Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner: 'Lincoln's' Writing Muscle on Bringing a President to Life

Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin
Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin
 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For screenwriter Tony Kushner, less Lincoln proved to be more, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin agreed.

The official credit on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln reads, "Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin." While Goodwin's 2005 book inspired Spielberg to begin developing the project even before it was published and later served as one of Kushner's sources, the relationship between historian and screenwriter also grew over the years as the movie -- about Abraham Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery -- took shape.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Doris, how did you feel about Tony focusing on just one part of Lincoln's life and one section of your book?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: What mattered was for Lincoln to come alive. I saw the drafts. They realized that if you could compress time and let Lincoln's political skills and his emotional strength come out, then you could go deeper into Lincoln than if you tried to tell it from 1860 to 1865. The plot mattered less to me than that Lincoln's character came alive. But the great thing about their choosing this incident? It had its own beginning, middle and end. It's like a mini-thriller. So it gave it a narrative strength that if it had just been a biopic it might not have had.

THR: Tony, how did you arrive at the movie's focus?
Tony Kushner:
The first screenplay I wrote for Steven was the last four months of Lincoln's life and was 500 pages long. This is the first quarter of that screenplay. We wanted to show Lincoln living his life and performing an action from the beginning to the end in a kind of completely intimate way -- not a quick drive-by of all of the great moments in his administration. Otherwise, you're just better off reading a very good book of history that includes all the facts that we know. We're really making use of what film can do and what history can't.

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