Steven Spielberg excited by a president of and for the people
November 1, 2012 9:06PM
TIME's Screening Of Lincoln And Q & A With Steven Spielberg And Daniel-Day Lewis
Updated: December 5, 2012 6:21AM
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Not many things make director Steven Spielberg nervous to the point where his hands tremble.
Abraham Lincoln’s hat did that to him.
Before shooting “Lincoln,” Spielberg took his star Daniel Day-Lewis through a tour of Gettysburg, where they got a bit of special consideration.
“I got to put on the white surgical gloves and hold the hat of Lincoln,” Spielberg marvels. “It was awe-inspiring. It was also intimidating. I had the urge to see if it fit and I didn’t dare.
“I would never dare. My hands actually began to shake just thinking about it.”
Day-Lewis adds with a laugh, “There should be a special jail for people who try on the hat.”
The “Lincoln” screenplay by Tony Kushner is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book “Team of Rivals.”
“Doris’ book was the first glimpse of seeing Lincoln as a human being,” Spielberg says. “He’s not just a monument. This is a human story with flaws and tragedies built in.”
In fact, Spielberg optioned Goodwin’s book while she was writing it. “Doris kept sending me chapters as she went along,” he says. “The more chapters she sent, the more I realized that Lincoln was somebody I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with, which is the case. I will never stop thinking about him.”
What appealed to Spielberg was the man-of-the-people quality that Lincoln not only possessed, but lived on a daily basis.
“He would have a philosophical discuss with a world leader or a kid working in a field,” Spielberg says. “He didn’t take the power of his office and lord it over you with a kind of superiority. People who met Lincoln for the first time saw someone very much like themselves. He could have been your next-door neighbor.”
The time called for that type of president. “It was a small country with less people,” Spielberg says. “Newspapers and speeches were critical. So was rumor and innuendo.”
He stops himself and chuckles. “I guess not a lot has changed in 150 years in terms of the way government is run and the way a democratic society goes about its business.
“The one thing that has changed to the detriment of fairness is that people had a lot more time to think about things back then. Today, decisions are made under a great deal of scrutiny and public pressure.”
Lincoln took some hits for being reflective. “He was accused all through his administration and the war for dragging it on thanks to his pondering,” Spielberg says. “He didn’t rule through the court of public opinion. He didn’t look at people like they were voters.”
Spielberg’s film also discusses Lincoln’s often-tragic personal life, which played out while he saved the Union and freed the slaves.
His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field), is often described as stark raving mad. “I don’t think all the literature about Mary is completely accurate,” Spielberg says. “The people who wrote about her weren’t living in the White House at the time.
“Mary suffered two major losses. Her son died in 1863 when she was attending a huge state dinner. He was upstairs dying. She also lost an infant son.”
But at the same time, “Mary’s ambitious drive fueled Lincoln because that was a trait he didn’t naturally possess. She was the engine that propelled him towards the presidency.”
Now the characters who accompany Spielberg every day — from the “Jaws” shark to E.T. to Private Ryan — are joined by the Great Emancipator.
“I’m not looking for any kind of moment,” he says, “where I wake up and forget this beautiful part of my life.”