Interview with Executive Producer Catherine Allan and writer Ron Blumer

LIBERTY! The American Revolution was written by Ron Blumer, who has worked with Middlemarch on a number of projects, including Empire of Reason.

LIBERTY! producers
Ellen Hovde, Ron Blumer,
Muffie Meyer and Catherine Allan

Catherine Allan, Executive Producer for LIBERTY!, shepherded the project through six years of development and production.

Gerry Richman, Executive-in-charge of National Productions at KTCA, first suggested the idea of a series on the American Revolution.

CATHERINE: When Gerry suggested the series, I looked for a scholar to help us outline a story. I had the enormous good fortune of being put in touch with [Lead Consultant] Michael Zuckert (see Scholars). We asked him to do a kind of position paper, outlining some of the themes and ideas that stem from the period.

This idea of 13 diverse colonies eventually becoming one country based not on ethnicity, or culture, or religion, but on ideas and political principals—the notion that to be American is to believe in these principals—that seemed very relevant to our current multicultural experience.

KTCA was given a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop the series. Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer of Middlemarch and Ron Blumer, a New York-based writer and native of Canada, were given the assignment of turning a complicated history into compelling television.

RON: I came to the subject [of the American Revolution] as a complete innocent. In Canada, you sort of vaguely learn about the loyalists and they're the good guys, the heroes of the history. I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, which I think is a wonderful way of starting. I wasn't bored by the mention of the Stamp Act or Valley Forge because I wasn't sure what they were. I didn't have it crammed down my throat when I was a kid. What I discovered in this innocence was a great tale, a story with an incredible beginning, a riveting middle and an exciting end.

People have so many preconceptions about the American Revolution and most of them are wrong. The complexities of the story are enormous. It's not good guy vs. bad guy, it's not a linear thing. What you think happened, probably didn't, and what you didn't think happened, probably did.

We had to break down a lot of the pre-conceived notions of the history, and we had to do it immediately in the 1st episode. People just don't realize the extent to which Americans were British in 1763, for instance. As [scholar] Pauline Maier points out, Americans were British, they wanted to be British, and they were convinced that being British made them the free-est people on earth. Given that fact, why would they stage a revolution?

The end of the story, too, is very puzzling for most people. There's an assumption that from the Declaration of Independence onward, we were always a country, always united. But if you simply look of the usage of that phrase at the time, they were two distinct words, united and States, with the States being the capitalized word.

Just those two simple facts: one, that we started out being British and the second, that even after the war, we were 13 separate countries is terribly difficult for most people to really understand.

In essence, what you have to say to people is this: In order to have you understand the story, I'm going to have to tell you 15 different things, half of which you won't believe. Furthermore, some of this is going to be information and not storytelling. So the challenge for me and Middlemarch was, How do we get them on the rollercoaster without changing channels?

One way was to quickly let them know, that though this is a story that has themes, ideas and important issues, it's also about people. It's about events happening to human beings who were not prepared for them. To once again quote Pauline from Episode 1, "What happened was unexpected." It was a surprise. If you told people in 1763 that 13 years later they would be forming their own country, they wouldn't have believed you. It was totally unexpected.

Capturing this surprise is one of the reasons for using 1st person accounts in the series.

RON: Using primary documents is to see the wonder at what was happening through the eyes of the players. To read Burgoyne's accounts prior to the Battle of Saratoga, for instance, to feel his total confidence, his absolute certainty that he was going to win, and then to find out what really happened—-I kept thinking over and over again, that this is Shakespearean.

CATHERINE: Because we use actors in the series, there is a tendency to wonder if the words they say were written by a script writer. The fact is that they all come from actual writings of the time; nothing is made up. Ron would modernize the language occasionally for clarity, but the words and ideas are all authentic.

The most difficult parts of the writing process was determining what to include and what to cut.

RON: It was obvious to me how to divide up the story into 6 episodes. The hard part was to select from all of the interesting things that were happening—-the what to eliminate question? And film is like music in that it moves inexorably through time. There's no getting off the train. So everything has to be clear and unpuzzling for a viewer.

Of course all of this is complicated by telling a story set in the 18th century, where so many details are hard to explain. There's a section in the film about smallpox. If you mention the devastation of smallpox, how feared it was, and how people guarded against it, you have to explain the difference between vaccination and inoculation. You have to explain why people would actually give themselves smallpox in order to escape a more horrible version of the same disease.

What makes this storytelling so difficult is that the 18th century is in many senses closer to the Middle Ages than modern times. Their minds had values and structures that we don't understand. The seeds of modernity are there, but not modernity itself. They were inventing the new world.

It's a tradition that continues in the United States.

CATHERINE: One of the points to emerge from the series is that we're a country born out of denying its past. Americans are always looking into the future, rejecting tradition in favor of something to come. Maybe that's why most Americans know so little about the founding of our country. And yet to overlook that history—the story of how our political freedoms and rights were achieved—is to put those liberties at risk.

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