Whittling down the 56-year life of a landmark U.S. president to a feature-length screenplay is a daunting task, and playwright Tony Kushner initially turned down the offer to adapt Abraham Lincoln’s story for the big screen for Steven Spielberg, even after their Oscar-lauded collaboration on 2005’s Munich. But if there’s one writer who can effectively generate emotional drama against a political venue, it’s Kushner, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning seven-hour-long Angels in America play dramatized the AIDS crisis amidst the complex attitudes of the Reagan era. While length worked in Kushner’s favor during Angels, on Lincoln it was the rock that he pushed up a hill. But after conferring with Spielberg, Kushner soon found the cornerstone that would condense his first 500-page draft down to a 150-minute film: Lincoln’s political fight to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution pushed through Congress while the Civil War lingered.
AwardsLine: What was the biggest challenge you had in terms of focusing on a part of Lincoln’s life and keeping this feature length?
Tony Kushner: It very easily could have been a miniseries. There were a lot of challenges in that regard. It was just an astonishing amount of really incredibly dramatic historical material. By the time I finished doing my research, I could pretty much make a miniseries out of any weekend Lincoln was in the White House. And I know that is not in any way an exaggeration. More than any other moment in American history, (the Civil War) is a gathering of all our country’s central themes. My goal from the beginning was to not make a bare-bones outline of life in his administration. I wanted it to be a drama dictated by the working out of contradictions and conflict rather than a faithful recounting of all the high points in Lincoln’s life. It was very important that we not try to cover too much terrain, rather dramatize it in a small moment. The expanse of time itself defuses a certain amount of dramatic tension.
AwardsLine: Why didn’t you say yes to Lincoln right away? Was Munich a tough one to crack as well?
Kushner: Not at all. I really loved working with Steven on Munich, and it was hard in certain ways, but I just thought, “How do you write a character named Abraham Lincoln with anything other than an immortalization that you know? And who’s going to play him? And is Daniel Day-Lewis available?” I was told that he wasn’t interested in playing Abraham Lincoln at that point, and it just seemed like it was fraught with sandtraps and pitfalls and improbabilities. I feel even more strongly now than I did six years ago that Lincoln is one of the personalities like Mozart or Shakespeare — real genius is a word that I don’t use loosely or lightly — somebody who is capable of things that are actually beyond great. If you set your goal as explaining what they did and how they did it, the minute you’ve succeeded in doing that you’ve failed because you couldn’t possibly have gotten it right. You can’t explain how Mozart wrote Don Giovanni or how Keats wrote “To a Nightingale” or how Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity. If we could figure it out, we could do it. Lincoln is, without any question, the greatest political leader this country has ever had but also one of its greatest writers. And, according to pretty much all accounts, a rather astonishing human being.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: Mark Boal
AwardsLine: What was the most frustrating part of the six years you worked on the Lincoln script?
Kushner: The first two years were spent around the fall of 1863, which is when Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, began to really openly campaign for the Republican nomination again with Lincoln. I was going to start there and go through the end of April of ’65. I wrote about 100 pages and got as far as Dec. 25, 1863. I thought, “OK, there has to be some way to condense this material.” Every time I tried, I wound up pretty much around the same thing. I don’t think I ever got into 1864. And there’s a vast amount of stuff that happened in 1864 that you just couldn’t skip over. Steven was waiting and I said to him, “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t how to make this a feature-length film.” I was hoping he would say “Well, let’s do it as a miniseries,” but he wanted to do it as a feature-length film. So during the writers’ strike when I wasn’t writing, I put it away, and I had my suspicion that something happened because as soon as our strike was over, I called Steven and asked, “What are we going to do? Shall we just drop this?” And he said, “Why don’t you come up and talk about it? We’ll talk through all of the material and see if we can figure something out.” Two days before I was to go see him, I had a little eureka moment and thought in the last four months of Lincoln’s life there were several immensely dramatic incidents. I went to L.A. with the outline, which Steven thought was still long. I started condensing it and didn’t get very far, so I just took a deep breath and started writing in May of that year, then worked for about eight weeks and produced a 500-page first draft. At some point we eliminated a couple of months and started focusing on the beginning of the end. What Steven was caught up in from the very beginning was the battle behind the scenes for the 13th Amendment. And the more I worked on it, the more I realized that in a way, without any stretching of history, it is a kind of perfect microcosm of what Lincoln contended with during the entirety of the war.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: Chris Terrio
AwardsLine: When you turned Angels in America into this big HBO project, was that 500 pages, more or less?
Kushner: Angels was probably less than that because it’s seven or eight 60-page scripts. I don’t remember. But I think that we figured out that if Lincoln was a miniseries, it would have been about 10 hours.
AwardsLine: What quality allows you to spend six years on a project like this?
Kushner: It takes me a very long time to get ready to write and feel ready to write, after which I’m pretty fast. One of the things I love about my job as a playwright or as a screenwriter is that I get to do a lot of research and a lot of thinking and taking a lot of notes before I turn it in. It is a long time to spend on a screenplay. I certainly spent at least that much time on Angels. Most of my plays have taken two or three or four years. But it sort of takes the time it takes. I had never intended to write anything about Abraham Lincoln, so this kind of came out of nowhere for me. I knew that I was going to be handing over a good portion of my adult life to this and that it was going to be tricky.
AwardsLine: Was there anything you learned from working with Spielberg on Munich that prepared you to take on something like this?
Kushner: Certainly. When I did Angels in America with Mike Nichols, I’d never written a screenplay, I’d never been on a film set before. Mike gave me some incredibly valuable lessons in how to work on a screenplay, and I learned an enormous amount from Steven in terms of screenwriting. I sat behind him the entire time we did Munich, so by the time we were done, I felt I had really learned a lot. I think there’s a certain way in which Munich and Lincoln are connected in that both are sort of about due process and legal versus nonlegal means of getting what you want. Munich asks some questions that needed to be asked and always need to be asked about a policy of targeted assassination for the national and international context. And Lincoln is an investigation. It seemed to me that in a couple of ways the story of his battle for the 13th Amendment in January of 1865, there was a story about legal and quasi-legal manipulations that he felt were necessary to get what he needed. I see no evidence that Lincoln really strayed over the line into illegality. There are a lot of people who criticize him for martial law and for suspending habeus corpus and closing down newspapers. He made some tough decisions, and there was certainly no question that had he lived, the courts would have had a field day. But he struggled a lot because the Constitution doesn’t define war powers: You have them but (it) doesn’t say what they are.