Interview with Director Robert Child; Discusses New 3D Gettysburg Film Project

A few months ago, I noticed that someone had left a comment on one of my articles, a man by the name of Robert Child. Instantly, I recognized the name but could not figure out where from. After doing some searching through my DVD rack, I discovered that he was the director of Gettysburg: The Boys in Blue and Gray, a documentary film from 2002 which premiered on PBS. I then went on to discover that he also made other Civil War themed films such as Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom and Gettysburg: Three Days of Destiny. He has also directed two paranormal related documentaries as well as three films on World War II.

Just the other day, he contacted me to tell me about his latest film project, which is currently a 3D film on the battle of Gettysburg, to be released in 2013 for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Wanting to learn more, I asked for an interview and since he admitted he was still in the “Gettysburg groove” from this past weekend, he responded to me right away. I asked if the film is going to be in theaters or just a straight-to-video release, and Robert has told me that he is talking with a company that specializes in live theater broadcasts, whom they might strike a deal with. There will be more information later, but for now, please enjoy our interview below:

GC: Out of the nine films you have directed, three of them have been about the Civil War. Where did your interest in the war begin?

RC: More than ten years ago, I did two paranormal films and the suggestion came up to do a paranormal film on Gettysburg, as the psychic who was in the program lived there and had all these photos and EVP’s. Today people know what EVPs stand for, but back then nobody did—I certainly didn’t.  In any event, we began filming and what struck me was that I was more interested in the history than any unexplained anomaly we were capturing on camera. To put the question to rest, I personally believe Gettysburg to be a quite haunted place as so much tragedy happened there and that energy of the event still remains. No one who is the least bit sensitive to their own feelings can walk out on the Gettysburg battlefield and not be moved to emotion. It is extremely powerful. And aside from that I personally experienced things on the battlefield that I cannot explain but that is a discussion for another time. That paranormal film on Gettysburg I turned into Gettysburg: The Boys in Blue & Gray, which I turned around and licensed to PBS. It has been broadcast over the years several times and most notably, it was the lead-in to the remastered Ken Burns Civil War series when it debuted on PBS in September 2002.

GC: What goes into making a documentary film? How long does it take to compile research and interviews?

RC: It can be a  six to nine month process but it depends on the film you are creating. I worked on a film in Canada, Dominion Day, for 15 months. I hold myself up to a very high standard of production value and that is where it starts for me. I am always thinking – what is the visual here, what is the hook what will move the audience the most? I live by a maxim that a music composer once imparted to me – “Show or tell, but don’t do both”. And when you think about it, that is spot on. You can’t describe something via narration or a historian that the audience is already seeing on camera or it becomes deadly. “You will see here his coat is blue with a black leather belt with a brass plate…..” that’s not compelling. I do my own research as I want to know the story but I cross-reference with a minimum of three sources. It is the research first, then the story comes from that. For the Wereth 11 film, I read the best book on the battle of the bulge, A Time for Trumpets, written by a soldier/historian who was actually in the battle. With the text I found my first scene for the film. I was inspired by the visual of  German commander rousing his SS troops to battle in the name of Hitler. Very chilling, and this was an actual dictate that came down from German General Gerd von Rundstedt to be read to the troops. I love working with historians and have a tremendous amount of respect for them and I always strive to work with the best; James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, etc. These are guys who have dedicated their lives to the actual subject matter of history and how can you not admire that? I believe the great respect I have for these men and women creates a better interview environment and especially trust, and they relax and often times become emotional about the story on camera. This is what I am always seeking.

GC: You are currently working on a 3D film about Gettysburg to be released for the 150th. What can you tell us about the stage it is currently in? Can you give us any behind the scenes information?

RC: I’d love to. I approached the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee last year. They are the group that holds the reenactment. I did the 140th film for them a while back. We have an excellent working relationship and are all friends but I still had to pitch a written proposal of what I wanted to do. I kept thinking – what would make this special; it has to go beyond “story”, so I turned to the idea of “technology” and making it a “world event”. No one has ever seen Gettysburg in 3D, so I felt it was a MUST. There will be perhaps close to 30,000 reenactors on the field for these battles – it will be a once in a lifetime visual experience. Not just the USA, but the world is interested in Gettysburg, so I proposed that we broadcast the Pickett’s Charge battle live as it happens on the field on PPV, the web, and possibly theaters. I have already spoken with NCM Fathom Events, the company that does the live broadcasts of the NYC Met Opera and other events and beams these into movie theaters. We will see how the discussion unfolds, but they are very excited about the project. I pitched the broadcast as almost an Olympic style broadcast where there is a central host, perhaps on a platform with the field behind him, and historian commentator – almost like sports color commentators who would give historical insight. No one would talk through the entire battle – it will be more like a golf match where the action is allowed to play out and the commentators step in during natural breaks. I have done a good deal of live sports in my television career and I used this as a template. It will be like nothing anyone has ever seen or ever thought of doing, and perhaps might even start a trend of “live reenactments”. My secondary goal with approaching it, this way was my personal concern, and I expressed this in the proposal that this would be a way to reach young people who may not have an interest in history, but would think it was cool to watch a huge Civil War battle live on their iPods. It might inspire them to go further and actually read up on the battle and history. I am always thinking of a younger audience when I approach my films – that is why they are full of action. I admire Ken Burns work but I couldn’t approach my storytelling that way. Right now, the 150th Gettysburg film is in pre-planning, and I am finding the best partners to work with. I will be forming a historical advisory team which includes Allen Guelzo at Gettysburg College. He has a major book coming out on Gettysburg in January, 2013 from Random House and he and I have already talked about cross promotional opportunities with a book tie – in. You can never do enough marketing.

GC: Let’s get to a little bit of history. Who is your favorite Civil War general? Aside from Gettysburg, what is your favorite battle?

RC: Without question, my favorite Civil War general is Joshua Chamberlain. I have every book written on him and I named one of my sons, Joshua, after him. Chamberlain was the complete man – smart and fearless and a natural leader of men. Wounded time and time again, he soldiered on. It was Chamberlain at Appomattox that first received the word on the field that Lee wished to surrender, and it was Chamberlain who was chosen to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry at the formal surrender. It was Chamberlain, who on his own initiative, ordered his men to come to attention and “carry arms” as a show of respect to the passing Confederates. Confederate General Gordon, who led the Confederates, was shocked at this show of respect and ordered his men to respond in kind which they did.  The scene gives me chills just imagining it and writing about it – that is why the Civil War so compelling, these moments that transcend time to allow you to actually “feel” the emotion of what it must have been like. Later in his memoirs, Gordon called Chamberlain one of the “knightliest soldiers” of the Federal Army. As for your next question, I don’t have a favorite battle – Antietam fascinated me so I did a film on it, but the battle that has been “calling to me” for lack of a better term has been the Battle of Franklin. It is odd that I used that term but really that battle has been calling to me. I was given the book “Widow of the South” recently and all these things about Franklin have been showing up. I really feel that is the epic Civil War film that I would like to do next. I have already talked with Patrick Gorman via email about it. It was much worse than Pickett’s Charge and they called it “Pickett’s Charge of the West”. Hood is a tragic figure and that is a tragic battle so the two go hand in hand – I believe it would be an absolutely fantastic film to do. And I found out recently that the coming mini-series, To Appomattox, is not doing the battle of Franklin, so there is a real opportunity here. And I really believe the western Civil War theater has many great stories to tell – it cannot always be about Lee and Grant. I mentioned “film” above and in that I mean “movie”.  I am moving away from documentaries into features. And that is one of the reason I did the Wereth Eleven as I did – many people who see the trailer believe it is a multimillion dollar WWII feature film. It has all the great elements – great acting by actor Ken Arnold (German commander) who recently got signed to do Men in Black Three. It has all the toys – tanks, planes, machine guns, howitzers machine guns – you name it. I even included a railroad gun. I wanted to demonstrate with that film, that I could blow audiences out of their seats with the visual look so they could immerse themselves in the story. And is was a very tough story to do on film because it is all about a war crimes and the injustice afterwards done by the men. It seems to have had its effect as it took the very top honor, The Founder’s Choice Award, at this year’s GI Film Festival in Washington, DC. I am very proud of that and very proud of the work. And watching it will give you a visual idea of what the 150th Gettysburg will look like minus at the tanks, planes and machine guns of course. (laughs)

GC: Out of all the films you have directed, and TV shows that you served as a technical adviser for, which has been your favorite to work on?

RC: First of all, I love all the films I have done – because it f you don’t love what you do it is time to find another line of work. But a couple of things stand out from all the years I spent in television in NYC. I loved technical directing Who Wants to Be A Millionaire when it first launched. It was a fast show and very tough to do and we were live in prime-time as the #1 show in America. If that doesn’t get you juices flowing nothing will. Another show I was at from the beginning was Emeril Live for the Food Network. I launched the show as a technical director in 1997, and I knew this guy was going to take the world by storm. I stayed with the show five years and many of the original crew are still there on other shows at Food Network. The great fringe benefit was being able to taste some of Emeril’s dishes. And if you like butter and garlic as I do – it is heaven.  But what I laugh about, and there were many laughs, were some of the visuals that stick in my mind. And one of the funniest memories was when I technical directed MTV’s sports and music festival in Las Vegas several years back. On one stage we had the music act and on the other we had dirt bikes jumping off doing loops and we cut back and forth during the music between them. Ozzie was the headliner and I am watching him on one of the cameras on the monitors as I am cutting the music on the previous act. Ozzie was like a doddering old man, shuffling his feet and very unsteady – I thought, “He can barely walk, let alone sing, what the heck is going to happen?”  Then he is announced and begins his slow shuffle to the mic stand – grabs it and belts out “Crazy Train”. It was incredible, he hadn’t missed a beat. It was like someone “switched him on”. Because when he was done he doddered back to back stage. So I consider myself fortunate, I have worked on a lot of cool stuff but I love so much what I am doing now and truly appreciate that the work is recognized as there is so much hard work behind the scenes that no one knows about. That is why I don’t mind telling folks what projects I am doing next or want to do for fear of someone stealing the idea. The work of getting a film actually made is so difficult, as anyone can tell you including Ron Maxwell, that it is a monumental feat when one does get made and distributed. It is sort of a self-weeding profession.

I would like to thank Robert for taking the time to conduct this interview. It truly was a fascinating read. Please click here to view his official website.

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