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TV series on Hatfield-McCoy feud aims for accuracy

Related story: Theatre West Virginia has infamous feud onstage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- History is sometimes a hard thing to live down.

In the late 1800s, while West Virginia was still trying to figure out its identity post-Civil War, two feuding families inadvertently helped define the image of Appalachia.

Through sensationalized stories printed in newspapers around the world, the feud between Randal McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield and their families became a worldwide spectacle and helped make the phrase "hillbilly" synonymous with poor, ignorant and volatile. The term became a stereotype, a cartoon to poke fun at and an epithet.

The History channel's new "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries, which begins May 28, is a dramatization of that conflict. Through careful retelling, it tries to give the hillbilly icons back their humanity and to explain that the feud that took more than a dozen lives was a lot more complicated than a dispute about the ownership of a pig.

West Virginia native Darrel Fetty served as one of the producers on the miniseries. Fetty grew up in Ball Gap, near Milton. He said he'd heard about the feud since he was a child, but after he left the state for Hollywood, he came to resent the way the people of this area have been portrayed.

"These people were pioneers," he said. "They were rugged individuals, just the same as in the American West."

The West, he said, had the Earps, the Clantons and Billy the Kid. Somehow they became respected legends, while the Hatfields and McCoys became figures of derision and ridicule.

The story of the feud had long been on his mind, but a few years ago he mentioned an idea of doing a miniseries to Leslie Greiff, a producer and writer he'd worked with before.

"Leslie had a relationship with History," he said. "He got a development deal. We started working with some writers. At a certain point, Kevin Costner read a script, liked it and committed."

Costner stars as Hatfield patriarch Devil Anse Hatfield.

With a major star attached, the project was put in production.

Telling the tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys, however, wasn't easy. Even now, both families have their supporters, and the story of the feud is invariably colored by the perception of which side the teller is on.

Not only that, but the "official" reports of the time came from newspaper writers during the golden age of yellow journalism, where the truth never got in the way of a good story.

Fetty explained that during the height of the feud, "A lot of urban reporters would pick up the story, and if it wasn't colorful enough, they'd make things up. So a lot of things reported as history were distorted."

"Hatfields & McCoys" hopes to remove some of the distortions, but Fetty acknowledged that it's not an exact re-creation of the events that began around 1864 and ended finally in the early 1900s. Time has been telescoped, dialogue has been added and a few characters have been pushed together.

"We did have to make some choices," he said.

For instance, there is a Preacher Anse Hatfield and a Walls "Deacon" Hatfield. Preacher Anse was a justice of the peace who presided over the livestock dispute.

"He was peripherally related to the Hatfields in the feud."

A minor character with one important scene.

Deacon Hatfield was the older brother of Devil Anse Hatfield. He was also a judge and presided over the trial of Paris and Sam McCoy, who were charged with killing Bill Staton, a worker related to both families who'd testified in favor of the Hatfields over the disputed pig.

"We used two different judges to make one character," he said. "It made the part stronger and took nothing away from the story."

And with a story as sprawling as the Hatfield-McCoy feud, Fetty said condensing was necessary to fit the story into a six-hour miniseries.

Fetty said the point was to be as accurate as possible while still being able to tell a coherent and truthful story about the time. To help keep them honest, the production relied on experts, including former West Virginia Archives and History Director Fred Armstrong.

Armstrong said he was contacted through the West Virginia Film Office, and he was reluctant at first to get involved with the miniseries.

"As I told them, the Hatfield-McCoy feud is not an overly documented event in West Virginia-Kentucky history," he said. "There's just not a lot of good documentation."

Armstrong, as a historian, also said the time period and the feud wasn't one of his favorite topics.

"It's not the best image of West Virginia," he said. "I just feel like there were a lot of incidents on both sides of the border that the individual families could have conducted themselves in a far less violent way."

But Armstrong agreed to look over the script and make notations when he saw something questionable.

Armstrong said, "In its original form, the script had some areas that needed correction. There were problems with the timeline or the date or even with some of the individuals."

Armstrong said he consulted histories on the Hatfield-McCoy feud, made the notes and sent them back to the producers of the miniseries. Whether they made changes based on his notes, he doesn't know. He hasn't seen the miniseries, nor has he seen an updated script.

"I did provide them with what I thought would bring them more credibility than what I was finding in their original manuscript."

The historian seemed doubtful that he'd see the finished product, though it's not because he doesn't support the production. He just doesn't watch a lot of television and tends to stick to his morning newspaper.

"My wife, she's aware of it," he added.

As much as they could, the production tried to connect with West Virginia, but the miniseries wasn't shot in West Virginia, Kentucky or even Appalachia, but in Romania.

Fetty said he wished they could have filmed in West Virginia, but the original area where the feud took place has grown up in the past hundred years.

"We would have loved to have shot in West Virginia, but we would have demanded a lot more room than we [could have] had in Southern West Virginia" he said.

Romania, he pointed out, partly because it was under communist control for 40 years has huge sections of land that hasn't been developed.

"No phone lines. No franchises."

Also, he said, West Virginia doesn't have the resources the filmmakers needed to shoot the miniseries.

"The film community needs to build up in that way," he said. "For instance, it would help if Marshall University or one of the other universities had a film department. That would be a jumping-off point if you had a university soundstage."

Romania has Castel Film Studios, which has supplied support for films such as "Cold Mountain," "Borat" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance."

Fetty said, "They had a couple of 19th-century towns on their back lot. We were able to use those. Otherwise, we'd have had to start from scratch."

Still, they didn't try to avoid West Virginia. In a companion documentary to the miniseries, a crew did come to the area to get footage and interview descendents of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

"We brought production here," he said. "I'd like to bring more."

And maybe the Hatfield & McCoy miniseries will make that more likely. Fetty said there are plenty of stories in West Virginia. Maybe others will want to discover them once they get past the stigma of it being hillbilly.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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