviews certainly were a factor in depressing the turnout on the opening weekend. Let me hasten to add that I don’t for a minute think the film is beyond criticism. After more than thirty years in this business, I’m used to both stinging criticism and excessive praise. The good news is that the film has found its audience on cable television and in home video release. In its opening week in the home video marketplace in the summer of 2003, it was #1 on the charts, selling more than 600,000 units in its first month. It continues to be bought, rented and seen in impressive numbers, which is part of the reason Warner’s and Turner Pictures were able to invest in this new Extended Directors Cut version of the film. In the long run, as with all movies, its the people who decide, not the critics. Having said that, eight years out from its theatrical release, a number of scholarly essays have been written about the movie. In particular, I would point to “God, Man and Hollywood” by Mark Royden Winchell.
GC: Lastly, your name is/was attached to an upcoming Civil War film called Cleburne. Are you going to be involved with this?
RM: I know about the project and wish them well, but am not and have never been attached to it in any way. I was told there’s a website about this movie which claims I’m the director. Categorically false.
I would like to thank Ron for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview! It really meant a lot to me to be able to talk with the man that made the two films that turned me into the Civil War buff I am today. I will always be grateful for this. Please check out my other interviews with Gods and Generals/Gettysburg cast members/personnel, which include: Les Kinsolving (General Barksdale), Brian Mallon (General Hancock), Patrick Gorman (General Hood), Bo Brinkman (Major Taylor), and Jeff Shaara (Author of G & G).