“Copperhead”: An Interview With Bill Kauffman

Paleo Retiree writes:


The movie I’ve most been looking forward to this year is “Copperhead,” which opens in many cities this Friday. That’s partly because it was directed by Ron Maxwell, who has made two of the movies that real Civil War buffs most adore: “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.” (Get ’em both for less than ten bucks.) It’s partly because it promises to be one seriously unusual Civil War movie — it doesn’t center on the question of slavery, for instance. But my anticipation mostly has to do with the scriptwriter: Bill Kauffman, who has been known so far (if not well-enough known) for his unorthodox books of history and his impossible-to-pin-down (in a good way) political journalism.

Based in Batavia, NY (in Western NY State, midway between Rochester and Buffalo), Kauffman has been a most unusual public presence for a couple of decades now.  One illustration (among many possible) of this: His writing has appeared in both The Nation and The American Conservative. Part anarchist, part paleocon, part small-town advocate, part regionalist, part pacifist, he brings an expansive, generous temperament to bear on his topics that transcends the usual categories in a most wonderful way. If you’re tired of the usual left/right fistfights — and who isn’t? — Bill’s work will come as a breath of very fresh air.

Since interviewing him for my old blog (you can find links to that interview at the end of this one) I’ve struck up a friendship with Bill. I took advantage of it to drop him a note and ask if he’d answer some questions for the blog about the new movie. He graciously agreed.

Bill Kauffman and The Question Lady in Batavia

Bill Kauffman and The Question Lady in Batavia

Paleo Retiree: So you’ve gone and made a Civil War movie that isn’t about Lincoln, or about the nobility of marching off to die to end slavery. Do you want people’s heads to explode?

Bill Kauffman: Ah, jeez, maybe we should have run this by the Ministry of Culture, huh? Instead of focusing on the Great Men who decide to send the sons of other men off to kill and die in wars, our interest was in the men who fight — and the men who choose not to fight — and the communities they leave behind.

PR: What is the picture based on?

BK: Our story has an excellent if slightly eccentric literary pedigree: it’s based on the 1893 novella of the same title (the film subtracts the “The”: no articles for us, thank you) by Harold Frederic, the pride of Utica (along with Annette Funicello and Roscoe Conkling), who was also a bigamist, New York Times London correspondent, and author of “The Damnation of Theron Ware,” which F. Scott Fitzgerald called the best American novel written before 1920. (Coincidentally, the year “This Side of Paradise” came out.) Frederic published a volume of Civil War stories focusing on the Upstate New York homefront. Edmund Wilson said these stories “differ fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction I know.” No fanfare, no fustian, no “Dixie” Southern romanticism or “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Northern righteousness. Just clear, unsentimental, often heartbreaking stories of the people left behind. The homefront is always the forgotten casualty of our wars.

PR: In your work you’ve always called attention to regional figures — regional authors, historians, characters generally. Why?

BK: I was lucky in that I grew up with a sense that my place (Batavia, Genesee County, Upstate New York) mattered. Others might think it a flavorless dump, but to me it had charm and magic and mystery. Every story you could ever hope to tell was on these streets, in these fields. So I became an obsessive reader of regional literature, not only my own but of authors from other regions: Sarah Orne Jewett, Wendell Berry, Sinclair Lewis, Edward Abbey, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland, Howard Frank Mosher — every state, every region.

PR: There’s a lot of fizz these days around issues related to regionalism — the talk (some of it wild and irresponsible, some of it very interesting) about secession, the locavore movement in cooking and eating … What do you make of it?

BK: The local color movement flourished in the 1880s and again in the 1920s, but my sense is that regional cultures are reasserting themselves today as a revolt against nationalism and globalism — soul-sucking forces. There is no “American” culture except as the sum of regional cultures, as Grant Wood often explained.

PR: I have an uninformed hunch that the main political dynamic these days has nothing to do with left and right and everything to do with the forces of centralization vs the forces of decentralization. Fair? If so, why now?

BK: Of course I agree on the obsolescence — no, the perniciousness — of the left/right, liberal/conservative, Red/Blue divide. Or should I say straitjacket. Or prison cell from which no thought is permitted to escape. Localist v. globalist (or nationalist) and decentralist v. centralist provide a sharper angle of vision, though even here I prefer to blur the lines of demarcation. People are casting about for better, more human-scale ways of ordering and living their lives. That’s all to the good.

Peter Fonda in "Copperhead"

Peter Fonda in “Copperhead”

PR: What has your own interest in movies been? I know you’re a ’70s movie buff. What did you love about them?

BK: There’s never been an era in which movies sang America like they did in the early ’70s. It’s as if for a few brief years the artifice fell away to reveal the country underneath. Just listing the films makes me feel as if I’m standing in the middle of a cornfield or sitting on a creekbank.

PR: What were/are some of your favorites from that era?

BK: What do I love? “The Hired Hand.” “Tomorrow.” “The Beguiled.” “Ulzana’s Raid.” “Bad Company.” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.” “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” “Jeremiah Johnson.” “Charley Varrick.” “Junior Bonner.” “Last American Hero.” “The Cowboys.” “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” Warren Oates. Jeff Bridges. Sam Peckinpah. Clint Eastwood. Kay Lenz. Paul Le Mat. Peter Fonda. (I’m thrilled that Peter Fonda is in “Copperhead.” In fact, a couple of mise en scènes with Peter are homages to his father.) The list goes on and on. Hell, I even like ’70s movies everyone else hates: “Zabriskie Point.” “Vanishing Point.” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” “Big Wednesday.”

Warren Oates in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"

Warren Oates in “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”

PR: Movies were such a different thing then than what they are today.

BK: There was an open, a searching quality to a lot of those movies. Even films I’m not fond of — “Five Easy Pieces,” “Nashville” — ask questions, or frame questions, in provocative ways, and they don’t pound you over the head with the answers. I was just a kid then trying to figure out how I could get to Buffalo or Rochester to see “Scarecrow” or “Fat City,” but I was aware that somewhere people were talking about these movies, engaging with them, arguing with them. I like to think they’ll do the same with “Copperhead,” which may be its most evident ’70s quality.

PR: In “Copperhead,” do you and director Ron Maxwell opt more for asking questions or giving answers?

BK: Ron and I abhor message movies. God, they’re dreary — ABC Afterschool Specials without the camp. So in “Copperhead,” we present Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), an Upstate New York farmer, circa 1862, who is also a classic Jeffersonian Democrat, and thus antiwar. He has his say — always difficult in time of war, when freedom of speech contracts along with the Bill of Rights — but so does the town’s wisest pro-war, pro-Lincoln eminence, the blacksmith Avery (Peter Fonda), whose character we reinvented.

PR: How closely do you follow the novel?

BK: Frederic’s novel focused primarily on Abner; we light up the background, so that the entire community is a character, or welter of characters. We have zero interest in rearguing the Civil War, or telling viewers what they should think about the war; we dispose of the prowar/antiwar argument early on, giving each side its say, and so the story becomes the ways in which this war, like all wars, rives and rends the community, and changes the people at home in unalterable ways. I can imagine this film being made in 1973; in 2013 its creation is almost a miracle.

PR: How did you and Ron Maxwell cook up the idea for the movie?

BK: We met back in the mid-’90s, I think, and hit it off. About 2008 we started working on a film project — set in 1820s-’30s Kentucky — that hasn’t yet made it into production. (Though hope springs eternal.) In spring 2010 Ron was giving a talk in New Canaan, Connecticut, on the subject of his Civil War movies. We had breakfast the next morning, together with producers Bob and Susan Bishop and our daughters Daisy Bishop and Gretel Kauffman (who have non-speaking roles as the Giggling Girls — star turns, I’d say!). Our breakfast chat revealed that Ron and I had both read and been fascinated by Frederic’s novella “The Copperhead,” and, well, the seed took. I wrote a first draft in perhaps a month or two, but many were the rewrites, especially since the film’s plot diverges from the novel’s about halfway through and the twain don’t meet till the final scene.

PR: What was your involvement in the process? Once you got the script in shape, was it over?

BK: Ron and the producers, Bob and Susan, were great about keeping me in the loop, though decisions about casting and location and budget and such were beyond my bailiwick. I was on the set (in the King’s Landing Historical Settlement near Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada) for about four of the seven-week shoot. I had a blast, though on the set of a well-planned movie — as this was; Ron is very efficient — a screenwriter’s tasks are not burdensome. We did write a handful of scenes on location, though, or tweak dialogue, and that was a “Get Me Rewrite!” kick for me.

Ron Maxwell shooting "Copperhead"

Ron Maxwell shooting “Copperhead”

PR:  What’s Ron Maxwell like?

BK: Ron’s a voracious reader, really cerebral with a great talent for storytelling. The central plot twist in the film, for instance, is his idea, and it’s a good one. He’s in charge but not at all dictatorial or imperious. I’m obviously a tyro in this field, but cast and crew told me it was among the most harmonious sets they’d ever worked on.

PR: This is your first fiction since “Every Man a King.” After all the nonfiction that you’ve published, what was the experience of getting back to fiction like for you?

BK: Yeah, it’s been 24 years since “Every Man a King,” though I like to think there’s an imaginative (though not fictive!) element in my other books. Writing is writing: I mean, composing “Moby Dick” is different than laboring on a technical manual for toasters, but if one is engaged in the work he’s drawing upon the same skills. Maybe it’s because “Copperhead” fits with my — God I hate to sound like an Author — uh, body of work, but it didn’t feel like any kind of departure to me.

PR: What was it like to work in dramatic form, where the words-on-the-page don’t count for as much as they do in a book or an article?

BK: I did, of course, have to learn the grammar of film. I’ve read screenplays since I was a kid at Batavia Junior High School. (Its library carried two film scripts: “David Holzman’s Diary” and the Robert Redford-Michael J. Pollard motorcycle movie “Little Fauss and Big Halsy.”) I’m gonna paraphrase here from my introduction to the just-published volume including Frederic’s novella and my screenplay: Before writing “Copperhead” (and “Dick & Julia,” the as-yet unproduced screenplay), I undertook a tutorial in writing for the screen. My reading consisted of James Dickey’s (unfilmable) script for “Deliverance,” which revealed the literary possibilities of the form; Paul Schrader’s “Taxi Driver,” a film I have loved warily since boyhood; Graham Greene’s “The Third Man”; Robert Towne’s “Chinatown”; Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”; and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” I also wanted to read a screenplay by a good writer for a bad film; I chose “Missouri Breaks” by Thomas McGuane, who scripted two movies I admire from those halcyon early ’70s: “Rancho Deluxe” and “92 in the Shade.” (I blame Marlon Brando’s self-indulgent jokiness more than McGuane’s script.) And Ron Maxwell, who adapted his earlier Civil War pictures from novels, was also really helpful.

PR: What’s it been like watching the actors bring your work to life?

BK: Watching the actors vivify the characters was astonishing. I was impressed not only by their creativity but their work ethic. A really impressive cast. When you see the film I think you’ll agree.

Bill Kauffman (on the right), with Ron Maxwell and TK

Bill Kauffman (on the right), with Ron Maxwell and executive producer Susan Bishop

PR: You’ve done a non-typical Civil War movie, and you’ve written a bunch of what I think of as “alternative histories.” So I can’t resist asking you about your own view of the Civil War. I’m no scholar but I’ve been interested, and the book I’ve found most persuasive has been Gore Vidal’s novel about Lincoln. If you were to write your own alternative history of the Civil War, how would your account go?

BK: Yeah, Vidal’s Lincoln is the best Civil War novel I’ve read. I also recommend highly John W. DeForest’s “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty” (1867). DeForest coined the phrase “the great American novel” and damned if he didn’t almost write it himself.

My view of the war is … well, let’s say Whitmanesque, in the “I contain multitudes” sense. The failure to emancipate the slaves without bloodshed is the great moral and political failure of American history.  I live in the cradle of abolition — the Liberty Party was born just down the road from us — and those early abolitionists of the 1830s and ’40s are among my heroes. They had an anarchistic tinge; they insisted upon using moral suasion rather than the cold grey hammer of the state. Their political strategy was to pass a series of “personal liberty laws” in the Northern states: in effect, nullifying the fugitive slave acts and inviting runaways to safe haven. The idea was that this would bleed the Upper South of her slaves and achieve a de facto emancipation. Alas, most people in the North were rather less enthusiastic about this plan. But these men and women — deep-dyed in the American anarchist and pacifist grain — I prefer infinitely to those sanctimonious ghouls singing “glory glory alleluia” while over half a million men died.

I also admire the antiwar Democrats for holding high the Bill of Rights in time of war. The wisest of them — mostly those in the Upstate NY Van Buren Democrat tradition — understood that slavery was way past due for extirpation. And I’m even fond of the old Whigs trying desperately to hold the Union together as she crumbled. I wish we didn’t live in an age when men feel compelled to assert their moral superiority to our forebears: from Lincoln to Vallandigham, from Frederick Douglass to Alexander Stephens, I think of them as my ancestors.

PR: Any desire to do more movie work? Eager to give directing a try?

BK: I have a coupla screenplays in the works; I’d love to do more films. So much of our history is unplowed ground. I’d like to write a film or book with my daughter, too; she’s 19, and she’s so much better a writer than I was at that age. She and I are fooling around with a low-budget horror movie script. As for directing, you’d really have to beat the bushes to find someone less technically proficient than I am. As Clint said (by way of John Milius, I believe) in “Magnum Force,” a man’s got to know his limitations.

Bill Kauffman visits the grave of Harold Frederic

Bill Kauffman visits the grave of Harold Frederic


See you at the movie theater.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Interviews, Movies, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Copperhead”: An Interview With Bill Kauffman

  1. Good interview. I just wanted to point out that you can obtain several of the public domain titles elsewhere for free without using Amazon.com

    Here’s the ebook link for Copperhead: http://archive.org/details/copperhead00fred

    Here’s the ebook link for Damnation of Theron Ware: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/133

    This Side of Paradise: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/805

    “ABC Afterschool Specials without the camp.” Ha, ha.

    Robert Nagle, http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/


  2. fenster says:

    I note that it opens in only one theater in Massachusetts, where I live, on the first weekend–a small place if far Western Massachusetts, near the NY border. Meanwhile it is opening across a large swath of upstate NY, from Albany to Buffalo with a lot of smaller locales in between, including Oswego, Oneida and Oneonta. Perhaps they just don’t take to cottonheads in Massachusetts. Fortunately, I will be near Rochester this weekend, and will be able to see it there.


  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Looking forward to checking it out.


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