Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy
This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 15, 2012.
Tony Kushner spent years writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, but that wasn't the only heavy lifting he had to do. It also took some effort to overcome Daniel Day-Lewis' reluctance to play the title role.
"I wanted to write to him and say, 'Daniel, apart from the fact that you're like one of the greatest actors ever, look in the mirror. God is trying to tell you something — you look like Abraham Lincoln!" Kushner tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
Lincoln is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of the 16th president, Team of Rivals — which helped convince the actor to accept the part. Kushner says that reading the book made Day-Lewis "feel that he was playing a character, as opposed to Superman."
Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his play Angels in America, read more than 20 books about Lincoln as he prepared to write the screenplay.
"The man was just kind of a miracle worker in terms of finessing almost impossible circumstances and getting a result that he felt that he needed," Kushner says. "It was a combination of cunning [and] ruthlessness — he was sometimes very hard on his friends and asked them to make terrible sacrifices of their own ambitions."
On the many interpretations of Lincoln
"Although there are no interpretations of Lincoln that say that he was a bad person, or a person who at one point loved slavery and changed his mind — [interpretations] that make any sense to me and that I think are in any way credible — there are certainly various versions of Lincoln and aspects of Lincoln. Like for instance his melancholy (which I don't think he was) that are legitimate readings of him, and everybody has to pick their own. ... Many people who knew him, including most of his closest friends, talk about how isolated and lonely and strange he was.
"And I would imagine Shakespeare and Mozart and Albert Einstein were also very strange. I think it must be very hard to have a cognitive process that really only in some ways resembles the cognitive processes of most of your fellow human beings. And the ability to see things that no one else can see, on one level, is a blessing — it's certainly a blessing for the rest of us when something is made of it — but it also must be a kind of curse, because it seals you up in a world that only you can see.
"I mean, he was famously a joker, and a person who told stories, and a person who laughed and talked about how he had to laugh. He loved Shakespeare, and he loved Robert Burns, who were both writers who combine real heartbreak and tragedy with incredible humor and wit. And Lincoln said, 'I couldn't survive what I'm going through if I couldn't laugh.'
"I don't think he was a depressed person. I think he was a man with an enormous capacity for grief that didn't deprive him of the ability to act. And he felt no need to hide the fact that he was grieving — and in fact saw, as the president of the United States, a duty to talk to the country about its grief during a time when we now think as many as 800,000 men in a country of 30 million died in combat in a four-year period."
On getting a sense of 19th-century speech for the screenplay
"The syntax in the middle of the 19th century is not all that antiquated. If you read any American authors from that time, it's more ornate, but certainly syntactically, the structures of the sentences are virtually identical to ours. They didn't use incomplete sentences in their writing, but there's some evidence that there was a good deal of that in the speech.
"My main concern was to make it playable — that it had to be language that wouldn't get in the way either of what the actors needed to do with it, or the audience hearing it. That it rang true. And for that, 19th-century novels were an enormous help — also newspaper accounts and even transcripts of some conversations that are available. And I used the Oxford dictionary, and I checked every single word through all 10 million pages that I wrote. If any word struck me as possibly post-1865, the OED is great, because it's a word museum. And it will tell you when every word, as far as we know, first appeared in the English language."
On Mary Todd Lincoln's contribution to the White House image
"She apparently sold Lincoln's annual letter to Congress — which is what the State of the Union Address used to be — to a newspaper to raise money to buy stuff for the White House. And that, of course, was a huge transgression, and the House seriously thought of calling her up and investigating her. Lincoln stopped that.
"The thing that I think people don't understand about Mary, or don't give her credit for, is that when they came to the White House, it was in an absolute shambles — as was the country. Obviously, it was falling apart in 1861. And I think because she came from a political family and had a very keen sense of political theater, she knew that the backdrop for the Lincoln administration had to be splendid and suggest power and coherence, since the U.S. at that moment was anything but coherent. It was disintegrating.
"And she did it. When you look at the engravings from the time, people were clearly just blown away at how beautiful the place was. And she deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing that with almost no budget."
On how Lincoln would have approached Reconstruction had he lived
"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.
"The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered, and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's a good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles, because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally, because he told [Ulysses S.] Grant to behave accordingly."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of TV Worth Watching, sitting in Terry Gross. On today's show, two Academy Award nominees for Best Screenplay. We'll hear later from Wes Anderson, whose script for "Moonrise Kingdom," co-written with Roman Coppola, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. We'll begin with Tony Kushner, who is nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie "Lincoln."
Tony Kushner's play about AIDS in the Reagan era, "Angels in America," was a seven-hour epic that won the Pulitzer Prize and became an HBO miniseries. He's written several other plays, as well as the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film "Munich."
Kushner spent years collaborating with Spielberg on the screenplay for "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as America's 16th president. One of Kushner's primary sources was the book "Team of Rivals" by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The movie is up for 12 Oscars, more than any other film this year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Tony Kushner spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2012.
Here's a scene from the film, in which Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is sitting alone with two telegraph operators, late at night, as he's about to compose a message to General Ulysses S. Grant. The debate about slavery and human equality is on his mind, and as Kushner wrote the scene, Lincoln reflects on Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician he studied to understand the principles of logic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) Euclid's first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematic reasoning. It's true because it works, has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Tony Kushner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, you focus on this film on this period when Lincoln is trying to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed, near the end of his administration, of his life. It's remarkable to me that it's a fascinating story that's really about a legislative battle, and a lot of friends who have seen it have said that. It's just - and I think it's because the dialogue works so well.
You're the guy who wrote the version of Lincoln that we see on the screen, and, you know, I think I read that more words have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American. And I know that you read a lot of them.
TONY KUSHNER: Doris claims that Abraham Lincoln is the third-most-written-about person in human history.
DAVIES: After who, Jesus and...
KUSHNER: And Shakespeare - pretty good company.
DAVIES: Right, and so you had to take all of those images, and a lot of them are dark and melancholy. I mean, the Lincoln that you see at the Lincoln Memorial, that you often see in portraits, seems like a really somber man.
KUSHNER: I mean, the one that we see on screen is, you know, is at times light and playful, tells kind of folksy stories. Can you just talk a little bit about, you know, the Lincoln that you decided to give us? Did you feel you had to, in some respects, reflect people's popular images of him?
No, I mean, I thought that the important thing was to make an interpretation, and I was certainly influenced enormously by Doris' interpretation. I read Sandburg, I read Doris and just in terms of pure biographies of Lincoln, I think about 20, and a whole host of other things, as well.
And I was fascinated by how available to interpretation this man was, especially given that he didn't live all that long and didn't leave a huge amount of autobiographical stuff behind. But what he did and when he was doing what he did made him a perfect candidate for a fairly wide degree of interpretation.
Although there are no interpretations of Lincoln that say that he was a bad person or a person who at one point loved slavery and then changed his mind didn't make any sense to me in that I think are in any way credible. There are certainly various versions of Lincoln that are legitimate readings of him, and everybody has to pick their own.
I mean, it's interesting that you say that the statue in the memorial is somber. It's certainly not grinning. I find in the reading about the memorial that I've done, I've found many, many, many people who feel that there's something very warm and inviting about his sort of pensive posture and face, and not closed off. On the other hand, many people who knew him, including most of his closest friends, talk about how isolated, and lonely and strange he was.
I don't believe he was a depressed person. I think he was a man with an enormous capacity for grief that didn't deprive him of the ability to act. And he felt no need to hide the fact that he was grieving and, in fact, saw as the president of the United States a duty to talk to the country about its grief during a time when we now think as many as 800,000 men in a country of 30 million died in combat in a four-year period. Death, you know, it was everywhere.
DAVIES: You know, as somebody who has covered government and politics for a lot of years, I mean, I find it fascinating because it's both about lofty stuff like policy and principle but also about seedy stuff, you know, backroom deals and patronage and self-interest.
And that's very much here in this film here. It's about this - Lincoln's efforts to get this 13th Amendment passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. And I thought we'd listen to a clip here, and this is a scene from the film where Lincoln needs votes in the House of Representatives, however he can get them, for the 13th Amendment.
And Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, is speaking with three rogues, for lack of a better term, who are going to corner some House members, offer some things and get some votes. They're played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelsen. And we'll hear David Strathairn as Secretary Seward speaking first.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")
DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As William Seward) The president's never to be mentioned, nor I. You are paid for your discretion.
JOHN HAWKES: (As Robert Latham) Well, you can have that for nothing. What we need money for is bribes - to speed things up.
STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) No, nothing strictly illegal.
JAMES SPADER: (As W.N. Bilbo) It's not illegal to bribe congressmen. They starve otherwise.
TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Richard Schell) I have explained to Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Latham that we're offering patronage jobs to the Dems who vote yes, jobs and nothing more.
STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) That's correct.
HAWKES: (As Latham) Congressmen come cheap. A few thousand bucks will buy you all you need.
STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) The president would be unhappy to hear you did that.
HAWKES: (As Latham) Well, will he be unhappy if we lose?
STRATHAIRN: (As Seward) The money I managed to raise for this endeavor is only for your fees, your food and lodging.
NELSON: (As Schell) If that squirrel-infested attic you quartered us in is any measure, you ain't raised much.
DAVIES: How much of a deal-making politician was Abraham Lincoln?
KUSHNER: From the beginning of his career as a politician, he was very, very good at strategizing and, sort of, parsing the difference between means and ends. Really it has to be said he did that with a clarity and foresight that's at least, in terms of anything I've read, unparalleled in the history of small-d democratic leadership. The man was just a kind of miracle worker in terms of finessing almost impossible circumstances and getting a result that he felt that he needed.
It was a combination of cunning, ruthlessness. He was sometimes very hard on his friends and asked them to make terrible sacrifices. And, you know, I think absolutely marrow-deep ethical character, a great reader of human psychology, a great listener and a great observer of people, a great judge of character. And all these things combined to make him arguably, I would argue, the greatest president we've ever had.
DAVIES: And we see in the film he gets votes by offering jobs, and he gets votes by the power of his own persuasion.
DAVIES: Tell us about getting a sense of 19th-century speech. I mean, is there a lot of antiquated language and syntax here? I mean, it sounds pretty contemporary.
KUSHNER: Yeah, the syntax in the middle of the 19th century is not all that antiquated. I mean, if you read any American authors from that time, it's more ornate, but certainly syntactically, the structures of the sentences are virtually identical to ours.
My main concern was to make it playable, that it had to be language that wouldn't get in the way either of what the actors needed to do with it or the audience hearing it, that it rang true. And for that, 19th-century novels were an enormous help, also newspaper accounts and even transcripts of some conversations that are available.
And I used the Oxford English Dictionary, and I checked every single word through all 10 million pages that I wrote. I always - if any word struck me as possibly post-1865, you know, the OED is great because it's a word museum, and it'll tell you when every word, as far as we know, first appeared in the English language. So I relied on it very, very heavily.
DAVIES: Words like shindy(ph) and flibflub(ph) appear here. What's a shindy?
KUSHNER: A shindig, a party.
DAVIES: OK, and flibflub?
KUSHNER: I know that he used the word flubdub.
DAVIES: OK, flubdub.
KUSHNER: Because he sort of famously said it. You know, it may be flibdub or whatever in the film. There was some playing around with it. But since these were nonsense words, we kind of felt that they were fair game. But a flubdub was like an ornament, a decoration, and Lincoln at one point said to someone that Mary was spending too much money on flubdubs for the mansion. She was criticized for that, although I think unfairly.
DAVIES: Right, there were investigations and even threats of prosecution.
KUSHNER: Well, what she was investigated for was actually a genuinely criminal thing. She sold, apparently sold Lincoln's annual letter to Congress, which is what the State of the Union Address used to be, to a newspaper to raise money to buy stuff for the White House. And that of course was a huge transgression, and the House seriously thought of calling her up and investigating her. Lincoln stopped that.
You know, the thing that I think people don't understand about Mary or don't give her credit for is that when they came to the White House, it was an absolute shambles, as was the country. Obviously, it was falling apart in 1861.
And I think because she came from a political family and had a very keen sense of political theater, she knew that the backdrop for the Lincoln administration had to be splendid and suggest power and coherence, since the United States at that moment was anything but coherent. It was disintegrating.
And she did it. She - when you look at the engravings from the time, people were clearly just blown away at how beautiful the place was, and it became an image of federal power, and she deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing that with almost no budget.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is playwright Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis. You know, we do see Lincoln and Mary, his wife, in some pretty intense moments here. How did you decide how to portray that marriage in the film?
KUSHNER: Well, the month that we're dealing with gave us a great opportunity because Robert, their eldest son, who had been kept out of the war primarily because his parents, especially his mother, were terrified that he would be killed, insisted that he go into the Army before the war ended.
He didn't want to be one of the only men his age who wasn't a veteran, and so Lincoln got him a position on Grant's staff but over Mary's violent objections. And that conflict gave us a window into what was unquestionably a very stormy and tumultuous and difficult relationship between two very difficult people. People always think about Mary as being difficult, and she absolutely was, but Lincoln wasn't easy, either.
He was remote and complicated and rather interestingly fond of telling her things that would upset her horribly, like these dreams that he kept having. And he would leave her kind of in a state night after night, telling her that he was having these kind of scary dreams.
It's an enormously complicated relationship, and the family is a tragic family. It's really - it's marked by death. Their adored middle son, Willie, died in 1862. In a way he was a victim of the war because he died drinking water that was probably corrupted by the sewage of the troops stationed along the banks of the Potomac.
They suffered a very personal intimate loss while the country was suffering its losses, and I think that helped connect Lincoln to the grief of the country, if he needed any help. So it was a complicated and interesting aspect of his life, and I feel that it also mattered to him enormously, so we decided to make it a part of the story.
DAVIES: I also wanted to hear a bit of debate from Congress from the movie. And this is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the Pennsylvania radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He's making a point, and he is insulting a congressman from Ohio - I believe that's George Pendleton, right...
DAVIES: ...who is played by Peter McRobbie. And in this clip he's holding back from his belief that all men are truly created equal because he was advised that you have to be moderate in order to get the votes you need to get the 13th Amendment passed. And so the kind of play on words here is that he's sort of indicating that perhaps not all people are created equal. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")
TOMMY LEE JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood?
JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) You are more reptile than man, George. So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.
PETER MCROBBIE: (as George Pendleton) How dare you?
DAVIES: And some lively floor debate from the film "Lincoln," written by our guest Tony Kushner. How much is that's actual floor debate?
KUSHNER: The debates were really impassioned and full of invective and racist diatribe and some really glorious moments of oratory. Stevens' speech right there is a combination of stuff that he actually said, stuff that Ben Wade, 'Bluff' Wade, the senator - a radical senator from Massachusetts - who was in some ways his counterpart in the Senate, said, and stuff that I made up.
But I feel that it's a reasonably accurate representation of Stevens. When he got angry he could be completely terrifying, and people feared. He was an absolutely astonishing human being, a great legislator, a moral visionary and a moral giant and a real radical in every sense of the word in terms of his thinking about race and economics, really an astonishing guy, who I think has been woefully underappreciated.
DAVIES: This is a story of, you know, Lincoln seeing the need for the abolition of slavery as the war is ending as really a transcendent moment in the country's history and him getting this done through, you know, commitment to principle, powers up persuasion, and deals when he had to make them.
And you, know, it's hard not to draw a parallel to me, it seems, between the political moment of 1865 and the current one. I mean we're not at war today - at least not in a civil war - but there is a sense of urgency in our political discourse.
I mean the nation is deeply divided. I think both sides in the debate in some respects see the country as at a turning point with the, you know, the core principles of the republic being threatened. Did you think about that as you told the story?
KUSHNER: Oh absolutely. I mean I consider it a real benefit and even blessing of the assignment of making a movie about Lincoln that I was able to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens, which I have found enormously useful. I think Obama is a great president, and I feel that there is immense potential now for building, rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it.
And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.
I mean when you asked earlier if Lincoln - how long had Lincoln been a dealmaker, and I think, you know, there probably is no politician of any competence whatsoever who isn't good at that because that's, in fact, where politics is. It's not about purity. It's about compromise and strategy and making things actually happen in real time on this Earth, as opposed to a metaphysical realm.
DAVIES: And it strikes me that one of the scenes that we see at the end of this film is Lincoln, as the war is ending, talking about reconciliation, saying let these Southern soldiers return to their homes.
DAVIES: I don't want to be hounding the Confederacy's political and military leaders.
KUSHNER: I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote noble cause and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies and so on.
The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led - helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally because he told Grant to behave accordingly.
DAVIES: Well, Tony Kushner, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KUSHNER: Sure. My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Tony Kushner, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2012. Kushner is up for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Lincoln." We'll hear from another screenwriter up for an Oscar, Wes Anderson, next. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.