Monday, November 19, 2012

Director Q&A: Another Abraham Lincoln movie

Judging from reviews in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times and on CNN, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" may be the best movie ever made about our 16th president. I'll reserve judgment until I see it Friday. But there's another film in the works on Lincoln, this one an independent feature, that may also merit your attention. Directed by Salvador Litvak and scheduled for release in February, "Saving Lincoln"  explores this remarkable man through the eyes of his bodyguard, a little-known figure named Ward Hill Lamon. Unlike Spielberg's movie, Litvak's film covers a huge swath of Lincoln's presidency, and it may look like no other historical film you've ever seen.  Litvak used a process he invented called CineCollage, incorporating period photos into the film. The director took time out today to discuss how his film compares to Spielberg's, Lincoln's personality and more.

Steven Spielberg's big-budget "Lincoln" is grabbing all the headlines now. Why do another movie about the 16th president and what's different about your movie?

"As much as Lincoln brought a lightness to every situation, the 
darkness  he passed through is nearly unimaginable," director 
Salvador Litvak notes. (Library of Congress collection)
Litvak: Mr. Spielberg's movie focuses on the last four months of Lincoln's life, when the war was all but won. It is a brilliant and focused study of Lincoln the lawyer/politician harnessing tremendous skill and experience to get the 13th Amendment passed. "Saving Lincoln" explores Mr. Lincoln's entire tenure as Commander-in-Chief, and we do it from the unique perspective of his closest friend and protector, U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon. We explore the Sumter crisis (how do we keep cotton-hungry Europe from rushing to the CSA's defense?); the personal losses of Elmer Ellsworth, Ned Baker and most tragically Willie Lincoln; the McClellan problem, the lost opportunity at Antietam; the decision to Emancipate; the Gettysburg Address and its aftermath, the choice to promote Grant and the terrible arithmetic it brought, Fort Stevens, the '64 Election and more. The Lincoln story is huge, and of course we can not tell it all, but these chapters are crucial and no audience has ever experienced them from Lamon's unique vantage. He not only heard the President's thoughts on these matters -- he was also working night and day to protect Lincoln from assassination attempts that began in 1861 and continued throughout the war.

In addition, no movie has ever been made as ours was made, nor looks like ours looks. We made all our sets and locations out of vintage photographs from the Library of Congress, using a process I invented called CineCollage. You can get a sense of that look from our Motion-Poster/Teaser at

Lincoln is among the most studied men in American history. What new did you learn about him in the course of making this film?
Salvador Litvak: "Telling the whole story would require
 at  least a six-season TV show."

Litvak: His sense of humor for one. We're thankful he had so many stories and jokes that the ones he tells in our film do not overlap with the other Lincoln movie at all. But as much as Lincoln brought a lightness to every situation, the darkness he passed through is nearly unimaginable. One simply cannot grasp it from facts and figures. You have to spend time with the man to understand what each Union loss meant to him, including the loss of  [his son] Willie, whose illness arose from the transformation of Washington into an army camp. Perhaps most surprising for us was the moment that President Lincoln willfully stepped into the line of fire at Fort Stevens (in July, 1864). He was not there to give orders, and he was extremely reckless with his own safety. Why? What brought him to that juncture? That's one of the biggest questions we explore in "Saving Lincoln."

Tell me about Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's bodyguard and one of the main characters in the movie. What was he like?

Litvak: Lamon is the only friend Lincoln brought to Washington from Illinois. The position was unspecified -- Lincoln simply enjoyed having Lamon around. Lamon played banjo, told jokes, and had a unique ability to amuse the man who so amused others. He was also a Southerner, who'd left Western Virginia at 19 to pursue law in what was then the wild, untamed West, i.e. Illinois. Lamon was almost as tall as Lincoln and much more solid. As soon as Lincoln was elected in 1860, the death threats began pouring in. Lincoln's friends entrusted Lamon with getting Lincoln to Washington safely, but Lamon took that trust to a whole other level, appointing himself the presidential bodyguard. Remember that there was no Secret Service then as we know it today. No president had ever been assassinated. Lamon took to carrying two revolvers, a Bowie knife, brass knuckles and more. He was a character.

President Abraham Lincoln, seen just to the left of  bodyguard Ward Lamon (man with top hat), 
gives  his Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863 -- 149 years ago today. 
(Library of Congress collection; CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
It's not generally known that there were other attempts on Lincoln's life during his presidency. Tell us about them.

Litvak: The Baltimore Plot was the first, and a true conspiracy that included the Baltimore Chief of Police. In 1861, a large group of men planned a melee at the train station where Lincoln would pass on his way to D.C., so that assassins could plunge their knives into his side during the confusion. This was avoided with the help of Lamon and Allan Pinkerton. Other attempts included shootings on the road to the President's summer residence at the Soldier's Home (a bullet actually passed through his hat!), a bizarre attempt to infect him with yellow fever, a plan to blow up the White House, and the sabotage of his carriage which resulted in a serious injury to Mary. That injury, by the way, had consequences beyond the pain suffered by Mrs. Lincoln, as we show in our film.

Lincoln's bodyguard: Ward Hill Lamon
And finally, what's the biggest challenge in making a movie about Lincoln?

Litvak: Finding the right limiter. Telling the whole story would require at least a six-season TV show. Mr. Spielberg did it by focusing on a unique chapter. We did it by by focusing on a unique character. Lamon was an emotional man -- his tale is not objective. It is a memory piece, recollecting Lincoln's journey as he experienced it. But Lamon knew Lincoln for 18 years, perhaps none better.  Lamon loved his friend with all his heart and that love was requited. As Lincoln himself said, "The better part of one's life consists of his friendships."

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