Talking with the production company that aims to put the accurate details in historical dramas
Published: April 13, 2011
Read a review of The Conspirator
As the country marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and all the big stories it entails, the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, one of the lesser-known stories from that era, gets the Robert Redford treatment in theaters this week. The story of Mary Surratt, the titular figure of The Conspirator, is not well known. She owned the boarding house where the men who planned the “decapitation” strike on the U.S. government stayed, and was imprisoned, tried, and hung for her presumed role in the conspiracy. Either her defense at the hands of two young attorneys (the movie portrays only one, Frederick Aiken) failed her, or she was railroaded by an establishment bent on retribution—it’s still a subject of historical debate. Either way, she ended up the first woman the U.S. government executed.
Such stories drew successful entrepreneur Joe Ricketts to the movie-production business: The guy behind Ameritrade and part-owner of the Chicago Cubs founded the American Film Company to produce movies based on U.S. history. The Conspirator is its first. City Paper chatted with Alfred Levitt, the American Film Company’s chief operating officer, about the challenges of producing a historically accurate movie.
City Paper : What is the American Film Company’s role in the filmmaking?
Alfred Levitt: For this film we had three historians who were involved from development through production. One was Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, there was retired Col. Frederick Borch, who is [a] full-time historian for the U.S. Army, and who was the first [chief] prosecutor at Guantanamo, and we had Tom Turner who is an expert in the Lincoln assassination and a professor at Bridgewater College.
The production team actually had the historians’ numbers literally on speed dial during the production. There’s a scene where Danny Huston, who plays the prosecutor, Judge Advocate General Holt . . . he’s swearing in the witnesses. At some point Danny pauses, and says, “Why am I swearing in the witnesses?”—and of course no one had any idea why it was, so they speed-dial Fred Borch, and said, “Why is this right?” and of course [Robert] Redford is keenly interested to the answer to this question. And Borch said in 1865, for military tribunals, the prosecutor swore in the witnesses. That was true then, and that’s true today actually. In military tribunals in Guantanamo, it’s the military prosecutor who swears in the witnesses.
CP : I read that Surratt actually had two defenders. Was Aiken’s character a composite, or how was that handled?
AL: The example you mention is a function of the realities in trying to compress months, and in the case of some of our other movies, years, into a two-hour experience. Some judgments have to be made.
CP : You’re not making a miniseries, right?
AL: Yeah, sometimes it feels like these subjects warrant that kind of extensive treatment. . . . It’s actually hard to get it short and get it right. The second chair—and I’m not a historian or an expert so I don’t want to get into the deep end too far here—but I do know his role was not significant in the trial, certainly not in the way Aiken’s was. The Aiken character played by [James] McAvoy is not a composite character. That is Aiken. A lot of the dialogue, for example, in McAvoy’s closing remarks to the tribunal are actually lifted from Aiken’s closing remarks to the tribunal in the transcript. Some judgments like that were made. Very few, frankly, other than the compression of time, which has to happen to get the film made. In general, where the actual historical record is known, we tried to remain true to it, and where it was unknown, we tried to make informed judgments based on thoughtful input from the consulting historians.
CP : How did the Conspirator script—which I read had been around for more than a decade—come to be the first film you did?
AL: Our theory in forming the company was that every writer has his or her American history script that he or she has written. Because these movies aren’t often produced, they’re sitting on a shelf somewhere. So we went out initially to these agencies and said, “These are movies we’re going to produce, let us know if you have any scripts that qualify.” And we got over 300 scripts. . . . The guys read all of these scripts and winnowed them down to a few great ones. They described The Conspirator as the best unproduced script they’ve ever read. I thought that was quite an endorsement.
CP : Even though it’s a historical movie, you can’t help but see the parallels to our own time.
AL: For us, the most important thing about the screenplay, and ultimately the movie, was that it was a compelling story. In some ways it is a deeply personal story. It’s the story of Surratt’s relationship with Aiken, and that was kind of a hook for us. It’s also this unknown piece of history. For many people the story of Lincoln’s death is kind of that soundbite of “John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre,” and that’s all we learned. That’s all I learned, frankly. The fact that there is this story behind that headline is so compelling, that there’s this decapitation strike on the U.S. government with simultaneous attacks on the secretary of state and the vice president, and then there was this crazy trial that followed. All these events really captured the country in a way that was fed by the great emotion that was pulsing through the country at this time. Those are the things that drew us to the story.
In terms of modern parallels, they are there. It’s inevitable, and I think audiences are going to find them. The reality of the script, of course, is that it was written before 9/11 and before Guantanamo and all of the issues that people are grappling with today, so it wasn’t intended to speak to those issues. I guess for me what it speaks to is the cyclical nature of history. I think you have to be careful not to draw too many parallels between 1865 and Guantanamo. There are important differences.
The American Bar Association had a great panel discussion about this. The theme of the panel was, “In times of war, do the laws fall silent?” It was incredibly thought-provoking. . . . I think there are important parallels and I think the audience will inevitably find those, but for us it was this personal story.
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