Pocahontas Revealed

The Producer's Story:
Recreating Pocahontas's Village
by Lisa Quijano Wolfinger

Shooting historical dramatizations can be a bit like running a three-ring circus. It is a whirlwind of activity and problem solving: shooting one scene while setting up the next, rearranging schedules because of rain or a missing actor, making compromises when a prop breaks or a weapon misfires. If you are lucky you avoid the snarling lions and disgruntled clowns and keep the whole enterprise going until you run out of time and/or money. The important thing is to keep the whip handy at all times. This experience was no different.

The process started months in advance with careful study of the historical records to glean every last detail that would ensure absolute authenticity. Accuracy in historical reenactments is vital, especially for a NOVA. Everything from facial hair to types of weapons to how to hold a spoon becomes of crucial importance. In this case we had the added challenge of recreating an entire Indian settlement about which very little is known: Werowocomoco, home to the legendary Pocahontas and her powerful father, Powhatan.

It gets a little tough to direct a scene when you are trying to avoid smoke inhalation.

The Jamestown Living History Museum in Virginia has a few historically accurate longhouses on its property, but the museum would only allow us to shoot there after hours, after the tourists left. That really wouldn't work for us because we had quite a few daylight scenes to shoot. After scouting and rejecting various possibilities, my line producer Buck Woodard (an anthropology Ph.D. student and advisor on Terrence Malick's feature film about Pocahontas, "The New World") came up with a brilliant plan.

It takes a village

Henricus Park is a modest living museum an hour outside of Richmond, Virginia. It represents the settlement founded in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale, second only to Jamestown as the oldest English settlement in Virginia. Even more fitting, the actual Henricus was near where Pocahontas grew up among the Appomattox tribe. It is also where the English later imprisoned her, and where she eventually converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe in 1614.

The Park consisted of an English section with a few period wattle-and-daub houses (structures made with woven branches covered in mud or clay) and a very humble Indian village (if you can call two moldy longhouses and an old drying rack a village). None of it was ideal for us, but it did have the advantage that both English and Indian sets would be side by side, a huge cost savings for this kind of shoot. This is where Buck's brilliant plan came into play: he suggested that NOVA offer to bring in a team of skilled Virginia Indians to refurbish the village in exchange for the park letting us shoot there for free. The folks at Henricus were thrilled. They had been trying to attract the participation of Virginia Indians for years without success. For them, this was a dream come true.

So Buck and his team set to work. While they transformed the two moldy longhouses into a very credible village in the space of a month, we embarked on the next task: hiring a cast. Paula Apsell, NOVA's executive producer, had come up with the provocative idea of asking the Virginia Indians to play their ancestors. Intertribal politics in Virginia is complicated and often messy, so the prospect was daunting. Yet again, Buck came to the rescue by diplomatically convincing a group of volunteers to participate.

The cast included members of a variety of tribes that once were part of Pocahontas's father's domain. I was told beforehand that it would be quite an accomplishment to have such a mix of tribes in a confined space without at least one argument. (Apparently Chief Powhatan himself was the last to accomplish such a feat.) But I have rarely worked with such a friendly and cheerful crowd. Best of all, Ashlee Harless, the young girl who was to play the 11-year-old Pocahontas, was actually the granddaughter of a Rappahannock Chief. You could say she was born to play the role.

Wardrobe malfunction

So we had our actors but no costumes. Unfortunately, all the beautiful costumes created for "The New World" had been ditched in a dumpster on a Hollywood backlot by mistake, so we had no choice but to make our own. It's amazing what arcane knowledge you pick up doing these projects. It turns out that making authentic 17th-century Woodland Indian garb is not as simple as buying some deer hides and sewing them together. Untanned deer hides are very white, and the store-bought variety are stained an unnatural shade of orange. Either way the end result looks like a cheap Halloween costume.

The secret, apparently, is something called "brain tan," a tan literally made from the brain and tallow (fat) of animals. It is something the Indians did to their deer hides for centuries but isn't done much anymore. (I can't imagine why.) Now, my talented and long-suffering costume designer, Andrew Poleszak, will always go the extra mile for me, but boiling animal brains was pushing it. In the end he avoided the issue by using ready-dyed animal skins that looked the right color, and we hired an army of seamstresses to get the costumes done in time. We all thought the problem was solved.

In the end, our shoot went off well enough. And all without a single crack of the whip.

The disaster—because there always has to be a disaster—was evident when we arrived on location and saw the pre-dyed deer skin clothes on hangers ready for fittings. They weren't orange, but they weren't right either. Not only did the clothes have to be the right color, they also had to look lived in. These were neither. Andrew likes to share his angst with those around him, but he always comes up with a solution. In this case it took 24 hours of experimenting with leather dyes, sponges, rags, and spray guns to get the clothes looking right. The grass and walls outside the wardrobe department looked as though some over-enthusiastic paintballers had used it for target practice.

Once Andrew found a method that worked, it took him and four other tireless wardrobe crew and seamstresses another 24 hours to get the right look. Needless to say the final product was entirely believable. No one would ever know that these clothes were not properly brain tanned and lived in for years while their owners worked in the cornfields, fished, and cooked. Other than being a little damp from the dye, the costumes the actors wore on set looked every bit as good as those made by Terrence Malick's team with a lot more money and time.

Speaking a forgotten language

With only four days to shoot, we worked hard and fast. The trickiest scene to shoot by far was the scene in the longhouse when Pocahontas allegedly saves Smith from execution. With a real fire going, the longhouse became very smoky very fast. It was even worse when we were forced to close the smoke holes to better control the light. Several times I was forced to run outside gasping for air. The trick, apparently, is staying close to the ground, but it gets a little tough to direct a scene when you are lying prostrate trying to avoid smoke inhalation.

Another challenge was having our actors deliver lines in the Algonquian language. Though it has been extinct for more than 200 years, linguists have been hard at work trying to reconstruct it. The process of reviving a dead language is a fascinating piece of detective work. The first step is reconceptualizing the dialogue in American Indian terms. For example, a member of Powhatan's tribe wouldn't think of the Jamestown settlers as coming from a "land to the east," since, for all they knew, there was only water to the east. So a reference to England was rephrased as the "island on the other side of the water."

Then experts have to figure out how the dialogue would be spoken in Virginia Algonquian. The only surviving vocabulary is a list of about 50 words set down by Smith himself, plus a 600-word list recorded in 1612 by William Strachey, a secretary for the Jamestown colony. The list is a crucial resource for modern linguists and also provides a rough guide to pronunciation.

The next step is to compare every word to better-documented Algonquian languages, including the ancestral Proto-Algonquian that linguists have reconstructed through cross-language comparisons. This painstaking work allowed us to write dialogue for our Powhatan and Pocahontas. Robert Green (Powhatan) and Ashlee (Pocahontas) spent much time with our on-set advisors preparing and practicing the correct pronunciations and inflections. Ashlee especially did a terrific job remembering some very tough lines and delivering them with spontaneity.

In the end, the three-ring circus that was our shoot for "Pocahontas Revealed" went off well enough. And all without a single crack of the whip.

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Lisa profile

After directing an acclaimed documentary on the voyage of the Mayflower, Lisa Wolfinger was ready to take another virtual trip to the 17th century for "Pocahontas Revealed."

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Building a longhouse

In constructing the longhouses of their Indian village, the team stuck to traditional methods, even if it wasn't easy.

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While painstakingly authentic in other ways, the production team opted for more skin-coverage than might have been typical for a Powhatan woman's clothing.

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Rescue scene

The pivotal "rescue" scene would have been a directorial challenge even if smoke from the set's campfire hadn't threatened to asphyxiate the director.

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The Indian village, sans NOVA actors, is still on view at Henricus Park in Richmond, Virginia. Stop by for a visit!

Lisa Q. Wolfinger, one of the producers of "Pocahontas Revealed," has written, produced, and directed numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed television programs, including the recent "Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower." She is also a cofounder of the Lone Wolf Documentary Group. When not busy at work, she is juggling a husband, four strapping boys, a dog, and an aging cat.

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