Today the film Saving Lincoln hits select theaters, a look at Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency through the eyes of his most trusted advisor and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. The film stars Tom Amandes as Lincoln, Lea Coco as Lamon, Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln and Creed Bratton as Senator Charles Sumner.
Saving Lincoln is shot in an innovative new technique called CineCollage, taking old Civil War photos from the Library of Congress and using them as a backdrop with the entire movie filmed in front of a green screen. CineCollage was invented by director Salvador Litvak, who co-wrote Saving Lincoln along with his wife Nina Davidovich. Sal refers to them as a “mom and pop shop” whose previous film is the 2005 Passover comedy When Do We Eat?
Watch the exclusive making of featurette for Saving Lincoln and then read my interview with Litvak below!
The film doesn’t look like anything else. Talk about the technique you used to make it.
We developed this new style called CineCollage, and it’s very much an artistic choice that fits with the material. So first of all, it started from necessity in order to tell this very large, epic story on a microbudget - it was made for under a million dollars. We had to be very clever, inventive and bold and we found these wonderful photographs in the Library of Congress. Some of them were made with primitive cameras and lenses so the glass negative is very dense, and the Library of Congress digitized them at such a high resolution that anyone can download these things and then get deep inside. In the research I was looking into those pictures, and I thought I could move my camera through these pictures just like I’m moving my computer screen through them, and that was very exciting for me.
And I said, we could maybe just tell our whole story through these photographs. I was confident that it could be done but actually figuring out how to do it was very involved. We had to assemble a lot more volunteers in Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, and essentially take these photographs, cut them up into multiple layers and create three dimensional environments out of that that our cast could occupy so that we could tell the story. And if we’re cool about it, and film the actors and props in a muted color with the background in black and white, then we’re never trying to trick the audience and say this is all real. It’s very much a stylized look. People are very much enjoying it and what we noticed is that once we get into the story, after a minute or two they forget that this look is obviously stylized. They just sink into it, and the brain closes the loop for us. It very much suits what the story’s about, which is Lincoln’s closest friend and protector Ward Hill Lamon remembering how it all went down and remembering what it was like to be around Abraham Lincoln during the darkest hours of his life and of the nation, during the Civil War.
Would you shoot using CineCollage on another film?
Absolutely. I think the possibilities are really unlimited and the Civil War has this wonderful trove of early photography and if you follow it through the decades you have even more photography, stunning photography, so artistically, that gets you a much larger story than is normally available with a smaller budget. And if you want to tell a story for a hundred million dollars, then that story is only going to be told if you’re boxed into an action movie or some other box that justifies a hundred million dollars spent. And if you can spend much less than that, then that reopens the possibility of the kind of stories that can be told.
How long did you spend researching and searching for the right photos from the Library of Congress?
We’ve been working on this project a long time. Saving Lincoln was actually the second Lincoln script we wrote. The first one was called Lincoln’s Hat, and we started working on that one twelve years ago. At that time, there hadn’t been a Lincoln movie in decades, and Nina and I saw an opening and we were just very, very attached to Mr. Lincoln and to telling his story. So we started doing the research back then, and that was before Mr. Spielberg announced that he was going to do a Lincoln movie. In fact, when he did, that’s when our original project stopped dead. Nobody wanted to do anything with us when Spielberg was making his Lincoln movie. Years went by, he didn’t make his, we made a different film, we learned a lot, and then after a while we decided to make our Lincoln movie. We went back to our original script, as writers who had already been through the process from concept to completion, and we said, “We can do better! We can make a better script.” So we ended up throwing away the old script and starting a new one. And that was three years ago. And then we did the whole process of selecting the photographs, testing the process, we did a lot of pre-visualization and testing, just to try to see how this process could work. So that really has been about two years and we shot in the summer of 2011.
What drew you to tell Lincoln’s story from Lamon’s perspective?
When we wrote the first script, called Lincoln’s Hat – well, the problem when you make a Lincoln movie is that there’s so much information, if you don’t make a television series to tell the entire Lincoln story. So, if you’re going to make a two hour film, you have to find a way to limit the information. So our first device was a visual device, it was about Lincoln’s hat, so Lincoln’s hat would be the means of that information. Because at one point, he switched hats with a photographer, the hat went to the battlefield, people were talking about Lincoln, other soldiers – we would see things that Lincoln would not have seen just because his hat had traveled.
When we came back to it having taken some time and having worked on other projects, we said, “This visual device is clever, but it’s not emotional.” And we’re very, very interested in emotion, in feeling what Lincoln felt and what it was like to be around him. And as soon as we said, “Who’s a character that could give us the most insight into Lincoln the man?”, Ward Hill Lamon just popped right off the page to us. We read a lot of different books about Lincoln, one was that probably our favorite is the Carl Sandburg biography, which was written in the 30s. It’s definitely not current scholarship. But Carl Sandburg was a poet, as well as a journalist, and he captured the feeling of the time. He interviewed people who knew Lincoln and people who were involved in the story, or at least their parents knew Lincoln. And so Sandburg had a good feeling of what Lincoln was like. And this friendship just came right off the page. So many people loved Lincoln, but the guy that Lincoln loved was Lamon. He just wanted him around. He liked that Lamon played the banjo and sang and swapped jokes and stories. He was just really good company. And I think Lamon knew, quite rightly, that Lincoln was under tremendous pressure and he just needed somebody to unwind with.
The relationship with Mary was a very romantic relationship but she went through an unbelievable amount of pain. She lost her child, she suffered through migraine headaches that lasted for days, she was accused of being a spy because she was a Southerner and she had brothers who were Confederate generals. So they had a beautiful and loving relationship but she was a high-strung woman and at a certain point the pressure became so overwhelming to her. And she wasn’t available in a sense of somebody that could soothe Abraham Lincoln. Lamon could do that. He was the guy that Lincoln could unwind with and be most himself around. So Lamon becomes this wonderful prism to view Lincoln through. And what’s also fun about Lamon is that there’s not an objective – he’s not a historian, he’s not an analyst, he’s not a politician – he’s just devoted to Lincoln. And so that doesn’t make him a great historian, but it makes him a wonderful teller of the tale as somebody who was really there.
You mentioned his love of the banjo and of singing. There are a lot of musical numbers in the film – talk about the music in Saving Lincoln.
It was very important to Nina and me. We are not musicians, and we’re not very good singers, but we do love music. And the movie’s certainly not a musical, but at that time there were no computers, no radio, so if you wanted to pass the time, you were willing to sing even if you didn’t have a great voice. It offered a quite natural humanity to the people who were singing the songs and the times that they sang them. Music was kind of a medicine for Lincoln.
One of my favorite scenes in Saving Lincoln is when they’re on a train on the way to Washington, and he hasn’t been sworn in yet but the pressure’s already immense. Half of the states in the South have already seceded and the other half are threatening to go. War is imminent. Lincoln knows he’s being entrusted with the Great American Experiment. Now more than half of the countries in the world are democracies, but back then, it was basically just America using democracy and it looked like it was going to fall apart. And that meant so much to Lincoln. To him, everything about America was captured in the Declaration of Independence and this idea that the people could govern themselves and within that system, anyone that worked hard enough and was smart enough, if they doggedly pursued a career they could make it. That just wasn’t the case in other parts of the world. And now the American Experiment looked like it was about to fail, and fail under his watch. He just wasn’t going to let that happen, and yet his options were so constricted. So on the train ride, half of the states were going and he could neither speak nor remain silent. If he spoke, it would be thought of as belligerent and war would begin and if he remained silent, the President would be perceived as weak and that could start a war.
So what are you going to do? No one knows, no one could advise him. So they just sing this silly little song, Old Man Tucker, and I think that was an important part of Lincoln’s office. It’s part of my life, when I can’t solve a problem, I just sing a song, or do something silly, go for a walk, do something to bring my stress level down. I think it mattered to him, and for us, as writers, we really enjoyed it too. So when Lamon sang to Lincoln, we’re getting an insight to their characters through the song.
See if Saving Lincoln is playing near you, and if so, check it out. I know it’s been a big year for our 16th President on the silver screen, but the film offers a perspective – and a look – like no other.