A Most Authentic Production: How the Set and Extras Made “Copperhead”

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Some historical films mimic the time period they are trying to portray. Some films become that time period. Thanks to the production team of designer Bill Fleming, costume designer Kate Rose, a stellar hair and makeup team and Kings Landing Historical Settlement, and the hundreds of “living historians” who served as background extras, Copperhead becomes one of those films. There is an authenticity you are going to witness that is beyond most films set in other times. The people are not Hollywood cardboard cutouts, they are real. That is what will excite history buffs when they watch this film, because there is an earthiness to what we see.
That was my overall impression of this film, along with the passionate acting performances by the ensemble cast , and even more than Laurent Eyquem’s powerful, melancholy score. The scenery and people who filled it in brought this picture to life – taken to an even higher level by cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum. However, these extras are not the “norm” by any stretch, because they all do it for a love of history, and some even do it for a living at the settlement. Because of this, the clothing is not fresh off the rack, the people are not polished, and the beards are real. You truly feel as if you stepped out of an H.G Welles time machine and into the 1860′s.
Perhaps the reason for such an effect is the simplicity at hand. While the characters and their relationships are extremely complex, the story is deceptively simple. The audience is never lost, because the camerawork and pacing allows you to realize where you are at all times. In one of the weekly production videos, co-producer John Huston mentioned that he and director Ron Maxwell were going for a Pieter Brueghal feel, due to his paintings of peasant life in the middle ages. As production came to a close, we saw comparisons drawn to Jan Vermeer, and his depictions of simple housework. The only other director to leave me with this impression was the Italian maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini, who went out of his way to strip his productions of anything artificial, sometimes going so far as hiring people who had never acted a day in their life in lead roles, to avoid anything that looked fake or put on. He would even travel to the most remote parts of the earth to film even a small section of his work. The reason for this was to achieve an unmatched authenticity, so we can put aside our modern world and forget we are watching a movie. So we can transform ourselves to be in whatever time period is being presented to us.
Wherever Pasolini went, he cast locals to use as extras. In so doing, he immediately gained their respect, and with that, trust. He also received something even more important: camaraderie amongst cast-members, which any filmmaker will tell you is sometimes rare to behold. Maxwell seems to be in the same situation with Copperhead. He used the photogenic Kings Landing, and its people. After speaking to a few of the extras and actors, they have told me it really felt as if everyone was a family. This occurred not just among the extras who already knew each other, but even when some of the bigger names arrived. The actors, however legendary or unknown, were quickly assimilated in 19th century life, and it showed in the final product. Plainly said, this is an authentic period movie with real people. The sincerity will bring families together who happen to view it as a whole. This will be a film that will stand alone amongst films set both during the American Civil War and 1800′s as a whole.
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