Filmmaker Salvador Litvak has been trying to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln for 12 years, a dream that was finally realized with the completion of his independent film “Saving Lincoln.” But Litvak is hardly alone in his fascination: This year, we saw the 19th century president catapulted into the 21st century zeitgeist with the release of Steven Spielberg’s big-budget “Lincoln” biopic, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a fantasy horror film with Lincoln as a vampire hunter; and multiple museum exhibits on the 16th president. So why, 147 years after his death, at this time of ferocious political discourse, has Lincoln become such a high-profile figure? Litvak believes it may lie in people’s thirst for lost civility. “Not since Moses has there been a man who models so beautifully how to live and how to treat others as Abraham Lincoln,” Litvak said.
The writer-director of this very American story was born in Chile and came to the United States as an immigrant with his family at the age of 5. His father’s family, from Russia, and his mother’s, from Hungary, each migrated to Chile. His maternal grandmother survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin along with her infant daughter. “My family was extremely conscious of the Holocaust. My grandmother was living with us, and any time there was a Holocaust-related program on TV, she and my mother would watch it with tears in their eyes,” Litvak said. “My family was Conservative, but not Orthodox. Growing up, I didn’t think that Judaism was very spiritual, but that was a big awakening for me as an adult. Now I’m very into it.”
Litvak’s obsession with making a Lincoln film originated with his wife and co-writer, Nina, who as a child discovered Lincoln through a book of his favorite jokes, which she found on her parents’ shelf. “People don’t know that Lincoln was very funny and was constantly telling jokes and funny stories, so that amazed her when she was 6,” Litvak said. When his wife proposed the idea of a movie, Litvak found he had his own connections to the man. “I had always been fascinated with Shakespeare,” he said. “He wrote about kings and queens, and those stories are very intimate and personal, but they take place on this big stage where the things that happen within those families affect nations. If Shakespeare were writing today, I think he would pick a subject like Abraham Lincoln, because his story is so full of contradictions, so personal and human, yet it played out on this grand stage of history and war.” Litvak said he felt a personal connection as well. “As a kid, I was a tall bean pole with bright red hair … an immigrant. I felt like such an outsider,” he said. “And Lincoln, with respect to the political establishment of the U.S. during the time that he lived, was the ultimate outsider. So I had a similar fascination with him growing up, because I think he’s a hero to everyone who sees themself as an outsider. I think that’s why he’s so loved.”
Litvak and his wife spent two years researching and writing their Lincoln script and were very proud of their completed work but found their timing could not have been worse. “The week that we finished, Steven Spielberg announced that he was making a Lincoln movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. So, at that moment, all the work that we’d done had become useless in the studio world,” Litvak said. “No one would even read it, let alone make it, because of Spielberg’s film.”
The couple licked their wounds and moved on to make the Passover seder comedy “When Do We Eat?” (2005), which became a cult hit. But their desire to make a Lincoln movie persisted, and with Spielberg’s movie still unrealized, Litvak and his wife decided to move ahead. They tossed out their old script and started from scratch, this time finding a unique point of view from which to tell their story, through the character of Ward Hill Lamon.
“Lamon is a fascinating character, a Southerner who was guarding Lincoln during the war and had saved him from repeated assassination attempts that began in 1861,” Litvak explained. “He came to Washington from Illinois as part of his entourage, because Lincoln liked having him around. He appointed himself Lincoln’s bodyguard, because there was no Secret Service. No one had heard of a presidential assassination at that time, but Lamon recognized the danger and stepped into that role.” (Lamon, however, was not at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.)
The obstacle now was how to tell this grand story on a small budget. “In our research we found these wonderful photographs from the Library of Congress, and I’d seen movies like ‘300’ and ‘Sin City’ and thought, ‘We can do this!’ ” Litvak said. “I bet we can shoot this as a green-screen movie and fill in the background with the photographs. At this point, it was just a theory, and we weren’t sure it was really possible, but we committed to it and assembled a small but incredibly talented and dedicated team to make it happen. It ended up being much more involved and difficult than we ever expected, but we did it.”
While it may be difficult to compete with a big-budget, major studio film on the same subject, Litvak believes his film offers a perspective on Lincoln that has not been seen in any of the previous films on his life. “Perhaps, most important, how dark and difficult his presidency was,” Litvak said. “The gentlest of men, who said he could never break the neck of a chicken for his dinner, charged with armies spilling rivers of blood. He found himself in that position, and we’re showing the unique point of view of this from his close friend Lamon. He saw a Lincoln that no one else saw during Lincoln’s darkest hours.”
“Saving Lincoln” will be released in theaters on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 2013.
To see a teaser trailer of Saving Lincoln and learn more about the film, visit www.SavingLincoln.com