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…I’d seen movies like “Sin-City,” “300,” and the lesser-known “The Lady and The Duke”by Eric Rohmer. I knew it was possible to shoot a whole movie on a green screen stage and build its environments digitally. No one had done it with vintage photographs, but I figured, , why not? It took a lot of testing during the pre-viz process to find an approach that would work for the story, and remain doable on a very indie budget. One of the earliest choices I had to make was black & white vs. color. If we went all one way or the other, we would be continually trying to trick the audience into believing that the actors and the sets co-existed in the same narrative reality. The problem with that approach is that a visual effect that’s 99% right looks 100% wrong, and on our budget we could never maintain that level of quality. Instead, I realized stylization would save us. By keeping the actors, furniture and props in color, and leaving the vintage plates in black & white, I could offer a stylized world that never attempted to trick the audience. And that stylized look suits the nature of the narrative because Lamon’s story is a memory piece. I named this new cinematic style CineCollage, and it owes as much to stage craft as it does to cinema craft.
When we were shooting, the actors and I worked on a huge green screen stage at Atomic Studios in downtown LA, the only affordable place of its size. Unfortunately, it’s not really a soundstage, and we often had to cut for trains, planes, helicopters and sirens. I remember it fondly, however, because it was such a creative space for the whole team.
I purposely cast the movie with an eye to stage experience. We treated our huge green box like a little black box theater. We did rough compositing on-set so that we’d all be on the same page. This allowed our DP, Alex Naufel and our VFX Producer, Kristian Hansen, to match camera height, distance and lens with the work of pioneering photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. It also enabled the cast to envision the environments they’d ultimately occupy. While actually shooting, however, they relied on each other to stay grounded in Lamon’s reality.
In this clip, I include three short, consecutive scenes that illustrate three different challenges we faced in our CineCollage process. In part 1, we have an outdoor scene that emphasizes the epic scope of our film. Lincoln and Lamon test Spencer’s new repeating rifles at the foot of the unfinished Washington Monument – an iconic image in “Saving Lincoln.” The sky glows white, a characteristic of the wet collodion photo process that could not capture contrast in brightly lit areas. Those ghostly skies form a motif in the film, suggesting death not as tragedy, but as destiny. This is a visual way to get at the heart of Lamon’s narrative. Like the soldiers who died before him, Lincoln’s life and struggles served their intended purpose. He completed his journey, and felt gratitude for seeing his work completed. Over the course of the movie, those skies occupy more and more of the frame as Lincoln’s inevitable demise approaches, and they finally help Lamon redefine the meaning of that event.
In part 2, we have an indoor scene at the Armory Square Hospital. Because wet collodion photography required so much light, there are relatively few indoor pictures, making this a fortunate find. The photographs also required long exposure times, so subjects had to be absolutely still or end up blurred. In this case, I had to choose whether or not to keep our period “extras” in the shot even though some would be blurred in a manner not acceptable for a normal movie. I chose to honor the boys who sacrificed their lives and limbs in the Civil War. I couldn’t have done that if the choice popped our audience out of Lamon’s narrative, but once again, CineCollage allowed us to make a stylized choice consistent with Lamon’s memory piece and Lincoln’s own love for the soldiers in the Union Army.
Finally, in part 3 we have a kitchen converted to a surgical ward. Washington DC was ill equipped to handle the enormous number of injured men returning from battle, and such scenes were common. The point of the scene is Lincoln’s reaction to the gruesome procedure. I needed to move the camera past the operating table, lest the audience focus on that painful image rather than Lincoln’s own grim determination to witness the practical effects of his written orders.
To accomplish that move, our visual effects team had to convert a 150 year old, 2D image into a 3D environment through which the camera could dolly. It’s a huge job, requiring the compositor to build a 3D model and skin its surfaces with photographic material. We could never afford to do that for every scene, so I had to pick my spots carefully. The impact of this scene justified the effort.
Having made one CineCollage film, I’d like to make another. We spent enormous resources learning how to do it, so we’re the go-to team for this approach. Nina and I have been researching John L. Sullivan, the last Bare Knuckle Champion of the world, and the first modern celebrity. He lived in 1880’s New York, and the photographs of that period are stunning. The lessons of CineCollage, however, extend far beyond period photography. What we’ve really done is learn how to make an all-VFX independent film that’s epic in scope yet intimately performed. I’ve also got a science fiction saga in mind, based on books written by Dani & Eytan Kollin that are absolutely brilliant, and perhaps that will be next.