When two of the most respected artistic forces in contemporary filmmaking decide to collaborate on a movie detailing a crucial period in the life of one of the most pivotal presidents in American history, people tend to take it seriously.
With that in mind, director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis admit that when it came to their long-discussed project chronicling Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to bring an end to the bloody Civil War and simultaneously formally abolish slavery, they took their time before committing to rolling film. As both men reveal, though, their desire to get “Lincoln” right ultimately led them to make the film at what they believe the ideal moment to explore the life and legacy of America’s 16th president.
Steven Spielberg: I 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.
Daniel Day-Lewis: Really the most obvious thing 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. I just wasn't sure that I would be able to do that. Beyond that, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t attempt. Somebody else should do it instead.
Spielberg: It was hard to get him to say yes!
Day-Lewis: I ran out of excuses at a certain point. For Steven to put the idea put in front of me – not that I didn't take it seriously from the word ‘go,’ but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person that helps him to do that thing he wished to do. Least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest president this country's ever known.
Spielberg: [Screenwriter] Tony Kushner was not the first person to attempt to tell a story about Abraham Lincoln for me to direct, and that was the only exposure Daniel had to our Lincoln was another script, which 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 get us together in Ireland to talk about – it was almost like a feasibility study: Daniel was doing 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 wouldn't have been in my life anymore. It would have been gone.
Day-Lewis: It really was for me a combination of that meeting, even if nothing had come from it, I would have left me with a really wonderful memory of the time spent talking about Lincoln with Steven and Tony. It had become such an important part of their lives. Reading Tony's script, discussing what it might become if Tony were to carry on and work on it because he more or less stopped writing it. It was still an incomplete version.
And then, when Tony went away to begin to continue that work, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, and I think it really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony from which I could believe there was a living being to be discovered there. Because she makes that so beautifully clear in her book, and that had been the 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 iconographies surrounding his life.
Spielberg: 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 of years to write the book. It took us more than a couple of years to get the screenplay written. So I wasn't waiting for a certain time. But 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. It had nothing to do with 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….I'm really excited to see how deeply people will reach to contemporize our film far beyond how it deserves to be contemporized…
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There's a lot of confusion about the political ideologies that both parties have switched about 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.
Day-Lewis: The wonderful surprise with that man is that as you begin to discover him, and there are many different ways in which you can do that, he welcomes you in. He's very accessible. That took me by surprise…I knew nothing about him, so I had everything to learn, and apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address, I guess 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 that aspect of his character was, I think, 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 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 it. That's good politics, but, I also think it was innately positive – I think there was a very joyful element to that, actually.