Forty-five minutes before "The Battle of Chantilly" premiered Saturday, March 4, the ticket line had already stretched across the lobby at Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax. By the time the movie started, the turnout had grown so large that the box office sold out and had to turn away at least 100 hopeful viewers.
When director Bert Morgan began the short documentary-drama about a lesser-known local Civil War battle several years ago, he had no idea it would draw such a crowd.
"I had no concept," he said. Morgan, who went full-time with his Fairfax production company BLM Productions three years ago, received a call from a history-buff friend suggesting he should interview Herndon resident Chuck Mauro about a book he had recently written. Mauro's book, "The Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill): A Monumental Storm" centered on Fairfax County's largest battle, fought in 1862 after the Battle of 2nd Manassas and before the Battle of Antietam.
"Here's an unknown battle. Not that many people knew it existed," said Morgan, a Fairfax resident. "I got the idea that maybe I should look into this a little bit further."
Mauro first began studying the Battle of Chantilly in 1994, taking pictures of the battle locations and giving slide-show presentations on it. With the help of the Fairfax County History Commission, Mauro published his book, and soon after, met Morgan during an interview on Channel 10. Morgan suggested he write a screenplay based on the book, and Mauro agreed.
"My reaction was that I got a book done without knowing how to do a book, but I got it done," said Mauro. "I guess I could do a movie."
HIS SCREENPLAY begins in the 1880s, with two Union veterans coming back to see the battle site, and flashes back to the 1862 battle itself. The film ends with the 1915 dedication of a memorial to the two Union generals who died in the Confederate-won battle.
"I had to figure out how to tell a story," he said. "I found a way to approach the movie using three time periods."
Morgan, who has been involved in movies and film for much of his life, had always wanted to shoot a movie that featured Civil War re-enactors in leading roles.
"You see Civil War players primarily as shoot-em-ups or walk-ons," said Morgan. "No one has ever really given them the abilities to stand out and do a dramatic role."
Morgan drew actors from local re-enacting group 17th Virginia Company D, Fairfax Rifles and casting company Historical Entertainment. The battle scenes were to be shot in Frying Pan Park, and so as soon as Fairfax County approved the filming plans, the cast and crew went to work, shooting over a span of six days. Morgan manned the camera himself, which made the process run much faster, but as with any filming project, there were challenges.
"The real challenge would have been that we were shooting most of it with only one camera," said Morgan. "I used a friend of mine's camera, and we shot at different angles. It gave us a little more to choose from."
Morgan also met with challenges specific to historical moviemaking, such as having to stop the cameras whenever an airplane flew overhead or filming scenes away from roadways and people in modern clothing.
Technology took care of some problems, however. Although the movie's cast was not large enough to approximate the hundreds of soldiers who fought in the battle, said Morgan, a friend who worked with special effects was able to clone the actors in several of the shots so it looked as if the armies were much larger.
"Isaac Stevens, Hazard Stevens and all of them were looking for a road that was then called Ox Road. They marched up this path [during filming] and behind them were only seven Union troops. We made it look like 200, and you can't even tell," said Morgan. "It turned out real neat. I call it the money shot."
Also, he said, most of the scenes were filmed in bright sunlight, but the actual two-and-a-half-hour battle took place in a driving rainstorm, so special effects were used to create gray skies and pouring rain. He even used computer-generated flies to buzz around during a scene depicting dead soldiers after the battle.
"We wanted to add to the dreariness of war and to set it aside as being something people really don’t consider these days and certainly something that was right there," he said.
MAKING THE SWITCH from re-enacting to acting was easy for people like Al Stone, who played Gen. Robert E. Lee in "The Battle of Chantilly."
"I [act] because I like it, and when you like it, you do it naturally," said Stone, who has played the part of Lee in documentaries, movies and re-enacting events for 11 years. In "The Battle of Chantilly," Stone portrayed Lee as he dealt with the death of Union Gen. Philip Kearny, who had been a friend of his.
To Kim Stevenson, who is in Fairfax Rifles with husband Jim, the biggest difference between re-enacting and making a movie was the makeup.
"I portray a male soldier, so I have to look like a male soldier," said the South Riding resident. This meant a false mustache and makeup applied to look like beard stubble, which she does not wear in ordinary re-enactments.
"I've never done something like this before, so it is a little strange," said Jim Stevenson. Filming was not without excitement, like the time during filming in a cornfield when the cornfield accidentally caught fire. But for the most part, said Jim Stevenson, acting is about standing around waiting to be called.
Mauro remained involved in the filming process as well. "What people don't see is, I wrote the screenplay and had to listen to every word the actors said," said Mauro. "In a movie, you have one chance to tell [the audience] what was going on and you have to tell it as clear as you can. You have to make sure you say certain things right."
Mauro looked forward to Saturday's premiere. For the first time since they finished shooting in October 2004, he said, the cast and crew would all be together. Since filming took place in shifts, he said, some actors would even be meeting for the first time.
"When you talk about Hollywood magic, it really is," said Mauro. "All the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, you never have a clue."