Even today, some people think Steven Spielberg is too popular to be a truly great filmmaker. Just like all those other popular filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Preston Sturges, and Sidney Lumet. 31 movies. Three Oscars. The definitive cinematic statement on the Holocaust. The definitive cinematic statement on World War II. Two of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. The most iconic adventurer in movie history. And a combined $8.6 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – in worldwide box office gross. If he isn’t king of the cinematic cage, then the title means nothing.
His latest film, Lincoln, looks to add to that proud legacy: an intimate portrait of the 16th president delivered with all the skill and verve the director can muster. The project has been near to his heart for a long time. In an eloquent appearance at the movie’s press day, he talked about what the film means and what he hopes it will achieve.
Question: It seems like you’ve wanted to do this all your life. What made this a passion project for you?
Steven Spielberg: I’ve 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. We make him into a kind of cultural national stereotype. Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over the last 60 years. And there’s been more written about Lincoln than 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.
My fascination with Lincoln started as a child, then 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.
Q: What did you learn about Lincoln that you either did not know previously or that surprised you while you delving into historical materials through this film?
SS: There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln. With over 7000 books written, to any find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life is difficult. But the one thing that really surprised me about Lincoln was his responsibility, his oath he took: a constitutional oath to preserve the union. He’s the only president that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half. That must have affected him. That and the weight of the war that began over slavery. I don’t know if some of his 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.
Beyond that, I was surprised at 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), and with his wife on the edge of herself, the loss of his son two years before our film begins, a son lost in infancy before that… the fact that he came through all that with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me.
Q: When you’re taking on a particular section of Lincoln’s life, how do you decide where to stop?
SS: There was a lot of discussion about that. It was very, very important that Lincoln ride across the battlefield outside of Petersburg, which he did, and have the exchange with General Grant. It was almost the epilogue, between him and Grant. Then there’s the reconciliation between the President and his wife in the carriage. We needed all those moments to really equip his story of Abraham Lincoln. At the same time, we needed to focus it. Tony Kushner tried to write Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. His first draft was 550 pages long. We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband. We couldn’t do that if this was the greatest hit list of the life of Abraham Lincoln. Because we would've been dilettantes as filmmakers and as actors. We would've just been giving you the headlines, without any sense of the depth of this character, this man.
Q: As you said, biographies of historical figures used to be a staple of Hollywood. Why do you think that fell out of favor? And why is the time now right for Lincoln’s story or this chapter in Lincoln’s story?
SS: I would have been very happy to have made Lincoln in the year 2000, the year after I met Doris Kearns Goodwin. 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 releasing it on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, but we weren’t ready to make the picture then. People say, “oh, you made it, 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. I think any time is the right time for a very compelling story, any time.
As far as historical dramas like this falling out of favor, I don’t know. Not too long ago we had something called The King’s Speech. Nobody knew anything about it; a lot of people I knew didn’t even know there was a king before Elizabeth! And that opened a lot of windows, and, and people said, “oh, I learned something I didn’t know before.” There’s no bad time or good time. For me, when I find a story that I’m ready to tell and the script is right, that’s the time to tell it.
Q: In deconstructing Lincoln’s image and icon, you had to show him doing certain questionable things in order to get slavery abolished. Do you feel that there is a message in that, and if so how would we apply that outside of a historical context?
SS: No, just that desperate times require desperate measures. What Lincoln and his allies did to get this passed was not illegal. It was murky, but what they accomplished with it was noble and grand. And by the way: what they did to persuade people to vote – to vote against their conscience, not to vote their conscious – is not uncommon in this day and age either. I would not be interested in making a movie about a squeaky clean person whose moral principles hold him far beyond mortal man and woman. I like the fact that there is a bit of murkiness in the politics of the 19th Century and that that murkiness was a part of creating something that was necessary and long-lasting.
Q: This is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m wondering about the decision not to depict John Wilkes Booth or the assassination at all.
SS: The decision was pretty easy to make, because I think had we taken it right up to the assassination, the film would've become exploitation. And I didn’t want to go anywhere near that. That’s a very scary word, especially when you’re dealing with history. Nothing could be gained by showing that. I did not want to exploit the assassination, which has been depicted in other films ad nauseam.
Q: Because we’re in a politically charged moment in time, people are going to try to look at the movie in context to what’s happening today. Do you have any interest in seeing how people interpret the film in that way?
SS: Of course. And here’s the good news: the Founding Fathers put together the principles of a democratic government that are so sound and unsinkable that their process is not that much different than the process of today. I think that really is one of the values of holding up a mirror to all of us who only experience what we experience and have no frame of reference except what we read or what we view in documentaries about that time. There are tremendous similarities between the politics then and the politics today. And I’m really excited to see how deeply people will work to contemporize our film far beyond how it deserves to be contemporized.
Q: Daniel Day-Lewis was very reluctant to take this part. How did you convince him?
SS: I met Daniel eight years ago, and couldn’t get him to come down the road with me. The only exposure Daniel had to Lincoln was really more about the Civil War and all the battles than it was about the Presidency. And then, a couple years ago Tony Kushner came on to write the script. That was sort of the first shoe in the door. That really got us together in Ireland for the first time to talk about it. It was almost like a feasibility study, to see whether he would allow himself to go near a script that was clearly on the verge of brilliance. I was at the point where, if Daniel had finally and ultimately said no, I wouldn’t have made the movie. It just would not have been in my life anymore. It would have been gone. So we owe a lot to Tony’s work in getting Daniel to bring his talents to this.
Q: I know Liam Neeson was talked about at some point and then he moved on. Is there a fortuitous point when all these elements come together for a film?
SS: Yes, and that’s not up to me. The good fortune and the timing something you realize after you’re done. A lot of planets line up in a good position, but that was out of my control… and frankly, not even on my mind at that the time. At that point I had just accepted the fact that I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make Lincoln had Daniel decided not to play him. It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me.
Q: There’s an early scene where a normal couple visits Lincoln. It seems to show Lincoln conflicted between his faith in the people and his alibi: his need to move beyond and do things that he thinks that people need.
SS: That’s an interesting scene, because it became an example of Secretary of State Seward’s political brilliance. He used these two people to illustrate a problem that he was not able to illustrate to the President himself: are the people going to want to abolish slavery through the passage of a 13th Amendment? And when push came to shove and it came right down to it, the people said well, we’ll accept slaves going free if it really puts an end to this war, but if it doesn’t put an end to the war and it’s not going to serve that purpose, we don’t want a former slave coming up and taking our jobs at the war’s end. And Seward walks over to Lincoln and say, “There’s the voice of the people.” That became the entire issue of whether you end the war first and then attempt to pass slavery or vice a versa.
Q: Did you keep this out of the release until after the U.S. election intentionally? I heard that.
SS: You know, the political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years. So everybody claims Lincoln as their own. And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us. He basically provided the opportunities that all of us are enjoying today. Mainly, I just wanted people to talk about the film, not the election cycle. I thought it was safer to let people talk about the film during the election cycle in this run-up with ads on TV and posters and all that, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election’s been decided. That was my feeling. That way, people can talk about contemporary context without immediately comparing it to where the polls are, and who’s up and who’s down. We’re all Americans… and Lincoln is a part of our collective shared experience.