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Oscar Watch: Spielberg, Snider and Kushner Talk Finding ‘Lincoln’

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

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.

“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?

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.

He knew that without eliminating slavery he couldn’t end the war. I believe he was a committed antislavery person his entire life, but he felt ultimately that to fulfill his oath as president to preserve the union and protect the constitution he needed to end slavery. He also felt it was a monstrous evil institution that needed to end, it was essentially not commensurable with Democracy.

But because the North was not primarily abolitionist and didn’t want to see itself fighting and sacrificing in such a terrible way for black people, for slavery, he was constantly in a place where it seemed like popular opinion suggested that he take one course to end the war at all costs–including calling it off and let the South keep its slaves– he needed to finesse it so slavery was gone before the war ended. That struggle he encountered in ’63, ’64, and in January of ’65, what many people don’t know about the passage of the 13th amendment, is that he faced another dilemma, a peace offer from the Confederacy–it was a page and a half in “Team of Rivals”–he was in a delicate moment as everyone wanted the war to end.

AT: Where is the Spielberg touch in this?

TK:  For starters, the 500-page draft that I did was divided into four parts: January, February, March, and April of 1865.  And it covers the fight for the amendment and in February, the dissolution that passed the amendment, and Lincoln struggling to write the Second Inaugural Address, which took a lot out of him and various fights about Reconstruction in March and April, the inauguration, which is an astonishing episode in itself, and then Lincoln going down to City Point and being there for the end of the war.  Certainly the most dramatic event in American history, certainly no President has ever been that close to the fighting and in Richmond, almost in the fighting.  I thought Steven would really want to make the movie out of that last section and when he read it the first time, he said: ‘This amendment stuff is amazing. I’m sitting there saying: Is it going to pass? And I knew it passed, but you know it was exciting.’  

And as we worked on the project, it became clearer to both of us that that’s really what he wanted the movie to be. I went back and took longer than I was supposed to, because I always do. I called Steven and said I was just going to send him the section about the amendment, the emancipation speech, the big cabinet speech and then I’ll get the rest done.  And Steven called me, said: ‘I really love it. Do we really need the rest?’ We were just about to send the script to Daniel, the re-written second part, and Steven said: ‘Look, I know you’re almost done. I think that this should be the movie, just this.’ And I got totally freaked out. But the moment he said it, I thought, ‘okay.’

Until finally when we met with Daniel in Ireland, he liked the amendment stuff. We were trying to hang on to some parts at the end and then Daniel said: ‘I don’t think this stuff has anything to do with this stuff.’ And Steven had been saying that to me too. We just had scenes we loved in the second part that we were sad to get rid of, but you get a new person in and he says, ‘explain this to me,’ and you realize you can’t.

What Steven did with this film is the smallness of it in a way, not just of the story, but that we don’t do CGI of Washington, so it stays on a ground level. With Richmond, if you had looked up you would have seen skyscrapers, but it looks like what it would have looked like to them.  You’re staring at a lot of brick buildings. Nobody can make these elaborate beautifully construction shots better than Steven but I kept seeing him make the decision to stay in this very restricted, focused, actor-driven world.

I think it scared him silly to commit to making this movie about an unexpected thing, so dialogue-heavy and actor-driven.  He’s a great director with actors, but that’s not where he even thinks his strength is. But what I love about working with him is that he doesn’t want to be comfortable or do the things he knows he can do.  He wants to try to find things that make life hard and uncomfortable and I hope people get that about the movie. Steven made this happen and I don’t think there are many people working in film who would have done that.

AT: In scenes like the one where you lay out Lincoln’s pivotal argument for the 13th amendment, you’re using language appropriate to the period, elegant, legal, complicated language. Was there debate about this?

TK: Steven and I had done a private reading of the screenplay with Doris and Kathy and a bunch of New York actors, just to hear it. This was in Spring of ’09 before Daniel had signed on. One thing that was concerning Steven was, ‘will people know why the amendment was necessary, because he had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation?’ Part of the trick of writing the whole thing was that it was all Washington insiders and politicians, people deep in the government, so we had to handle exposition for the audience while not making the characters do the thing nobody can stand, which is when the character explains something to someone else and obviously they already know. 

I could probably get away with it if I set it in the cabinet meeting because there were new hands on deck because his cabinet changed considerably after the reelection. I thought, laying out why this was necessary at this moment to get the cabinet behind him would give a pretext for explaining it. Amazingly little is known about what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or what the war powers of the Constitution are, a sloppy moment that allows that the chief executive in a time of war might have unspecified powers. I read several books about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Lincoln War Powers Act.

AT: Do you know how many thousands of books were written about Lincoln?

TK:  Well Doris claims that he’s the third most-written-about person in human history after Shakespeare and Jesus.  Once you start paying close attention to Lincoln you realize every month there are two or three books that come out. The guy left very little behind.  He didn’t leave tons of notes, he didn’t leave a diary.  He left seven volumes altogether, but the really great stuff, the Library of America Edition, is two volumes of speeches and letters, three or four great speeches and a ton of amazing letters, but he didn’t write a memoir, in fact he famously refused to do it.  

He didn’t want to think back too much about his childhood and poverty and so there’s not a whole lot there.  He dies in his mid-50s, but it is really weirdly inexhaustible, depending on the angle that a person takes and because of the setting of the Civil War, where all of American history flows into it and all of American history since flows out of it.  It’s just the center of all the great issues and themes of this country reached a boiling point and blew up in the Civil War, so it’s not surprising.

AT: It’s a crucible.

TK:  Yes, you can just read five books on the Emancipation Proclamation and there are new takes and angles and always new little bits of information that get added, it’s ceaselessly infinitely interesting. I have a library of over 300 Lincoln books that I had moved from my house to my office and I don’t know what to do with them now.

So I wrote this speech, I just said he’s a lawyer.  I found the little story about this old lady that’s a great illustration of this question of the grey areas of legality. And then I, in as lawyerly as fashion as I could, using the terms Liincoln would have used, tried to work my way through the issue.  The speech was quite long.

AT: What made Daniel Day-Lewis change his mind?

TK: I sent in the draft after Steven and Daniel and I had met for the first time in Ireland, so I was writing a draft for the first time with the possibility that Daniel, who I always wanted, was actually maybe going to do this. He hadn’t said ‘yes,’ but he was waiting for the rewrite to see if he felt that he could do this.  Also Steven really wanted me to address the issue of the proclamation in the screenplay. At that point I sent Steven the draft before I sent it to Daniel and Steven was more excited than he’d ever been by anything I’d written. I thought that he was going to say, ‘the speech is ridiculously long and you can’t do this and it’s so hard to follow,’ but he loved it.

AT:  It’s the underpinning of the entire movie at the same time that it breaks every rule.

TK: I ducked it in a way because I’m a playwright primarily. You can get away with it. I’ve written longer monologues, I’ve written an hour-long monologue starting in “Homebody/Kabul.” And so this wasn’t so long for a speech in a play. But for a film, one of the first dialogue scenes that we filmed in Richmond was that scene. Daniel asked Steven on the first take if we could just go through the entire thing once and then break it up. We took two days to film the scene, but he really needed to get through it once and there was no rehearsing. 

AT: Why no rehearsal?

TK:  I understand it now, I didn’t at the time, but Steven and Daniel felt very strongly to have this stuff happening in front of the camera. When you say no rehearsals in a film, I calmed down because by the time you’ve down five takes or something, you’ve rehearsed it, people get comfortable in it, but there are interesting things that happen in the first take that sometimes cannot be repeated because it is happening for the first time.

AT:  That’s a very long shot.

TK:  Well he sat down and they did the whole attack on him, ‘why are you doing this? What are you doing?’ And then Daniel walks into the thing and went through it word perfect.  It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life and everyone just had their jaws on the floor, the reactions of the cabinet were real, everyone just thought, ‘how is he doing this?’  He came in with this pencil, he was just whittling and I thought, ‘that’s not in the script, why does he have a pencil and what is he doing?’  And then at the end he pulls it out – he’s going to sign the amendment and he has a pencil in his hand, but it didn’t feel prepared. I have never seen anything like it. Steven forgot to call ‘cut.’  It was just, it just sort of stopped and there was a stunned silence.  And Straithairn, who I have known for a long time, was just sort of shaking and you know it was like being with Lincoln. It was just astonishing.

AT: Day-Lewis worked on the accent for a while.

TK: He worked in complete seclusion on the accent. He finally sent Steven a recording of himself doing the voice in a little tiny battery-operated tape recorder so he could hear it.  I got to hear it a few months before we started filming when he and Straithairn read a couple of scenes together.  I got to sit behind Daniel and listen.  But Steven called me after he listened to the voice and Daniel promised he wouldn’t let anyone hear it and Steven said: ‘I just listened to Abraham Lincoln.’

AT: It’s a reedy tenor.

TK: Yes, and anyone that goes to the opera knows, the soprano will drown out the entire orchestra, any bass baritone on stage because a really great soprano can sing over an entire chorus, because the higher the pitch the more travel power it has.  It’s one of the reasons that Lincoln’s voice worked effectively.  What Daniel does at the end of the movie at the second inaugural is so stunning, because Steven and I really went far away to hear, and you could hear it a great distance away without any amplification.

AT: You have some comic relief in the form of the three guys chasing the votes and the most extraordinary supporting performance from Tommy Lee Jones, who you gave something to work with.

TK:  I got an email when we started filming from the Thaddeus Stevens Society in Pennsylvania, saying: ‘I don’t know what your film is going to do, but we see that Thaddeus Stevens is the film and we hope that you will treat him better than he has been treated in pervious films.” In ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘The Man from Tennessee,’ he’s treated as a monster.  We really think the Great Commoner, which is his nick-name, is a great American.”  And I wrote back: ‘You’re going to be happy.’

AT:  Is the language close to the real language or are you cleaning it up a bit?  What was the degree to which you’re using archaic language?

TK: There are no anachronisms.  I’ve never found 19th century English particularly difficult.  There are novels and plays and reporting of the period, transcripts, times when people literally wrote down what people were saying – dialect humor that Lincoln loved, by Orpheus C. Kerr.  A lot of it sounds like second rate Mark Twain– and Mark Twain himself.  It doesn’t feel that foreign.  They tended to speak in more complicated sentences and more complete sentences.

I used the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the date that every word appears first in the English language. If there was anything that sounded to me like it might conceivably – like ‘both sides of the aisle.’  I think I found that the aisle is not used until early in the 20th century to mean both sides of the political aisle.

AT: So Mary Todd was depressive?

TK: I don’t think she was; there were certain bi-polar features in there.  One of her cousins said she was always either in the attic or the cellar but I think that people really give her a bad rap.  I’m so happy with the way that Sally plays her in the movie because i think that she was a very difficult person but she was a brilliant woman and she danced with Lincoln as a lawyer in Springfield.  The first night she met him and right after dancing with him she turned to her cousin and said: ‘I’ve just danced with the greatest man of his time and he’s going to be President of the United States.’  And this is a woman to whom all three candidates for President in 1860 had proposed marriage.

AT: You compare and contrast the public and private Lincolns.

TK: One of the reasons I was attracted to January was that it was this moment when Robert comes back from Harvard with this big public reception and he announces he’s not going back, he wants to go to the war before the war ends because he’s terrified of being one of the few men his age that didn’t fight.  He’d been kept out of the army, primarily because Mary couldn’t bear the thought of losing another child and she was terrified.  As many as 800,000, used to be 600,000 was the estimate but this new demographer from Rutgers has said that we’ve grossly underestimated it, the battlefield dead should be at least 750,000. In a country of 30 million people it’s unbelievable. More American soldiers died in the first day of fighting in the Civil War than in the entire Revolutionary War.  So Mary Todd was justifiably, completely frightened about her son going into the Army and he was determined and Lincoln’s parenting was essentially to let the kids do what they wanted. He was willing to let Robert do this and I thought that that tension was extremely important. 

You know, he took his son Tad to Richmond the day after Richmond fell because it was Tad’s 11th birthday and Porter, the Naval admiral, who was going to take him to Richmond said: ‘You can’t take a child this is way too dangerous.’  Lincoln said: ‘I have to take him.  His heart will be broken if I leave him behind.’  He was 11 years old. Lincoln took him into terribly dangerous situations.  He was odd, very loving but also an out-of-it parent in some ways.  

I don’t believe that Lincoln was a depressive, I agree with Doris, I think that he was a person who had the capacity for feeling loss and grief intensely and had no embarrassment about that and could speak about it openly and demonstrate it openly.  I don’t think if he really were a depressive, that he could conceivably have survived and done what he did.

AT: So everything in the movie is accurate?  You didn’t make anyone up?

TK:  There are congressmen who are amalgamated, not a major congressman like Stevens or Ashley or Colefax, they’re all real, but Stephen Spinella plays a guy named Asa Vintner Litton who is an amalgamation of Benjamin Wade, Davis and a couple of radical abolitionists.  There are a few people like that, and the three henchmen are probably more like five, but we don’t know. One of the things that William Seward taught Lincoln back in the 1850s was: don’t leave a paper trail that isn’t necessary.  Burn anything you can burn that’s legal to burn.  Don’t leave them a lot of stuff to look at, probably one of the reasons the Lincoln didn’t leave enormous drawers and drawers of papers and had left just what he had done that was official.  Seward was the same way and so what they were doing was not illegal but it was a grey area.  These jobs were called the patronage, as people do today.

AT: It’s no so different, it’s probably worse now, with lobbyists.

TK:  Ambassadorships are still being given to people who help support the election, but even today there are standards that have to be adhered to, and if you really step over the line too much, because our government still works to some extent, you can get into a lot of trouble.  The business of buying votes with jobs, it’s trickier because of course the legislative branch has its own jurisdiction and prerogatives. They can do a lot, some twisting.  Obama did this in the debate of healthcare and getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Lincoln, he was a master.  The business of giving people work in exchange for votes is a bit of a shady area, not something that was illegal but something that was unseemly enough, that had it been exposed at the time…. When Thaddeus Stephens says, I used the line in the movie: “The greatest measure of the 19th century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America,” the man that he is talking about is Lincoln.

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