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'Lincoln' was a tall order for Spielberg, Day-Lewis

The director stepped outside his comfort zone of big special effects and spectacle to bring a language-driven drama about a president, played by Day-Lewis, in the midst of a political battle to the big screen.

October 31, 2012|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Daniel Day-Lewis plays the starring role in “Lincoln,” Hollywood’s first feature film on the president in 70-plus years.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the starring role in “Lincoln,” Hollywood’s… (DreamWorks II, DreamWorks…)

"Lincoln today is beyond partisan politics," Steven Spielberg said in a recent interview about his new movie, "Lincoln."

"Yeahhhh," said screenwriter Tony Kushner, almost teasing the director into claiming the country's first Republican president for the left. "Just as long as the partisans all agree we're involved in trying to make a government work."

This spirited discussion between two modern American Democrats was settled finally by London-born Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln's" Lincoln. "It's not as if we've made huge progress," Day-Lewis said. "Progress is kind of like climbing on shale. You do slip back to go forwards."

VIDEO: 'Lincoln' trailer

Spielberg, 65, the Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his spectacle-driven, technically impeccable movies, and Kushner, 56, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright known for his politically driven, linguistically virtuosic plays, seem unlikely accomplices in making Hollywood's first feature film about Abraham Lincoln in more than 70 years. Though both Jewish, liberal and at the top of their respective crafts, the two men have markedly different creative styles — Spielberg as a mainstream Hollywood hitmaker, Kushner as a literary provocateur.

But the two spent seven years together sculpting "Lincoln," which opens Friday, working to reveal the man behind the monuments.

The story focuses on an intense, four-month chunk of Lincoln's life at the end of the Civil War in 1865, when the president was trying to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery — and to protect his family from the loss of another son. "Lincoln" features a 140-person cast including Sally Field as mercurial First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as the president's trusted Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as fiery abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's sensitive son, Robert.

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Though it's set during a horrific war, it's a story that's mostly about backroom politics, practiced with cunning and a certain joie de vivre.

Spielberg has nurtured a fascination with Lincoln since childhood — "I was strangely compelled by his awkwardness juxtaposed against his historic accomplishments," he said. In 2001, while the historian was still researching her book, Spielberg optioned Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," a comprehensive, four-man biography of Lincoln's cabinet that President Obama has since cited as an inspiration.

"People just accept Lincoln as a part of our national landscape and they move on to whatever is contemporary and interesting," Spielberg said, interviewed at a Beverly Hills hotel. "But I wanted to know more about him — I know what he did, but why did he do it?"

VIDEO: Watch trailers for upcoming films

Spielberg and Kushner have worked together before — Kushner, who is best known for his Pulitzer-winning play about AIDS, "Angels in America," wrote "Munich," Spielberg's 2005 film about Israeli assassins in the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics — and they share a curiosity about politics and a generally optimistic view of democracy. Kushner came aboard "Lincoln" after a few other screenwriters had tried and failed to deliver a script to Spielberg's liking — one early take focused on Lincoln's friendship with Frederick Douglass.

Making "Lincoln" took longer than the Civil War — Kushner grappled with the script for five years, missing several deadlines as he took it from a 500-page, mini-series-length first draft to a 149-minute feature. At one point Liam Neeson, who had been attached to play Lincoln, moved on to work on other projects.

Early on, Spielberg collected a group of Civil War historians, including James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom," to meet with him and Kushner. "Jim McPherson said the Civil War is a landscape so vast that even a figure the size of Lincoln could get lost in it, and I loved that image," Kushner said.

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At Spielberg's insistence, Kushner narrowed the scope of the movie to the short period it covers. The condensed approach allowed the filmmakers to craft the story of the vote for the 13th amendment as a procedural, the tension heightening with each vote Lincoln wins over to his side, and to include small, humanizing life moments, such as Lincoln changing the logs on the fire or holding his son Tad on his lap.

The intimate storytelling approach also helped attract the notoriously selective Day-Lewis, who initially said he felt "shy" about Lincoln. "In Europe we have a much sketchier impression of him," said the London-born actor, who had never worked with Spielberg before. "I thought it was gonna be tremendously difficult to discover Lincoln, the way he was as a man."

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