Steven Spielberg may be longtime regarded as one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, but even he admits his opus 'Lincoln' is of particular significance to him.
Strong words from the talent behind behind Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Jaws (1975), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993).
So why was a film about the 16th president's bid to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and ending the Civil War, so special and worth a whopping 11 years of preparation? With the release of 'Lincoln' on DVD and Blu-Ray, we'll let him explain...
Lincoln loomed large in your childhood but what was the era of history that first excited you?
My first interest in history was war — the European war, WWII, and that would be because my father fought in that war and those were the first stories that he told me.
Your father fought in the China-Burma-India theatre, right?
Yes, CBI. He was involved in a couple of sorties, bombing missions and then because he was so good at electronic equipment and radios he became the Tech Sergeant, Head of Communications, for the airbase. So at that point he was grounded, but my dad did talk to me all through my childhood about WWII.
It has been said that Lincoln is inspired in part by your reconciliation with your father…
Not really. I had a reconciliation with my father 22 years ago. My father and I have been so close for 22 years and we were close before our hiatus from each other. That informed a lot of my movies, certainly, but it hasn’t informed my decisions to make certain movies. Even if I had had a really happy relationship with my father and there was no emotional hiatus for a decade and a half, I would still have probably made some of the same choices of movies that I have made.
What did you learn about Lincoln as a father — you explore that aspect in the film?
Lincoln had a very free parenting style. He let his kids run free and wild. When Willie was alive, Willie and Tad were two terrors, making mincemeat out of the White House staff and hooking up a homemade cart to a pet goat and racing up and down the corridors of the White House. That was fact. And then when Willie died Lincoln got closer to Tad because Tad really didn’t have a mother. Mary went into deep mourning and not just for six months, but for over two years and Lincoln, in a very protective way, always had Tad at his side dressed in his little Union Blues. But Robert and the President were a bit estranged, uncomfortable with one another and that is how we played it in the film.
Before you start shooting any film you like to revisit certain films and filmmakers, Lean, Kurosawa etc. Did you run through anything specific before you began shooting Lincoln?
No, I didn’t, because Lincoln was an 11-year process. I kept getting to a starting mark and having to back down off the blocks. About nine times I was at the starting blocks and then I had to stand down. So I didn’t prepare in that sense. And also my inspiration was the actual historical record not the Hollywood version of history so I didn’t use Hollywood to jump-start my inspiration with Lincoln. I found Lincoln to be a fine inspiration.
Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his role of Lincoln in Spielberg's film
That said, were there any films made about him that you found interesting if not inspirational?
The last time I saw the Henry Fonda film was about 20 years ago. That was 'Young Mr. Lincoln' made in 1938. And I purposely avoided seeing that. My memory of that movie is vague. The other film that I only saw once, and that was maybe 20 years ago as well, was the 1940 film with Raymond Massey, who played Lincoln. With those two exceptions there has not been a movie made about Abraham Lincoln for 72 years.
You must have been very conscious of not over-eulogising the man?
What Tony [Kushner, the screenwriter] and I avoided was any form of hero worship. Also we weren’t going to any great lengths to explore every aspect of him, because most of that to me was unknown, especially his depths. They are a private matter and scholars and historians can only speculate about where he went when he would go fugue and deep. That was often interpreted as depression but perhaps it was just that he was going some place to figure out the future. Nobody really knows and he certainly didn’t have a therapist in 1855. We did want him interacting not just with the big issue at hand — which was fighting to get enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery and end the war — but also we wanted to see him as a father and a husband.
This film is your most dialogue heavy. Did you deliberately avoid action pieces, or were they just extraneous to the story you were telling?
James McPherson, who is the great Civil War historian, said to us that the Civil War is a landscape so vast that even a gigantic figure like Abraham Lincoln could get lost in it. And we never forgot those words and to trifurcate this film between the North and the South on the battlefields of America, and Abraham Lincoln prosecuting the war, and trying to balance his righteous position, would have been like one of those Greatest Hits albums. We would not have been able to even attempt to allow you to get to know Lincoln, the man, the human being. So the war had to go.
Did Lincoln’s own attitude towards slavery change at all or was it consistent?
He never shifted perspective at all but he was an Artful Dodger when it came to political theatre. Lincoln was disgusted by slavery from the very first memories in his life but he told the South what they wanted to hear, to try to stem the loss of blood before the blood really started to spill. He told them, ‘Look, don’t secede and you can keep your slaves.’
People wrote that down and made an assumption that he wasn’t an Abolitionist at all. But Lincoln knew what he was saying. His mantra was ‘Union, Union, Union.’ But his subtext from childhood was ‘Equality, equality, equality.’ When the South seceded, seven states in a little under a week and a half, with four more states over the next three months, Lincoln told them what they wanted to hear to keep them from joining the other 11 states. If that had happened, the war would have been over and the world would have been changed. The world we know today would not be the world that we know. You would need a passport to go from New York to West Virginia. But he developed a reputation among his critics. It seemed for a while that everyone was a critic of his being a prevaricator, or of being a closet racist, which was not true at all.
Each film has its own unique challenges but are you able to compare the difficulty of making Lincoln with any of your other films?
It is not my job to compare my movies. I don’t like to compare my films with other movies because I don’t really have that perspective. It is an intellectual exercise but it doesn’t intuitively come to me. I can’t compare it to 'Schindler’s' or to 'Ryan'. I can’t compare it to 'Jaws' or 'E.T.' and I just know that that is who I am at this time in my life. I couldn’t have guessed that I would be telling a story about Abraham Lincoln 30 years ago, but I didn’t know I would be making 'E.T.' ten years before that.
'The war had to go,' explains Spielberg of telling the story of Lincoln
What did you take from the experience of making the film?
I guess it just confirmed my deep love of history and the fact that I am a patriot and that I have a love for this country. I have expressed that in other movies but it was something that I really tried to express in this one. A respect for the fact that democracy works and the machinery of the democratic process is really no different today than it was 150 years ago. I wanted to point that out. We have a fourth branch of government now called the media. We didn’t have that then but there was no less checking and balancing. What went on up there on the Hill is similar in a way to what we all witness happening today on cable and satellite news.
Daniel Day-Lewis said no to a Lincoln project you had around a decade go. How did you go about persuading him that this was the movie to do?
I was having dinner with Leonardo DiCaprio who is a family friend of myself and my wife and he was over at our house and said, ‘What is happening with Lincoln?’ And I told him the whole story with Daniel, about how he had turned me down many years ago. He did so in his inimitable, gentlemanly fashion saying no in a beautifully handwritten letter. And Leo just listened. And the next day Leo called me in the office and gave me Daniel’s cell phone number. Leo had called Daniel and said, ‘You have just got to talk to this guy.’ And that’s what started it rolling.
Lincoln had a tough upbringing and also had difficulties with his father; is that right?
He had a tough upbringing because he and his father had a strained relationship and he moved around a lot. Remember, he was born in Springfield, Illinois, and he lived in Kentucky, Indiana, and then when he became a lawyer he was always on the legal circuit, which was a lot of riding horses and going from place to place. You don’t have a law office where your clients come to you; you go out into the world to try and earn a living and try to help them with their problems.
Sally Field plays Mary, Mrs Lincoln - with a surplus of ambition that Lincoln lacked
He had his heart broken before he met Mary and probably that part of his heart never healed. That was his one true love but Mary saw the next president of the United States when she first danced with him. She could have gone out with Stephen Douglas [the Democratic Party nominee for President in the 1860 election who lost to Lincoln]. She had a choice. She could either marry Stephen Douglas or Abraham Lincoln but she knew that Lincoln was destined to be the 16th president. So Mary was Lincoln’s ambition. He didn’t have a lot of personal ambition but what he lacked Mary had a surplus of.
You must have been delighted with the Mary character in the script and also with Sally Field’s portrayal of her, because it would have been easy to make her a sketch?
Yes, very easy to make her a sketch and she has had so many unpleasant things written about her. They are unfair and very unpleasant. Sally is a force of nature as an actor and I knew Sally would create an unforgettable Mary and not shy away from the fact that Mary was always standing on the edge of her own cliff.
You work so hard, Steven. What’s the longest period you have gone without directing?
Three years. I had a couple of times I have had three years. I was still working though. I was developing scripts and I was working on TV shows but I wasn’t physically directing. I think there was three years from 1994 to 1997 and then I did the sequel to 'Jurassic Park', 'The Lost World'. In that period I directed three films in one year, 'The Lost World', 'Amistad' and 'Saving Private Ryan'. I shot all three films inside a one-year period just like the old directors used to do. And then I was so exhausted after doing that, that I took three years off. So I have had two stretches of three years.
Going back to directing afterwards, is it easy, just like riding a bike, or does even Steven Spielberg feel a bit wobbly?
It is a bit wobbly. It is not like riding a bike at all. Maybe I should go to film school and get a primer before I spend the studio’s money. I am joking, of course, because all of this is part of my DNA now, but it was a bit wobbly the first couple of weeks back after three years of not directing, that’s for certain.