Interview with Author and Historian J. David Petruzzi

What exactly constitutes someone being considered an “expert”? There are many qualities you can contrive in order to define the word, but I am pretty sure, that at the end of the day, no matter what you think of, historian and author J. David Petruzzi would always be considered one when it comes to the American Civil War. He is the author of five books on the subject, including the freshly released New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook, which has been described as a must-read for diehards and newbies alike. With another trip to Gettysburg coming up in the next couple of weeks for me (have not yet decided on the dates), I think I am going to pick up a copy and take it along with me, because it seems to be the real deal according to the reviews.

All of Petruzzi’s hard work has led him to be selected as a historical adviser to the highly anticipated television miniseries To Appomattox (2013), which has been mentioned a few times on this blog. With many fans out there wanting to learn more about it, and his role, I asked him to shed some light on that, as well as his general opinion on various aspects of the Civil War and films made about it. He is also the author of other related works, including walking and driving tours of Gettysburg, One Continuous Fight, which details Lee’s retreat, and finally, Plenty of Blame to Go Around, which currently holds distinction as the only book dedicated entirely to Confederate cavalry General J.E.B Stuart’s famous, and controversial ride, from Virginia to Gettysburg. Mr. “Call Me J.D” Petruzzi also maintains a blog called “Hoofbeats and Cold Steel”, which I discovered after stumbling upon his review of the History Channel Gettysburg documentary from late May—both of us had choice words to say about that one, while his expertise took it even further! Below is our interview, which we conducted by email this afternoon:

GC:You are serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. What exactly will your job entail?

JDP: First, I’m really humbled and honored to be a part of this, which I truly believe will be the media event of the Sesquicentennial.  It’s all been very exciting, because I’ve never been involved in something of this scope and magnitude.  My initial duties a few months back entailed two things: First, I was asked to read the entire script and offer historical accuracy suggestions.  As an aside, I was hooked after the first few pages.  From the very first scene in the first episode to the last scene of the last episode, it is an amazing story.  Writer Michael Frost Beckner is a life-long student of history (he also has ancestors who fought in the war) and his research went extremely deep, so the writing was already very accurate from a historian’s point of view.  I just caught some things here and there and helped Michael do a few rewrites and modifications.  Second, I assisted in assembling a world-class team of consultants, each of them with a particular specialty.  We have a uniform expert, a flag expert, personality experts, battle/campaign experts, and so forth.  We’re all experienced enough to know that some historical boo-boos will creep in here and there, but our team is comprised of the finest in their fields.  Viewers will have the confidence knowing that in each scene, within the context of the dramatic storytelling, every word uttered by every character – every item in the shot – every military action portrayed – will be historically accurate and plausible. My primary duty now is to bind the script of each episode, and begin making a collection of them with all of my historical notes and supporting material with them.  For example, each episode, page-wise, runs about 65-70 pages.  By the time I’m done, each of my episode binders will consist of about 200 or more pages.  I’ll also be collating the material of the consultants.  Therefore, as each and every scene is being blocked and prepared, we’ll have information at hand which gives us all of the historical accuracy details ready and available.  If there’s a flag or flags in a scene, we’ll have the right ones.  If Robert E. Lee, during the Mexican War, is in a scene, it will list what he looked like at the time, and exactly what his uniform should look like.  When U.S. Grant’s home, “Hardscrabble,” appears in an exterior shot, there’s a photograph of it. Michael and I speak just about every day, often several times a day.  He has me participate in just about everything having to do with the historical environment of the series, and that means assisting with things like enlisting corporations that provided consumer goods during the war to be sponsors and/or advertisers.  I’ve assisted in preparing printed presentations submitted to many entities having connections with the series.  It’s been great fun, and I enjoy helping any way I can. Once pre-production begins in the spring of next year, my full-time work begins.  From pre-production through the end of filming, I’ll be full-time on the set.  I very much anticipate that, and it’ll be a lot of hard, long work but a great deal of fun.  As Historical Adviser, I’ll be working personally with the actors and actresses, helping them understand their characters and hopefully in some small way to help them give a believable performance.  Michael has written into this story no caricatures, no icons up on pedestals – these historical figures are shown as exactly who I believe them to have been in real life… human, fallible, successful, and failures.  Angels didn’t sing when Lee walked into a room, but his men loved him and his enemies respected him.  Grant wasn’t a slosh who spent all his time on the floor passed out (though some would have you believe that).  He had only periodic struggles with alcohol, and that because he was often very lonely – he dearly loved and often ached for his wife and family – and his internal conflicts with his failures in life.  I think when folks are finished watching this series, they will come away feeling that they understand Grant and all of these men and women much more clearly. On the set I’ll also be coordinating, as the head of the Historical Department, the efforts of consultants and the crew assembling sets, reenactor/extra coordinators, battle scenes, etc.  Basically, any way that I can assist the producers, director, and all departments regarding history and accuracy.  When I don’t know an answer, I have to find it.  But as I mentioned earlier, Michael has written such a wonderful script that my job won’t be nearly as difficult as it otherwise could be. Once filming and editing is complete, I hope to continue to be involved as Michael’s ambitious list of “extras” are worked on.  We plan to include, in the resulting DVD boxed set that will be released, to have a “Behind the Scenes” documentary, mini historical documentaries, educational tools, etc.  We really want the entire To Appomattox experience to be just that – an experience.  We don’t want it to be over for the audience once the final episode begins.  Truly, it is then that the real learning and teaching begins.

GC: As it stands in pre-production, what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?

JDP: I touched on that a bit in my previous answer – I  hope that viewers come to begin to understand just in what environment the war took place, and who these people were who fought it, planned it, and those who waited at home and worried.  Today, we look at a picture of U.S. Grant and see a black and white, detached-from-us-today photograph.  But what was he thinking at West Point?  What was his relationship with James Longstreet?  What were his struggles with civilian life failures, alcohol, and loneliness?  What was it like to be in a room with George McClellan before or during the Civil War at particular times?  How did all these main characters – Grant, Longstreet, Lee, William Sherman – and all of their mutual friends interact with each other over several decades?  What did they laugh about?  What did they worry over?  What did the war do to their relationships?  All of these and more are dramatic limbs among the dramatic spine of the series, which is Grant’s memoirs. I also hope that it will go a long way toward getting young people more involved and interested.  It is they who will carry on the work of understand the war properly after us.  We are, after all, within the Sesquicentennial and interest in everything about the war is at an all-time high.  If one child turns to a parent and says “Let’s go visit Gettysburg – or Shiloh – or Chickamauga” then it’ll have all been worth it. Further, to be quite blunt, I believe the series and the portrayal within will knock a few pedestals out from under some “iconic” figures – as it SHOULD be.  It’s not an intentional effort to make any of these historical figures any less than what they were… quite the opposite, in fact it is to portray them (most often in their very own words) as they really were.  They laughed, they cried, they stumbled, they were successful, they failed.  And many of them leashed Hell upon the earth and to each other.  An enormous percentage of Civil War soldiers died on battlefields utterly alone.  In the dirt.  In their own blood.  Perhaps clutching a picture of their wife or a child.  And their everlasting legacy on Earth was to be tossed into a trench, their identity never to be known again.  Many families didn’t have even a grave to mourn over.  Thousands of soldiers today still lie in parts unknown, all but forgotten.  Theirs and many like stories are another foundation of this series.

GC: What is your favorite Civil War movie of all-time, and why?

I love so many – The Horse Soldiers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Glory, you name it.  But probably my favorite is Gettysburg, based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.  Much of the dialogue is just plain silly, but it was Shaara’s interpretation of those characters and they’re simply wonderful.  Admittedly, the movie has set standards by which many reenactors and living historians now do their craft.  For instance, Longstreet never wore the huge hat (it should have been given its own zip code) that actor Tom Berenger wore in the movie.  Longstreet typically wore a regular kepi.  I’m told that while in the town of Gettysburg prior to filming, Berenger went into the store Dirty Billy’s Hats and asked for the biggest hat in the place.  Folks tried to tell Berenger that it would be inaccurate for Longstreet, but he wore it anyway.  Now, when you see one of the dozens of Longstreet portrayers around, they’re all wearing one of those huge hats for fear of not being “recognized.”  Many of them know better, but it is “Longstreet pop culture” to wear a big hat even though it’s utterly silly and inaccurate.  But if a Longstreet portrayer showed up at a reenactment wearing the correct kepi, no one would know who he was.  And that’s understandable.  But in our series, Longstreet wears the right clothes during the war, and none of the uniforms will look like they were just pulled off a Hollywood wardrobe rack. But all of that aside, every time the movie Gettysburg is on, I can’t take my eyes off it.  All of the actors are simply fabulous and I utterly enjoy watching it.  And if the pre-Pickett’s Charge bombardment and the Charge itself doesn’t touch your heart, then you need to check your pulse immediately.

GC: You recently just published another book, “The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook”. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

JDP: Thanks for asking about that – folks who know me know that I never turn down an opportunity for shameless self-promotion!  In the Savas Beatie “Handbook” series, it’s a neat little companion to The Complete Gettysburg Guide that I also did with master mapmaker Steven Stanley.  It contains a lot of material that we couldn’t include in the Guide – things like Gettysburg Campaign facts, trivia, personalities, and even Medal of Honor awardees.  There’s a photographic study of the entire five weeks of the campaign.  There’s also a comprehensive Order of Battle that is the most accurate and up-to-date available.  Steve designed the entire book for our publisher, did all of the maps (he’s the best in the business bar none) and it’s simply gorgeous to look at.  Steve and I are working hard on many more books – such as a Maryland Campaign Guide and others – and I’m simply blessed to be partnering with him on these projects.  Between the two of us, Steve has more talent in his little finger than I’ll ever have, period.

GC: Back in May you wrote a scathing review of the History Channel documentary on Gettysburg (as did I). How is it possible, with so much information out there, for a major production to be so misinformed and inaccurate?

JDP: Oh yeah, I ripped that show and to think of the thing still makes me ill today.  It was that bad.  How something like that can air?  I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD.  And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode.  If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day.  It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that).  If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them.  The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental.  I’ve seen only a couple positive comments about that show, and universally everyone trashed it.  All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed.  The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again. It also bears mentioning that such historically deficient tripe places even more expectations on us and our series, and we plan to rise to it.  Glaring historical inaccuracies in personalities and the set will only distract viewers, and we don’t want that.  We want everyone – student and scholars of history to those who know very little about it – to enjoy it and learn from it.  The demographics of our expected audience are enormously broad.  Not only will Civil War folks watch this, but, for instance, fans of Rascal Flatts (who is doing the music score and acting in it), fans of NASCAR drivers participating, and fans of the particular actors and actresses.  We have a heavy responsiblity to each of them to do this right and honorably.

GC: Lastly, aside from Gettysburg which you have invested so much time in, which is your favorite battle? Who is your favorite general? And why?

JDP: I dearly love Antietam.  It’s so quiet and non-commercial there, a stark contract to many things about Gettysburg.  Watching the sun set from Little Round Top is always awesome, but watch the sun come UP from the area of Burnside’s Bridge, and now you’re talking my language.  The area of the Cornfield there always gives me goosebumps, and I can’t help when walking the length of the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and just nearly tearing up as I look around an envision all those dead young boys of both sides that were in and around that.  Because of my interest in the cavalry, another favorite field is Brandy Station.  For us “Cav” folks, Brandy is the Motherload.  There, the cavalry of both sides brought “Thunder on the Plains.”  When I’m standing up on Buford’s Knoll or near Fleetwood Heights, nothing else in the world matters at that moment. If you asked others about my favorite general, they’d all probably assume John Buford.  And they’re probably right.  I admire the guy.  Soft-spoken and reserved, but he’d dangle you from the nearest locust tree if he suspected you just didn’t smell right.  I’d have loved to have been on a battlefield with him.  I also like Winfield Hancock.  Guy always had a clean white shirt on no matter what, and he could swear a blue streak said to have made flower wilt at his feet, and if any ladies had been present they’d have fainted dead away.  His men felt invincible near him, and that fella would have been one to have shared a wee nip with.  I bet he had stories. I also like to study the cads, the scoundrels.  Speaking of having a whiskey with someone, Dan Sickles would probably be the ultimate party dude.  And a fellow like Judson Kilpatrick fascinates me.  Snarky, shrill, but hell-bent-for-leather.  It’s why Sherman wound him up and turned him lose.  Kilpatrick had a habit of getting just about everyone and everything around him send to Providence, but his personal traits are both confusing and fascinating.  Truly, I like ’em all.  Everytime I discover an officer or common soldier with an interesting story, I just have to know more.  That’s what keeps this so exciting and endless – there are quite literally millions of stories out there, and millions more to find. Among those millions of stories, our To Appomattox series will bring some of them to people’s living rooms – and hopefully their hearts.  It is there that the seed of curiosity is born.

I would like to thank J.D for an absolutely enlightening interview! Reading and digesting this really makes me excited for 2013, when we will see this television series released. I had been trying to keep up with it, but with different updates being posted daily from their Facebook Page, I figured one day, I would just sit down and browse through all of it. This interview has given me just-cause to do that, because I don’t think I have felt this much excitement since 2003, when as a 12 year old, I waited with anticipation for my favorite Civil War film, Gods and Generals, to reach theaters. I cannot promise to provide as much coverage for To Appomattox as I did with G & G, but this is as good a place as any to start. Many thanks again to J. David for taking the time to type all of this out and send it over—this could have been a book in itself!


Fan-Casting and Producing “The Last Full Measure”

I. Opening Thoughts

At first, I was going to title this article “What Would it Take to Make The Last Full Measure?”, but we all know what it would take: money, lots and lots of money. We know the interest level is there, after seeing the glowing reviews and remarks regarding the release of the Gods and Generals Extended Director’s Cut, as well as the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary being commemorated from 2011-2015. The problem we have here is the immense budget it would take to finance, somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million, the same amount it took to make the prequel. With Ted Turner losing so much money at the initial box office failure, he is probably not interested in taking another gamble, because if he was, he might have done so already. Perhaps, if someone came up with around $30 million, he would match it, but of course, that person or group is elusive.

The only way this film gets made is if we prove to that mystery man out there that this project can be successful after all, either as a three-hour movie (any more than that would spell doom, if it does not already) or television mini-series event. With To Appomattox, an upcoming creation to television, promising to be all the rage in 2013, I would lean towards a feature film. This has its trouble, and will no doubt be mocked by the same people who balked at a three-hour and forty minute Gods and Generals in 2003. Would this project too, be killed before it even reached the silver screen? Or would it be looked upon as the necessary completion to the all-important Civil War trilogy, a more fitting statement? The one and only way to find out is to get the ball rolling and the juices flowing, which I hope this article will somehow do. We all know that getting the cast of thousands would not be difficult because of the never-ending devotion of Civil War reenactors, who pay their own way just to help accomplish something in the name of education. Aside from the aforementioned money, there is also a problem with the casting, because of course, as fans of the two films, we would want to see actor reprisals. Due to the age gap between films, this is easier said than done, but I shall elaborate further later on.

II. Quotables

“…I sat next to [Ted] Turner all day, when we filmed the Vaudeville sequence [in Gods and Generals], that he made his cameo in, and so I talked to him pretty much all day, and one of the things he said was, “If we break even, or even if we don’t lose too much money, as soon as we’re finished, we’ll start The Last Full Measure,” but of course, it lost a lot of money. I’ve often thought, even while we were filming it, that it would have made a better mini-series, like Band of Brothers, because there is so much information. It’s great for someone who loves the Civil War, who is an aficionado, and reenactors will watch anything, and even though I’m not a reenactor, I will watch anything on the Civil War.”Patrick Gorman (March 26, 2011)

“…the thing is, there were mistakes made with Gods and Generals that I would not allow to happen again. If a film is going to be made from The Last Full Measure, I will have much more involvement or there simply won’t be a film…That’s the other thing I hear, and I get letters on this literally every day, people want to know (which was why I put the note on my website) when the third movie is coming out, and it’s like they’re waiting for the shoe to drop because the story needs to be completed. I’ve had people chew me out and say, “Why aren’t you making the third film?” as though somehow I am stopping this. Gods and Generals cost $60 million to make, and if someone comes up with $60 million, fine, let’s talk. But so far it hasn’t happened.”–  Jeff Shaara (January 24, 2011)

“…So, for people who say that the odds are long, therefore you will never see it, is just silly. People who make that statement are just ignorant. I work on it every day. You know, maybe it won’t get made in my lifetime, maybe it will be made after my lifetime, and maybe it will never be made, we don’t know. What we do know, is that sometimes, these forces line up and these movies get made, but they do not get made with defeatist attitudes. They do not get made when you don’t suit up and go on the battlefield. They get made because you believe it can be made, you believe in the possibility of getting it made, and you will it into existence, by finding the right financing team, the right distributor, and the right actors who agree with you. That is how my two Civil War movies were made, and that is exactly how The Last Full Measure will be made. What I can tell the fans of the film and those who hope the movie will be made, is that there is not a week that passes where I do not work on it, and one of two things will happen: either I will die, or the film will be made. But, until I die, I will never cease my efforts to get the last part of the trilogy made.”Ron Maxwell (July 24, 2011)

III. Production Notes

So there you have it, the “long and the short of it”, so to speak: the dream of making LFM is certainly not dead, but perhaps it is much more complex than we ever could have imagined. I had to go back and re-read the Jeff Shaara interview, and there is a lot more there than I even posted above. To me, he expressed his disappointment and even anger, to a degree. I have no idea who owns the rights to the film project itself, but I would presume it is Shaara. If the film is made, then the filmmakers would have to work something out with him. If this is the case, then LFM would be more like Gettysburg than G & G, because the former was almost word for word, in most instances, with late Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels. Because Gettysburg seems to have a larger fan base, and much larger audience potential, maybe this is not such a bad thing.

In any sense, pre-production would need to begin very soon, and a realistic release date if that happened would probably be 2015, which would appropriately coincide with the end of the Civil War. Because LFM covers the Overland Campaign, Petersburg, and the surrender at Appomattox, this would not be a bad place to start. Maxwell said that he works on “it” everyday, and I will assume he means the screenplay. If that is the case, then a large chunk of time was just saved, because the script would just need to be finished and edited, as opposed to started from the beginning.

IV. Casting

At this point in time, because nearly twenty years have passed since Gettysburg, and eight since Gods and Generals, former cast members reprising their roles will be a very difficult task. Robert Duvall is 80  years old and Martin Sheen is now 71. While Sheen could probably pass for Lee, even at that age, I think an entirely new actor would have to be chosen. Could Stephen Lang, with a hair-dye job and grey beard possibly play his third different character in this, the third and final film? Then comes Tommy Lee Jones to mind, and I could definitely see him as Lee once decked out in the uniform with a beard. He would not need to put on a southern accent, and would also bring some much-needed intensity to a film that will involve the end of the war and fall of the Confederacy.

While I admit I have not read LFM as of yet (hence the reason for the question marks scattered through this section), I know that the major characters are Lee, Chamberlain, and a new addition in Ulysses S. Grant. It may be stretching it, but I think Jeff Daniels needs to reprise his role as Chamberlain, even if he looks older than the part. He, essentially, is this Civil War trilogy, and I would sacrifice that small level of authenticity to have him back. It could also be seen as the war aging and changing him, which happens to almost all soldiers.

As Grant, I can see Russell Crowe in the role (can’t we all?), since he was the original choice to play Thomas Jackson in G & G. But as a superstar who would command major money, that might not be an economically feasible option. After scanning various message boards, the name Josh Brolin also popped up to play Grant, which I would label more realistic, depending on how large a budget the film would receive. Now to something I thought of: what about Orlando Bloom? Put a scruffy beard and Ohio accent on him and I definitely see a Grant there (Bloom is now 34 and Grant was 39 when the war began). He would also attract a younger audience that might not have originally wanted to see a Civil War film. I imagine Lang’s name mentioned for this as well, but I just do not see him there. Does Pickett figure in as a prominent character with more than a couple of lines? If so, then he can continue where he left off from Gettysburg in that role. What about Sherman, is he in this as well? Lang could fit their too, which shows his versatility.

For the supporting cast, I would very much like to see Bruce Boxleitner back as Longstreet, because with a beard, you really would not notice much of an age difference, if there is any to begin with (having spoken to him at the Premiere, I would say that he looks very good). Chris Conner is also still young enough to come back as John Wilkes Booth, so we can see the completion of his transformation from angry actor to assassin. Though he had limited screen time in the director’s cut of G & G, Christian Kauffman played Lincoln well enough to be back for the sequel (heck, I can even see Lang there too). C. Thomas Howell and Brian Mallon back in their roles as Chamberlain’s brother and General Hancock? I would not have it any other way. I would like to see Patrick Gorman back as well, but in a much different role than General Hood. I would also, most definitely, want to see Mira Sorvino return as Fanny Chamberlain, because I have heard she would have some decent screen-time if the book became a movie. Because Buster Kilrain was killed off in the second film, where would Kevin Conway fit?  I would want back him in a different capacity. Could we also get Jeremy Irons involved in some way? He is one of my favorite actors, and when I see him, the word “warrior” always comes to mind. What about Dennis Quaid too, Bo Brinkman’s cousin, who has worked with Maxwell previously in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia?

All in all, there is definitely a lot of work to be done here, but that is why we have casting directors! I am glad this is not my job, because what an ordeal it would be. Below would be my final cast list of some of the characters. I hope to read LFM very soon, but until then, this is what I have drawn from the messy paragraphs above:

Robert E. Lee….. Tommy Lee Jones

Joshua L. Chamberlain….. Jeff Daniels

Ulysses S. Grant….. Orlando Bloom

[Special Appearance ala Sam Elliot in Gettysburg]….. Dennis Quaid

James Longstreet….. Bruce Boxleitner

George Pickett/ William T. Sherman [?]….. Stephen Lang

Fanny Chamberlain….. Mira Sorvino

John Wilkes Booth….. Chris Conner

Winfield Scott Hancock….. Brian Mallon

Thomas Chamberlain….. C. Thomas Howell

Walter Taylor….. Bo Brinkman

Abraham Lincoln….. Christian Kauffman

[?]….. Patrick Gorman

[?]….. Kevin Conway

V. Final Thoughts

Now that my manifesto is complete, I would like to invite the readers of this blog to make their own casting selections in the comment section below. Perhaps yours will even be more accurate, if you have read the novel and have a feel for it. I really wish that I had the time to sit down and read it, but maybe I can accomplish it the last week of August, when I have some time off before school starts up again. It was a lot of fun casting this movie, the same amount of fun it is dreaming that this film can be made. It is out of our hands, not just we as fans, but Maxwell’s and Shaara’s as well. The two people who want this film made the most have to wait for a door to open in the financing department. We have waited many years, and even if this film does get made, we will wait some more, but either way you look at it, these next for years are now or never for The Last Full Measure.

(NEW!) VI. Jeff Shaara Responds to Article

“…I own 50% of the film rights to the book.  Ron Maxwell owns the other 50%. Thus, for any film to be made, we would both be included in the contract.  I respect Ron’s passion for seeing LFM put onto film.  I think LFM is a far better story than Gods and Generals, and would make a better film. But keeping a positive outlook isn’t the primary requirement to getting this film made.  I continue to believe that with the box-office (and critical) failure of  G& G, a golden opportunity was lost for all of us, that Ted Turner was definitely “the man” who should have put the final capstone on the trilogy.  Now, we’ll see. My fingers are crossed.” (8/4/11)

Shooting the Breeze with Actor Patrick Gorman

There are many reasons why I will never forget this interview with Patrick Gorman, one being because we conducted it close to midnight. Because of conflicting schedules, me coaching hockey and having classes, and Patrick tied up with auditions and work, we decided to just get it done, even though it was so late. This is also the first time I had ever conducted an interview through Skype, and Patrick turned on his camera so I could actually see him. It was almost like watching a television special, because he was very candid and actually seeing him made it like a real conversation.

Patrick played Confederate General John Bell Hood in both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and the two of us almost met about ten years ago, as I explain below. Having gotten his start in the Robert Redford film Three Days of the Condor in 1975, he has since been in over sixty films, television specials, and episodes of popular shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Ghost Whisperer, and The Drew Carey Show. For someone as accomplished as him, it was hard to believe how nice and easy going he was. We ended up talking about hockey when the interview was complete, after he asked about how the team I coached is doing (and you know me, I’ll talk hockey with anyone!). He asked me to email him a few questions the day before, so he could get ready, but once we began talking, it was about twenty minutes before I even go to ask one, and that is great—for some reason, interviews always go better when you don’t get to ask the questions you initially jotted down. Patrick ended up covering everything I wanted just on his own, and kept me laughing from start to finish with his stories and observations. He even offered to send me an autograph!

PG: I recently got Skype for rehearsals for a vampire film I did in Montana. (laughs) And you know, I’m here, they were there, and we had to rehearse some of the scenes before we went to film, and that was the first time I used it.

GC: It’s very good for interviews or just conversations. People have business meetings from home now. They can just sit in front of the computer rather than go to the office.

PG: Yeah, and you have to get a camera too. They don’t cost hardly anything.

GC: Smile right now, I’ll take your picture and have that for the blog.

PG: (laughs) Alright!

(Delay as Patrick plays around with the camera)

PG: So, Greg, you have a blog? What do you do, you write Civil War stuff?

GC: Actually, it started out as just hockey, and I thought I could survive only on that, but then when news of the Gods and Generals Director’s Cut came out, I started covering that and adding more Civil War articles, and hits went from about 200 a day to more than 500.

PG: Well, I just got on the Facebook myself. I did a film a few years ago, a USC thesis film, but it was a real fancy, complete production—ten days on location in Pennsylvania, and I didn’t take a camera or have any production shots. Now they were all very young people and I asked if anyone had any shots because I wanted to have some for souvenirs. They said, “We’re going to put everything on Facebook.” and I said, “Face-what?”. Eventually I got on there, and what happened is that I started getting these friend requests from Civil War reenactors, which is nice because I know a lot of them, and I was invited back to Gettysburg the first year after for the big reenactment. Everyone else was working but me, so I was the only one that showed up (laughs). But I had a great time, and made a lot of friends.

GC: I actually wanted to tell you something about a reenactment—you and I almost met ten years ago. I was ten years old and just becoming a Civil War buff, and my parents gave me a trip to Gettysburg for my birthday, since I was born on July 2, the actual anniversary of the battle. I had a camera, was sitting up in the bleachers, it was about a hundred degrees out, and they announced on the loudspeaker that an actor from the film would be there. I didn’t know who it was, and I just took the picture, but just a few weeks ago, when I was looking through the photo album, sure enough, it was you, in your Confederate uniform. (Pictured below)

PG: You will have to send me that or make a copy of it, and I’ll autograph it and send it back to you!

GC: I definitely will!

PG: Yes, please do, because they are fun to have. These reenactments are a lot of fun, and I have always been a history buff. Most serious actors are, because you never know who you are going to play, or what time in history it is, and so ever since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated with history. The Civil War has always been interesting because I had ancestors that were a part of it, and I grew up playing with a Yankee infantry officer’s dress sword, and I had a .36 caliber Colt revolver with “CSA” carved on the grip. So I grew up playing with those artifacts, and I hate to say it, but I have no idea what happened to them. I left home, I was in the military, in Europe for several years, and by the time I came back, all that stuff was gone. It’s a crime, but anyway, the Civil War, it is neat to have a picture of that.

GC: Normally I try to be professional, and never ask for an autograph, but since you offered, I’ll never turn that down!

PG: Listen, because of this Facebook, I get about 40 or 50 friend requests a day.

GC: You still haven’t got to mine yet. I must be on backlog. (laughs)

PG: I am 600 behind, and I have to accept them all individually because I don’t have a fan club manager. I’m not a star, I’m a journeyman actor, but among the reenactors, I’m a star! (laughs) That is very rewarding because I wanted to become a star, I still want to and be a millionaire and all that, but I’m just a journeyman actor. I had a good experience with the reenactors because when I arrived for the pre-read at Gettysburg, what I would do was get my horse and put my spurs on and practice getting on with the saber and the whole thing, and I would go out and visit the reenactment camps because they were there living the life they did in the day and I would put on my General Hood accent (speaks with southern accent) and I would go out and visit them, and talk to them, and I’d be invited to the fireside to have a few beers or some wine and talk, and I got a lot of stories and a lot of feelings. I had read everything I could about Hood, at least what was available at the time, but then I got a lot of anecdotal stuff, and atmosphere from the reenactors that I never could have gotten from any book. By the time I went before the cameras, I was really very comfortable in Hood’s skin, and so I owed a lot to them. They invited me back, and it was so much fun, getting to ride on horseback and saluting everybody and leading the troops, actually participating in a couple of cavalry melees, it was like a childhood dream.

GC: Now I have read, perhaps it was even on your website, that the scene you were in, right after you got shot when you are lying in the hospital, took several hours to film even though it is only about five minutes in the movie. Why was that?

PG: It’s even less than that. That particular scene was interesting and the most difficult one for me. It was a short scene and it was filmed in the real barn, and I was on a door that they used as a stretcher, and of course Hood is on laudanum and is drifting in and out of consciousness and is in a lot of pain. The difficulty of playing that scene anyway, when you’re on drugs, it is easy to lose focus and all that is necessary for dramatic stuff that needs to be in the scene, and on top of that, in the middle of almost every take, a bird would swoop through because it was a real barn with lots of nests and lots of animals like horses and cows, so we knew there would be sound problems. It took about seven hours to film that scene, and it was exhausting. We did so many takes, and I don’t even know how many takes there were—it was the most I had ever been involved in. It was over 30 or 40. And I had gotten a lesson from Gene Hackman, who had said, “Never get comfortable in a scene”. Before that scene I thought that I was going to be laying down and kind of out of it, so I picked up a rock outside and put it in my underwear, right on the crease, and so every time we started to do the scene I would roll over on that rock so I would get a sharp jab, and that kept me focused. I think the scene worked very well. Ironically, I was very emotional in that scene than the take that they used. I wanted to show, because Hood was a fighting general and a combat guy, someone who went in front of his troops and everyone loved him—a fierce man, and I wanted to show that other side of him, because he did love those troops and he let down his guard. He is not so much the macho guy. Ron Maxwell kind of fought me on it because he did not want me to be as emotional, and of course, he was right, because if you remember in the film, the scene preceding this is the one with Chamberlain and the Irish sergeant, and it’s a very emotional scene, and you never follow an emotional scene with another emotional scene, so I learned that lesson too late, but the take that he used worked anyway. That’s a little history for you, because not that many people know about that, except every reenactor whose ever talked to me! (laughs)

GC: That’s why I love these interviews, because you find out these little stories, like what you did with the rock. I know actors do strange things to make a performance, and that is just very interesting.

PG: If you’re sitting in a chair or next to a piece of furniture, you lean on the edge of it; many actors have put rocks in their shoes. Charles Laughton did that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he did it for his character, cause of the way he had to walk, not so much to keep him focused, but those are little tricks and they’re not without value. They’re artificial in a way, but they serve their purpose.

GC: Now, when did you first get involved with the film Gettysburg?

PG: Here’s the story behind that, and it’s weird. The year before I got the part was one of the worst career times of my life. I was newly married, for the third time, and that was great and going fine, but I wasn’t working—my career just tanked and was going nowhere, to the fact that I had to go back and get a regular job to go in between. I hate to say it, but I was a messenger for studios that I had worked at. People didn’t recognize me because I was a function, a messenger; I wasn’t the actor. In fact, I delivered things to some casting offices that I worked for and they knew me but did not recognize me. So my wife at the time, and she was in the production business, my ex-wife now who I am still good friends with, is the assistant to the producer on Entertainment Tonight, and she said, “You’re not taking care of business, you’re not contacting people.” And I opened up, right at that conversation at the table, Variety, and there was a picture of Robert Duvall [who was originally going to play Lee], the film was in pre-production. Because it was Duvall, who was and is one of my favorite actors, and I said to myself, “I want to work with him”, and it’s the Civil War, come on! I got to be right for something in that! So what I did was, I took a picture, and at that time I had shaved my head and was letting it grow out and letting my beard grow, and in the picture, I don’t exactly look like Hood (I don’t really look like him anyway), but that picture had something, something of a look, and I took this picture and the resume, and I delivered it myself to the casting director in the office. A couple of days later, my agent called me and said that he got me an interview for The Killer Angels film script. I read for Armistead, which was the part I wanted, but they wanted me for Hood, which I read for, and I did a really good reading, and they called me back and said I got the part, which was great. The interesting thing was, later on, the casting director Joy Todd said, “When we saw your picture, we just prayed that you could act.” I was able to capture something of Hood, though I don’t really resemble him. He was called the “Blond Giant”, he was probably 6’2” or something like that, with really broad shoulders, and I’m barely 5’10” and don’t have broad shoulders, and I was twice his age, but I did get something of his persona. That’s how I got involved: I wanted to work with Duvall and as it turned out, Martin Sheen played Lee, but I did get to work with Duvall in Gods and Generals.

From Patrick: “The photo that got me the audition for Gettysburg”.

GC: Every actor from these movies that I have talked to has each had such a different way that they were discovered and hired to be in the film. Yours was like a freak accident. You open up the page, and there it is.

PG: There it is. I said, “I got to get involved with this film”. I had ancestors that fought on both sides, and I’m one of these actors that has always been in costume films, even when on stage, I have always been in costume. Costumes and me just go together, and that’s the same for lots of actors, but I’ve always been very comfortable in period stuff. Of course, I have done a lot of period plays and films, television too, and I like it a lot. I knew I had the face for this role, come on! Another interesting little story about when I arrived for the table reading for Gettysburg, I hadn’t worked with any of these actors and there were a lot of them at this long table read, and in between there would be a break. Tom Berenger, who I never met before, I noticed he had brought a bunch of boxes and he was taking out swords and giving them to the different generals, and I thought, “Oh gee, that was neat that he went to the props department, and went through the trouble. That was really nice of him.” Well…he hadn’t gone to props: on his own dime, he had went out and bought, for every general in his corp, a sword and engraved on the blade, “To…”, and in my case, “To General Hood, From General Longstreet”. The blades were all 1862 blades—the hilt and scabbard were reproductions, but it was an actual blade. That had to cost him hundreds of dollars, at the very least. That was the best present I had ever gotten, and he did that for everybody. Tom really made the Confederate officers’ corp bond together. Every Friday night at the Farnsworth House in Gettysburg was the Confederate officers’ club, where we all got together for dinner, drinks, and a lot of fun.

GC: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, and I brought this up to Bo Brinkman, was the beard situation in Gettysburg, and how people tend to poke fun at them. Yours looks really good, so I can’t tell if it is real or not.

PG: Well, mine looked good because it was real. Here’s the thing I always say about that, and I understand what people say, especially about Berenger’s beard, which was very expensive and it looked bad, I know it looked bad, but listen. In defense of us all, well not me, I had my own beard and it looked great (laughs) even though it wasn’t long enough. But anyway, if you look through the Mathew Brady pictures or any history book, and you look carefully at the beards on half the bearded men, they look fake, they look phony, they look like bad theatrical beards. That was the odd style they had. So I say, “Come on guys, give us a break here.” Just look at the pictures. There were a lot of funny looking beards…there were a lot of funny looking people too. (laughs)

GC: How long did it take you to grow the beard?

PG: I already had a short beard when I got the part and they wanted me to shave it to make the long beard, and I said, “Look. We have a couple of months before we begin filming. In two or three months, I can have a really good beard.” They almost made me shave it, but I insisted on keeping it. The beard was not as long as Hood’s was, but the actor in me was saying this: We have two pictures of Hood, one pre-Gettysburg and one after, when he had put on weight towards the Atlanta Campaign, after he had lost his leg and the use of his arm, and I’m saying, he could have trimmed his beard, because I had a new uniform. The pictures of his uniform before Gettysburg didn’t look very sharp or very tailored, but in the film I had a new uniform. Now, my justification was that he was in Richmond and was courting this woman who was the belle of the city, and he had asked her to marry him a couple of times, and she was playing hard-to-get, so I figured, he got a new uniform and trimmed his beard, so he could ask her to marry him. That was my justification. Whether it’s historical or my imagination…it could have happened. We don’t know. But back to the hair thing, it’s tricky. Just last week, I had grown my beard out, and was letting it grow and got a couple of jobs. I am going from general to god now, because I played Poseidon in a commercial (pictured below), but I had the beard and I think that is partly why I got the part. I have played a lot of kings, and I can play that regal style, the leader. And so, I get the job, and when I go to prosthetics to get armor and stuff like that, they shaved my beard. They then put on this huge, long, beard with a wig and everything, and it actually looks great. I’ll send you a picture of that, just for fun. But it’s better to have your own hair. I’ve done films with facial hair, and if you’re on horseback and in the sun and sweating, it’s always a problem, especially with the mustache.

GC: I would like to ask you now about Richard Jordan. I don’t know if you had the chance to really work with him, but he was such a great actor who unfortunately passed away right after filming completed.

PG: I often had dinner or breakfast with him. I had known Richard from New York. When I came back from France after six years (after I got out of the military), I studied theater and acted over there, and in French. I was a circus clown and a dancer. When I came back to New York, he was the leading actor with the APA Company, and I saw him perform a lot on Broadway and off-Broadway, and in the New York Shakespeare Festival, where I had also worked, so I knew him already, not as a buddy or anything like that, I was just familiar with him. Then during filming, we got to be very friendly and talked a lot. He was a wonderful man and a great actor. One of my favorite films he was in, was The Yakuza, with Robert Mitchum, directed by Sidney Pollack, who I have worked for. I had dinner with Richard sometime after he had the aneurysm, after Gettysburg was over, and he was alright—the operation was successful and they removed the aneurysm and he lived. He could no longer remember things, and he couldn’t write. It was almost like being dyslexic, or worse, and so the things that he did since he was a writer, a director, and an actor who had a great career, he couldn’t do them anymore. Now, I believe, and a lot of people have said this, that he willed himself to die. Someone closer to him might dispute it, but that’s what I think he did, because he had nothing left to do. Of course, the performance he left was a very touching, wonderful performance. It’s the role I wanted, but I was very happy playing Hood. It was more that was right for me, just as the role for Richard was right for him.

GC: Now I want to ask you about the Gods and Generals Extended Director’s Cut. Do you have any scenes coming in?

PG: In the film Gettysburg, everything that I did stayed in the film and was not cut. In Gods and Generals, I did not have very much to do, and there was one scene, maybe two, at Antietam that I’m in that may be in the Cut. I have not seen the Director’s Cut for either of the films, so I don’t know.

(We then have a brief discussion about Blu Ray players, and how he feels he is in a new world because of such advances in technology . Patrick noted, “I feel better on horseback than with a cell phone.”)

PG: I noticed in your email that you wanted to ask me about working for Ron Maxwell, and I just want to say that Ron was amazing. You have to understand this, that Ron had The Killer Angels for 18 years. He had that and optioned it, and tried to get it done for 18 years—that’s mind-boggling to keep that interest for so long. Of course, without Ted Turner, he still might be trying to do it. Those two films will be his legacy, and they both wanted to do The Last Full Measure, but Gods and Generals lost so much money. I sat next to Turner all day, when we filmed the Vaudeville sequence that he made his cameo in, and so I talked to him for pretty much all day, and one of the things he said was, “If we break even, or even if we don’t lose too much money, as soon as we’re finished, we’ll start The Last Full Measure.” but of course, it lost a lot of money. I’ve often thought, even while we were filming it, that it would have made a better mini-series, like Band of Brothers, because there is so much information. It’s great for someone who loves the Civil War, who is an aficionado, and reenactors will watch anything, and even though I’m not a reenactor, I will watch anything on the Civil War…even some of the bad stuff they have on the History Channel (laughs). Some of their stuff is good, and some of it’s not so good. But anyway, it’s too bad, because to the general public, one bearded guy giving a speech to the troops looks like another bearded guy, unless you know who they are and what the situation is. The general public just went (makes motion of clicking “off” on a remote). They couldn’t go for it, but I understand that.

GC: What do you think was the biggest reason why it failed, if you had to pick one above all others?

PG: Well, that. There is just too much to cover. Gettysburg was much more successful in that the given circumstances around the battle concerned the personal relationship of those generals between one another. That’s why women rated that film very highly. Originally, the producers were afraid that women wouldn’t be interested, but that wasn’t true because it is really about the relationships of those guys, those generals. It was about that one event, and of course it’s a huge event, but that was the reason why it was successful, that’s my opinion. Gods and Generals covered the beginning of the war up until the battle of Gettysburg, which is so many events. You could make a movie about a hundred different events in that period of time. It was just too much for the general public to grasp.

GC: I agree. Even Jeff Shaara, who I also interviewed, said, “You can’t make a ten hour movie, but you can make a ten hour miniseries.”

PG: Yes, exactly, and they cut out so much. I was there when they were filming the John Wilkes Booth scenes and there’s more of the Antietam, just so many stories. One of the more difficult things, because I’m interested in it, is the average person who writes a script, whoever writes it, even a historian, can’t write a story about a battle—you just can’t write a story about a battle. I mean they did Gettysburg, but that’s not what sells it: it’s the guy in the line that is wounded, or runs away and hides, or the guys who get taken prisoner and have to work in the hospital. It’s that individual stuff that makes a story, the individual character, about those people, and the battle is just the given circumstances, and so the stories have to be about people.

GC: Now two weeks ago, when we first got in contact, you said you had auditions. Do you have any upcoming film projects?

PG: (laughs) Well, yes, I’m trying my best to get involved with this new project that’s in development called To Appomattox, [a miniseries].

GC: I was just on their website and that looks like it’s going to be a fantastic series.

PG: They’re going to cover a lot of stuff, and I’ve been talking to one of the writers and producers, and I’ve had some contact with him, and he understands that they have an ambitious number of events they have to cover, and they liked what I did as Hood, but he doesn’t figure in this. I’m too old to play Hood now, actually, I was always too old to play Hood, but there is another general, a Yankee this time, that I might get to play. I’m trying to get involved with it, but there’s no promises, no offer. Actors are always looking for work and that’s part of what we have to do, take care of the business side. I have another film that I’m doing at the end of May, that I’m doing in Pennsylvania, a modern, low-budget feature, and I have another day to do my vampire film in Montana! (laughs)

GC: What’s that vampire movie about?

PG: Well, again, this is a bunch of young people starting out that I met in Hollywood, who I gave some advice to and I said, “If you need an old guy, I’ll be glad to do it….but I don’t work for free.” (laughs) It’s a low-budget film, and they have gotten together in Montana and have raised money to film it. It’s a labor of  love and it’s fun. I like to do those in between. I’m an actor, I have to act. It’s like, you have to train, you have to keep your hand in, and of course, I’ve been acting since I was four, so that’s a lot of years. I still love to do it, and in the meantime, I do a couple of commercials…like I just played Poseidon, the God of the Sea!

GC: I wanted to ask you one last question. I saw on your website that you’re really into the Japanese culture. Where did that start?

PG: It really started during World War II. I was a little kid and in my town we had a Chinese restaurant, a beautiful place with carved dragons and their characters, and I was always fascinated with that, and then the war with Japan started. I always had a thing about the Japanese swords, and the calligraphy, which I found out later on, they use Chinese characters with Japanese meaning—you have to know at least two thousand of them, even to be able to read a newspaper. They have like three alphabets and then the characters. I don’t know how they learn to do anything but read and write, it’s amazing. I was fascinated with the Japanese, even though they were our enemy and we hated them, but there was that fascination, not only with the swords and characters, but with the martial arts. As a little kid, when I grew up, my mother was a dancer, and while I spent a lot of time in Hollywood all my childhood, I grew up in a small agricultural town where there were a lot of rednecks (puts on southern accent) where nobody did tap dancing or any of that sissy stuff—anybody who sang or danced was a sissy. I spent my childhood fighting almost every day after school. I would come home with a bloody nose and this-and-that. And so when I started to see the Japanese, these little guys doing so much, I became interested in the martial arts, but there weren’t any around me. By the time I joined the Navy, I got into Hollywood and I saw that there was a Judo place, and I went there. I learned some from my cousin while I was still in high school and when he got back from WWII, he taught me four Jujitsu techniques, all of which I have actually used in fights. So I became interested in it so early because I hated to get beat up! (laughs) Here’s something else, I started training Aikido in my fifties and that had a major influence on my life because I learned that the technique, the way you address martial arts is very much the way you act. Let me explain: you learn different things for different situations, like if someone punches you this way, there’s a certain kind of kick or grab, and you train, and train, and train, but then the moment that somebody jumps you in the parking lot, you can’t say, “Could you hit me in the left side?” or “Can we go under the light so I can see better?”. This ties into films because acting is the same way—you learn your lines, you study technique, and then all of a sudden you come on the set, usually you don’t get to rehearse with actors. In a movie, you audition, get the part, and show up. You have the night before to learn your lines, or if you’re lucky, a few weeks like Gettysburg, and you show up, and there are the people you’re going to play a scene with. You rarely get a rehearsal. In Gettysburg, we had the table read, and when we got together there would be camera set-ups for lighting, but there weren’t really rehearsals. That was a great lesson, in that I had to deal with whatever was there. I have to know the scene and how it should work out, but you have to be in the moment. I know it sounds like a terrible cliche, but it’s true. The best acting is like that, when you think you’re there. We know it’s a movie, but those great actors are able to do that and suspend belief. Getting back to the martial arts, I’m in my seventies, and I just got my third degree black-belt in Aikido and I seriously continue to train…but I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for 25 years and I still can only speak a little. I’ve actually had some of my calligraphy published in Japan, in magazines. It’s very much a part of my life.

Our conversation continued for another ten minutes where he asked me to tell him a little about myself, and the hockey team I am coaching. It truly was a fascinating evening, which I told him, and was so glad to finally get to speak to him after trying to set this up for weeks. I hope we will remain in contact because he is such a nice guy. Please check out his official website, and also, add him on Facebook. Just remember, he is really popular on the internet, so it may take him a while to respond to your request! Best of luck to Patrick in all of his future ventures!

EDIT (12/1/11): View our second interview here!

Interview with Best-Selling Author Jeff Shaara

There are people who know their stuff, and then there are people who really know their stuff—Jeff Shaara would fall into the latter category. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to interview the author of Civil War novels Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both of which have reached the New York Times Bestseller List. Jeff Shaara has been lauded by readers and historians alike who appreciate his epic style of storytelling, that has included nine novels spanning the American Revolution, Mexican-American War, Civil War, World War I, and World War II, with the fourth part of his WWII series coming out in May. I really learned a lot today, not only about history in general, but what goes into writing a book and how that gets transformed into a film. I also had to ask about his late-father Michael, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning historical-fiction novel The Killer Angels, which was turned into one of the most successful war films of all-time, Gettysburg, in 1993.

I knew the interview would be great because right off the bat I told Jeff to feel free to talk as much as he would like, and he jokingly said he felt a bit intimidated by that, and I explained that sometimes interviewees give only a one sentence answer. His response was, “I never do that.” Our main focus today was the Civil War but we covered all aspects of American history in our interview below:

GC: I just want to start off by asking you about your father. I read somewhere that you and him were not close while he was writing The Killer Angels. Is this true?

JS: Actually, the chronology of that is a little bit inaccurate. During the writing of The Killer Angels, we were extremely close. I was a teenager at the time and we went to Gettysburg together and worked on some of the research together, and I stopped way short of taking any credit for the book, that’s not what I’m saying. During the time writing the book, he was suffering physically because of his first heart attack and there were a lot of things, particularly on the battlefield of Gettysburg, that he could not do such as climbing the Round Tops and things like that. I was the kid, so that was my job to go around through the bushes and climb the hills looking for things that he was trying to find. After the writing, when the book came out in 1974, he and I, by that time, had parted ways, so when the book was published we had a very difficult relationship. He had a difficult relationship with almost everyone including his brother and father. He was very dramatic in the way he approached relationships and if you didn’t live up to his expectations or do things the way he thought they ought to be done, he had a tendency to react very dramatically and write you out of his life. He was a difficult man, he was suffering from the effects, not only of his heart disease, but of a motorcycle accident that had happened in Florence, Italy, in the early 1970’s that really cracked him on the head badly—he was in a coma for several weeks and the effects of that changed his entire life; it changed his brain, the way he wrote, the way he thought about things and it really affected his relationship with everyone.

GC: What inspired you to write the prequel and the sequel?

JS: It began, and you probably know some of this, with the film Gettysburg. It was this film being such an enormous success, and for my family, it propelled The Killer Angels to number one on the bestseller list, and it had never been a bestseller at all. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the book was never successful, which was really a blow to my father. He expected greater things to come from that. Any writer who receives the Pulitzer Prize has the right to believe that his ship has come in and that all the doors will fly open and he can do anything he wants now, and that didn’t happen to him. So it was very ironic and very bittersweet to my family that in 1993 and 1994, when Gettysburg was such a monumental success, he missed all that. He died in 1988 and didn’t live to see any of it. And so when I learned that Ted Turner wanted to do more Civil War films, the idea would be to take my father’s book and go before and after it with some of the same characters. I had never written anything before, I was not a writer, I never wanted to be a writer. I was actually a dealer of rare coins and precious metals down in Tampa, and the idea of continuing his work, the whole point was for me to tackle this, but it was always about a film, about doing the background and research, creating a story that someone else could adapt for a screenplay. Because I’m representing my father’s estate in New York, and the heirs are my sister and I, my sister being an anthropologist, she said to just handle it and that she wasn’t interested in the business side of it at all. Well, I’d been a business man all my life so it was natural to me. So I’m dealing with the publisher in New York, Random House, who now has this number one bestseller, and so they’re taking my phone calls and I’m getting to know these people up there, and when I told them I was working on the prequel to The Killer Angels, their response was, “Send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.” That totally surprised me because I had no expectations. I’m often asked, “How did you know how to write a book?” I had no clue, and secondly, “Were you intimidated by trying to follow your father’s footsteps?” The answer to that is no, because I had no expectations. Ron Maxwell and I agreed that if whatever I wrote was lousy, nobody would ever see it. It would go in the trash can and that would be the end of it. I attacked this with really no sense of destiny or any of that. All I was trying to do was put a story together with the same kind of research my father had done, which I learned with walking with him at Gettysburg, was to put a story together that could be adapted to a screenplay. When I sent the manuscript to Random House in September of 1995, and I’ll never forget this, the phone call I got from Claire Ferraro, who was the publisher then, said, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you’re a writer, here’s the contract.” That changed my whole life.

GC: When you write a novel, how much research do you do and how long does it typically take you?

JS: The research is usually twice as long as it takes to write the book. I typically read 50 to 60 books for each book that I write, and it has to be original source material—the diaries, the memoirs, the letters, the collections of writings of the people who were there. That is a big lesson I learned from my father, stay away from modern history and modern biographies. That does me no good at all. If you’re getting into the heads of a character, and you’re speaking for a real historical character, you better get it right because a lot of people out there will get pretty upset about that. I had somebody actually say to me, “How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee?” Well, okay, that’s a challenge and if I dare do that, or put words in the mouth of George Washington, or “Black Jack” Pershing, or Eisenhower, or Adolf Hitler for that matter, I had better believe that those words are authentic to that character because if I don’t believe it, neither will you. Then the book deserves to lose credibility. That’s the point of research, to feel that before I even write the first word, feel as though I know the character and that I would speak for them. Once the reading is done, the other part of it, is again, a lesson I learned from my father, to walk the ground. To go walk in the footsteps of people, see the hillsides, see the battlefields, see the homes, the grave sites, whatever there is out there for me to see, and it’s not that it’s mystical—I don’t go to battlefields and look for ghosts, but there really is something very powerful about walking the same ground as the characters I’m writing about. That’s a crucial part of the research as well. Once that is done, only then do I start writing, and typically, it takes me five to six months to write a manuscript because I’m doing it full-time.

GC: You’ve made hundreds of historical figures come alive in your books, but in your two Civil War novels, which of them has been your favorite?

JS: There are some obvious answers there, like Joshua Chamberlain, and the characters that people latch onto and have made popular, but I love the character of Ulysses S. Grant, and to some people he is sort of a non-entity because he’s not as charismatic as Robert E. Lee, he doesn’t have the young charm of Chamberlain, but Grant changed history. Grant changed the world, and he was responsible, primarily, because you can make an argument that Abraham Lincoln had something to do with it, for winning the war, and a lot of people don’t realize just how powerful his role was. I just love his character, I love his relationship with his wife. Writing his death at the tail-end of The Last Full Measure was difficult, I was emotional about it. I did the same with all three of the characters in The Last Full Measure, Lee, Grant, and Chamberlain, and I said goodbye to each of the three of them but Grant in particular, because he was suffering from throat cancer and dealing with Mark Twain and these magnificent scenes at the end of his life, and boy that was hard. So I would pick him above all others.

GC: What was your reaction when you found out that Ron Maxwell wanted to make a movie out of Gods and Generals?

JS: Well, Ron and I had been talking all the way through Gettysburg and I got to know him during the filming, and so we had talked about this for years. We talked about it from the time it was a success in the theaters and from the time The Killer Angels became a bestseller, we were already talking about continuing with this project. We struggled through several years because this was something we wanted to do and no one else cared. We had a lot of verbal support, and a lot of Civil War groups and reenactors thought this was a great idea, but unfortunately none of them had millions of dollars to make this happen (laughs). Even when we started talking with TNT and Ted Turner’s people it was difficult because none of them really believed in this project. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when we started talking about this, it was the point right from the beginning.

GC: Did you have any role in the production at all?

JS: None. We could expand on that but I don’t know that I want to. To this day, I do not own a finished script, and I made some suggestions that were ignored, little historical things that I thought were problematic, and they listened dutifully and ignored everything I said. I realize at the end of the day, this was not my film—it was Ron Maxwell’s and Ted Turner’s film. I really had nothing to do creatively with the film or physically with the production. I mean, I’m in it, in one scene on camera, but really, it’s not my movie, and if I can add, it’s also not my book. It’s based on my book, despite what some historians say, and I’ll leave that alone, but it is based on my book but it is not my book. It is maybe ten percent of my book, and that was really a shock to me because The Killer Angels is about ninety percent of the film Gettysburg.

GC: Yeah, The Killer Angels is almost word for word.

JS: That’s exactly right, it is almost word for word. In Gods and Generals, there are maybe only three or four scenes taken from my book and put in the film, and that’s it. It’s an entirely different movie than I would have written, and would have liked to have seen done.

GC: My next question was actually going to be, for those that have not read the book, how did it differ from the final print of the film? But I guess that would be too much to go into.

JS: It’s enormously different, it’s radically different from the film. There are characters in the film that do not exist in the book, and a great many characters in the book that never made it to the film. It’s just an entirely different story, and I have to tell you, I’ve heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, “How could you let them butcher your book like that?” I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen.

GC: I know you said on your website that right now, there are no plans to make The Last Full Measure into a film, but if they do decide to make it into a film in the next four years because of the 150th anniversary, will you comply with that and let them use your manuscript?

JS: When you say “they”, that’s the big question. Who is “they”? (laughs) We don’t know the answer to that because there is no “they” right now, but the thing is, there were mistakes made with Gods and Generals that I would not allow to happen again. If a film is going to be made from The Last Full Measure, I will have much more involvement or there simply won’t be a film. I’m not saying it has to be a hundred percent my book, I know better than that, some things don’t translate from the book to the screen, I get that. It’s not about ego, it’s about telling the story. The failure of Gods and Generals was to tell a good story and reach out to the general audience. The enormous success of Gettysburg was that it was attractive to a general audience. You didn’t have to be a Civil War buff or reenactor to understand what was going on, the characters were developed for you so you knew who they were, and it was a marvelous film. In Gods and Generals, the film was almost, and I don’t know this, it is my opinion, as though it was geared to the academic historians and the general audience was ignored. I’ve heard that, it’s not just my opinion, from a huge number of people. Like a guy would go to the film all excited because he knew what the story was about, and he would take his wife and kids and the wife and kids would get up and leave because they had no clue what was going on. That was the problem and it will not happen again. I’m not saying I will write the script, I’m not arrogant to suggest that I’m also a screenwriter because I don’t know that I can do it, but I will have considerable input into the script and will make sure it’s a good story and that it does appeal to a general audience, or there will be no film.

GC: Well, let’s hope that a producer steps forward and puts down some money because I would really like to see this trilogy complete.

JS: It has to start there, you’re absolutely right. That’s the other thing I hear, and I get letters on this literally every day, people want to know (which was why I put the note on my website) when the third movie is coming out, and it’s like they’re waiting for the shoe to drop because the story needs to be completed. I’ve had people chew me out and say, “Why aren’t you making the third film?” as though somehow I am stopping this. Gods and Generals cost $60 million to make, and if someone comes up with $60 million, fine, let’s talk. But so far it hasn’t happened (laughs).

GC: Could all of this have been avoided if they made Gods and Generals into a miniseries? Say like five parts, or even two separate films which was talked about?

JS: I don’t think the two separate movie idea would have worked, but I do think the miniseries idea would have worked much better. The problem is, you can’t make a ten-hour movie, I get that, but you can make a ten hour miniseries and I think some of the resistance, originally from TNT, and I don’t know this for sure, but some of the resistance was because they realized there was just too much story to cram into a movie that someone is going to sit in a theater and want to watch. Definitely, it could have been much more successful as a miniseries.

GC: You plan on writing another Civil War trilogy, this time on the western theater. Can you tell us anything about that?

JS: Yes, the book I just finished, which will be out in May, is the fourth and final WWII piece, the end of the war in the Pacific. I am working, right now, on the research, for a new trilogy which will be Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March. Each one will be out in the spring, starting in 2012, ’13, and ’14, with each one of those year’s being the 150th anniversary of those events. It’s a challenge because doing a book a year is tough. I have so much research material already that I think gives me a leg up and I’m very excited about this, as is my publisher and people I’ve talked to around the country. This is funny, and I have to laugh, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in Tennessee and Mississippi saying, “You know, we’re kind of tired of hearing about just Robert E. Lee and Virginia.” (laughs) There’s a whole lot more story that no one seems to want to find out about. I’ll respond to that and do the best I can.

GC: I just took a Civil War course in college, and I knew so much about the War previously, but this class just opened by eyes to how much more is out there, and not many people focus on the western theater and it’s always Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson in the east, and I think the west would be a very important part of the war that hasn’t been covered.

JS: I agree completely, which is why I’m excited about doing this.

GC: Aside from the Civil War, you’ve written about the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, WWI, and WWII. Which of those has been your favorite topic to cover?

JS: That’s a tough question, and the problem in answering that is, if I don’t love the characters and period I’m writing about, I’m not going to write a very good book. When I move into a new era, I get totally swallowed up by that era—I’m totally immersed in it and the characters. Of course, the biggest challenge is finding those characters and who the voices are going to be. I’m very proud of the American Revolution series. A lot of people have said this to me, and I don’t judge my own book, I wouldn’t even know how, that my World War I book is my best book. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that. The book I had the most fun doing was the Mexican War story, Gone for Soldiers, because I knew the characters so well from being involved in the Civil War and doing so much research, and going back to their early lives, and all of them with the exception of Chamberlain, talk about their experiences in Mexico and the profound effect it had on them. I didn’t know anything about the subject, most people don’t, and I started doing the research, and found a wonderful story and one that I had no idea existed—the heroism of Jackson, Grant, Longstreet, and Lee, was amazing. I didn’t know any of those stories and it was a lot of fun to write, plus I love the character of Winfield Scott and Santa Anna. I had a great deal of fun with both of them.

GC: I’m actually a big Alamo buff, so would you ever consider writing a story about that, since you mentioned Santa Anna?

JS: There have been two stories suggested to me that I should write. One is the Alamo and one is Custer’s last stand. Because they have been done so many times, I don’t know that I could do that. The thing is, the story of the Alamo doesn’t stop at the Alamo. The rest of the story is San Jacinto and Sam Houston and if I was to do it, it would probably be the whole war for Texas independence. I’ve had a lot of people from Texas write to me about that. As you know, the story is not just the Alamo. It’s hard to compete, especially when you have John Wayne’s Davy Crockett, it’s hard to tell a story and get away from that, and I would have to get away from that.

GC: I’m with the people from Texas, I think the story needs to be told, mainly, because no one has ever gotten it right. The John Wayne version was very inaccurate, to say the least.

JS: Absolutely, even the most recent Alamo movie and some of the books, nobody has gotten it right. Right now I have a pretty full plate and what I really want to do after the Civil War set is Korea and a Vietnam story, so I’m not sure when I would do that, but you’re right, it’s a story that needs to be told right.

GC: One last thing, an email question from “Andy”, and he writes, “Do you ever plan to write a novel that does not deal with war?”

JS: I get asked that fairly often, and it isn’t that I’ve decided to do nothing but war stories but my publisher was very clear, and they’ve told me that I’ve built an audience and it’s the thing my father never did. My father always wrote different topics. People are always asking me what other historical works did he write besides The Killer Angels, and the answer is none. He wrote a baseball story, a Hitchcock sci-fi story, he was all over the map. My publisher was clear that I’ve built an audience with this one theme, the epic historical military novel, and as long as there are readers out there who want this, to stick with it. Now there is a story I want to do, and I don’t want to get into too much, because it’s been done a few times, but I would like to do a story of a 1930’s gangster. The other thing, if I ever went outside of the United States and did a foreign story, it would probably be Napoleon. Even though that’s military, it’s a very different story and one that most Americans have no idea about. But for now, my publisher says, and this looks terrible on paper, but, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the philosophy that they are employing with me right now. I’ve got an audience and the following is there so until that audience goes away, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.

I want to thank Mr. Shaara for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening afternoon and I hope you all enjoyed reading this rather lengthy and extensive piece. I can only hope that The Last Full Measure will be made one day, but until then, enjoy the terrific books on American wars that Jeff has given us, because the book is always better than the film. Also, don’t forget to check out his website.

Site News: Upcoming Interview with Author Jeff Shaara

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the latest installment of the Gods and Generals Director’s Cut fanfare as I have been in contact with the author of the novel which the film was based, Jeff Shaara. He has kindly agreed to do an interview with me and we will be speaking on the phone Monday afternoon. Mr. Shaara is the author of several books including the prequel and sequel (both of which reached the New York Times Bestseller list for a combined 28 weeks) to his father Michael’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels, which also includes The Last Full Measure. He is also an accomplished author of other American war novels, including one on the Mexican-American War, two on the American Revolution, one on World War I, and a World War II trilogy. There is also a rumor that he plans on writing another Civil War trilogy on the Western Theater of the war, and I will definitely ask him about that.

If any of my readers have any questions they would like me to ask Mr. Shaara, please leave them in a comment here or email me, and I will pose them to him along with my own questions if time allows. This interview will be more about his career, method, and interest in the Civil War, and less about the film.

Movie Review: Gettysburg (1993)

EDIT: Read my movie review of the 2011 director’s cut!

It is because of Ronald Maxwell that no director will ever again be able to make a movie about the battle of Gettysburg. This film, which was based on the Michael Shaara novel titled, “The Killer Angels”, had its name changed to Gettysburg, upon test audience reactions stating that they felt the title reflected that of a movie about a motorcycle gang. But no matter what the title is, this movie is and always will be the most prominent Civil War film, surpassing the likes of Glory and The Blue and the Gray made before it.

I try to get to the battlefield every year around the anniversary, but this summer I was unable because of my work schedule. However, I am going to be there next week, and with each trip to Gettysburg comes a viewing of this film, even in the rare instances I go twice a year. This movie never gets old, plain and simple.

For those who do not have an interest in the Civil War, this may not be the film for them. There is no Hollywood drama here, just a good storytelling of what was going on in the minds of the greatest generals and leaders present at a small Pennsylvania town for three ill-fated days in July.

In a time-slot that eclipses four hours, we see examinations into the thoughts and tactics of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet from the Confederacy, and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. These are the three focused on, but we also see the South’s Generals Pickett, Armistead, Garnett, Kemper among others, and the North’s General Hancock. The film is predominantly told from the Southern perspective, but the North gets prominence on the first day with Sam Elliot as General Buford and Chamberlain’s stand at the Little Round top on the second day of fighting.

Martin Sheen plays Lee and nailed the role. His beard looked to be one of the few that were actually real, leading to no continuity errors. Lee is presented as a very calm demeanored general, loved by his troops and heavily respected by his offers, much like the real Lee.

Tom Berenger tackled a more complex role in General Longstreet, who is torn between acting on his instincts to disagree with Lee, and being a good soldier and obeying his orders, no questions asked. The two men find themselves quarreling several times throughout the three days, which occurred in real life, and some historians suggest that had Lee listened to Longstreet, the Confederates would have won Gettysburg, and possibly even the war.

The role of Union officer Chamberlain went to Jeff Daniels, who nailed the very serious professor-turned-soldier from Bowdoin College in Maine. It is because of his lack of military training that he ordered the bayonet charge on the second day of fighting that saved the Union line, because many doubt a trained and true officer would have been so bold. The character of Chamberlain’s brother Tom went to 80’s acting star C. Thomas Howell, who injected some humor into his very serious brother. It is also hard to believe that Daniels would go on to star in Dumb and Dumber just a year later, showing his wide range of acting talents.

The supporting cast was also outstanding. Sam Elliot plays the rugged cavalry general John Buford, Stephen Lang as George Pickett, Andrew Prince and Richard Garnett, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Brian Mallon who plays a terrific General Hanc0ck (I honestly wish he got more screen time), and Richard Jordan as Lewis Armistead.

Out of all of those, though, it is Jordan’s that steals the show. Armistead and Hancock were best of friends before the war started, and Armistead is very sad he will have to face him on the third day of battle. Sensing he will be killed, he gives a special package to Longstreet to deliver to Hancock’s wife upon his death. This is made all the more emotional when Armistead is seriously wounded, and dies off camera. His final words, after hearing Hancock was injured too were, “No! Not both of us. Not all of us. Please, God!” Richard Jordan himself would also die just days after filming, without living to see the finished product.

Though this film experienced mild box office success, cracking the top ten at one point, it did not receive much time in theaters because of it’s four hour-plus running time and limited showings theaters were restricted to. Gettysburg would achieve notoriety a year later, when it was broadcast as a two night event on TNT, whose owner Ted Turner produced the film, and even had a small role as Colonel Waller T. Patton.

In just two nights, 23 million people would tune in to watch, making it the most watched television event in TV history at that point in time.

This film holds a special place in my heart as the film that got me interested into the Civil War, a passion that is with me today. For that, it will receive a 10 out of 10, despite it’s flaws, such as no mention of the brutal July heat, smoke coming out of actors mouths, flopping bayonets, and obvious fake beards. Those goofs are fun to watch for, but this is such a serious film, and try to not have a tear in your eye at one point or another during Pickett’s Charge, which is one of the most well choreographed battle sequences I have ever seen.

That seems to be the stamp on Maxwell films: realism. Each battle scene is very simple and realistic, with no drama. All that is added is the wonderful score by Randy Edelman, another element of this film that is one of the best.

It is also worth noting the film’s unique opening credits, where a picture of the actor is overlayed with a picture of the person they are portraying, showing the similarities between the two.

I cannot recommend this film enough, and if the interest is there, also check out Gods and Generals, the prequel which was released ten years later in 2003. It uses much of the same actors, and is a little shorter, but once again we have great battle scenes, even if it does have too much dialogue.

EDIT: Brian Mallon discusses director’s cuts for both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.