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Oscar Watch: Spielberg, Snider and Kushner Talk Finding 'Lincoln'

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 16, 2012 at 4:20PM

The thing that hits you on first viewing "Lincoln" is how unconventional it is. It's organic, grown from the seeds in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 800-page Lincoln tome "Team of Rivals," nurtured over five years by playwright Tony Kushner, and shaped by Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into something we've never seen before. This alchemy of a torrent of words, well-researched history, and the powerful personality of the world's most popular American president has yielded a magical biopic that is the current front-runner in the Oscar race.
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Sally Field, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis at 'Lincoln' Premiere
Sally Field, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis at 'Lincoln' Premiere

The thing that hits you on first viewing "Lincoln" is how unconventional it is. It's organic, grown from the seeds in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 800-page Lincoln tome "Team of Rivals," nurtured over five years by playwright Tony Kushner, and shaped by Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into something we've never seen before. This alchemy of a torrent of words, well-researched history, and the powerful personality of the world's most popular American president has yielded a magical biopic that is the current front-runner in the Oscar race.

The movie played well to rousing applause at a packed Academy screening last weekend--enhanced by the presence of Spielberg and Day-Lewis, who were in the room to do a Q & A. Some members were turned away, as were producers who turned up too late for their PGA guild screening that weekend.

Spielberg, who hasn't previewed a movie he directed since "Hook" in 1991, told me at the premiere that on "Lincoln" he finally threw all caution to the winds after obsessing on this film for nine years. "At a certain time in your life you get to where it's not about risk," he said. "It's about trying to stay interested in the entire medium by not going back to the same recipes again and again. It's about caring so much that if you totally fail at something that is experimental in terms of narrative, I can at least be proud that I tried."

"Angels in America" and "Caroline, Or Change" playwright Kushner, who earned a screenplay nomination for Spielberg's "Munich," gave five years of his life to "Lincoln," said Spielberg. "He licked it, after three years of real struggle, then two when he was on a roll." Kushner started with a 500-page script that needed whittling down. (My full Q & A with Kushner is below.)

Spielberg helped Kushner to figure out which slice of Lincoln to choose, and wanted to show audiences his human face. He's the one who saw the fight for the 13th Amendment in the last months of Lincoln's life, as he tried to unwind the Civil War, as the most dramatic focus. The most daring sequence in the movie shows Lincoln berating his cabinet for fighting him on the amendment. It's an eight minute scene that Day-Lewis insisted on shooting in one uninterrupted take.

Lincoln, window
'Lincoln'

"They picked a story within the story," said Goodwin at the premiere. "It had a beginning, a middle and an end. The important thing is that they got Lincoln: his stooped walk, his high-pitched voice, his humor. All the things that I cared about in 800 pages were compressed into two hours. It feels more than right." (How Spielberg chose to reveal Lincoln's assassination is the most controversial aspect of the film.)

Sally Field also nails the president's high-strung wife Mary Todd Lincoln, who has been portrayed in so many ways over the years, said Goodwin: "She is sort of semi-manic-depressive, but she's fierce, she's strong, she's smart and she's a little crazy." (Day-Lewis, Field and Tommy Lee Jones as anti-slavery activist Thaddeus Stevens are all shoo-ins for nominations--not to mention Spielberg, Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams.)

On The Charlie Rose Show, David Straithairn, one of a "wealth of New York actors" on the film (which features 140 speaking parts), admits that Day-Lewis set the tone on the set. "We were in 1864," he says. "You could choose to be there, or if you didn't want to be there, you'd remove yourself from the energy of the room. It brought focus, something very precious, to investing in this man at this moment. Lincoln was a man of the highest resolve and will and humility, Machiavellian, with a force of will, in combination with his cleverness. And the movie gives a window into his sadness."

At our Sneak Previews screening, DreamWorks' Stacey Snider called the "Lincoln" set "a cathedral," an almost sanctified place where everyone dived into history. Day-Lewis was in character the whole time, addressed as "Mr. President." He came up with many of his own bits of business, including a moment during a story he's telling to break tension during the assault on Williamsburg. As everyone anxiously awaits the sound of the telegraph, he pours himself coffee as he describes someone relieving himself. Yes, Spielberg used the old-fashioned riser to make Day-Lewis look taller. And he wasn't afraid to let there be silence amid the rush of Kushner's dialogue.

Fox and Participant joined Dreamworks on the project after it left Universal, Snider points out, which gestated for nine years, with Liam Neeson attached at one point. Spielberg flew to Ireland to talk a balky Day-Lewis into doing the film. The actor's concern was making the president real and human. He eventually sent a tape to Spielberg with his reedy Lincoln voice.

At the premiere, Carter said that the crew leaned on Lincoln's detailed diaries--they knew exactly what he was doing on any given day, and could recreate the content of the papers strewn on the desks. On Charlie Rose, Goodwin marveled at the recreation of the newly constructed 1864 White House, from the wallpaper and maps to first edition books and carpets. "Here's my Lincoln!" she marveled. "He's back again!"

Kaminski tried to use natural light whenever he could on the film, which was shot on location in Richmond, Virginia, taking full advantage of its historic buildings. Who knew the nation's Capitol had a black dome back then?

'Lincoln' Premiere
'Lincoln' Premiere

And 80-year-old Williams--who is known for his muscular orchestrations for Spielberg--sticks to a delicately minimal period-inflected score. "He never borrows from himself," says Snider. "Everyone stepped up their game." There are few visual effects, as Spielberg was less interested in battles than in human-scale emotions--but Spielberg went CG on Lincoln's surreal dream and the Battle of Williamsburg. As for the 150-minute running time: "it was what it needed to be," says Snider.

Spielberg himself sets each movie's budget, in this case $65 million, says Snider, and forces everyone around him, including producer Kathleen Kennedy, to meet it. "They have no choice. Steven is not used to anyone saying 'no.'"

Finally, "Lincoln" exists, says Snider, because she and Spielberg felt that they "would go to hell" if they didn't do this movie.

Tony Kushner Q & A:

Anne Thompson: I applaud you for writing an unapologetic smart person's movie. Were there debates about how intelligent this movie could get away with being, without watering it down?

Tony Kushner: We didn't really discuss it very much. Steven would say, 'that's going to leave people in the dark, 'or 'they won't care about it.' He was probably right. I started writing [what became] a 500-page screenplay about the last four years of Lincoln's administration in March of 2006. The first was an aborted attempt starting in September of 1863 to go to the end. I didn't have to do any major battles, Steven didn't want to a lot of battle stuff.  Two or three times I got from September 1863 to January 1864 in 150 pages and kept going back. I couldn't find a way to condense it to speed it up, the material was overwhelmingly rich.

Spielberg liked this scene or that scene, but I started getting panicky. He was patient. I thought maybe it was impossible to do. Then the Writers Guild Strike happened, which helped; I had to put it away, and stopped reading about Lincoln. When the strike was over, Spielberg asked me to come out to LA and sit down and talk through and see where we are. Two days before I got on the plane I suddenly thought: 'If I just did the last four months...' In all the reading beyond "Team of Rivals," several themes kept reappearing on the central conundrum Lincoln faced.

This article is related to: Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg


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