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BH Interview: 'Copperhead' Screenwriter Avoids 'Message' Movie Trap to Tell Complex Tale

BH Interview: 'Copperhead' Screenwriter Avoids 'Message' Movie Trap to Tell Complex Tale

Writer Bill Kauffman says he and director Ron Maxwell agreed on one major concept while making the Civil War drama Copperhead–they both hate “message” movies. 

It’s why their new collaboration, a meditation on the cost of war on the home front, avoids awkward speeches or language meant to recall modern issues.That doesn’t mean Copperhead, the tale of an anti-war Northerner (Billy Campbell) dealing with a neighborhood roiled by division and distrust, won’t inspire healthy debate. 

“People in real life are complex and contradictory … that goes for their political views as well,” says Kauffman, a respected author making his screenwriting debut with Copperhead. Some characters in the film have a strong moral compass, but their passions blind them to larger truths. 

Campbell’s proud Abner Beach provides the story’s emotional anchor, but the town he calls home plays an integral part in the narrative.

“We wanted the community to become a character,” he says, “the interdependence of the community, something that gets disrupted by the rancorous political disagreement which turns violent.” 

Copperhead, which also stars Peter Fonda, examines an aspect of history Kauffman says is often ignored–the side of the argument told by those who lost the war. 

“We tend to sweep the losers down the memory hole as though there was only one side in any debate,” he says. “The guys who lost … we paint Snidely Whiplash mustaches upon them.” 

History reminds us the Civil War was not “universally popular,” he says, and even those who supported the war may have blanched over the erosion of rights that occurred during the era. The film stirs up potent constitutional issues as well as the horrors of war. Nor does Copperhead line up villains and heroes for us to quickly assess. 

“Any time a movie or play is about dissent, the author flatters the audience and himself,” he says. “Everyone in the audience agrees with the dissenters … in this movie, you have honorable men dissenting from the sacredest cow in American history. That challenges the audience.”

Copperhead may be that rare film that unites, not divides, the left and the right. 

“There’s some extremely uncivil acts committed in the film. But it’s also about neighborliness and community, not demonizing those with whom you disagree. To me, if there’s a political point to the film it’s a defense of dissent,” he says.

Copperhead opens in select theaters on June 28th. For more information, please visit the film’s website.

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