''M.A.S.H.' meets 'Gone With the Wind'': South Portland filmmaker's Civil War drama heads to TV

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SOUTH PORTLAND — As a documentary filmmaker, Lisa Wolfinger has the chance to do what many don’t: immerse herself in key periods of American history, from the conquest of the New World by early English explorers, to the Salem witch trials.

Now, in Wolfinger’s first scripted historical project for TV, she has created a detailed examination of life in a bustling hospital in the Civil War south that will debut next month on PBS.

Wolfinger, of Cape Elizabeth, came up with the idea for the episodic drama, “Mercy Street,” four years ago in her office at Lone Wolf Media on Cottage Road in Knightville.

Having grown up and attended school outside the United States, Wolfinger’s knowledge of the Civil War was minimal, which, in some respects, she sees as as a good thing. 

“I actually think it was an advantage because you come into something without any prejudices or preconceptions and your mind is open,” she said Monday morning, Dec. 20. 

Since Wolfinger and her husband, Kirk, founded Lone Wolf in 1997, she has produced several historical documentaries for networks such as PBS, National Geographic and the History Channel.

“I’ve been working my way up the American time line,” Wolfinger said with a laugh. 

“Mercy Street” takes place over a two-month period in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia – a city that, while topographically Confederate, was seized and occupied by Union soldiers during the entire war. 

The diversity of the place contributed largely to its appeal as a setting for Wolfinger, who wanted to not just tell the archetypal story of a Yankee or Confederate soldier, but to illustrate a series of contextual characters and how they coexisted. 

“What I loved about the story (is) not only were there great characters, but Alexandria was very interesting because it was a border town between North and South,” Wolfinger said. 

Alexandria became a relatively diverse city during the war, with both Confederate and Yankee soldiers and an abundance of paid female nurses, as well as formerly enslaved African Americans who came to find work, mostly as laborers, Wolfinger said.

While Wolfinger was becoming acquainted with Alexandria as it existed during the war, she stumbled across the Mansion House, formerly owned and operated by the Green family as a posh hotel and quickly turned into a Union Army hospital after the city was seized.

It became the focal point for the story and a way to facilitate the drama and interactions between some very different characters. Included is the story of the wealthy Confederate family who owned the hotel and how they dealt with living under Union occupation, Wolfinger said. 

The show’s premise centers on the lives of two volunteer nurses working at the hospital: Mary Phinney, a New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a wealthy Confederate sympathizer whose family owns the Mansion House. 

“We had this opportunity to tell a rather epic story about this homefront with all these different voices,” she said. “It’s got a little bit of everything,” including medical drama, family relationships, the struggle for freedom by African Americans and equality among women, she said. 

“A sort of “M.A.S.H.” meets “Gone With the Wind,” Wolfinger said. 

The first season will feature six episodes, with an ensemble cast that includes Josh Radnor, who starred in “How I Met Your Mother;” Gary Cole, of “Office Space,” “Veep” and “The Good Wife,” and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of the American version of the French television show, “The Returned.”

David Zabel, who wrote and produced “ER,” is a writer on the show and co-executive producer with Wolfinger. Other executive producers include Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “The Martian”,) and David W. Zucker (“The Good Wife,” “The Man in the High Castle”).

Steering clear of sensationalism and historical accuracy were goals that Wolfinger and her team worked hard to meet, she said. They consulted with a team of experts to ensure historical authenticity, including regular consultations with Civil War historian James McPherson, and working with Dr. Stanley Burns, who served as the on-site technical adviser for medical scenes. 

“What’s so interesting is that we cover so many different facets that we needed a panel of maybe up to 10 experts that (each) focused on one small area,” Wolfinger said.  

“There are so many Americans who are passionate about their Civil War history,” she said. “You have a duty as a filmmaker to get it right.”

One of those impassioned Americans is Ken Burns, the documentarian widely known for his nine-part comprehensive series about the Civil War, which premiered on PBS in 1990. 

Burns, after watching “Mercy Street,” has been helping Wolfinger and her team promote it before its public premier. 

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network will screen the first episode of “Mercy Street” in Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14. The show will premier on PBS at 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, following “Downton Abbey.”

“This is homegrown,” said Wolfinger, who is proof one doesn’t have to live in Los Angeles or New York City to garner excitement for a project this big. “Don’t give upon your dreams. Even if you’re sitting in an office in South Portland, you can make it happen.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Lisa Wolfinger, right, on the set of “Mercy Street” earlier this summer in Petersburg, Virginia. Wolfinger, a South Portland filmmaker who lives in Cape Elizabeth, is the creater and executive producer of the episodic Civil War drama, which premiers next month on PBS. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.