Not since HBO’s John Adams has a mainstream media event promised to deliver so much in terms of excitement surrounding the American Revolution, and with that, hopefully, historical accuracy. When Turn, a five-part series, premieres on April 6th on AMC, it will do much to temporarily quell the hunger of history geeks across the country, with this prominent part of our nation’s history largely ignored in feature films and television. While John Adams was spectacular, other Hollywood ventures have not been so successful. 1985’s Revolution starring Al Pacino was a travesty to history, while The Patriot with Mel Gibson in 2000 was nothing more than Lethal Weapon set during the 1700’s. Being that I worked at a Revolutionary War-era museum for four years and lecture on the subject from time to time, it is needless to say that I am excited. This new series will take a look at a very underrated aspect of our Revolution with Britain, which was the role that spies played in our eventual victory.
Just yesterday, I said in the final installment of “Blogging Manassas” that I did not know if any more coverage of Gods and Generals would be coming. Lo and behold, I was contacted by another cast member, today, who was also at the premiere this weekend, telling me a little about the role he played. I asked if he would let me interview him, and he agreed.
David Foster played the role of Captain Ricketts, one of the Union artillery commanders during the battle of First Bull Run scenes. He told me in his initial email that he would never forget his filming experiences, and that it was a joy to work for director Ron Maxwell, and that anything he produces is a “class act”. Of course, I asked him to elaborate further on that below, but first, it is also worthy to mention that he brought up where he was on September 11th, since that was a question raised to the actors in the panel on Friday night. David told me, “On 9/11, we were also filming the first Battle of Bull Run, at Henry House Hill. After we found out the news, we prayed, and were allowed to decide to keep filming. We filmed the artillery duel and Captain Rickett’s subsequent wounding.” He also tells me that he is related to a Civil War soldier, which he thought of often while filming. In addition to this, David has also appeared in numerous films and television shows, such as The Village, Flags of Our Fathers, and State of Play, as well as the hit HBO miniseries John Adams. Below is our conversation:
GC: Can you describe your G & G filming experiences and what it was like to work for Ron Maxwell?
DF: Filming Gods and Generals was my best time on set, ever. The reenactors will forever be my heroes for the way they worked each scene so well. They endured extreme heat, long hours, and did this all for free and on their vacations. The crew was very good, and at times, I felt as if I had traveled back in time. My wife came to the set one day, when it was media day. There were a lot of charges and battle scenes. Rob Gibson had his glass plate studio set up on the edge of the field and took a picture of me in character. Rob had my wife and I come over to the tray when he developed the picture. We were amazed to see my picture appear on the plate in the tray of chemicals. Many of us bought a set of playing card size copies of our pictures. Months before filming, I began having headaches and a large cyst grew on my temple. Doctors said it might be cancer, but I waited until filming was over to have the operation. In September they told me that my filming was done, so I had the operation and fortunately it wasn’t cancer. While my wound was still healing I got a call to film the Battle of Antietam, but couldn’t go. Thanksgiving weekend came around, and I got a call to film another part of First Bull Run and filmed my only speaking part of the movie. I hope very much that somehow Ron Maxwell gets the chance to film The Last Full Measure, because I would love to be a part of it. I also hope Stephen Lang comes back because he was very good to work with.
GC: I have to ask, was your beard real?
DF: My beard was mostly made, as well as my [own] hair. I didn’t shave for maybe two weeks and I had let my hair grow some before filming. Each morning on set, I spent about 3 1/2 hours in the chair. They made up three layers of hair extensions and attached them each day after my beard was done. The beard took longest. One time in Maryland, they made me all up and rain delayed the shoot until the next day. I volunteered to sleep with my hair and beard in place to speed up the next day’s prep time, since there was only a small window without rain. The hair department gave me rags to put over my beard and hair for while I slept. I took a Benadryl before bedtime since the whole get-up itched so bad, so I could sleep. The next day they took far less time to prep me, and we got the shoot in.
GC: You have appeared in several history-related films, but which is your favorite time period in history?
DF: My favorite period is the Civil War, because it is all around us. The buildings that survived the war fascinate me, because they all have their own story. The soldiers, as well as civilians, each have a story. The biggest thing is my Great Great Grandfather—Captain Henry Stowell of the 7th Vermont. He was the Quartermaster of his unit and I found documents where he supplied uniforms and supplies to the Black Union soldiers. His diary tells many stories from his time in the Gulf of Mexico region—his time in New Orleans, the blockade of Mobile, taking a ship from Pensacola to Ship Island. Henry came home in one piece and was a printer in Troy, New York.
GC: What was it like working for M. Night Shyamalan in The Village?
DF: Working for Night was a good experience. We averaged about 12 takes per scene, so it was a little tedious at times. I was on vacation in the Smokies when I got the call to go to Philadelphia for the audition. My wife overheard me on the phone just after we toured Biltmore House, and said, “Don’t say no, I have a good feeling about this part”. I was cast as one of the 12 main elders, but found out later, it was only a glorified extra part. Disney is very tight with the money, but I ended up with some good scenes, and worked 18 days in all. William Hurt was very helpful to me on set, and Sigourney Weaver swooned on my shoulder between takes of the first scene. Night Shyamalan took very good care of us all, and I would work for him again any time.
GC: What are you up to now? Any upcoming film projects?
DF: I just finished a commercial promoting uranium mining in Virginia. I filmed 4 spots and 5 voice-overs, which will start airing soon. Last fall, I filmed a very nice historical movie – Alone Yet Not Alone, based on a true story and book, set during the French and Indian War. I portrayed a french scout who shot the main villain, with a flintlock musket at night. They liked the job I did so much, they brought me back as General Braddock’s valet. I looked totally different thanks to a wig and makeup and I can be seen in the trailer in this part. Last fall, I also filmed an Anthem Blue Cross commercial, as well as a Southern States commercial. In addition, I was a high school principal in a Darden School of Business training video. Tomorrow I go to Richmond for my second audition for the movie—Lincoln.
I would like to thank David for taking the time to conduct this interview, and wish him the best of lucking in landing a role in the upcoming Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln!
Before I get to the actual review, I just wanted to share a little story with you. On Thursday, with You Don’t Know Jack on the way from Netflix, I decided to play a little joke in my chemistry class because it was a lab day and we would all be wearing our lab coats for the first time. Looking like a doctor with it on, I made a name tag and wrote “Dr. Kevorkian” on it, and stuck it in my chest pocket. Everyone got a kick out of it, including the professor, but just because they thought it was funny that I was pretending to be a doctor, and not about what the name tag said. Excluding my two lab partners, who knew what I was going to do, not one person in the class recognized the name, and whenever someone squinted their eyes to read what the name said, I would say it out loud, hoping to set off a light bulb in someone’s head, but no one noticed. For the two hours I was there, my real last name could have been Kevorkian for all they knew. Needless to say, I died a little inside (no pun intended).
Anyway, on to the actual film, once again HBO comes through with a spectacular special. I actually like their movies better than their miniseries’, and must be one of those rare people who was not crazy over Band of Brothers, but I loved Conspiracy, and thought it was filled with tremendous performances. This one, You Don’t Know Jack, tackled one of the most controversial issues of the 1990’s (if not still today), regarding euthanasia and the rights a terminally ill person has to end their life with assisted suicide. Dr. Jack Kevorkian pioneered the “service” by helping more than 130 patients end their lives.
For someone who was portrayed as an insane serial killer who went around murdering handicapped people in the middle of the night, this movie does a lot to show the truth, and does much to humanize and sympathize with the man who became known as “Dr. Death”. Here we see the thoroughly calculated goings-on that went in to each suicide, including a recorded consultation, signing of consent forms, and then the actual death of the patient. It shows what each person went through, along with their families, and because I had never really thought of this topic before, it really put the idea of euthanasia into perspective. After watching this film, I think I have taken Kevorkian’s side, and that if a person is suffering and is beyond all hope of recovery, as long as they are of clear mind and body and want to make such a decision, who are we to stop them?
This actually shows Kevorkian turning some patients down, either because their illness was not severe enough, or they were too depressed to think rationally. It was hard not choking up while some of the would-be’s told their stories, asking to have their lives ended, including a best friend of Kevorkian, played by Susan Sarandon who was suffering from an incurable Pancreatic cancer. As leader of the Hemlock Society, an organization that supports a person’s right to die, as soon as she developed the disease, she knew she was going to see her friend.
As Kevorkian, Al Pacino does an absolutely fantastic job in his portrayal. Down to the look, walk, and talk (okay, his Michigan accent was a big exaggerated), Pacino does not act like the doctor, he becomes the doctor. I have not seen every one of his films, but from what I have seen, I believe this to be his best performance, and certainly worthy of the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards he won, and the Satellite and Screen Actors Guild awards he was nominated for. Had this been a theatrical feature, my bet would be that he would win an Oscar.
John Goodman also gets decent screen time as the doctor’s medical supplier and camera operator, and was also nominated for two awards. Danny Huston, who you will recognize from the HBO series John Adams, plays Kevorkian’s lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, and gives a decent performance as well, because he has to separate from his personal belief in not siding with assisted suicide, but sticking up for Kevorkian because he believes the law is wrong.
All in all, there were killer performances and scenes all around. The movie was humorous, in showing Kevorkian’s health-conscious eccentricities, his relationship with his sister, played by Brenda Vaccaro, and when he walks into the courtroom dressed like a man from the 1700’s, because he believes the laws are dated, and even makes reference to the inquisition. Yet there is the obvious underlying dark side to this film, because from start to finish, all it is really about is death. There are no gory scenes for those that might be squeamish—the patients are either killed by lethal injection or with a gas mask over there face. I also really appreciate the showing of Kevorkian’s paintings, which are beautifully morbid if I may say so, and show how talented and brilliant of a man he really was, despite being portrayed as a lunatic.
It sticks very close to the facts, and follows him from his first victim all the way up until 1999, when he was sentenced to ten years in prison for murder, after he injected his last victim himself, to prove a point, rather than have the patient pull the plug. I will give this movie an 8 out of 10, and would definitely watch it again. As strange as Pacino is in this performance, he works it to perfection. I highly recommend this film to all who enjoy great acting…and a little bit of 90’s history (was it really that long ago?).
The year, 2011, now marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and because of that, almost weekly we are hearing of new events and upcoming film projects that plan to be released in the next four years. If you are an avid reader of this site, you now know about the planned premiere and release of the Gods and Generals Director’s Cut, as well as one for Gettysburg. I have been in further contact with Brian Mallon in the last few days, and though I cannot say anything just yet, there may be some even bigger news coming here to FNYTSF.
There is also the Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln coming out in the next few years, and now whispers are floating around about a massive TV miniseries titled, To Appomattox, which will cover the entire war ala Band of Brothers and John Adams style. That will no doubt be spectacular.
So please keep checking back on this site and section for any news surrounding the Civil War anniversary, and of course, I have billed this site as the unofficial news outlet for Gods and Generals. I also must mention again at how kind and helpful Mr. Mallon has been, for reasons other than the interview. It truly is amazing at how some people whom you have never even met will go out of their way to try to help you. He also informed me that director Ron Maxwell read the interview and loved it, and that really makes me happy because it was his two Civil War films that turned me into the enthusiast I am today. We also plan on meeting up at the premiere in Manassas if I am able to get down there, which I am going to try very hard to do.
Just in case anyone else is wondering about the poster advertising the G & G director’s cut that appeared in my last article, I made it on Photoshop. Feel free to use it until Warner Brothers releases the official one.