Steven Spielberg Interview For ‘Lincoln’
Steven Spielberg directs two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln,’ a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. Based on the best-selling book ‘Team of Rivals’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and adapted for the screen by Tony Kushner and Goodwin himself, ’Lincoln’ focuses on the life of the former President, focusing on the man’s rise to politics and his role in the Civil War.
Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lincoln’ stars Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Walton Goggins as Wells A. Hutchins, James Spader as WN Bilbo, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens. David Oyelowo, Tim Blake Nelson, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, David Costabile, Byron Jennings, Dakin Matthews, Boris McGiver, Gloria Reuben, Jeremy Strong, David Warshofsky and Lee Pace also star. In the US, ‘Lincoln’ will hit limited theaters on November 9th before expanding wider on November 16th. The film lands in UK cinemas on January 25th. My interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for ‘Lincoln’ can be read here, while my Daniel Day-Lewis interview can be read here (more to come).
What was it about this particular segment of time in Abraham Lincoln’s life that made you compelled to explore it in this film?
Steven Spielberg: We chose to tell a little known story about one of the most important events in American history, which was the fight to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. To give that complicated story it’s due and to explore it, in as much detail as we felt it deserved, we counted on the audiences for ‘Lincoln’ to supply the now universal understanding that slavery was horrific. The same way we count on the audiences awareness of the horrors of the civil war itself, which visually only occupies a very small portion of our film. So we came to focus on really the last four months of Lincoln’s life, because we wanted to show that Lincoln accomplished something great, something truly monumental – and that was abolishing slavery and ending the civil war. However, we also wanted to show that he was a man, not a monument. And our best way of doing justice to this immensely complicated person was to depict him beginning and conducting and concluding a very, very complex action: the fight to pas the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives. We hoped to locate an event that also hadn’t previously been dramatised, but had very significant and legitimately high stakes. We also wanted to be able to include Lincoln’s family dynamic, but again only in the moments that they actually collided with the public events that this whole story is about.
Telling a story like this, I can imagine it was important to show not only his moments that are heralded, but also his flaws and shortcomings?
Steven Spielberg: Definitely. It was very important for all of us making this film to avoid being cynical, to avoid cynicism. I think it was just as important for all of us making the film to avoid hero worship, because I think you can admire someone immensely, as I admire Lincoln, but without worshipping him. I wanted to tell a story about Lincoln that would avoid the mistakes of both cynicism and hero worship and be true to the vastness of who he was and the intimacy of his life and the softer angles of his nature. I wanted to make a film that would show how multifaceted Lincoln was. He was a statesman, a military leader, but also a father, a husband and a man who was always, continuously looking deep inside himself. And he was a fantastic writer. I hope the film shows how multi-fascinated he was.
I know you asked Doris Kearns Goodwin to reserve the right to her book a number of years ago…?
Steven Spielberg: Yeah. There’s many feature length stories that could’ve been told and found on very nearly ever page of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 800 page book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” But with Doris’ blessing and full participation throughout the whole process we decided to focus on the one individual story. And we feel that the spirit of ‘Lincoln’ is very true to her masterpiece. Whatever else we did, I felt it was essential to be absolutely true to that.
And I heard the Tony Kushner’s first screenplay for ‘Lincoln’ was exceptionally long?
Steven Spielberg: (Laughs) Yeah. When I got into the screenplay it was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read, but it was sprawling and epic and it was 9 hours long, it was just impractical as a motion picture (laughs). Tony and I were determined to tell the story in motion picture theatres, not on television – at least in its first round. So I thought the most compelling thing that Tony had written in the entire 550 page document was a 70 page stretch of the fight to pass the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives, it had already passed the Senate, but it needed the House. My movies more often are told through pictures, not words. But in this case, the pictures took second position to the incredible words of Abraham Lincoln and his presence. With ‘Lincoln,’ I was less interested in an outpouring of imagery than in letting the most human moments of this story evolve before us. The film does have quite a bit of suspense, and it could, at times, even be seen as a kind of political thriller.
Telling a story about Abraham Lincoln has been something you’ve wanted to do for a while. Can you remember a particular moment where you became fascinated by this man?
Steven Spielberg: I’ve always been interested in telling a story about Abraham Lincoln. He’s one of the most compelling figures in American history and in my life, certainly from childhood when I was taken at four or five years old to see the Lincoln Memorial. At first I was terribly frightened by the immensity of the statue in that chair (laughs), but then as I got closer and closer I become completely captivated by the comfort I found looking at his visage, his face – even with a white sculpture there was a warmth and a safety there. I felt really safe as a little boy looking at him. I’ll never forget that moment and it left me wondering about that man sitting high above me in that chair.
When you were on set, I understand you asked the actors to avoid anything relating to outside of the time period….?
Steven Spielberg: Yes. I wanted everyone to feel a real sense of authenticity on the set. One of the only impositions would be that there was a camera and there would be monitors, that would be the only real imposition on the time period. So I simply asked the actors when they came onto the set not to talk about the book they were reading or sports scores or what was happening at home with their families. Save all of that when you go outside of the space we were shooting in (laughs). Just to bring a kind of respect to the story we were telling.
You’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln, how was it working with him on ‘Lincoln’?
Steven Spielberg: I think Daniel, like Tony Kushner, understood Lincoln on a subatomic level, one that goes beyond anything I could articulate. I never asked Daniel about his process, I never questioned it; I never looked the gift horse in the mouth. I just received it with tremendous gratitude. With Daniel and Tony, I felt I was in between two giant figures in the landscape of theater and performances and I was constantly saying to myself, “Don’t get in the way; celebrate these words, capture these performances, get it in the best way you know how.” And let the actors cast their long shadows. He’s amazing.
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