Spielberg delves into Lincoln, slavery and desperate times
Meet the Jollys.
They are characters drawn from the imagination of Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which opens Friday. The historical drama stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president in the final months of the Civil War as he pushes for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery.
Ask the Oscar-winning director about the early scene with the Jollys and he smiles because, as he says, it goes straight to the subject of the film.
The Jollys are a couple from Missouri who have come to Washington, D.C., to speak to the president about a minor grievance. Unthinkable as it may seem in today's security conscious world, Abraham Lincoln kept something of an open-door policy in the White House even in the midst of the Civil War, which is now estimated to have cost as many as 750,000 lives.
During the amusing exchange, Lincoln never addresses their complaint but manages to quiz the Jollys about their feelings toward ending slavery. The couple's response is that they are afraid that freed blacks (they use a derogatory term) might take their jobs, but allow if freeing the slaves would end the war sooner then that would be OK.
After the petitioners leave, Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward (David Strathairn), walks over and says to Lincoln, "There you have the voice of the people."
"So there was the conundrum," Spielberg says. "Do you end the war first and then try and end slavery or vice versa? It's illustrated in that single sequence."
Lincoln, as we know, was intent on ending slavery first. Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," who based "Lincoln" in part on "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, says while Seward may not have been sure the public would do the right thing about slavery, he doesn't believe Lincoln ever lost his faith in the people.
"You have to have a belief, as (James) Madison said, that there is a genius that resides in the people," Kushner says. "At the same time you recognize that as a leader you're not elected simply just to do what they tell you to do. You're elected to lead."
Which is what Lincoln did with remarkable political dexterity in his path to getting the 13th Amendment passed. Arm twisting, cajoling and dealings that walked a fine line, to say the least, were not out of the question.
"Desperate times require desperate measures," Spielberg observes. "What Lincoln and his lobbyists did was noble. Granted, how they went about it was somewhat murky. And what they did to gain favor and persuade people ... is not uncommon in this day and age, either."
Known as an American history buff, Spielberg has had a long fascination with Lincoln.
"We think we understand him as a character but he's been reduced into this sort of a cultural national stereotype," he says, acknowledging that he wanted to make a movie that would capture the many sides of the man from Illinois.
The filmmaker had been mulling over a project about the iconic president for years when he met Goodwin in 2000 while she was working on her book, which was published in 2005. After he found out what she was writing, he followed her progress and optioned it for a film before it was published.
But to turn a historical biography of more than 700 pages, not counting reference notes, into a film required its own dexterity. For that, Spielberg tapped Kushner, who had received an Oscar nomination for the director's "Munich" (2005).
Raised in Lake Charles, La., Kushner, 56, had grown up with reminders of the Civil War.
"The day Steven called me to tell me that Daniel (Day-Lewis) had read the latest script and decided to do the movie I was in Louisiana and had driven past an old graveyard in my hometown, and there were Civil War re-enactors in rebel uniforms laying wreaths on the graves of Southern soldiers."
Kushner's first screenplay was 500 pages. Spielberg called it brilliant but impractical as a movie. The screenwriter was working on a shorter version when the director had the idea to focus on the battle to pass the 13th Amendment. It was a fascinating gambit because it's not really a well understood event.
In 1862, Lincoln had used his war powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation theoretically ending slavery, but he was afraid it might be overturned when the conflict was over. He knew only a change in the Constitution could truly ensure the end of the immoral practice. There were, however, immense pressures.
Lincoln had not even been expected to be re-elected in 1864; Gen. William Sherman's victory in Atlanta in September helped changed the electorate's mind. Nevertheless, there were still numerous members of his own Republican party and Democrats willing to make peace at any cost and allow slavery, which is why Lincoln felt the urgency to get the amendment through.
"At times Lincoln seems to be saying things which he doesn't entirely believe, although he's very careful about them," Kushner says. "Like when he said, `I'll take the South back with or without slavery,' which he said over and over again. It's one of the reasons some people misread history and don't understand what he is clearly doing is finding a way to talk to Northern voters, some who were very ambivalent about the issue of slavery and some who were actively racist."
Spielberg and Kushner plowed ahead with the story of Lincoln, but it took awhile to get the right man to play him. The director first approached Day-Lewis eight years ago. At first, the notoriously selective actor turned down Spielberg, who at the time was working with a script from another writer that had a lot of battle scenes, so the character of Lincoln was less prominent.
Then Spielberg had a "healthy flirt" with Liam Neeson, but when the actor decided to move on with other projects he returned to Day-Lewis. By then, he had a script from Kushner. So Spielberg, the screenwriter and the actor met in Ireland in 2010.
When asked when he was convinced he could play the role, the two-time Academy Award-winning Day-Lewis jokes, "I never did know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses at some point. Not that I didn't take it seriously from the word go, but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be (this man)."
Day-Lewis, 55, an Oscar winner for "My Left Foot" (1990) and "There Will Be Blood" (2008), says he didn't know a lot about Lincoln before taking on the project, mostly the well-known facts but little of him as a person.
"I think the most difficult thing is to approach a man's life who was mythologized so that you can get close enough to properly represent him," the actor says. "I just wasn't sure I would be able to do that."
After agreeing to play Lincoln, Day-Lewis read Goodwin's book.
"I think that really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony. There is a living being to be discovered there, and she makes that beautifully clear in her book," says the actor, who spent a year preparing for the role. (He was so immersed in the character that Sally Field - a two-time Oscar winner herself who plays Mary Todd Lincoln - says she didn't feel she met the real Day-Lewis until filming was over.)
Day-Lewis says what surprised him most about Lincoln was his humor.
"There are accounts of how people would come to ask him a question that to them was of great importance and get a story and a handshake and be out the door before they even realize it. That's good politics," he says.
That ability is shrewdly shown in the Jollys scene.
Spielberg, 65, says "a lot of planets lined up in the right position" for him to make "Lincoln," which has a 140-member cast and, ironically, was shot around the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., with the interior of its Capitol used as a stand-in for the U.S. House of Representatives.
That the film is coming out during a presidential campaign is just timing, the filmmaker says, since he has been trying to make "Lincoln" for more than a decade. And while he doesn't mind people talking about Lincoln, the man, as part of the political conversation, the director decided to wait until after the election before releasing the film.
"The political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years," he notes. "But everyone should claim Lincoln as his own because he represents all of us."
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