Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's Been Called "Ken Burns Meets Spinal Tap"

"The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek" opens tomorrow, March 1 at The Quad Cinema in New York City. Much has been written, and then deleted about the heroes of this forgotten Civil War battle. Even more has been written and deleted about the directors themselves: Wendy Jo Cohen and Grace A. Burns. Do we blame the racists? The homophobes? Daniel Day Lewis? Below, my interview with Cohen and Burns. Burns gave consent to being strapped to a polygraph machine during our chat. Cohen refused.

JD: What was the initial inspiration for TBOPWC?

GAB: I was working as a focus group facilitator for a pharmaceutical product targeting geriatric war veterans when I met retired Marine Captain and amateur military historian, Timothy Winchell. During the late afternoon Nilla Wafer and pineapple juice break, we got to talking and he told me about his research into the Battle of Pussy Willow Creek and the four heroes whose stories were shamelessly eradicated from the historical record after they saved the country during the Civil War. I was immediately fascinated! I knew right then that I had no choice but to make a feature-length documentary on the subject. Luckily, I had been forced to take a 5-day video production seminar as a requirement for graduation from the Communications department at SUNY Oswego, so I was more than prepared for the undertaking.

WJC: Uh, first off, I want to set the record straight and let you know that Grace isn't my co-director and that The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek isn't a real documentary.

GAB: What?

WJC: The film is actually a work of fiction – what some might call a “mockumentary” – and Grace is a device I made up. I thought my fictional documentary deserved a fictional director, and I imagined Grace as some wannabe third cousin to Ken Burns.

GAB: This is outrageous!

WJC: I had been wanting to do a movie, but my ideas have always been fairly elaborate and finding the budget for something like a sweeping war epic had always seemed out of reach. Then I was thinking about Ken Burns' films one day and it occurred to me that I could use his exact same techniques to tell a completely made up story – a darkly comedic Civil War film presented as if it were an auspicious PBS-style archival documentary. As I started to imagine who the historical characters would be, the story began to fall into place. But it was a long haul to develop it. I wanted the fake story to weave in seamlessly with the actual events of the Civil War. My idea was that, although it was absurd, there would be no definitive evidence to prove that this story couldn't be real. Of course that meant a huge amount of research. It took me four or five years to come up with a workable script.

JD: Tell us a little about the four main historical characters as well as one or two of the historians.

WJC: The first character I came up with was the Chinese immigrant, General Li Shao-zu. It started simply with the name “General Li.” Everyone knows of the illustrious Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, and I thought it would be hilarious if there was another guy with the same name. That you'd be hearing this name, General Li over and over again but he's Chinese, obsessed with the i Ching and he fights for the Union. The next character I thought of was Jonathan Franklin Hale, the dashing colonel. I imagined him as this strikingly handsome, patriotic, brave, and honor-bound soldier... the epitome of the heroic young warrior. But he is also incredibly na├»ve, develops an opium addiction, and is gay. The next hero is Rowena Harris, who is a teen prostitute out for revenge against her former pimp. She disguises herself as a drummer boy and enlists in the army, thinking this would be a good cover through which she can hunt him down and kill him. The details of Rowena's story are tragic, but she isn't a tragic figure... she's an amoral killing machine. She doesn't care about politics and isn't concerned with the war other than as a tool for vengeance. I wanted to play with the stereotype of the “victim” and turn it on its head. Finally we have Elijah Swan. There are so many Civil War movies where African Americans barely figure into the story other than as the raison d'etre for the action. I think that is ridiculous so I wanted to have a guy, an escaped slave, as one of the main heroes. But I didn't want him to be the stereotype of a slave, either beaten down or outraged and righteous. Much like Jonathan, I made Elijah another innocent... a nerdy engineering genius who somehow was unaware that there even were slaves until he was forced to be one. All my four heroes are minorities who would have been disparaged and oppressed at the time, but the thing about them is that they are barely cognisant of that and certainly haven't internalized the idea that they are “different” or “inferior.”

GAB: I don't know why she is talking like she made this story up or something, but I can answer your question about the historians I interviewed for the film. As I mentioned, Timothy Winchell...

WJC: Played by John Redmond.

GAB: Could you stop that please? Timothy Winchell was the person who first introduced me to this piece of lost history. As a veteran himself, he is a fantastic interviewee because he can really speak to the combat experience. He tells me that Vietnam wasn't all that different than the Civil War, and as an expert on both those topics, he really knows what he's talking about. I also think that as someone who wears an eye patch and who doesn't have the use of his legs, he just exudes authenticity. It was through Captain Winchell that I was able to gain access to many of my other interviewees – experts such as Daphne Jones, the editor of Confederate Women on the Front Lines Digest...

WJC: Played by Luisa Battista.

GAB: … Raashida Brinks, the great, great granddaughter of Pussy Willow Creek hero, Elijah Swan...

WJC: Played by Emilie Bonsant.

GAB: … and the renowned Historical Psychoanalyst, Dr. Bingham Wattney, who is the vice president of the American Association of Historical Psychiatry, which I'm sure you've heard of.

WJC: Played by Zeb Hollins.

GAB: I do wish you would shut up, Wendy!

JD: If the story of TBOPWC were made into a traditional Hollywood drama (like Gone with the Wind?) what actors would you love to see in the lead roles?

GAB: Daniel Day Lewis.

WJC: As which character?

GAB: All of them. He's so versatile, don't you think?

JD: Why do you think Lincoln is so "hot" right now?

GAB: I've never found him hot. Of the presidents, I always thought Calvin Coolidge was the sexiest.

WJC: We're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so Lincoln and the War are definitely relevant topics right now. I started making this movie six years ago, but the timing has certainly worked out for it to be released.

JD: The structure of the film really does feel like "Ken Burns Meets Spinal Tap", as has been said (by you both), how did you construct such an original narrative?

GAB: I never said anything about Spinal Tap. And I'd rather not go into my relationship with Ken. It's a painful topic.

WJC: Well, like I said, I had this realization that I could use all the typical Ken Burns tropes – the Talking Head Experts, the Archival Evidence, the Period Music, the Auspicious Narrator – to construct something that looked and felt like a documentary, but that was entirely made up. And since my general view of life is that it's surreal and absurd, this story was naturally going to be a comedy. Anyone can make a parody, though, and I wanted something more, something that would make people laugh, yes, but that had real depth to it. As I developed the characters and the very serious theme of the systemic denial of minority contributions to American history, as well as the meta-story of the historians and documentarian telling a tale that might not quite be what it seems... well, those are the places where I think I have done something original. Part of it, also, was that I never played it safe... I was willing to try putting in ideas that I was not completely certain would be understood. Given this, I'm actually amazed that I managed to communicate as successfully as I did. I've been told by a number of people that the movie is like nothing they've ever seen before, but they all “get” it.

JD: Who have your greatest artistic inspirations been?

GAB: As a documentarian, I owe it all to Robert Flaherty, the visionary behind Nanook of the North.

WJC: Definitely Stanley Kubrick. I love and admire his work so much. In fact, I was directly influenced by his film adaptation of Barry Lyndon. Weirdly, few people seem to talk about how funny that movie is. It's usually spoken about in terms of it's being a three hour long period piece, and of course there's Gordon Willis' exquisite cinematography. The comedy is so dry that it's easy to miss it entirely but at the heart of it, Barry Lyndon is a hilarious satire. That makes sense, of course, because after all it is Thackeray. Another big influence is David Cronenberg. He consistently takes you somewhere you never expected to go. The same with Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk, two more favorites. I tend to like art that doesn't broadcast to you how you are supposed to watch it... stuff that keeps you on your toes and asks you to do some work as a viewer. All those guys do that with their films, and I hope I've done that as well.

JD: Any last comments or shout outs?

GAB: I'd like to thank my Cinematographer, Jean Culdesac...

WJC: …my Cinematographer, Matthew Howe. We've known each other since film school and I never want to do a movie without him! There's also Eric Anthony Johnson, who did the fake archival photography. Eric is a mad genius and a true artist. And of course Harry Douglas, who was my post production supervisor and Final Cut Pro (editing software) guru. I really could not have done this film without Harry's assistance. Frankly, my entire crew was made up of incredible people who donated their time or worked for a literal pittance. I am so lucky to have had the benefit of so much talent and generosity in the making of this movie.

The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek opens at The Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street between 5th & 6th Avenues
Dates: March 1 - 7, 2013 Showtimes: 1:00, 3:05, 5:15, 7:15, & 9:50 pm
(Wendy will be doing Q&As after the 7:15pm shows on March 1-3.)

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