Accuracy paramount in retelling of the French and Indian War
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Thomas Clair of New Brunswick, Canada, has makeup applied for the filming near Ligonier of WQED's "The War That Made America," a chronicle of the French and Indian War.
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Related Coverage:

TV Review: Series deftly re-enacts conflict's turmoil

TV Press Tour Journal: WQED takes its 'War' west (1/16/06)

'Embedded journalist' to bring the French & Indian War to life on the Web (1/16/06)

'The War that made America' by Fred Anderson (1/15/06)

In making 'The War That Made America,' the station battled a host of foes (1/15/06)

LIGONIER -- Kelly Farrah wraps corn in tinfoil and tosses it into a fire pit as a 150-pound quarter of beef roasts on a spit over the heat. Farrah is property master on "The War That Made America," a four-hour retelling of the French and Indian War made by WQED and airing nationally on PBS, 9 to 11 p.m. tomorrow and Jan. 25. He was just one of the 250 cast and crew members who turned Laurel Mountain into a film set in June 2004, a challenging month weather-wise.

On this particular day, clouds turned to fog, fog turned to rain, and then the sun shone brightly, all within the course of two hours. Not ideal filming conditions for this story of a conflict that laid the groundwork for the more widely understood American Revolution.

The clouds parted just in time to film a scene set in New York's Mohawk Valley in 1755, when the state's commissioner of Indian Affairs, William Johnson (Jeff Monahan), tried to win support from representatives of the powerful Iroquois Nation by presenting them with enticements -- muskets, blankets, bolts of cloth and kettles.

Wait, scratch one tea kettle. A historical consultant catches a gaffe: The kettle is circa 1870. It's removed, and the shot continues as a high-definition camera travels along a short piece of track and pans up the pile of goods.

Historical accuracy is paramount on this project, but some license was taken. In reality, the goods weren't presented to the Iroquois until the end of the proceedings, according to historical consultant Scott Stephenson. For the purposes of this film, these inducements are in the shot from the start.

"We try to reach some sort of mutually likable solution," Stephenson says of the omnipresent creative tension between filmmakers and historical consultants. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Stephenson and fellow historian Jay Cassel also play deserters who are hanged in the mini-series.) "But there's a lot of intellectual debate about what does this mean when we say, 'historically accurate.' "

British soldier awaits his scene during the filming of "The War That Made America" in June 2004 at Laurel Mountain.
Click photo for larger image.

For one thing, it means shooting Maj. Gen. Braddock on the correct side of his body.

Executive producer Laura Fisher, senior vice president of the Allegheny Conference, recalled the day Braddock's death scene was filmed. University of Pittsburgh associate professor of theater arts Alex Coleman, the actor playing Braddock, was rigged with a packet of fake blood beneath his clothing on his left side. Fisher said Bob Messner, a guiding force behind Braddock's Field Historical Society, was on set and mentioned that Braddock was actually shot on his right side. Producers changed the shot so Braddock could meet his demise on film just as he had in real life.

"We didn't get everything right, but we got a lot right," says executive producer Deborah Acklin, executive vice president and general manager at WQED. "There aren't any groaners in there for me."

For actor Graham Greene ("Dances With Wolves"), signing on as presenter -- a narrator who shows up on camera to act as the audience's guide through this complex tale -- offered its own learning opportunity.

"I didn't know beans about it," Greene says of the French and Indian War. "History is always so biased when it's being taught to young people that you don't really know the exact truths about a lot of stuff. When I saw this script, I went, 'Oh, my gosh. That's interesting.' "

That's the reaction Acklin hopes viewers will have, too, especially in Western Pennsylvania, where much of the action depicted in the film actually occurred.

"How do we take this musty history that's been overshadowed by the Revolution and relegated to a couple of pages in a textbook" and bring it to life, she says. "I grew up in Pittsburgh and knew almost nothing about this history. How do we make it pop out?"

Re-creating history

The first meetings about the miniseries that would become "War" occurred in July 1999, a month before Acklin left WQED for a job at National Geographic Channel. When she returned to work at WQED in October 2002, "War" was still in its research and development stage.

"It had been put on hiatus a couple of times while everyone reconvened and reconfigured," Acklin says. The biggest unknown: How much of the project would be documentary and how much would be dramatic re-creation?

Fearing "War" could miss the window for the anniversary -- the 250th anniversary of Braddock's defeat was in July -- Acklin commissioned filmmaker Eric Stange, at the time on a fellowship at Harvard studying history and film, to write a treatment -- more than an outline but less than a full script -- for "The War That Made America."

"We knew early on there weren't enough artifacts, paintings to make a Ken Burns-style documentary," Acklin says. "So we decided early on we didn't want to have historians on camera."

Stange says he initially was skeptical that the talking-head historians would stay out of the project. Financially, re-creating 52 minutes of drama per hour is much more costly than sitting a historian in front of a book case and filming.

"What that technique would have done was to pull you out of the experience of the 18th century," Acklin says. "All of a sudden here you are in the 21st century with a guy in a tie in front of a bookshelf, next to a lamp, telling you what George Washington was thinking or feeling. Well, let's have George Washington tell you instead."

And George Washington, played by Cleveland actor Larry Nehring (well cast for his height and a nose reminiscent of Washington's), does just that, addressing the camera directly at times, speaking words often taken from the future president's correspondence. But it's not the serious, revered Washington viewers are accustomed to seeing. This George is a 22-year-old bumbler who inadvertently sparked a war.

"We think of him as this statue, the guy on the dollar bill, but he was a young man, and he didn't know what he was doing," Acklin says. "That's a great story."

Eventually Stange wrote and directed the first and third hours while Ben Loeterman wrote and directed the second and fourth hours.

Acklin, Loeterman and Stange will appear on PBS's "Charlie Rose" tonight at 11, repeating at 1 p.m. tomorrow to discuss "War." (Tonight's Tavis Smiley show will be pre-empted.)

Stange said the film's visual look was inspired by the paintings of artist Robert Griffing and the battle scenes in HBO's "Band of Brothers."

"There's a kind of jitteryness to 'Band of Brothers' that's got a dream or nightmare-like quality in the battle scenes," Stange said.

Although many history shows include re-creations, often they'll just show characters reaching for a quill pen or walking away, back to the camera. But the characters in "War" are true characters, not just stand-ins. They speak dialogue, and the miniseries features what Stange calls "full-frontal drama."

"We're not doing shadowy little scenes or disembodied people re-enacting little moments," Stange said. "We're doing fully dramatized, scripted scenes, and the dialogue is taken from the primary sources."

This style of "dramatized documentary" ("The term 'docudrama' has pejorative connotations," Stange said) has been more common in England than in America.

In opting for this approach, all four hours carry "viewer discretion" advisories that warn of some violent scenes to come.

"We decided to shoot it full out and then pull back to where we thought we needed to be," Acklin said. "We wanted to make sure we balanced the violence with other aspects of life."

That was true whether the violence was perpetrated by the American Indians, the English settlers or the French.

"It was an absolutely brutal war," Acklin said. "People were shot with musket balls that would pull a body apart. We definitely pulled back from that, but you look at the climate we're in and ask the question, 'Is this more than what a young person might see in daily life? On the news? In video games or movies or television?' And our answer was no."

That realism extended to telling the story and reflecting new scholarship that shows the American Indians were more strategically important than anyone had believed.

"All of those alliances were really important to portray," Acklin said. "We didn't want to portray the Indians as a monolithic culture. We also wanted to reflect the role of women in that society."

Computer-generating a crowd

Back in the faux Mohawk Valley, a makeup artist applies sunscreen to an extra playing a member of the Iroquois before he and about two dozen others take their places for a CGI (computer-generated image) shot.

"I see way too much bunching on your side," says first assistant director Ben Dewey through a bullhorn.

The camera films them in one position, then stops. The same extras are directed to get up and move to new positions. The camera films them again. Then they move to yet another position, each spot within the camera's frame. The multiple takes are piled on top of one another in post-production to create a cost-effective scene of many more American Indians than are actually involved in making the film.

"This is how 15 become 1,500 in a hurry," says writer/director Loeterman.

Special effects are also used when filming Greene's segments. Months after the location shooting on Laurel Mountain, Greene traveled to WQED's Oakland studio to stand in front of a green screen. Computer effects make it appear he's in the scenes shot at Laurel Mountain. A fan, causing his hair to flutter, adds to the effect.

"It was difficult to do," Greene says, "getting the lighting properly so I didn't look like I was pasted on from some relative's bad picture. Getting the lighting right was very important."

In between setups near Ligonier, Loeterman reflects on the impact "War" could have if it's well received by viewers and critics.

"This is big, and this is big for PBS. This is a new wave of telling history on television, to try to rise to the expectations people have. We try to use the tools of feature films and infuse the history with drama and try to emphasize the story points as best we can within the bounds that history lets us. That's the trick of this."

"It's the idea of moving from human props to actual drama," Loeterman adds. "That's the big leap."

First published on January 17, 2006 at 12:00 am
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582.
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