IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Lincoln'

Wednesday, 07 November 2012 14:39 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Lincoln'

The stovepipe hat.  The humble log cabin.  The beard.  The fateful trip to Ford's Theatre.  These are all elements of a our mythic image of Abraham Lincoln, a view of the sixteenth U.S. President as an idol, a remote figure of unapproachable greatness who can all too easily eclipse our regard for the man himself, a gifted leader with flaws, grit, intelligence.

Lincoln, opening in selected cities this Friday, November 9th before expanding nationwide a week later on November 16th, aims to present a vision of Lincoln that is immediate and human.  It does so not by immersing the audience in the details of Lincoln's comprehensive biography, but instead by presenting four months of political maneuvering and emotional turbulence in the midst of the Civil War.  Specifically, Lincoln follows the efforts of the President and his political allies to ensure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery in the United States.

The film is a meeting of two of the most respected figures in movies, as Steven Spielberg directs Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.  Though Day Lewis leads Lincoln, Spielberg assembled a remarkable ensemble cast that includes Sally Field (Norma Rae), Tommy Lee Jones (No Country For Old Men), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Hal Hobrook (Into the Wild), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), James Spader (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), John Hawkes (The Sessions), David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Lee Pace (Ceremony), and Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen).

At the Lincoln press conference, both Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis graciously answered questions from the assembled entertainment press, discussing their personal awareness of Abraham Lincoln prior to the film, the mythology surrounding Lincoln, the President's sense of humor, the process of developing the script, convincing Day-Lewis to join play the character, and the timing Lincoln's release.

With films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Amistad to his credit, revered blockbuster-maker Spielberg clearly has an affinity for history.  His fixation on Lincoln is a longstanding one, the director said.  "I’ve just always had a personal fascination with the myth of Abraham Lincoln. Once you start to read about him and the Civil War and everything leading up to the Civil War you start to understand that the myth is created when we think we understand a character and we reduce him to a kind of cultural national stereotype."

"Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over the last 60 years or more," he continued. "Because there hasn’t been a lot of—there’s been more written about Lincoln than, than, than, uh, uh, movies made about him or television portraying him. He’s kind of a stranger to our industry, to this medium. You have to  go back to the 1930s to find a movie that’s just about Abraham Lincoln. I just found that my fascination with Lincoln, which started as a child got to the point where, after reading so much about him, I thought there was a chance to tell a segment of his life to moviegoers, and that’s how this whole fascination began."

Two-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis, meanwhile, is a British native, and was somewhat less familiar with Abraham Lincoln than a native of the colonies, saying, "I had everything to learn and because, you know, apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address, that would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life. I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor. To begin to discover what an important aspect of his character that was."

Day-Lewis, most recently the star of Nine and There Will be Blood, is known for his intense method acting and extensive research.  In examining Lincoln's life and character, the actor was pleased to find his subject was an empathetic figure.  He said, "The wonderful surprise with that man is you begin to discover him, and there are many different ways in which you can do that, is that he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible. That took me by surprise."

One particular characteristic that struck a chord with Day-Lewis was Lincoln's nimble sense of humor.  Going back even to Lincoln's years as a lawyer traveling more rusticated environs, he had a reputation for spinning yarns and parables that elicited gales of laughter while also stimulating the intellect.  Asked if his subject's humor was a calculated part of his political efforts, Day-Lewis replied, "At times it could be, but not necessarily I don’t think, no. I think it was really, no, I think it was tactical in the political sense. I think at times it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense for some purpose to make some point. There were accounts actually – I mean it’s a – not exactly what you’re asking, but there are accounts of people that came to ask him a question of to them great importance, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake a story, and were out of the room before they even realized and that's good politics.  But no, I think it was innately part of him. I think there was a very joyful element to that actually."

As soon as the first Lincoln trailer arrived, much was made of the actor's voice, which does not mimic the booming, authoritative speechifier of our shared imagination, but instead represents the historical Lincoln, whose voice was far from what we hear in our minds.  This was part of Spielberg's aim to find a Lincoln beyond the iconography and part Day-Lewis's daunting task, as he explained, "The most obvious thing is connected to what Steven was saying is trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it. And I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that."

Despite his decades-long interest in Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg is consistently surprised not by trivia, but by elements of Lincoln's character.  "There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln," he explained. "With over 7,000 books written, to any find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life is difficult. But the thing that really surprised me about Lincoln was that with the weight of his responsibility, his oath he took, a Constitutional oath to preserve the union, and he’s the only President that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half. And the fact that the weight of the war that began over slavery, and that he did not himself suffer beyond all the writings that we’ve read about how deeply low he could get in his psyche, how depressed he could get. I don’t know if some of that depression wasn’t just deep thought, going very, very deep into the cold depths of himself to make discoveries that would bring this war to a close and abolish slavery."

"But beyond that," he continued, "how he just didn’t crack up in the middle of his first term with the Civil War raging around him, with over 600,000 lives lost, revised recently upward to 750,000 lives lost. Just in the last five months that figure was revised. And with his wife on the edge of herself, the loss of his son two years before our film begins. Willy, a son lost in infancy before that.  The fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me."

The basis for Lincoln is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a masterful book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Adapted by another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, the screenplay is only a partial adaptation, focusing on one specific window of time and eliminating the rest of Lincoln's biography.  "We tried to write Doris’s book," he said of the movie's smaller scope.  "His first draft was, as you’ve probably already heard by now, 550 pages long. We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband. You couldn't do that if this were just the life of Abraham Lincoln.  It couldn't just be the golden oldies compilation of his entire life. Because we would've been dilettantes as filmmakers and as actors.  We would've just been hitting all the high points and just giving you the headlines and not giving you any sense of the depth of this character, this man."

One example of what is not included in Lincoln's narrative would be John Wilkes Booth.  Lincoln's assassin and the conspiracy to kill various members of his cabinet are not seen directly in the film, and Spielberg explained that the omission was not one that inspired debate, saying, "The decision I think was pretty easy to make, was an easy one to make, because I think had we taken it right up to the assassination I think the film would've for the first time become exploitation. And I didn’t want to go anywhere near that. That’s a very scary word, especially when you’re dealing with the history. And I think that, uh, nothing could be gained by showing that."

The effort to make this film has been a long one for the prolific director, who has been developing it for more than a decade.  "Well, I would have been very [happy] to have made Lincoln in the year 2000, the year after I met Doris Kearns Goodwin," Spielberg explained. "It took her a couple years to write the book. It took us more than a couple years to get the screenplay written. So, I wasn’t waiting for a certain time. At one point I flirted with coming out on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, but we weren’t ready to make the picture then. People say, 'Oh, because of what’s happening in politics today.' No, we were ready to make it during the Bush administration.  It had nothing to do with current politics. It had nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today. This was meant to be a story, a Lincoln portrait if you will. I think any time is the right time for a very compelling story, any time."

During the prolonged development, Liam Neeson was for some time attached to play the title character, but after several years, he amicably departed Lincoln.  As the film continued very slowly coming together, Spielberg returned to Day-Lewis, who had previously declined the role.  "I met Daniel eight years ago, couldn’t get him to agree to, you know, come down the road with me," said Spielberg.  "And then a couple years ago when Tony Kushner – you remember Tony Kushner was not the first person to attempt to tell a story about Abraham Lincoln for me to direct, that was the only exposure Daniel had our Lincoln was another set that was really more about the Civil War and all the battles than it was about the Presidency – but when Tony had written his draft, that was sort of the first shoe in the door.  That really got us together in Ireland for the first time to really talk, almost like a feasibility study.  Daniel was like a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near a script that was clearly on the verge of brilliance. At that point, without putting any extra pressure on Daniel because I didn’t say this to anybody, but if he had finally and ultimately said no, would never had made the movie Lincoln. It would never be in my life anymore.  It'd just be gone."

"I mean it really was for me a combination of that meeting," Day-Lewis said.  "Even if nothing had come from it it still would've left me with a really wonderful memory of the time spent talking about Lincoln with Steven and Tony who had so much, had become such an important part of their lives. Reading Tony’s script, discussing what it might become if Tony were to carry on working on it, because he more or less stopped writing it. It was still an incomplete vision. And then when Tony went away to begin to continue that work I read Doris’s book, and I think that really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony, from which I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered there, because she makes so that beautifully clear in her book. But that had been a great problem for me, not just the responsibility of taking on that task, but really asking, 'Has he now been removed from that possibility because of the iconography surrounding his life?'"

Yesterday saw the 2012 presidential election coming to a close, and it is not a coincidence that Lincoln arrives in theaters after the election.  Before the film has a firm release date, Spielberg was reportedly planning on waiting out the election in order to avoid politicizing the film.  He explained that the decision was practical rather than ideological, saying, "What it was very simply is because there’s a lot of confusion about...The political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years.  It's just too confusing. Everybody claiming Lincoln as their own. And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us, and what he did basically provided the opportunities that, that all of us are enjoying today. I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle. So, I thought it was safer to let people talk about film during the election cycle in this run-up with ads on TV and posters going up and all that, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election’s been decided. That was my feeling."

Lincoln sees limited release this Friday, November 9th and expands to nationwide release on November 16th.

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