2ND UPDATE: As Deadline revealed exclusively last week, the Steven Spielberg-directed Lincoln made a surprise world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Monday evening. It has been one of the wildcards in the Oscar conversation, with the nomination buzz for the picture and Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones louder now than ever. Afterwards was a Q&A with screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg (moderated by outgoing NYFF festival director Richard Pena).
Pena brought up a point that is glaringly obvious to those who watched the film and might have been surprised that it was the Republicans, and not the Democrats, leading the crusade to abolish slavery. Pena asked: “What were you thinking of, in terms of how this film would make an intervention in terms of what is going on right now”
Said Spielberg: “I just said, please don’t release this until the election is over. I didn’t want it to be this political football going back and forth. Because it’s kind of confusing. The parties traded political places over the last 150 years. That in itself is a great story, how the Republican Party went from a progressive party in 1865, and how the Democrats were represented in the picture, to the way it’s just the opposite today. But that’s a whole other story.”
Lincoln took over ten years to figure out, and Kushner, who helped Spielberg find the tone of the Best Picture nominee Munich, said that his early attempts to find Lincoln by covering various parts of Lincoln’s life resulted in an endless supply of script pages. So he finally decided to narrow the focus to the seminal last months of Lincoln’s life. That revelation came while Kushner walked picket lines during the writers strike. He still wrote 500 pages before he and Spielberg found a way to cut the script down to a somewhat manageable 200.
Spielberg said that much of the backroom political maneuvering that went into abolishing slavery before ending the Civil War came from the research done by Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln. It informed the filmmakers on exactly how Lincoln’s strategy of surrounding himself with former adversaries made his administration so effective. “You could see what an amazing counterpart that [Secretary of State William] Seward (David Strathairn) was to Lincoln, and how Lincoln did use opposition and contention and opposite opinion to almost mold and form his own opinion. It was this team of rivals that brought him to the nexus of his administration,” Spielberg said.
The recent trailers of the film have brought comment on the high, reedy voice that Day-Lewis brings to his Lincoln character. Spielberg said there was abundant evidence that it was spot on. “All the research and even Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about his high shrill voice,” Spielberg said. “Everybody talked about the Lincoln-Douglas debate, where Douglas’s Basso profondo voice did not cut through Coopers Union as well as Lincoln’s higher tenor voice did. We would actually be a little criticized had we done Lincoln the way Disneyland does in Epcot Center, with that low voice. I have to give credit to Daniel. He researched that and came up with it himself. I had no input into that. Daniel completely found Lincoln, he found the voice and the center of that man, and the voice is just a small part of that.”
Spielberg said his film wasn’t completely finished, but it was close enough to have made a strong impact last night.