July 31, 2008

History in the Details for Authentic Props Provider in Cascade

By Anne Riley

It must be a drag to watch movies with Russell Richards.

"Saving Private Ryan" irks him because it doesn't use authentic German tanks, but decorated Soviet ones. "Cold Mountain" irritates him because the soldiers at the Battle of the Crater are all white, when really, the majority were black. And don't even get him started on "Gone with the Wind."

"It's a great movie -- if you don't know what you're looking at," Richards said. "I look at it, and I'm going, 'Oh gosh. Vivien Leigh's wearing a zippered dress. The zipper wasn't invented until the 1870s, 15 years later.'"

For the Washington County native, nitpicking films isn't just a habit; it's a living. As CEO of Historical Entertainment LLC, Richards is paid to ensure the precision of historical projects by consulting on all aspects of production, from wardrobe and props to horse wrangling and stunts.

"Our job is to make sure that the accuracy is there so that the director or producer can tell their story and not have to worry about it," he said.

Historical Entertainment, founded in 2000 and based out of Richards' Cascade home, works by compiling a database of thousands of historical re-enactors, living historians and production specialists from around the county that directors can search when organizing a shooting or an event. According to Richards, companies call looking for everything from an authentic Gulf War helmet to an entire battalion of Confederate soldiers, and by contacting his membership, he's able to provide.

"I have three Viking ships at my disposal if I need them," he said. "If we can't find it, it don't exist."

Richards, a history buff since childhood, said he conceived of the idea for a historical consulting business while working as a re- enactor for a production at Antietam. Then an electrician who participated in re-enactments as a hobby, Richards said that although he was impressed with the level of expertise on the film set, he thought he could do it better.

"I thought, 'There's a job here. There's a unique business opportunity here,'" he said.

Historical Entertainment, which has contributed to productions including "Gods and Generals," The History Channel's "Civil War Combat Series," documentaries for the visitors centers at Mount Vernon and a number of local battle sites and even "CSI: Las Vegas" and MTV's "Viva La Bam," specializes in the Civil War, but has worked with almost every era.

"We can save the production a lot of time and a lot of money," Richards said, noting that his company's members -- who hold regular jobs by day and re-enact during the weekend -- own their own costumes and arrive on set with a clear understanding of the time period at hand. Registration costs members $35 to $50 a year.

However, most of the business' income comes from production companies, not from membership dues, with prices of about $350 a day for each artillery rental; $125 to $250 a day for each military, Native American or civilian re-enactor and more than $1,000 a day for each stunt coordinator. Although Richards said his company is available year-round, the majority of its business takes place during the late summer and early fall.

"We work from July to October, and then we sit around waiting for productions," he said, noting that Historical Entertainment is able to survive on just four months of a work each year. "Nobody films in the wintertime. There weren't any battles in the wintertime."

In addition to striving for accuracy, Richards said his company also aims to attract productions to Maryland, a move that both stimulates the local economy and adds an extra element of precision to historical films.

"Out in L.A., they can't just go in the mountains and film the Revolutionary War. It doesn't look the same," Richards said. "That's our goal, to try to bring them back here to the East Coast."

According to Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, when a production is brought to the state, the whole region benefits.

"What happens when a film comes here, be it a movie like 'Gods and Generals' or 'Ladder 49' or a commercial or something that's done for The History Channel with re-enactors, they hire a local crew, they stay in Maryland hotels and they eat in Maryland restaurants," Gerbes said. "The typical feature film could do business with an excess of 400 to 500 Maryland businesses."

While the Maryland economy benefits from the arrival of production companies, the companies themselves -- especially those filming historical pictures -- also benefit from what Maryland has to offer, Gerber said.

"Having so many re-enactors who are so passionate about their re- enacting and so authentic definitely brings value to a producer looking to shoot in Maryland," he said.

Kurt Eberling Jr., an automotive technician and carpenter from Pennsylvania who is registered with Historical Entertainment, said that Richards' company "has one major advantage in the film industry."

"Production companies and individual organizations no longer need to search for extras, then wardrobe them, then arm them, then train them. You just contact [Historical Entertainment] and you will get professional, fully equipped living historians, well versed in their perspective time periods," he said. "'One-stop shopping' simplifies the logistics of a production tenfold."

North Carolina-based Chris Ruff, a museum curator and re- enactor, said he sees Historical Entertainment as an "excellent resource," despite not having received any jobs from the company since joining its database at the beginning of the year.

"I think that historical accuracy is very important but Hollywood will never let that stand in the way of what they view as a good movie," Ruff said. "Fact will always be more interesting than fiction if you approach it right."

For Richards, "approaching it right" is the name of the game.

"If you're not going to do it right, why do it?" he said.

"We've assembled a team to make sure it's done right. You used to watch The History Channel and see old fat guys in a Civil War uniform, and that's not what a solider looks like. A soldier was young, most of the time he was skinny and fit.

"If you want a re-enactor, we don't provide re-enactors. We provide soldiers," Richards said.

Originally published by Anne Riley.

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