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Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s Lincoln
David James/DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox


The entire four-month shoot took place primarily in Petersburg, Va., where a rare, 180-degree panoramic vista of historic buildings exists, something from a time traveler’s fever dream. “You can take Civil War photographs of the place, hold them up and see how many structures are still standing,” says Spielberg, palpably enthusiastic. Twenty-five miles north lies Richmond, home to the Virginia State Capitol building and the nation’s longest-used governor’s residence, known as the Executive Mansion, both of which were used during the shoot. (This marks the third Spielberg movie made in Richmond, with major parts of 2002’s ?Minority Report and 2005’s War of the Worlds both filmed there.)

Few sets were built for the film, but among them was an elaborate re-creation of the Lincoln White House, including the second-floor Civil War crisis-center office known as “the shop” and, of course, the famed Lincoln Bedroom, which was, at the time, used as an office and a cabinet room.

  • Image about Steven Spielberg
Kevin Lynch/Dreamworks
But it wasn’t just the sets and costuming that were heavily researched; Spielberg’s team combed through stacks of boxes at practically every Lincoln library and U.S. history museum for bits and pieces of Americana ephemera that might reveal some ?hidden part of the president’s personality or workaday life. While wild rumors of a carbonized disc capturing Lincoln’s actual voice proved to be a hoax, both Kushner and Day-Lewis heavily researched how Lincoln spoke using biographies and historical accounts, while Spielberg remained largely (and uncharacteristically) hands-off. “I left it to Daniel to come up with the voice that he felt would equip the truth of how Lincoln spoke, and I didn’t really get involved in that decision,” Spielberg says. “I completely trusted arguably one of the greatest actors in the world, and he certainly did not disappoint me. … [And] Tony Kushner is brilliant at speech patterns and has one of the greatest ears for dialects and colloquialisms. When people speak in Lincoln, they sound like they did over 150 years ago.”

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library also allowed movie sound design pro Ben Burtt to get digital recordings of some real-life sounds the president would have heard during his life. “Burtt visited our museum and library and recorded sounds from Mary Lincoln’s music box, Abraham Lincoln’s law-office clock and the dining room dinner bell from Robert Lincoln, the Lincolns’ eldest son,” says Dr. Carla Knorowski, chief executive officer of the library’s foundation. Another nice acquisition: the actual wind-up sound from the stem of Lincoln’s personal pocket watch. “I don’t think they had wound the watch or heard it ticking for years,” Spielberg says with a laugh.

Why the attention to such minute details? Will anyone really be able to tell the difference between an 1865 pocket watch and a 2012 edition? What’s the reasoning behind all this? Says Spielberg, “I did not want ?Lincoln to be superficial in any way. So, by being able to share some historic relevance, even if most of it goes unnoticed with people who allow themselves into the experience, we felt like we were not just treating the project with a great deal of respect, but we were looking back at history and trying to include as much of it in our story as we possibly could.”

Still, the director decided to keep things simple in the actual production, shooting in color and opting to steer clear of major digital graphics or other high-tech gimmicks. “There are no sepia tones, we never considered shooting in black and white or any of that stuff,” he says. “We didn’t do any pre-visualization of sequences, or ‘pre-viz,’ as we call it. No storyboards either — just pure ?storytelling. At times, it felt as if I was directing a play, but it was also very cinematic: the way I framed shots, the lenses I chose, the blocking of actors. The movie has a fluidity — a pulse — and a lot of that relied on putting the camera in the best place to capture those moments.”