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Interview with Conspirator screenwriter James D. Solomon

May 1, 2011

James D. Solomon wrote "The Conspirator," the historical film on the conspiracy behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Imagine writing and researching on a single topic for an entire 18 years. That’s one major thesis paper we’re talking about there.

For screenwriter James D. Solomon, his 18 years of hard work has cumulated into The Conspirator, a historical film that tells the little-known true story behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Conspirator is the first film released by the American Film Company, a production house committed to creating historically accurate American films. It stars Robin Wright (Nine Lives) as Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner and the lone female convicted and executed for taking part in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln. James McAvoy (Atonement) plays Fredrick Aiken, a young lawyer who reluctantly defends Surratt for the crimes she is accused.

During an interview with me, Solomon discussed the responsibility he feels telling this story and where the truth really lies in a historical event that took place almost 150 years ago.

You’ve been working on this film for 18 years. Do you remember what interested you about this story back when you started writing it in 1993?

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Lincoln assassination, but it turns out most of us don’t. When I started this in 1993, I had no idea there were multiple attacks the night Lincoln was assassinated. I don’t think many people do. That’s what first caught my attention. What sustained my interest after many rewrites is this extraordinary mother and son story. That story is what fascinated me. I think The Conspirator is one of the most remarkable American stories hardly known.

Were you already a history buff going into this project? Did you think a film like this would only resonate with people who had an interest in the topic?

I think this is an extraordinary human story set against the backdrop of one of the most tactful moments in American history. I think that makes it a timeless and riveting story. I don’t see it limited to history buffs in any respect. I approached it as a journalist. I knew long ago I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I started working in news rooms when I was in high school. The change for me was that when I started I was reporting on a story that happened 130 something years ago – now 146 years ago.

I can’t even imagine how much research you’ve done over the last 18 years. Can you talk a little about that?

I looked at as many primary sources as possible. There are press accounts. There are some first-person accounts of what took place, but it’s limited. Then I looked at diaries of individuals who were in similar circumstances whether it was a union officer or a woman who ran a boarding house. I did not show a draft to anyone for three years as I researched and wrote and rewrote. This was a story no one knows wrapped in a story everyone knows.

Did you feel any responsibility in telling this story as accurately as possible?

I did. It’s an important story, so I was very careful in researching and portraying events as they occurred. First and foremost, history is not a progression of events. History is people – mothers, sons, elected officials – caught up in moments sometimes beyond their control and making decisions. To me, that is a very relatable story.

Was there ever a point during your research when you came across contradictory information? If so, how did you decide what to include and what not to include in the script?

That’s a very good question. Let’s just take for example Mary Surratt’s guilt. When I first started this script back in 1993, the portrayals of Mary were that she was a martyr, that she didn’t know what took place at the boarding house, and that she was innocent. More recently, the portrayals of her are that she certainly was part of some conspiracy and may have very well known about the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln.  Now, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The facts both camps have used to determine guilt or innocence have not changed a great deal over the years. The testimony hasn’t changed. Fundamentally, many of the facts are still the same, but those interpreting the facts have a different point of view. As scholarship increases and more people become interested in this subject, there will be facts that are unearthed. That will increase and expand our understanding of these circumstances and of the context.

I know there were many advisors who came on board to help with the film. How were they able to add any authenticity to the script based on their expertise?

They provided us with very helpful insights. One of the advisors was retired Col. Fred Borch. There is a line in the script where Fredrick Aiken says to his mates as he is considering whether or not to apply for a rite of Habeas Corpus, “If John Wilkes Booth were tried in this way it would be wrong.” That line actually comes from Fred. It’s something Aiken would have said. There’s no way I could know if that was really said because there’s no transcript, but it is consistent with what Aiken’s approach is and helps us understand just how unfair this trial was. My goal was always not only to faithfully portray the facts as we knew them, but the emotional truth behind them. I spent an enormous amount of time working on that.

Did you worry conservatives would scream propaganda because of director Robert Redford’s liberal political stance in his own life?

Let me answer it this way: If someone told me it was going to take 18 years to get my movie made, but that Robert Redford was going to direct it and that James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Justin Long, and this extraordinary cast were going to star in it, I would have signed up for that.

I’m looking forward to seeing more projects from the American Film Company, but do you think the majority of moviegoers feel like me? With the stresses of everyday life, do you think people care about history enough to go see a movie about something that happened 150 years ago?

I do think people care a great deal about history, but their history. The more we connect emotionally with our past and the more relatable the individuals are, the more it resonates with us. When it’s events and not people it’s harder and more abstract. In The Conspirator, I wrote about a moment in time and in the center I found an extraordinary human story.

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