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Filmmaker Ron Maxwell Talks Historical Drama

By Amanda Morad | January 30, 2014

Filmmaker Ron Maxwell addressed Regent students Tuesday, Jan. 28.

He's known around Hollywood and the world for his historical dramas about the Civil War, including Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. On Tuesday, Jan. 28, filmmaker Ron Maxwell talked to Regent University students in the School of Communication & the Arts (SCA) about reaching into the past not just to retell it, but relive it.

"Someday this moment will be so far away, so obscure and so unknown, it will take sociologists and archeologists all their skill to figure us out," Maxwell reminded students. He asked them to take note of societal markers: how people speak and walk, how they dress, what they carry, what they value.

By these markers, he explained, writers can connect with the historical figures they wish to portray rather than telling a modern day story "with characters just like us in period costume."

"The past is another country," Maxwell explained, quoting renowned author, screenwriter, and playwright Gore Vidal. According to Vidal, writers can understand and portray the past truly only through "'Einfuhlen'—the act of feeling one's way into the past not by holding up a mirror but by stepping through the mirror into the alien world."

Maxwell is well regarded for his historical accuracy in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, even using actual Civil War reenactors as extras in his battle scenes.

This holds true for Maxwell's latest release, Copperhead. A third Civil War era film of his, Maxwell set out to tell the oft-untold story of a dissenting group in the North. "What Civil War films don't show is that within each society, there were many factions," he said. "Not everyone in the South wanted anything to do with slaves and not everyone in the North wanted to send their sons to die. That's the story I wanted to tell."

The film stars Billy Campbell, Angus MacFadyen and Peter Fonda. Regent student Mary Ahlman (SCA) served as Maxwell's assistant on set.

"In making films set in the distant world of the past, we are rediscovering what has been lost, what has been forgotten," he said. "Little by little, we find ourselves in the characters of the past. We recognize ourselves in them, yet find them utterly bizarre."

Maxwell's approach to historical filmmaking is completely immersive. He does extensive research into the culture of the time, even the language, and visits key locations where the historical events of his subject took place.

"When I set out to make a film set in the past, I want to go to that place and bring the audience along with me," Maxwell said. He made the distinction between historical propaganda and art. When the work is about the filmmaker and his dramatization of history, it's just propaganda, he said. But "to surrender to the past and to discover what it has been saying to us all along is art."

He gave a practical example with his current work on a long-time labor of love, a film about Joan of Arc. He's read everything there is to read about the historical figure—volumes and volumes—visited her hometown, the place of the battles she fought, the cathedral where she prayed, and even studied Middle French to better understand the literature written about her by her contemporaries.

"Inspiration is 99 percent perspiration," he said. "It's the daily, consistent pursuit of information. Then, at a certain point, the character comes alive in us. They speak. Only at that point are we ready to write the screenplay."

Learn more about the School of Communication & the Arts.

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