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. (more…)