Wednesday, August 1, 2007

In Praise of Re-enactors

Civil War re-enactors are an interesting bunch. In making historical documentaries, I’ve worked with re-enactors from eras that ranged from the Roman Empire to WWII. But the Civil War guys seem to be the most hard-core. For better or for worse.

All re-enactors are sticklers for accuracy, by definition. But it’s only the Civil War re-enactors who will refuse to go on camera or even call “cut” if they notice a historical inaccuracy. It’s the Civil War re-enactors who will come to the director after a shot and earnestly explain why the shot was wrong. It’s the Civil War re-enactors who write impassioned letters to networks when an extra in a re-enactment is wearing a uniform with the wrong insignia.

Now, this can be heaven or this can be hell. Sometimes in the process of making a television show, historical accuracy can take a back seat to visual storytelling. Walking the thin line between making TV and being 100% accurate is one of the toughest jobs of a documentary producer. And the last thing you need is 23-year-old volunteer who insists that you can’t roll the cameras because the rifle in the corner of the frame is the wrong caliber.

Fortunately, the Civil War re-enactors I just worked with were a crack team that not only knew their history, they knew filmmaking.

I just returned from a week in Maryland, shooting a Civil War battle for a cable network. And the team of re-enactors came from Russ Richards, who runs an outfit called “Historical Entertainment.”

It’s a very interesting business model – one-stop shopping for historical documentaries. Russ was a re-enactor who worked on several movies and documentaries. He realized that film companies were desperately in need of historically-accurate extras, but didn’t know where to find them. Russ became the go-between – delivering squads of perfectly costumed extras for shows that wound up on the History Channel Discovery, National Geographic and numerous feature films.

Russ sent us a team of fit, skinny young re-enactors who looked like they could have stepped out of a Matthew Brady photo. And they each had two uniforms – one blue and one gray – so they could play both sides in big battle scenes (oh, the wonders of CGI). Best of all, they were film-savvy as well. They never argued with the director about accuracy – they simply found a way to make his vision work AND make it accurate. Which wasn’t always easy. I suspect this attention to detail may be lost on most viewers. But it was not lost on me or on the crew. And I suspect (and hope) that when the five million or so Civil War re-enactors in America watch this show, they will have nothing to write to the network about.

I guess the real pleasure in this project for me was working with an entire crew of, yes, Jackleg Historians. Russ and his boys are self-taught, but they know more about the Civil War than many tenured professors. And they are passionate about getting it right, even if the details are going to be lost in the deep background of a shot. But the Jackleg Historians in the audience will notice. And the Jackleg Historians behind the camera and in front of it can be proud.

No comments: