Last night, following a special screening of Lincoln for students and teachers in New York, AMC Theaters and Yahoo Movies streamed a 40+ minute Q&A session with director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The two talked about a number of various topics, some of which we have transcribed below. You can watch the full Q&A event below.
Lincoln gets a limited release on November 9 before expanding the following weekend. Following the introduction, the interview beings at about 2:40 mark.
Q: What was the first moment you were interested in making a Lincoln movie?
Spielberg: Lincoln was one of my favorite figures in the American landscape -- as a leader, role model and brilliant thinker. So I was always, as a student, interested but I met with Doris Turned Goodwin in 1999, in a meeting unrelated to Lincoln, asked her what she was doing, and she said she was writing a book about Lincoln's White House. I realized that whatever she was doing, being an amazing artist and organizer of history, that I wanted to be involved in anything she was doing and so I asked her if she would be interested in selling her book rights to me.
Q: What was the process of narrowing down to this particular Lincoln story.
Spielberg: There were so many amazing things that I didn't know about Lincoln. Tony Kushner attacked this narrative with tremendous ambition and vivacity. The first draft was longer than an HBO miniseries, it was over 550 pages long and that's when Tony and I realized that it was impractical. We realized that we didn't need to make a movie about a monument named Lincoln but about a man named Lincoln. So we focused it on the last four years of his life.
Q: When you first start to consider playing the role of Abe Lincoln, what makes you say "Absolutely Not" and "Maybe?" What was your process of learning about the man, who he was, what made him tick?
Daniel Day-Lweis: My first impulse was a very clear one. It was when I first met Steven nine years ago, before Tony has re-written an entirely different script. The script itself wasn't appealing personally, which gave me one good excuse to not do it. I met with Steven, and that was more tricky because I felt this was certainly a man that I wanted to work with but it seemed like such a preposterous idea to me. So I fled. Over the course of time, then reading Tony's script, it was intriguing to me, I could see objectively that there was something to be done, by somebody else probably. I didn't honestly feel I was capable of doing that work. Finally, to cut to the chase, Steven, Tony and I, we had a meeting in Ireland where we had a couple of meetings and I re-read the script. For whatever reason, at the end of that meeting, Tony went away to reconsider ways to re-write the script, which had more or less been frozen in time. I began to read Doris' book which was probably the springboard for all of us and I essentially ran out of excuses and that was it. I can't account for why at the moment why it appeared inevitable to me, but I think it has in common in all the moments in my life when I have taken on any piece of work. I have to feel there really isn't a choice. In this case, in that moment, I felt I had no choice but to try and understand this thing.
Q: The film touches on the virtues and flaws of democratic system. Is there any contemporaray resonance?
Spielberg: I really was not trying to draw any parallels. The democratic process was the same in 1865 as it is in 2012, so there are many honest parallels that you can draw from this. But Tony and I embedded ourselves into books and learning and reading and understanding what it must have been like and Tony found the most beautiful language, which he discovered from reading books and essays and memoirs and so we were pretty much steeped in telling stories of this great individual.
Q: Talk about the director-actor relationship. As an actor, what kind of direction do you like and vice versa, as a director, what kind of actor do you like to work with?
Day-Lewis: I think it's a huge advantage for an actor to be able to spend at least a considerable period of time before they have that moment of confrontation with the camera and their colleagues, both for their own sake, but also a period of time in which they might become closer with the director that they're working with. And certainly by the time I came to the set, I felt from my point of view that we had done all the talking that we needed to do. I think the less that needs to be said on set, the better. That's not to say that Steven as a director, I think initially he had a certain shyness around the people that employed to do the job, but as he gained a confidence around us, there wasn't a moment in any of the scenes that we were working that he didn't feel something that might be pursued that needed to be pursued. He was able make his suggestions in a very subtle way. As an actor, that's food and drink. It's almost impossible for me to honor any kind of direction that is too clearly expressed.
Spielberg: We postponed the film for a year after Daniel came on board, so we spent a year of me, Tony and Daniel in conversation, we had an entire year to get to know each other, we became friends and we were friends on the first day of shooting. By the time we got around to shooting, most of my work was with the other actors, when we made adjustments, there were little nudges. The script was solid and beautiful. It was just little details.
Day-Lewis: We were very naughty actually. Say at the end of the day, the schedule was relentless, and I think that’s a very good thing with a story of this weight and density, I think it’s the ideal thing as an antidote to shoot this as a low budget film with absolutely no time to spare at the end of your schedule. Quite often, when the set was just ours to play with at the end of the day, we would start to explore the ideas about the next day's work. Some of the best times I remember having were just the two of us trying to figure out.
Q: Talk a little bit about portraying Lincoln in a humorous light.
Day-Lewis: He was a joker. It doesn't take long to discover that about him, he was a storyteller. He was a great storyteller and a jokester and was quite capable of these moments of levity. Simultaneously, as he was dealing with moments of very intense responsibility, in that national crisis that he planned to navigate. It was an extraordinary juxtaposition that he achieved that balance. That's one of the many interesting things about his character.
Q: How do you know Lincoln sounded the way you portray him?
Day-Lewis: Luckily, I don't but nor do you. So we'll just have to shake hands and agree to differ on that. The thing about vocal work, there is certain amount of research that is possible. There were no contemporary recordings. I f I were doing work that related to a living being or a historical being, where there was visual and audio recordings, I find that extraordinarily difficult. I don't know how you would avoid mimicry and mimicry is a dull prospect. From my own part, when I am working, a voice is such a deep personal reflection of character.
Spielberg: In terms of all the literature, people who knew Lincoln and wrote about extensively about him after his death, Lincoln didn't have that low voice of the Lincoln in EPCOT Center, the animatronic low deep voice. His voice was always in a lower tenor range.
Q: What was something that surprised you about Lincoln?
Spielberg: I didn't realize that Lincoln would talk his way through a problem. He solved his problem by speaking out loud, he spoke in front of his Cabinet, Mary. Would absolutely bring people together and talk through a solution. He would often change his mind in the process because he had found another way to a solution. Tony was able to find moments in the script to invite all of you into the decision making process.
Day-Lewis: In a general way, in attempting to approach this man's life, I felt shy around him. I felt that he existed at a great unbridgeable distance from my own life. I didn’t know how to approach him. One of the great surprises and delights for me, was to discover accessibility as a human being, a sense of welcome.
Q: Michael Kahn is your editor on this film. Can you talk about the transition of editing film to editing digitally?
Spielberg: Lincoln was shot on film. Michael cut Lincoln digitally. This was my third film that was digitally edited. I cut Tintin and War Horse on digital because we needed the same equipment. We did have a choice to edit Lincoln on Movieola/chem, we were the only ones still doing that, but by that time, I decided not so much to throw in the towel, but to join my mentors and collaborators in my generation. This is the most performance-based film I have ever made and because of that I needed to immediately access different takes from different actors. Digital really helped me to have more access, to be able to instantly see from take to take.
Q: Was the lightning and cinematography influenced by paintings?
Spielberg: We saw a lot of art, a lot of paintings, a lot of Vermeers, we looked at a lot of paintings of the 19th century where artists began to allow natural light to infuse their work as opposed to an artistic license to find the light and let the light come from places where light doesn’t exists. We were looking at Andrew Wyeth paintings, 20th century, but Andrew Wyeth paintings, that really have a tremendous contrast.
Q: Was it difficult to say good-bye to Lincoln at the end of the production?
Spielberg: I still haven't said good bye to Lincoln. This is Daniel Day-Lewis sitting next to me not Abraham Lincoln, but I still refuse to part with my view and my experience with Lincoln. It was a very hard for me on the very last day of shooting. I went into Daniel's trailer, not to say good-bye cuz we're friends forever, but to say, "Well, it's over and I think we did something that we can be proud of. And Daniel calls me The Skipper, that was sort of his nickname for me, and he said, 'Yes Skipper, I think just about it. He said it as Daniel Day-Lewis not as Lincoln. And that was a little bit like I had fallen through an elevator shaft and hit a cement floor. I was not ready to lose the president at that point. But it had to be done, it had to come to an end I and it did.
Day-Lewis: I have the same sentiment. Tremendous sense of sadness. It's been suggested to me, a number of times, that somehow I take a long time between one piece of work to another, that I'm possessed and that it takes some time for the exorcism to work, but I think conversely, it's much more a case of me being reluctant to let go of something that has been a part of my life. I can say it will remain, to the end of my days, one of the great privileges of my life. My gratitude to Steven is boundless. I really have nothing to do with the film, I'm pretending to that I do by talking about it, it's just one more illusion, I can only say that’s an indication that I don’t wish to let go of the connection to this man.