EXCLUSIVE: It’s easy to imagine that when Steven Spielberg sets his sights on a movie, Hollywood’s most storied director doesn’t struggle like most others. That most certainly wasn’t the case with Lincoln. It took Spielberg a dozen years to find a handle on the 16th U.S. President’s sprawling political and personal story, three times as long as it took to fight the actual Civil War that defined Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. It took Spielberg half that many years to convince Daniel Day-Lewis, who looks so much like Lincoln that he could pose for the $5 bill if the image needs updating. Here, Spielberg explains to Deadline why it was worth the long years he and screenwriter Tony Kushner spent finding an under-told facet of the president’s life story that elevated Lincoln above a dusty history lesson.
DEADLINE: It seems unusual for the most successful director in Hollywood to wage an extended courtship as you did to get Daniel Day-Lewis to play Lincoln. Daniel once told me that he tries to find reasons not to do every movie offered him, and only says yes to the ones he can’t talk himself out of. This is because he pays such a high personal price to turn in these amazing performances. How did you court him and how did you finally convince him?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Well, it took a long time. Daniel certainly had about six years to think about it. But there were really two things going on. The first time around, I offered him not this Lincoln, not the Tony Kushner-written Lincoln, and not the Lincoln written on Doris’ book Team Of Rivals. It was an original Lincoln script that I developed. And that was when he first turned me down to play the character based on what he freely admitted was an intimidation based on the size of the figure, of Lincoln himself. I don’t think he ever forgot our encounter, though. And I don’t think he ever forgot the challenge that was offered to him.
DEADLINE: What finally turned him around?
SPIELBERG: What really, really did the trick was when he read the Tony Kushner script and I was able to get a take two. My good buddy Leo DiCaprio simply called him up one day and said “you need to reconsider this. Steven really wants you for this and he’s not willing to make the movie without you.” Based on Leo’s phone call to him, Daniel offered to read the Tony Kushner script, which he had never read, and also the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, which he had never read. That’s when the courtship part was over. Once he read the script, then he really had to come to terms with that big decision he would eventually have to make. Can I, with honor, equip this character in a way that I’ll be able to live with this the rest of my life?
DEADLINE: What’s the closest in any of your films where you put as much time into convincing an actor to star in your movie? Has there been another instance like this?
SPIELBERG: Never. Never. I’ve never gone on a campaign before, I pretty much take no for an answer. It’s one of the few times in my entire life where I was not willing to accept that answer.
DEADLINE: Why, as DiCaprio told Daniel, would you have been unable to make the film without him?
SPIELBERG: I couldn’t see Lincoln beyond what I knew Daniel would bring to it. Which was going to be an out-of-body experience that would put us in a real-time encounter with the man, his legacy, and that century.
DEADLINE: He certainly looks like he was scraped right off the penny, and he infused Lincoln with humor, intelligence and grit. Can you recall how you felt in those first days of filming, when you saw how fully realized his performance was going to be after all those years chasing him?
SPIELBERG: Well, I had seen his Lincoln evolving to life over the year that Daniel and I spent together preparing to assume this challenge. When he eventually said he would play Abraham Lincoln, Daniel’s only caveat was he asked me to wait a year. Some of that was because he was sorting out the physical location of where he was living, between Ireland and New York, but a lot of it was that he wanted to really go deep into his own research. I needed that year too, even though I was ambitious enough to jump into the picture four months after he said yes. That year was a gift to me and to Tony Kushner. We spent a lot of time on the script. It gave me a year to cast the picture, which meant I could get all of my first choices. No filmmaker ever gets their first choices consistently. But by waiting a year, I was able to wait for the actors I had always imagined in different roles. On a short turnaround, they would have been busy either in a stage play or making other movies, but they had the time to free themselves up for this one. And I got to see and experience Daniel’s evolution, from the day he said yes to the day he came on the set as our 16th president. That was its own reward. And it brought everybody’s game up. He brought so much inspiration to every actor he acted with, and even actors who never had a scene with him. Just knowing he was playing Abraham Lincoln, everyone brought their game to a new height.
DEADLINE: When you have a great actor like Daniel Day-Lewis who is so methodical in the way he finds his character, how do you most help him as director? And how hands-on do you get?
SPIELBERG: Very hands on, which is what I do and what Daniel requires. He is very collaborative. You talk to the directors who have directed him before, from Scorsese to P.T. Anderson, he is an extremely collaborative actor. And the director is his only point of contact in communication on an entire production. So I was there when he required me, and I was there when he didn’t need me to be there. We were there for each other from the very beginning and we spent three and half months in very active conversation, from the smallest moments to large pieces of history we would discuss with Tony Kushner. It was an amazing chemical bond that Daniel and I had and that, before production began, Tony Kushner shared with us.
DEADLINE: So Daniel and Tony didn’t speak once he became Lincoln. Why?
SPIELBERG: Because two on one is a committee, and one on one is a personal experience. And even with the bountiful respect that Daniel had for Tony and others on our production, including the producer Kathleen Kennedy, talking in the privacy of our process was what I required and what Daniel required.
DEADLINE: You addressed your actors by their character names throughout the shoot, and retained a feeling of period all the way through. It sounds like a method set. How and who did this help?
SPIELBERG: Well, it helped me, principally. I took this very seriously. Lincoln has not been honored in a dramatic motion picture for 72 years. Raymond Massey was the last actor to play the president in a motion picture. There have been many portrayals in documentaries and voice-overs and in recreations on The History Channel, but not in a motion picture. The thing I knew most was that we were playing with one of the most beloved, and mysterious, characters in American history. I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that, while there is a time and a place for small talk, it wasn’t going to be within earshot of the technicians and the crew and the physical set. And so I thought by example if I called Tommy Lee Jones “Mr. Stevens”, and I called David Strathairn “Mr. Secretary,” and I called Daniel Day-Lewis “Mr. President”, and I called Sally Field either “Molly” or “Mary Todd”, that it would help. It’s not about method. It doesn’t have anything to do with method. It just has to do with authenticity and having the actors come to work in the morning and feel like they were stepping back into time.
DEADLINE: How far did you take that?
SPIELBERG: Everybody was appreciative of the efforts that all of us made to do this, even though it’s not true that I had my costume designer dress me up in a period costume every day. Gee Mike, I hope you will dispel that rumor. I simply wore a jacket and a tie to work every day. I did not wear period clothing.
DEADLINE: Did you keep your cast in that kind of period cocoon on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, where the subject matter and scenes your actors filmed were so harsh and upsetting?
SPIELBERG: I couldn’t, because here’s the difference: Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan take place outside, mostly. Lincoln is within the intimacy of a set in actual, practical locations. Every room was like a library. It was quiet, there was not a lot of room to work; even the sets that Rick Carter built, he had no wild walls. We didn’t want to have the actors see us tearing down walls and suddenly the entire crew and monitors are just glaring at us from 20 yards away. So, even the sets that Rick Carter built did not have wild ceilings or wild walls.
DEADLINE: I was thinking more along a psychological standpoint that on those other films it might have been better for your actors to disconnect from that screen reality…
SPIELBERG: Well, I didn’t want to do it on Schindler’s List because I did want people to be able to get away from that era, as often as possible. Making Schindler’s List was a very deeply, deeply profoundly painful experience for everyone. Lincoln was not that same profoundly painful experience. With Schindler’s List I wanted people to step out of character, step off the set, return to reality as often as possible. It was different on Lincoln. It’s a beautiful literary piece, it takes place in small rooms, and there was intimacy because the rooms were so small.
DEADLINE: This is just my opinion, but I felt that you and Tony Kushner kept Lincoln from being a succession of scenes of backroom politics and blustery speeches by making it a caper movie, where the heist was basically all the maneuvering that went into passing the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, before accepting the South’s surrender. As you were putting this together did you approach it as a biopic?
SPIELBERG: I never saw it as a biopic. I sometimes refer to it as a Lincoln portrait, meaning that it was one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life. Had I done the entire presidency, or his entire life, that would have qualified as biopic.
DEADLINE: Wasn’t that what you originally showed to Daniel Day-Lewis when he said no?
SPIELBERG: The first one I showed to Daniel was also not a biopic. It was more like a Civil War drama. It was the story of the last 3 years of the Civil War, and it involved 7 huge battles. Lincoln was prosecuting the war, first through General McClellan and then General Grant. But it was much more of a Saving Private Ryan, set between 1863 and 1865. And it quickly wore thin on me and became clear that it was not the story I wanted to tell. And it quickly disappeared from my life.
DEADLINE: This predated Saving Private Ryan?
SPIELBERG: No. Ryan was ’97, and the script I developed was maybe 2001 or 2002.
DEADLINE: By then, you’d already made your definitive battlefield movie. It’s understandable you might have felt there was a different way to tell the Lincoln story.
SPIELBERG: Yes there was, and it took Tony and I a long time figuring out what part of Lincoln’s life would take him off his alabaster pedestal, off of Mount Rushmore and allow audiences to see that he was someone we could and should relate to. That was not doable with the Civil War in his wake. James MacPherson, the great Civil War historian, once told us that the Civil War is so vast that even a gigantic figure like Abraham Lincoln could get lost in it. And MacPherson was absolutely right. Lincoln got lost in my first attempt to tell the story of the Civil War through his eyes.
DEADLINE: Describe that eureka moment when you found the kernel in Kushner’s 500-page script that became Lincoln.
SPIELBERG: We were trying to tackle the last 3 years of the President’s life, not at the war, but in the claustrophobic confines which was how the senators, representatives, and the president and his cabinet and his secretaries experienced it. They didn’t see action. They weren’t in the battlefields. Lincoln didn’t constantly journey to the front line. He visited the troops but he didn’t do it with the front line, except once, and we depict that at the end of our picture. This was going to be a story of his last 3 years but the script was 550 pages long. For me, the most compelling part of that screenplay was a 65-page section which was the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. And out of 550 pages, that 65-page section is where I stood up and said that’s it, that’s our story, that’s our film. Tony and I found that the more real estate of Lincoln’s life we covered, the more it diminished him as someone who understood politics, personalities and political theater. And it took us away from his family. It took us away from the deep cold depths he would find himself in that some people thought was his form of depression. It took us away from all that because it covered too much territory. The Emancipation Proclamation, and the struggle to find the right time to announce it; Gettysburg address; there were so many bullet points in Lincoln’s life that actually the more that we spread that out over 550 pages the more superficial his character felt. Once we focused everything on 2 great issues, the passage of the 13th Amendment and ending the Civil War, everything got a lot more concentrated and a lot more focused.
DEADLINE: What parts of Lincoln’s life did you most hate to lose?
SPIELBERG: The death of his son Willie, and both Mary’s reasonable mourning for Willie and the unreasonable duration of her mourning for Willie. There were so many deeply felt moments in the longer draft but I knew that what we had basically done was a mini-series, not a motion picture.
DEADLINE: What problems did Tony Kushner help you solve in Munich that convinced you he was the right guy for Lincoln?
SPIELBERG: It wasn’t anything that he did on Munich that convinced me. I knew he was the right guy for the job when I saw Angels In America for the first time on Broadway.
DEADLINE: What specifically about Angels In America swayed you?
SPIELBERG: It showed me that Tony has a vivid introspective knowledge of what makes people tick. And he expresses his thoughts in words, in sentences and ideas, and the silences between the words in a way that reminded me of Paddy Chayefsky in his heyday.
SPIELBERG: The most important thing was to be fair. We’ve all read different accounts of Mary, and how her condition might be defined in modern psychology. There have been stacks of authors who were for her, and stacks of authors who were against her. We knew one thing, based on the facts; Mary was the engine of Lincoln’s ambition. Without Mary, when Lincoln lost the Senate to Stephen Douglas, he probably would never have imagined that after that Senate loss, he could next go for the highest office in the land. Mary supplied the motor that put Lincoln in the direction of his destiny.
DEADLINE: Lincoln surrounded himself with rivals and thrived with an air of challenge all around him. What did she add to this mix?
SPIELBERG: She just believed in him, and he believed in her belief in him. And he looked to her as a guiding force, a light, but also as damaged goods. He knew when she was being rational and politically savvy, and when she was being emotionally irrational. At those times, he did his best just to simply let her go through moods and those manic moments, just sit with her for hours and hours and hours and let her vent until she came out of a fog. In that sense it was one of so many burdens during his presidency.
DEADLINE: You once said you could not make the same movies you directed at the beginning of your career because you’re a different person. You worked on this for so long. When you look back at how the pieces fell slowly into place as you matured as a filmmaker, is it fate the way great movies happen? And how fortunate do you feel that you didn’t rush this?
SPIELBERG: But you only know that after the fact, and not during the process. There’s a lot of that discovery that happens after a film is finished. During production, developing the script and casting, a lot of it is intuitive. You only have a lot more information after it’s all said and done.
DEADLINE: Is this is the longest it has ever taken for the pieces of one of your films to fall into place?
SPIELBERG: Schindler’s List took a similar amount of time, 11 years between the time Sid Sheinberg purchased the film rights to the book by Thomas Keneally in 1982, and when I began shooting the film in ’93. I bought the film rights in 1999 to Team Of Rivals, when Doris was just beginning to write. So to answer your question Mike, you’re right. This is the longest.
DEADLINE: You skipped releasing this movie during the elections because you said you didn’t want Lincoln to be a political football. Its release coincides with contentious partisan battles to stave off the debt cliff. The film recently played at the White House, and is being screened for Republicans in DC. What qualities about Lincoln and compromise would you most hope these folks walk away with, considering they find it so hard to agree on anything?
SPIELBERG: Lincoln’s leadership is based on a number of precepts but my favorite one is that he acted in the name, and for the good, of the people. In that sense, the two great things he did at the end of his life, to end slavery and the Civil War, was for the good and in the name of the people. He put people ahead of politics, even though he was artful at using politics to be able to accomplish his task.