by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - There was a dark time when Steven Spielberg's dream of making the historical epic Lincoln had all but dissolved. In 2003, Daniel Day-Lewis turned down his offer to play the 16th president, so in Spielberg's mind, the project was dead.
Then came a little life-breathing magic from a mutual friend.
"Leo DiCaprio was at my house for dinner one night," Spielberg says. "It was just myself, my wife (Kate Capshaw) and Leo. And he says, 'Hey, what's going on with your Lincoln project? I told him the sad story. I had one shot at Daniel and he had declined. And that was that. Leo just listened. And then the next morning he called me at my office. He said, here's Daniel's cellphone number, he's expecting your call."
"Leo has never told me to this day what he said to Daniel," says Spielberg, flashing a satisfied smile. "But that began this wonderful journey."
Three years later, this journey enters its most critical phase with Lincoln's initial theatrical release today (it opens wider across the country Nov. 16). By all accounts, it's been a road well-traveled with Spielberg's successful landing of the prized actor to play the iconic president.
Director/producer Spielberg is being heralded for the vivid historical portrait, while the once-reluctant Day-Lewis is the early odds-on favorite for best-actor Oscar gold because of his nuanced performance.
"Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is perhaps the surest bet to be nominated in a fiercely competitive best-actor race," says Deadline.com awards columnist Pete Hammond. "You can bet a large stack of $5 bills on that."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose 2005 best seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was the historical genesis for the movie, says seeing Day-Lewis' performance is nothing short of "miraculous."
"I felt like I was watching Lincoln," she says. "Here I was imagining him for decades. And suddenly he comes to life."
For Spielberg, it's a a departure from conventional spectacle-style filming. This time he focuses not on the sweeping Civil War battles, but on the feverish activity around the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the final days of the Civil War.
"It's very different," says Spielberg. "All of my drama is in the democratic process. But it's pretty suspenseful. Some it is rather amusing."
The director says he "did not want to do a dry political thriller. The amount of humor and the amount of reverence to the democratic process - that balance - it gets you through the entire adventure perhaps with a couple of epiphanies towards the end."
Lincoln is portrayed as a complex leader, who was masterful at working the political system and willing to set aside his personal beliefs to achieve his goals. This is not the straightforward heroic image of Abraham Lincoln that a 5-year-old Spielberg saw during a trip with his uncle to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., his first memory of the 16th president.
"I just remember what I could never forget," says Spielberg, "the white giant in the chair that frightened me at first."
Spielberg immediately came to admire the face, and never lost the passion. During a discussion at his DreamWorks Studios offices, Spielberg, clad in a thick-necked sweater, seems more Ivy League history professor than Hollywood behemoth.
He also talks the talk. Sipping white ginger pear tea beneath the famous "Rosebud'' sled from Citizen Kane (one of his recent celebrated memorabilia acquisitions), he dives enthusiastically into lengthy analysis of the Civil War and Lincoln even before questions can be finished. The more history-focused the question, the deeper he delves.
His view of the "very complicated" Lincoln is undiminished, even enhanced, by this project.
"He defined a great leader," says Spielberg. "He stayed steady and true on his moral course, towards decency and civil rights and freedom. He never veered from that. (But) nobody could play political theater like Lincoln. It was always a balancing act."
Spielberg's film relishes the fact that Lincoln could push his personal feelings aside for political reality. And that he could get down-and-dirty to move his agenda, using lobbyists, arm-twisting and back-room politics. Yet he still kept his lofty ideals sometimes obscured.
"I never wanted to make a movie that worshiped him. I wanted to make a movie that elevated the conversation," says Spielberg.
Focusing on the drama around the 13th Amendment also allowed a look into what made the president tick on a daily basis. A broader look at his many famous successes perhaps would have been "a superficial glance at his greatness," says Spielberg. "All you have have seen is the same iconography that we see in statuary on coinage, $5 bills and Mount Rushmore. That's not what I wanted to do."
Spielberg launched his project after meeting Goodwin in 1999. He immediately secured the rights to her book, even though she was only halfway done writing it.
His first pass to persuade Day-Lewis to play the role was unsuccessful even after Spielberg lobbied him at lunch at Los Angeles' Hotel Bel-Air. Day-Lewis formally turned him down in an elegant letter written in long-hand.
"He said 'I could never play Abraham Lincoln,' " says Spielberg, recalling the lunch conversation. "That it was just too intimidating. 'What if I don't succeed? I don't want to bring down the image of a great man.' "
So Spielberg went with Liam Neeson, his star from the Oscar-winning Schindler's List. But the two had "subtle disagreements" about the portrayal, on which Spielberg does not elaborate.
"We just couldn't come to terms on the story," he says. "And the great news about Liam is that our friendship withstood some very, very light disagreements."
Spielberg moved onto other projects. That was before DiCaprio's intervention spurned a Day-Lewis reversal. The actor made one request: that he be able to take a year before starting. During this time, Spielberg left the Oscar-winning actor (he won best actor for 1989's My Left Foot and 2007's There Will Be Blood) to come to his own interpretation for playing Lincoln.
His one contribution was sending Day-Lewis recorded interviews of American farmers from the areas where Lincoln was born and grew up. The two also discussed the fact that historical documents make clear that Lincoln's voice was a high tenor rather than the stentorian voice most people imagine.
"It's not as sexy theatrically," says Spielberg. "It's not the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World. But it is the true historical record."
That directive was followed throughout many levels of Lincoln during the shoot, which started last October. Whole sections of the mid-19th century White House were painstakingly rebuilt on the Virginia set, with the colors of the rugs and wallpaper matching the written record from the time. The watch that Lincoln shows in several scenes featured a ticking that was actually recorded from the pocket watch that Lincoln carried.
"We were able to go to the museum and get permission to record (the ticking)," says Spielberg. "That was the first time they wound it in 20 years."
James Spader, who plays political operative W.N. Bilbo, calls the Lincoln set "an 1865 cocoon" made all the richer by it being located in Richmond and surrounding areas in Virginia.
"From the moment you stepped off the airplane you are surrounded by that feeling. Richmond sort of encapsulates that," says Spader. "But walking through those hallways you certainly get a sense of such a different time and place. Steven's attention to that detail was Herculean."
Lincoln also offers a deeper look into the other major players in the president's orbit, including Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and powerful congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), both of whom are receiving r awards talk for their portrayals.
Lincoln's marriage to the historically maligned Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) receives a fresh look even as she is depicted as still blaming her husband for the death (most likely from typhoid fever) of their 11-year-old son Willie in 1862. Given the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the White House and her personal problems, her struggles seem more than understandable.
"She says to (Lincoln), 'People should look at you and honor and respect what you have done. But they should also look at me,' " says Spielberg of Mary. "Because she's more the Everyperson who didn't have all the armor necessary to protect herself from her experience as Lincoln's wife in the White House during those four years."
Lincoln's armor is fortified with a sharp sense of humor - and great story-telling ability - both of which come through even in the most intense parts of the drama and despite Lincoln's lapses into melancholia.
"That's the other thing people don't associate with him, his sense of humor," says Goodwin. "But it's such a big part of his character. I don't know if he could have gotten through it without it. And you do see him irritating other people by telling those stories at the most seemingly inopportune moments."
Lincoln is shown visibly aging in the four-month span of the film, and he has trouble sleeping when dealing with the terrible war. Spielberg and Day-Lewis kept the same kind of late hours during the shoot, for very different reasons. The two would often text each other at 3 a.m. from their respective houses with interesting historical notes.
"I get too excited, so it's very, very hard to sleep," says Spielberg. "I'd find something in a Longfellow poem and send it to (Day-Lewis). And he would find something in Doris' book and send that to me."
Spielberg became so run-down that he fell ill for 10 days. ("It was the first time I have ever been really sick on a movie."). But his energy and zeal for the project bounced right back. He'll need it for the phase beyond the film's opening - the inevitable awards show march. Spielberg won't go there now.
"I can only see one week ahead of the other. Lincoln could see four years out," says Spielberg. "I don't have the bifocals that Lincoln had."
But very much in focus for Spielberg is the image of the American hero he finally brought to the screen.
"I feel like I know the man now," he says. "I feel like I've lived with him. I've spent time with him. I feel like I have heard a story. Not the only story that should be told of his life - there is so much room to tell so many stories of his life."
Whether Spielberg ever decides to revisit one of those chapters remains up in the air. The prolific artist is next slated to direct the sci-fi action flick Robopocalypse. And any further Lincoln projects would certainly rely on a certain, sometimes reluctant actor.
"I could, but not without Daniel Day-Lewis," Spielberg says when asked if he's up for another Lincoln foray. "I would never do it again without him."
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