Living With Lincoln Filmmaker Explains Why the Project Was a Family Affair
Peter, did working with your sons affect how you approached the film?
We approached this film from a father and sons perspective. George is 27, Teddy is 29, and I'm 63. This film is very much about parents and their children relating to each other, going back as far as Lincoln and his sons. It's a theme that really resonated for all of us. I've worked with Teddy and George for a number of years, even before they graduated from college. They produced films with me on Gloria Steinem and Richard Nixon.
Would you say this was the most personal film you've worked on?
It's the only one that was personal for us. Personal feelings come out when you produce in general, but when the story you're working on is actually your own story, it's a completely new experience. It was difficult to tap into the first-person storytelling that this film required. There was a six to eight-month period when my sons were trying to convince me to be the voice of the film and narrate it, but I resisted because my documentary experience was to let the subjects speak for themselves.
You spoke to descendants of Lincoln?
They weren't direct descendants ? his lineage actually ended in the 20th century. These were descendants of the people who knew Lincoln in Springfield. A lot of those people still live in the area and were very happy to work with us.
What was it like growing up with this Lincoln heritage?
I was just talking to a friend of mine who remembered that in fourth grade, our father brought in a crew to film us singing the American presidents' song for something he was working on.
Why is Lincoln such an indelible figure?
Lincoln is endlessly fascinating to people who read about him and think about him. He was so human ? so strong on one hand and weak on the other. He was a regular human being with different sides to him. Those photographs capture his different moods in that he looks different in every single one of them.
Is that something you sought to capture in the film?
The film is about life and death and happiness and sadness. We dug through our ancestors' research, and we realized that all the emotions Lincoln went through, my great-grandfather, my grandmother, myself and my sons have all gone through too. It levels the playing field for all of us?whether it's Lincoln grappling with the Civil War or my grandmother struggling to reconcile the balance of her life and her work.
Peter, you worked on a number of films about the Kennedys as well. Are there similarities between Lincoln and JFK?
The most obvious comparison is that they were both assassinated presidents. When Jack Kennedy was murdered, his wife used the template of Lincoln's funeral to replicate those traditions. Lincoln's funeral procession stopped in every major city ? the outpouring of grief was just phenomenal. They were both engraved as icons in the American memory because of the way they both died.
In the film, Peter refers to the Lincoln collection as a "glorious burden." Has that burden now been relieved?
The physical burden has been relieved; we've literally been schlepping these boxing for years and years. Now it's going to be one of Yale's challenges, and they have the facilities and staff to oversee it. But Lincoln is in our blood.