Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the film Lincoln, which focuses on the 16th president's tumultuous final months in office. Kushner read more than 20 books before writing about Lincoln, a man who had "an enormous capacity for grief that didn't deprive him of the ability to act."
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Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy

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Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy

Kushner's 'Lincoln' Is Strange, But Also Savvy

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Tony Kushner, has a way of doing things big. His 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, and the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film "Munich."

Kushner spent years collaborating with Spielberg on his latest work, the screenplay for "Lincoln," the new film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as America's 16th president. The film focuses on a relatively narrow period in Lincoln's presidency, his effort late in the Civil War to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery adopted by a reluctant House of Representatives.

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.


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.

DAVIES: Well, 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.

But I want to talk about finding the right Lincoln. I mean, this obviously was critical, finding the actor to play Lincoln. Did you have any role in recruiting Daniel Day-Lewis for this role?

TONY KUSHNER: I didn't have an active role. I mean, I said to Steven when he first asked me to do the film, that it seemed to me that Daniel was the perfect person, and Steven had already, in fact, asked Daniel to sort of consider doing it, and Daniel had turned him down, I think, on the basis of just feeling that it was impossible to play Abraham Lincoln.

And then Daniel turned us down after I had finished a draft, even though he had written to Steven and said that he really liked the script, he just felt that it was an impossible assignment to play this man. And then something happened in the intervening two or three months, and he called Steven back and said I'd like to meet with you and Tony and talk about this.

And so Steven and I went to Ireland. And so I was involved in not so much recruiting Daniel but in talking about the script and talking about Lincoln and I think helping him find his way towards feeling that he could say yes. But it's really hard to imagine anybody else playing the part now, and I am certain that no one could play it as spectacularly as he has. He's astonishing.

DAVIES: Do you know what overcame his reluctance to take on this challenge?

KUSHNER: Well, I've heard him say that, you know, he felt intrigued by the script, felt, you know, excited at the prospect of working with Steven. I think he - he and I worked together on the script after he said yes, for about a year, before we started filming. And I know that he read "Team of Rivals" on his own. He went out and got Doris's book, which he hadn't read, and read it.

And, you know, because it's a fully detailed political biography, and I think it helped him come to an understanding. And Doris' Lincoln is a very accessible guy, I think, appropriately so. And I think that made him feel that he was playing a character, as opposed to, you know, Superman or some sort of demiurge.

And so I think all of those things helped him. You know, I think - I wanted to write to him and say, you know, Daniel, just apart the fact that you're, like, one of the greatest actors ever, look in the mirror, you know. God is trying to tell you something. You look like Abraham Lincoln. When we were in a pub in Ireland talking to him, Steven took a photograph of Daniel on his phone while Daniel was standing talking to me, silhouetted in a window, so it's just the silhouette.

And you'd think it was a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln.

DAVIES: Wow, that's a visual storyteller seeing something there...

KUSHNER: Yeah, and I think it actually, it's exciting in the film that you're looking at somebody playing Lincoln without having to put on a lot of rubber on his face, which cuts off a great deal of what an actor's able to do. It really is Daniel with some slight augmentation, the ears and so on. But it's recognizably Daniel Day-Lewis. But it also looks at times just terrifyingly exactly like Lincoln.

DAVIES: Did you talk to him on the set about the role at all? Did you communicate while he was - while the film was being shot?

KUSHNER: About a month before filming began, he said very sweetly I hope you're not going to be upset that we're not going to talk once we start filming. I really have to talk only to Steven at that point. And I had sort of expected something like that might be coming. So I said, well, of course.

I was a little bit heartbroken because I really loved talking to him, and I thought oh God, I'm going to be looking at him every day for two months but not able to say anything, and that's...

DAVIES: So you were on the set, just not talking to him?

KUSHNER: I was there the whole time, but the very first day that we started filming, he walked past me on his way to shoot a scene and sort of threw a little note into my lap, written in what looked to me like Abraham Lincoln's handwriting, just sort of saying that he was excited that we were beginning.

And then a couple of days later, we started texting, and we texted the entire time. But I never talked to him about his performance other than to say, because this is what I felt, that it was taking my breath away, leaving me speechless and deliriously happy every day of filming.

I thought that the real discussions needed to be between him and Steven.

DAVIES: And he remained in character, I'm told, even in those discussions, all the time.

KUSHNER: That - I'm told the same thing, but I didn't sit in on those discussions. I didn't call him Mr. Lincoln or Mr. President, and he in the texts, and he didn't call me Tony. I started signing some of my texts your metaphysical conundrum because, you know, given that he was Abraham Lincoln, I don't know what this screenwriter was supposed to be in that cosmology. So I thought I was some kind of like weird, inexplicable metaphysical blip that - and he seemed to like that. So he left it at that.

DAVIES: Well, I mean, 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.

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. 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?

KUSHNER: 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.

And 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 - 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.

And, you know, 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, you know, on one level I guess is a blessing, it's certainly a blessing for the rest of us, when something is made of that.

But it must also 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 who talked about how he had to laugh. He was - he loved Shakespeare, and he loved Robert Burns, who were both writers that combined, you know, 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 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: I read that when you wrote the screenplay, you gathered just the right fountain pens and notebooks. Is this true? What's the role of that?

KUSHNER: I write everything with fountain pens. I don't know why. I've done it since I was bar mitzvahed. I was given a fountain pen, a Parker fountain pen, and I loved it, and I've never liked writing anything with pencils or ball-points. I just can't stand it. I love - fountain pens have a very expressive line. When you're upset, and you're writing really, really hard, it gets thicker and darker, and when you're tentative, it's thinner and more spidery, and, you know...

DAVIES: So it wasn't putting you in the 19th century, you didn't don a wig or anything?

KUSHNER: No, no, I keep notebooks, and I write in - I find it, you know, I'm 56 years old, and I find it easier to write when I'm first pulling things together, with a pen and paper. The computer, the noise of the computer feels like impatience. It's sort of the sound of impatience to me. And I like having a paper trail of what I've crossed out because sometimes I go back and realize that I shouldn't have done that. It's just a more natural way for me to write.

I'm sure I'm, you know, of the last generation that will ever say anything like that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln," the new Steven Spielberg film. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is playwright Tony Kushner. He wrote the screenplay for the new Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis. 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.


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.

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 dither.

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: And that is James Spader, along with David Strathairn, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelsen from the film "Lincoln," which is written by our guest Tony Kushner.

How much of a deal-making politician was Abraham Lincoln?

KUSHNER: From the beginning of his career as a politician, he was very, 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 of their own ambitions. And, you know, I think absolutely marrow-deep ethical character, and, you know, sort of all these things combined, 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: Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the new Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln." Kushner will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Tony Kushner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play "Angels in America," and who wrote the screenplay for the new film "Lincoln," which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and was directed by Steven Spielberg. The film focuses mostly on Lincoln's effort to get a reluctant Congress to approve the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. But it also portrays the private Lincoln and his relationship with his family.

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 corrupted 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.


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 write 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...

KUSHNER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...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.

DAVIES: Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln," the new film directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Coming up, we'll listen to some of Terry's conversation about Lincoln with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

This is FRESH AIR.


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