Iconic director and star grapple with a monumental US President? This is the Mount Rushmore of movies...
Ushered into a hotel suite of decidedly un-Presidential proportions, bar the fact that it has nice views over Central Park, Total Film is announced to two of the film world’s leading statesmen. “Total Film… oh good!” declares Steven Spielberg, striding forth with a warm handshake and beaming smile. Daniel Day-Lewis, tall, rail-thin, with his shirt fastened up to the last button, hangs back at first. Is he not ready to discuss his uncanny, transfixing portrayal of Abraham Lincoln? “I’m actually ready for a nap,” he says, suffering a post-lunch slump. Then the two-time Oscar-winning actor erupts with laughter; his two-time Oscar-winning director jokingly orders, “Don’t take one now!”
It’s clear the two men relish each other’s company and, as Spielberg asks an assistant to bring some hot water and “I’ll put the teabag in”, both settle in to discuss his long-time passion project about America’s 16th President. He’s been pursuing it for years, via multiple screenplay drafts and initially another actor (Liam Neeson). Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team Of Rivals and adapter-in-chief Tony Kushner showed him the light: that it was far wiser to reveal a great man through one defining legacy (how Lincoln manoeuvred the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress against fierce resistance and while still at war) rather than mount a sweeping epic that tried to show everything…
Total Film: Being honest, we went in expecting ‘Spielberg presents the American Civil War!’, with massive set-pieces. But Lincoln is a reflective drama about the procedural machinations of American democracy. What gives?
Steven Spielberg: It was a change of direction dictated by an urgent need in me to show people who Abraham Lincoln was as a man and as a great leader. I couldn’t do that if I was constantly cutting back and forth from Antietam, Spotsylvania, Gettysburg to the White House. I tried! I tried that in an earlier script, but it wasn’t until Doris’ book that we decided to focus in on a few events in Lincoln’s life that would give us the most opportunity to get to know him as a man, as a father, as a husband and as the President.
Although you insisted it be released after the US election, do you want the modern parallels to be obvious?
Daniel Day-Lewis: It’s the same system of government. [Laughs] What are you going to do?
SS: I didn’t put anything in deliberately. We didn’t bend and twist history to reflect contemporary politics; the reflection is simply the truth.
But it shows a seamy side to democracy in that Lincoln essentially buys votes to get the 13th amendment passed.
SS: But what he did was not illegal. They were offering jobs in exchange for favouring a yes vote to abolish slavery. It’s not legitimate and it’s kind of murky but it’s also not illegal.
DD-L: He understood that in times of war the borderlines of legality are occasionally moveable. The smokescreen of a good war is a time when, for better or worse, things can be achieved… things which are much harder to achieve with all of the checks and balances that are in place outside of a war.
Do you want people to view Lincoln as a celebration of democracy?
DD-L: Ha-ha, good question! It’s both the blessing and the curse of the American system of government that it’s really hard to get things done. But it had to be that way because it was in direct response to living in thrall to a dictatorship.
SS: I celebrate democracy because… What did Winston Churchill say? “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Can you talk about your approach to Lincoln? In the film, he appears to be a mix of bashful fragility and magnetic power…
DD-L: I think there’s a great vulnerability which co-exists with his strength. Quite apart from his own tough upbringing, he had a deep sense of compassion and empathy for people and creatures that remained with him throughout his life. It was his essence that those two conflicting things existed side by side, and they probably gnawed at him in such a way that he couldn’t have survived, regardless of the assassination.
Where did your research take you?
SS: I was granted access to the inner sanctum of the Lincoln archive. I held the stovepipe hat, I touched the dress that Mary was wearing during the assassination. It was a beautiful experience. As opposed to it feeling far away, it felt almost within my own lifetime. It was a great takeaway.
DD-L: I didn’t get to hold the hat, but I did hold other things: his pen, his letters, his eyeglasses…
Daniel, did you feel the need to cocoon yourself away from modern-day distractions?
DD-L: There may have been a time when I was more rigorous in denying myself 20th-Century life. I don’t think it’s because I’m lazier now, I just don’t feel I need to in quite the same way. But I don’t use much technology and my house in Ireland, as Steven knows, is fairly primitive…
SS: Yes, very Lincolnian…
DD-L: It’s of the period, actually!
SS: …and was long before the movie. Very period. When Daniel opens his mail, it’s actually something tactile; it’s white and has things written on it…
DD-L: [Laughing] And it arrives on a stagecoach. I’ve got to tell you a funny thing, because of the rumours that I drag with me wherever I go… I had a wonderful guy called Murray [Day-Lewis’ driver] who had heard some of this stuff and was a bit jumpy when we first met. Once it was all out in the open and I’d put his mind at rest, I said, “But we’ve got to wind them all up. You’ve got to tell your Teamster captain that I insist – insist – on going to work in a horse and carriage...”
How far did you go? Lincoln’s voice for instance: it’s quavering, even shrill at times. Did you base it on descriptions of what he really sounded like?
DD-L: I suppose loosely, but the accounts only take you so far. Luckily for me, there is no evidence whereby somebody can say, “That’s not what he sounded like.”
Yet you’ve perturbed a faction who clearly feel he isn’t being presented in a heroic enough light…
SS: For the record, Lincoln had a high voice. It’s in all the descriptions of how he talked. It’s the reason that, during the Gettysburg address, on a blustery day, his voice could carry several hundred yards, unlike the voice people expect him to have, like other actors who have played him, from Raymond Massey to Gregory Peck, where you hear the voice of authority.
DD-L: I hate dismembering the work that one does into its component parts, as if somehow you bolted together the pieces for a car and then turned the key in the ignition and off you drove. Because evidently something else is at work which you’re to a certain degree unconscious of. Without wanting to sound pretentious, my faith is that the voice comes to me for a reason. I’m not suggesting it’s like a spiritual visitation but it’s something I receive rather than something I impose.
The facial hair is a signature. How was the beard? Did your family find it amusing?
DD-L: We were separated by a distance but I’m sure they found it funny.
SS: It doesn’t bother my wife. My beard, not Daniel’s.
Can you talk about your relationship leading up to and during the shoot?
SS: Daniel said something that was critical after he’d committed to play Lincoln: he asked for a year before we began production. I could have gone into production within three months of Daniel saying yes but he said, “I would like us not to rush into this.” It was the best thing that could have happened as it gave us a chance to get to know each other. By the time we came to Richmond for the first day of shooting, we had the essence of our bond, between two friends and between an actor and a director.
DD-L: The wonderful advantage about working in that way is that there’s nothing more to say once you’re on set. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t speak, but there’s an economy of communication then. I think a scene lives or dies according to whether or not people have an unspoken complicity, as opposed to having to reach for something in such a way that it gets described, defined, and essentially stuffed and mounted on a wall before it has any life breathed into it.
SS: I didn’t have to make any speeches in this relationship. There was a reverence on the set among the cast, not only because Daniel was raising the bar, but because the history we were recreating caught everyone’s attention. I would want to move the camera across the room and I was always amazed that the actors sat there waiting while all this 21st-Century technology was being moved around them. They wouldn’t speak… I was moved by the reverence to the subject matter.
Did anything surprise you about Daniel?
SS: I had been an admirer ever since I saw My Left Foot. He stands in the highest regard to me. If somebody said, “I’m going to give you an opportunity to go back in time and direct your choice of actors”, I would pick James Cagney, Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Will you work together again?
SS: I don’t want to burden Daniel with my dreams, but that is undeniably my next one.