For Rick Carter, "Lincoln" represents the culmination of a decade-long encounter with "the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war." It's been a cathartic journey also encompassing "War of the Worlds," "Munich," "Avatar" (for which he won the Academy Award), "Sucker Punch," and "War Horse." But "Lincoln" is special. It strips away the legend to humanize the 16th President in his tireless crusade to abolish slavery, and then builds the mystique back up to reveal how extraordinary he was. And as production designer, Carter was able to help explore Lincoln from the inside out, using the interior of the White House as a visual metaphor for his mindscape.
"Production design lends itself to being reflective and, for me, I like having the latitude to come and go, and be specific and right in the moment, and then pull back and analyze," Carter suggests."You get moments that you have never seen before about Lincoln's intimate life with Mary and his sons and his cabinet meetings and the machinations of the Congress itself, let alone the vote getting for the 13th Amendment. It actually weaves a bigger mystery."
Carter says the interior of the White House was an extremely personal and often a psychological space. It was inhabited by Lincoln's family and staff, his team of rivals, and visitors, but essentially it was traversed by this man and his consciousness. "Knowing that I was going to do it from the inside out and how deep that imagery was going to be inside of his head, is a very different way of designing," he continues. "It's more than just adding the historically correct physical details: it lends itself to being photographed in a way that's intimate and still having the things that Steven [Spielberg] and [cinematographer] Janusz [Kaminski] always require, which is a way of creating foreground, middle ground, and background mostly with lighting. And they had different types of lighting to work with: the exterior lighting, the artificial gas lighting, and then magical lighting that illuminates the eyes or creates silhouettes."
They additionally relied on framing devices, which Carter helped facilitate by having curtains frame windows, archways frame characters, and fireplaces frame the fire. He also darkened the trim against the wall paper so it would stand out better. The green in Lincoln's office (his sanctuary) even complements the purple of Mary's boudoir, which happened to be historically accurate.
"You want to be invited to believe in illusion and as a production designer you want to be one of the first believers," Carter admits. "In this particular case, I met Daniel Day-Lewis only once prior to shooting. But once he committed himself totally to being Lincoln, I could do everything I could for Lincoln as though I was part of his staff, even if it was just an illusion."
As a larger than life cinematic portrait, I've argued that "Lincoln" is Spielberg's "Citizen Kane." In fact, I would further argue that Lincoln's recurring ship dream represents his Rosebud. He's rushing headlong to a destination that's both self-evident and uncertain: the passage of the 13th Amendment. "Are we fitted to the times that we're born in?" he wonders.
Carter concurs that there are "Kane"-like parallels and that screenwriter Tony Kushner constructed the dream (based on a real account by Lincoln) at the beginning of the movie as a manifestation of destiny.
"In 'Lincoln,' everything moves forward to pass this amendment, even at the cost of keeping the Civil War going," Carter suggests. "But then we reach a point where Lincoln asks to stop the bleeding in his meeting with the Confederate leaders on the River Queen. He concedes that it was won with bloodshed, but that maybe we're on our way to creating something greater with our democracy that's worth aspiring to. Now he's speaking directly to us beyond the screen who are the benefactors and recipients of that history and that toil. We all think at that moment, 'Yeah, that's something I feel proud of, that, as a nation, we accomplished.'"