Up | November 24, 2012
>>> we'll win the war, sir, it's inevitab inevitable, isn't it?
>> it ain't won yet.
>> you'll begin your second term with semi divine stature. why tarnish your invaluable luster with a battle in the house? it's a rats nest in there. it's the same gang of talentless hicks and hacks who rejected the amendment ten months ago. we'll lose.
>> i like our chances now.
>> that exchange between daniel day lewis as abraham lincoln and david strathern as william seward , sparks the plot of " lincoln ." playing now in theaters across the country, garnering critical acclaim , big box office numbers and a rush to hand lewis for best actor before anyone even announces next year's nominees. the most remarkable thing about the movie is to me, to focus not on the drama of war, but the understudied legislative battle. the one kicked off by that scene in which lincoln attempts to beg, borrow, and steal enough votes ending slavery through a skeptical and recalcitrant house of representatives during a lame-duck session. the film is a legislative caper, chronicle of counting votes in a pursuit of a great moral cause through degraded means. it's a movie about what is most elevated and most corrupt about democratic politics. the perfect and the good and the inescapable logic of compromise. it is to my mind the greatest sustained artistic meditation on these themes in the context of american politics i have ever seen. one with some very obvious resonance to our current political culture . and it is my great, great pleasure to welcome to the table one of the finest artists and writers of our time tony kushner . wonderful to have you here.
>> thank you.
>> congratulations on the success.
>> thank you.
>> you start out a project like this. i can't help but notice the evolution of the film " lincoln " took twice as long as the actual civil war . if i'm not mistaken.
>> six years to write it and film it. two years longer.
>> two years longer than the actual civil war . you start out and said we're going to do a movie about lincoln . and this is someone who more english words have been written about than anyone aside from gee jesus and william shakespeare .
>> how do you start out this project with that as your sort of portfolio?
>> well, stephen was the one that decided, i think he had a conversation with doris 12 years ago and she mentioned she was writing a book about lincoln and he asked her if he could buy the rights then and there. he's been thinking about lincoln since he was a little boy . and decided, i think, about ten years ago he was really going to try and make a film of it. the original impetus was steven's. and when he hired me, my first question to him was whether or not before i said yes, whether or not we'd have to try and cover the whole war and all four years of the administration, which i knew before i started any serious research into lincoln was going to be a complete impossibility in a 2 1/2 hour film. and he immediately agreed that we could focus on a specific segment, portion of the administration. and he already decided he didn't want to do any of the big battles. he felt he did his big war film in "private ryan" and didn't need to do that again. and he bought doris ' book, and doris ' " lincoln " is a political lincoln . i think the path was sort of laid out before i even came in. and then i tried for two years to figure out how to condense about half of the -- i wanted to start in september of 1863 with his secretary of the treasury sort of coming out of the closet as an opponent, basically announcing he was going to run against lincoln for the republican nomination in '64. and chase is one of the great characters in american history and their relationship is really genuinely shakespearean. but after two years of trying, i never got any farther than january of 1864 , i got like three months in. it was impossible to condense. then the writers guild went on strike, i had to stop writing, and after the strike was over, the spring of 2007 , i had the idea of doing just the last four months which produced a 500-page screen play, the first quarter of which --
>> 500 pages about the last four months and then steven spielberg says let's focus on the 13th amendment now.
>> i thought he was going to go for the last month, which was sort of march 18th to april 15th because that's when lincoln leaves washington for the longest time that he was out of washington during the entire war and went down to city point, grant's headquarters on the james river and then was present, basically, for the fall of petersburg and then the conquest of richmond , the capture of richmond and then famously went to richmond with his son and walked through the streets of the city the day after the city had fallen. and it was all very dramatic and very cinematic and i was certain that was going to be what attracted steven the most. but when i sent him this massive sort of phone book -sized script, it was the january stuff he immediately glomed on to.
>> it's this amazing kind of hand-to-hand combat just to get enough votes to pass this.
>> what did you learn about lincoln in writing this? because i think one of the things i think is great about him, he sort of captures lincoln 's essential weirdness.
>> it's this thing that comes up time and time again that you never quite see really nailed. he's such an odd figure. what else do you feel you learned about lincoln in the context of writing this?
>> i was really happy that you said that after you saw the movie. i think he was a very strange man and you read in every contemporary account this kind of divided reaction to him within every person who meets him that he was kind of a lovely, warm, accessible human being and also something else was going on that was uncanny and unsettling. and people didn't find him an entirely comfortable presence ever. and many, many accounts of his sort of vanishing in the middle of a conversation and then coming back. and that was a bit of a surprise. you know, i really didn't know a lot about him. i'd read about three books, i think, before i started doing the research. i don't know that anything actually -- i think the only thing that would've surprised me was to learn that, you know, he hadn't written the second inaugural address or he wasn't the kind of great president i assumed that he was. but he really was astonishing.
>> i think the most interesting relationship in the movie, actually, is between him and thaddeus stevens . right after we take