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Makers of Hatfield-McCoy documentary sought balance

Jun. 01, 2012 @ 10:55 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Millions tuned in earlier this week to watch the History Channel miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" about the famous feuding families from West Virginia and Kentucky.

Today, June 2, the History Channel will offer a second helping of the six-hour miniseries after the debut of the companion documentary "America's Greatest Feud: Hatfields and McCoys" airs at 4 p.m. The two hour documentary aims to share the real story with lots of local help.

Heritage Farm Museum and Village was used as the filming set for a dozen scenes featured in the documentary. Huntington-based Trifecta Productions did the filming and several locals served as re-enactors. In addition, the documentary utilizes such historians as former Gov. Paul Patton, Nancy Cade and Reed Potter from Kentucky and Fred Armstrong, Raamie Barker, Bill Richardson and Keith Davis from West Virginia to tell the story as clips of re-enactors play out scenes that stoked America's most famous family feud.

The documentary is directed by Mark Cowen, who is known for the documentary "Band of Brothers: We Stand Alone Together" and "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D," among other things.

Milton native and Marshall University graduate Darrell Fetty, who produced both the documentary and miniseries, said he was elated at the level of work in both films.

Cowen said by phone from California that everyone at the production company ThinkFactory is ecstatic at the success of the miniseries whose Memorial Day premiere pulled in a new record 13.9 viewers for a cable network debut (non-sports), and excited to share the documentary.

"They did a great job, and so now it is my job to try and fill in the spots where there may still be questions and maybe fill it out more for people who watched the miniseries," Cowen said. "That said, whoever watched the miniseries knows 50 times more than the last person who looked into the 'Hatfields and McCoys' because I think the common man who read anything about this in grade school thought it was a fight about a pig."

To flesh out the clearest and truest story about the feud, Cowen said they pinball back and forth between Kentucky and West Virginia's bevy of historians as well as utilizing two books that take a deep look into the undertow of the feud that was soaked in the blood of the Civil War and socioeconomic issues of the day. The books were Altina L. Waller's "Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900," as well as "The Feud: The All-American, No-Holds-Barred, Blood-and-Guts Story of The Hatfields and McCoys," a new book by Richmond, Va.-based writer Dean King.

Weaving in old photos, maps and the re-enactment footage, Cowen said he and Paul Peltekian, who helped edit and produce, try to tell a balanced tale utilizing in-depth interviews.

"I was given the task from a documentary standpoint of trying to come up with the story that at least gives balance to both the Hatfields and the McCoys by talking to the scholars with different opinions," Cowen said. "Darrell set out with this to say there is two stories to this and if we don't tell two stories we've failed. So we tried to reach out to as many scholars and descendants and authors as we could."

With no footage of the actual participants and few photographs, Cowen breathed new life into the feud by utilizing Trifecta Productions to shoot two-days of re-enactments at Heritage Farm.

With a tiny budget that called for a re-enactment with one horse, a handful of guns and four or five actors, Trifecta Vice President Joe Murphy got on the phone and rallied scores of re-enactors and niche experts -- horsemen such as Huntington Mayor Kim Wolfe and Barboursville Police Chief Mike Coffey, veteran Civil War re-enactors and weapons experts such as Thadd McClung, Clarence Craigo, Ron McClintock, Bill Hunt and Bob Walden, wardrobes from the Marshall University Theater Department, Western Virginia Military Academy and Civil War and pioneer era seamstresses such as Jo Patterson, who made dresses solely for the shoot.

Cowen said he was blown away by Trifecta's ability to gather Hollywood-level resources quickly and economically.

"As a director you ask for something and hope that gets done but this, this is just classic Joe Murphy," Cowen said. "He has the No. 1 thing you asked for then has two or three just in case you need it. That was at every turn. I needed five extras he said 'here's 10 that you can pick from.' I asked for one horse we get eight. That was unexpected."

Trifecta President Jack Reynolds said the company is proud to be part of a project.

"Riding on the coat tails of the tremendous success of the 'Hatfields & McCoys' miniseries, the documentary has the ability to shed an in-depth accuracy to the myth and legend of this world famous feud," said Reynolds. "Validated by its mere alliance with The History Channel, this historical reference is enlightening and guides the viewer to the complexity of the entire story. I personally have learned many new facts and clarified other details that have been told incorrectly throughout the past. The fact that this entire event happened in our own back yard was in itself compelling for me to watch and participate in all of the hype, but the fact that this documentary, in its near entirety, was filmed locally by Huntington's own Trifecta Productions with local actors and re-enactors, has the entire community committed to it's success. This is just another example of the natural resources that West Virginia and the Tri-State community has to offer and the tremendous talent that is here for the taking."

The region's Civil War re-enactment community also came out to help. State award-winning history teacher Michael Sheets of Huntington Middle School brought some of his older Western Virginia Military Academy students (a Civil War re-enacting unit) along with extra clothes and a trunk of brogans for use.

Cabin Creek, W.Va., resident Jimmy Rogers, a coal miner and Civil War re-enactor since 2001, was picked to play Paris McCoy.

"I just came out for the chance to do it," Rogers said. "Everybody wants that little taste of being in a movie and something like this."

Rogers said since he works midnights at a subsidiary of Patriot Coal, he was able to take the time off.

"It's been a great experience," Rogers said. "At re-enactments you normally don't get this much attention to detail. It is just like you see in the movies. This might not have the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster but you see that they work just as hard to make sure every expression and every composure is right."

Red Dog Monroe, a regular re-enactor at such events as the Way Back Weekends at Heritage Farm and at the upcoming Old Central City Days, said the documentary is a refreshing change for West Virginia's stories in film.

"It's nice to see a West Virginia story about West Virginians told by West Virginians with a crew in West Virginia," Monroe said. "It makes you feel good to be involved in something like this. They contacted us and we just started pulling everybody out."

While Cowen said there is no way to know the exact truth of what happened, he hopes that folks who watch the documentary get a fuller understanding of a tragic American story.

Cowen, a lifelong student of history, is excited that people are responding to a real story and going further into the heart of it.

"Every once in a while you go back into history and find the right story and people are ready for it," Cowen said. "I think honestly the miniseries as well as the documentary makes you want to pick up a book and read more about it. I'm a bibliophile, so I would love to be able to play a small part in all of that."

Editor's Note: The Herald-Dispatch reporter Dave Lavender also served as a actor in the documentary. Lavender portrays the leader of the Hatfield clan, William "Devil Anse" Hatfield.

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