Sunday, November 24, 2013

Civil War: The Untold Story Interview


Today we have a very special post.  I had the good fortune to interview Chris Wheeler, producer/director of the upcoming Civil War documentary The Untold Story.  It focuses on the Western, yes, you read that correctly, the Western Theater!  You may see a trailer for it here.

1.     Could you please tell me a little bit about yourself and the project?

We have been producing historical documentaries for more than 20 years.  Some may remember “How the West Was Lost,” a 13-part series that aired on Discovery.  We’ve also produced films on the Korean War and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission.  Additionally, we have produced Visitor Center films for more than 25 National Park sites.  These sites also include many of our National Battlefields.  That is how we began this journey of producing “Civil War: the Untold Story.”

2.    Why did you choose the Western Theatre as your subject?

In 2010, we began producing the new film for Shiloh National Military Park.  The next year, we began production on a new film for Chickamauga & Chattanooga NMP.  In 2012, we began working on the new film for Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.  Through the process of creating films on these specific battles, we began to gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the Western Theatre. While this story is well-known amongst historians, we felt it was relatively ‘untold’ to most Americans.  The National Park Service kindly gave us permission to use the battle scenes created for the Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw films. Having access to this footage became the impetus to produce a series that looks at Civil War through the lens of the Western Theatre.

3.    What is one of the biggest challenges in making a Civil War documentary?

From a business perspective, the biggest challenge has been raising the dollars needed to create a quality 5-hour series. From an editorial perspective, the biggest challenge is: trying the get my head around the volumous and complicated story of our Civil War.  It’s difficult to fully understand a single battle such as Shiloh, but even more difficult when trying to put these battles into context of the larger story of the Civil War. Fortunately, we have had excellent guidance from historians from the National Park Service as well as distinguished professors from major universities.  Another challenge has been trying to edit down all the stories to 5 hours.  It’s not nearly enough to fully tell the story of the Civil War. We will be criticized for not including certain battles or events, something that I think is understandable.  But the reality of producing any film comes down to dollars.  If we had a larger budget, we could produce something more comprehensive.  As it is, we have had to make difficult choices regarding what to include, and what not.

4.    What would you like for viewers to take away from watching Civil War: The Untold Story?

Our primary storylines are:

a.    Looking at the war through the lens of the Western Theater – the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Instead of what was happening in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, our series features such as battles as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, and Atlanta.
b.    Telling the story the African American experience is an important goal.  Every hour devotes time to the African American experience - from enslaved, to ‘contraband,’ to emancipated, to fighting to defend freedom
c.    The Southern Civilian experience.  The entire Western Theater was fought in southern states.  Thus, the war experience was much different – and in many ways more personal – than for those in the North.  In Western Campaign, cities like Corinth, Vicksburg, and Atlanta were destroyed.  Civilians become caught in the crossfire between the large armies of the Union and Confederacy.  Perhaps the most graphic example is at Vicksburg, where hundreds of civilians build caves to protect themselves from Union artillery. In the Western Theater, thousands are displaced. Many have their homes plundered or destroyed.  As Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor puts it: “No longer was the war something far, at a distance, something that was on some remote battlefield.  What it showed is that that kind of distance between home front and battlefield had collapsed, that really, there wasn’t much of a distinction anymore and the war was now literally on people’s doorsteps.”  So the war experience for those in the South in dramatically different from those in the North.
d.    Abraham Lincoln – for the millions that saw Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” we think our series can be regarded as a ‘prequel.’  Spielberg’s film begins in January 1865, around the time our series ends. Those watching our series will gain a great understanding Lincoln’s trials during the war. 
As producers, we acknowledge that this is a painful story to hear, even 150 years later.  In many ways, the wounds are still fresh. Ultimately, we hope that our film can help promote healing in a nation that is arguably as divided as we were in 1861.

5.    As best you can, please describe the process that went into making The Untold Story?

It begins with devoting a great deal of time to researching the story.  From the research emerges an outline, then a first draft script.  A team of historians then review the scripts and give us feedback.  The script is revised.  Concurrent with the script process is the planning of battle recreations.  The filming of these scenes if very much like creating a feature film.  Makeup and special effects are important tools used to create authentic and dramatic battle scenes.  Once filming is completed, we revise the scripts to best incorporate our visuals.  Our team of historians review the revised scripts.  We then begin the editing process.  Maps and other graphics are created.  Original music is composed.  One of the last tasks is recording the voiceover of our narrator, who in this case is Elizabeth McGovern, one of the stars of “Downton Abbey.”

6.    Without spoiling it for the viewers, is there any particular part of your documentary that you find particularly moving?

I am personally moved by stories of African Americans like Emma Stephenson.  She was born into slavery, then emancipated by Sherman’s army.  Emma chose to join the Union army as a battlefield nurse.  If captured, Emma would be returned to bondage. So for her and other Africans Americans joining the fight, the stakes are high. 

I am also touched by the letters between Alabaman Joshua Callaway and his wife Dulcinea.  Like so many fighting for the Confederacy, Joshua Callaway does not own slaves.  But he joins the Confederate army to protect his family and his home from the invading Union armies.  Meanwhile, Dulcinea is left behind to care for their two small children and their property.  Everyday she is faced with the reality of receiving the news of the death of Joshua.

7.    Do you have any future Civil War projects planned?

While we do not have any planned, we would like to do additional Civil War projects. I’m very interested in the Trans-Mississippi Campaign.  I also think it would be fascinating to produce a documentary taking an in depth look at the collision course North and South were on before the war.  It could be a ‘prequel’ to Civil War: the Untold Story.  It really depends on whether we can raise the funding.  Creating these kinds of films is a very expensive endeavor. 

8.    When and where can people see your film?

The series is slated to be distributed to 360+ public television stations nationwide at the end of January.  Airdates and times will be up to the discretion of local public television stations.  There is a chance that the series release will be delayed until April.  The best way to find out is by joining our Facebook page at:

Through Facebook, we can keep everyone updated on the project status and also let folks know where and when the series will be airing. 

The Civil War Addict would like to say a special thank you to Mr. Wheeler for taking the time out of his schedule to do this interview.  Please visit their facebook page for more video previews and to stay up to date with all the latest news.