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About the Production

David Grubin

Interview with David Grubin

David Grubin, producer of five presidential biographies and multiple series for PBS, is the producer, director, and writer of Napoleon. Grubin is an independent producer, director, writer and cinematographer whose work in film and television has brought him many prestigious awards, including eight Emmys and three Writers Guild Awards. He was the executive producer of the highly regarded PBS series Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers, and executive editor of the bestselling companion book. He has recently completed the six hour biography: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.

Q: What made you interested in making a film about Napoleon?

A: Before I set out to make this film, Napoleon to me was a caricature; he was the little guy with the funny hat and the hand in his jacket — the guy who gave his name to a psychological syndrome, the Napoleon complex. I didn’t really know who he was. Making the film was my chance to find out. I knew that he had an amazing story. I wanted to learn more about it, and then tell it on film. Oddly, Napoleon’s life had never been told before in a series of documentary films, which is interesting because there are more feature films about him then anybody who ever lived — films dating back to before the 20th century and right on up through the silent film era with Abel Gance’s great Napoleon to our own times and Woody Allen’s version of Napoleon. It amazed me that there hadn’t been a documentary series about his life.

Q: Did you watch any of those films again before filming Napoleon?

A: I’d seen of course Abel Gance’s film, which is virtuoso filmmaking. But it’s a great romantization of Napoleon. I was really interested in rooting Napoleon in history.

Q: How was Napoleon different than your previous films?

A: I’m always trying to go a step beyond what I’ve done in the past in my documentaries. I’d made other historical films, but for the most part I was able to build those stories out of archival film and archival photographs. With Napoleon, I was interested in the challenge of trying to tell a story before the invention of photography, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I was interested in telling this story at this point in my filmmaking career.

Q: Why do you think Napoleon continues to fascinate people around the world?

A: The story of Napoleon is the story of a man who comes out of nowhere to dominate first France and then all of Europe. He ruled over 70 million people - and then he loses everything. That’s an archetypal story. That’s a story that will always be fascinating. And then the story itself is so outlandish, it’s so filled with dramatic moments that are hard to believe that it seems as if it had been invented by a writer prone to exaggeration. But it’s all true. Napoleon stands at a turning point in history, a figure who embodies all the conflicting currents of his time. And what a time it was. The French Revolution changed Europe, and the world forever. The French beheaded a King who ruled by divine right and then set about trying to establish a democratic Republic at a time when democracy in America had just been born. But the French couldn’t make democracy work. Chaos and terror tore France apart. Napoleon restored order, but in the end, did he preserve the values of the French Revolution, or did he crush them? People still argue about that today. That’s why he continues to be a controversial, and fascinating figure.

Q: What were the high and low points of making this film?

A: I would say that shooting the battle recreations were probably the high and the low points at the same time. They were tremendously challenging, and I was gratified to see that we were actually able to make them work. Remember we’re not Hollywood, we can’t hire the entire Czechoslovakian army to come out and pretend that they’re Napoleonic soldiers. We had around 200 re-creators. How do you make 200 people look like 200,000? Very challenging and very complicated. We had re-creators coming from all over Europe with their muskets and their cannons and their period costumes speaking English, French, Italian, Czech, German. It was a confusing babble of languages - a little bit like Napoleon’s army that went into Russia. Except he had 600,000 soldiers. Well, for us 200 people were hard enough to manage. You didn’t know who you were talking to - whether you should be speaking English or French or getting translators or what. These re-creators had the passion for reenacting Napoleonic battles, but they were re-creators, they weren’t extras in a Hollywood movie. They liked imagining that they were part of a military organization, so if I wanted to have a private move five paces to get a better camera angle, I had to ask him by going through his sergeant. I couldn’t ask him directly as you might an extra.

Q: How did the re-enactors help make Napoleon’s story come alive?

A: They wanted it to be accurate. The difficult thing was that they got so into their roles that they sometimes wouldn’t do the things that I needed them to do. For example the most feared part of Napoleon’s army was the Imperial Guard. These were big, tough men, veteran fighters who terrified their enemies. In the battle of Waterloo, the climactic moment is when the Imperial Guard turns and runs in the face of a hail of British fire. So we’re filming this scene, and I wanted our re-creators to charge the British line and then fall and pretend to die, but these guys aren’t falling. And I’m saying, "You know, you’ve got to fall down," and they’re saying, "We’re the Imperial Guard. No one stops us. We just keep coming." It wasn’t until I told them, "The Imperial Guard would rather die than surrender" - which was a famous thing said about the Guard - that they began to fall.

Q: Did you feel like Napoleon commanding his army?

A: They say that making a film is like fighting a battle and in that sense managing this enormous shoot was like being a commanding general. But no one died in our recreations. You have to remember that these were life and death struggles and in the end 3 million people died in the Napoleonic wars. I was very aware that I was play acting. Napoleon was in it for real.

Q: Were you able to film on any of the actual battlefields?

A: We filmed on the battlefield at Austerlitz and we filmed on the Waterloo battlefield, so those landscapes in the film are from the actual battlefields. But the recreations were done on a separate field and intercut with the battlefields because we couldn’t re-stage the battles on the sites themselves.

Q: Were you afraid that the French wouldn’t want an American to be making a film about one of their most important and controversial figures?

A: If this series were made by an Englishman I think the French would have been worried. There’s a real rivalry there. But we Americans didn’t beat the French at Waterloo. I think the French felt I could be neutral, and resolve the controversies swirling around Napoleon’s life through good storytelling.

Q: What did you discover about Napoleon that you didn’t expect?

A: I think what intrigued me most was his vitality. He had the energy of ten men. He could get up at midnight and work till 5 in the morning, sleep for a couple of more hours and then get up and continue to work. He’d just wear out his secretaries. He would dictate to four of them at the same time, moving from one to the other as if he were playing 4 games of chess. He had the kind of brilliance that could hold all these letters in his mind at one time, like a great chess master. Tremendous energy, never stopped. I was also surprised to find that even though he was French, he would wolf down his meals in 10 minutes. French men and women during the Napoleonic time took a couple of hours to eat a meal. They still do today. Not Napoleon. So he surprised me in lots of ways.

Q: What kind of a ruler do you think Napoleon was?

A: You have to remember that Napoleon was a dictator. He didn’t stand for criticism. There was censorship of the press, there were no real elections. He didn’t care at all about freedom. What’s interesting is that he did believe in equality. He believed that everyone should have a chance to rise on their own, according to their own talent, to the level of their own abilities. That’s hard for Americans to understand. How can you believe in equality without liberty? Just one of the puzzles about this man, who also spread the Napoleonic code of laws across Europe — laws that put an end to feudalism and aristocratic privilege. In some ways he carries forward the legacy of the French Revolution, in other ways he kidnaps it.

Q: What kind of man do you think Napoleon really was?

First of all he was born in Corsica, and if the child is father of the man, you’ve got to look to the powerful influence of this small nation of fighters to understand him. He was born just after the French conquered Corsica and grew up chafing under French rule, so I think he always had a sense of himself as an outsider. And of course, he loved power, and couldn’t seem to get enough of it. In a time when thrones were inherited, and young men from Corsica didn’t become Emperors, he took to being Emperor quite naturally. He loved power, he said, like a violinist loves his violin.

Q: What do you think people will take away from watching this film?

A: I think it makes you aware of how fragile democracy is. You see how difficult it was for the French to establish a Republic after their revolution. Napoleon inherits the legacy of the French Revolution and the question is, what’s he going to do with it? Will he abolish aristocratic privilege? Will there be liberty and equality? America in Napoleon’s time was just an experiment. Now we know it worked. It didn’t have to. We take our own history for granted. Napoleon reminds you that democracy is something that’s very precious and very difficult to achieve.

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