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. (more…)