Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner talks about writing a biopic of the great emancipator for the legendary Steven Spielberg

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT


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Tony Kushner doesn’t believe in doing things small. He’s an artist of big ideas and even bigger ambition. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s most famous work, 1993’s Angels in America, was seven hours long and broken into two parts on Broadway. The first screenplay he ever wrote, for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 thriller Munich, originally logged in at 270 pages (the industry average is 120). But even Spielberg was shocked when he received the first draft of Kushner’s script for their latest collaboration, Lincoln (rated PG-13). ”It was 500 pages,” the director says. ”It was long enough for an HBO miniseries. But it was full of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read. It’s like 19th-century poetry.” In fact, Spielberg credits Kushner’s words, research, and attention to detail as the main reasons Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to play the 16th president.

After turning in that mountainous first draft back in 2007, Kushner wrote seven more, eventually narrowing the story to just the last four months of Lincoln’s life — an eventful period that witnessed the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery, and the end of the Civil War. Inspired by Pulitzer-winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals, Lincoln may sound like dry history, but Kushner has transformed it into a high-stakes political nail-biter, while painting a rich and surprising portrait of a man most of us thought we already knew. On the eve of the film’s Nov. 9 release, we sat down with Kushner (who is the husband of Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris) to discuss the biggest ”big” assignment of his career.

I was expecting Lincoln to be more of a biopic tracing his life from childhood. Why did you choose to focus on such a brief period?
The movie is really about just one month — January 1865 — and then we spend a little time with him before his death in April. It’s only covered in about a page and a half of Doris’ book. I told Steven at the beginning, when I said I would do it, that I didn’t want to tell the story of Lincoln. I wanted to tell a story of Lincoln. There was never any question of doing a biopic of Lincoln’s entire life.

Steven said your first draft was 500 pages.
[Laughs] It’s true. I have pictures of him reading it in East Hampton. He called me and said, ”I’ve just finished the first 150 pages and it’s almost like a complete movie.” He kept coming back to those first 150 pages, and soon the rest just dropped away.

That was in 2007, but when did you first talk to him about the assignment?
In 2006, after we did Munich. The first time I ever heard about it, though, was when [Spielberg’s producing partner] Kathy Kennedy asked me to have breakfast with her in 2003. I asked what she and Steven were working on, and she said two things: a film about the murder of the Olympic athletes in Munich and a film about Abraham Lincoln. I wasn’t trying to get on either of those projects. I just thought that the meeting might lead to something someday down the road.

When he hired you to write Munich, screenwriting was completely foreign to you.
I’d done the teleplay for Angels in America for HBO, but no, I didn’t have any experience, really. I had no more of an idea how to write a movie than I do how to build a thermonuclear weapon.

How is screenwriting different from writing plays?
With plays, it’s not as important to be a great storyteller. Shakespeare, who was the greatest playwright of all time, basically used the plots of other people’s plays. Movies plunge you more into a story. In the theater, you’re always aware of everybody coughing and making noise, and that can affect a performance. Movies don’t care if you’re coughing or having a coronary; the movie will keep playing.

How did Daniel Day-Lewis come aboard as Lincoln?
Daniel read the script in 2009 and wrote Steven a really beautiful letter saying that he liked it. But he said he just didn’t think he wanted to play Abraham Lincoln. Steven was sad about that — we both really wanted him. And then there was this weird period where we were doing secret makeup tests on actors’ photographs trying to make them look like Lincoln, drawing beards on them. It wasn’t going to work. [Liam Neeson had been attached to star early on.] At that point I thought, ”Okay, this is over.” Then, in April 2010, Daniel called Steven and said, ”I’ve been thinking about it, and I wonder if you and Tony would like to come to Ireland.”

Did you have to do a whole dog-and-pony show to persuade him to do it?
It wasn’t like that. We didn’t have to do a tap-dance routine. We met him at his home in Ireland and went to a little inn and talked for two or three days. Steven took a picture of him at a pub on his phone and he mailed it to me, and it’s Lincoln. I wanted to say to Daniel, ”Look in the mirror, God is telling you something!” But I understood. I said no to Steven for a long time too.

Well, because of him [points his chin to a somber portrait of Lincoln hanging on his kitchen wall]. The subject and the man just seemed too big to me. But then Steven gathered together a hotel conference room full of Lincoln historians and said, ”You can ask them questions and all of your doubts will be answered.”

So he was trying to woo you by shoving you into a room full of tweedy academics?
Yeah, and it worked! At the end of the day Doris pulled me aside and I told her my doubts. She said, ”I know exactly what you’re feeling. When I started Team of Rivals 10 years ago, that was what I felt too. But,” she said, ”I’ll promise you one thing: You’ll never regret any time you spend with Abraham Lincoln.”

It sounds like it was a very collaborative triangle between you and Steven and Daniel.
It really was. I don’t know if I should say this, but what the hell? Daniel said to me before we started filming, ”I hope it’s not going to upset you when we stop speaking when this starts.” I asked why. And he said, ”I’m really only going to be able to have a conversation at that point with Steven,” because he gets so deep into the part. Then, at the end of the first day of filming, he walked past me and threw a piece of paper in my lap. And there was a note inside written in what looked like Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting. It was a triangle with all three of our initials at each point of a triangle — he was saying that we were a team of equal collaborators. It meant a lot to me.

How much of what comes out of the actors’ mouths in the movie is from the historical record?
I’m happy to say that sometimes I don’t even remember whether it’s Lincoln or me. But I didn’t want to do a thing where everything that came out of his mouth was something he actually said. There are lines that I wish I could claim credit for. Like the last line of the film, when he says, ”I suppose it’s time to go but I’d rather stay.” That’s in Team of Rivals, and when I read it, I wept. I was really careful about not having a word in the script that wasn’t in use in 1865.

Do you have any rituals when you write?
If I’m not typing, I can’t write with anything but a fountain pen. I can’t write with music [playing] at all. I can’t write at a round table. Bertolt Brecht was obsessive about finding the right table before writing.

Lincoln is really a movie about the political process. It’s kind of like a 19th-century episode of The West Wing.
Except our people don’t walk while they talk. But yeah, we really wanted to make an entertainment out of passing an amendment, which isn’t easy. In some ways this is like the state basketball championship movie. Are they going to win?

Are you happy it’s done?
My molecules haven’t caught up with that. I think it’s a really honorable and strange and interesting little movie and I’m really pleased with it.

Will you miss working with Steven?
I haven’t told this to anyone, but I’m already working on a new script for him, so we’ll be talking all the time again. I just started on it a couple of weeks ago. I can’t say any more than that.

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You’re kind of his go-to guy now.
He has other go-to guys. But I like working with him and I think he likes the difficulties that working with me present. I take a long time, and I can’t do it until I’m really ready to do it, and I’m not an experienced screenwriter, and I’m probably too old at this point to learn how to start being one. I want to be a playwright. That’s what I am.


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