Steven Spielberg Reveals Drama Behind Decadelong Quest to Make 'Lincoln'
The Oscar-winning director tells THR how he overcame numerous obstacles -- from studio rejection to a mammoth screenplay -- to turn his lifelong fascination with the 16th president into an awards contender.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On July 29, 2008, Tony Kushner sent Steven Spielberg a 491-page draft script for Lincoln that was the culmination of more than two years of research and writing. "It was one of the most brilliant things I have ever read -- but it was sprawling, epic and just impractical as a motion picture," Spielberg later recalled. But as he read it, he found himself zeroing in on one 70-page stretch about the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. And so, nine years after Spielberg first conceived of doing a movie about the 16th president, seven years after he optioned the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln from Doris Kearns Goodwin and about five years after two other writers -- John Logan and Paul Webb -- had submitted scripts, the most successful producer-director in Hollywood history finally found the focus for a movie different from anything he had done before.
It would take nearly three more years to finance the picture. "It's historical drama, and it's not easy to sell a drama," recalls Stacey Snider, Spielberg's partner at DreamWorks. "It's not a fiction thriller or an action movie. It's a procedural about legislation, where the stakes are huge and historical. But on the face of it, it's about passing a law."
The filmmakers and actors were scrupulous in their commitment to the historical record as they went about their work, re-creating Washington, D.C., in and around Richmond, Va. Still, when the first trailer appeared, there were plenty of skeptics. Daniel Day-Lewis' voice was pitched too high, some complained. But Day-Lewis, who did his own extensive research before playing the president, was convinced that speaking in a higher register "helped Lincoln reach a greater number of people in his public speaking." And the public voted its agreement: In only its first four weekends of wide release, the movie, produced for $65 million, has grossed more than $97 million, proving that a lot of moviegoers approached it as more than just a dull history lesson. Washington insiders even have seized upon the film as an object lesson in how a president should work with Congress -- it already has screened at the White House and a Senate screening is set for Dec. 19.
To recount Lincoln's journey to the screen, though, it's necessary to rewind a bit: Spielberg had been fascinated by Lincoln since age 4 or 5, when he had visited the Lincoln Memorial. "I can remember being terribly frightened by the scale of the statue in that chair, but then, as I got closer, becoming completely captivated by his visage," he recalls.
Years later, at a meeting in New York with six historians to discuss The Unfinished Journey, a 21-minute short film he made for the 2000 Millennium Gala in Washington, Spielberg met historian Goodwin. "He asked me what I was doing," recalls Goodwin. "I told him I was working on Lincoln." Excited, Spielberg told her he wanted to license movie rights to her book, even though she had years of work yet to complete. And, without waiting for the book's publication, DreamWorks optioned its screen rights in 2001. By the time Goodwin's more than 900-page book was published in 2005, Spielberg already had hired two writers to work on scripts, both of which covered nearly the entire presidency and most of the Civil War. But he wasn't happy with the results.
Enter Kushner, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America was adapted for HBO in 2004. Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's longtime collaborator, invited the writer to breakfast in New York to discuss two projects -- a film about murdered Olympic athletes that became Munich and a film about Lincoln. Kushner chose Munich (which was released in 2005), and after he finished that script, Spielberg again offered him Lincoln. He thought about it for a couple of months while he read Goodwin's book. Then he called her. "Doris said, 'I can't tell you whether you'll succeed or fail,' " recalls Kushner, "but you'll never regret any time you spend with Abraham Lincoln."
By 2006, Kushner was on board. But it would take him two more years of intensive research before he set out to write about the last two years of Lincoln's administration, which after three drafts, left him stymied. "I can't have him trot through events quickly and have anything coherent or dramatic," he recalls thinking. So he pitched Spielberg a new idea: a movie about just the last four months of Lincoln's life. He wrote sections on each month, resulting in that aforementioned 491-page version.
But while Spielberg became excited about focusing on the script's congressional battle, Liam Neeson, who had been attached to play Lincoln since 2005 -- even turning down other movies along the way -- wasn't comfortable with the new direction. He wanted to take on an epic about Lincoln and the war, not one about backroom political skirmishes, and so, in 2009, he withdrew -- but not before suggesting Spielberg offer the part to Day-Lewis. According to a source, Neeson even spoke to Day-Lewis to encourage him to say yes, as did Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in Spielberg's 2002 Catch Me If You Can.
Spielberg and Kushner would fly to Ireland to meet with Day-Lewis, and more rewrites would follow before the actor finally agreed. The U.K. native didn't bring any preconceived notions about Lincoln to the role. "As a human being, I had little sense of him whatsoever until I began to learn," he says. "The screenplay kicked off the learning process." Still, he told Spielberg he would need a year to prepare.
The path to financing the movie was just as long and winding. Spielberg originally pitched the movie at Paramount following the purchase of DreamWorks by Viacom, Paramount's parent company, in 2005, but the studio said no. When DreamWorks left Paramount for a new $1.5 billion deal with India's Reliance ADA Group in 2008, Lincoln remained in limbo. Paramount still had the right to co-finance the movie but again declined, saying the budget, even pared to $50 million, was too high and its subject too close to Spielberg's 1997 Amistad, one of his least commercial movies.
Spielberg got a more receptive hearing at Disney, where DreamWorks had set up a new distribution arrangement in 2009. Disney agreed to take North American rights. To lay off some risk, DreamWorks turned to another frequent partner, Participant Media, with which it had made The Help. The script for Lincoln was so secret that it was delivered to Participant CEO Jim Berk by a messenger, who waited while he read it. "It took 24 hours for us to commit to it," recalls Berk, whose company agreed to take a 25 percent interest. "It was that fast."
Spielberg and Snider also had been discussing projects with Fox Filmed Entertainment, where then-co-chair Tom Rothman had been tracking the project for years. Fox took international rights, putting up half the production cost. Rothman had no concerns about how a movie about 19th century American politics would sell overseas. "Lincoln is a global figure in the way a Churchill or Gandhi or Napoleon is," says Rothman. Adds Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos: "It's a very easy decision to get in business with Steven Spielberg. That's sort of a no-brainer."
DreamWorks (with partner Reliance), Participant and Fox (which laid off part of its risk to Dune, its slate financier) all will share in the profits from the film's worldwide release.
Day-Lewis by then was deep into his research. Although his involvement had not yet been announced, he set out with Goodwin to visit Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Ill. "He was able to touch all the great documents," recalls Goodwin. "It was a wonderful day for him." But though the actor traveled under an assumed name, he was recognized by a bystander, who snapped a cell phone photo. When Spielberg heard that, he announced that very day -- before the news broke elsewhere -- that Day-Lewis would play Lincoln.
For several years, Sally Field had conducted a campaign of her own. She learned of the project from her friend, author A. Scott Berg. "I had always had my eye on Mary," says Field. "It's a kismet kind of thing. I always felt she and I belonged together. I'm exactly her height. We both have sort of a round face. I just thought she belonged to me."
Although Spielberg discussed the part with Field in 2005, he decided she was not right. "Ultimately, I had to stand up for myself," says Field. "I wouldn't let Steven walk away. I was Mary. I asked him to test me, and he did because he is so generous and curious." The director still wasn't convinced. Then Day-Lewis saw the test and asked whether he and Field could test together. The first time the future Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln met, they were in full makeup and costume. "We spent a magical, hypnotic afternoon," says Field. "We did some improv. There was an immediate link -- the missing link. I drove home that night, and as I walked in, my phone rang. It was Daniel and Steven together on the phone saying, 'Will you be our Mary?' "
With principal cast and financing in place, the producers turned to logistics. When they scouted Virginia, the state film commission offered to make public buildings and land available at no cost. "The beauty of Richmond, Va., was the government buildings," says Kennedy. "They made it pleasant and easy for us to go in and set up and take over those buildings while the legislature was out of session."
Lincoln used five Virginia locations -- the Capitol grounds; downtown Petersburg (23 miles south of Richmond); state land where battle scenes were staged and the River Queen paddleboat was moored; a theater; and a former AMF Bowling plant in Mechanicsville, where bowling pins once had been manufactured. It was there that a set re-creating the interiors of the White House was built.
Although the budget was tight, "We worked hard to be as historically accurate as possible, all the way to the room where Mary and Lincoln had their scenes," says production designer Rick Carter. "The wallpaper, rugs, everything was as accurate as it could possibly be." Because, explains Carter, the Civil War was the first historical period for which there are photographs, he was able to re-create the wallpaper in Lincoln's office with the help of a Richmond company. Set decorator Jim Erickson went to local antique auctions and bought furniture for a fraction of what it would cost to make or buy in L.A. Erickson learned Lincoln used to sharpen his own pencils and told Day-Lewis, and soon that detail was incorporated into the script.
English costume designer Joanna Johnston spent months in preproduction doing research and trolling costume houses in L.A., New York and London. In the end, she decided to make all of the costumes, including military outfits for more than 350 extras, with a staff of eight tailors. "You want every part of it to fit," she says. "Maybe the audience doesn't notice, but you don't want it to jar, to draw attention. It just is."
Goodwin, when asked what various historical figures looked like, turned to a friend at the Library of Congress who provided descriptions. As a result, Johnston provided Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, with a wig because Stevens wore one in real life. Johnston offered the actor a stocking cap under the wig, but Jones opted to shave his head. "I thought it was a preposterous wig and perfectly appropriate," he says. "Thaddeus Stevens had a clubfoot and also contracted alopecia at an early age and lost all of his hair. If you look at the pictures, he always had a rather silly wig on."
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski says he and Spielberg agreed on the first day to go for dim lighting that would reflect the use of candles and gaslight in the era. "We knew this was a haunted movie about a man carrying a tremendous burden," says Carter. "We wanted to go with almost a black-and-white photo yet always be able to pick out what was important in the frame." The low light also was a tool to direct the viewer's eye. "I wanted to create depth of Lincoln's character through lighting," says Kaminski. "In group shots in his office, I set the light so your eye would go to Lincoln."
On the set, the production took on a degree of formality. Conversations between scenes were kept to a whisper, and no one talked to Day-Lewis unless it was necessary. When they did, he was addressed as "Mr. President." Spielberg, whose typical attire when directing is a baseball cap and jeans, wore suits and ties. He not only addressed Day-Lewis as Mr. President but also called many of the actors by their characters' names as he immersed himself in American history.
"The toughest part about actually making the film," says Spielberg, "was that it was eventually going to come to an end. After the first day of shooting, I started mourning the last day of shooting." Adds the director, "It's rare that this has ever happened. E.T. might be the only other time."