Now that President Obama is back for a second term, some Oscar pundits are claiming Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular leader, is a shoo-in lock for a Best Picture win at the Oscars. We wouldn’t go that far, but the political drama, which hit theaters this weekend, is certainly going to be up for a handful of Oscar nominations at the very least.
And while we weren’t overly impressed by our first look at the movie in October, calling it somewhat of a dry history lesson, we also said the movie was about as thrilling as the examination of a ratification of an amendment could be. However, the story of Spielberg’s passion project is a fascinating one. It’s been at least a decade in the making, with different leads attached (Liam Neeson as Lincoln at one point) and whenever the notoriously choosy Daniel Day-Lewis eventually gets involved in a film, there’s always a good story to be told. “Daniel was like a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near [the role],” Spielberg said of the actor’s tentative decision making.
Thus, with the election in our rearview mirror and “Lincoln” in theaters this weekend, here’s seven things we learned from the film at the press conference in October and via various press outlets.
1. While many know this “Lincoln” project started with Liam Neeson in the lead, Daniel Day-Lewis was actually the first actor Spielberg went after.
According to the New York Times profile on Daniel Day-Lewis this weekend, Spielberg approached the actor for the role in 2003 with a very different script. He didn’t like it and thought the idea of playing this figure was preposterous. And Spielberg himself confirmed this during the “Lincoln” press conference.
“The timeline was simply — I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln eight, nine years ago. We had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this together. He turned me down,” he laughed. “And then Liam. And then we both decided to do other things. And then I came back to Daniel.”
Why Neeson left is unclear, but during the press conference, Spielberg said, “We both decided” to move on. Day-Lewis made pains to explain that he and Neeson are friends and tried to explain further, noting that he would have “never considered” the role if his friend was still attached.
“From the moment that Liam decided it was not no longer something that he would be engaged with… he has been in touch with me about it since, and has given me incredible encouragement and in the most generous possible way,” he said. “I was undecided about whether I should do it he gave me encouragement towards that decision as well. “
2. While Day-Lewis liked the new script that came to him in 2009, he still didn’t want to play the part.
The new and improved “intimate storytelling approach” was what helped to convince the notoriously selective Day-Lewis according to the LA Times. Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner flew to Ireland to try and persuade him to take the role based on their new script.
“I found it quite intriguing,” Day-Lewis said of the script that landed in front of him in 2009. “I thought it was a great idea — for someone else.” Even after he had accepted the part, he wasn’t convinced he was making the right choice. “I thought this is a very, very bad idea,” he said. “But by that time it was too late. I had already been drawn into Lincoln’s orbit. He has a very powerful orbit, which is interesting because we tend to hold him at such a distance. He’s been mythologized almost to the point of dehumanization. But when you begin to approach him, he almost instantly becomes welcoming and accessible, the way he was in life.”
Spielberg said that after some 10 years in development, he would have scrapped the project had Day-Lewis turned it down. “At that point I had just accepted the fact that I would make ‘Lincoln’ if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make ‘Lincoln’ had Daniel decided not to play him,” he said in the press conference. “It was as simple as that.” According to the New York Times, Day-Lewis studied Lincoln for over a year, pouring over every book he could find and studying photographs of the president.3. At Spielberg’s insistence, screenwriter Tony Kushner narrowed the scope of the movie to the short period it covers.
According to the LA Times, Kushner (“Angels In America”) wrestled with the script for five years. The “Munich” screenwriter (arguably Spielberg’s best movie in the last decade) missed multiple deadlines as he took it from a 500-page, mini-series-length first draft to a 149-minute feature. He and Spielberg couldn’t tame it to their liking, so Liam Neeson moved on to work on other projects.
The original drafts seemed much more sprawling, going stem-to-stern through Lincoln’s life. The Times says the draft that came to Day-Lewis in 2003, the one he turned down, was “less presidential and more about the Civil War.”
4. British crew members were told not to speak to the notoriously methodical Daniel Day-Lewis in their normal accents. Day-Lewis sometimes spoke about contemporary pop culture in his high, and reedy Lincoln voice.
As you might imagine, Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t break character between takes. “I just came to see him as the character. I assume he didn’t change the voice. Why would he?” Spielberg said.
The director and the actor were both concerned that actors speaking in their natural accents would distract Day-Lewis and inadvertently lapse into his normal accent so they were told only to speak to him with the American accents they had adopted for the role.
“It was sort of an extended improvisation,” Jared Harris, who plays Ulysses S. Grant in the movie, told the Times. “You didn’t go up to him and say, ‘Hey, did you see the Pirates game last night?’ It was important for him to retain the attitude, if you like, and the dialect he had created. So we would sit there and joke, for example, about the Vicksburg campaign.” He added, “At the end of the day sometimes we’d ride back in the car, and he’d stay in character but talk about ‘Mad Men,’ which of course he couldn’t know about, because television hadn’t been invented then.”
Interestingly enough, according to the New York Times, Kushner said that Day-Lewis warned him that once shooting began he would no longer be speaking to him and only to the director.5. Spielberg didn’t keep the film out of the release before the election intentionally
“Well, no, it — what it was very simply is because there’s a lot of confusion about the political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years,” the filmmaker said at the “Lincoln” press conference in October. “It just too confusing. Lincoln as their own. And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us, and what he did basically provided the opportunities that, that all of us are enjoying today.”
He added, “I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle. So, I thought it was safer to let people talk about film during the election cycle in this run-up with ads on TV and posters going up and all that, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election’s been decided. That was my feeling.”
6. Daniel Day-Lewis thinks Liam Neeson would have also made a great Lincoln
“I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would’ve been something I would’ve wished to see,” Day-Lewis said at the press conference. “You know, these things are haphazard. Timing. It worked out the other way, and I think Liam would’ve been quite wonderful. It just worked out this way.”
7. Daniel Day-Lewis revealed his process a little bit and it essentially boils down to delusional commitment.
“I’m woefully one-track-minded,” he said, while noting that after he left the role he felt a great sadness. “Without sounding unhinged, I know I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m aware of that. But the truth is the entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe for a period for time without questioning, and that’s the trick. Maybe it’s a terrible revelation about myself that one does feel able to do that.”
“I never thought it possible to love a man I’ve never met before,” he told the San Francisco Gate of his admiration for the character he embodied. “I’ve had reverence for historical figures, and I’ve had heroes – Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; Horatio Nelson – but Lincoln was a man I grew to love. That was a unique experience in my life to have felt that way.”
Meanwhile, how much did this Louis C.K. digital skit on “Saturday Night Live” rule? Too bad about the rest of the show. “Lincoln” opens in limited release this weekend, and expands wide on November 16th.
Here’s Spielberg on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”
Finally, here’s that “60 Minutes” interview with Spielberg in case you missed it.