Ron Maxwell is the son of a World War II veteran and a French mother. He grew up reading avidly in both French and English, and graduated from New York University’s Film Institute in 1970. His first commercial film success was Little Darlings, a comedy featuring teenagers such as Matt Dillon who went on to become stars. Maxwell is best known for Gettysburg and Gods and Generals—and now comes another Civil War drama, Copperhead (see “Civil War storyteller,” June 29, 2013), released on June 28. I interviewed Maxwell in his home on a mountaintop in Rappahannock County, Va., about two hours outside of Washington, D.C.
We’re in your library. Tell us about the books lined up everywhere. I’ve always loved books since an early age. My father read to my younger brother and me before we could read. Every night I went to sleep listening to Charles Dickens or Thackeray, a chapter at a time.
When did you start acquiring these thousands of books? I still have the books I’ve had since the first grade. I first got them with an allowance and later on when I got a little older and had a paper route I could afford to buy one a week sometimes. They’re up here.
Landmark books? Those who are my age, in their mid-60s, will remember the Landmark series for young readers. Here’s one on the pirate Lafitte in the battle of New Orleans. There’s one on Marco Polo. Here’s The Hudson’s Bay Company, the French and Indian War, John Paul Jones. I’ve got the whole set. Stephen Decatur. These books opened up wonderful universes to me, mostly about American history.
What about the books over here? My father died in 2001 and I inherited his book collection. He was obviously an avid reader. I also inherited my grandfather’s books. He wasn’t such a reader, but he was a devout member of the Lutheran church in New York City, so almost all his book collection was biblically oriented.
You’ve categorized the books? There’s a section here on colonial American history. … Then moving over here, this is the poetry section. Poetry to me is like breathing air. I have to have it almost on a daily basis or I’ll expire.
You have a lot of books on the Civil War and have made Civil War movies: Why does that war fascinate you? You can’t study the Civil War for more than a few minutes before understanding the magnitude of the tragedy it was for that generation and our country. Over the 25 years of making Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, I was exploring the question of why good men, honorable men, choose to fight. It was always a deeply fascinating question to me, how could good men get involved in this murder, this mayhem, this destruction?
Copperhead seems to be asking the inverse of that question. The other side of the coin is: Why do good, honorable, ethical people choose not to fight—in the same war?! Copperhead is about a farmer in upstate New York who is not a pacifist. He’s just against this particular war at this particular time. So it’s a political choice he makes.
Does Copperhead answer that question? I’ve learned in a lifetime of making movies and watching movies that they’re very good at asking questions and very poor at answering them. As soon as a filmmaker tries to answer the question, his film veers into some kind of propaganda. Audiences smell it right away and they’re repelled by it.
Joan of Arc is your next movie and we’re standing in front of a bunch of Joan books right now. We talked earlier about movies not answering questions but asking questions: What question are you asking with Joan? I’m exploring the mystery of calling. Joan of Arc was what you might call a powerless, anonymous individual, as far from the source of power of her day as anyone could possibly be. She’s young. She’s female. She’s the one who’s called to save her country? And in retrospect, she’s the one around whom Western civilization and the history of Western Europe pivots? How is this possible? How could such a person feel she was the one called?
Is that relevant to callings today? We’re all called. We’re called to be firemen, schoolteachers, whatever is going on in our life. We know we’re called. Some of us fight the calling. We say, “Well, I don’t want to be a first-grade teacher because I can make much more money doing this.” Then we’re miserable until we understand that we belong in the first grade with those kids. We all go through this tension in our lives. But Joan is called in the most extreme, dramatic way. And she, like most people, resists it. She finally acquiesces. It’s an unbelievable mission she takes on and unbelievable what she achieved.
What do these films suggest about our country today? The Civil War is an example of a breakdown in communication and a gradual dehumanization process where you stop looking at your neighbor like a full human being made in the image of God. You start to whittle him down until he is less than that because he’s from the other political point of view, the other faith, the other whatever. When we start not seeing people in their full humanity, what sometimes follows is pretty bad behavior.
Is that the message you’re trying to send? The calling of the artist is to try to tell the truth and not to be a voice of propaganda for anybody in any institution, political or otherwise. Look, I’ve certainly felt the pressure to go along and get along in the easiest sense of the word. If you want easy accolades and what I call cheap acceptance, I know what buttons to push, the right phrases to say, the expected attitude to pose. But that’s a waste of time. We just have one life on this earth. We have a certain span of years, which is unknowable to any of us, and I’m about to waste one minute of it playing a sordid game for my own little advancement? That is such a pathetic idea to me.
Pathetic, but common? We’re free men and women here in this country. We have freedom that’s been paid for dearly by our ancestors, and why would I squander one minute of it? Part of being a free person is being able to express yourself freely. I don’t say things to antagonize or to provoke. I respect all people’s opinions, but I’m certainly going to be myself.
Listen to an interview with Ron Maxwell on The World and Everything In It.