Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner penned the screenplay for the new movie “Lincoln,” a project on which he spent six years working in tandem with director Steven Spielberg. An Academy Award nominee in 2005 for his work on "Munich," Kushner is favored to receive his second career Oscar nomination via the "Lincoln" script. During a recent interview with the Deseret News, Kushner offered unique insight into the humanity and genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Deseret News: After the whole process of researching and writing this screenplay, how well do you personally feel like you know Abraham Lincoln?
Tony Kushner: Oh gosh, a lot better than I knew him before. I have that weird feeling that I now recognize in many other people who have spent a lot of time with Lincoln: He has become a friend. You sort of fall in love with him. It’s hard for me to believe I’m sitting here today and the film has now been reviewed and I’m done. It’s somewhat sad, because I want to keep going in a way because it was a great joy.
I feel like on one level I’ve gotten very, very close to him. I think it’s one of the remarkable things about Lincoln and his life and his faith, that he feels by leagues the most approachable president in American history. You read the historical record, and he was that when he was alive: He met hundreds of thousands of people, and (historians) think he may have shaken the hands of or spoken directly to over a million soldiers, because he loved being with the soldiers.
The sense of him being an approachable person — a listener, someone you could be friends with — is something that was clearly true, and a lot of people felt at the time, and it’s lasted 150 years after his murder.
But on the other hand, I’ve also read many, many, many accounts of his closest friends and his wife and his oldest son. And it’s very clear that everybody who loved him and knew him really well also felt they didn’t know him very well at all.
He was very mysterious, a very strange guy who was very much alone and not a person who sought out counsel. There’s no major decision that Lincoln made that was entirely guided by someone else’s opinion. Some of the most hair-raising, scary decisions that he made, he made in isolation on his own and kept his own counsel, because I think he was just smarter than everyone else. And like people who are that smart, he always knew it.
DN: How do you feel about Lincoln’s place in the panorama of American history?
TK: I’m an agnostic, but every once in a while in politics and history you get this sneaky feeling that somebody shows up at a historical moment when they’re really needed — people like Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK. It’s eerie that these people show up out of nowhere: They seem to be the perfect person for the task, like somebody must be designing this. And there’s no example like this in American history as great as Lincoln showing up when he did. In 1855, nobody had ever heard of him.
Not only was Lincoln without question one of the greatest — if not the greatest — political strategists in history, and a leader of immense intellectual power and vision and insight and foresight, but in a weird way he was also one of the great American writers of all time. How likely is it that somebody like that could write the second inaugural address — which I think is the greatest speech ever given by anyone? It’s beyond belief; it makes you think maybe something is making this happen.
DN: Having researched Lincoln so thoroughly, what is the most compelling aspect for you personally about how Daniel Day-Lewis conceptualized his portrayal of Lincoln?
TK: The biggest revelation that I got in watching Daniel was when he did the second inaugural address.
When you read the speech, it’s 720 words — and over 500 of them are one-syllable words. The personal pronoun is only used once, and it’s used to connect him to a group of people. Some of the sentences are long and elaborate, but they’re not adorned. He doesn’t get poetic in a certain sense until the last three paragraphs when he starts talking about God. Even in the poetic part, there’s an astonishing plainness in Lincoln. You can feel the beginning of modernity, beginning to move from a European writing to something new and American.
You think this must have been delivered in a style of smallness and modesty that the speech is so powerfully expressive of. And when I see Lincoln on film giving speeches, I’ve only ever seen it (where) he hooks his thumbs in his lapels and says his piece in this very simple bump-de-bump-de-bump way. It never occurred to me, and I don’t think it’s ever occurred to anyone, what Daniel discovered: that Lincoln, this man who went to the theater all the time, would’ve used 19th century stage language with his body and his gestures as part of his speaking style — that it would’ve been a performance, not a modest kind of mumbling through.
First of all, it makes sense just for the sheer technical necessity of getting an unamplified human voice to carry out over a crowd of 50,000 people in the open air. And this guy has been on the stump for a really long time, so he knew how to make public speeches that could (really) be heard. He had a high voice, but it was a powerful voice when he wanted it to be. And also, there were no Jumbotrons — everyone in the crowd of 50,000 was looking at the one tiny figure on a huge platform with a lot of people around him.
We filmed (this scene) very close to the end of the filming. Steven (Spielberg) and I were standing at the edge of the crowd to see if we could hear him — and we could hear him. Daniel was up there, and after watching the rest of the work that Daniel was doing, which was so beautifully quiet and contained and restrained for the most part, it was a shock to me and to everybody. It felt on some level like, "This is a legitimate historical discovery. This guy must have been exactly like that. This is as close as we’ll ever get to what that looked and sounded like."
That was a great thrill. Every time I see it, I kind of smile and think,"‘Wow — if nothing else, we’ve contributed this." I want Lincoln historians to pay attention to it, because I think it’s worth considering.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.