Ron Maxwell Speaks Apr18


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Ron Maxwell Speaks

Director Ron Maxwell is no stranger to epic film-making. Gettysburg and its prequel, Gods and Generals  have established him as one of the country’s foremost interpreters of that complex, lethal, heroic period in American history. But with his upcoming film, Copperhead, he turns the lens from the battlefield, to the home-front, examining the affect of the war on those who live far behind the front lines.


copperheadMike Parker – It’s the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, bringing all things Civil War related to the forefront of the American consciousness. Do you expect that to help propel interest in your new film, Copperhead?

Ron Maxwell – I certainly think the timing makes it appropriate to do another Civil War film. The challenge was to find a story that would take me in a different direction. It takes years to make a film so you want a story that will keep you motivated. When I was making the other two films, one of the main themes I was exploring was, ‘Why do good men fight?’ The men on both sides of the war were good men, people you would like to have as friends, ethical, moral, good men, who chose to go into this inferno where they are risking their lives and taking other lives.

With Copperhead I was interested in the other side of that coin. ‘Why do good men choose not to fight?’ I find that question profoundly intriguing. I wasn’t concerned with the warmongers or exploiters. Of course there were cowards and shirkers. I grew up during the Viet Nam war, and I knew people who fought and I knew people who protested; good people on both sides of the issue. How do we sit in judgement of people for making deeply-seated moral choices?

I came across this novel called, The copperhead, about a Northerner who chose not to fight. The story breaks new ground in the popular culture. The war was not just North vs. South, or Slavery vs. Freedom. That is a far too simplistic view of the war. Abner Beech, the story’s protagonist, loves the United States. He is a patriot who believes slavery is abhorrent, but he doesn’t believe war is the answer. In a practical sense, he is a farmer. If all of the young men go off to war, there will be no one to work the fields. In that day and age, unless people were in church on Sunday, they were always working. There was no time to do anything else. He certainly doesn’t want his son to go to war. But, it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the son didn’t enlist. Then as now, fathers are mismatched with their sons, true to life.

Parker – I was a huge fan Gods and Generals and Gettysburg, but those were epic Civil War films, more on a scale with Gone With the Wind. I understand Copperhead is a more intimate film. Did that make it easier or more challenging to film?

Maxwell – At the heart of all great battlefield epics, there are intimate moments. Without them, the films don’t work. when I was prepping Gettysburg I studied a lot of epic war movies. If you are going to make a battlefield movie, you’ve got to do it on an epic scale. Your audience just demands it. But you better have strong characters that people care about, otherwise the big spectacle gets boring real quick. There are huge challenges with that kind film. The scale of production support that is required is huge. Just getting clean water and feeding all of the re-enactors is huge.

In Copperhead, the war is there, but it is off-screen. Instead, this is a domestic epic. It has an epic feel to it, because the war is always present. No one escapes.

Parker – Story should always trump message in a movie, at least from my perspective, yet most movies contain a message. Is there a message you are trying to convey in Copperhead?

Maxwell – With a capital ‘M,’ no. Film is much better at posing questions than answering them. If we try to answer questions, we devolve into propaganda, and today’s sophisticated audiences can see right through that. The great films ask the hard questions. They provoke you. But they have respect for their audiences and allow you to make your own decisions later. I try very hard to not make a statement. I want the characters to be true to themselves and speak the way they would speak. Our challenge is to take our generation to them, rather than bring their generation to us.

Message with a small ‘m,’ maybe… between the lines. Hopefully people will leave the theatre, look at their neighbors, and take a second look and say, ‘I might disagree with these people, but these are my neighbors and I have to live with them. Maybe I should just look at the human being rather the judging to quickly.’