Smithsonian's 'Patriot' Gains
With a Role in Mel Gibson Film, Museum Trades Expertise for Access to New Venue
By Jacqueline Trescott
One will be Deborah Scott, the costume designer who won an Oscar for her work on "Titanic." She will be scrutinizing the fit of the coat as well as checking to see that the belt hangs just so and the boots have that battle-scarred look. The other will be Margaret Vining, a curator who normally spends her time in a world devoid of Hollywood glitz: the Smithsonian Institution. But she, too, will be squinting at the jacket, checking that it's the proper color and carries absolutely authentic decoration.
Vining is one of a dozen Smithsonian experts who are part of a screen test for the Smithsonian's first commercial movie deal. And the institution is starting off in what people here in the South Carolina Low Country call "high cotton."
Besides Gibson, one of today's most popular movie stars, the A-team list includes director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, the team behind the mega-hit "Independence Day" (also the mega-turkey "Godzilla"). Robert Rodat, an Oscar nominee last year for "Saving Private Ryan," wrote the script. The editor is David Brenner, an Oscar winner for "Born on the Fourth of July," and the cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel, who has had three Oscar nominations.
The museum's role is being coordinated by Smithsonian Entertainment, a fledgling operation run by Lee Woodman with one assistant. So far, Woodman's office has worked on exhibition videos, multimedia products and a number of highly regarded documentaries. Woodman enlisted in-house specialists to guide the Hollywood team through the Smithsonian's showcases and storage rooms.
Vining, a curator at the Smithsonian for 18 years, brought out rare uniforms and gowns, for example. Sarah Rittgers, a museum specialist in armed forces history, unwrapped powder horns, bullets and bullet molds. Rex Ellis, the chair of the Division of Cultural History at the National Museum of American History, answered questions about pacifism of the time and the interactions among freed blacks, slaves and white farmers.
Several of the experts also left their desks in Washington and traveled to the movie set. Vining went to a farm near Rock Hill, S.C., swarming with 18th-century soldiers. She found the world the producers had created accurate and convincing. "They had built an entire town, and even brought in the trees," Vining says.
Like other Smithsonian hands, her previous experience had been with documentary crews on shoestring budgets.
"I had never been on the set of a big movie. We were treated like VIPs. It was fantastic. I went out to watch the battle scene and then stood in a tent watching the results on a monitor," she explains. This is hardly an ordinary day's work for a curator. "I was standing cheek to jowl with Mel Gibson. Fabulous!"
Getting involved with a commercial film is something the Smithsonian staff wanted to investigate for more than four years. The idea was to share the museum's expertise and knowledge and, of course, to bring in some money. The Smithsonian will be credited as a historical consultant on the movie, and will receive a fee of "five figures" (nobody will say exactly how much) plus travel expenses for its curators. For the people reportedly paying Gibson $25 million for this picture, the Smithsonian's fee is a pittance.
Woodman says that doesn't bother the museum since this is an experiment. The key, she explains, was to find out whether such an arrangement could work.
"When the relationship began there were questions on both sides. We wanted to hold the line on historic accuracy, they wanted to hold the line on commercial viability. We both wanted to know if historical accuracy gets in the way of an entertaining movie," Woodman says. Both teams raised the issue of integrity. "They asked off the bat if we worried about them doing a composite of a character. We know because of the time frame of a movie that that has to happen. That is fine if the basic truth is there."
The Smithsonian isn't the only museum cozying up to Hollywood. Virtually all nonprofits are investigating ways to attract more revenues and be players in the technological age. Many natural history museums are involved in helping make IMAX films, but the Smithsonian's plunge is somewhat different and is being watched by cultural groups all over the country.
Alberta Arthurs, a consultant on cultural issues and former director of arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, finds nothing inherently wrong with the arrangement: "There is more of this interchange taking place," she says. "The opportunities are encouraging on both sides, but the nexus of interest has to be handled carefully."
In effect, museums are asking: Is this mutually beneficial and will they still love us in the morning?
"You have to watch out for your integrity by being very candid about what your boundaries are. The museums need to develop guidelines and have full public disclosure about what you are doing and why," says Patricia Williams, vice president of the American Association of Museums.
Peter Bart, editor of the entertainment bible Variety and author of two books on the ills of Hollywood, views the arrangement as pragmatic: "It seems to me that if there is a way for nonprofit institutions to pick up some funding by cooperating in a benign way, it makes sense." Bart says the chasm between the fees paid to consultants and the stars' paychecks is something the nonprofits have to get used to.
So far, the mixture of scholars and screenwriters worked, those involved say. Gibson, whose composite character was inspired by the actual story of Gen. Francis Marion, South Carolina's legendary "Swamp Fox," says: "It is really a great help. I was flattered that they wanted to be involved and that they hadn't previously been involved with a commercial film. To us, it is a great seal of approval."
The movie, shot in the finely preserved antebellum downtown Charleston and the South Carolina countryside, follows Gibson, who plays Benjamin Martin, a widower, as he waffles over whether to go to war. He does (this is a Mel Gibson movie) and makes life miserable for the British army. Blended into the action of 1776-'81 is a story about a father's relationship with his children.
"A lot of the story adheres to those Joseph Campbell principles of storytelling," Gibson says. "You have the reluctant hero, the guy doesn't want to go because he is afraid. And the reason he doesn't want to go I really liked--because of his own past. He is afraid because he thinks God is going to get even because of his own transgressions. And he is very vulnerable because he has seven children. That is something everyone can relate to." Well, not exactly everyone, but Gibson's talking about a personal attraction since he is the father of seven.
The early drafts presented some problems for the Smithsonian. In one scene someone was looking through a trunk for medals from the French and Indian War.
"We pointed out that medals were not awarded in that war. It was more likely someone would have saved a powder horn that would have been a trophy," Vining says. The medals were out.
The team reminded the filmmakers that the term "Old Glory"--used in one scene--wasn't coined until the Civil War. Others checked the weather conditions during particular battles and the battle flags used. And, no, kudzu wasn't growing in South Carolina during the Revolution. (Shooting a kudzu-free film in South Carolina isn't easy, the filmmakers found.)
There were other things to get right. How did members of the militia stand? What kind of weapon would a farmer most likely be carrying? "He could have had a rifle or musket. We suggested a Fowler rifle, but the musket is larger," Rittgers explains. The filmmakers ended up using both.
Director Emmerich was very interested in how people moved in battle. "The Smithsonian helped immensely because we were worried about how to reload the muskets, walk in a line and stay in a straight line," he says. In this movie the action is driven by the narrative, as well as the victories of the militia, but Emmerich's signature special effects will have a part. Only 600 actors and extras worked as soldiers but one scene will have 1,000. "We will add some digital soldiers and digital fireball later," says Emmerich, who has scheduled a June 30 release for the film.
Costume designer Scott found her trip to the Smithsonian invaluable. Reading history is one thing, she says. But putting on white gloves and taking a close look at a Continental Army jacket worn in 1777 by a soldier in the Third New York Regiment puts you in touch with that, right down to sweat stains in the 200-year-old collar.
"With the menswear, I could see the shoulder, how detailed the embroidery was, the color combination. I saw the chemise had pleated sleeves," Scott says.
The Smithsonian team also raised and answered larger sociological questions. After seeing an early script, Ellis asked why only two African Americans were included. During the Colonial period, the South Carolina Low Country and Virginia had the two largest black populations, Ellis pointed out.
With the Smithsonian's help, the script was revised to include an interesting involvement between the black housekeeper's family and Gibson's family:
As he becomes a folk hero and is hunted by the British, Gibson hides his children and sister-in-law on Edisto Island. Since Colonial days, a small population of African Americans on the island has faithfully preserved a remarkable culture--Gullah--with language, architecture, music and cuisine rooted in the western Africa folkways of their ancestors.
"The character takes his family to this Gullah family because they feel the British would not be that concerned about this village. So in the story it gives the white family an opportunity to learn something about the culture," Ellis says.
Free blacks also played a part in the militia, and, at the Smithsonian's suggestion, the Gibson character interacts with a black soldier played by Jay Arlen Jones. "That sets up some good questions: Why would he fight for the patriot side when he wasn't going to get anything? His commitment has got to be something above himself and freedom. Maybe it is something about the main character," Ellis says.
Mr. "Lethal Weapon" agrees. "The Gullah parts were great additions," Gibson says.
When filming began, the calls came in to the Smithsonian from the set: We want to say this; can you put it in 18th-century parlance? How would a general be addressed? A clock is being added to a scene; what should it look like?
Ellis learned, "It is not that they want a lot of time but they want it right now!"
"First projects are an opportunity to get our name in front of the public. And each one's success increases our earning capacity," Woodman says. Her unit has also signed an agreement with Showtime Entertainment Networks and Mandalay Television Pictures to do three historic dramas for cable television. Another separate series on former first ladies is in the works with Showtime, Mandalay and Wendy Finerman Productions.
"The Smithsonian needs to be present where people get their information," says Woodman. "Using film, television and Internet is an absolute necessity in this day and age."
Just before the shooting was completed last month, Ellis and Woodman came to the set to eyeball what was going on.
Ellis got right to work. He asked producer Devlin if a few of the young boys could remove their shirts, if the older men could have guns. And he wondered why all the shoes were so new. The shirts and guns were easy, but the shoes had to stay. The razor-edged shells that litter the island ruled out going barefoot. Ellis thought it would be natural if a few women were carrying baskets on their heads, and Marquetta L. Goodwine, a Gullah historian and one of the film's extras, balanced a sea-grass basket on her head.
One other thing bothered him as he thought about the context of the time and the fact that two groups of children were interacting. They weren't playing. So he sat down on the sand and taught them an eye-hand coordination game with sticks and strings, and checked his Gullah words with a few of the local extras.
At one point, Ellis stepped to the side and had a long chat with Gibson, both men laughing and gesturing.
It turned out the Smithsonian expert and the $25-million-a-movie actor were discussing green tea and qi gong, a meditative form of martial arts.
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