I thought we would take a tiny break on this blog from all the Copperhead coverage, and what better way to do that than by posting an interview with a crew member from Gods and Generals? Yes, friends, just when you thought we could not find one more person involved with the film that was willing to tell of their experiences, I was able to come into contact with Donald Eaton, who served as the First Assistant Director to Ron Maxwell during the production. I asked him for an interview, and he most graciously agreed. Donald has been involved in the industry since the early 1980’s, when he worked on several very popular television series, notably Hart to Hart, Paper Dolls, and Moonlighting. All told, he has lended his services to nearly fifty movies or television specials, including a Hallmark film called The Love Letter in 1998, which also involved the Civil War. Of course, the one we are most interested in is Gods and Generals.
It is always great to hear stories from anyone involved, whether they be an actor or director, or just someone who had to run around and get everyone their morning coffee. The interesting stories and tales are endless, as are their thoughts on the project and what makes it stand out to them. Each one is always unique in its own right. We all know what the directors and producers do behind the scenes, but how about an assistant director; what does his job entail? I thank Mr. Eaton for his detailed [and funny] responses below, because they give us some insight into that. Please enjoy!
GC: As first assistant director for Gods and Generals, can you tell us about what your job entailed?
DE: I could actually write a book in answer to this question. First, the normal duties of a 1st Assistant Director apply. Reading the script; Breaking it down into scenes and requirements (Cast, Extras, SPFX, equipment, Props, etc.); Scouting locations; Finally making a complete shooting schedule. This is a balancing act because many things have to work together to make it work: Cast / Location availability; General logistics, etc. Once we start shooting, the 1st (And his/her assistants) is responsible for making sure that everything needed for the day is there, where it should be and ready to go when called for. Then, the 1st runs the set, describing camera positions, placing extras, dealing with vehicles, stunts, SPFX, coordinating security and safety etc. as needed. Then, prep for the next day has to be completed and distributed in the form of a Call Sheet. That goes on day after day, and of course, not everything goes as planned. The 1st has to be able to solve problems as they come up and not let shooting be delayed. Also the 1st has to walk a tightrope between working for the Director, who may want A,B,C,D & E and the Producer (or UPM) who says: “You can only have A & B, maybe C but no D & E!”. Diplomacy is often required.
Now, all that applies to Gods and Generals, of course, but remember, this film also had reenactors who have limited time to leave home and jobs to be in a movie. This has to be carefully coordinated. Also, they have their own uniforms, weapons, and perhaps horses, but these may not be suitable for the scenes we have scheduled. Then, they all have to be given a place to camp and provided with three meals a day and sanitary equipment. In the winter, they have to be put in hotels and somehow, they all have to be transported to the shooting location, be ready for filming and instructed (by the 1st and other AD’s) as to what they are supposed to do in the scene. They may also have to work with the Stunt Coordinator, Armorer and the SPFX team if we are doing a battle scene. Well, there are also extras who have to fill out the reenactors ranks, so they all need to be…..yadda, yadda, yadda…there was a full-time 2nd Unit that had to coordinate with the main unit. Every morning we would have a struggle to decide which unit got which reenactors and how many. There are Horses, Cast, ND and Reenactor’s Cavalry. There is artillery, which has to be trucked in (unless we film the horses moving it, which is really quite cool!) and set up, observing all safety regulations. There’s Battle rehearsal, or Marching rehearsal or Hanging around rehearsal.
We did four battles in Gods and Generals and I was responsible for researching each one and making a plan for filming them. I did this with the help of the Reenactor Coordinators, Stunt Coordinator and the Director. We had to set up a “War Room” where we could deal with all this stuff. There is a lot more, of course, including the weather. It might take over an hour to get 200 reenactors in position out in some field. Then, if it starts to rain….or worse, start lightning, they all have to be called in as quickly as possible and be put under safe shelter. It was a tough job, but I had an excellent AD staff and excellent cooperation from all departments. We had a superior Camera Team (Sometimes up to 6 cameras on one shot!!!) and a hardworking, professional crew. Our producer, Rom Smith was a solid supporter of our efforts. It was a tough shoot, but I enjoyed it tremendously. I was hoping Ron Maxwell would start The Last Full Measure the next year, but that didn’t happen.
GC: What was your overall experience like working on the film and with director Ron Maxwell?
DE: Overall, I would say it was good. Ron has a wide range of historical knowledge, so we often had long chats about ancient battles while we were riding around scouting locations. We didn’t always agree, however. Ron liked to do these long shots in ‘real’ time. The problem was that we only had so many hours in a day to complete our work. Still, I think we only failed to complete two days out of the entire schedule and those were due to weather. I might ‘suggest’ compressing things a bit, but he was the Director and Producer. So, that was that…as it should be.
GC: What was your most memorable moment while on the set? What was the funniest?
DE: We were filming a scene at Chamberlain’s camp when we got word that the Twin Towers in NY had been attacked. Of course, everything stopped as we all tried to learn more. Many of the reenactors were also National Guardsmen and so were concerned about being called up. It was a sad and tense afternoon. As for ‘funniest’: My fine assistant, John Mallard, and I would stand close to Jeff Daniels while he was preparing. He liked to look up at the sun for some reason. John and I would then start a strange dialogue, just so Jeff could hear it. We just made them up: -“John, are you sure those girls last night were eighteen?” –“Well, I know the short one was kinda on the young side, but I think the other one, with the missing teeth, I think she was eighteen.” We would go on for minutes and it used to drive Jeff crazy because he didn’t know if we were serious or not.
GC: Did you have any interest in the Civil War prior to filming?
DE: Not especially. My field in school was Classics, Greek and Latin. I got keenly interested in ancient military history. Later, I used to build super-detailed scale models, mostly WWII aircraft. Also, I did a good number of military computer simulations, (Including Civil War battles.) I did a MOW for Hallmark Hall of Fame called The Love Letter. It required recreating part of the battle of Gettysburg. That was my first taste of filming that genre…Reenactors, horses, cannons…etc. Other than that, my interest was general.
GC: Lastly, your name has come up on some message boards discussing the project To Appomattox. What is your opinion of the project and why have you spoken out against it?
DE: I don’t believe I ever spoke out ‘against’ that project. I was researching material for the novels I’m writing about the last four months of the Civil War [you can check that out by clicking here]: when my friend, Jake Borit, told me about the To Appomattox website. I read in a couple of reenactors’ blogs that there seemed to be something ‘fishy’ about it. I looked at the claims that were made on the site and they raised a lot of questions. I made some calls and it seemed that in spite of what they said about locations having been secured, Director and Actors hired, etc. none of that was verified. Finally, J.D. Petruzzi, one of the historical consultants, wrote me and said I was attacking the project. I told him I wasn’t. IF they had hired a director and actors, there had to be a production company that was signatory to both DGA and SAG agreements. I asked what that company was. Well, he told me to be patient and ‘all would be revealed’. So now, if you look it up at IMDb, you’ll see it’s a Sony Pictures project in ‘pre-production. It’s listed with a ‘start date’ of April 12, 2012 but it also indicates that it is still in pre-production. When you check out the director and entire cast, they all start 2013, and To Appomattox is not cited on any of IMDb list of their future projects. So I guess it’s just a long prep. I don’t know. Bottom line is that I wish them well and great success.
I would like to thank Mr. Eaton for taking the time to conduct this interview and I wish him the best of luck with any future projects!
For more information and interviews with people involved with the film, please visit the complete Gods and Generals Archive.