There were times when Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and former Lake Charles resident Tony Kushner thought they’d never make a movie about Abraham Lincoln.
As dedicated as they were to the project, Spielberg and Kushner believed they couldn’t do a Lincoln movie unless Daniel Day-Lewis signed on to play the Great Emancipator.
“There was a stretch when Daniel was reluctant to play this part,” Kushner said from his home on New York City’s Upper West Side. “We weren’t sure if anybody else could do it. At one point, we seriously thought of letting go of the idea because, if you don’t have a Lincoln, you can’t make the movie.”
Kushner believed that only a great actor, such as two-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis, could play the history-shaping 16th president.
“It’s a demanding role,” Kushner said. “Also, it’s Abraham Lincoln, so there are the issues of physical similarity. You can do anything now with rubber and altering somebody’s face digitally, but you pay a price for that. Actors work on a kind of galvanic level, at the surface of the skin. The more coated they are in rubber and pixels, the less you’re getting of the actual human being.”
Consequently, Spielberg and Kushner were thrilled that Day-Lewis bears such a natural resemblance to Lincoln.
“I think he’s the best Lincoln ever, besides Lincoln himself,” Kushner said.
Early during his work for the Lincoln screenplay, Kushner — a Pulitzer winner for his play, Angels In America, a winner of two Tony awards and an Oscar nominee for Spielberg’s 2005 drama, Munich — doubted his ability to write the script.
“I wasn’t sure I could fit this complicated story into a two-and-a-half hour format,” he admitted. “I worked on this for six years. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The final script isn’t a conventional biopic that covers most of a subject’s life. The film begins in January 1865 and concentrates upon Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which permanently banned slavery in the U.S.
When Day-Lewis and the script — based in part upon Pulitzer-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln —and the rest of the pieces necessary to make the film finally coalesced, the results felt magical, the screenwriter said.
Kushner joined Spielberg and the movie’s cast and crew on the set during the movie’s production in Virginia. Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, served as Washington, D.C., 1865.
The filmmakers shot the story’s fiery U.S. House of Representatives debates in the Virginia State Capitol. The state’s capitol building also subbed for the White House’s exterior. Interior scenes at the White House were filmed on sets built in a bowling pin factory in nearby Mechanicsville.
“We loved being in Richmond,” Kushner said. “It was enormously moving, because that’s where so much of the crucible of the war happened, within that stretch of land between Washington and Richmond.”
Kushner spent most of his childhood in the former Confederate state of Louisiana. His parents, both musicians, moved to Lake Charles from New York City when he was 2½ years old. Kushner’s Juilliard-educated, clarinetist father, originally from Lake Charles, accepted an invitation to help run the family business, a small lumber company, from the future playwright’s grandfather.
Kushner’s father, unlike many of his Lake Charles neighbors in the 1950s and ’60s, revered Lincoln.
“I came to as well, and not just because I was conditioned to,” the 56-year-old writer said. “The more I read about Lincoln, the more I came to admire him.”
Kushner’s father died in March, before he was able to see his son’s Lincoln screenplay on screen. He’d read several incarnations of the script, however, and seen an advance photo of Day-Lewis as Lincoln.
“It’s very sad to me that he didn’t see the movie,” Kushner said. “He tried very hard but he just couldn’t hold on. He had kidney disease. He was 88 years old and he had a wonderful life.”
Lincoln is an early contender for major award nominations. It’s received many four-star reviews. Kushner has been delighted by email reports from friends in Lake Charles that audiences there applauded after seeing Lincoln in local theaters.
“It’s not an easy movie,” he said. “So the fact that people are going to see it and loving it and understanding it, that’s thrilling.”
Kushner moved to New York at 17 to attend Columbia University. Nonetheless, he frequently returned to Louisiana to visit his father and the state where his high school textbooks characterized the Civil War as the Southern War for Independence and War of Northern Aggression.
“The movie is selling very well in the South,” he said. “The reviews in the South have been really great. So I hope people maybe will think of the Civil War differently. I love Louisiana. I’m really grateful that I grew up there. There are extraordinary people living in Louisiana and extraordinary people who have come from Louisiana.”
Editor’s note: Advocate movie and music writer John Wirt is a native of Richmond, Va., where much of Lincoln was filmed. Wirt’s nephew, Sean Kuhnke, printed the mid-19th century style wallpaper seen in the movie’s White House scenes.