A house divided

It’s a good thing the coffee was free at the early screening of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” at Malibu Cinemas on Cross Creek at 9:30 a.m. last Saturday for a sellout crowd of the Malibu Film Society and 70 local members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Following the screening of the film about the 16th president’s struggles to end the Civil War and abolish slavery, Lucasfilm President and “Lincoln” producer Kathleen Kennedy and production designer Rick Carter conducted an enlightening question and answer session with the audience about what went on behind the scenes.

Kennedy said one of the challenges for making “Lincoln” was coordinating a “massive” casting job that featured more than 148 speaking parts.

“We tried to keep the set as quiet as possible with no open walkie-talkies, no one talking loudly, and Spielberg not even saying ‘action,’” Kennedy said. She added that “there were no dialogue coaches for the actors, but we had tremendous support from libraries and historians; and tapes they could watch to familiarize themselves with regional accents. We wanted the audience to be able to tell who was from the north and the south.”

Both Kennedy and Carter have a great deal of respect for actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln. Carter met Day-Lewis just four weeks before shooting.

“When he first walked onto the set, he shook my hand,” Carter said. “He was very intense and inquisitive. He inspired all of us. The set was his and it came alive.”

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Kennedy admired Day-Lewis’s ability to find Lincoln’s voice. “He worked almost entirely on his own, and would send tapes to Spielberg.” He also memorized an astounding 45 pages of dialogue in the first two weeks of shooting.

Another challenge was coming up with a workable screenplay. Two early writers were dropped in favor of author Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the Lincoln biography “Team of Rivals,” and screenwriter Tony Kushner.

“We were able to benefit greatly from Doris’s research and having the opportunity to sit down with her,” Kennedy said, “There are so many opinions about what Lincoln would’ve been like and sounded like, and this was always a subject of conversation with all of us

Kushner’s screenplay began as a 500-page tome but “started a process of absolutely fascinating discussion” as the story gradually started to coalesce, Kennedy said.

“We discovered a thriller embedded in the story, and that’s when the movie really began to take shape and become focused. It was not an easy process cutting down that 500 pages. Spielberg edits [scripts] with tremendous respect, but he also had to push Tony into understanding what’s needed for the stage – how he uses the frame and moves the camera.”

Sally Field was cast as Mary Lincoln through sheer persistence on her part, Kennedy said.

“Spielberg has known Sally Field for over 40 year, and she put forth a major effort to get this role, saying ‘I’m Mary Lincoln, I’m Mary Lincoln.’ There could be a feeling in Hollywood that she was too old, but she kept saying, ‘You need to let me read and get in a room with Daniel Day-Lewis.’ He agreed, and when [the reading] was done, Day-Lewis turned to Spielberg and said, ‘There is no one else’ [for this role].”

When an audience member asked how easy was it for a historical film like this to get made in Hollywood, Kennedy said, “If you’re a woman, it’s nearly impossible.” The audience cheered and hollered.  “We had the good fortune of working with someone like Spielberg with his keen interest in history, but it was extremely difficult to get made.  Working with distributors is the deterrent,” she added.

In an interview after the event, Candace Bowen, actor/producer and consultant to the Women in Film organization, said, “In the African-American community, we’re going to be so proud of this film. It was magical – especially on the tail of Obama just getting re-elected.”

She added, “As an African-American growing up, President Lincoln was always our hero. Seeing this film was the closest thing to what he must’ve really been like. It put all the pieces together. The tears came to my eyes during the count of the votes [in Congress for the 13th amendment to abolish slavery] – to see the process of what happened that day. This was the true Lincoln I imagined him to be. So many pieces of our history are still unknown, and this film gave that experience validity.”

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