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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.
Q: So tell us, what did you ultimately think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln?
A: 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.
Q: When you see the movie, there is something so particular about his posture and the way in which he walks. How would you describe it?
A: 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.
Q: Tell us about Lincoln’s voice. There had been some online chatter that people were critical of the high pitch.
A:Lincoln’s 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.
Q: Tell me what surprised you most in your own research of Lincoln and how is that demonstrated in the movie?
A: The 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.