Monday, January 07, 2013

TSH Hollywood - My Exclusive Interview with Saving Lincoln Director Salvador Litvak

The following is our exclusive interview with "Saving Lincoln" director Salvador Litvak.  He is a graduate of Harvard College, NYU Law School, and the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. He directed the Passover comedy and cult hit "When Do We Eat?" starring Jack Klugman, which he wrote with his wife, Nina Davidovich Litvak.

Although The Straight Hype fully endorses Mr. Litvak and Saving Lincoln, his participation in this interview is in no way an endorsement of the views and opinions expressed on this blog.

1 - Before we get into the movie, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Chile and grew up in NY. I was a lawyer for two years before I went to film school. My writing partner is also my wife, Nina. I blog at and I believe a good conversation is one in which both parties learn something neither knew before.

2 - Over the last few decades, we've seen the story of President Lincoln portrayed at different times in his life, told through the eyes of many different people. Robert Redford's The Conspirator was told though the eyes of Mary Surratt's defense attorney, Frederick Aiken; The Day Lincoln Was Shot was recounted through the eyes of John Wilkes Booth; Stephen Spielberg's latest blockbuster Lincoln draws from historical accounts of those who served under him in his cabinet; even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter peered through the eyes of Joshua Speed and William Johnson. What drew you to Ward Hill Lamon?

Ward Hill Lamon was President Lincoln's best friend and self-appointed bodyguard. He's the ideal narrator because he was so close to Lincoln - a daily companion. Historians pay him less respect because he was an emotional fellow, often lacking objectivity about Lincoln's actions, but no one questions his loyalty. He would at times grow furious with Lincoln for being so careless with his personal safety, but he remained a faithful friend and protector. He also shared Lincoln's sense of humor, and entertained him with songs and banjo-playing. And he was a Southerner protecting the President while so many of his brethren were doing just the opposite.

3 - Oftentimes, when going into a Lincoln film, if you're not a Lincoln buff, you feel a bit lost. For example, the opening sequence of The Conspirator almost pre-supposed the audience did their homework. Will Saving Lincoln be accessible to audience members who may not have a broader knowledge of Lincoln, his life, and his legacy?

Absolutely. Our movie is primarily about Lincoln the man - what he experienced at the center of America's bloodiest conflict. The pressure on him was unrelenting. Congressmen, generals, newspaper editors...even his own party were all arrayed him against him. They called him feeble, unsophisticated, ineffective, etc. They all underestimated him, but they made his life very difficult throughout his administration. And he lost many people to untimely death - family and friends, as well as the soldiers he cared so deeply about.

4 - This movie has attracted some big names. What drew mega-stars such as Penelope Ann Miller and Creed Bratton to this project?

The subject and the script at first. Then they were intrigued by our CineCollage style. No one made a movie before using this process, and they were curious how we would pull it off. We did extensive tests, and showed them the results. They liked it. And they were fantastic to work with - total pros and team players.


5 - Marshal Lamon's legacy seems to be be a mixed one. The blurbs about Saving Lincoln are very pro-Lamon. Was there a concerted effort on your part to preserve Lamon's honor and place in history, or does the movie explore some of the less than flattering pictures some have painted about him?

Lamon was a bit goofy, but that's what Lincoln loved about him. He was also courageous as hell, and he was there for Lincoln during the President's darkest hours. Mary suffered terribly from grief, stress and migraines, and she was not able to comfort Lincoln in the same way that a buddy could. Lincoln could unwind with Lamon. When you imagine the pressure cooker Lincoln occupied 24/7 for four years, you realize how important that role was. And of course, Lamon saved Lincoln's physically by keeping the assassins and kidnappers at bay.

6 - President Lincoln had a fervent desire that the re-unification of the United States be a conciliatory process. Robert E. Lee and other prominent figures of the Confederacy, while mourning the death of the President, accurately predicted that this hope was smashed the day he was shot by Booth. Do you think the harshness endured during reconstruction could have been averted had Lincoln survived the shooting, and how do you think it would have changed the south and how it is perceived today?

That is a complex and loaded question. I'm not a historian, but I know that there were many currents involved in that storm. Lincoln certainly wanted to reunite his people - he never considered the South to be another country. Southerners remained Americans in his eyes and he wanted to leave the bloodshed behind for good. Others felt differently, and would have imposed their views whether he was President or not. I do believe, however, that the South lost its best friend in Washington CIty that day.

7 - This movie is very special in that it was shot on a single stage using green screen technology. Tell us a bit about this method of film-making.

The actors performed in a studio, in front of a giant emerald screen we called the Green Mile. The furniture and props were real, but everything else was composited digitally in post-production, out of actual Civil War era photographs that we downloaded from the Library of Congress. On set, we had rough live comps so we could match camera angles with the pioneering work of photographers like Brady and Gardner, but the fine work was done in post. I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe we pulled this off. For an indie film to rely on visual effects for every single shot of the film is... ambitious. Truthfully it's insane, but now that we pulled it off, we can call it ambitious. It was possible thanks to a tight team of dedicated artists, working both smart and hard over the past year. The look is unique - we decided early on that we weren't trying to fool anyone. The backgrounds remain in black and white, the foregrounds in color, though highly desaturated. It's a stylized look, but an accessible one which invites the viewer to complete the loop.

8 - So what can our readers expect going into Saving Lincoln?

You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you might even sing - the characters do. It's not a musical, but people sang more in those days before TV and radio. Especially Lamon. Most of all, though, you will experience Abraham Lincoln leading the nation to victory in the Civil War at great personal cost. And you will also see how Elizabeth Keckly - another close companion of the Lincolns and a former slave who purchased her own freedom - helped bring freedom to all of her people.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to our readers. We look forward to seeing Saving Lincoln and wish you much success.

Thank you so much - your support for an independent film like ours is truly appreciated. I invite all your readers to visit Saving Lincoln on a Kickstarter, where they can view our trailer, see how the movie was made, hear a song recorded for the film by the legendary Dave Alvin, and become part of the Saving Lincoln story:

Our readers can follow Saving Lincoln by Salvador Litvak at:

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