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Doris Kearns Goodwin has loved history all her life. She has
focused her career on the lives and stories of presidents past: Lyndon B.
Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and presently
Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
For four decades, she has lived with dead presidents. She
wakes up with them in the morning, and thinks about them when she goes to bed
at night. She has imagined them in their youth, in the White House, with their
families and friends. She has spent significant time thinking about how their
voices sound, the cadence of their speech, their posture and stride. She has
sought to understand the inner person behind the public figure. For her, this
study brings the presidents to life and allows us to learn from their past
successes and struggles. Through her writing, she hopes readers will feel like
they, too, know these presidents in a new and intimate way.
Goodwin’s bestselling book Team
of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was the inspiration for
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln film.
She visited the set in Richmond, Virginia, and saw up close and personal Lincoln’s world coming to life.
Q: Let’s start with your book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which was
the basis for the movie Lincoln. How
did you expect the movie to tackle the 900-plus pages?
A: I knew that they couldn’t deal with the whole book. The only
way to make the story come alive in a feature film was to make a story within a
story. So Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner decided to focus on Lincoln’s tumultuous
final four months in office, the ending of slavery with the passage of the 13th
amendment, and the Union victory in the Civil War. The only way to
tell the whole story is through a miniseries. Maybe that will be next!
Q: This is the first of your books
to be made into a feature film. How does that feel?
A: Seeing all the actors in their costumes, the
cinematographer, the lighting people, the technicians and dozens of people
working on the set, and knowing that somehow this book helped to inspire
Spielberg’s team to create an entire world is very exciting.
Q: And what thoughts did you have upon arriving
in Richmond and visiting the sets as Lincoln’s world was
coming to life in this old pinball factory?
A: What Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have
been able to do so masterfully is tell a big, historical story in such an
intimate way. It’s an up-close and very personal, detailed look at the life Lincoln led and the
people closest to him during this most important time. For the 10 years I spent
writing Team of Rivals, everyday I
imagined the world Lincoln inhabited.The loving fidelity the filmmakers paid to
recreate his life, his world, is astonishing. I felt magically transported back
in time to the 1860s.
Q: One of the
most important locations in the film is Lincoln’s
office, which was essentially the center of the Lincoln White House. Was it
comforting or unsettling to be in that room that you must have imagined time
and time again.
A: As I
walked in the Lincoln
office, I had a sense that I was really there. I could see him there, sitting
in his chair, picking up his pen. It was so much like what I had imagined while
I was writing my book, that I could almost smell the cigar smoke lingering in
the draperies! It was an extraordinary experience to see the attention to
details: from the genuine Belter piece to theold maps on the wall and the
portrait of President Andrew Jackson.
Q: Lincoln’s desk is a
beautiful and important piece of furniture. Set designer Jim Erickson said he
added all those cubbyholes for authenticity. Please tell us about the particular
meaning the desk holds.
A: I suppose it’s
because Lincoln’s office is at the heart of the movie.He would sometimes
write little fragments of his speeches and tuck them away in the drawers and cubbyholes. People thought he wrote his speeches at the
last minute, but he had thought about themes and sentences for weeks. The desk
drawer is also where he would put his hot letters, the letters he would write
in a moment of anger or frustration. He would not send the letters, but would
wait for his emotions to settle. Especially near to me are the first-edition
books atop the desk; books that he would have read at the time – The Poetical
Works of John Milton and The Bigelow Papers.
Q: The attention to detail, as you mentioned, is
extraordinary. How do those details impact or enhance the storytelling?
A: The research that went into replicating the
furniture, the gas lighting, carpeting, and wallpapers is exceptional. I loved
hearing about how they found a place in England to hand-weave the carpet and in
Richmond to make the wallpaper using silk screening. But yet, even with the beautiful sets and
furniture, costumes and linens, clocks, candelabras, china and crystal, and
books, bringing Lincoln to life is the most important
thing in the whole movie. Obviously, the story matters and the 13th Amendment,
but people adore this man Lincoln and he fascinates them. And if you can better
create him through his surroundings and the people who mattered, then all of
that makes a profound difference.
tell us, what did you ultimately think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as
Daniel Day-Lewis has brought this iconic figure to life in a way that I could
not envision before seeing his performance on the big screen. I was told that
when he arrived to start filming, he completely embodied Lincoln – and didn’t
break character. His performance was remarkable in every way – from the way he
looked to his posture and gait. His storytelling ability, and way his face lit
up with those sparkling eyes, to that voice that could carry throughout the
land were spellbinding.
you see the movie, there is something so particular about his posture and the
way in which he walks. How would you describe it?
Lincoln at 6-feet-4-inches tall had this singular way of walking, which gave
the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He seemed to plod
forward in a slightly awkward manner, his hands hanging at his sides or folded
behind his back. His step had no spring; he lifted his whole foot at once
rather than lifting from the toes and then he would thrust his foot down on the
ground rather than landing on his heel.
us about Lincoln’s voice. There had been some online chatter that people were critical
of the high pitch.
voice was thin and high pitched, but I think you’ll see in this movie that his
voice also had tremendous range. In his day, Lincoln’s voice had much carrying
power, allowing it to be heard from the far reaches of the crowd. He would also
become increasingly impassioned as he spoke, gesturing with his head and body
rather than with his hands. His speaking went to the heart because it came from
the heart. Lincoln’s eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction
in others because of the conviction he possessed.
Q: When he speaks, it seems to me his
face changes dramatically. Do you agree?
A: Yes, when Lincoln would begin to
speak, his expression of sorrow dropped immediately. His face lit up with a
winning smile – a genuine, deep and knowing smile. It was through his words and
his facial expressions that one could know his keen intelligence and genuine
kindness of heart.
me what surprised you most in your own research of Lincoln and how is that
demonstrated in the movie?
vitality of the man, the magnetism of his personality, and the life-affirming
sense of humor were much greater than I had realized. His sense of humor was one of the ways in which he combatted his own melancholy. Those who
knew Lincoln described him as a very funny man. Lincoln himself recognized that
humor was an essential aspect of his temperament. He laughed, he explained, so
he did not weep. He saw laughter as the joyous, universal evergreen of life.
His stories were intended to whistle off sadness.
Q: You have mentioned that Lincoln’s
storytelling was key to his personal and professional success. Can you tell us
how it helped him and brought him closer to the people of histime?
A: He had hundreds of stories that he could
all on at any time. The stories often had a point relevant to the moment, but
sometimes were just hilarious. His humor would today rival that of Stephen
Colbert and Jon Stewart. I think he could have matched them one for one.
There’s a moment when somebody says to him, “Lincoln, you’re
two-faced.” And he looks right back, he said, “If I had two faces, do
you think I’d be wearing this face?” So many people say that he couldn’t
possibly be elected in today’s time. But I disagree. With his strength of
conviction, with his humor, with his intelligence, with his lovability, our
country would really be in trouble if we couldn’t elect him today.
Q: At the core of your book and presumably
this movie, is Abraham Lincoln’s political genius.
A: Both movie and the book focuson the
political genius of this man at a time when we’re so distrustful of
politicians. The movie demonstrates that it takes compromise, attention to
detail, willingness to bargain and masterful timing to get something done, but
the system can work. And that’s an important lesson for today.
Q: What is it about Lincoln that continues to
interest and excite people generations later?
A: People feel a deep emotional attachment
to Lincoln than perhaps any other president. In part, it is his life story, the
trail of losses and failures before he reached the presidency. And
of course, the soaring words that have been studied and memorized by
generations of students.
Q. What do you hope
readers will take away from your book and the movie?
A. I would like people to
realize that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we normally
associate with decency and morality—honesty, sensitivity, compassion and
empathy—can also be great political resources.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is available now, RRP £12.99.