Film crew captures images of Twain's legacy

Last modified at 11:52 p.m. on Thursday, July 22, 1999


Courier-Post Staff Writer

Mark Twain's name, writings and wit are still known today by people all over the world, though his life ended in 1910. A film biography will explore the life behind this man, and Hannibal is where it all began.

A film crew of three people arrived in Hannibal on Wednesday evening to begin filming for a biography on Mark Twain that is scheduled to be broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the fall of 2001. It is anticipated to be three to four hours long and will air as a two-part series.

The film is being co-produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, and directed by Burns. Duncan and Burns have also teamed up to work together on such biographies as "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery" and a film series on the history of Western America.

"He (Mark Twain) had something about him that is genius that he could call forth in his 50s and still remember what it was like to be a boy in Hannibal," Duncan said. Duncan is being joined in Hannibal this week by cinematographers Buddy Squires and Roger Haydock.

Duncan was in Hannibal in March of this year scouting various area sites to include in the filming. On Thursday, Duncan said the crew began its work before dawn on the Mississippi River in order to catch some of the best light of the day. Filming included various shots of the Mark Twain Riverboat near Turtle Island, as well as general scenery along the river.

Following the filming along the river, the crew returned to the New Mark Twain Museum where time was spent filming individual archival photographs relating to Twain.

"What we use visually as much as possible are photographs from that time," Duncan said.

He said live cinematography in the places that are associated with the history of the topic is also an important element of such a biography.

"The Mississippi River is the main artery of the story of Mark Twain," Duncan said.

He said in addition to footage of the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Delta Queen will be filmed as well as an abundance of scenery along the Mississippi River.

Some of the other places the crew plans to film while in the area include Twain's boyhood home, Twain's birthplace in Florida and family grave sites.

Already this summer, Duncan said the crew has filmed in Elmira, N.Y., Berkeley, Calif. and Hartford, Conn. as well as across the country for various interviews with Twain scholars.

"Where he (Twain) goes, we and our story will follow him," Duncan said, noting that even Twain's travels abroad will be represented in the film through photographs.

Hannibal native Ron Powers, who recently wrote a book about Twain's childhood, has already been interviewed for the biography.

Throughout filming, Duncan said the crew is being careful to exclude any footage which possesses 20th Century inventions, which would not be authentic to the time represented in the film.

"We try to be as meticulous as we can," Duncan said.

He said, weather permitting, his crew will continue to work through Sunday, and leave on Monday. He said they hope to begin editing for the film in January and expect that process to take approximately one year.

The script for the Mark Twain biography is being co-written by Duncan and Geoffrey Ward. Duncan said between he and Ward, they have written most of the scripts for Burns' films. He said they are currently working on the third draft of the script, which is anticipated to change several more times before the final product.

"If you're interested in writing, and if you are a writer as Geoff and I are, Mark Twain is America's greatest writer, and so telling the story of his life is a great adventure," Duncan said. Like previous films directed by Burns, Duncan said a companion book will also accompany this film biography.

He said with all of the films that they do, an effort is made to let the people from history speak for themselves.

"Mark Twain's got something to say about almost everything that he saw and did over his very long and adventurous life," Duncan said.

He said someone will read various words of Twain throughout the biography, with one possibility being the voice of Hal Holbrook.

Duncan noted on Thursday that he is especially appreciative of the help various people have given he and his crew while in the area, such as Rich Riesenbeck who has piloted a boat for the film crew, Captain Steve Terry who took the Mark Twain Riverboat out at dawn for the crew to film, Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Faye Bleigh and Mark Twain Museum Director Henry Sweets.

"We rely quite a bit on the help of people and we've just been overwhelmed by the help of people here," Duncan said.

Duncan said Burns was asked to go to Washington, D.C. for testimony before Congress about the reauthorization for funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and so was unable to make this trip to Hannibal.

"Ken very much wanted to come on this trip . . . and hopes to be in Hannibal before the film is done," Duncan said.

Bleigh said Hannibal residents should be proud to live in a town where one of "America's famous sons" grew up.

"Sometimes it takes some outsiders to show us that," she said.

The Civil War series which was directed by Burns received the highest ratings in PBS history, Duncan said, while the Lewis and Clark film received the second highest ratings in PBS ratings.

"I think they (Hannibal residents) will be proud of it, that a film maker such as Ken Burns wanted to pursue a documentary of the life of Mark Twain," Bleigh said.

In addition to his work with Burns, Duncan has also worked as chief of staff for then governor of New Hampshire, Hugh Gallen; as deputy press secretary for Walter Mondale and press secretary for Michael Dukakis. He has written many books, including "Out West" and "Miles From Nowhere."

Duncan was born and raised in Indianola, Iowa and now lives in Walpole, New Hampshire.

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