Legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg left no detail untended when bringing the story of Abraham Lincoln to the big screen.
Most Hollywood directors developing a biopic or historical drama generally will do some background research or talk with sources to verify facts. But when Steven Spielberg tackles a project based on actual events, he goes a step further, establishing his own world-class think tank staffed with top scholars, museum curators and best-selling authors.
That’s exactly how Spielberg, whose previous historical films include Schindler’s List, Munich and Amistad, lined up Lincoln as his latest dream project to become a reality. In 1999, the Clinton White House asked the noted? director to create a short film about the 20th century for the upcoming Millennium Celebration. Spielberg tapped historian Stephen Ambrose, documentarian Ken Burns, poet laureate Maya Angelou and writer Doris Kearns Goodwin to come together to discuss the subject. During a coffee break, Spielberg casually asked Goodwin what she’d been working on, and the Pulitzer winner said she had just started a Lincoln biography.
“I never intended to tell the story of his life,” Spielberg recalls now, “but it seemed like a good idea at the time to ask if I could base a film on her unwritten book.”
Flash forward 13 years. This month, Spielberg’s Lincoln finally hits movie screens, following dozens of screenplay drafts, changes in lead actors and enough work and research to make an entire series of films about the 16th American president. To create his own take about the life of Honest Abe, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner narrowed the film’s focus to only the last four months of Lincoln’s life, centering on the pivotal but little-known Congressional fight to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery after a long, intense debate in the House of Representatives.
“The story we tell is not a well-known episode,” Spielberg says. “Lincoln encounters a crisis that was emblematic of his war-torn presidency, and we wanted to show that not only was Lincoln a visionary, he was also a hardened politician. In the last months of his life, he accomplished extraordinary things through political means.”
While the film opens with brief Civil War flashback scenes, anyone expecting to see Saving Private Ryan circa 1865 will be deeply disappointed. Instead, this is a textured, intimate film about the Abraham Lincoln few people know: the clever politico, the complicated family man, the Republican revolutionary. The goal: to show Lincoln, portrayed by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, as a “working president,” not the stoic “posing president” from countless characterizations in wax museums or dry, historic texts. (One Spielberg studio booster compared Day-Lewis’ depiction to Gregory Peck’s strong perform?ance as heroic Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.)
For years, Spielberg had hoped to feature lanky Irishman Liam Neeson in the role of the president. But so many years passed while the film was being developed and going through countless screenwriters, eventually Neeson backed out and was replaced by Day-Lewis. Around the same time, Kushner, whose AIDS epic Angels in America captivated? Spielberg and who had worked with the director on his Olympics-massacre revenge thriller, Munich, was brought onboard. Together, the writer and the filmmaker? tried to crack the quandary of finding a storyline compelling enough to make the jaded, cynical, ?21st-?century audiences? of today relate to events from 1865.