Free State of Jones
Thursday 1st September 2016
Based on Oscar®-nominated writer/director Gary Ross' original screenplay, the epic action-drama Free State of Jones tells the extraordinary story of a little known episode in American history during which Newt Knight, a fearless Mississippi farmer, led an unlikely band of poor white farmers and runaway slaves in an historic armed rebellion against the Confederacy during the height of the Civil War.
Juxtaposing and complementing the narrative in intermittent flash-forwards is the 1948 trial of The State of Mississippi versus Davis Knight, the key defendant in a ground breaking miscegenation trial, and the great-grandson of Newt Knight and his common law wife and former slave, Rachel.
Standing side by side in opposition to a 'rich man's war, and poor man's fight', Knight's brave followers took up arms against the Confederacy and established an indomitable rebel regiment deep in rural Mississippi's impenetrable swamps, giving them a tactical advantage despite being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. A visionary leader, Knight's passionate opposition to exploitation and prejudice and his establishment of the region's first mixed-race community, ultimately distinguished him as a celebrated and alternately vilified presence long after the war.
Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club, The Lincoln Lawyer) stars as Newton "Newt" Knight, a larger-than-life figure from the remote Piney Woods area of Mississippi, whose dedication to justice and equality inspired his popular rebellion against all odds and obstacles.
Starring with McConaughey are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion, Beyond the Lights) as Newt's confidant and eventual common-law wife, Rachel; Mahershala Ali (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1) as Moses Washington, a runaway slave and a guiding force in the rebellion; and Keri Russell (Waitress, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as his first wife, Serena Knight.
Free State of Jones is written and directed by four-time Oscar® nominee Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) - based on his decade-long independent research-from a story by Ross and Leonard Hartman, and produced by Ross through his Larger Than Life Productions shingle, along with Scott Stuber (Ted, Safe House) and Jon Kilik (Foxcatcher, The Hunger Games). Diana Alvarez (The Hunger Games) is co-producer.
The distinguished production team includes director of photography Benoit Delhomme (The Theory of Everything, Lawless), production designer Philip Messina (The Hunger Games film series), Oscar® nominated editor Juliette Welfling (The Hunger Games, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Oscar® nominated editor Pamela Martin (The Fighter, Little Miss Sunshine), costume designer Louise Frogley (Unbroken, Flight), composer Nicholas Britell (12 Years A Slave, The Big Short) and Grammy winning songwriter Lucinda Williams (Get Right With God, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road).
It's 1863 and the Civil War is raging. An ideological split over the institution of slavery is at the heart of the national rupture, the war's legendary battles are being waged throughout the country: in the Gettysburg Campaign of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and in the South, at the Battle of Corinth and Siege of Vicksburg.
In Mississippi, the second state to formally secede from the Union, Newton "Newt" Knight, a poor yeoman farmer from the Jones County region, is a medic in the Ambulance Corps of the Confederate Army. Knight does not own slaves, and is morally opposed to secession as well as to slavery. Nevertheless, he enlisted rather than be conscripted, in part so that he'd be assured of serving in the same regiment as his kin and neighbours. As a medic, he tended to the sick and wounded rather than battle Union soldiers, whose political ideology concerning the war and slavery he agrees with more than those of the Confederacy.
When Newt's 14-year-old nephew, Daniel, is killed at his side in battle, Newt has had enough. Demoralised by the carnage, and the numbing inequity of the Twenty Negro Law - sons of wealthy owners of twenty or more slaves are exempted from the military - Newt makes a fateful decision to take Daniel's body back home to his family for burial, thus becoming a deserter.
Back at his ramshackle homestead in Jones County, Mississippi's rural countryside, where his weary wife, Serena, was left to plough the fields of their farm alone, Newt is stunned to discover that Confederate cavalry and tax-in-kind agents have been commandeering his virtually insolvent neighbours' provisions, including animals, cotton and grain, for the "war effort". They were under orders to take 10%, but routinely took much more. Newt resolves to stay in Jones County, and makes it his mission to safeguard his family's and, if necessary, his neighbours' property and civil rights.
A confrontation is quick in coming when Confederate cavalry officer Lt. Barbour, tasked with tracking down deserters, challenges Newt, who is resisting the Calvary's attempt to appropriate provisions from his widow neighbour. After the armed standoff, Newt is branded an outlaw and must flee the area.
Injured by hounds during his getaway, Newt is aided by the proprietress of the local road house. With her help, he escapes deep into the impenetrable Mississippi swamps. There he meets runaway slave Moses Washington and his group of fellow maroons who, barely surviving in a makeshift camp, hide in constant fear of discovery.
While in hiding, Newt becomes acquainted with a young woman, Rachel, who previously tended to Newt and Serena's sick infant son and now aids the refugees with provisions. As a house servant to a wealthy plantation owner, Rachel is able to freely move between the plantation and the maroon camp where she arrives periodically with vital necessities and news. Newt is struck by Rachel's poise, compassion and intelligence. Meanwhile, Newt's growing infamy as a deserter takes its toll on his wife, Serena, who has no choice but to pack up her meager belongings and leave Jones County.
Newt is officially charged with capital sedition and treason. He settles in for a long stay deep in the swamps with his unlikely fellow renegades. Eventually, several white Confederate deserter- compatriots join Newt and the runaways. With Newt accepting his role as the leader of this rebellion, the men-black and white-call themselves The Knight Company. From their hideout, newly armed, "Captain" Newt leads his new unit in several violent raids and skirmishes against the rebel soldiers - led by Lt. Barbour and his officious commanding officer Colonel Elias Hood - who struggle to route them from their safe haven.
Overtly and unabashedly pro-Union, the Knight Company grows exponentially from just a few men to ultimately up to 500 as the ragtag band of deserters and runaway slaves are joined by more and more locals formerly loyal to the Confederacy. The Knight Company is comprised of hundreds of former slaves, runaways, and yeoman farmers from neighbouring Jones, Perry, and Jasper Counties - men, women, and their children who have had enough of the rebel army appropriating their property. Well-armed and provisioned, the "Southern Yankees" ceremoniously pronounce a declaration of independence from the Confederacy and proclaim their community the "Free State of Jones" in a powerful affront to the Confederacy.
Knight's leadership and cunning tactics, as well as the impenetrableness of the swamps, combine to repel and confound the South's efforts to quash the rebellion. The results of the guerilla company's efforts ultimately cripple the region's tax collection system, with the rebels seizing and distributing Confederate supplies, and driving out Confederate officials from Jones County and beyond. Espousing core principles of equality and freedom for all men regardless of colour, this quasi-political force manages to keep control of their "Free State" for the duration of the war, despite many deadly and heartrending battles along the way.
When General Robert E. Lee's surrender marks Union victory and the end of the Civil War, it ushers in Reconstruction, with its promise of peace for the country and freedom for slaves. But the post-war aftermath and rebuilding of the South signals more challenges to the country, and to Jones County. The pledges of land (commonly known as 40 acres and a mule) made to black Americans during Reconstruction do not come to fruition, and a new wave of racial intolerance arises, led by a violent terrorist group of white supremacists - known eventually as the Ku Klux Klan - who rise to power vengefully targeting former slaves - freedmen - and their allies, with their ultimate goal being to restore the land, political supremacy and wealth to those who supported the war in the first place. Newt, Rachel and their neighbours retreat to nearby Soso, Mississippi. Their recognized common-law marriage becomes one of the first acknowledged mixed racial unions in the area. Newt's wife, Serena, eventually returns, and although Newt has already created a home with Rachel, Serena is welcomed to live in a cabin on the couple's farm.
Over the years that follow, Knight becomes more politically active, taking an aggressive stand against the new negro apprenticeship laws, building schools for the Freedman, and taking a leadership position in the Union League, whose mission to help Freedmen register to vote is fraught with continual risks among his countrymen.
Today, the legacy of the mixed-race community that grew from Newt and Rachel's relationship is evident throughout Jones County, as well as throughout the South.
85 years after Newt Knight and his close knit band of white and black rebels fight the Confederacy, Davis Knight, Newt's great grandson, who is by all appearances white, has been indicted for violating Mississippi law by marrying a white woman, Junie Lee Spradley. The accusation and assumption is that as Newt Knight's great grandson, his great grandmother must have been Rachel, and therefore he should be considered one-eighth black - enough to be considered black at that time in Mississippi - and thus legally prohibited from marrying 'outside his race'. The resolution of this historic case is an ultimately groundbreaking one, and becomes influential throughout the South for many years afterwards.
Free State of Jones has been a project of intense passion for writer/director Gary Ross for 10 years. Ross, who began his film career as the screenwriter of the beloved comedy Big, starring Tom Hanks, and the political comedy Dave starring Kevin Kline (both of which earned him original screenplay Oscar nominations), is a lifelong student of politics and American history. In 1998 he was able to combine these various interests with his directorial debut - the 1950's set fantasy comedy-drama Pleasantville, starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, which he also wrote. And in 2003 for his second directorial effort, he helmed his own adaptation of the true Depression-era sports drama, Seabiscuit, which earned Ross his third and fourth Oscar nominations, as a producer of the Best Picture nominee and for his adapted screenplay.
Soon after the release of Seabiscuit, Newt Knight's story came to the filmmaker's attention. There had only been a handful of books and and one misrepresentative Hollywood film about Knight and his rebellion. "When I first learned of the story of Newt Knight," Ross recalls, "it was amazing to me that this unique hero had been kind of lost to history. He is known in certain places in the South, and he's certainly known in Mississippi, but he's not as widely known as he probably should be, considering he led a rebellion against the Confederacy and in many ways was 100 years ahead of his time." Ross was immediately attracted to the character and set out to learn more about the man, convinced there must be more to the story than had been recorded. As Ross would come to discover, what was less known about him was even more remarkable.
"There's a reason that more books have been written about the Civil War than any other period of American history," Ross suggests. "And there's a reason that more biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln than anybody except for Christ. This is a gash in the American consciousness. This is a wound in our own history that's almost inestimable. 600,000 people died. It's something that's taken generations if not a century to get over and make sense of. Newt Knight makes sense of the American Civil War at its essence, which is that it was fundamentally a moral struggle."
Telling Knight's story ignited a passion in Ross that would continue for a decade and spawn years of research. Ross was intrigued with the larger than life character who had fought on behalf of his fellow poor white yeoman farmers and for African-Americans as well - a completely heretical endeavor in its day. "Newt was such a progressive forward-thinking individual and totally unique in his own era," Ross says. "Once Newt heard a truth, he couldn't un-hear that truth. He saw the inequity in what he perceived to be a war over slavery, for the slave-owning classes. He fought a rebellion on behalf of the have-nots, of the poor and the dispossessed, and in doing so was driven out of his own culture and came to embrace another. He was a freedom fighter in many ways, and such a bad ass, that I was immediately attracted to the character."
Ross wanted to tell Knight's story, because, as he says, it illustrates that the South was not entirely unified in its support of the Confederacy or slavery, that indeed many southerners were morally opposed to slavery and willing to stand against it. Ross was also passionate to present life in the South after the war, and throughout Reconstruction. Very few of the plethora of films and television programming set during the Civil War have included this period - the most notable being the notorious silent epic "The Birth of a Nation," and later "Gone with the Wind," both decidedly of their time. As Ross learned, it was what Knight did after the war that made him more fascinating and cemented his enduring legacy. "Knight refused to stop fighting for civil rights, even after the war began to fade, and everybody assumed the slaves were free."
"As a filmmaker, you dream about finding a character like this," Ross muses. "I am fortunate that I was able to find him and I'm incredibly fortunate that I'm able to tell this story against this size of a canvas." During his research, Ross met with preeminent Civil War scholars, including historian Jim Kelly, a professor of American history at Jones County Junior College; Stephen Hahn, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania; and David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale University. While in Jones County, he also visited actual battle and campsites depicted in the film. During his visits, Ross also met with several of Knight's descendants who shared archival material and their personal family stories. At the time, Kelly was writing his PhD dissertation about Newt Knight with leading Civil War scholar John Stauffer, a Professor of English and American Studies, and African-American Studies, at Harvard University serving as his advisor. Kelly had grown up in Jones County and had an interest in Knight; but most of what he had heard about the legendary man was biased against him: that he was a bushwhacker, an outlaw, a murderer, and for many in the region, worse, that he crossed over the racial divide."
"Newt didn't fit neatly into the "lost cause" mythology, the belief that there was a monolithic, white South unanimously pro-secession and anti-racial integration," Kelly explains. "And that's what makes him so unique." Ross remembers, "Jim combed the archives, reading every correspondence, news accounts, official records, etc., turning over nuggets that are not only groundbreaking regarding Newt but for students of the Civil War era."
Kelly observes, "Newt's story had been buried so deep and had been spun in so many different ways that generations knew very little about what really happened, and who Newt really was. Inspired by Ross's own research and passion, once we started digging deeper, we started to see a man more complex and principled than previously believed. He took a moral stand, fought for the rights of all people, and came down on the right side of history, as we now see."
In an interesting sidebar, Kelly uncovered the fact that his own great-great grandfather was Newt Knight's cousin, making Kelly himself a descendant. "It's been a personal journey as well. And once I find out who he is, I really come to admire him and respect him." Around the same time as his research visits to Jones County, Ross met and subsequently studied with, John Stauffer. Ross's unofficial status turned official when he became a Harvard fellow in American studies under Stauffer, with full access to Harvard's encyclopedic libraries and resources. "He became a mentor and provided me with guidance and tutelage--and a rather copious reading list," Ross muses. "We dove into scholarship of the subject matter together." Stauffer, who regularly writes about antislavery and abolitionism in the Civil War era recollects, "Gary and I came together based on our shared interest in the Civil War era, specifically about people like Newt Knight, and John Brown, and other so-called radicals who affected changes in perception and attitude."
Ross and Stauffer's pupil/mentor relationship continued, leading to their collaboration on several historical projects, such as a lecture at the annual Principals of Private Schools event about how the South ultimately won the Civil War, a theme reflected in "Free State of Jones." The reference to the war as "a rich man's war, and a poor man's fight," reflects the contention by many that the poor were victims of the wealthy plantation owners' economic interests, more than for any specific noble ideal. This belief fueled Knight's commitment to take action, and Ross suggests, led to the popular view of Knight and his exploits as "almost a Robin Hood kind of story." Ross adds, "From the end of the war in 1865 until 1876 the South struggled to maintain a system of settled agriculture built on slavery. Many of the same issues that pushed the country into war continued to be controversial and divide the populace afterwards, specifically the divisive viewpoint that the South absolutely required a cheap labor force to preserve its agrarian economic society.
"As for Knight, as events after the war unfolded unfavorably for the freed slaves, he transitioned from the defender of yeoman farmers into the staunchest advocate of the newest American citizens, African Americans, fighting literally and figuratively on behalf of their rights; ultimately he even joined their community, marrying into and living among them; he supported intermarriage, and fathered mixed race children, of whom he was incredibly and publically proud."
Ross says about Reconstruction, "What many don't realise is that it was sort of a second Civil War, raging on after emancipation and after its conclusion in 1865." Ross details that Reconstruction had three acts, which he depicts in the film. "The first act is the President gives the Confederates back their land. They get re-empowered and institute an alternate version of slavery in the form of sharecropping. Second, Congress sent military governors down to the South and tried to guarantee suffrage, or the right to vote for African American freed men. It took a lot of guts for blacks to vote during Reconstruction. A final act of Reconstruction was a resurgence of paramilitary organisations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of the White Camilia, or the Red Shirts or the rifle clubs; local militias that worked to drive northern troops out of the South to reclaim political dominance."
After completing his extensive research, Ross completed a first draft of the screenplay, much of it based on new facts uncovered during his initial research. Ross relates, "We knew that Newt lived in a mixed race community after the war and that he was very aggressive in fighting for the rights of freedmen, freed slaves, and African American citizens. But little was previously published or known about the racial makeup of his company during the war. Was it mixed race? Was he fighting for the rights of slaves? Or was he only fighting for the rights of poor white farmers? That's been a fundamental question. Jim Kelly found the primary source documents that evidence Newt's advocacy for the rights of freedmen extended to the principles of the Knight Company during the war." While Ross was still researching and writing his screenplay he introduced John Stauffer to noted Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins. Inspired by Ross' work, the two went on to collaborate on their 2009 book, The State of Jones, which would ultimately complete the historical record of Knight's pro-Union views, his views about race, and how those views informed his actions after the war.
Ross took a hiatus from his research and studies in 2011 and 2012 when he adapted for the screen and directed the dystopian blockbuster The Hunger Games, another project with overt political overtones, setting the tone and template for what would become the first chapter in the series' global success. Following The Hunger Games, Ross met with newly formed motion picture and television studio STX Entertainment to bring Newt Knight's story to the screen.
Coming off of his Academy Award® win for Best Actor in Dallas Buyers Club and his starring role in Chris Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey portrays the heroic and defiant Newton "Newt" Knight. With his southern roots, charisma, and physical appearance, McConaughey is strikingly similar to Newt Knight himself.
McConaughey admits the script immediately captured his imagination. "This is a story that lived on its own," he states. "Whether it was in the Civil War or not, it was a great story, about a revolutionary man. It is so relevant today, and a story that should be told."
Although McConaughey says that nearly everything he needed to know about Knight was encapsulated in Ross's script, he joined Ross on a research trip to Jones County "Gary and I took a trip to Newt's hometown, and to his gravesite," the actor recalls. "As an actor, sometimes when you're diving into a biographic character you can feel the weight of that responsibility. In this case, what happened with me is I felt that the story was much bigger than me, than any of us, and that was freeing. The more I started to learn about Newt, the more inspired I was by his clarity, his sensitivity, balanced with his power; his compassion has muscle, and the more alive I became."
McConaughey adds, however, that audiences need not have extensive knowledge about Civil War history to connect with Knight's story. "If you are a Civil War buff, you're going to be even more turned on about this account. It's set in another time but the story still has major relevance for the world we live in today. America is still 'reconstructing.'"
British film and stage actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, a domestic slave who enlists herself into the Knight Company's cause. During the course of the war, once Newt has befriended and joined up with the maroons, he and Rachel develop a very delicate relationship that continues into Reconstruction and beyond. "They are free spirits and very courageous people," Mbatha-Raw asserts. "They both are on a quest for freedom." The actress, who won several awards for both her starring role as the pop superstar Noni in the musical drama, Beyond the Lights, and in the title role of Belle as the mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy captain in 18th century England, recalls feeling amazed when she first read the script. "I was so fascinated by this story," she effuses. "I thought it was an inspiring love story as well," she adds. "And the fact that the story is so epic - it starts off in the Civil War, and there's this love story that goes through generations, and goes into 1948, and deals with the racism of the period. I found it a very emotional ride, the fact that you jump back and forth in time and there's this cross-generational span of the arc of the story, was very original. And I thought it was very romantic and with a lot on its mind."
Underlying the romance between Rachel and Newt, however, Rachel has significant challenges, exemplified by the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of plantation master James Eakins. "Gary and I had deep discussions about Rachel's journey towards dignity," Mbatha-Raw says, "We talked about the psychology of carrying that inside you every day. And we also talked about the humanity of the story beyond any color boundaries. It was lovely to see Newt and Rachel fall in love in an era that was so defined by race and that it was about them as human beings."
In addition to reading volumes of history books and watching documentaries of the period, as part of her research for the role, Mbatha-Raw made a trip to the real Ellisville in Jones County, where she paid a memorable, informative visit to Newt & Rachel's gravesite. She reflects: "It was an incredibly poignant experience to feel their spirits there in that place where they lived and died. It was an important pilgrimage for me." For the role, the British actress also had to affect a period southern accent. "I must say being in New Orleans, spending time in the South, and listening to the accents, was an immersive experience," she says.
Mahershala Ali, best known for his role as Remy Danton on Netflix's House of Cards, and as Boggs in the Hunger Games: Mockingjay films, plays Moses Washington, a slave on the run who becomes an integral ally of Knight's rebellion. A kindred spirit, Moses teaches Newt how to survive in the swamps, as well as about their common plight as fugitives from the so-called 'justice' of the day. The two quickly form a bond, working with runaways and deserters in a unified resistance to the Confederate soldiers sent to rouse them from their hiding place. "It's a story about freedom," Ali says, "and about human rights, and having an opportunity to live on your terms" Ali explains, "What speaks to me about Moses is he's just defiant and present and clear on what he wanted. In his mind he's a free man, so he lives and is willing to die a free man within the unbearable conditions of slavery."
The Oakland, California native says that the timeliness of the film that appealed to him. "I've seen many Civil War era films focused on slavery or the antebellum South, but this specifically touched upon Reconstruction, and I felt like this wasn't a story that I'd already seen," he says. "It's a part of history that I'm not as familiar with." Ali adds, "The way in which Newt thinks about the world and looks at equality, men and woman, and race, are things that we're still struggling with in our society right now."
To prepare for the role, Ali says he read a book suggested by Ross, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, that focuses on terrorist violence after the Civil War. Ali recalls, "That really put the South, the Civil War, Reconstruction era, and civil rights into perspective for me, and made me feel alive."
Golden Globe winner Keri Russell, currently starring in the critically-acclaimed FX spy series The Americans, plays Newt's beleaguered wife, Serena, who leaves her husband midway through the war and eventually returns to discover that he's in a new relationship with the former slave, Rachel. Like most people, Russell, who's also known for playing the title role on the ABC series Felicity and co-starring opposite Jason Clarke in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was not familiar with the story of Newt Knight, but after reading the script she was entranced. "It was a really beautiful script - an epic love story really," Russell says. Russell also felt that Knight's story had to be told. "I think anytime there's a story about tolerance and understanding, it needs to keep being told. The themes running through it are incredibly personal, with very tragic, difficult, beautiful moments. I think it's very moving and inspirational."
Russell notes that despite the ample historical research, there was relatively little known about Serena, so she had some leeway to fashion the character's emotional core. "Serena's the one we know the least about and her place in the story is fascinating," Russell notes. "I mean, not only why she left Newt, but why she came back is intriguing - and why she stayed when she was back. Gary wrote that war makes strange families, and I think that's true. Life is so hard that you're willing to let go of a lot of seemingly inconvenient things to just have a family and a home." Russell believes that Serena and Newt's marriage was probably one of convenience and practicality. "I don't think Newt's heart and soul was really in it," she offers. "I think they are partners in this farm, but as this larger than life character, Newt can't belong to just one person; he belonged to everyone."
"I admire how Keri attacked Serena," McConaughey says. "Because it's not like their marriage was ideal. Keri played it as if she and Newt are kind of two ships passing in the night. It was an interesting approach."
Joining McConaughey and his co-stars is a talented ensemble of players - mostly from the New Orleans area - who portray Knight's team of defiant Jones County fighters, as well as their Confederate enemies.
Newt's closest two friends and original core members of his Knight Company are Jasper Collins and Will Sumrall, who served with Newt in the Confederate army.
Louisiana character actor and self-professed Civil War buff Christopher Berry portrays Newt's closest comrade, Jasper Collins. Collins, an anti-war, anti-slavery unionist, is also Knight's advisor. Best known for films such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, Berry was attracted to playing this good, principled man. "Jasper was actually quite venerated by people in Jones County up until the day he died," Berry expresses. "This was a man who didn't always go with the mainstream, but he wasn't afraid to follow his convictions, even to the point of risking his life." By most historical accounts, Jasper Collins was an impassioned leader and political force in the Jones County region rivaled only by Knight. Berry, who also worked with McConaughey on HBO's True Detective, explains that Collins was a solid companion to Newt, even after many followers had left. "Newt and Jasper had grown up together. They farmed in the same place. They had a natural rapport."
While serving in the Confederate Army, Collins explains the 20 Negro Law to Newt - which decreed that any soldier whose family owned 20 slaves was deferred from serving - and in doing so coined a phrase that would echo throughout the war and become a rallying cry. "Right after the 20 Negro Law came out," Berry explains, "Jasper said that 'It's a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.' "And it was. And he walked away from it."
Actor Sean Bridgers portrays Will Sumrall, Knight's other close friend. Best known for his roles on the critically acclaimed Sundance series, Rectify and HBO's Deadwood, the actor is also one of Christopher Berry's oldest friends, which was helpful in lending authenticity to their on- screen rapport. Having played many villains in recent years, Bridgers was attracted to playing an inherently good character. "He has a sense of honour," Bridgers explains. "At a certain point he realised what the Confederacy stood for was not what he signed up to defend. And so he deserted and joined up with Knight."
Newt's dogged adversaries are Colonel Elias Hood, and Lt. Barbour, Confederate officers charged with hunting down deserters and force them back into service.
Louisiana area character actor Thomas Francis Murphy, who has appeared in such films as 12 Years a Slave and Terminator Genisys, plays Knight's top military adversary, Colonel Elias Hood, the commanding officer of the Mississippi forces in charge of tracking down and rounding up deserters. Murphy acknowledges that Hood "is a bad guy,'' but says that what attracted him to the character is what defined the notion of manhood in the South during the Civil War. "It has to do with doing the difficult thing, and what's required without flinching," he says.
Bill Tangradi, who appeared in the Oscar® winning film Argo and was a recurring character on the FX series Justified, plays Knight's chief antagonists, Lt. Barbour, the Confederate officer ordered by Col. Hood to hunt down Knight and his men. Tangradi describes Barbour as a "narcissistic opportunist who believes in the Southern cause, but also has allegiance to his own interests ." In discussing the character with Ross, Tangradi recalls, "We circled around this idea that this was somebody who is going to make it through this war come hell or high water. He's a survivor who, although he serves in the army, he's also serving himself. I wouldn't say Barbour is a buffoon, but he certainly has an element of constantly ending up with egg on his face despite his best intentions." When Barbour and his cavalry are not catching deserters, they are also tax-in-kind agents on behalf of the Confederacy, who are supposed to collect 10 percent of the yeoman farmer's agricultural product, as well as animals and clothing. But under Barbour that 10% was usually abused and resulted in much more. And it's that excessive looting that causes Knight's ire, and leads to several showdowns between the men.
Rounding out the cast is 18-year-old Arkansas native Jacob Lofland, as Newt's young cousin, Daniel. Lofland also co-starred with McConaughey as 'Neckbone' in the 2012 award-winning Jeff Nichols drama Mud.
Interwoven throughout the Civil War scenes is the 1948 trial of The State of Mississippi vs. Davis Knight when Davis Knight, Newt's great grandson, suspected of having a traceable black ancestry, is tried for marrying a white woman.
Brian Lee Franklin, an actor best known for his stage portrayal of Robert F Kennedy in "Good Bobby," the theatrical drama he wrote and starred in, plays Davis Knight. What Franklin found interesting were the parallels between Newt and Davis Knight. "I wanted to find the link between the two characters, and Matthew told me that Newt had a look in his eyes that seemed he was always looking beyond the present, and I thought that was what I needed to hear."
Free State of Jones marks French-born cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's first collaboration with director Ross. Well regarded for his deft handling of color and light in films such as the Oscar®-nominated The Theory of Everything and John Hillcoat's 1930's depression era drama Lawless and western The Proposition, Delhomme chooses his projects discriminatingly. "I need to see the visual potential in the script, but more than that I gravitate to a strong story", he says. "I need to react emotionally to the story at first reading in such a way that I will be able to keep that emotion going throughout the shoot." While reading Ross' script, Delhomme admits he cried several times and quickly realised that what he was taught in French schools about the Civil War was inaccurate. "I was so shocked", he offers. "I immediately felt that I would be proud to help convey that important story."
Delhomme is attracted to films shot on locations outdoors, as with Free State of Jones, shot primarily in the fields, rolling hillsides, and swamps of Louisiana. "When you shoot outdoors, you have to find imaginary walls, imaginary doors and gates and avoid the temptation of the 'spectacular vista' or perfect 'postcard' which stops and kills the story I believe."
For research and inspiration, Delhomme studied Matthew Brady's famed Civil War photographs; but when it came to filming, "I wanted to shoot in a modern documentary style", he asserts. "For example, from the start I didn't want to utilise artificial light in the day exteriors, and wanted to avoid crane moves. I choose to work with a very limited color palette and color effects. I have always been worried about how grass, or leaves, and all the green vegetation translates when captured by an HD camera. I first tried to avoid putting too much green in the frame, but of course this quickly became a lost battle and strangely I started to love green, to embrace it. I believe this color has a strong influence on the people who live in the midst of nature and in the swamps like Newt and his men do."
Ross, who wanted to collaborate with Delhomme based on his admiration for his body of work, including films such as John Hillcoat's Lawless and earlier films like The Scent of Green Papaya, also commends the cinematographer's abilities as a camera operator, which were put to extensive use throughout the filming. "Benoit is a phenomenal handheld operator", Ross submits. "He has a wonderful, intuitive sense. It's very fluid. And it's very graceful."
Although Ross had never directed a film shot in a digital format before, Delhomme says that the director appreciated the textures the cinematographer achieved in HD on John Hillcoat's Lawless and had no fear that the film could be done without using film stock. "I think Gary was also excited by shooting with low levels of light at night", he offers. This allowed Delhomme to light sets using candles, torches, and fires, the only light sources at the time of the Civil War.
The decision to shoot the film digitally came easily. But the decision as to which lenses to utilise and what aspect ratio to use took a time to explore. Delhomme recalls, "Gary said 'I want a lot of sky and ground in the frame. I want the bodies.' So we finally went for 1.85 using spherical Panavision lenses. I did not use any diffusion filters. I did not try to make things look pretty. We were quite proud to shoot mainly with the camera on a tripod like in the old days and banish unnecessary dolly moves or impressive crane shots."
A cinematographer who has worked with notable directors Anthony Minghella, Mike Figgis, David Mamet, and John Hillcoat, Delhomme says of Ross, "Gary always knew what the film needed, and what he wanted to convey and say with each single scene - this is a rare and precious thing these days."
The unpredictable Louisiana weather posed daily challenges for every member of the cast and crew, from the PA's to the grips, costumers, production design, and camera departments. "This was certainly the most difficult film I shot in my life", Delhomme states. "The weather factor was more than I had expected." He says keeping the continuity in the lighting on exterior day scenes shot over several days was a nerve-wracking experience. He says his team tried to tame the clouds using gigantic sails and nets, but as they were in a constant sun/cloud alternation during takes it wasn't easy.
Turning back the clock 150 years to transform 21st century Louisiana into Civil War Mississippi was overseen by production designer Philip Messina, who previously collaborated with Ross on The Hunger Games, and who went on to design every installment of the series. Messina recalls that Ross first contacted him about the project several years earlier, even before The Hunger Games, so he was delighted when the project came to fruition. Messina, who has worked multiple times with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh including on the Ocean's Eleven films, was thrilled to work on a film set against the backdrop of the Civil War. "We had to come to the table knowing our stuff", Messina recalls about early meetings with Ross. "We had to study the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction to be able to talk to Gary intelligently about those scenes, like the Union League, and the maroons. So it's been a great education." In choosing locations to create his sets, the production designer was also assisted by the prevalence of Civil War architecture found in and around the New Orleans area. "We've been very lucky to have shot in some amazing locations that have absolutely enhanced the look of this film and the feeling of the realism."
From the makeshift hideouts in the woods and swamps, to Confederate headquarters, to the grand cotton plantation, Messina found inspiration in the troves of historical archives and photographs. Messina also consulted with the film's historical advisors maintain historical accuracy. "The historians have been great with things like what was a magistrate's office like during Reconstruction? What was voting like? etc"
Messina was responsible for keeping visual consistency and historical accuracy at the film's mosaic of locations during the four-month Louisiana shoot in the spring of 2015. Throughout production, the art and costume design teams had to alternate between three different periods: the Civil War battles of 1863, the challenging post war Reconstruction Era, and the 1948 trial.
The film's costume designer, Louise Frogley, is a frequent collaborator of director Steven Soderbergh and four-time Costume Designers Guild nominee for her work on Ocean's Thirteen, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Traffic. With a shoot featuring an ensemble of nearly 100 actors, and 2,800 extras, Frogley's costume department was responsible for making, buying, and renting over 4,000 period costumes, encompassing everything from the iconic Union and Confederate uniforms, to the ragged clothing of runaway slaves, to the fashions of 1948 for the courtroom scenes.
Frogley was introduced to Ross through production designer Messina, with whom she'd collaborated several times. Frogley says she pored over books and photographs until she completely absorbed the period. And wherever possible, practical, and affordable, she used original clothing from the period. "I bought quite a lot on eBay and from antique clothing dealers," she says. However, for costumes they had to make the colours had to be dulled to fit the colour schemes of the film.
To ensure further period authenticity within the film's vast costume department, Frogley brought in Tim Pickles, a local New Orleans-based military historian and ex-costumer from London, who shared his knowledge about military history and advised on the Civil War military costumes to ensure accuracy. Mindful of the fact that for a man of very little means, Newt Knight would not have an extensive wardrobe, Frogley says they made one shirt that would last for five years of story time. Frogley submits, "When I proposed to Gary that Newt would be in the same clothes over such a long period of time he agreed immediately." Aside from the simple practicality of Knight's attire, McConaughey says that he and Ross did make a choice in regards to his headgear, or the lack thereof. "People wore hats then," McConaughey affirms, "but what Gary 26 and I chose was that the only hat you ever see Newt wearing is the Confederate hat in the army at the beginning."
As the house servant to a wealthy plantation owner, Rachel was relatively cared for regarding appearance and style. According to Frogley, Ross didn't want Rachel to wear an apron or headscarf, so she suggested that her character be dressed more like a governess or nanny." Frogley says that she tried to fit Mbatha-Raw in as much original clothing as possible, adding that "It was a fine balance trying to avoid the cinematic clichés of slave garb. Gary didn't want us to have preconceptions of her as a subservient person. He wanted us to see her as just a person."
For Keri Russell's styling - from makeup to hair to wardrobe - the actress proposed how Serena should appear. "Keri wanted to look very organic," hair department head Jules Holdren expresses. "It was important to her that she look tired and worn, that she's eking out a living off the land." For Russell's wardrobe, costume designer Louise Frogley located several vintage 19th century dresses that would be appropriate for a poor farmer like Serena. Frogley explains that in the class system of those times, yeoman farmers like Newt and Serena rated a notch above slaves, and well below plantation owners, so that would be reflected in their clothing.
"Their clothing would be old because they were so isolated," Frogley says. "They were like sharecroppers, and very, very poor, so they wore very old clothes, and didn't have many of them." As Keri Russell reminisces, "I got to wear a lot of the original clothes that Louise and her team found. Since original pieces were only available individually, in the case of damage and for use with stunt doubles, Frogley's team would have to manufacture multiples; replicas of the original that they would have to paint, age, and distress so to appear as close to the original as possible.
Principal photography on the 68-day shoot commenced March 2, 2015. However, it was six months earlier that location manager Stephen LeBlanc and his team started scouting locations all over Louisiana to portray Mississippi during the Civil War. With an abundance of period antebellum architecture, and exterior fields, woods, and swamps, New Orleans and its surrounding environs provided the filmmakers with the perfect backdrop to mount a Civil War drama. "We definitely knew we wanted to be out on location, getting the grit, character, and true backdrops for the film," LeBlanc says.
For McConaughey, shooting a film entirely on practical locations made it easier for him as an actor. "Most of the film is outdoors, which is a joy because you're not having to deal with green screen; you're not having to imagine things," says the actor, who has starred in Louisiana set projects such as Dallas Buyer's Club, and True Detective, earning him the New Orleans Film Society's Celluloid Hero award in 2015. "You're dealing with the circumstances. Whether it's the heat, or the cold, the mosquitos, the water, or what have you. You just deal with it authentically, and that's what people hopefully see on screen."
LeBlanc says that he wanted to find locations not previously filmed before. "We were trying to find something new and fresh, so we went down every dirt and back road in Louisiana trying to find specific settings, rolling hills and topographies. We looked all over, from Shreveport, across North Louisiana, the east side of Louisiana, the coastal areas and everything." From his research trips to Ellisville, Mississippi in Jones County, to studying reference photographs from the Civil War era and topographical maps of the region, LeBlanc and his team scoured the ground to find fields to build the film's cabins, farmhouses, trenches, and churches. The location manager also consulted with the film's historical advisors to make sure that the locations were as real to history as they could be. "Authenticity was everything," LeBlanc states.
To populate the film's myriad battlefields, swamps, and towns, New Orleans-based extras casting director Brent Caballero, whose credits include 12 Years a Slave, cast a total of 2,800 local extras as background performers for all the various Civil War-era roles, including confederate and union soldiers, slaves, servant orderlies, doctors, farmers, Klansmen, and general townspeople, as well as for the more modern Jones County courthouse scenes. Caballero had always been enamored of the history of the Civil War and once he met with Ross and discovered how passionate he was about the project, and how important authenticity was to him, he was immediately drawn in.
"We have a database of 10,000 people but there was no way we could pull what we needed from that." So the casting director had to widen his net to outside of New Orleans and include most of southern Louisiana and portions of Mississippi to find what Ross was looking for. "Wanted young men who knew how to hold guns, who knew how to stomp through mud, who had camping experience, and who were okay to grow their beards and let their hair grow. We also knew the Knight Company would be filmed in a swamp and in these very indigenous areas, so we wanted to find people that were accustomed to those types of environments and wouldn't freak out if a snake slithered by. And that's when submissions began to rain in on us."
Caballero and his team received a total of 12,000 emails from which they selected the final 300. Once extras casting calls went out to neighbouring Mississippi, Caballero quickly discovered how involved the people of the actual Jones County wanted to be. A local Jones County news station reported on the casting calls, and Caballero remembers, "The submissions came out of the woodwork!" Ross spent a lot of time in Jones County developing the project, so it meant a lot to have locals involved in telling the story. Caballero remembers Ross saying, "It seems like everybody's related to Newt Knight in Jones County! I mean the number of relatives this man has is crazy. Or, claimed to be his relatives."
Ultimately, a group of about 12 men from Jones County and the surrounding Mississippi area were hired to play soldiers and members of the Knight Company. Knight Company background actors were required to curtail their hair grooming through filming of their scenes. "Gary said he wanted to keep it authentic," says hair department head Jules Holdren. "He didn't want it to look 'Hollywood'. During the shoot, Holdren and her team of hair stylists were responsible for the hair design of over 75 regular cast members and up to 350 extras a day.
Makeup department head Nikoletta Skarlatos, whose credits include The Hunger Games and Pirates of the Caribbean series of films, says she did a massive amount of research on the Civil War and Reconstruction over three months. In designing the makeup for both leading ladies, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell, Skarlatos found their character's appearances ironic considering the roles that they play in Newt's life. "Serena is Newt's wife, yet she's out in the 30 field looking bedraggled and sunburned, while Rachel, who is a domestic slave, looks regal and refined," Skarlatos muses.
Following "boot camp" and rehearsals, the first three weeks of the principal photography took place on the Civil War battlefields. Several private rural properties in Bush, Louisiana, one hour north of New Orleans, were utilised for the battlefields, and Confederate field hospitals for most of the film's early sequences.
Taking into consideration the challenging choreography involving a cast of hundreds, the two battlefield scenes at the beginning of the film were extensively planned out during preproduction. "We knew we had a short amount of screen time to show the horrors of war so Newt's decision to desert was understood" Delhomme offers. "We had to be very efficient."
On shooting the battle scenes, Delhomme reflects, "My take on this is you can't shoot a war scene without having a kind of war on the set, too. You need to have cameras everywhere to make the action look real.
Veteran stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, whose credits as a stunt and fight coordinator include Avatar and the Transformers films, was a key player in choreographing and supervising the film's elaborate battle sequences, utilising period military weaponry and tactics. Warren says, "When Gary first approached me, he said he wanted this to have the most realistic action possible, yet allow it to bridge the gap between cinema and war documentary style." Warren notes that the most important thing Ross wanted to get across was the absolute horror of the war, as soldiers often simply marched to their deaths on the battlefield.
Warren is quick to point out that McConaughey did many of his own stunts in the film. "Matthew is great" Warren says, "He's very adept physically. He can shoot guns well, he rides horses, and he runs so fast that our background actors couldn't keep up with him. He's every bit equal to any stunt guy we had."
In the opening battle sequence, nearly 100 Confederate soldiers are cresting a hill, and on the other side is the Union Army, encamped with cannons and guns. "As they march over the hill" Warren explains, "they're met with everything from incendiary blasts to musket fire to you name it. It's no close quarter battle whatsoever; it's just an exchange of gunfire. It's hellacious." Over 150 extras were utilised to portray soldiers, a group that included professional stuntmen, ex-military men, Civil War battlefield reenactors, as well as regular background performers.
To create the casualties of war, the filmmakers turned to award-winning prosthetic makeup designer Wesley Wofford, a special effects makeup whiz who created the stunt actors' wounds as well as those of the dummy bodies. To create the desired authenticity, Wofford embarked on his own historical research as well as consulting with the film's team of historians.
One of Wofford's noteworthy contributions to the film was the Confederate field hospital behind the front lines. "There are a couple of scenes where we go into a field hospital and that's really where we are focused on showing the nature of medical care at that time" Wofford says. For the sake of authenticity, real surgeons were also hired to portray some of the doctors in the film.
The on camera battles were not the only ones requiring strategic planning Louisiana's unpredictable spring weather patterns, were equally challenging for the filmmakers. With daily temperatures ranging from the 30s to the 90s, frequent thunderstorms, and muddy conditions, the production had to be constantly prepared with necessary supplies and a fleet of utility vehicles to meet the sundry challenges created by weather. Over the course of filming, other obstacles facing production would include alligators, poisonous snakes, fire ants, lightning storms, ticks, mosquitoes, tornadoes, and perhaps worst of all, microscopic chiggers, whose bites were a constant irritation in the swamps. Garrett Warren testifies, "This movie was definitely not for the light hearted." Free State of Jones also required all manner of props from the era, including hundreds of shotguns, rifles and knives, along with medical instruments, and a myriad of other common items such as powder horns, rag dolls, caskets, playing cards, maps, kerosene lamps, reading glasses and bibles. The prop department was also responsible for the iron slave collar that imprisons Moses in the maroon camp. The design of the collar - with its three projecting prongs - was inspired by a similar collar worn by an unknown slave in a famous photographic portrait from the Civil War era.
At a few select locations, Ross invited visiting fine art photographer An-My Le to direct a couple of second unit vignettes to capture added imagery. Le, a Vietnamese born photographer who currently teaches at Bard College, is known for her photographs and films that examine the impact of war in a contemporary landscape. "I photographed the military quite a bit, but I have never worked on a film set before" she says. "It's not unlike the military for me: the scope of it, the sense of scale and activity of human endeavor across this incredible landscape is amazing." In an otherwise beautiful rolling hillside on a stretch of private land in Bush, Louisiana, a large, lone "hanging tree" was found for a scene where the Confederates lynch three boys due to their association with the Knight Company. "This was a disturbing and macabre scene" Ross recalls. "But it actually did happen to three boys exactly this age. We saw their tombstones." Stunt coordinator Garrett Warren says they strove to make this scene as gruesome as possible. "Gary is not candy coating any of this" Warren observes. "He wanted the world Newt lived in to come alive on screen."
For two weeks, the crew moved to a 200-acre rural property in Braithwaite, Louisiana in the Plaquemines Parish that was the former site of Hidden Oaks Golf Course, which was decimated during Hurricane Katrina. Closed in 2006, the property, located along the Mississippi River, held several sets, including Newt and Rachel's Farm, Moses' shack, a yeoman farm house, and various other locations set in the Jones County town of Soso, where Newt and Rachel settled after the war. One day, Louisiana's unpredictable weather wreaked havoc on the set as a giant tornado system caused filming to shut down while the cast and crew sought shelter in one of the abandoned homes situated on what used to be a golf course. The interior of James Eakins's grand plantation home was filmed at historic Buckner Mansion in New Orleans' Lower Garden District. Built in 1856 in pre-Civil War New Orleans, the 24,000 square foot privately-owned landmark residence has also been featured in many films and television programs."
The secluded Knight Company Camp and Maroon Camp hideouts were primarily filmed at Doc's 10,000 Acres, a private swampland, hunting club and crawfish farm, in Paradis, Louisiana, west of New Orleans. Home to over 100 species of animals including ducks and bald eagles, as well as over 40,000 alligators, the site has been featured in several television series. Here, the cast and crew made their base in the middle of the swamps over a two-week period.
The swamp location was primarily selected as the property owners made it possible to regulate the swamp water - to drain it or fill it at will - to whatever specifications the filmmakers required for specific scenes. "There are swamps everywhere in Louisiana" location manager Stephen LeBlanc says, adding "they're also one of the most logistically challenging for the production film world. "We have equipment, lighting equipment and heavy cranes that like to sink in the swamp, so to find a swamp that was controllable was a challenge."
The Knight Company camp, where Newt and his mixed race band of fellow deserters and runaway slaves hide out, is situated on one of the property's rare clearings of dry land located along a mile-long wood plank road the film's construction crew had constructed.
Further down the man-made road from the camp in Paradis was the maroon camp swamps where Newt first meets and is helped by Moses and the runaway slaves who eventually become part of his unit. Even for all the logistical challenges and obstacles posed by this location, it provided a scenic backdrop that could not be duplicated elsewhere, and was also helpful to the performers. "I loved working in the swamps" Gugu Mbatha-Raw recalls. "It was quite an adventurous place to film: the night shoots out there with the alligators; paddling past our trailers on the bayou; and owls swooping in between takes."
The actor who says he felt most at home in the swamps was McConaughey. "I've got friends that'll tell me, 'You've got some kind of connection with the swamp'," says the actor, who also 35 spent a lot of time in the swamps in Jeff Nichols' drama, Mud. "I love the mystery of the swamp." Chicot State Park and Arboretum in Ville Platte, Louisiana's true Cajun country north of Lafayette, served as the setting of the additional maroon camp and swamp bank exteriors. The 6,400 acre and wildlife reserve features a 2,000-acre man made lake where Newt is brought by boat to to the maroon camp. Director of photography Delhomme says he became obsessed with the swamp scenes and shooting them at night. "It is already difficult to shoot at night in a normal forest, but in a forest flooded with water, with snakes and alligators nearby, it becomes a complex job" he understates.
Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on the west bank of the Mississippi River, served as the exterior of James Eakins's plantation, replete with Eakins's manor home, cotton fields and slave quarters. Originally built in 1790 and renovated in its Greek Revival style in 1832, the 2,268 acre Evergreen complex is the most intact plantation in the South with 37 buildings, including its old manor house a double row of 22 original slave cabins.
During several days of filming, 60 extras were on hand to portray the slave farmers and sharecroppers working the cotton fields in scenes set during both the Civil War and Reconstruction. Shooting in real Civil War-era plantations was very emotional for many in the cast and crew. As Delhomme recalls, "it was difficult not to think about how much violent history and suffering happened here." Today, Evergreen Plantation remains a privately owned, working sugar cane plantation where films such as Django Unchained have also shot.
New Orleans' Round Table Club, located in an historic mansion on St. Charles Avenue across the street from Tulane University and overlooking Audubon Park, was the site of several interior 36 sets, including the Confederate Command Headquarters in Demopolis, Alabama, and the Jefferson County Magistrate. It was also used for several 1948 interior sets, including the Jones County Courthouse, a Jones County Council Meeting, and the Office of the Justice of the Peace. On 242 acres of grazing land in a large private cattle farm in the rolling hills and high ridgelines of Greensburg, LA, production designer Phil Messina and his team built the exterior of a church that would become the centerpiece for the crucial ambush scene between Newt's company and Confederate soldiers. Newt and Serena's house and its agricultural fields were also constructed on the property.
In designing the church, Messina was inspired by a WPA photo by Walker Evans of the front of a church during the Depression. "Gary and I looked at it and we both fell in love with the image" Messina recalls The interior of the Alice Hotel, which served as Confederate Headquarters during the Civil War period, was filmed at the privately owned, one-story, eight-columned Creedmoor Plantation home in St. Bernard Parish. It's also at this hotel during Reconstruction that ex-Confederates meet Newt and the Freemen with hostility when they arrive to vote. In the scene, Knight and the freemen march in to the voting place while singing "John Brown's Body" which, according to Harvard historian John Stauffer, was the "most popular song in the Union army during the Civil War and into Reconstruction."
In incorporating legendary Civil War era abolitionist John Brown into the film, even if just in song, Ross was able to achieve part of his vision, explaining "In the South John Brown was a villain. His raid on Harper's Ferry and subsequent death is one of the things that propelled us into the Civil War. And Union soldiers sang this song marching into battle. 'John Brown's body lies moldering in the grave.' They considered him a hero, and an anti-slavery hero. It's only a century later that he's considered a zealot or nut." One of the things Ross hoped to portray in this moment is that the people marching in to vote are capturing the spirit of what propelled them into the Civil War, which was the fight against slavery. Ross adds, "Many people have actually called Newt Knight 'the John Brown of the South', a guy who had vision of what the country should be 100 years ahead of its time; a vision of race relations 100 years ahead of its time."
At the Alice Hotel set, Messina and his set decorators furnished the circa-1830s old sugar plantation home with period furniture consistent with the Civil War era. The real Alice Hotel site in Ellisville, Mississippi, has since been converted into a bed & breakfast. For a week of filming in downtown Clinton, Louisiana, a main stretch of Louisiana Highway 10/St. Helena Street was covered with dirt and its stores transformed into Civil War-era downtown Ellisville, Mississippi, to become one of the largest backdrops in the film. "We were hard pressed to find a circa 1860s street in Louisiana" Messina states. "We knew the courthouse needed to be the center of town. And this combination of courthouse and street fit our needs." Stephen LeBlanc adds, "The town of Clinton had a really amazing centerpiece of a historically preserved East Feliciana Parish courthouse (exterior of the 1948 Jones County Courthouse) that was still intact, and a lot of adjacent building that had the basis of a great foundation for some of those Civil War facades." In the town, known for its historic landmarks, Messina and his crew transformed the exteriors of existing stores and built new facades to create the exterior of the Alice Hotel, the cotton market, hardware stores, and a Confederate armory. "We essentially built a backlot into a real town" he says. On this street in downtown Ellisville, Newt Knight leads a Union League parade of marchers down Ellisville's Main Street while chanting the lyrics to the old spiritual, "No More Auction Block For Me."
The site of several Civil War military engagements and known for its antebellum buildings and scenic beauty, Clinton has been featured over the years in films such as JFK and more recently the HBO series True Blood.
The interior of the 1948 Jones County Courthouse scenes where Newt and Serena Knight's great grandson, Davis Knight, is on trial for miscegenation, was filmed at the circa 1915 restored historic St. Bernard Parish Courthouse. In the courthouse scenes, Ross invited several descendants of Newt and Rachel Knight, including their great, great granddaughters, Florence and Dorothy Blaylock, to be court spectators. McConaughey's mother, Kate McConaughey, was also on hand to play the witness "Miss Ellie." St. John's Church in historic Washington, Louisiana, was the setting for a Union League meeting where Moses, played by Mahershala Ali, proudly reads the text to the Freedmen that all citizens would now have the right to vote. For weather cover, the interior of Newt and Rachel's farmhouse as well as the interior of a slave cabin (a replica of the slave cabins at Evergreen Plantation) was filmed on a stage at Quixote Studios New Orleans.
Texas native Matthew McConaughey (Newt Knight) is one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men. A chance meeting in Austin with casting director and producer Don Phillips led him to director Richard Linklater, who launched the actor's career in the cult classic Dazed and Confused. Since then, he has appeared in over 40 feature films that have grossed over $1 billion; and has become a producer, director, and philanthropist - all the while sticking to his Texas roots and "JK Livin" philosophy.
In 2016 he will be seen starring as Newt Knight in the Summer release of Free State of Jones. He will also appear opposite Naomi Watts in Sea of Trees, as the voice of Beatle in Kubo and the Two Strings and as the voice of Buster Moon in the holiday release of Illumination's project Sing. Matthew recently completed the Stephen Gagham film, Gold and has just started shooting The Dark Tower opposite Idris Elba.
2014 was a game-changing year for McConaughey. For his riveting portrayal of Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey received an Academy Award®, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award and Gotham Award for Best Actor, the Best Actor Award at the Rome Film Festival as well as the Desert Palm Achievement Actor Award at the Palm Springs Film Festival. He also made the move to TV starring alongside Woody Harrelson in the HBO dramatic series True Detective. The show was met by rave reviews from critics and fans alike and earned Matthew a Critics Choice and TCA Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series as well as an Emmy Nomination.
Later that year he starred in Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, and also starring Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. In 2012 McConaughey was spotlighted in four diverse career-changing performances. He won a Spirit Award for his portrayal of Dallas Rising in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, and was named the year's Best Supporting Actor by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics for his work in Magic Mike and Richard Linklater's Bernie.
Mr. McConaughey also received acclaim for his performance in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, and was a Spirit Award nominee for playing the title role in William Friedkin's Killer Joe.
He followed this up in 2013 with the release of Jeff Nichols' Mud, which received rave reviews and was a sleeper hit in the national box office top 10 for five weeks and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which opened in December 2013.
His other films include Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, McG's We Are Marshall, Jill and Karen Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Bill Paxton's Frailty, Jonathan Mostow's U-571, Ron Howard's EDtv, Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys, Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Robert Zemeckis' Contact, Joel Schumacher's A Time to Kill, and John Sayles' Lone Star.
In 2008, Mr. McConaughey started The just keep livin Foundation, which is dedicated to helping boys and girls transform into men and women through programs that teach the importance of decision-making, health, education, and active living. The Foundation has partnered with Communities in Schools (CIS) - the nation's largest, non-profit, dropout-prevention organization -in West Los Angeles to implement fitness and wellness programs in two large urban high schools. Through an afterschool program, they are able to give kids a healthy start in life and the promise of a healthy future.
Born in Oxford, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Rachel) trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first professional role was in an Open Air production of 'As You Like It', as Celia. Following this, Mbatha-Raw landed roles at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre. She performed in 'Antony and Cleopatra' and played the title role of Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet', which gained her a nomination for Best Actress for the Manchester Evening News Awards in 2005.
Gugu's other stage credits include the critically-acclaimed 'Big White Fog' at the Almeida Theatre and 'Gethsemane', a production at the National Theatre that later toured the UK. She made her West End debut as Ophelia in 'Hamlet' opposite Jude Law; the production transferred to New York's Broadhurst Theatre for a limited run and was a hit on Broadway in 2009.
Her television credits include Spooks, Dr. Who, Marple - Ordeal by Innocence, Bonekickers and Fallout. It was for this latter role that she was selected as a 'Star of Tomorrow 2008' by industry magazine, Screen International. In 2010 she starred as Samantha Bloom in the NBC series, Undercovers, which gained her a nomination for an NAACP award for Best Actress in a Television Series.
In film, she worked with directors such as Dominic Savage and Dan Reed before landing her first major feature film, Larry Crowne, directed by Tom Hanks and co-starring Julia Roberts was released on July 1st, 2011.
In June 2011, Gugu landed the female lead as social worker Clea Hopkins opposite Kiefer Sutherland in the FOX series Touch. The cast also included Danny Glover and David Mazouz. The same summer, she was recognised at the BAFTA's Brits To Watch event in Los Angeles.
In May 2014, Gugu played the title role in critically acclaimed period drama Belle, (Fox Searchlight) alongside Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid and Matthew Goode. Belle was written and directed by Amma Asante and produced by Damian Jones. For her role, Gugu named Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards and Best Actress by the African American Film Critics Association Awards. Gugu was also nominated for 2014 BAFTA awards in both the Best Actress and Most Promising Newcomer categories.
Gugu filmed alongside Keanu Reeves and Rene Zellweger in the summer of 2014 for the indie film The Whole Truth, directed by Courtney Hunt.
In November 2014, Gugu starred alongside Minnie Driver, Nate Parker and Danny Glover in Beyond the Lights, a love story set in the LA music world that was written and directed by Gina Prince Bythewood. Her critically acclaimed role in the film earned her a Best Actress nomination from The 2015 NAACP Image Awards.
In February 2015, Gugu appeared in Andy and Lana Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending, which stars Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and Eddie Redmayne.
Gugu performed in the title role of Jessica Swale's "Nell Gwynn" from September 2015 through October 2015 at Shakespeare's Globe in London, which gained her a nomination for the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2015. Christopher Luscombe directed the 17th century play about a young woman who was raised in a brothel and turned into a stage actress and mistress to King Charles II.
She starred opposite Will Smith in Concussion, a drama about concussions in the NFL directed by Peter Landesman. Sony Pictures released the film on December 25th 2015.
She recently wrapped filming Miss Sloane alongside Jessica Chastain and Mark Strong, which will release in 2017. In June, Gugu will begin filming God Particle opposite David Oyelowo.
Mahershala Ali (Moses) is fast becoming one of the freshest and most in-demand faces in Hollywood with his extraordinarily diverse skill set and wide-ranging background in film, television, and theater.
Ali will also star in the critics-acclaimed movie Kicks, premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 8, 2016, which follows a boy who believes a pair of sneakers will escape the reality of being poor. He will also star opposite Naomie Harris and Andre Holland in Moonlight, out in 2016. On television, Ali was recently cast in Netflix and Marvel Entertainment's Luke Cage in the role of Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. A Harlem nightclub owner, Stokes will become an unexpected foe in Luke's life when Stokes' criminal activities threaten Luke's world. Ali stars alongside Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, and Alfre Woodard. The series will premiere on Netflix on September 30, 2016.
Last fall, Ali reprised his role in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, the fourth and final installment in the critically and commercially acclaimed Hunger Games franchise, alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Julianne Moore. As District 13's Head of Security, 'Boggs' (Ali) guides and protects Katniss (Lawrence) through the final stages of the district's rebellion against the Capitol. Lionsgate released the film on November 20, 2015.
Ali can currently be seen on the award-winning Netflix original series House of Cards, where he reprised his fan-favourite role as lobbyist Remy Danton, who went on to become Chief of Staff in the fourth season Ali's previous feature film credits include Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines opposite Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, Wayne Kramer's Crossing Over starring Harrison Ford, John Sayles' Go For Sisters, and David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
On television, he appeared opposite Julia Ormond in Lifetime's The Wronged Man for which he subsequently received a NAACP Nomination for Best Actor. Ali also had a large recurring role on Syfy's Alphas, as well as the role of Richard Tyler, a Korean War pilot, on the critically acclaimed drama The 4400 for three seasons.
On the stage, Ali appeared in productions of Blues for an Alabama Sky, The School for Scandal, A Lie of the Mind, A Doll's House, Monkey in the Middle, The Merchant of Venice, The New Place and Secret Injury, Secret Revenge. His additional stage credits include appearing in Washington, D.C. at the Arena Stage in the title role of The Great White Hope, and in The Long Walk and Jack and Jill. He also just completed his starring run in the off-Broadway play Smart People, for which he received rave reviews.
Originally from Hayward, California, Ali received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications at St. Mary's College. He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, California. Soon after, he earned his Master's degree in acting from New York University's prestigious graduate program.
A familiar face to audiences worldwide, Keri Russell (Serena Knight) has starred in a number of major motion pictures, independent films and television shows.
Russell can currently be seen on the critically acclaimed FX series The Americans, which is presently in its fourth season. The Americans is the story of Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. during the Cold War era of the 1980s with their unsuspecting children and their neighbour, an FBI counterintelligence agent. For the show, Russell has received three Critics' Choice Award nominations for Best Actress in a Drama Series.
In 2014, Russell was seen in the hit summer film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which reunited her with director Matt Reeves who created Felicity with J.J. Abrams.
Russell's other film credits include Austenland, Dark Skies, August Rush, The Girl in the Park, Mission Impossible III, The Upside of Anger, We Were Soldiers, Mad About Mambo, Dead Man's Curve, Eight Days a Week, Leaves of Grass, Goats, Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler, Extraordinary Measures with Harrison Ford, and of course the romantic film Waitress for which she received rave reviews. Russell first garnered attention when she starred in the title role of the hit television series Felicity from J.J. Abrams. Just four months after the show's acclaimed premiere on the WB, she was honored with a Golden Globe® Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama Series.
Some of Russell's other television credits include the miniseries Into the West, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation The Magic of Ordinary Days, Running Wilde with Will Arnett and The All New Mickey Mouse Club.
In 2005, Russell made her Off-Broadway stage debut in Neil LaBute's play, "Fat Pig," opposite Jeremy Piven.
Brian Lee Franklin (Davis Knight) is the son of Chandler Mountain, Alabama sharecroppers. After attending Florida State University in Tallahassee, he moved to New York and founded The Bulldog Theater Company at Theater 22 where he wrote, acted in, and/or directed over a dozen productions. During his time in New York, Brian also studied at HB Studios with the famed actress and teacher Uta Hagen. In 2008, he wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed play "Good Bobby," portraying Robert F. Kennedy during his formative adult years. The play enjoyed sold out runs over a 14-month period in Los Angeles and New York. Most recently, Brian played 'Lynch' alongside Chris Cooper in John Sayles' war film Amigo, guest starred on the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, and won the Best Actor Award at the 2015 Oxford Film Festival for Repeater, in which he co-starred with David Strathairn. Brian is a lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio as both an actor and a playwright.
Donald Watkins (Wilson) was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, attended Greensboro College, where he received his Bachelors in Theatre Performance. Immediately after he was awarded the Board of Regents Fellowship from Louisiana State University and earned his Masters in Theatre Performance with a concentration on Physical Theatre. In 2011 he was cast in his first feature film, Pitch Perfect. Since then he has worked on projects such as Get On Up, 22 Jump Street, and Bolden.
He played the role of Virgil in the History Channel mini-series Roots.
Christopher Berry (Jasper Collins) is best known for his dual roles in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Steve McQueen's Academy Award® winning 12 Years a Slave, and HBO's critically acclaimed dramatic series True Detective, where he also portrayed two distinct characters. He is also known for his portrayal of Deputy Carl Enders in ABC's Resurrection, as Negan's Scout in AMC's The Walking Dead, and as the enigmatic blind seer Petrus in WGN America's dark supernatural thriller Salem. He can also be seen in the courtroom drama The Whole Truth alongside Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger, and with Will Ferrell in the comedy Get Hard.
Christopher was born in San Antonio and raised in San Angelo, Texas. He attended the University of Texas, and received his bachelor's degree from his hometown college of Angelo State University on a full Performing Arts scholarship. He pursued graduate studies under the guidance of the late John Dennis in Louisiana State University's Professional Actor Training Program.
Sean Bridgers (Will Sumrall) portrays Old Nick in the Oscar nominated film Room, but is perhaps best known as the tender hearted Johnny Burns in HBO's critically acclaimed series Deadwood. He won Best Actor at Toronto After Dark Film Festival for his starring role as the psychopath Chris Cleek in The Woman, which premiered at Sundance in 2011. His work spans such films such as Trumbo, Midnight Special, Sweet Home Alabama, The Best of Me, and the upcoming Magnificent Seven. He can also be seen as Trey Willis in the critically acclaimed Sundance original series Rectify.
Bill Tangradi (Lt. Barbour) has worked with the likes of John Sayles, Ben Affleck and David Lynch. He most recently finished shooting the latest installment of Twin Peaks and can also be seen in the upcoming independent films Brimstone and Desolate. He's guest-starred on numerous television shows including True Blood, Weeds, and The Mindy Project and recurred as the role of Cyrus on FX's Justified. Bill is also a proud member of the WGA and served as the Supervising Producer/Staff Writer on the Nordic noir drama The Hundred Code starring Dominic Monaghan and Michael Nyqvist.
Thomas Francis Murphy (Col. Elias Hood)... if there is a backdoor to this business Tom seems to have found it. He has made his living in dairy barns and on factory floors. Worked as an ambulance driver. Trained as a hard hat diver. He has been a social worker and freelance theatre critic. Before moving to New Orleans he spent over 20 years on the East coast with a paint brush in one hand and a script in the other while pursuing a career in the theatre performing in off off Broadway houses in New York where his work in the plays of Sam Shepard garnered high praise in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Since moving to New Orleans he has worked across from Woody Harrelson in True Detective, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, and with Keanu Reeves in The Whole Truth. He can be seen in the upcoming release Same Kind of Different as Me, with Greg Kinnear and Renee Zellweger, He appeared as a series regular in the early seasons of Salem, and has had roles in American Horror, and a host of other projects.
Joe Chrest (James Eakins) first came onto the scene as the malevolent bellhop Ben in Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill. He joined Soderbergh in his follow-up film, The Underneath, garnering critical praise for his unnerving performance of Mr. Rodman. Over 100 film and television performances followed (including 5 more with Soderbergh).
Recent work includes David Schmidt (Jonah Hill's nerdy dad) in 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street and recurring as Det. Chris Demma on HBO's True Detective. He can be seen this summer as Ted Wheeler in the new Netflix series Stranger Things, and currently playing Vernon Presley in the CMT series Million Dollar Quartet.
Most recently he portrayed Oscar Davis in the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, Mitchell in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, and the latest Marvel offering, Ant-Man.
Chrest is also a veteran of over 30 professional stage productions working with names such as Gordon Davidson, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Zaks, RSC Director Emeritus, Barry Kyle, and Steven Soderbergh in his stage directing debut, Geniuses.
Chrest recently has turned to producing as the founding artistic director of Ignition Film Repertory Company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and dedicated to developing new works of indigenous writer's and filmmakers in the state.
Critically acclaimed actor Jacob Lofland (Daniel) is quickly amassing an impressive list of intelligent, diverse roles, earning a reputation as a promising young star to watch.
In television, Lofland will be seen later this year in the AMC drama series The Son, portraying the younger version of Pierce Bronson's character Eli, the patriarch of a wealthy Texas family, in this adaption of the novel by Philipp Meyer. Recently seen in the eight-hour History channel miniseries Texas Rising, detailing the Texas Revolution and the birth of the legendary Texas Rangers, he previously appeared in a major recurring role on the fifth season of FX's Justified.
In feature film, Lofland stars in the forthcoming independent adventure drama North, which follows a young man on a post-apocalyptic journey. This month, cinema audiences will see him opposite Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Free State of Jones, an epic Civil War action drama from Oscar-nominated director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Big). In 2015 Lofland won praise in Twentieth Century Fox's Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, based on the second novel in the popular young adult sci-fi series, and was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Feature Film-Supporting Young Actor (14-21).
Previously, Lofland earned kudos in Sara Colangelo's Little Accidents, opposite Elizabeth Banks and Boyd Holbrook, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The New York Times called him a "sympathetic young actor [who] lights up" the independent film, while IndieWire calls the movie "solidly acted, especially by tomorrow's superstar Jacob Lofland (who we'd call a revelation if he hadn't already impressed us so much as Neckbone in Jeff Nichols' Mud)".
Lofland made his acting debut in Mud, which premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. He starred with Tye Sheridan as Neckbone, one of two excitable Arkansas teens who discover and decide to help a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) evade vigilantes. The film went on to receive the Robert Altman Award at the Independent Spirit Awards and was named one of the Top Ten Independent Films of 2013 by the National Board of Review.