There is quite the unique story about our most popular president that has yet to be told. As Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes its Academy Awards run, filmmaker Salvador Litvak is releasing Saving Lincoln. All this Lincoln mania of late has found a special story in Litvak's film that shows a side of the man who saved the union, as teased in our Saving Lincoln exclusive clip.
When Abraham Lincoln became president, he brought his Illinois-based best friend with him to Washington. Ward Hill Lamb would serve as the bodyguard for probably the most divisive president the nation had seen, up until that point.
“We had been trying to make a Lincoln movie for a long time,” Litvak said in our exclusive interview.
He and his writing partner wife, Nina Davidovich, were both Lincoln fanatics. For Davidovich, it began when she was six years old and she found a book at home of Lincoln’s jokes. She was struck that this serious guy had his own joke book.
Litvak identified with Lincoln on many levels as well. “I was too tall -- as I kid I stuck out. I was an outsider. And then there’s this guy who, when you look at Abraham Lincoln he doesn’t look like a president, and yet he presided over this nation’s greatest crisis,” he said.
“By the virtue of his determination to save it, he did. He did it at a time when it was not a given that democracy was viable. And it looks like it was going to fall apart. Lincoln knew that if the American experiment fell apart, the idea of a people’s government would fall apart.”
When they first sat down to write their Lincoln tale twelve years ago, there hadn’t been a Lincoln movie for decades and it seemed obvious that this was a great story. “We loved him, and so we wondered who does Lincoln love? That’s where we discovered Ward Hill Lamb. He loved Mary (Lincoln) and Lamb. He was the only buddy he brought from Illinois,” Litvak said.
Their idea was to take their Lincoln movie to the studios. “After two years of work, our agent set a date to take us to the studios on a Friday. That Wednesday, Steven Spielberg announced he was making a Lincoln movie,” Litvak admitted.
“He had Tom Hanks to play Lincoln, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin that was unpublished at that moment. Everyone’s going to get an Oscar! At that moment, it’s not that no one would buy our story, no one would read it. That was painful for us. But, I don’t give up on things.”
They figured Spielberg would make his movie and a few years would go by and they could then make theirs. “But… he was not making his Lincoln movie,” he said and laughed. “For five years it was Tom Hanks, and for another five years it was Liam Neeson. They weren’t making it. We had a Lincoln project ready to go.”
So, they decided to make their Lincoln movie independently. “Everyone thought we were insane. You can’t make that kind of movie independently,” Litvak said. “I thought there was a way. We green lit ourselves.”
They knew that this Lamb guy and his connection with Lincoln popped off the pages of Saving Lincoln. “It’s fascinating and a forgotten guy. He was closer to Lincoln than anybody. Mary became incapacitated with grief, migraines, and Lincoln spent more time with Lamb than with Mary,” Litvak said.
Litvak had the story, but how to make a movie with practically nothing?
“Doing so much research, I spent a lot of time in the online division of the Library of Congress, particularly photographs of this era. I would look at these pictures to get an idea of the landscape that this movie would take place,” he said.
The director would shoot his actors, and digitally insert the background from the Library of Congress. It was a movie created with a distinctive filmmaking process -- an inherently clever way of capturing a historical epic feel, with an independent movie budget.
“Even though the lenses were primitive, they were very dense and have a distinctive look to them. And the Library of Congress had digitized them and they looked amazing. And it’s available to anyone in the public. You can just download them. I thought, ‘We could make the movie out of this.’”