Anyone who has read a post or a blog by me knows that I am a serious fan of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and Ward Hill Lamon, both good friends of Abraham Lincoln. I love those guys, and I write about them whenever I get the chance. It was in response to a blog post concerning Lamon that I was first introduced to Sal and Nina Litvak.
Sal is a Harvard graduate with a law degree from NYU, but the lure of Los Angeles and the movie business was too strong to resist. After graduating from UCLA’s Film School, Sal and his wife/writing partner Nina Davidovich Litvak combined their talents into one of the fastest rising independent film powerhouses in the industry. Google them up!
I have supported their efforts from the first time I heard about their movie, Saving Lincoln. After all, both my Colonel and my banjo player are in it! As the dates for its release approached, I asked for an interview. Both graciously agreed.
So–how did this movie begin? Why Ward Hill Lamon?
I have been a Lincoln buff since childhood, when I discovered a book called The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book on my parents’ shelf. The book contained stories and jokes told by and about Lincoln. What struck me was how funny some of the stories were, and how humble Lincoln himself was. As a writer, Lincoln is an appealing character because he was so full of contradictions.
Over ten years ago, I had the idea to do a Lincoln movie because there hadn’t been one since the 1950s. Sal and I researched extensively and wrote a script that we were very happy with, but as soon as we finished it, Steven Spielberg announced that he was doing a Lincoln movie. At that point, nobody would touch our script. Our Lincoln project was dead as a viable studio movie. So we put away the script and focused on other projects. We made a movie called When Do We Eat? that has become a cult hit. But meanwhile, the years passed and Spielberg didn’t make his movie. We didn’t know if he ever would, and so we determined to make ours.
We decided we needed a new angle on Lincoln. Our voluminous research included the most essential Lincoln book, the monumental multi-volume masterpiece by Carl Sandburg. Through Sandburg, we learned that Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s best friend and primary bodyguard throughout his presidency. Lamon was a banjo-picking Southerner and the only friend Lincoln brought with him from Springfield. Lamon seemed like the perfect prism through which to view Lincoln, since he saw a side of Lincoln few others ever got to see.
What about the decision to include Elmer Ellsworth as part of the movie? I have heard from several Ellsworth fans that you reached out to people who seemed interested in this part of Lincoln’s life for information. How was the decision to include Ellsworth made?
From our earliest research into Lincoln, Elmer Ellsworth fascinated us. He was an exceptional young man, brimming with talent and charisma, who represented the best of America. His death was an enormous loss for the country and for the Lincoln family, as he was a close friend. It immediately drove home the reality of war for President Lincoln. We’re proud to bring Colonel Ellsworth to life, because he was such a hero, and because he’s been sadly forgotten by most.
Could you explain CineCollage? How did you decide to use it for your movie, and are you glad you did?
CineCollage started as a means to an end – a way to make an epic Civil War film on an indie budget. We filmed the entire movie in front of a green screen and created the backgrounds out of vintage photographs from the Library of Congress. With CineCollage we were able to capture an authenticity that can’t be achieved for any amount of money. The settings, buildings, and background people are the real settings, buildings and people of the Civil War. The movie has a beautiful and unique look because the backgrounds are in black and white and the people and props are in muted color. At its heart, Saving Lincoln is a memory piece by Lamon, and the film’s stylized look works hand-in-hand with that narrative.
Rockabilly Dave Alvin–an inspired choice. What inspired you?
Regarding Dave Alvin, we were lucky because our production music director Willie Aron is a friend of Dave’s from way back. We thought his uniquely deep and American voice would be perfect for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which we play over the end credits. Dave came in to sing it and also recorded a couple of other songs we use in the movie. I should mention that, while not a musical, “Saving Lincoln” has 5 musical numbers featuring classic American folk tunes like “Old Dan Tucker” and the gospel song “Oh Mary Don’t you Weep.”
Was the Kickstarter idea something you felt would be included all along, or was it just necessary to get more money? What has it been like to work with Kickstarter?
We always planned on doing something with Kickstarter, because it’s a great way to raise money as well as connect directly with our audience. We were fortunate in that we obtained production financing so we didn’t need Kickstarter to finance the movie itself. What we need now is publicity and the Kickstarter money can help with that by enabling us to get ads, billboards, etc. Kickstarter has been great and we’ve already made almost twice our original goal. What’s hard is bugging everybody you know to back your project, but we’ve been incredibly blessed in that 90% of our backers are strangers who found our film and sparked to it.
Since the Kickstarter campaign has gone so well, I have noticed that you have added more cities to your opening lineup. This list includes Springfield, Illinois, where it will be shown at the Abraham Lincoln Association’s annual symposium. Where else will it be shown?
We are very excited that “Saving Lincoln” will have a special screening in Springfield, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Association Symposium! This yearly event draws the top Lincoln scholars in the world, and previous speakers include Senators, Governors and even our President. It will be showing on February 11. The next day – Lincoln’s birthday! – the film has another special screening in Washington, DC at the Old Naval Hospital. Then we have the Red Carpet Premiere in LA on the 13th, and it opens on February 15 in select theaters around the country.
Where else might Saving Lincoln be seen?
“Saving Lincoln” will be available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes soon after our theatrical release. We are trying to get the film to as many cities as we can, but those people who don’t get to see it in a theater won’t have to wait long to see it at home.
And finally, what is next?
We are working on several upcoming projects including a film about John L. Sullivan, the last bareknuckle boxing champion, a TV show about the newspaper wars of the 1880’s, and a family adventure movie.
Readers, buffs, students, everyone–this movie promises to be a beautiful film, and a worthwhile contribution to Civil War and Lincoln filmography. I couldn’t be prouder to have contributed to the Kickstarter effort, or to present this interview.
Huzzah, and a couple of Tigers!
Please access the links below to find out more about Saving Lincoln, CineCollage, Dave Alvin and Kickstarter.
They Shall Not Be Forgotten: Faces of the Civil War/Dave Alvin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIFy1cQjq-E