The hoop skirts say “Gone With the Wind.” The bandages say “M.A.S.H.” The setting says Virginia.
When it all comes together on PBS next year, the filmmakers hope the combination will say success for “Mercy Street,” a Civil War drama being filmed in Richmond and Petersburg.
For now, the organized chaos of a film set has rotated between Petersburg’s Centre Hill mansion (four weeks) and Richmond’s Laburnum House (four weeks before Petersburg and now three weeks after). Filming ends Friday.
Centre Hill stands in for the house where entrepreneur James Green lived with his family and managed the surrounding Mansion House Hotel in Alexandria. Laburnum House stands in for the hotel, which was requisitioned to become a hospital soon after the Union Army marched into Alexandria at the beginning of the Civil War.
On a busy day of shooting at Centre Hill, executive producer Lisa Wolfinger took a break from the monitors in the video village, walked down a winding staircase beside a thick rope of electrical cables, and found an empty bench in the basement for a chat.
“It’s easy to look back to the Civil War and see it all in terms of blue-gray, black-white. It really wasn’t that simple,” she said. “You have Union characters who are slave-owning, particularly in the border states. You have Southerners who have some sympathy to the runaway slaves’ plight. You have high-minded abolitionists who were not always the most attractive of characters.
“It’s very rich. There are all kinds of fascinating characters. It’s very three-dimensional. We’re trying to present something that feels a little more real.”
Above her on the first floor, actors Gary Cole and Donna Murphy were going through their lines as James and Jane Green, Confederates trying to coexist with the Union. Having the hospital in their hotel meant the couple could survive the war financially, but it also meant they were in constant contact with the enemy.
All around the preparations for filming continued. At the top of the grand staircase, a voice called out to open the outside doors to let more light into the central hallway. Another voice quickly passed a warning:
“Quiet outside. Doors are open for shooting this bit.”
A hoop-skirted Murphy leaned close to a frock-coated Cole at the base of the stairway and lamented the death of a Confederate soldier who was a family friend.
Though the soldier was a composite character, injured Confederates like him would have been scooped up on the battlefield with injured Union soldiers and taken to hospitals like theirs. The families of those who died would have struggled to bury them.
“Union rules. They won’t let (him) be buried here. Not everyone manages as we do, James,” Murphy said mournfully.
“I will see to it that (he) has a proper burial,” Cole said quietly. The scene ended with an embrace.
Cole, who is known for supporting roles in “The Good Wife” and “Veep,” said he visited Alexandria on his way to Richmond for the filming. A native of Illinois who lives in California, he wasn’t very familiar with Virginia.
“One of the most interesting things was to see the proximity of Alexandria to Washington,” he said. “Every morning I could walk on the banks of the Potomac and see the Capitol. The Union Army is just across the river. They were quickly overrun.”
He said he was attracted to the project because of the content.
“It’s an aspect of the war that’s never really looked at. Everyone basically focuses on battles and generals. This ... deals with the effects of war on an occupied city and on Civil War surgery,” he said.
He also liked the character he plays. “He has to accept a lot of things he would rather not. He’s appeasing the Union, as a Confederate civilian who has to kind of go against his instincts and do business with them in order to survive financially, which becomes a big conflict.”
Wolfinger came up with the project as she looked for a way to connect to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865.
She had spent a lot of time in Britain while growing up. When she moved back here, she had to teach herself American history.
“I realized I knew nothing about the Civil War. I came into it very curious and also looking for a way in that felt fresh,” she said.
“I started to dig and found these wonderful stories about these female nurse volunteers. ... This was right after Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War (1853-1856). The whole concept of female nursing was very new. I found all these wonderful memoirs of feisty independent women who flew in the face of social conventions to go off and become wartime nurses.”
One of them was Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen, who wrote about her work at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria and is a leading character on “Mercy Street.” She was a staunch Unionist from Lexington, Mass.
“Her description was of this incredibly dysfunctional place filled with colorful characters, and it was funny!” Wolfinger said.
The Green family connected to another group of colorful characters, one of them being the boyfriend of daughter Emma. The dashing young Frank Stringfellow was a Confederate spy who came back disguised as a dental assistant.
“It’s all very cloak and dagger and lots of fun,” Wolfinger said.
“On top of that, the other interesting thing about Alexandria, it was a destination point for many runaway slaves.” Some of those former slaves would have worked at the hospital, possibly like the laundress who’s romantically involved with a free black man who has secret medical skills.
Entanglements of romance, science, culture clashes and world-changing events play to the same base as the successful “Downton Abbey.”
If “Downton” fans cross over to the new Sunday night show, Centre Hill could develop a following similar to Highclere Castle in England, where the final season of the record-setting BBC drama has wrapped up filming.
“Mercy Street” will be the first PBS attempt at historical drama in more than a decade, and it’s stirred up excitement among the television executives, producers, cast and crew.
“There’s no period that defines us more as a nation than the Civil War,” said Beth Hoppe, head of programming for PBS. “It’s in our sweet spot. Thanks to our friend Ken Burns, I think there’s a sense that we own the Civil War anyway. Now I hope we’ll be launching the best Civil War drama ever done.”
Many of the right people are in place to make it happen. Along with Wolfinger, it’s executive produced by Ridley Scott (“Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down”) and David W. Zucker (“The Good Wife,” “Andromeda Strain”) and co-created and written by David Zabel (“E.R.”). Josh Radnor, one of the stars in “How I Met Your Mother,” has a leading role as a doctor working in the hospital.
When Wolfinger was planning the drama, she expected it would run during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Though the commemoration ended in April, she’s decided “the timing is perfect.”
“In a way, all that programming throughout the course of the sesquicentennial, and the books, and the events, I think it might have sparked an interest that might not have been there before. This hopefully will come in at the right time and feed that interest.
“And honestly, it stands on its own. ... It’s about real people, on the homefront. Certainly it’s the experience of war, but all these characters (and) all their situations are very relatable. And it just happens to be set during the Civil War, when you had all these fabulous hoop skirts. ...
“I really think audiences are going to respond to this. There’s really nothing else like it.”