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.

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

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: 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 face.

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 soliloquy.

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 stage actors.

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 problem.

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 series.

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 behind.

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 right!"

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.

Copyright© 2004 Twin Cities Public Television. All Rights Reserved. 
Credits | Privacy Policy | Feedback: