Sunday, April 27, 2014

Interview With Michael Frost Beckner


Pardon the lengthy gap between posts.  I have been without internet for about ten days.  No one seemed willing (or able) to fix the problem.  And then magically this morning it reappeared!  So I am plunging back into blog-land just like I've had internet all along.  And today, we have a special treat.  I was lucky enough to secure an interview with Michael Frost Beckner, who has a Civil War mini-series in development entitled To Appomattox.  I'm sure that some of you Civil War Addicts have probably already heard about it at some point.  But Mr. Beckner kindly agreed to allow me to interview him.  So here it is.

     Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in filmmaking and the Civil War.

Hi I’m Michael Frost Beckner, actually my love for film came at an early age as my best friend from Elementary School had a grandfather, Yakima Canutt, a bronc-bustin’ champion, an real honest-to-goodness cowboy who had a big California ranch, built way back in the ‘20s, where we’d spend summer days swimming in his pool and watching old Tom Mix silents and other two reeler westerns he’d made.  He pretty much invented the “stunt man” industry for which he ultimately won an Academy Award.  Listening to his stories, meeting the old stars he used to stand in for or direct in their action scenes lit the spark.  Then on summer nights we’d climb the fence at CBS/Radford studios—it was pretty much just a backlot then—and the old security would let us play with the rubber rifles they used in Wild Wild West, The Rifleman and Gunsmoke…and playing at the Gilligan’s Island lagoon, blew it up for me and I never had another thought about doing anything else.

The Civil War has been part of my life as long as I remember.  We have a deep history in my family; my grandmother told me at an early age to stand up when Dixie is played.  She was, and my mother continues to be very involved in preservation and historical groups.  As I write this I’m facing the portraits of my Civil War ancestors on the wall across the room.

  What gave you the idea to start on this project?

I’d been working on my CBS series THE AGENCY to which I had extraordinary access to the CIA at Langley.  I’d remarked once that the site of CIA headquarters were where Thaddeus Lowe launched his observation balloons to provide the very first US aerial reconnaissance.  After this conversation went on for awhile, my wife at the time, remarked that I knew just as much about the Civil War as I did about espionage.  She wondered why I didn’t write about it.  Actually, I knew even more, but I also knew that the Civil War does not sell in Hollywood.  I told her I’d write a play.

Entitled “To Appomattox,” it was a two character play about the four meetings between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant over the course of their lifetime.  The Richmond Theater at the University of Richmond was keen on my opening it there and we got together on the dates and I got to writing.  Tell you what, theater deadlines are even tighter than television deadlines.  And the more I researched, the more I was writing.  I also discovered reared a bit “Lost Cause,” the reality of US Grant and who he really was had been treated quite unfairly in the popular version of that history.  His was the story that needed telling.  .  The story was so incredible, I quickly forgot my own admonishment, that Hollywood axiom that Civil War doesn’t sell, and the two-character play soon became a feature script…which soon became a 4-hour mini…which finally became the 8 scripts/10 hours I have today.
   Given the scope of what you are seeking to accomplish, what hurdles have you faced along the way?

First set of hurdles were accuracy.  I have been blessed to have the most remarkable team of historical advisors ever assembled for a television miniseries.  My mentor on this project, the late Dr. John Y. Simon, put me through three years of intense research and revisions.  The story I’m telling here is NOT a military history—sure we have the battles, more than anyone has every attempted to portray—but the heart and soul of this work are the personal relationships between men who met as brothers at West Point, fought side-by-side in the Mexican War, then took up sides against each other in the Civil War; it is about how these relationships continued and more importantly their relationships with their wives and children, and how all of these intersect and combine.  That sort of stuff is not the interest of non-fiction Civil War books.  Really hard to find.  But Dr. Simon just made me search harder and didn’t allow me to make stuff up.  What Grant says to his children or his wife, what Lee tells his daughters, what Sherman’s nine year-old son tells his father, mother and her priest as he dies of typhoid are exactly what was said and how it happened.

Once the scripts were vetted by the rest of the historians who Dr. Simon and our incredible historical adviser J. D. Petruzzi gathered, then I had to face that Hollywood axiom.   My producing partners and I believed the way around that was to bring in stars the networks/studios/audience would want to see in anything. This was the easiest part.  Every actor whose read these scripts has volunteered the attachment and have stuck with this for these past six years.  In some cases other obligations have pulled them away, but even in many of those, when those obligations were filled, they’ve come back.  Country Music has deeply embraced this project, as I tell the story of the heritage of American music.

But that axiom.  That’s been the biggest most difficult hurdle.  These last five years of concentrated effort have brought many champions at studios and networks to this who after reading the script have shown incredible passion and have committed to proving their own rule wrong.  Since you can only offer something like this to one network at a time, there’s been months of this rollercoaster—passion, commitment…defeat.  Always at the top we’ve heard the same response: “There is no audience for a Civil War drama.”The Kickstarter campaign is an effort to prove them wrong.  There is an audience—a huge audience—and through their support they will tell the networks just that. 

   At this point, have any actors or actresses expressed support or signed on for the project?

All actors on the Kickstarter site are committed to the roles portrayed contingent on availability.  

   Do you plan on shooting the film on location or will you use suitable alternatives?

For the first two hours we plan to shoot this summer we plan to use New Mexico for our scenes that take place in the Mexican War and in California.  We will also do most of our soundstage/interior work there.  Once that’s finished we plan to move to Virginia for the rest of the show.

   What are your plans for the future of the project?

The two hours we produce this summer will be shopped back to the networks to secure broadcast and production of the remaining eight.  If this is unsuccessful, we will release these two hours as an independent film.  Depending on the success of that we plan to continue this as a series of four films.For more information:KickstarterTo AppomattoxFacebook

Thank you to Mr. Beckner for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from a Half A$$ Historian who knows nothing of the film industry.  The list of Historical Advisors who are and will be assisting with this project is quite impressive.  The names will be familiar to all Civil War Addicts (John Michael Priest, Gordon Rhea, John Marszelak, Thomas Fleming and others.)  I for one really would like to see this project succeed.  I wish the best of luck to Mr. Beckner and his crew and I urge all of you loyal readers to spread the word about this film.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

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