OSCARS Q&A: Tony Kushner
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Whittling down the 56-year life of a landmark U.S. president to a feature-length screenplay is a daunting task, and playwright Tony Kushner initially turned down the offer to adapt Abraham Lincoln’s story for the big screen for Steven Spielberg, even after their Oscar-lauded collaboration on 2005’s Munich. But if there’s one writer who can effectively generate emotional drama against a political venue, it’s Kushner, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning seven-hour-long Angels in America play dramatized the AIDS crisis amidst the complex attitudes of the Reagan era. While length worked in Kushner’s favor during Angels, on Lincoln it was the rock that he pushed up a hill. But after conferring with Spielberg, Kushner soon found the cornerstone that would condense his first 500-page draft down to a 150-minute film: Lincoln’s political fight to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution pushed through Congress while the Civil War lingered.
AwardsLine: What was the biggest challenge you had in terms of focusing on a part of Lincoln’s life and keeping this feature length?
Tony Kushner: It very easily could have been a miniseries. There were a lot of challenges in that regard. It was just an astonishing amount of really incredibly dramatic historical material. By the time I finished doing my research, I could pretty much make a miniseries out of any weekend Lincoln was in the White House. And I know that is not in any way an exaggeration. More than any other moment in American history, (the Civil War) is a gathering of all our country’s central themes. My goal from the beginning was to not make a bare-bones outline of life in his administration. I wanted it to be a drama dictated by the working out of contradictions and conflict rather than a faithful recounting of all the high points in Lincoln’s life. It was very important that we not try to cover too much terrain, rather dramatize it in a small moment. The expanse of time itself defuses a certain amount of dramatic tension.
OSCARS Q&A: Tony Kushner
AwardsLine: Why didn’t you say yes to Lincoln right away? Was Munich a tough one to crack as well?
Kushner: Not at all. I really loved working with Steven on Munich, and it was hard in certain ways, but I just thought, “How do you write a character named Abraham Lincoln with anything other than an immortalization that you know? And who’s going to play him? And is Daniel Day-Lewis available?” I was told that he wasn’t interested in playing Abraham Lincoln at that point, and it just seemed like it was fraught with sandtraps and pitfalls and improbabilities. I feel even more strongly now than I did six years ago that Lincoln is one of the personalities like Mozart or Shakespeare — real genius is a word that I don’t use loosely or lightly — somebody who is capable of things that are actually beyond great. If you set your goal as explaining what they did and how they did it, the minute you’ve succeeded in doing that you’ve failed because you couldn’t possibly have gotten it right. You can’t explain how Mozart wrote Don Giovanni or how Keats wrote “To a Nightingale” or how Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity. If we could figure it out, we could do it. Lincoln is, without any question, the greatest political leader this country has ever had but also one of its greatest writers. And, according to pretty much all accounts, a rather astonishing human being.