Academy Award winners, director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, bring Abraham Lincoln to life in their new movie Lincoln, which spotlights the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office, attempting to end the Civil War, unite the country and abolish slavery.
Steven, it seems like you’ve been wanting to do this film all your life. What made this a passion project for you?
Spielberg: I’ve always had a personal fascination with the myth of Abraham Lincoln, starting as a child. Once you start to read about him and the Civil War, and everything leading up to the Civil War, you start to understand that the myth is created when we think we understand a character and we reduce him to a cultural national stereotype.
There have been more [books] written about him than movies made about him. He’s kind of a stranger to this medium. You have to go back to the 1930s to find a movie that’s just about Abraham Lincoln.
Daniel, what did you find the most challenging thing about bringing this iconic figure to the screen?
Day-Lewis: The most obvious thing is connected to what Steven was saying, trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it.
I just wasn’t sure that I was able to do that. Beyond that, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t do it and somebody else should have instead.
Spielberg: It was hard to get him to say yes.
Day-Lewis: The wonderful surprise with [Lincoln] is you begin to discover him. There were many different ways in which you could do that, he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible.
Spielberg: If [Daniel] had finally and ultimately said no, I would never had made the movie.
What did you learn about Lincoln that you didn’t know before that surprised you?
Day-Lewis: It’s easy for me, because I knew nothing about him. (he laughs) I had everything to learn. My entire knowledge of his life was a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural [speech] and a few lines from the Gettysburg Address.
I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor. That was an important part of his character.
Spielberg: There are so many things I didn’t know about Lincoln. The weight of his responsibility, [his] constitutional oath to preserve a union. He’s the only President that had the union ripped out from under him and torn in half.
The writings we’ve read about how deeply low and depressed he could get. I don’t know if some of that depression wasn’t just deep thought into the cold depths of himself to make discoveries that would bring this war to an end.
Beyond that, how he just didn’t crack up in the middle of his first term with the Civil War raging and with over 600,000 lives lost, recently revived upward to 750,000 lives lost; his wife on the edge of herself, the loss of his son two years before our film begins, the fact that he came through this with a steady, moral compass just amazes me.
Was it intentional to release this movie after the election?
Spielberg: The political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years. It’s just too confusing. Everybody’s claiming Lincoln as their own. And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us, and what he did basically provided the opportunities that all of us are enjoying today.
I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle. I thought it was safer to let people talk about the film during the election cycle in this run-up with ads on TV and posters going up, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election’s been decided.