Steven Spielberg directs Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. With the moral courage and fierce determination to succeed, his choices during this critical moment will change the fate of generations to come.
At the film’s recent press day, Spielberg and Day-Lewis talked about the challenges of bringing Abraham Lincoln to life and creating a portrait of an iconic figure in his time, how the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin became the platform for developing the character and the project, what was the most surprising discovery they made as a result of all their research, how they decided how much to include in the film to reveal the depth of Lincoln’s life and where their story should end, and why there are tremendous similarities between the politics then and now. Spielberg also discussed why the timing of the film has nothing to do with current politics, and why he felt the film which opens in theaters on November 9th should debut after the election was decided.
Question: Mr. Spielberg, it seems like you’ve wanted to do this all your life. What made this a passion project for you? And for Mr. Day-Lewis, 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: Okay, you want me to go first?
Day-Lewis: I’m finished.
Spielberg: I’ll be happy to go first. [Laughs] That was his answer. Look, 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, because 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. So, 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 the moviegoers, and that’s how this whole fascination began.
Day-Lewis: I think really the most obvious thing, which is connected to what Steven was saying, is trying 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 felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t [Laughs] do that and somebody else should do it instead, but…
Spielberg: It was hard to get him to say yes. [Laughs]
Day-Lewis: And the wonderful surprise with that is you begin to discover him, and there are many different ways in which you can do that, in that he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible. That took me by surprise.
Q: Mr. Spielberg, you’ve been on quite a run with films shot in wide screen. You said before that an aspect ratio of 1.85 approximates how we see and that it’s more life-like. I’m curious what made “Lincoln” a wide screen movie for you?
Spielberg: Uh, the number of characters. [Laughs] I had to fit them all in, and I’m not being facetious.
Q: Obviously, when you’re creating a character based on a real person like Mr. Lincoln, you have to delve into a tremendous amount of biographical, historical and political material. What did you each learn about him that you did not know previously and what surprised you?
Day-Lewis: Well, it’s easy for me to start, because I knew nothing about him. So, [Laughs] I had everything to learn and probably, because of, 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, to begin to discover how that was an important part, an important aspect of his character.
Q: Would it be fair to say it’s a very tactical humor?
Day-Lewis: At times it could be, but not necessarily, I don’t think, no. I think it was tactical in the political sense. Yeah, I think at times it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense for some purpose, to make some point. There are accounts of people that came to ask him a question that was to them of 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. But no, I think it was innately part of him. I think there was a very joyful element to that actually, yes.
Q: Mr. Spielberg, what surprised you first?
Spielberg: There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln. With over 7,000 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 that the weight of his responsibility, the oath he took, a constitutional oath to preserve the union, he’s the only President that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half. And the fact that [he had] 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. And, 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, which was 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, Willy, two years before our film begins, then Edward, 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.
Q: When you’re taking on a particular section of Lincoln’s life, how do you decide for the movie where to stop? Was there ever a decision to have the movie end when the war ends rather than continue on after that?
Spielberg: Well, 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 that — it was almost the epilogue, between him and Grant, which happened, and the fact that there was some kind of reconciliation in the very often written about carriage rides that the President and his wife took. We needed all those moments I think to really equip this story of Abraham Lincoln, but I would not have been able to — and Tony Kushner would not have been able to — he tried — we tried to write Doris’s book. His first draft was, as you’ve probably already heard by now, 550 pages long. [Laughs] We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband. You couldn’t do that if that was the greatest hits list of the life of Abraham Lincoln. It couldn’t just be, you know, the golden oldies –
Spielberg: — the compilation of his entire life.
Spielberg: Because we would’ve been dilatants as filmmakers and 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.
Q: Why is the time now right for Lincoln’s story or this chapter in Lincoln’s story?
Spielberg: Well, I would have been very early 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 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.
Q: You mentioned going back to the 1930s, when many of the icons of history were the subject of popular American films, to find films about Lincoln. Why do you think historical dramas fell out of favor?
Spielberg: 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.” A lot of people that I know didn’t even know there was a King before Elizabeth 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.
Day-Lewis: I’m just thinking back on the question. I mean I’m reflecting a little bit on my entire life, and I’m thinking that I’ve spent, you know, 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 [laughs] to join the modern world. So, something’s been going on during these years, so they may not c–
Spielberg: Oh, my God.
Day-Lewis: — count on your list, but my experience has been that historical movies actually are well represented. [Laughs]
Spielberg: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I never realized that.
Q: Mr. Spielberg, this film has an impressive supporting cast. During the casting process, was there ever any concern about bringing all these big names together and having it distract from the story or the titular character?
Spielberg: I think that the actors who are in the story, some of them with long filmographies who are very well known to the American public, disappear into their characters within seconds of coming on the screen. By the time this film is five, six minutes in, they’re all anonymous and they’re all their characters, and that’s the great thing about hiring talented actors. Their job is to convince you of who they are, and that’s what I’m so proud of with this cast.
Q: In deconstructing Lincoln’s image, you had to show him doing some questionable things in order to get slavery abolished. Do you feel that there is a message in that, and if so, how would we apply that outside of a historical context?
Spielberg: No, just desperate times require desperate measures. What Lincoln and the Lobbyist for the Amendment and the Manager of the Amendment himself, what they did to get this passed was not illegal. It was murky, but what they did was noble and grand. How they went about it was somewhat murky. Nothing they did was really illegal. And by the way, what they did to gain favor to persuade people to vote, to vote their conscious, is not uncommon in this day and age either. To make a movie about a squeaky clean person whose moral principles hold him so far beyond mortal man and woman would not be interesting to me. I like the fact that there is a bit of murkiness in the politics of the 19th Century to do something that was necessary and long-lasting.
Q: As we approach the end of the film, can you talk about making the decision not to depict John Wilkes Booth or the three-part assassination attempt at all?
Spielberg: The decision I think was a pretty easy one to make, because had we taken it right up to the assassination, I think the film would have for the first time become exploitation and I didn’t want to go anywhere near that. That’s a very scary word, especially when you’re dealing with the history. I think that nothing could be gained by showing that. It was more profound for me to see what actually happened. Tad was two blocks away in another theater watching the Opera “Aladdin” when the curtain fell and it was announced the President had been shot at the Ford Theater. That to me was much more [powerful]. It had nothing to do with cinema. It just had to do with I did not want to exploit the assassination, which has been depicted by the way in other films ad nauseam.
Q: Mr. Spielberg, your film chronicles the dramatic historical time period that Lincoln was at the helm of, but because we’re in a politically charged moment in time, people are going to look at the movie in the context to what’s happening today. Do you have any interest in seeing how it’s interpreted in that way?
Spielberg: Of course. And, by the way, here’s the good news. The good news is the Constitution. The Founding Fathers put together the principles of a Democratic Government [that] are so sound and unsinkable that the process from 150 years ago is not that much different than the process of today. I think that really is one of the values of holding up a mirror to all of us who can only experience what we experience and have no frame of reference except what we read or what we view in documentaries about that time, that there are tremendous similarities between the politics then and the politics today. And I’m really excited to see how deeply people will reach to contemporize our film far beyond how it deserves to be contemporized. [Laughs]
Q: To me, one of the most relatable and human elements in the film was the complicated relationship we see play out between Lincoln and his son, Tad, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?
Day-Lewis: It certainly seems to be true that the relationship between him and his eldest son, Robert, who you see in the film, was perhaps the least resolved, the least explored of his relationships. There was a distance there I think largely because of the work that he’d been doing on the judicial circuit, which had taken him away for six months of any given year. And also, you know, very political campaigns, and then in office, and with Robert at the University, and so on. But there’d been a certain distance there. By the time we meet him in the story, he’d already lost two sons. He lost a child when they were in Springfield as well. He had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood, which is surprisingly modern. I think it almost exceeds the degree to which we’re able to be modern, [Laughs] and he believed that there was a total absence of any parental authority whatsoever. And that was a conscious decision. It may well have been largely influenced by the very kind of harsh, disciplinarian that he had as a father himself. His experience of childhood would’ve been a very bleak, very difficult one.
Day-Lewis: He was forced to — as many young people were at that time — from the moment I think that they moved from Kentucky to Indiana already he and his sister were struggling to survive almost on their own. When his father went back to bring the lady, Sarah, who became his stepmother, he was away for a long, long time, and they just had to exist in the wilderness and get on with it. I think he had to grow up very quickly. His father certainly was not a man who had much tolerance for books, and that, I think, is a great conflict. It was no love lost. But he made a wonderful statement, and it’s a strange image to use, because it conjures up an image of slavery, but I think he used the image of love creates the links that chain a child to the family, to the parent. Does anyone know exactly what the expression is?
Day-Lewis: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s not dissimilar to that, and the image anyhow is about right. But, to cut a long story short, there was absolute chaos in the White House, because I think it actually was through a sort of scientific point of view. I think he enjoyed so much watching the chaos that Tad created. [Laughs] He was armed to the teeth apart from anything else with all kinds of weapons, cannons, and flintlocks and swords. And he hit the goat — the goat drawn carriage that he had, which he was always kind of careening about the corridors of the White House. I think Lincoln really enjoyed watching, you know, observing the bedlam that ensued from all his adventures, but also I think it was just pure love. I think he felt such a pure love. I’m not saying that this is good parenting in contemporary times, that you just let them to do whatever the hell they want, but it’s an interesting choice to make at that time in that place. And, of course, Mary, again, during this part of the story, is more or less an absentee as a parent. Therefore, the bond between Tad and Lincoln became so very precious to both of them because he was the primary parent at that time.
Q: You spoke about your reluctance to take on this role. What was the depth of that reluctance and when did you know that it was the right choice to say yes?
Day-Lewis: Well, I don’t think I ever did know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses at a certain point. [Laughs] I mean, I understand that it was for Steven to put the idea in front of me. I didn’t take it seriously from the word go, but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help him to do that thing that he wished to do. And, least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest President this country has ever known. I mean, not just in a self-serving way, but quite literally I wouldn’t have wished to. It seemed to me a very difficult thing to try and tell that story, very difficult to try and do that in such a way that it could live. And, I just really felt I wasn’t the person to do that.
Spielberg: But I felt he was. [Laughs]
Day-Lewis: Hmm. [Laughs]
Spielberg: And I stayed at it, you know, I really tried. I met Daniel eight years ago, and couldn’t get him to agree to come down the road with me. And then, a couple years ago when Tony Kushner — you remember Tony Kushner was not the first person to attempt to tell a story about Abraham Lincoln for me to direct. But, that was the only exposure Daniel had to our Lincoln was another story that was really more about the Civil War and all the battles than it was about the Presidency. But when Tony had written his draft, that was sort of the first shoe in the door. That really got us together in Ireland for the first time to talk about it. It was almost like a feasibility study. Daniel was like a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near a script that was clearly on the verge of brilliance. And I was just at that point, without putting any extra pressure on Daniel, because I didn’t say this to anybody, but if he had finally and ultimately said no, I would never have made the movie Abraham Lincoln. It just would never have been in my life anymore. It’d be gone.
Day-Lewis: It really was, for me, a combination of that meeting, which even if nothing had come from it, it still would’ve left me with a really wonderful memory of the time spent talking with Steven and Tony about Lincoln who had become such an important part of their lives, and reading Tony’s script, discussing what it might become if Tony were to carry on working on it, because he more or less stopped writing it. It was still an incomplete vision.
Day-Lewis: And then, when Tony went away to begin to continue that work, I read Doris’s book, and I think that really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony, from which I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered there, because she makes that so beautifully clear in her book. And that had been a great problem for me, not just the responsibility of taking on that task, but really asking the question, has he now been removed for all time from that possibility because of the iconography surrounding his life.
Q: Mr. Spielberg, after watching the movie, I can’t imagine someone else playing this role, but I read at one point you were talking to Liam Neeson. Is there a fortuitous time to make a film even though you’ve been working on it for many, many years?
Spielberg: Yes, and that’s not up to me. Whether it’s fortuitous is something you realize after you’re done. So, you know, I think that a lot of planets lined up in a good position, but that was out of my control, and that was not even on my mind at the time. 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. It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me.
Day-Lewis: I would love to say just something I feel I have to, because Liam is a friend of mine, and Liam was committed to Lincoln for a period of time working with Steven, and there came a moment when for reasons that –
Spielberg: We both decided –
Day-Lewis: — were clear to both of them –
Day-Lewis: — that Liam needed to do other things. Steven was going to do other things, but Liam, you know, for that period whilst Liam was committed to that project, of course, it wouldn’t haven’t occurred to me to consider it. From the moment that Liam decided it was 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 just in the most generous possible way. And he encouraged me, and when I was undecided about whether I should do it, he gave me a lot of encouragement towards that decision as well. So, I just feel I should say that.
Spielberg: Right. So, the timeline was simply I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln. He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. And then, Liam and I had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this together. And then, we both decided to do other things. And then, I came back to Daniel. So, that’s the timeline.
Day-Lewis: I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would’ve been something I would’ve wished to see. You know, these things are haphazard. You ask about timing. It’s worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would’ve been quite wonderful.
Q: There’s a scene early on in the film where the Jollys visit Lincoln and you see Lincoln conflicted between his faith in the people and his need to move beyond and do things that he thinks that people need. Could you talk about that?
Spielberg: Well, the Jolly scene is an interesting scene, because it became an example of Seward’s political brilliance that he would use these two [Unintelligible] seekers to illustrate a problem that he was not able to illustrate to the President himself. So, through these people he illustrated a problem, of are the people going to want to abolish slavery through the passage of a 13th Amendment? And when push came to shove and it came right down to it, the people spoke, and they said well, if abolishing slavery will end the war, we’ll accept slaves going free if it really puts an end to this war, but if it doesn’t put an end to the war and it’s not going to serve that purpose, we don’t want a former slave coming up and taking our jobs at the war’s end. And Seward walks over to Lincoln and says well, there it is. There’s the voice of the people. So, the conundrum that became the entire issue of do you end the war first and then attempt to pass slavery or vice versa is illustrated in that single sequence.
Q: When you’re leaving the theater, you can’t help but think that there are still self-evident truths that are in question and the government is still voting on who’s equal and who isn’t. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Spielberg: Any thoughts about that?
Day-Lewis: Well, it’s a work in progress, isn’t it?
Day-Lewis: And that just the word Amendment itself is an encouraging thing, isn’t it? Because an amendment, it tells of a system of government that allows for the improvement of itself. Just move forward a little bit, one day at a time.
Spielberg: Yes. I agree.
Q: Did you keep this film out of release before the election intentionally?
Spielberg: Well, no, what it was very simply is because there’s a lot of confusion about the political ideologies of both parties which have switched 180 degrees in 150 years. It’s just too confusing — everybody claiming 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 all of us are enjoying today. 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.