Steven Spielberg was at the podium to hand the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actor to Daniel Day-Lewis, but in a just world, he'd be taking home part of the trophy himself.
The Oscar-winning director famously chased down the life story of the 16th president for a decade, running through scripts and collaborators like the Union did Civil War generals in a process that would ultimately result in this fall's smash hit, Lincoln. On Monday, Spielberg read to the public for the first time the letter that the two-time Oscar-winning actor sent him to pass on the first version of the project, a sweeping war epic with the president as fearless leader.
It was a real pleasure just so sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describe these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant. That’s how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can’t be sure that this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility. I do hope this makes sense Steven, I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.
Spielberg said he then had an entirely new script written, which he then sent to Day-Lewis -- only to receive a similar reply. That led him to scrap that as well and turn to his Munich collaborator Tony Kushner to pen another new version. Eventually, that was whittled down from 500 pages to find the soul of the president in the small details.
The final product, a narrow and politically focused character study of a committed leader working to pass the 13th Amendment, is a completely different film than what Spielberg had first proposed to Day-Lewis in the early years of the last decade. As it turned out, Kushner's screenplay -- or, the part that was used in the film, anyway -- was honored by the NYFCC as well.