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Origin of 'Copperhead' traced to New Canaan

Published 12:23 pm, Friday, April 26, 2013
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The idea for the film "Copperhead" was born in New Canaan.

The Bow Tie Cinemas Playhouse, 89 Elm St., will show a pre-release screening for the Civil War drama on Wednesday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m. The film stars Billy Campbell, Peter Fonda, Augustus Prew and Angus Macfadyen. The movie will hit selected theaters nationally on Friday, June 28.

The local screening is a fundraiser for the New Canaan Historical Society's restoration of the Hanford-Silliman House, the family home of Justus Silliman, a New Canaan private in the Civil War.

Directed by Ron Maxwell, who also directed "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals," the film, set in 1861, focuses on a dairy farmer in upstate New York who opposes both slavery and the war.

"I came to realize over the course of the 25 years it took to make `Gettysburg' and `Gods and Generals' that, taken together, they were a cinematic meditation on why good, moral, ethical, courageous men choose to fight," Maxwell said in an interview.

"While I was making those movies and living in the long hours and long weeks and long years with those characters -- Jackson and Lee and Hancock -- I also became increasingly curious about the other side of the question, which was not explored in those films at all, which was: why do good, moral, ethical, courageous men choose not to fight?"

A copperhead is the name of a poisonous snake found in the forests of the eastern United States. During the Civil War period, the name was given to northern Democrats who opposed the war, and, in turn, reclaimed the pejorative and began using it to describe themselves.

In 2010, Maxwell was invited by his friends, Susan and Bob Bishop, to a talk at the NCHS about the Civil War. Susan Bishop is on the board of governors of the society. Another friend, the political writer Bill Kauffman, came down from his home in upstate New York to attend.

The following morning for breakfast (or for dinner, depending on whom you ask), the group of friends got to talking about the book "The Copperhead," by Harold Frederic. Both Kauffman and Maxwell had each found the book, a story of upstate New Yorkers opposed to the war, memorable. Frederic, a native of Utica, N.Y., was a reporter for the New York Times in London and a moderately successful novelist in his day. Maxwell called him "the Mark Twain of upstate New York."

"We were somewhat amazed that we each knew the novel because it's not well known," Maxwell said. "That started our interest and focus in developing it into a screenplay and movie."

The pair decided that Kauffman would write a screenplay adaptation of the novel. Though Kauffman has written numerous and varied books -- from essays to fiction to histories -- he'd never written a screenplay. He watched some of the movies he considered to be exceptionally well written in order to study screenwriting technique.

"Of course, it's entertainment," Kauffman said, "but it raises some questions. Not in a preachy way. There's nothing more dreary than a message movie, and this is not that at all. It's about dissent in American life. The time we live in now, people tend to dehumanize their opponents in political arguments; all sides are guilty of this. We're not able to recognize that people see the world in a different way. Here we have a farmer, an honest guy, who does not want his son to join the Union Army."

Kauffman also stressed the idea that although human nature is what it is, people's situations and reference points would have been much different in the period of the Civil War.

"You have to believe that these people have grown up with each other, this is their whole world," he said. "Few have traveled 15 miles from their home. So when this war comes, seemingly from far away, and will draw them out, you have this sense that this small and tightly knit connected place is torn apart."

Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the historical society, said, "I think it will be a really fascinating movie."

Immediately following the screening, the audience is invited to a private red carpet celebration at Le Pain Quotidien, 81 Elm St. From 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., guests will meet and mingle with Maxwell, Kauffman and the producers. Wine, beer, artisan cheeses, antipasti, petite sweets and more will be served.

Tickets for the movie only are $50, for movie and reception they are $100. Space is limited, so early purchase of tickets is encouraged. For tickets, visit www.nchistory.org or the historical society, 13 Oenoke Ridge.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews