It's the reel deal

August 27, 1997


Staff Writer

The filming of a major motion picture about the Civil War in Washington County is only part of a plan that could lead to the opening of a permanent movie studio in the county, officials said Wednesday.

Antietam Film Works, the company that is proposing to film "Gods and Generals" in the county next year, is planning to construct the set that some local officials believe could become the cornerstone in making the county a Civil War tourist destination.

"This isn't a movie anymore. The movie was the catalyst, but it is so much more," said County Planning Director Robert Arch.


A long-range plan, which continues into the next century, includes filming of a second motion picture, a large-screen theater in downtown Hagerstown that would show movie Civil War movies, a sound stage/studio for television productions, film festivals and a film school.

The movie set, which is to be included in the price of the $30 million to $40 million "Gods and Generals" production, would be used after the filming as a Williamsburg-type living history program.

"It's going to be something that's going to make Washington County a destination, rather than just for people passing through to visit the (Antietam National) Battlefield," said County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook.

Financing for the projects, including the film itself, still need to be secured, but officials said they are not being too optimistic.

"It's very real. It's very doable. This is not fanciful," said Dennis Frye, president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites.

Frye and other local officials spent the past year trying to lure filmmaker Ronald F. Maxwell and novelist Jeff Shaara to shoot the movie version of Shaara's bestseller "Gods and Generals" in the county. They had been competing with locations in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Tennessee and Nova Scotia.

Maxwell and Shaara said they chose the county because it met several requirements: a rural landscape to fit the movie; a location that can be easily and quickly reached by as many as 10,000 re-enactors needed for certain parts of the filming; and support by government officials and business leaders.

What helped seal the deal was a $500,000 line of credit from Farmers & Merchants Bank and Trust, which is being backed by local governments and businesses, to be used to pay for the movie's preproduction costs.

"It was very, very clear that every level of government and private business was willing to commit considerable time and energy to making this happen," Shaara said.

Unlike in many cases, the Maryland Film Office was not the driving force behind attracting "Gods and Generals" to the state, said Michael Styer, office director.

"This is one of the great stories of a local community coming together, both in the private and public sector," Styer said.

The movie will be shot over 20 weeks - probably not consecutively to allow for the need to film in various seasons, Maxwell said. The $10 million difference in the $30 million to $40 million budget allows for the higher salary of a big-name stars, he said.

As discussions about getting "Gods in Generals" to film in the county progressed, so did the scope of the plan beyond the production of one film, and led to the current broad economic development proposal, officials said.

Maxwell acknowledged the plan to bring a permanent studio here might seem far-fetched to some.

"But it all starts with an idea and it starts with people believing in an idea," he said.

Shaara's father, the late Michael Shaara, wrote "The Killer Angels," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about key figures at the Battle of Gettysburg. It became the basis for the 1993 movie "Gettysburg."

Maxwell, who directed "Gettysburg," urged Jeff Shaara to continue his father's legacy and write a prequel, a novel about the years leading up to Gettysburg, that eventually became "Gods and Generals" last year.

Shaara also is writing a sequel to "The Killer Angels," which is scheduled to be published early next year, with plans to also make the movie version locally, he said.

But before the first reel of film for "Gods and Generals" can be shot, and before production set and other plans can become reality, Maxwell said he needs to secure financial backers for the movie. He said he is looking to major studios and other sources for financing.

But both he and Shaara said they were confident that is going to happen, with a 20-week shooting schedule starting as soon as next spring.

"This community has my commitment that I'm going to make this movie and I'm going to make it here," Maxwell said.

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