A while ago I wrote about Robert Redford’s upcoming film about Mary Surratt, one of the more controversial players in the Lincoln assassination. Robin Wright Penn is cast as Surratt and James McAvoy will play her attorney. Film director Chris King contacted me after reading my short piece about Redford’s planned film. King had just finished his own film about Mrs. Surratt. When he told me about his film I was intrigued, even more so after seeing a clip on his Watermark films website.
Chris King is an award winning, Emmy nominated writer/producer/director. His independent feature, Touching Down, did very well on the festival circuit winning awards and receiving a great deal of praise. He’s also directed four short films. The Killing of Mary Surratt is his latest, written with his wife Heather and directed for his own Watermark Films.
After King contacted me about his film, I was curious how he became interested in making a film about Surratt. The Lincoln assassination is obviously a fascinating and dramatic subject, but the focus is always on John Wilkes Booth. Surratt is always a minor player and to my knowledge neither her role in the assassination or her life has been explored in depth on film.
King told me how the idea for the film came about:
“I came across the idea for “Mary” two years ago when at a bookstore. Saw a display of Lincoln assassination books and perused one specifically about the conspirators. Everyone knows about J.W. Booth, but I got completely drawn into the Surratt aspect of it. I didn’t know – or I didn’t remember -learning about these four other conspirators with Booth when in school. Especially the whole boardinghouse “nest that hatched the egg” accusation, and Mary being the first woman put to death by the government aspects of the saga. The hoods on the prisoners (with the open mouths so they can breathe) visual got into my head though, and I immediately envisioned a short from this hanging. Something short and intense that an actress could go to town with, emotionally.”
An actress can certainly go to town emotionally portraying Surratt. Surratt found herself at the epicenter of the fury of a Nation struggling with the tragedy of the Civil War and the murder of its president.
We all know Robert Redford has a budget of millions to make his film. He’s got access to anything a director could want. Independent film makers dream of having even a tenth of the kind of budget Redford has. Not surprisingly money was the issue for King when he contemplated making the film:
“The biggest hurdle in film making is the bottom line. Money. As an indie filmmaker who had to work on a very modest budget. But, being a very low budget indie filmmaker, I did what anyone would do: I gave up on the idea. Costumes, reenactors, gallows…forget it. Too ambitious (read: expensive). So we made two more short films over the next year and half, played the fests marketed them, etc. But I couldn’t get the speedy trial and the visual of Mary on the gallows. So wife Heather and I said, what the heck, let’s do it.
So we raised five grand and did it. Thank goodness for lots of volunteer Civil War reenactment groups and state parks employees who donated their time for “Mary”, or we couldn’t have done it, budget-wise. Lots of donations. And so it came to pass. “
It’s clear that the subject of Mrs. Surratt got under the director’s skin and that he feels an injustice was done. He opens the film with this Lincoln quote: “There is no grievance that is a fit object for redress by mob law.”
“Talk about wham-bam. Within 24 hours of official final sentencing, President Johnson had the prison build a scaffold overnight to hang them. Unbelievable.”
This short film is stylish, well paced, giving us a glimpse into a turbulent moment in history when the line between justice and vengeance became blurred. There’s a lot packed into twenty four minutes, but the film never feels rushed.
If you’d like to see The Killing of Mrs. Surratt the film is being entered in film festivals around the country and is now available for purchase on DVD at www.watermarkfilms.net.