Abraham Lincoln, who was born on this day in 1809, is not only the subject of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated "Lincoln," but also "Saving Lincoln," an indie historical drama filmed entirely on green-screen. The film comes out in select theaters this Friday. Exclusive to Indiewire, writer-director Salvador Litvak shares a scene from his film and explains his process to bring it to the screen.
Long before Steven Spielberg announced he was making a movie about Abraham Lincoln, my wife/writing partner, Nina Davidovich, and I had embarked on our own Lincoln film. Writing a Lincoln script is not a casual undertaking: he is the second-most-written-about human being, and we dug as deeply as we could into that literature. After nearly two years of solid work, we had a polished screenplay and our agent set a date for submission to the studios. There hadn't been a feature film about Lincoln in a long time, and the tracking boards lit up. We prayed for that holy grail of the unproduced screenwriter: a spec sale.
Two days before the submission date, we received a late night call from Nina’s sister in Paris, where the news had just broken: “Steven Spielberg is making a Lincoln movie.” He’d bought a book by well-known historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Tom Hanks was attached to play the 16th President. Oscars were expected. Nina freaked out. I said, somehow this is for the best. We’re obviously on the right track - our challenging historical drama just became a commercial idea. Unfortunately, Nina’s reaction was more realistic. It wasn't that our script wouldn't sell - no one would even read it. We were lepers.
Fine, I said. I didn't come to L.A. to sell screenplays. I have a directing MFA from UCLA, I made successful short films, and my plan was always to direct features. The Lincoln debacle simply put me back on track. After a few rounds of setting up an indie project and watching it evaporate, we finally went all the way: our irreverent but inspiring Passover comedy, "When Do We Eat?" was released by ThinkFilm and became a cult hit. For many people, it has become a holiday tradition. As filmmakers, we learned a ton by seeing the process through from concept to completion.
For a follow-up film, we tried to mount a bigger production, and met with the usual obstacles. Meanwhile, time passed and Mr. Spielberg had not made his Lincoln movie. It was frustrating because we're passionate about Abraham Lincoln. If we couldn't see our own Lincoln film, at least we could see his, and after a few years, the way would open again for ours. No one knew, however, when Mr. Spielberg would make his movie, and therefore no one would help us make ours. Argh!
Fine, I said. I'm an independent filmmaker; I'm going to find a way to make a Lincoln movie independently. My friends said, "Ridiculous - you can't mount a period drama on an indie budget. Here, look at this project about a regular guy who falls in love with porn star, or this one about a 20-something slacker battling angst…" No. We were determined to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln. It was personal. Nina and I felt we owed it to Mr. Lincoln himself to tell his story. So we stepped up to the plate again.
The first thing we did was take a closer look at our script. Having grown as writers, we realized we could do better. The challenge in tackling a subject as large as Lincoln is to limit the information. Our original device was Lincoln's hat - it was in every scene, even if he wasn't. It was a good visual device, but not an emotional point of view.
When we renewed our research with an eye on character, one man leapt off the page: Ward Hill Lamon, the only friend Lincoln brought to Washington from Illinois - position unspecified - because Lincoln liked having him around. Lamon was funny, played banjo, and as a native Virginian, he gave Lincoln insight into the Southern mind. He was also handy with a gun, and when the first assassination attempt occurred on the way to Washington in 1861, Lamon appointed himself the President’s bodyguard. The Secret Service did not yet exist, and Lincoln habitually refused any other sort of protection, leaving only Lamon to protect him from the repeated attempts on his life over the next four years.
From this unique perspective Lamon observed Lincoln's daily life, the unrelenting pressure, and the crippling weight of the Civil War's darkest hours. Lamon was not present at Ford's theater on that fateful night in 1865 because Lincoln sent him away on a mission, yet it is Lamon who redefines that infamous tragedy in a surprising and uplifting way.
In our renewed research I also discovered a trove of Civil War images in the Library of Congress that have been digitized at extremely high resolution. They’re part of our national heritage, and anyone can download them. I often imagined scenes from Saving Lincoln occurring within those locations, and then one day I had the “Aha!” moment. Watch the exclusive scene on page two...