Steven Spielberg has been trying to bring the Abraham Lincoln story to life for decades. As is often the case, when the planets finally aligned, the pieces that made the puzzle could not have been more impeccably planned.
When Daniel Day Lewis finally agreed to star and Spielberg secured the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals, Lincoln began to come to life. Movie Fanatic caught up with the legendary director to talk about how the man who seems to have done it all, in fact, still had one more dream to achieve.
Movie Fanatic: What made this a passion project for you?
Steven Spielberg: I’ve just 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 was created. When we think we understand a character and we reduce him to a kind of cultural national stereotype, Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over [laughs] the last 60 years or more. There has been more written about Lincoln than movies made about him. Yet, he’s kind of a stranger to our industry. You have to go back to the 1930s to find a movie that’s just about Abraham Lincoln. My fascination with Lincoln, which started as a child, 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.
Movie Fanatic: Why now for a Lincoln movie?
Steven Spielberg: Well, I would have been very premature 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. People say, “You made it because of what’s happening in politics today." No, we were ready to make it during the Bush administration [laughs]. It had nothing to do with holding a mirror up to how we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today. This was meant as a Lincoln portrait. I think any time is the right time for a very compelling story, any time.
Movie Fanatic: What did you learn about Lincoln that surprised you?
Steven Spielberg: There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln, and there are so many different points of view about Lincoln. With over 7,000 books written, to find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life is difficult. But, the thing that really surprised me about Lincoln was that with the weight of this responsibility, the oath he took -- a constitutional oath -- to preserve the union, and he’s the only President that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half. How he just didn’t crack up in the middle of this, and with his wife on the edge of herself, the fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me.
Movie Fanatic: I understand Daniel said no to the role a few times. Why did you keep pursuing him? Why was he your Abe?
Steven Spielberg: I met Daniel eight years ago, and couldn’t get him to agree to come down the road with me. Then, a couple years ago when Tony Kushner (screenwriter) and I went together to Ireland for the first time to talk about it with Daniel, it was almost like a feasibility study. Daniel was like a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near it. I didn’t say this to anybody, but if he had finally and ultimately said no, I would never had made the movie. It was as simple as that.
Movie Fanatic: Why did you choose to tackle the assassination aspect of the Lincoln story the way you did?
Steven Spielberg: The decision was pretty easy to make. I think had we taken it right up to the assassination, the film would've for the first time become exploitation. And I didn’t want to go anywhere near that. That’s a very scary word, especially when you’re dealing with the history. Nothing could be gained by showing that. I did not want to exploit the assassination, which has been depicted by the way in other films ad nauseam.
Movie Fanatic: Why not release Lincoln before the election?
Steven Spielberg: I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle. So, 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 going up and all that, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election’s been decided.