Director Steven Spielberg’s Oscar frontrunner Lincoln continues to perform well both at the box-office and with critics. The film, over a decade in the making, takes on the Herculean task of distilling Lincoln’s legacy down into a palatable couple of hours at the cinema. With an eye towards that goal, Spielberg chose to focus on the last few months of the President’s life and the work that he did in order to pass the 13th Amendment.
Spielberg and his star, Daniel Day-Lewis, were on hand to talk about the film recently, where they answered questions about how they approached demystifying this icon and bringing him to life in a way that a modern audience could relate to and appreciate.
Take a look at the transcript below.
On the inspiration for the film for both Spielberg and Day-Lewis:
Question: Mr. Spielberg, it seems like you’ve been wanting to do this all your life. What made this a passion project for you? And for Daniel what did you see as your greatest challenge in bringing this iconic figure to life?
Daniel Day-Lewis: “Apart from everything you mean?”
Steven Spielberg : “I’ve just always had a personal fascination with the myth of Abraham Lincoln. And once you start to read about him and the Civil War and everything leading up to the Civil War, you start to understand that the myth is created when we think we understand a character and we reduce him to a kind of cultural national stereotype. Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over the last 60 years or more. There’s been more written about Lincoln than movies made about him or television portraying him. He’s kind of a stranger to our industry, to this medium. You have to go back to the 1930s to find a movie that’s just about Abraham Lincoln. I just found that my fascination with Lincoln, which started as a child, got to the point where after reading so much about him I thought there was a chance to tell a segment of his life to to moviegoers.”
Daniel Day-Lewis: “Really the most obvious thing, which is connected to what Steven was saying, is to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it. And I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that. Beyond that I, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t [LAUGHS] do that and somebody should do it instead, but…”
Steven Spielberg : “It was hard to get him to say yes.” [CHUCKLES]
What they learned about Lincoln, the man:
Mr. Day-Lewis, Mr. Spielberg, obviously when you’re creating a character out of a real human being with a tremendous amount not only of biographical data but in this case, historical, political, etcetera, what I’m curious about is what thing did you each learn about Mr. Lincoln that you were most surprised by?
Daniel Day-Lewis: “Well, it’s, it’s easy for me to start, because I knew nothing about him. So, [LAUGHS] I, I had everything to learn, apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address, that would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life. I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor and what an important aspect of his character that was.”
Would it be fair to say it’s a very tactical humor?
Daniel Day-Lewis: “At times it could be, but not necessarily I don’t think, no. I think at times it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense for some purpose to make some point. There were accounts actually — I mean it’s a — not exactly what you’re asking, but there are accounts of people that came to ask him a question of to them great importance, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake a story, and were out of the room before they even realized [LAUGHS], and that’s good politics. [LAUGHS] But no, I think it was innately part of him. I think there was a very joyful element to that actually, yes.”
What about you, Mr. Spielberg?
Steven Spielberg: “There were so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln. With over 7000 books written, to find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life is difficult. But the thing that really surprised me about Lincoln was the weight of his responsibility, his oath he took, a constitutional oath to preserve the union, and he’s the only President that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half. And the fact that the weight of the war that began over slavery, and that he did not himself suffer, beyond all the writings that we’ve read about how deeply low he could get in his psyche, how depressed he could get. I don’t know if some of that depression wasn’t just deep thought, going very, very deep into the cold depths of himself to make discoveries that would bring this war to a close and abolish slavery.
But beyond that, how he just didn’t crack up in the middle of his first term with the Civil War raging around him, with over 600,000 lives lost revised recently upward to 750,000 lives lost. Just in the last five months that figure was revised. And with his wife on the edge of herself, the loss of his son two years before our film begins, Willy, a son lost in infancy before that, the fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me”
Why they focused on the passage of the 13th Amendment:
When you’re taking on a particular section of, of Lincoln’s life, how do you decide for the movie where to stop? And was there ever a decision to just have the movie end when the war ends rather than continue on after that?
Steven Spielberg: “There was. There was discussion about that as well, but it was very, very important that we felt that Lincoln was able to ride across the battlefield outside of Petersburg, which he did, and have those almost…it was almost the epilogue, between he and Grant, which happened, and the fact that there was some kind of reconciliation in the often written about carriage rides that the President and his wife took. We needed all those moments, I think, to really equip his story of Abraham Lincoln, but I would not have been able to, and Tony Kushner would not have been able… we tried to write Doris [Kearns Goodwin]’s book. His first draft was, as you’ve probably already heard by now, 550 pages long. We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband. You couldn’t do that if that were “the greatest hit list of the life of Abraham Lincoln. It couldn’t just be the golden oldies.”
Daniel Day-Lewis: “A compilation.”
Steven Spielberg: “The compilation of his entire life. Because we would’ve been dilatants as filmmakers and as, as actors. We would’ve just been hitting all the high points and just giving you the headlines and not giving you any sense of the depth of this character, this man.”
Mr. Spielberg, you mentioned going back to the 1930s to find films about Lincoln, but I think films about America were a staple of Hollywood for a while, and many of the icons of history were the subject of popular films. Why do you think that fell out of favor and why is the time now right for Lincoln’s story or this chapter in Lincoln’s story?
Steven Spielberg: “Well, I would have been very happy to have made Lincoln in the year 2000, the year after I met Doris Kearns Goodwin. It took her a couple years to write the book. It took us more than a couple years to get the screenplay written. So, I wasn’t waiting for a certain time. At one point I flirted with [the movie] coming out on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, but we weren’t ready to make the picture then. People say, “Oh, you made it because of what’s happening in politics today.” No, we were ready to make it during the Bush administration. [laughs]. It had nothing to do current politics. It had nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today. This was meant to be a story, a Lincoln portrait if you will. I think any time is the right time for a very compelling story, any time.”
And as far as the, the whole idea of doing historical dramas like this falling out of favor?
Steven Spielberg: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I think that there have been historical dramas. I mean, not too long ago we had something called ‘The King’s Speech’. Nobody knew anything about [that] — a lot of people that I know didn’t even know there was a king before Elizabeth [laughs]. And that opened a lot of windows, and people said, “Oh, I learned something I didn’t know before.” There’s no bad time or good time. For me when I find a story that I’m ready to tell and the script is right that’s the time to tell it.”
Daniel Day-Lewis: “I’m just sort of reflecting a little bit on my entire life, and I’m thinking that I’ve spent a certain amount of time in 17th Century America, quite a bit of time in 18th Century America, and so much time in 19th Century America that I don’t know if I’ll ever get out to join the modern world [laughs]. So something’s been going on during these years, so they may not count on your list, but my experience is been that historical movies actually are well-presented.”
Steven Spielberg: “Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I never realized that.”