Like Grant in 1864 (or Lee in 1862), the To Appomattox Kickstarter campaign is rolling full speed ahead, with its launch beginning today (for an unprecedented $2.5 million), just about an hour ago. Already I am pleased to see quite a few backers and thousands of dollars raised. I am still contemplating which option to donate to, and will probably go with the $100 “Haversack” option, which includes a DVD set of the series and some other goodies. I am going to keep this post short, because I have written about this series at length already, including just a few days ago with writer and executive producer Michael Beckner himself. After years of waiting, the time has come for US to try to get this series off the ground. It looks promising, but in the end, we need results. The Civil War community, myself included, always complains about a lack of related projects, so now WE finally have the chance to get something made. There is not much more to say than that. If you are a die-hard and want to donate a thousand, or can only spare a few bucks, every little bit counts—and I am sure the production staff would agree. Please click here to check out the Kickstarter page and see all the support options. Over and out.
After years of waiting, it appears that To Appomattox is finally picking up steam, with a realistic chance for this project to finally be filmed. As discussed on this blog numerous times, the series is going the way of a Kickstarter campaign, which will seek to receive funding from fans, in order for the first two episodes to be filmed and shopped as a backdoor pilot. If it is successful, the remaining eight episodes would then be picked up by a network. If not, then they would be released independently as a film. Producer Michael Beckner has done something unique here, and that is getting fans actively involved, not just with funding (which will provide rewards specific to the amount donated) but with the “creative” process as well. Dating back to last year, when I spoke to him via phone, he expressed his sincere hopes that this series would be one “of the people”. The Civil War community is a rabid one; a group of people always craving—no, starving—for projects related to the genre. They also demand historical accuracy, something difficult to attain in mainstream media. But that aside, are there enough potential contributors out there for this money to be raised?
Because I used to write for the To Appomattox fan site, I contributed this to their blog today to help celebrate the one-year anniversary of when we started it, which was a very exciting time. A link to the entire article, as well as Steven’s contribution, can be found at the bottom.
It’s hard to believe that it has already been one year since Steven Hancock and I started the unofficial fan blog for the To Appomattox mini-series. Just a year ago today, the two of us had hopes of pooling our resources (I was blogging about it on my site, while Steve was doing it on his Civil War Diary) to create a blog where coverage could be contained to one place. We soon approached the “father” of the project, screenwriter and executive producer Michael Frost Beckner, and told him of our idea, and he gave us his full blessings. It was truly a wonderful experience, in getting to talk to so many great people, including interviewing Beckner himself (in addition to having him contribute a ghost story for my blog’s October “Haunted History” series), as well as historians/advisers J. David Petruzzi and Cary Eberly, and the actor playing Gen. Charles F. Smith, the always-wonderful and passionate Patrick Gorman.
We are going to kick off the awards season on a light note today, because the next two awards to come are rather bleak and sarcastic. This year could have very well been the year of the interview, because I was never busier than when tracking down various cast and crew members for my coverage of the Gods and Generals Extended Director’s Cut release and premiere, and a little bit later with my blogging for the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox. Aside from that, I tried to stay on par with my normal hockey coverage, though that took a back seat for quite a long time. I would have loved to nominate everyone that I had a chance to speak to, because each one was very special and informative in its own right, but I have narrowed it down to the following below, based on popularity, total reads, and feedback. The Mallon interview, though it took place in December of 2010, will be included here, because it would be unfair to leave out the one that started it all, when referring to G & G—that and the fact that it was highly memorable! Winners will be announced on December 31. Happy voting!
It is not often that I get the opportunity to have a follow-up interview with one of my favorite actors, but veteran Patrick Gorman assured me that we would have to do another one after we finally met back in July, at the World Premiere of the Gods and Generals Extended Director’s Cut. It took a long time because of our busy schedules (his being more exciting than mine, of course), so we decided to do one by email rather than phone, to recount his experiences at the premiere and reenactment of First Bull Run, as well as his planned participation in the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox. Also, we must not forget the vampire film we talked about last spring, which many of us are anxiously awaiting to see!
Patrick’s original interview with me, which you can read here, is also up for nomination for my blog’s “Interview of the Year” Award, the voting for which begins tomorrow, December 1st. Please keep checking back on this site to vote for Patrick, as he goes up against many co-actors and crew from Gods and Generals and Gettysburg, as well as other Civil War historians and filmmakers.
I first came into contact with producer and screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner a few months ago, due to his work with the highly anticipated upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. Having written for their unofficial fan blog since August now, and knowing that MFB, as we call him, is very hands on, I thought I would ask him if he had any history-related ghost stories, during my quest to bring you some of the best from filmmakers and historians around the country. He agreed, and actually sent me two, the first of which occurred in historic Lexington, Virginia while on a research trip. It entails a very creepy encounter with what he believes was the ghost of a Civil War soldier. The second story involves the war as well, but has a slightly different twist. I hope you will enjoy these!
First story—Lexington, Virginia
In 2005, my wife accompanied me on a research trip for To Appomattox. We came into Lexington late one night (about 10pm) without reservations. No hotels available. We called all the Bed and Breakfasts…nothing in town. We found one way up on the Lee Highway. They had been under construction and weren’t reopening for another week, but I explained our predicament and they said they would give us a room for the night. We drove from town up that highway. My wife and I have been on windy, dark roads all over the world many times. Something about this one spooked her. Before we were even to this place, she said she refused to get out of the car, that something “bad” awaited us. I gently told her it was late, there was nowhere else, we were tired, the couple who owned the place were elderly and were opening their home to us late at night…and were waiting.
We arrived up the long dirt driveway (it still needed to be re-paved) and she refused to get out of the car. We argued for a moment. The couple was waiting on the porch and my wife wouldn’t budge. Embarrassed, I got out of the car, walked to the porch and lied that on the way my wife and begun throwing up and might have a stomach flu and we didn’t want to bring germs into their home. They didn’t really believe me, but that was that. Got back in the car. My wife said, “Get out of here as fast as you can. This is a bad place.” (By the way, that was a sweet, old couple and I still feel bad about lying; Anne wasn’t talking about them–just to be straight.)
The rental car was an Infiniti and had a rear-viewing camera with a monitor in the dash. A little more common now, but back then that was the first I’d driven with one of those and I was into the technology of it all. So I put the car in reverse and didn’t look over my shoulder, opting to use the cool camera/monitor. Anne did look over her shoulder though. Suddenly, I saw a figure (in the monitor) loom up directly behind me. It was a bearded man in Civil War officer’s uniform and slouch hat. Reenactor, I thought at the second it happened. Anne, looking back through rear window glass, shouted, “Stop! You’ll hit him!” I was already slamming my brake. I hit him. I must have. Yet he remained as though embedded in the bumper—I was still looking at the display, Anne still over her shoulder, then he “became” exhaust and dissolved. It was exhaust. I distinctly remember knowing, somehow, in the moment I saw him that he wasn’t “solid.” The exhaust dissipated in wisps.
Anne asked, “Did you see him? Was it someone?”
I answered, “Where was his hand?”
She said, “Holding the top of his sword.”
He had been—his hand resting on the guard of his sword in his scabbard. When I asked Anne to describe him she gave me the same details: beard, long Civil War coat with two rows of buttons, and a “cowboy” hat. A few years later, I remembered the event and went online to see if anyone else had seen him. There are LOTS of reports of a Confederate officer/spirit who harasses cars along that road.
Second story—Richmond, Virginia
Here’s another one…We were in Richmond (again, another research trip). Staying at small “historic” hotel—I don’t remember the name. The rooms were unchanged since the 1800’s. Bedroom, big living room, high ceiling, original/period furniture. Anne woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me “someone was in the room” with us. I looked around both rooms. No one there. I didn’t feel anything creepy. She said, there had been a woman who woke her up. I told her she had a nightmare, and went back to bed.
Shortly after, about 3am, about to fall back asleep, as we were lying there we began to hear children laughing and chattering and playing outside. It went on for about 30 minutes. It was very irritating. The next morning I complained to the management. They swore that there was no group of children staying there and that no one else had heard anything—the proprietors stay there as well. We checked around and, sure enough there were no children staying there; only two other couples, and I asked them—they didn’t hear any children.
A day later, at another hotel, I found an old Readers’ Digest magazine. There was an article in it about the place where we had stayed. Don’t remember the details, as in names, but it told the story of a young Richmond woman (with a “wild” reputation) who had a love affair with a Civil War officer that was somewhat scandalous—they would race horses up and down the streets. They got married the day before he went to the front. Lee gave her permission to visit him, but battle intervened. By the time she got to the front to see her new husband…he was dead.
The woman who’s husband died returned to Richmond and locked herself in her room for a year. Her house was the hotel we had stayed in–though not the room she’d locked herself in. When she ended her mourning, she converted the home into a school for war orphans.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to share these two fascinating stories with me. As we get closer and closer to Halloween, sometimes we do not realize how often history and the paranormal intersect with each other.
When I was growing up, of the many things a little boy dreamed to be, a CIA agent was most certainly one of them. Every Friday night, I would sit down with my dad to watch The Agency, which ran from 2001-2003. During that time, I was captivated and excited by a show that was beginning to become a rival in the hardcore Law & Order household we lived in. Little did I know, several years later, I would be talking to the man that created and wrote the series, Michael Frost Beckner, who has now turned his talents to making something even more up my alley. He is going to be the writer, as well as one of the producers, for the much talked-about upcoming television miniseries, To Appomattox. We are going to see a lot of projects on the American Civil War over the course of the next four years, but none of them promise to be as endearing as this, a series with more than 50 prominent speaking roles and a team of 16 historical consultants working to make sure they have the most accurate script and screenplay possible. Among those is J. David Petruzzi, who I interviewed a few days ago.
This new project, To Appomattox, is currently in the pre-production stage, with filming set to begin next spring, and a release slated for 2013. Before he becomes too busy, I contacted Mr. Beckner in hopes of doing an interview, and he agreed. He has also written the screenplays for films such as Sniper, with Tom Berenger, Cutthroat Island, and Spy Game. Below is our conversation:
GC: When did you first realize you wanted to make a TV series on the Civil War? What was your inspiration?
MFB: I grew up in a home where I was told that when “Dixie” is played, you stand. Luckily, “Dixie” wasn’t played much in Studio City, California, because I’m sure I would have been laughed at by my fellow elementary school students. There have always been the ancestral portraits over the mantle and my mother and grandmother always attended their Daughters of the Confederacy meetings. On the other side of my family, there were the tales of my one-eyed, eye patch-wearing Union “General” great-grandfather. (I put “General” in quotes because I’m pretty sure he only ever made Colonel, but I learned at an early age not to contradict my grandmother on that one!). But, it was when I was working on my CBS series The Agency at Langley. My wife was with me and somehow the conversation got to the Civil War. I was telling a group of Agency officers that Professor Lowe’s balloons launched pretty much from where the CIA headquarters now stands; first American aerial recon! Later that night, my wife started asking me about the history of the war…and I guess I went on and on for the next day she told me I knew more about the Civil War than the espionage world I’ve made a career writing about. She was pretty forceful telling me it would be a crime if my next project wasn’t about the war. On one hand, when Anne gets an idea fixed in her head she’s relentless; on the other, I knew there’s no one in Hollywood who would ever do a Civil War film. And I need to write films that pay me. So in an effort to get around writing a film, I promised her I’d write her a play centered on the four times Grant and Lee meet over the course of their lives. Well, that got bigger and bigger, my passion for the subject unleashed—especially under the encouragement of my project mentor Dr. John Y. Simon, Founder & former Director (deceased) of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at the University of Southern Illinois, at Carbondale. Meanwhile, the deadlines I had discussed with the University of Richmond—where we had planned to premiere the show before taking it to London (there was no interest in a Civil War play in NYC)—I found to be tighter/stricter than my television deadlines. The play, To Appomattox, ultimately became the outline to something much bigger, which was first a two hour film. That was too breathless… Then I wrote a four hour mini-series…that showed there was too much left out…but where was the time to write it the way it needed to be written? During the Writers’ Strike of a few years back, that time became available. When that was over, I had finished a 13 episode series that seemed to write itself. The amazing thing with To Appomattox is, I realize now, this project, picked me… Not the other way around. Somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t writing this for Anne or for myself, nor—as with every other script of my career—was any of it my invention. It belongs to all of us and all our forebears; I’m just really a custodian of our shared history and I came to it not because I knew I could write it, but that it had to be written by me, because of my ability to get projects made, attach talent to what I do, get studios to finance my work: if I didn’t write To Appomattox no one was ever going to.
GC: Aside from hundreds of hours of research, what is the most difficult part of writing a screenplay for an eight hour series?
MFB: Making the choices of what to put in and leave out; who to focus on, who not to. And then once knowing exactly what that focus was and what I’d be able to tell well and properly, having the disciplince to cut five hundred pages out of the script and take 13 episodes down to the 8 we’ll now produce, and be secure in the knowledge that the 8 hour version is far better, dramatically, than the 13. The other difficulty is where my 20+ years of writing film and television craft came into play. Pacing the episodes scene by scene, opening and ending at the right moments. The film is straight history, but that crafting has allowed each episode to feel like a “movie.”
GC: One of the most important aspects of any war movie is the violence level– too gory and people will be grossed out, not gory enough and people will say it is inaccurate. How are you going to go about setting up and filming the battle scenes?
MFB: There is only about 15 minutes tops of war in each episode. Those sequences will be fully realized to historical accuracy. I get “grossed out”—and I think I’m similar to most people—when violence is gratuitous or created for “shock value.” At it’s extreme it’s actually desensitizing and—for example horror/slasher films—portrayed to get a sick laugh. There’s no place for any of that in To Appomattox. Think back to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. That was the most realistically portrayed warfare I’d ever seen. The violence was at the most extreme level I can remember. I was horrified and I was frightened and I was heartbroken. Tears rolled down my cheeks. It also gave me a deeper understanding of my country and countrymen…and that was cathartic. To understand the hearts of the men who fought in our Civil War, the meaning of it—going in and coming out—we MUST understand what they faced in battle. Portraying Civil War battles exactly as it was will pay them respect and honor; to be put in their shoes will allow audiences to come away from this series with a deeper emotional connection to who we are as Americans and why we are Americans, and why Americans are unique. As for network viewing, if we go with the cable network we’re now in discussions with we have no content problem. If we go with one of the two major “alphabet” networks with whom we’re talking, because this is straight history, we can broadcast with a “content warning.” Sort of like how they show Saving Private Ryan on network TV, although that’s a fictional story.
GC: How will you approach the battle of Gettysburg, especially since a full-length (and very popular) film has already been made about it?
MFB: Episode 5, “Reunion” focuses on Gettysburg. Because one of my overriding positions in writing and producing this series is to connect audiences directly with this past—to show that it wasn’t all that long ago and the people weren’t all that different from who we are today and that we are connected; also NOT to show it the way it’s ever been portrayed before—Episode 5 takes place during the present of the battle and at the same time over the course of three battlefield reunions. Another aspect of this hour, is that I’ve used it to examine the “mythologizing” of the war. How it happened, why it’s happened, how that’s effected our own conceptions of American heroism…for better, or worse.
GC: After all the hours of writing this series, have you developed any personal favorite characters?
MFB: I was reared to believe William Sherman was insane and evil. After writing this, I’ve grown quite fond of the general and am very sympathetic to him. Back when this was a play, I approached Lee and Grant the way I was taught: Lee was the greatest American ever; Grant was a drunk and a butcher. I have no greater respect for an American hero than I do for Ulysses S. Grant. Funny, though, it’s the characters I couldn’t tell the stories of (no room) that have become my favorites. There’s John Sedgewick, there’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, and my very favorite, Gouverneur K. Warren. In the latter’s case, I’ve begun writing a play, a courtroom drama, entitled Inquiry based on the Warren’s Court of Inquiry that convened on January 7, 1880. Also, there’s a movie in the illustrious life of Dan Sickles.
GC: Lastly, did Will Patton, Paige Turco, Richard Speight Jr., Jason O’Mara get involved in the project through their work with you on The Agency? How do you think they will adapt to their roles?
MFB: They’ve been close, close friends since The Agency. In fact, Will and Jason were attached all those years ago to star in the Grant/Lee play. This entire cast didn’t come together from “packaging” but from personal relationships and deep passion for this history. For everyone in the cast of To Appomattox this is a labor of love…for their families, their children, and their nation.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to conduct this interview! This really wets the appetite and makes one hope that 2013 won’t take too long to get here. It is also sad and true when he mentioned about Hollywood’s lack of interest when it comes to the Civil War. Ron Maxwell alluded to the same exact thing last month. You would think, with so many potential stories and dramas (even comedies) just waiting to be told, there would not be this severe reluctance to make a film about that era of our history. That is why each and every film done about it, when done correctly, is important to the telling of our history. This is a story, like many others, that needs to be told, and thankfully, Michael is here to do just that.
I will also be launching a new sub-page at the top of the site to keep track of the interviews and articles that get written about the show, much like my ‘Gods and Generals Archive‘. You can either scroll up or simply click here. And don’t forget to visit the show’s official website.