Jamestown 1607Jamestown 1607 - The New World Movie

Filming the New World

The New World brings 17th Century Virginia to Life

A 17th-century sailing ship floats on the water, gentle waves rocking it to and fro. On the shore stands a fort made of rough-hewn logs, protecting a dozen primitive structures with thatched roofs. The marsh grass waves in the breeze, as the blue sky turns to dusk and mist rises from the water. A few miles down river, erched high on a cliff, sits an Indian village with longhouses created from wood and bark and lashed together with rope. The village has an excellent view of the river, where its residents can keep a wary eye on the strange men inhabiting the fort.

The strangers were adventurers who arrived from England in 1607 to found the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, 13 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. They came looking for gold. What they found was a complex and sophisticated society thousands of years old. Their coming signaled the birth of a new nation, an event filled with heart and spirit, triumph and tragedy.

Making it Real: Recreating Jamestown

For a few months in the summer and fall of 2004, this extraordinary moment in history came alive in Virginia when acclaimed writer/director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) filmed The New World, his dramatization of the Jamestown story, a few miles from where the events actually occurred. He used the well-known story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, a legend that has endured for nearly four hundred years, to show us the events as seen through the eyes of the British settlers and the Virginia Indians.


Discussing the set design in the corner of the fort on "The New World" set. From left to right: David Crank, art director; Bill Kelso, APVA director of archaeology; Jack Fisk, production designer; Eric Deetz, APVA senior archaeologist; and Bly Straube, APVA senior curator. Photo courtesy APVA.

Malick and production designer Jack Fisk were delighted that the state had enough un-spoiled land and waterways for them to recreate 1607 Virginia, because they shared a passion for historic accuracy and had both wanted to make their film in Virginia. They chose two locations on the Chickahominy River to build the fort and the Indian village Werowocomoco. Carpenters, metal workers, weavers, jewelry makers, stitchers, potters and artisans labored for months to create sets, props and costumes that were as authentic as possible, often using artifacts found at the Jamestown archeological site as models. Historians, archeologists, linguists, anthropologists and experts in the oral history of Virginia Indian tribes all contributed to the look and feel of the film. Finally, when reliable research could not be found, artists and designers relied on their imaginations to supply missing details. This labor of love took many months and left workers with a newfound respect for the trials endured by their ancestors.

Virtually all of the clothing and props were made by hand using materials that would have been available in the 7th century. Hand-woven cloth, skins, seashells and feathers adorn the Indian costumes and even some of the make-up used to create the elaborate body paint was mixed with mud and sand for color and texture. he “green’s crew,” those responsible for the much of the vegetation seen in the film, arrived in Virginia in the early spring, well before production began, to plant a 3-acre garden and other types of vegetation found in the 1600s. Most of the film was shot using natural light, also contributing to the authentic look and feel. The result is not a typical Hollywood movie. It’s as close to being real as it’s possible to get.

A Shoot Filled with Spirit and Heart

The stars of the film are Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith, Christopher Plummer as Christopher Newport, Christian Bale as John Rolfe and newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. Native American actors from tribes throughout the United States were trained in movement, dance, singing, canoeing and the nearly-extinct Algonquin language while their counterparts playing British soldiers learned the intricacies of swordplay and wearing armor. By the end of the shoot, everyone knew what life must have been like in the 1600s, after weeks of torrential rains and a hurricane or two filled the sets with dirt and mud.

Because the film was shot where the actual events took place, there is a spirit and heart that could not have been found anywhere else. Everyone involved with the film knew they had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with a brilliantly gifted director on an extraordinary project. It was a time when the past merged with the present to produce an unforgettable film about a remarkable moment in history that would change the world forever.

Reprinted from Virginia Secrets, Fall 2005, Leisure Publishing.


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