In Search Of History
Passionate Producer To Shoot Civil War Miniseries In Valley
NEW MARKET — The sights and sounds of battle may roll across the Valley as Johnny Reb and Billy Yank go head to head once again.
But this time, the only shooting to be done will be by the film cameras of Hollywood.
Michael Frost Beckner, creator and executive producer for the planned Civil War miniseries “To Appomattox,” made a stop Wednesday in New Market as he scouted potential filming locations for his project.
Speaking at the headquarters of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Beckner discussed his vision and passion for the project.
“[The Civil War] has so much relevancy and importance for our nation ... but I see it drifting away,” he said.
With less emphasis placed on historical education, Beckner is concerned about the increasing apathy many people feel about the conflict, especially in the area of historical preservation, he said.
“I’m seeing a tragedy develop before my eyes,” he said.
Beckner is perhaps best known as the writer behind the 2001 espionage thriller “Spy Game” starring Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, as well as the creator and producer of the 2001-03 CBS intelligence drama series “The Agency.”
Referring to his past work, Beckner said, “I’m known as a guy who writes [about] spies,” but his life has been centered on history.
Studio City, Calif., may seem like an unlikely spot for an appreciation of the War Between the States to be nurtured, but Beckner’s childhood was filled with stories of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Southern icons, as told by his grandmother, who led a local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter.
“If [the song] ‘Dixie’ played in our house, we put our hand over our heart,” Beckner laughed.
His current project, “To Appomattox,” began nearly 12 years ago, originally as a two-man play.
Now planned as a 12-hour miniseries, Beckner is seeking to tell this chaotic period of American history framed by the four meetings between Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
The miniseries will trace the lives of the two legends, as well as other men and women, from their days at West Point and time in the Mexican-American War through the division and eventual reconciliation of the nation.
Other than the scenes involving the Mexican-American War and interior shots, Beckner plans to film most of the series in the Shenandoah Valley.
“I had no idea of the array of terrain there is in the Valley,” Beckner said, citing one location that can pass for Vicksburg, the besieged Mississippi city that fell to Union forces in 1863.
While his vision may seem like a 21st Century update of the famed “North and South” miniseries, Beckner points out that his series will be grounded in historical accuracy and framed by historical, not fictional, characters.
“To Appomattox” may be “the closest thing we’ll ever get to a time machine,” he said.
Keven Walker, chief executive officer for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, agrees.
“I couldn’t put the script down,” Walker said, reflecting on the time he first received the manuscript. “It kept the entertainment without sacrificing historical accuracy.”
The importance of filming historical scenes on or near their actual locations is also a pivotal point for the film.
“I have a feeling of spiritual awakening” when present on a battlefield, Beckner said.
When filming on sites where the event happened, “it creates realism” for the audience, Walker said.
After visiting sites from Winchester to McDowell, Beckner believes the film will also boost efforts to preserve historic battlefields.
He cites the influence of the World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” on the American psyche.
“No American would think to put a house there ... on hallowed ground,” Beckner said, referring to the battlefields of Europe.
He hopes that his film will both entertain and educate to help “more people make the right decisions” when it comes to battlefield preservation.
The filming could also prove an economic boost to local coffers.
According to Walker, a representative from the Virginia Film Commission estimates that the four-month filming schedule will bring $180 million in immediate benefits to the Valley. There would be residual benefits as well.
“Every time a piece of Civil War history comes out [of Hollywood], there is a two-year spike in attendance” at historical locations that are featured, historian Carey Eberly said.
Eberly is one of a dozen historians employed by the series to ensure historical accuracy.
Filming is slated to begin near the end of summer, with the series airing sometime in 2015. Beckner also hopes to reach out to local re-enactors who could play extras, as well as small speaking roles.
While the eventual home for the program is not yet known, Beckner said several different television channels have expressed interest.
The series is to be directed by Mikael Salomon, co-director of the “Band of Brothers” miniseries.
Actors currently attached to the project include Jason O’Mara from the television show “Terra Nova,” Helen McCrory from the “Harry Potter” films, Damian Lewis from the “Homeland” series, and Noah Wyle from “The Librarian” films and “Falling Skies” television series.
Appearances will also be made by country music stars Trace Adkins, Kix Brooks and members of the band Rascal Flatts, who will be composing much of the score for the miniseries.
Contact Bryan Gilkerson at 574-6267 or firstname.lastname@example.org