Steven Spielberg is one of the seminal Hollywood filmmaker who remade Hollywood in his own image and personified the very term “blockbuster” with hits like Jaws, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park among the many. He’s also garnered Oscars for Best Director for the films Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
Now the 65 year-old director and movie mogul releases his most ambitious film of his career, Lincoln, that portrays none other than the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Spielberg talks about what has made doing a film about Abraham Lincoln a lifelong dream.
“Look, I’ve just always had a personal fascination with the myth of Abraham Lincoln,” Steven says, “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,” he adds, “You have to go back to the 1930’s 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 moviegoers, and that’s how this whole fascination began.”
Playing Lincoln himself is British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who has won Best Actor Oscars for his roles in films like My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood. But Steven says landing the notoriously selective actor wasn’t easy, mainly because he was not confident enough that he could play such an important figure in American history.
“It was hard to get him to say yes,” he recalls, “But I felt he was. And I stayed. I tried really hard. I met Daniel eight years ago, and, and couldn’t get him to agree to come down the road with me. And a couple years ago when [screenwriter] Tony Kushner, you remember he 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 our Lincoln 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,” Spielberg adds, “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, um, I would never had made the movie Abraham Lincoln. It would never have just been in my life anymore. It’d be gone.”
Spielberg was asked about having considered actor Liam Neeson at one point for the role and whether there is fortuitist time to make a film even though he has been working on it for many years.
“Yes, and that’s not up to me,” Steven answers, “Whether it’s fortuitist is something you realize after you’re done. So, 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 that the time. At that point, I had just accepted the fact that I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him,” he adds, “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.”
“So, the timeline was simply, I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln,” he adds, “He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. And then, and then Liam, Liam and I had a, 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.”
In the past, Steven has said that the 1:85 widescreen format approximates how we see. It was asked what made him shoot the film in that format.”
“The number of characters,” Spielberg replies, with a laugh, “I had to fit them all in, and I’m not being facetious.”
Spielberg talks about the surprises he uncovered during his many years of research into the actual person Abraham Lincoln was in his life.
“There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln,” Steven says, “With over 7,000 books written to any find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life is difficult. But the thing that, that really surprised me about Lincoln was that with 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,” he adds, “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 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 was 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, um, the fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me.”
Steven talks about how he decided at what parts of the President’s life to film for Lincoln.
“Well, there was,” he recalls, “It was very, very important that, that we felt that Lincoln was able to ride across the battlefield outside of Petersburg, it was almost the epilogue, between he and Grant, which happened. And, 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 his story of Abraham Lincoln, but I would not have been able to, and Tony Kushner would not, have been able, he tried and we tried to write Doris’s [Kearns Goodwin’s] book [Team Of Rivals]. His first draft was 550 pages long.”
“We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband,” Spielberg adds, “You couldn’t do that if that was the greatest hit list of the life of Abraham Lincoln. It couldn’t just be the golden oldies compilation of his entire life, 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.”
Spielberg was asked about why he chose right now to make Lincoln.
“Well, I would have been very to have made Lincoln in the year 2000, the year after I met Doris Kearns Goodwin,” he says, “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,” Steven continues, “No, we were ready to make it during the Bush administration. It had nothing to do current politics. It had nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way, you know, we, you know, 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.”
Steven was also asked why historical dramas, which seemed so commonplace in Hollywood film in the 1930’s, have fallen out of favor since then.
“I don’t know,” Spielberg replies, “I think that 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.”
Lincoln headlines an impressive cast, which includes not only Daniel Day-Lewis, but Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and others. It was asked whether there was any concern during the casting process of all the big names together distracting from the story and the titular character.
“I think that the people who are in the story, the actors who are in the story, some of them with long filmographies and very well known to the American public, disappear into their characters within seconds of coming on the screen,” Steven believes, “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.”
Steven talks about how he had to deconstruct Lincoln’s mythological image in the story and how he often had to do things that would have been certainly questionable at the time to abolish slavery, as well as the message that arises from that.
“Just desperate times require desperate measures,” he explains, “What Lincoln and the Lobbyist for the Amendment and the Manager of the Amendment of 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, but nothing they did was really illegal.
“And by the way, what they did to gain favor to get people to persuade people to vote, not to vote their conscience is not uncommon in this day and age either,” Spielberg says, “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.”
Spielberg was asked why he ultimately chose not to delve into the three attempts to assassinate Lincoln and the one that finally claimed his life a very short time after the Civil War had end.
“The decision I think was pretty easy one to make,” Steven states, “Because I think had we taken it right up to the assassination, I think the film would’ve 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. And I think that nothing could be gained by showing that, and it was more profound for me to see what actually happened. 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.”
It was asked whether, despite the fact that Steven did not intend to make a political statement in releasing Lincoln during a time of great political turmoil, he would be fascinated by how people would interpret the film’s allegorical meaning in the context of this current era.
“Of course,” he answers, “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 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 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,” Spielberg adds, “And I’m really excited to see how deeply people will reach to contemporize our film far beyond how it deserves to be contemporized.”
Spielberg talks about a pivotal scene early on in Lincoln where the Jollys visit Lincoln.
“Well, the Jolly scene is an interesting scene,” Steven says, “Because it became it became an example of Seward’s political brilliance that he would use these two 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,” he adds, “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, uh, somebody — uh, a former slave coming up and taking our jobs after 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 entire 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.”
Steven talks about why he waited a week after the election to release the film and if it was intentionally so.
“Well, no, what it was very simply is because there’s a lot of confusion about the political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years,” he says, “It just too confusing. Everybody is 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, that all of us are enjoying today.”
“So I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle,” Spielberg says, “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.”