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Steven Spielberg: In 2012, 'Chris Christie Was a Hero for Me' (Q&A)

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Steven Spielberg first thought of bringing Lincoln to the screen in 1999,he defied all rules — making a movie that was long (145 minutes), dialogue driven and wonky in an era when every indicator said this could never be a hit. True, a high-class period piece clearly was awards bait. But who would have thought it could become a bona-fide hit, earning $107.8 million at the domestic box office to date? There’s a palpable warmth between the director, 66, and Daniel Day-Lewis, 55, as they sit together Nov. 9 in Spielberg’s cozy conference room on the second floor of Amblin Entertainment’s small Universal-based compound. At one point, they even answer a question in unison — joking that the hardest part of the process was getting Day-Lewis to say yes — then burst into uproarious laughter, like kids sharing a joke.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What would America have been without Lincoln?

Steven Spielberg: I don’t want to imagine things that aren’t.

THR: Well, you do that professionally!

Spielberg: [Laughs.] Usually in another genre; not in the genre of historical figures, but in the genre of imagination. I always think of Abraham Lincoln and the 19th century and his counterpart being Martin Luther King of the 20th Century: Without knowing each other, one gave rise to the other.

THR: You’ve met President Obama; do you see any parallels between them?

Spielberg: I don’t know Obama that well to answer that question. Almost everything I know about him, I like. But I can’t really speak from experience.

THR: You delayed the opening of your movie because of the election, though.

Spielberg: Yes, because I didn’t want the film to be drowned out by the noise of a very bloody and less-than-civilized rhetoric. I just didn’t want Lincoln to be the little tennis ball going back and forth over the net.

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THR: Daniel, is there a British historical character who interests you in the way America is fascinated by Lincoln?

Day-Lewis: The quality of fascination is incomparable, really. But I was very interested in Richard Hillary, a pilot who died in World War II. I don’t know if you’ve read Sebastian Faulks’ wonderful book The Fatal Englishman. He takes three lives — pre-First World War, Second World War and Cold War —and somehow makes the most surprising connections between those individuals. One of them was a fighter pilot [Hillary] who was shot down and very, very badly burned. Like a lot of kids, I was fascinated by the strange romance of that war. I have longed to find a story I could tell from that time. [Where we lived in England], occasionally one saw pilots who had those horrendous burns and had become reintegrated,little by little.

THR: Do you have any current heroes?

Day-Lewis: There’s never been a time in my life when I haven’t. My first heroes, I can say categorically, were Admiral Horatio Nelson and [Soviet cosmonaut] Yuri Gagarin, shortly followed by World War II pilot Douglas Bader — whom I wrote to when I was about 8 years old and thanked for saving the country. And Nelson Mandela.

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Spielberg: I got a chance to meet him. Mandela has always been a hero. And Bill Clinton is a hero for me today.

THR: Your colleague David Geffen turned against him.

Spielberg: Well, we all have different points of view about politics and people, but I’ve always been an admirer of Clinton. And [former Rep.] Gabby Giffords, who was shot in Arizona. And Rachel Maddow. I’m a news junkie, so I’m always reading and watching the news.

THR: Which network?

Spielberg: I watch everything. You’ve got to watch everything. You can’t just watch one network because every network has a different point of  view, and you can’t just attach yourself to one.

THR: For the election, what did you watch?

Spielberg: MSNBC.

THR: Where were you both for the election?

Spielberg: I was at home.

Day-Lewis: I was in New York. At the moment, we’re [Day-Lewis and his wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller] based there. I’ve lived in Ireland for 16 years in County Wicklow; I still think of it as home, but I’ve three boys at school here now. We struck a deal about the education of our children, and my wife is a New Yorker, so we agreed to split the time, if it worked out, and it seems to be working out so far.

Spielberg: You asked me for an example. Gov. Chris Christie was a hero for me. He was able to put party politics aside for the greater good. And the fact that he would, right at the end of the election cycle, tell the truth about his gratitude — he was my hero.

STORY: Rival Politicians Team for 'Lincoln' Screening in Bid to Unite Senate

THR: Back to the film, could you ever imagine another Civil War?

Spielberg: No. I can’t. I absolutely do not think that is a possibility. Right now, we’re going through a civil war of words and ideology, and it’s not blue and gray; it’s red and blue. But that’s different; that’s ideologues lining up their ducks.

THR: Do you see any of Lincoln in yourselves?

Spielberg: I aspire to certain things about him that I could do a better job of in my life — like his infinite patience. Taking the days, months and years to [abolish slavery] took an incredible amount of confidence in himself. He was opposed every step along the road — and had the Emancipation Proclamation written and in a top drawer, waiting for the right time to announce it. That kind of measured restraint, based on the confidence of knowing the desired outcome, is something I aspire to. But I haven’t gotten there.

THR: Still, you had some patience waiting for Lincoln, which you developed for years.

Spielberg: It’s a different patience.

Day-Lewis: No one dies, whether we do our work or we don’t. No one gets hurt.

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THR: When you made the film, what was your point of connection to the man?

Day-Lewis: It sounds so insanely immodest to reach for points of comparison — but certainly in his responsibility as a father. And in his capacity for the cool, progressive,logical thought process, which is not really in my nature. I was very impulsive as a young man — to the point of self-obliteration sometimes— but since then, I’ve tried to take a more measured approach to decisions. [Laughter.] I’m clutching at straws here!

THR: He was a man of great courage. Is there a moment in your lives when you’ve felt,“Yes, I was really courageous?”

Spielberg: I was courageous to make Schindler’s List and start the Shoah Foundation [which videotapes testimonies of Holocaust survivors]. The Shoah Foundation is still the thing I’ve done with my life — outside of my children and my family — that I’m most proud of.

THR: Why did Schindler’s List take courage?

Spielberg: Because if the film had been a product of Hollywood and not of reality, it could have brought shame and disrespect to the survivors of the Shoah. That’s why it took me 10 years — not because I couldn’t have made it two or three years after buying the book [by Thomas Keneally], but because I just wasn’t ready to tell that story. I needed a couple of major milestones in my own development and my career before I could really find the courage to tell that story with all the obvious, apparent risks.

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THR: Daniel?

Day-Lewis: Nothing of great significance. I feel that I’ve faced certain dangers with a degree of coolness and courage — not invariably, but sometimes I surprise myself in moments of great physical danger. Fights and exploding motorbikes and things of that kind. More significantly, I’ve faced bullies. I don’t like bullying. And I dare say I’ve been a bully in my life,a couple of times — I’m certainly not proud of it — when I was younger. But I’ve also been bullied. And I’ve faced bullies and didn’t necessarily get the better of them,but I don’t like to back down from that. It’s not always an easy thing to do. I suppose in those moments I feel I’ve shown a certain courage.

THR: If you could perfect yourself in someway, what would it be?

Day-Lewis: It would undoubtedly be in my capacity for tolerance and understanding. That’s what one continues to reach for, day after day.

Spielberg: To keep developing my listening skills. It takes a lot to listen before speaking — and that always needs work, especially with all my kids.

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THR: Beyond the Civil War, what are you drawn to historically?

Spielberg: Well, I love history. I read a lot of history. But I don’t read with an eye toward filmmaking. I read history because it’s informative; it’s the basis from which we draw all of our contemporary wisdom, if we lend an ear to what happened 100 years ago,200 years ago, last year. History was my favorite subject growing up in school. I didn’t do well in school. I was not a good student. I was making movies since I was 12 years old — silly, little short films that took me away from academia. But I was always attracted to reading about things that took place along, long time ago. I loved it. I was much more interested in that than thinking about the future or thinking about science fiction —and I completely have to give my father credit because my father was in love with both science fiction and stories that had a basis in reality and truth. So all the books around the house were either Amazing Stories, Analog Science Fiction, little novellas or books about Benjamin Franklin, books about Napoleon. My dad had tons of books about the Napoleonic Wars and loved that whole era of the Crusades.

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THR: What in history are you drawn to now?

Spielberg: World War II, still World War II. Stories of heroism and sacrifice. Miraculous stories of someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and all of a sudden wound up saving 20 lives. I don’t necessarily agree that is a romantic war. My father always said to me: “Do not romanticize World War II. I fought in that war. It was romantic for no one who was fighting in India and Burma in those days” — mydad was a CBI in the China-Burma-India campaign. He said, “Do not romanticize this because it’s not like a John Wayne movie.”

Day-Lewis: For me, as I was growing up, in the fighting itself and the experiences themselves, there was no romance. But I always sensed, certainly from my mother’s [actress Jill Balcon] generation, that the sense of unification was romantic.

Spielberg: That’s OK. It was the first time that we had to fight a necessary war to save Western democracy.

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THR: Do you have another World War II film in you?

Spielberg: No. If something comes along that really grabs my attention, but nothing has so far.

THR: What have you been reading historically of late?

Spielberg: I’m interested in Charlemagne. I’m interested in Alexander the Great. I’m interested in Cortez and Montezuma, and I’m developing a movie about Cortez and Montezuma right now. But not everything I’m interested in becomes a life’s work.

THR: What else are you reading?

Spielberg: I just finished [M.L. Stedman’s novel] The Light Between Oceans.

Day-Lewis: [Laughs.] He’s waiting in line for Jacob’s Folly! [by Day-Lewis’ wife].

Spielberg: I am, I am! My wife’s reading it right now.

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Day-Lewis: I just finished Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. And I’m now reading a book called An American Requiem, an autobiographical book [by James Carroll] about a young man growing up in an Irish-American family in Chicago who’s destined for the priesthood and who becomes disenchanted by the priesthood during the Vietnam years. I’ve read Stefan Zweig’s Confusion recently as well, which I thought was a quite remarkable short book.

THR: Coming back to film, Robopocalypse is next for you, Steven. I thought you said recently that you were going to veer away from action.

Spielberg: No. Not really. I mean, action should be the product of a story, not for its own existence. So I wouldn’t just say, “I’m not doing anything that has action in it.” But I’m not interested in doing action for the sake of just raising the pulse rate of an audience. I’d rather there be a compelling concept or character.

THR: Would you direct one of the new Star Wars films?

Spielberg: No. That’s not my genre. I always said to George [Lucas],“My genre is aliens coming to Earth. My genre isn’t going out to find aliens!”

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THR: Did he ever ask you to direct one?

Spielberg: He never did.

THR: What most surprised you about Lincoln the man, and what would you most like to know about him?

Day-Lewis: The entirety of his life was a discovery for me. But the humor was particularly interesting; he was almost using it to please himself, like all good storytellers. They need an audience, but theyalso really are pleasing themselves,in a certain kind of way.

THR: Are you a storyteller?

Day-Lewis: No, I’m not.

THR: Even though you’re so connected to writers — your father, poet Cecil Day-Lewis, and your father-in-law, playwright Arthur Miller?

Day-Lewis: I don’t think I am one. Luckily, I’ve known a couple, and so I understand the power of the oral tradition.

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THR: Do you write?

Day-Lewis: In a kind of a way, I do. Not in a sustained fashion, but I do: I write articles; I write pieces from time to time. But I don’t write in a regular sense. I don’t consider myself a writer. But I was going to say, what one would most like to know about him can never be answered: One can’t help trying to imagine what might have taken place had he survived to oversee the reconstruction after the devastation of the Civil War. And had he done so, how different history would have been, the history of this country.

THR: What was the toughest part of making Lincoln?

Both: [Laughing.] Saying yes! But now you miss it.

Day-Lewis: I may be wrong,but I think there’s a word in Czechoslovakian [nostalgicky], which is a nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened yet. Anticipated nostalgia.

 

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