With Writer/Producer Michael Frost Beckner
I recently had an opportunity to pose a few questions to screenwriter Michael Beckner (Sniper, Spy Game, CSI) regarding his upcoming miniseries on the Civil War entitled To Appomattox - a project which depicts the time from the Mexican War of the 1840s to the end of the Civil War era. There has been much buzz about the film over the past year and many in the historical community have high expectations of what could be an ideal medium for further popularizing the conflict's history during its sesquicentennial. With those thoughts in mind, I am very pleased that Michael took a few moments out of his busy schedule to offer us some further insights into this forthcoming miniseries.
Jared Frederick: 1. You have quite an impressive resume in screenwriting and television. What has drawn you, as a writer, to the Civil War?
Michael Beckner: As early as I remember my grandmother and my mother identified my life with the conflict. There were the family portraits, the family stories; when I was headed to school, my grandmother told me, “If they ever play ‘Dixie’ you stand like you would for the ‘National Anthem.’
When you study writing you’re told “write what you know.” I grew up knowing the world of espionage. I’ve written stories from whom and what I knew. While at Langley about 9 years ago writing and producing my series The Agency, I commented to some officers the fact that Dr. Lowe’s observation balloons in the Civil War were launched right about where we were standing—thus the first aerial espionage in American history took place where CIA headquarters now stand.
Later, my spouse (former Sr. VP Walt Disney Motion Picture Group), Anne Sterling—who knows me better than “me”—suggested I was wasting my storytelling abilities if I wasn’t writing about the Civil War.
I didn’t believe Hollywood had the appetite for a Civil War film or Civil War series, but I couldn’t deny she’d called me out, challenged me to write what I really know.
Nine years ago To Appomattox began as a stage play centered on the 4 meetings over the course of their lives between Grant and Lee. It went from that to a 2 hour feature film script, then to a 4 hour telefilm, then to a 13 hour limited series (that’s the published version), then, reduced to 8 episodes to accommodate international mini-series format…the form it is in today.
Every night when I arrive home, my Civil War ancestors look down at me from above the mantle as they have my whole life. They’ve never moved, but over almost half a century they’ve somehow moved me.
2. The conflict is obviously a vast subject on a number of levels. Will the series focus on a particular theater of the war or will it balance between the east and the west? Will we get a taste of 1860s life beyond the battlefield?
The dramatic spine of the series is Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoir. That’s my focal point, however, to tell his story which ultimately brings him from the West to the East, I needed to tell the parallel story of the Army of the Potomac. So, one step off from the Memoir was to look at the friendships Grant developed while at West Point—and then not be afraid to follow these characters with dramatic B-story to Grant’s A-story over the course of every episode.
Once I started to look at these friendships, I realized the heart of the story was…the heart.” The personal connections, the emotional bonds. Grant marries James’s Longstreet’s cousin; Longstreet stands beside him at their wedding. What this relationship means to both men is far more important to understanding this story than scenes of battle. My film is an exploration of the personal lives of this “Band of Generals.”
Another example would be in the characterization of William Sherman. Coming from a “Rebel” background, I was reared to believe Sherman was the devil incarnate. In my years of research, I’ve grown closer to this man than any of the generals. Sherman loved the South—I’m not going to go into history in this interview as I could write pages, but his letters from his time at the Louisiana Military Academy (now LSU) clearly demonstrate this. His correspondences with Grant early in the war have him balking against Grant’s policy of total war. Then his favored son dies at Vicksburg. His favorite subordinate, McPherson, dies at Atlanta…and he embraces total war. These moments and all the personal moments of heartbreak and joy and decisions based upon belief and character among our Civil War leaders are the lifeblood of this series.
Once I realized there was a “heartline” to this history, then I began, in counterpoint to the generals and their families, to develop some stories of the “common” men and women who lived and served, suffered and died.
3. You have made it very clear your passionate desire for historical accuracy in this series. How do you and your fellow producers plan to correctly recreate the military and social conditions and complexities of this conflict?
Check out the raft of historical advisors I’ve recruited to the project on the website. I was mentored by the late Dr. John Y Simon, founder of the U.S. Grant Association. After his passing I began getting queries from other prominent historians and began sharing my scripts with them. One, in particular, JD Petruzzi, impressed me so much with his historical knowledge and his savvy for what this production needed, I brought him on board as our Historical Advisor, and soon he had me up to my elbows with some of the greatest living Civil War historians in the world.
4. What scene in To Appomattox might you hope to be its most iconic or powerful moment?
Christmas montage 1863. On Christmas Eve when everyone knows what’s coming next, we drop in on all the characters North and South—from the smallest child to the greatest general—whom we have been following and see how they spend that Holy night. This goes without dialogue, the images speaking for themselves, while in the background a choir of disabled Confederate soldiers sing an “Ave Maria.” What makes this so special is we will build this choir for the scene from disabled U.S. servicemen from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The single of this Christmas song will be released and donated to disabled veterans’ charities.
5. Many history and cinema buffs have long been anxious for a Civil War version of Band of Brothers to be produced. Furthermore, no film (perhaps with the exception of Glory) has been able to capture the level of carnage we associate with the war. Will To Appomattox finally offer audiences these opportunities or perspectives?
Suffice it to say, those interested in seeing realistic carnage will have that opportunity. There is no other way to portray, with accuracy, these battle scenes.
6. Speaking of Band of Brothers, I see actor Damian Lewis is among the all-star cast. His portrayal of Major Dick Winters really shined as the focal point or embodiment of the WWII miniseries. Which individual(s) do you feel will be the cinematic equivalent of Dick Winters in To Appomattox? Who is your favorite character?
Every actor cast in this series has come to it not only with a vast ability to portray the character, but with an intensely personal, patriotic reason to do so. I never write with a “favorite” character in mind.
7. The large scope of films such as Gettysburg rested in the outpouring of reenactors and living historians who volunteered their time, gear, and expertise. In the twenty years since, however, many in the reenacting community have grown gray and well . . . rotund. How might this challenge to fill the ranks with youthful recruits be addressed by the filmmakers?
Lots and lots of youthful reenactors abound these days. There is a set of standards already written up for both North and South reenactors.
8. Where will filming take place? The creators of John Adams filmed at actual historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and European estates. Will the producers of this series attempt to film at actual battlefields or historic landmarks?
Filming is set to begin in Pennsylvania in April 2012. It is not possible to film anything of this scale on the actual battlefields. However, with special effects as they are these days and the outpouring of support from the NPS for this project we will be the very first “war movie” ever filmed that will actually have the real battlefields depicted. We will spend a great deal of time filming the landscape and geography of these battlefields in 2nd Unit that will be composited into our battle scenes. For example: when the wide shot shows Pickett’s charge marching to the copse of trees, it will be the terrain of Gettysburg they will be portrayed marching upon.
9. What are the tentative production and release dates for the series? On which channel will it air?
Pre-Production begins February 2012. Production 12 April 2012. Release Summer 2013. Network is still in negotiation.
10. Few films have gotten the slavery issue "right." How will To Appomattox deal with this still-controversial issue?
The question of slavery’s influence on the war, on the generals—North and South—and on Lincoln: will be portrayed exactly as they experienced it and dealt with it in word and action. It will be portrayed as it was and from all points of view—white and black included. I can’t risk the historical truth of what I’m portraying by getting it “right” to a standard that exists today out of the context with my drama.
11. What would you like people to take away from To Appomattox when it finally premiers?
That we’re all Americans. That we may be divided today, but our forefathers set us an example: not in fighting one another, but by how we reunited as a nation at Appomattox. Before the Civil War we knew ourselves as “These United States.” After the Civil War we have always been “The United States.”
We are also working with our historians and the Department of Education to create Study Guides and a curriculum that will be donated for inclusion into all levels of our educational system.
Sounds like it has true potential! I look forward to seeing how the series develops over the coming months. Stay tuned!