| || ||LINCOLN |
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field, Bruce McGill, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader
Best for... summing up a great man's character in one short span of weeks.
Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. The greatest US president in history (discuss; 10 marks). It's a dream team even before you get to the supporting cast (Strathairn, Spader, Field) and it only gets dreamier from there. By focusing on the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, Spielberg sidesteps the brutality of the US Civil War (somewhat, at least) to focus on the high ideals for which Lincoln, at least, fought. So inspiring that you may find yourself singing the Star-Spangled Banner by the end.
HOW STEVEN SPIELBERG NEARLY MADE, THEN DIDN'T MAKE, THEN DID MAKE LINCOLN
WORDS: IAN FREER
This feature first appeared in issue 283 of Empire magazine.
"I DON'T READ TWEETS, so don't share anything else with me," says Steven Spielberg, settling into his chair, flopping his trademark flat cap on the coffee table in front of him. "I read Whoopi Goldberg's tweet only because she put it right into my face." It is the afternoon after Lincoln's unofficial world premiere at the New York Film Festival and we are in a corner apartment on the 12th floor of The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Central Park filling the CinemaScope window frame. Empire has started to relay the #oscarpredictions following the screening, but Spielberg - notoriously circumspect around awards time - has stopped us in our tracks. Although the film is just a few weeks from its November 9 US opening, he is still making editing, colour and end-credit tweaks ("It's the only time I've ever thought that digital was a good thing"), but his Lincoln adventure - when he started, Bill Clinton was in the White House - is coming to an end.
"I didn't make it quickly," he suggests. "It took a long time to get the script right. It took a long time to find my Lincoln. I'm in a moment right now where I am proud of the work and relieved that we got this thing off the ground. There were many times I thought this would never get done."
|It's a movie unlike anything I've ever directed. |
PREPPING THE PROJECT in the early Noughties, Spielberg's research took him to the Lincoln archive in Springfield (no, not that one), Illinois. As the director perused the panoply of Presidential possessions, he came across the holy grail of Lincoln ephemera - the stovepipe hat. Donning white gloves, he took the iconic headwear in his hands. Was there even a little part of him tempted to try it on for size?
"No, never," says Spielberg, his face going through 50 shades of appalled at the very thought. "I would never put on the frock coat. I would never put on the hat. My goodness. It would be like lighting a cigarette in the Sistine Chapel. And I don't smoke and I'm not Catholic."
Spielberg's bristling is indicative of the aura that still surrounds Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States who saved the Union, ended the Civil War and practically wiped slavery from the face of the Earth. For Americans Lincoln is a figure deified in Washington memorials, cinema (John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln) and US tender (his face is on the five-dollar bill) to the point where he has become an easy target for lampooning, be it Bill & Ted ("Party on, dudes!") or Police Squad! ("… and Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln"). As the overly reverent and ridiculously irreverent have hijacked Lincoln in equal measure, now Spielberg is stealing him back.
"I've always had a passion for his deeds," he says. "Not the image America has embraced, but of his actual deeds. I wanted to look closer at what it was like to be him, to hold the balance of this nation on his shoulders. And I'm glad I didn't take three-and-a-half hours to do that!"
If it took Spielberg over a decade to bring Lincoln to the screen, it took him an instant to commit to making it. In 1999, the director invited historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to join his brain trust on The Unfinished Journey, a short film Spielberg directed for CBS to mark the turn of the millennium. Learning that Kearns Goodwin was writing Team Of Rivals, a history of the Lincoln administration, Spielberg made a snap decision to acquire the film rights. For years, he worked through writer after writer (John Logan, Paul Wright), draft after draft, until he landed on a "real D. W. Griffith epic" examining the President through the prism of nine different Civil War battles. Then he had a change of heart.
Steven Spielberg gets into character to direct.
"I REALISED I'D MADE A BIG MISTAKE," he levels. "I didn't want to make Saving Private Ryan. I didn't want to do another movie about combat, this time between the blue and the grey. I just wanted to create a living portrait of a working President and an active husband and father. And I couldn't do that with the war upstaging Lincoln."
To service his new vision, Spielberg hired playwright Tony Kushner (Munich). The resulting script took five years to crack, the first draft coming in at a whopping 550 pages, covering his entire administration from 1861 to 1865. Yet within the breeze block of a script, Spielberg zeroed in on a 50-page section that focussed on Lincoln's attempts to pass The 13th Amendment and finally abolish slavery.
|Studios love Awards Season. It's daft to compare chalk and cheese. |
As much as Kushner's poetic, literate script highlights the political chicanery involved in passing the amendment - Lincoln finagling his advisors, tempering radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and hiring three political bovver boys (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson) to drum up the 20 votes the amendment needs to get through congress - it is also about how the Presidency affects his relationship with possibly bipolar wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and distant son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It has big laughs - only Spielberg can mine comic relief from the ratification of a legislative amendment - but doesn't obfuscate the central dilemma: to push the 13th Amendment through, Lincoln chose to prolong the Civil War, a conflict that ultimately cost the lives of 750,000 Americans.
"Lincoln does have blood on his hands," says Spielberg. "He made a very difficult decision. He was tortured throughout the making of this decision but I think he made the right decision. I think he made the only decision."
"STUDIOS LOVE AWARDS season," says Daniel Day-Lewis, today sporting short, smart hair, an über-stylish military jacket and drainpipe keks. "Most actors I know have, at the very least, an ambivalent attitude towards them because they understand that it is daft to compare chalk and cheese. We appreciate it is helpful to the film and I think you feel encouraged on a personal level if people recognise your work, but some of them go on for hours. The Golden Globes is TV and Cinema in every single category, and in the cinema categories there is Musical/Comedy, then Drama. It just never ends. If you're lucky you get to sit with some good mates and have a good laugh and try not to get too stewed in the process."
Day-Lewis would be a front runner in any Best Actor race, but it has been a protracted journey to the start line. If you know one thing about Spielberg's Lincoln, you'll know that Liam Neeson was Spielberg's first choice to the play the title role. Only he wasn't. When the screenplay was in its "D. W. Griffith" incarnation, the director sent it to Daniel Day-Lewis and heard a word he mustn't have heard very often in the last 40 years of his career: no.
Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln leads his men on horseback.
"It was a very different screenplay at that time," says Day-Lewis. "At that time it just seemed to be unimaginable to me to take on. I did not think I was ready or able to do that."
Spielberg then went to his Schindler's List cohort Neeson, who deeply researched the role, but the pair amicably parted ways, according to Spielberg "when the film moved to a more singular focus". The project was at its lowest ebb until it found an unlikely saviour in Leonardo DiCaprio. Listening to Spielberg's Lincoln woes over dinner, DiCaprio put in a good word with his Gangs Of New York co-star, and following an intensive two-day brainstorm with Spielberg and Kushner in Dublin, Day-Lewis was in.
|I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln. |
"I've always felt Meryl Streep is our greatest actress and I think Daniel and Tom Hanks are our greatest actors," says Spielberg. "I knew that if Daniel did not commit to Lincoln, I would never make Lincoln. I had resolved not to make the picture if Daniel didn't make it with me."
Yet before Day-Lewis took on the role, he made a phone call.
"Liam is a friend of mine," says Day-Lewis. "When I'd heard he'd distanced himself from it, I was in touch immediately. I do feel there have to be some good manners in the business. It's hard enough for actors without other actors fucking them over. Look at the box office of our last four films. If he had not backed out, I would not have stood a chance."
The mythos surrounding Day-Lewis' approach to acting is legendary. Depending on who you read, he has insisted on being pushed around in a wheelchair (My Left Foot), spent three nights being hosed down in a prison cell (In The Name Of The Father), learnt to skin animals (The Last Of The Mohicans) and sported a top hat, cape and cane for two months prior to shooting (The Age Of Innocence). It's behaviour that suggests some kind of an intense lunatic or (worse) an insufferable luvvie, but in person he is neither: thoughtful, certainly, but also lucid, funny and charming. Rumours of his Lincoln methodology run from demanding to be called "Mr. President" on set, to entering a fugue state, to completely rejecting the trappings of the 21st century. So are the stories of his character immersion just bollocks?
"Some of them are," he smiles. "There are seeds of truth that get developed to the most hyperbolic degree. I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln. But anyone who is focussed on their work closes off their peripheral vision. If you go to inordinate lengths to create that illusion for yourself, to arrive at some cohesive sense of a life, why keep jumping in and out of it?"
Day-Lewis is fully aware of the rep his process provokes - "In England, they think I'm unhinged" - so takes steps to let his fellow crew know "that I'm not going to start speaking in tongues or something".
"I had a fantastic fella from upstate New York who was taking me to work every day," he continues. "He'd heard all those rumours as well. I thought, 'Let's have a laugh.' I said, 'Go and tell your teamster captain that he's got to send you on a training course because I have to go to work in a pony and trap every day. Tell him I absolutely insist!'"
It goes without saying that Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln, but he replaces interest in an actor's trick with absorption in a man's life. His Lincoln is a quiet, dignified, brooding presence, a raconteur ad nauseam ("I know one or two people like that, where you're thinking, 'I've got stuff to do here'") and a measured thinker ("He had an internal rhythm which seemed like his spirit had left the building") who unusually combined this almost scientific capacity for thought with a deep well of compassion.
"There is no doubt in my mind that as a young man when he saw slaves heading down the Mississippi it had a very profound effect on him," says Day-Lewis. "And that he genuinely in his spirit - not just intellectually - believed that every man had the right to be free. He was born to do the thing he did."
Lincoln consulting wife Mary Todd (Sally Field).
TO GET INTO 1865 character, Steven Spielberg directed Lincoln in a suit - he is wearing one today - so not to be the "schlubby, baseball-cap-wearing 21st century guy".
It's not just his dress code that's changed, however; it's his entire filmmaking approach. For Spielberg, Lincoln is "as close as I've ever gotten to directing for the stage". It's his most talk-filled, performance-driven piece to date. "Some of the scenes are eight, nine minutes long with their own beginning, middle and end," he says. "I don't have eight or nine minutes in any of my movies!" And while Spielberg has retained Janusz Kaminski's gorgeous, Vermeer-inspired lighting schemes (captured on film, not digital), he has mostly eschewed the "fancy shots" that have been part and parcel of his directorial DNA since Duel. He also has only 30-odd minutes of John Williams' score - "John and I decided not to underscore dialogue scenes" - shredding the sentiment his detractors often lambast him for. Schindler's List saw him adopt a black-and-white cinéma-vérité look. Tintin saw him abandon live action altogether. But Lincoln's stately, stagey approach might be his most radical departure to date.
"I don't try to upstage the content by doing something cinematically that would obviously make me think that I wasn't interested or trusting enough in Tony's dramaturgy," he explains. "And because I had such respect for his language and our screen structure, I didn't want to reinvent Lincoln on the soundstage. I had a great script, and I didn't want to get in the way by trying to make it greater."
Let's be clear. This isn't a permanent change of direction for Spielberg. Although Lincoln may feel unfamiliar, Spielberg is essentially doing what he has done his entire career: serving the material the best way he knows how. "It's nice at 65 that after 28 movies I can really say I made a movie unlike anything I've ever directed," he reflects. "And if people don't want to see it because they hear it is not typical of my work, I'll fully accept that. I'm not a barker. I can't sit outside the tent with a bullhorn. They either will or they won't."
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