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Actor Morgan Freeman with Spielberg on the set of 1997’s Amistad
Everett Collection

When Kushner came onto the project, Spielberg convened one of his famous think tanks, gathering the country’s top Lincoln scholars for a private, daylong symposium at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. About a dozen historians agreed, argued and ate platters of fresh bagels and lox as they went over every vital aspect of Lincoln’s personal life and presidency.

Among the subjects discussed that day: Lincoln owned no shoes and likely walked around the White House in his socks, rather than in his boots; obviously, there were no computer hums inside nor obnoxious car horns heard outside any Washington offices — just a peacefully quiet, candlelit atmosphere, occasionally interrupted by loud horses pulling wagons over the cobblestone streets; Lincoln’s sons, William and Tad, sometimes got into mischief by ringing all of the servants’ bells at the same time.

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Day-Lewis’ Lincoln surveys a Civil War battlefield after a terrible siege
James/DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox
Also at the daylong event, a highly contentious debate broke out over historian Michael Burlingame’s research about the deeply troubled nature of Mary and Abe’s marriage. President Lincoln was not merely? nagged incessantly, insists the scholar, but he was actually a “battered husband.” Burlingame — now holder of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and author and editor of 14 books about the president — has said, “He was, in a sense, a victim of spousal abuse.” Suffice it to say, Burlingame’s controversial findings received its share of raised eyebrows at the Ritz-Carlton round table. “We all know how Hollywood oversimplifies things instead of concentrating on the complexities,” says Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection in the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, who also participated in the session. “Spielberg and his crew were always asking if the historical record allowed them to do things in the film. How was the Emancipation Proclamation influenced by [black abolitionist] Frederick Douglass’ newspapers of the era? What was the president’s real relationship with Mary Todd? He wanted the film to honor history, and I think the scholars present left optimistic that it would.” Spielberg now says he was overwhelmed by the amount of information he heard that day. “I learned that every single aspect of Lincoln’s story is a motion picture,” he says. “It made Tony and me realize that we had to focus on one period; we couldn’t cover his whole life and make Abraham Lincoln’s greatest-hits album. We had to isolate and narrow a period of time and really focus on this amendment’s passage at the end of his life, which turned out to be the last thing he did before he was assassinated.”

After developing an angle for the script, casting the film was considered the top priority. Spielberg considered using a software program to compare actors’ facial structures to the president’s, but the director ultimately found the effort to be “a wasted exercise.” He junked the software, going for great actors rather than searching for physical look-alikes.

“I wanted to feel like our cast had been born in the 19th century,” Spielberg says. “I knew Daniel would be authentic to a fault, but I wanted other actors to be part of this in a way that audiences would feel they’d left the 21st century for two hours.” As Mary Todd Lincoln he cast Sally Field, who is 10 years older than Day-Lewis — roughly the same age difference as Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. (The actors also share something else in ?common: Each has won two Academy Awards.) Also in the picture are hot young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, venerable sce?nery chewer Tommy Lee Jones, as well as familiar faces David Strathairn, James Spader and Hal Holbrook. To set the proper tone, on the first day of production, Spielberg insisted on referring to Day-Lewis as “Mr. President” and using other characters’ titles and names.