The stripped-down, theatrical approach to “Lincoln” allowed Janusz Kaminski to light with an intimacy and ambiguity that’s unique in his celebrated collaboration with Steven Spielberg (he’s photographed every one of the director’s live-action movies since “Schindler’s List,” for which he won his first Oscar).
But since most of the compositions are relatively static with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln usually sitting and cajoling the team of rivals with his folksy charm, it was an opportunity to work more abstractly: creating foreground, middle ground, and background spatial divides and utilizing exterior lighting, artificial gas lighting, and magical lighting to illuminate the eyes or convey strong silhouettes.
In other words, everything revolves around the powerful yet conflicted Lincoln in an exploration of his inner and outer worlds, his public and private lives.
“The movie is unique because in a funny way it’s relevant to what we’re experiencing now as a nation,” Kaminski offers. “Yes, it’s a historical thing but it talks about the need to help the nation reunite and have the same vision. And then just purely from the use of the cinematic language, which is a model of restraint in comparison to the other movies we’ve done where the camera was always very active and there was this need to amaze the viewer with interesting angles; but in this movie we really didn’t do that.
“When I heard him for the first time, it was a surprise to hear this soft and gentle voice because we are imagining this voice to be Obama’s; we are imagining this voice to be strong. Same with the visuals: people have certain expectations, and then when you show them your perspective, you hope they embrace that and go with it.”
In essence, the White House is Lincoln’s battleground in his effort to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the House of Representatives, and his office is his war room. In the very first meeting, the chiaroscuro effect (a long-time Spielberg trademark) is startling, even beautiful in its naturalism and theatricality.
“His office was dark because that’s where the convincing takes place,” Kaminski adds. “This wedge where we had the camera compositionally with the camera looking down the table and on both sides you see people debating him and the light always forces you to look at Lincoln because he’s the brightest.
“Right from the beginning, Daniel was so amazing that you didn’t have to do anything special with the camera to allow the audience to be transported to that period. But the lighting part was cool because I had the chance to create a semi-realistic world of what it must’ve been like to be there with great freedom and license because I suspect it was not as light in the rooms as I created it. The idea was to follow the logic of the light where the lamps are, where the windows are, to create some kind of a sense of reality and place for the viewer.”
However, if the opening battle stylistically recalls the brutal Normandy invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” (for which the cinematographer earned his second Oscar), the minute and a half of hand-to-hand combat is really much more primal. “You have black soldiers; you have white soldiers and it becomes the essence of the Amendment,” Kaminski suggests. “It’s about ending the Civil War and ending the slavery, a vicious portrayal of killing somebody where you feel the blood gushing out of someone’s chest. And you feel the sounds of someone being drowned in the water by the hands of a soldier.”
Kaminski also enjoyed the comic relief of the political operatives trying to finagle votes from lame duck Congressmen because it took us outdoors for a breath of fresh air. “That’s a signature storytelling of Steven. And it always works. I remember in ‘Schindler’s List’ there was a little montage where the Jewish black marketers are buying stuff and selling to the Nazis and bickering about shoe polish in glass jars in the church.”
But there are aesthetic differences between Kaminski and Spielberg and, surprisingly, the cinematographer occasionally lights brighter than the director might want it. Yet somehow they meet each other half-way. Still, when it came to Kaminski’s favorite scene, a reflective moment between Lincoln and General Grant (Jared Harris) on a porch with the troops going by in silhouette, he got his way.”
“There’s the discomforting reminder of the war happening outside the frame with the shadows of troops moving across empty space. But it was problematic for various departments. The sound department was complaining that I was using the troops to create shadows and you don’t hear them. Steven was a little concerned that it was disturbing to the actors. But when he realized what I was doing with that metaphor, he embraced it. He is not paralyzed by people’s ideas.”
Thus, “Lincoln” was an uncommonly emotional experience for Kaminski, who found being so close to the camera like watching a play and more conducive to creating a series of tableaux.
“Lincoln: An American Journey” featurette: