An entire wall in Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s home library in Concord is lined with books about Abraham Lincoln, research material that helped shape her 2005 book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Portions of Goodwin’s book became the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” a project on which she’s been a close collaborator. With “Lincoln” opening in theaters nationwide, she sat down to discuss the 16th president as historical figure and movie subject.
At first meeting Spielberg, were you surprised by his deep interest in Lincoln?
I was. When we met, in 1999 — Steven was making a short documentary called “The Unfinished Journey,” shown on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century — he said he’d always wanted to make a film about Lincoln and wanted first shot at my book. Later, between projects, he’d call me just wanting to talk about Lincoln and what he’d done that day. After my book came out, he said he felt like he was at the right point in his career to take on this film. That’s how much he’d thought about the subject. Not just, oh, here’s this book I want to film. His desire to do Lincoln long precedes my book.
Spielberg can presumably do any project any time he wants to, yet this production still took years to materialize, right?
Right. It’s not easy to make a historical movie these days. And although [screenwriter] Tony Kushner had come aboard, Spielberg hadn’t gotten Daniel Day-Lewis yet. In April 2006, I organized a meeting of Lincoln scholars in New York, with Steven and Tony. Spielberg already knew a ton about Lincoln but was unsure about what to do with a script. Tony was nervous about it, too. He later said that meeting had helped him decide to go ahead. I remember saying to Tony, “No matter how hard this is, you’ll never regret living with Lincoln.”
What about living as Lincoln?
I can’t imagine another actor doing a better job than Daniel does in capturing a president and making him come alive again. In November 2010, he and I traveled to Springfield [Ill.] together. He wanted to know everything about Lincoln — his voice, how he walked — and to be taken through Lincoln’s home, law offices, museum, everywhere. The only place he did not want to go was Lincoln’s grave, because he didn’t want to think about Lincoln dying. On the set, as you may have heard, he was always “Mr. Lincoln.” He never broke character. Evidently he did many of the movie’s long scenes in one take, which is unbelievable. Tony was texting me that people on the set were astonished when he’d finish a scene and that was it, no more takes.
The film focuses on a small slice of your book: the fight to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery constitutionally. As a big-picture historian, did that narrow focus bother you?
Mostly what I cared about was that Lincoln the character be fully rendered. To me, the plot is less important than who he is. So my conversations with Tony would be, just make sure you get Lincoln’s humor in there. Show his warmth. Show him conversationally, the way he’d put his arm around somebody and tell these stories. Show him as a political figure. Once Steven and Tony decided they had this story within a story to tell, with its own beginning, middle, and end, that seemed right for a movie. It’s hard to imagine how they could have gotten more in there.
Talk about visiting the set.
I went last November, when they were filming at the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond. Rick Carter, the production designer, wanted me to see the White House set, which was built in an old pinball machine factory. When Rick opened the door into the “White House,” I was just blown away. The bedroom, the office, the silk screening and carpet, the first editions of books Lincoln was reading — I could practically smell the smoke in the draperies from [Secretary of State William] Seward’s cigars. For 10 years, I’d been trying to think about what this place would be like. Then, suddenly, here it was. I’d been catapulted back into 1865. That was an incredibly special moment.
Your reaction to the finished film?
The parts I love most are when Lincoln tells one of his stories. Not only because he did that all the time, but because his whole face would change. Lincoln’s face had a structural sadness to it, as does Daniel’s. When you watch his eyes become shiny and a smile light up his face, you feel he’s really alive. I’ve often been asked, “If you could sit with Lincoln for dinner, what would you ask him?” As a Lincoln scholar, I know you’re supposed to say, “What would you have done differently about Reconstruction?” I’d just want him to tell stories for an hour, though, because then I’d truly see him come alive.
What might young people learn from this film?
They’re going to come away knowing something deep about Lincoln, which was Steven and Tony’s decision: Either go deep or go broad. Their way allows Lincoln to come across in much more complex fashion, in a story most people don’t know. Most people think the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. Lincoln knew differently, though, that [emancipation] could go away once the war ended.
Were there any compressions of historical detail that bothered or puzzled you? Thaddeus Stevens, for instance, is not a huge character in your book.
You’re right. What he is, though, is a symbol of the abolitionist radicals Lincoln had to deal with. I miss Seward not having an even bigger role, too, but I completely understand. All the way through the war, Lincoln wrestles with the fact that although he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or kill a single animal as a child, he’s responsible for all these deaths. And [those deaths] must be made worthwhile by the war being won and the Union being saved and slavery ending. When he actually delays the peace talks in order to get the 13th Amendment passed, then he really feels the loss of every life afterward. That’s also compressed into a story within a story, but I felt it’s all there [in the movie].
Q. What’s on your short list of favorite presidential movies?
A. It’s not presidential, but “All the King’s Men” is a great political movie. I also loved “The American President” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, which really captured the White House. Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” was pretty compelling as well.
In your view, does “Lincoln” rank high among presidential biopics?
Absolutely. Watching it, I’m not sure I even felt I was in a movie. I knew I was going to respect him when I started researching my book, but I had no idea how much pleasure I would take in his company. The movie captures that, too.
Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.