|| Interview with filmmakers Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
ELLEN: Catherine came to us and suggested a series on the American
Revolution. It seemed like an interesting challenge. The Revolution was one of
the last big American history subjects that hadn't been covered by television.
MUFFIE: It posed an interesting problem: How do you make a long series about a
period of time that pre-dates photography? We'd grappled with this dilemma in
connection with other projects, and had previously come up with the idea of using actors to read first person accounts
from the period. LIBERTY! was our first chance to actually try out this technique.
||Ellen Hovde, Ron Blumer,
Muffie Meyer and Catherine Allan
ELLEN: This was something that [LIBERTY! writer] Ron Blumer especially wanted
to do—use the words of the people of the time. He thought it would give the
story an unvarnished appeal. People are always looking back and putting their own
interpretation on history. It's almost impossible not to. But there's so much
to be gained by simply presenting the accounts as they were written—the
documents and letters, the newspaper articles and military accounts.
MUFFIE: For a long time people have been making films with people reading the
words of a person over photographs, but there were problems doing the same
thing here with paintings from the period.
ELLEN: For one thing, ordinary people in the 18th century couldn't afford to
have their portraits done, which meant we would be limited in the sorts of
stories we could effectively tell.
MUFFIE: We felt [having the actors on-camera] lent a huge value added to
the reading. It's not just their voices, but the way they can use their
ELLEN: But it's a very difficult thing to do. You don't have another actor to
respond to. It's not a scene, you're not playing something with a give and
take. You come onto the set, you sit down, there are lights in your face, and
the camera is pointing at you. Someone calls, "Action!" and the poor actor is
thinking, What am I going to do?
MUFFIE: It's a situation where you have nothing to rely on but the words and
what's inside of you. I liken it to being able to pull off a Shakespearean
Readings were done at a number of shoots in a New York studio. Middlemarch
was required to do some historical coaching as well as directing.
ELLEN: We auditioned possibly a thousand people for the various roles. We were
lucky to be living in New York and to be casting from an extraordinary pool of
MUFFIE: When it came to casting George Washington, we had a real problem. Washington was such an icon. Everyone knows what he looks like....actually they know a much older George Washington....the one from the dollar bill and the Gilbert Stuart portrait. It is very hard to play an icon on camera. So in the end, we decided to keep Washington as a voiceover. He is played by a wonderful actor, Stephen Lang. And luckily George Washington is a character for whom we have a wealth of portraits. He was an icon in his own time.
MUFFIE: Each actor was given a background paper, telling who they were, where
they were from, how old they were—as much background as we could give them
about a character.
ELLEN: And each actor had to say lines that were from different situations in their characters' lives. They had to jump from one year to another, one situation to another, unrelated one. So we had to do set-ups for each reading. This is where you are, this is
the date, this is why you are writing to John Hancock, this is your
Battle scenes and military encampments were recreated for the film by a
group of Revolutionary era re-enactors, the Brigade of the American Revolution
An impressive array of scholars provided commentary on the period for the
ELLEN: The re-enactors are an extraordinary group of people. It's not
just the specific battles that they research, but the way people lived.
Uniforms and costumes are meticulously researched. It has to be the right kind
of thread, the right kind of design . . .
MUFFIE: They maintain a pristine camp. When they arrive at a campsite,
Brigade members have a certain number of hours before everything that's not
18th century must be stowed away. The cars go away, the coolers go, the coke
cans . . .
ELLEN: It's a real blessing to a filmmaker to have such a large group of
people looking out for the authenticity of your subject.
MUFFIE: You just can't hire extras in those numbers and have them be so
careful about doing the proper thing.
MUFFIE: And the scholars were marvelous, both in front of the camera and
ELLEN: They take such risks. Especially those that go in front of the camera
and say things that they might want to take back in a year's time. Their
reputation is on the line.
MUFFIE: These questions are so alive to them. They almost speak as if it
happened yesterday. We felt that especially with the British scholars . . . a
sense that they were still arguing the issues. I think the whole American
Revolution is still a little bit of a thorn in the side. Not all English, of
course, but some . . .
ELLEN: I think of Jeremy Black [one of the British scholars], saying, The
British, at that time, thought this or that about the colonists. And telling us, with real emotion, "And they were
After several years of working on the project, and creating 6 hours of film,
the subject of the American Revolution remains fresh to Middlemarch
MUFFIE: I feel like we've only scratched the surface. We've done
history 101 and 102. There's a huge amount left to tell.
ELLEN: What's exciting to me is how alive the subject is to this day. You
can't pick up a newspaper without seeing some direct reference to a
constitutional question, or a political concern that stems right from [the
period of the American Revolution]. As scholar Bernard Bailyn said, it's what our politics are about—local
government versus federal, issues of power and how its used and abused.
MUFFIE: When we started this project, the American Revolution was, really, a
subject that I didn't know very well. I remember the buzz words from 5th grade
history—Valley Forge and Benedict Arnold and all the others. One thing that
has meant a lot to me in the process of doing this series is that it's given me
a new appreciation for the founders of this country. They'd always been these
remote historical figures. But to realize that they were human, that they made
mistakes, they had personalities, that they could, in a sense, be ordinary and
yet accomplish things so extra-ordinary . . .
ELLEN: It's a very cheerful thing to think about, really. That these people
were human beings and not that different from us.