LOS ANGELES — “Lincoln today is beyond partisan politics,” Steven Spielberg said in a recent interview about his new movie, “Lincoln.”
“Yeahhhh,” said screenwriter Tony Kushner, almost teasing the director into claiming the country’s first Republican president for the left. “Just as long as the partisans all agree we’re involved in trying to make a government work.”
This spirited discussion between two modern American Democrats was settled finally by London-born Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln’s” Lincoln. “It’s not as if we’ve made huge progress,” Day-Lewis said. “Progress is kind of like climbing on shale. You do slip back to go forwards.”
Spielberg, 65, the Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his spectacle-driven, technically impeccable movies, and Kushner, 56, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright known for his politically driven, linguistically virtuosic plays, seem unlikely accomplices in making Hollywood’s first feature film about Abraham Lincoln in more than 70 years. Though both Jewish, liberal and at the top of their respective crafts, the two men have markedly different creative styles — Spielberg as a mainstream Hollywood hitmaker, Kushner as a literary provocateur.
But the two spent seven years together sculpting “Lincoln,” which opens Friday, working to reveal the man behind the monuments.
The story focuses on an intense, four-month chunk of Lincoln’s life at the end of the Civil War in 1865, when the president was trying to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery — and to protect his family from the loss of another son. “Lincoln” features a 140-person cast including Sally Field as mercurial First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as the president’s trusted Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as fiery abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s sensitive son, Robert.
Though it’s set during a horrific war, it’s a story that’s mostly about backroom politics, practiced with cunning and a certain joie de vivre.
Spielberg has nurtured a fascination with Lincoln since childhood — “I was strangely compelled by his awkwardness juxtaposed against his historic accomplishments,” he said. In 2001, while the historian was still researching her book, Spielberg optioned Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” a comprehensive, four-man biography of Lincoln’s cabinet that President Obama has since cited as an inspiration.
“People just accept Lincoln as a part of our national landscape, and they move on to whatever is contemporary and interesting,” Spielberg said, interviewed at a Beverly Hills hotel. “But I wanted to know more about him — I know what he did, but why did he do it?”
Spielberg and Kushner have worked together before — Kushner, who is best known for his Pulitzer-winning play about AIDS, “Angels in America,” wrote “Munich,” Spielberg’s 2005 film about Israeli assassins in the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics — and they share a curiosity about politics and a generally optimistic view of democracy. Kushner came aboard “Lincoln” after a few other screenwriters had tried and failed to deliver a script to Spielberg’s liking — one early take focused on Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass.
Making “Lincoln” took longer than the Civil War — Kushner grappled with the script for five years, missing several deadlines as he took it from a 500-page, mini-series-length first draft to a 149-minute feature. At one point Liam Neeson, who had been attached to play Lincoln, moved on to work on other projects.
Early on, Spielberg collected a group of Civil War historians, including James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom,” to meet with him and Kushner. “Jim McPherson said the Civil War is a landscape so vast that even a figure the size of Lincoln could get lost in it, and I loved that image,” Kushner said.
At Spielberg’s insistence, Kushner narrowed the scope of the movie to the short period it covers. The condensed approach allowed the filmmakers to craft the story of the vote for the 13th amendment as a procedural, the tension heightening with each vote Lincoln wins over to his side, and to include small, humanizing life moments, such as Lincoln changing the logs on the fire or holding his son Tad on his lap.
The intimate storytelling approach also helped attract the notoriously selective Day-Lewis, who initially said he felt “shy” about Lincoln. “In Europe we have a much sketchier impression of him,” said the London-born actor, who had never worked with Spielberg before. “I thought it was going to be tremendously difficult to discover Lincoln, the way he was as a man.”
In the spring of 2010, Spielberg and Kushner flew to Day-Lewis’ home in Ireland to persuade him to take the role, one that has been played before on stage and screen by such quintessentially American actors as Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook (who appears in “Lincoln” ) and Sam Waterston.
Once aboard, the 55-year-old Day-Lewis spent a year in preparation, beginning by diving into Lincoln’s speeches and writing. The actor, whose father was England’s poet laureate, was delighted by the president’s use of certain words — “disenthrall,” meaning free, for instance, which he petitioned Kushner to put in the script.
“I’d never seen that word before, and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much,” he said. “The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”
There are no recordings of Lincoln’s speaking voice, so to find his character’s intonation, Day-Lewis relied on written reports from the era that Lincoln spoke in a high pitch. He read Lincoln’s writing aloud, and hoped for inspiration to strike. It did — resulting in a treble Kentucky twang.
“All that we know of him are the static images,” Day-Lewis said. “Everything else is up for grabs. What usually happens for me if I’m lucky — if I’m lucky — is that I begin to hear a voice at some point in my inner ear and if it pleases me I then set about the work of trying to reproduce it. And that’s it. I talk to myself a lot.”
Day-Lewis, who is tall and naturally slight, with sharp cheekbones, was physically a good fit to play Lincoln, who was 6-foot-4 in an era when the average height of a man was 5-foot-7. “Every time Steven said, ‘How ‘bout so and so?’ I said, ‘How tall is he?’” Day-Lewis said, recalling casting. “It was like buying cloth by the yard. I wanted to be the tallest person in the room.”
For Spielberg, the movie meant leaving his stylistic comfort zone to tell a story almost wholly dependent upon acting and language. There are no large battle sequences of the type in “Saving Private Ryan,” nor is there the warm, nostalgic lighting of a feel-good film like “War Horse.”
“I was getting into a performance art form of literature and language, without any of my super-strengths that I could turn to to make something magically stand out to audiences,” Spielberg said. “It’s an experience I’ve always desired to have and never allowed myself to have it until ‘Lincoln’ came into my life.”
Visually, Spielberg was inspired by the idea of the White House during Lincoln’s era resembling a haunted house. During the film’s 53-day shoot in Virginia, he and his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, lighted for the gloomy 19th century, when candles and natural light left interior spaces dour and dim.
“Part of the paradox of the movie is that even though I find it very hope-producing, it’s a chilly, dark film,” said Kushner. “It’s not full of an easy radiance. The radiance comes from a deeper place.”
Coming out within three days of election day with an embattled leader at its center, “Lincoln” inevitably invites discussions of modern electoral politics, and early marketing of the film doesn’t shy from that. A two-minute ad for the film ran on the major TV networks during the first presidential debate, and distributor Disney and one of the film’s co-financiers Participant Media have created curricula for high school students and teachers titled “Stand Tall” around the themes of leadership and civil engagement.
Spielberg, however, said he deliberately opted to wait until after the election to release “Lincoln,” lest it become a political football.
“I don’t know what kind of movie audience will wind up getting to see ‘Lincoln,’” he said. “But I wanted this film to be seen in a big communal venue with a lot of people who didn’t know each other coming together. I wanted this shared experience between strangers who can understand why we are who we are today, in some measure because of the work that Lincoln did.”