Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis Talk Lincoln

The director and star of the new drama reveal Liam Neeson's original involvement and how the 16th President's story relates to modern politics.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Getting in a room with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis is no small feat. They were doing a press junket for Lincoln, their first collaboration, about the 16th President of the United States' complex political battle to abolish slavery, and even that junket only had a couple dozen people in it. And even then, I was only able to get in a single question of my own. Fortunately, everyone knows that Spielberg and Lewis are serious filmmakers, and raised interesting, potent questions about their production process (Lincoln took over ten years to develop, and once had Liam Neeson attached in the title role), the story's relationship to modern politics and Abraham Lincoln, the man, himself. Their answers will both entertain and surprise you.

Lincoln opens in limited release this Friday, November 9 before expanding nationwide.

What made Lincoln a passion project for Steven Spielberg, and what were the challenges of bringing the president to life for Daniel-Day Lewis?

Daniel Day-Lewis: Apart from everything you mean? 

Steven Spielberg: Okay, you want me to go first? 

Daniel Day-Lewis: I’m finished. 

Steven Spielberg: I’ve just always had a personal fascination the myth of Abraham Lincoln. And 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 and we reduce him to a kind of cultural national stereotype. Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over the last 60 years or more, because there hasn’t been a lot of… 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. So I just found that 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. 

Daniel Day-Lewis: I think really the most obvious thing is, [which] is connected to what Steven was saying is trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it. And I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that. Beyond that, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t [Laughs] do that and somebody should do it instead, but…

Steven Spielberg: It was hard to get him to say yes. [Laughs]

Daniel Day-Lewis: The wonderful surprise with that man is you begin to discover him, and there are many different ways in which you can do that… he kinda welcomes you in. He’s very accessible. That took me by surprise.

Steven Spielberg has shot many of his films in the 1:85 aspect ratio, because it approximates how people actually see. What made him decide to shoot Lincoln in widescreen, 2.35:1?

Steven Spielberg: The number of characters. [Laughs] I had to fit ‘em all in, and I’m not being facetious. 

What did Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis learn about President Lincoln during their research that most surprised them?

Daniel Day-Lewis: Well, it’s easy for me to start, because I knew nothing about him. [Laughs] So I had everything to learn and probably, because apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address, that would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life.  I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor, to begin to discover that almost an important aspect of his character that was.

Would he describe it as “tactical” humor?

Daniel Day-Lewis:At times it could be, but not necessarily I don’t think, no.  I think it was really… No, I think it was tactical in the political sense. […] Yeah, I think at times it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense for some purpose to make some point. 

There were accounts actually… I mean it’s not exactly what you’re asking, but there are accounts of people that came to ask him a question, of to them great importance, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake [and] a story, and were out of the room before they even realized [laughs], and that’s good politics. [Laughs] But, no, I think it was innately part of him.

I think there was a very joyful element to that actually, yes.

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 7000 books written, to any 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 his responsibility, his 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. And the fact that the weight of the war that began over slavery, and that he did not himself suffer beyond all the writings that we’ve read about how deeply low he could get in his psyche, how depressed he could get. I don’t know if some of that 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 and abolish slavery. 

But beyond that 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. Just in the last five months that figure was revised. And with his wife on the edge of herself, the loss of his son two years before our film begins, Willy, a son lost in infancy before that, the fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass and an even keel just amazes me.

How do you decide where to end a biography of Lincoln’s life, and was there every any discussion of concluding the film earlier on?

Steven Spielberg: Well, there was. There was discussion about that as well, but it was very, very important that, that we felt that Lincoln was able to ride across the battlefield outside of Petersburg, which he did, and have that […] it was almost the epilogue, between he and Grant, which happened. And the fact that there was some kind of reconciliation in the very often written about carriage rides that the President and his wife took. We needed all those moments I think to really equip his story of Abraham Lincoln, but I would not have been able to… and Tony Kushner would not have been able, he tried, we tried to write Doris’s book.  His first draft was, as you’ve probably already heard by now, 550 pages long. [Laughs] We needed to focus it in on a working President and a father and a husband. You couldn't do that if that was the greatest hit list of the Abraham Lincoln. [Laughs] You know, the life of Abraham Lincoln. It couldn't just be a, you know, the golden oldies…

Daniel Day-Lewis: Compilation.

Steven Spielberg: …the compilation of his entire life.

Daniel-Day Lewis: Mm-hmm. 

Steven Spielberg: Because we would've been dilettantes as filmmakers and as actors. We would've just been hitting all the high points and just giving you the headlines and not giving you any sense of the depth of this character, this man.

Films about American icons used to be a Hollywood staple in popular cinema, but that’s fallen out of favor. Why is that, and why was now a good time to make one about Abraham Lincoln?

Steven Spielberg: Well, I would have been very [ready] 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 coming out 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. [Laughs] 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. This was meant to be a story, a Lincoln portrait if you will. I think any time is the right time for a very compelling story, any time. 

And historical dramas falling out of favor?

Steven Spielberg: I don’t know.  I don’t know. There have been historical dramas. I mean just I guess not too long ago we had something called The King’s Speech. Nobody knew anything about [that story]. A lot of people that I know didn’t even know there was a king before Elizabeth. [Laughs] And that opened a lot of windows, 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. 

Daniel Day-Lewis: I’m just sort of reflecting a little bit on my entire life, and I’m thinking that I’ve spent, you know, a certain amount of time in 17th Century America, quite a bit of time in 18th Century America, and so much time in 19th Century America that I don’t know if I’ll ever get out [laughs] and join the modern world. So, something’s been going on during these years, so I they may not…

Steven Spielberg: Oh my God. 

Daniel Day-Lewis: …count on your list, but, but my experience is been that, um, that historical movies actually are, are well [represented]. [Laughs]

Steven Spielberg: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I never realized that. 

CraveOnline: In deconstructing Lincoln’s image and icon you had to show him doing certain sorts of 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 historical context?

Steven Spielberg: No, just desperate times require desperate measures.  What Lincoln and the Lobbyists for the Amendment and, and the Manager of the Amendment himself, what they did to get this passed was not illegal. It was murky, but what they did was noble and grand. How they went about it was somewhat murky, but nothing they did was really illegal. And by the way, what they did to gain favor to get people to, to persuade people to vote – to not vote their conscience – is not uncommon in this day and age either.

You know, to make a movie about a squeaky clean person who is… whose moral principles hold him so far beyond mortal man and woman would not be interesting to me.  I like the fact that there is a bit of murkiness in the the politics of the 19th Century to do something that was necessary and long-lasting.

Does Steven Spielberg want audiences to interpret the politically charged historical period of Lincoln in context with current events?

Steven Spielberg: Of course. Of course. And, and by the way, here’s the good news. The good news is the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, put together the principles of a Democratic Government are so sound, and unsinkable that the process from 150 years ago 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, that there are tremendous similarities between the politics then and the politics today. And I’m really excited to see how deeply people will reach to contemporize our film far beyond how it deserves to be contemporized. [Laughs]

Daniel Day-Lewis is asked to describe his initial reluctance to take on the role, and how Spielberg finally won him over and convinced him it was the right choice.

Daniel Day-Lewis: Well, I don’t think I ever did know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses at a certain point. [Laughs] For Steven to put the idea in front of me, not that I didn’t take it seriously from the word go, but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help him to do that thing that he wished to do. And least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably, staining the reputation of the greatest President this country’s ever known. [Laughs] I mean, not just in a self-serving way, but quite literally I wouldn't have wished to… it seemed to me a very difficult thing to try and tell that story, very difficult to try and do that in such a way that it could, could live. And I just really felt I wasn’t the person to do that.

Steven Spielberg: But I felt he was. [Laughs] And I stayed, I really tried. I met Daniel eight years ago, and couldn’t get him to agree to come down the road with me. And then a couple years ago when Tony Kushner… you remember Tony Kushner was not the first person to attempt to tell a story about Abraham Lincoln for me to direct. But, and that was the only exposure Daniel had [to] our Lincoln, was another set that’s a whole… really more about the Civil War and all the battles than it was about the Presidency. But when Tony had written his draft, that was sort of [got] 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. Daniel was like a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near a script that was clearly on the verge of brilliance. And I was just, at that point without putting any extra pressure on Daniel, because I didn’t say this to anybody, but if he had finally and ultimately said no, I would never had made the movie Abraham Lincoln. […] It’d be gone. 

Daniel Day-Lewis: I mean it really was for me a combination of that meeting, which was, you know, even if nothing had come from it it still would've been… it would've left me with a really wonderful memory of the time spent talking about Lincoln with Steven and Tony, who had become such an important part of their lives. Reading Tony’s script, discussing what it might become, if Tony were to carry on working on it, because he more or less stopped writing it. It was still an incomplete vision.  And then when Tony went away to begin to continue that work I read Doris’s book, and I think that really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony, from which I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered there, because she makes so that beautifully clear in her book. And that had been a great problem for me, not just the responsibility of taking on that task, but really asking the question, has he now been removed, for all time, from that possibility, because of the iconography surrounding his life.

Liam Neeson was once attached to play Abraham Lincoln in the film. Steven Spielberg is asked to speak about the film’s long development process, and whether the delays made the ultimate production’s timing fortuitous.

Steven Spielberg: Yes, and that’s not up to me.  Whether it’s fortuitist is something you realize after you’re done.  SoI think that a lot of planets lined up in a good position, bit that was out of my control, and that was 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.

Daniel Day-Lewis: I would love to say just something. I feel I have to, because Liam is a friend of mine, and Liam was committed to Lincoln for a period of time working with Steven, and there came a moment when for reasons that…

Steven Spielberg: We both decided…

Daniel Day-Lewis:…were clear to both of them…

Steven Spielberg: Yeah.

Daniel Day-Lewis:…that Liam needed to do other things.  Steven was going to do other things, but Liam, you know, for that period whilst Liam was committed to that project, of course, it wouldn't haven’t occurred to me to consider it. From the moment that Liam decided it was not no longer something that he would be engaged with, he has been in touch with me about it since, and has given me incredible encouragement, just in the most generous possible way. And encouraged me when I was undecided about whether I should do it, he gave me a lot of encouragement, towards that decision as well. So, I just feel I should say that. 

Steven Spielberg: So, the timeline was simply, I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln. He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. [Laughs] And then Liam and I had a very healthy flirt about [laughs] possibly doing this together. And then we both decided to do other things. And then I came back to Daniel. So, that’s the timeline. 

Daniel Day-Lewis: And I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would've been something I would've wished to see.  You know, these things are haphazard. You ask about timing. It worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would've been quite wonderful. [Laughs] 

Did Steven Spielberg keep Lincoln’s release out of the election season intentionally?

Steven Spielberg: Well, no. What it was, very simply, is, because there’s a lot of confusion about [how] the political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years. It [was] just too confusing. Everybody claiming Lincoln as their own. And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us, and what he did basically provided the opportunities that, that all of us are enjoying today. So 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 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. That was my feeling.