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Q&A with Will Eichler: Getting a History Fix Behind and In Front of the Camera

Will Eichler approaches his work in the film industry with a keen eye and steady hand, and driven by a passion for storytelling. Before he embarked on a career that has included work on Chicago Fire and other shows, he discovered a passion for the Civil War. His interest in the war and joy of history have followed him on his professional path, which includes Civil War Digital Digest, documentary films and other ventures. Learn how Will gets his history fix.

Q: How did you become interested in the Civil War?

As an elementary student, I was introduced to the book Rifles for Watie. That took a kid playing in the woods on his home farm and added the imagination of history to escape to in play. I have always been an avid reader and I started pouring through all I could find. Fortunately, my hometown has an amazing library for a small town and I soon had my place in it—the Civil War section.

Q: How did you get started as a producer and director?

I attended Michigan State University planning to pursue a career in law. Fortunately, my mentor professor realized well before I did that I had no business doing that. He knew my passion for the Civil War and introduced me a local production company making documentaries. That company formed “Historical Films Group” and made the Antietam documentary that has shown for about 20 years at the Antietam National Battlefield. 

Eichler alongside Sean Skyler, who played the role of Lt. William G. Whitney, 11th Michigan Infantry, in the narrative short film Whitney’s Mettle. Courtesy Will Eichler.

At about this time, I started to specialize in the camera department. I picked up a specialty called the Steadicam. For the past 10 years, I have been on one of the Dick Wolf produced One Chicago shows, and I am now the Director of Photography on Chicago Fire. I’ve learned the production game from the ground up and being a camera operator helps me make good story choices when directing. Producing? Well, I’m told I’m too logical, and producing is mostly getting stuff organized. 

Q: Many know you from Civil War Digital Digest. What was your inspiration for this series?

The concept was the brainchild of my friend Jeremy Bevard, who co-founded the series with me. We wanted to use video to help people learn more about skills needed for living history impressions. As we began to develop the series, we quickly found that we could not only help that group of people, but also have a larger impact taking subjects out of books and exploring them with motion picture. From the beginning, we have worked hard to have a very strong foundation to our content in both research and primary sources. When we share a skill or a recipe, we’d rather not present “Here’s how I learned to do it” but rather introduce you to a person from history and let them share their story or skill with the audience.

Q: Others know you from your narrative short films, Hold My Horse and Whitney’s Mettle. (I think they are wonderful!) What were your takeaways from these projects?

Both of these projects were wonderful experiences! Hold My Horse is a true “day in the life” story of Gen. Israel Richardson. Whitney’s Mettle is a story of how one junior officer earned the Medal of Honor, the title itself being a play on words. In both cases, we worked very hard to create a compelling narrative story that stayed as close as possible to the historic record. We find that viewers are truly enjoying seeing history told as a story. There are challenges in taking a true historic occurrence and converting that into the compelling narrative — but the results are well worth the journey!

Filming Hold My Horse. Courtesy Will Eichler.

Q: Both of these movies are centered on small, revealing moments in a very big conflict. Can you talk about this approach to telling Civil War stories?

My good friend Tim Troy, who wrote and directed Hold My Horse and continues to be a key collaborating partner on projects like this, once described this approach as Barely Fiction. We met working on the TV show Chicago PD, where he is the senior dolly grip. I am now the cinematographer for the show Chicago Fire. Each of us spends literally thousands of hours each year working on fictional stories. We explored how we could apply many of the lessons we learn about compelling stories and apply it to true events. We have created rules for ourselves when we work this way, like what we can add and what we can take away and what we don’t allow ourselves to swap out — no matter how cool the result might be! With the correct historic story, we feel we are creating very compelling movies and let the viewer experience history in a different way.

Courtesy Will Eichler.

Q: You’ve also re-enacted. How has it impacted your work behind the camera?

It affects so much of what I do in the era. I have a significant amount of technical tradecraft from the era. It gives me inspiration for things I want to see on screen. It also drives me to make sure what we represent in a story is as accurate as possible.

Q: What’s the origin story of HistoryFix, your latest venture?

As a viewer, I was frustrated that there was no place I could go to find history online. There is a little bit here, a movie there, and a documentary somewhere else. I love history! It’s an escape for me after a long day. Where could I go and sit down and enjoy? I couldn’t find it. On the professional side, where could I make sure history content I wanted to create could be seen? YouTube has so much on it that it’s hard for a viewer to cut through the clutter and find programming, and the ad revenue is so little that is shared so it’s hard to find a way to continue to support making quality productions. Viewers and producers need a place to solve this. Seeing that issue, I started watching industry trends and worked through the Covid shutdown with a partner, Gary Hubb, to solve the problem that I’d identified. 

Q: The variety of content on HistoryFix — movies, documentaries, docudramas, how-tos — is impressive. So is the larger time frame, back to medieval times. This is a change from the Civil War focus that has defined much of your own work in history. Is this move a business or personal decision, or maybe both?

It’s definitely both. The goal is to provide a centralized place to find as much history as is possible. “As much” is defined in terms of volume, we add new content weekly. It is defined in terms of range or programming—we feature narrative movies and shorts, documentaries, site visits and how-tos. It is defined in an ever-widening range of eras to escape to and enjoy history in. It is also defined in the producers who license content looking at both well-known stories, and also stories from people who have not traditionally had their story told.

Q: How has your work as a producer and director, and now as the founder of HistoryFix, shaped your view of the Civil War and this period in our history?

Working in the narrative world (TV, movies and short films) has taught me to pay attention to good stories. Working in documentary has taught me to look for true stories. Sharing both of these through HistoryFix continues to challenge me to find the widest range of people to work with so we have the greatest variety of voices speaking for history, warts and all, as a positive and an enjoyment. You may be challenged. You may be encouraged to think. But if I first help you to relax and enjoy, you will keep coming back and engaging with our collective past. I now look for stories that I have not heard before, and also look for those that vary in topic more than I did in the past.

Q: In our past conversations, I don’t recall asking if you collect! Do you?

Photos? I only have a very few and mostly related to Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit where I volunteer as much as possible. However, as someone who loves military drill and has taught it for years in the living history field, I have collected books (and most specifically military texts) from the Civil War era. I have rather a full bookshelf of originals, and a number of them are signed by the men who used them during the war. I also have a nice selection of Hoyle’s game books across the 19th century as well.

Q: How about ancestors in the Civil War?

One entire side of my family immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War. My mom’s side was here. With the family name of Hayes, we expected to find connection to Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes. However, that didn’t end up happening. We did find family in Wisconsin and Iowa. None seemed to have served. However, one branch of the family sold a farm for $300 in late 1862. It makes me very suspicious (but not yet proven) that ancestors raised money to hire a substitute. While not heroic service on behalf of one of the national causes, it is still a story worth exploring. Why did this family make that choice? What did they gain doing it? What did they sacrifice? It’s a different story than we often hear from Civil War buffs. Yet, it is my story. 

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