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Interview: 'Lincoln' screenwriter Tony Kushner

'The Constitution of the United States of America is rather extraordinary ... and still available to us.'

By James Rocchi Nov 15, 2012 1:04PM

Tony Kushner talks in paragraphs. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for "Angels in America"), speaking about his screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," fearlessly leaps from government structure to the workings of drama, from the questions of today's politics to the questions of the Civil War and its aftermath. His rapid-but-never-rushed speaking style gives no small amount of insight to of all the thought, and work, that clearly went into making "Lincoln," specifically adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals." This is Kushner's second collaboration with Spielberg -- he co-wrote "Munich" alongside Eric Roth -- and we spoke with him in Los Angeles about bringing the past to life, avoiding over-explanation and the challenges of fitting reality on to the big screen.

MSN Movies: The first question I'm wondering about after having seen the film is how you have this historical epic confronting huge issues of constitutional law, post-enlightenment ethics, the whole de Tocqueville-ian idea of America as a social experiment ... so how do you keep the movie from feeling like homework?

Tony Kushner: (Laughs) Well, I'm going to leave it up to audiences and critics to say whether we succeeded in doing that. It was certainly a concern. Part of the challenge of doing a film about a very specifically political film -- I mean it's about things other than politics, but the heart of the film in a certain sense is a moment in American political history, and we're dealing with a time that's very far removed from our own. When the two political parties ... are essentially occupying opposite sides of their present places on the political spectrum and dealing with processes of democracy that you can't be completely confident people know about.


I mean, does everybody know that it takes two-thirds of each chamber of Congress to pass an amendment that has to be ratified by three-fourths of the States ...? I mean I don't know, and Steven (Spielberg) didn't know. We didn't do polls to try and find out how much Americans understand their own history or in fact the mechanics of our government. And if you want to, if anybody learns things from it, that's great, but our job is absolutely not to educate. Our job is to entertain, and I feel that we were both concerned about this the whole time.


I think that I can't speak for Steven, but one of the reasons that I enjoy working with him is that I think that he feels that being challenged intellectually and having your political assumptions challenged, maybe even learning a thing or two, is pleasurable, and providing pleasure is one definition of entertainment. To say that you're an entertainer doesn't mean that you're providing escapism, whatever the hell that means. I don’t know what that means, 'cause if you actually escape from the reality you're familiar with to a reality that was utterly unknown to you, it wouldn't be pleasurable all. It'd be disoriented and very unhappy.


BING: The 13th Amendment l Tony Kushner

I think that Steven is one of the great masters of fictional narrative of all time in terms of understanding the ways in which the pleasure is to be derived from fiction, and in his case, (how) cinematic fiction can both entertain and stir you up and make you think and ask questions, and that's something that I like to believe that I've done in my work apart from my now two collaborations with Steven. 

So you try and adhere to some of the tools of your trade as an entertainer -- suspense; it's not an essay. The reason that we see plays or movies in part, at least of the traditional narrative realist things as opposed to experimental work, is to see conflict and historical moments of real historical tension embodied in the physical bodies and lives and temperaments of human beings and sort of try and incarnate them in personalities on stage, and the conflict of those personalities is enjoyable in a way.


So as long as we had characters that were of interest to people and they seemed to really be the people that they were supposed to be, that they were talking to one another in a way that those people might have spoken to one another, one of the challenges was delivering a considerable amount of exposition with a film that of necessity was going to involve almost entirely people who would know in great depth all the information that we had to convey, and that worst thing in exposition is when some character sits and explains to another character usually by saying, "Remember when…" or "As you know…" and I think we really very successfully avoided that. I hope we did. And we also focused on one very, very concentrated moment of time which sort of brought Aristotle to support us as he says in 'The Poetics' that the unities of time and place increase drama. There's something I know as a playwright. The claustrophobia of the event being trapped…


And a ticking clock.


Yeah, and a ticking clock in a closed room, which in a certain sense Washington in the Civil War was the living definition of for a city. I mean, you were really in that kind of hothouse environment and you couldn't get out of it. If you wanted to be a player on the international stage in terms of politics, that's where you had to be. And so we plunged our audience into it in there with the characters. I love it that in the film you almost never soar above. There's no overhead shot of all of Civil War Washington. You're always just down in the dirt and the bricks ...


Walking swiftly through doorways.


And walking through doorways. But I think the real sense of reality from that perspective we made the decision that we were going to be absolutely faithful to the fact that this is a government of White men and that that's what we were describing was. There were many, many movies you could make, but we were describing a moment of Federal, Legislative, and Executive history and that we were going to stay true to the world that these people lived in. Most of these people who voted on the (13th) Amendment had almost no direct -- especially after the succession crisis the Southerners were all gone -- these were people who had no direct experience with slavery, including Lincoln. And that we wanted to stay in that world because we felt that whatever there was a value to be gleaned from that story would come if you really presented it to the audience on its own terms and didn't do a kind of like backwards looking, God's-eye view of the whole thing.


On a lighter note, is it weird for the first time in your life to be rooting for the Republican Party?


(laughs) The first few times that I was writing it, it was like very strange. Yeah, and we were nervous about it. I mean it's definitely during an election cycle. It's like we hope that people get .... at one point Steven asked me to do this, and I sort of traced for him on paper, the way in which the crossover happens from late 1840s to 2012. There's virtually a switch not only in the Republicans being on the left in the Civil War and the Democrats on the right, but actually the more disturbing and worrying similarity which is that, I've been saying this a lot now, but that the advantage of a two-party system over a parliamentary system where you have 18 different little parties and you build a government over and over again by bringing in all these little parties and making coalitions. If there's a two-party system, you have stability, and it may be one reason why at various points when like, let's say in the middle of the 20th century when European countries, including some seriously solidly Democratic countries like England, strayed much closer to fascism than the United States did.


The stability of the two-party system may account for some of the kind of regularity, but the way that that works is that the parliamentary part of democracy, the representation of the full spectrum of the citizenry, happens because each party is a big tent for the left, the right, and the center. And in the Civil War, in the years before the Civil War during the beginnings of the succession crisis, the Democrats virtually abolished the left and the center from their party and became entirely a party of the extreme right. This is, I don’t need to say, enormously reminiscent of the current situation.


P.J. O'Rourke had this great line about the Republican Party in the '80s where if that was a big tent, with Left wing and a Right wing, then that bird must be the size of a Wal-Mart ... William Goldman, talking about adapting "A Bridge Too Far," noted that there were great, amazing, true stories in the real account of events that nonetheless did not fit the question of "How do I get this narrative on screen?", and he had to cut them out. When you're going through Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" as a template, when you're going through history of the template, what did you wind up throwing out -- not because it wasn't true, but because it wasn't plausible or because it didn't maintain the directional energy of the film?


Nothing because it wasn't plausible. I mean, you know, we threw out everything except this one month.




I really didn't think that the film could work, and I think the problem with a lot of films, bio-pics especially, are when the structure and rhythm of a narrative is dictated by biography, which has a strong historical narrative perhaps, but is really dictated by the sequence of a person's life, which is not a dramatic sequence. It's not designed, and it doesn't cohere around a single conflict or a couple of conflicts. Hopefully you're speaking to one another. And that to make a narrative that was dramatic with scenes that were really not illustrations of this is how he did this and this is how he did that, but rather what I understand as a playwright, and I think this is true of cinema as well, that what a scene should be is person A comes in wanting this, person B comes in wanting that and they fight and one of them wins.


That makes for tension. That makes for excitement, and you want the scenes to be that rather than now we're going to see a scene that shows you how Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. I felt that that's illustration, rather than dramatic, and tends to be sort of flat. So that was a big decision to try and find ... the more I read about Lincoln, the more I saw there were certain themes that kept repeating themselves in his four years in the White House. And they seemed like the major themes to me of the Lincoln years and spoke about some of the major ways in which Lincoln was a great President and a great statesman and a great human being. And I thought okay, since these are repeating in their variations of them but the conflicts are kind of coming up over and over again, can I find one, ideally one that not everybody knows about, that can stand in microcosm for the whole of his administration. And I feel like I found that.


I mean, I think that it's odd that so few people even know that there was a 13th amendment or what it was and that in the popular understanding of the Civil

War the Emancipation Proclamation is what ended slavery or didn't end slavery. There's a lot of stuff that's been written about that's nonsense, but the fact that it was a limited exercise of Lincoln's war powers with no proven standing in court, that it was a temporary measure, but the real thing that ended slavery was this Amendment. And that Lincoln himself considered it one of the two greatest things he achieved as President and that most people felt at the time that it was the greatest thing, and it might even be the greatest that Congress ever did in the post-revolutionary period at least. It's a thing that deserves to be understood…




… acknowledged and understood. So it was exciting, and when I realized that there was also this peace offer from the South and that it was a chance to explore both Lincoln's visionary side but also the real politics side, the gritty side, the side that knew you can't, that politics is not an expression of personal purity and that it had to be (to remain) an effective executive or any kind of functionary government. There are gray areas that you stray into, and I think it's to his infinite credit that I've never read any convincing ... well, people say he suspended habeas corpus and all that, but if you read anything about that it's very clear that he did those things with great reluctance and with great scrupulosity and did them at times when they were absolutely without any question essential, I think, and managed to maintain what seems to me an administration profoundly respectful of the law while recognizing that the law has a certain give and take that if you're not a master of handling that you're going to probably fail to achieve anything. So I like that aspect of it. That was something that we really needed to look at because I think people's discomfort with the compromises of politics has become in our time a kind of a glib dismissal of politics itself that politicians are sleazebags and all politics is sleazy and they're liars and hypocrites. And it's really just a rejection of the notion of the political, which is not sleazy or hypocritical.


Emerson says "Politics is the motion of the soul illustrated in power." It's an incredibly exciting dynamic that has to do with gathering together people with very radically different desires and visions, and trying to find a way in which we can all sort of live together and not paralyze one another so that we can constantly improve the way that we live together, and I think it's enormously exciting so that's what we were sort of after.


"Munich" was a lot about the question of how civilized societies, specifically civilized democratic societies, deal with uncivilized, undemocratic opposition. A lot of this film is about the extraordinary power of the President during wartime, the necessity of compromise, and how people who like laws or sausages shouldn't watch either of them being made, especially in a time with Congress determines which human beings are human or not. Is being able to roughly map modern issues fun? Is it something you enjoy or is it that kind of the point? There's no reason to tell the story of Lincoln to put it up as some kind of lightly dusty white elephant of hagiography unless it can speak to our time.


Yeah, well you know, I told Steven this almost at the very beginning. I think the worst thing you could do in a film about Lincoln is simply to make people feel terrible that Lincoln isn't here right now.




To sort of create him as kind of a messianic figure who came and saved democracy and then was murdered and we don't have a Lincoln ... I mean I think that we have a very great President right now, but there's one Abraham Lincoln and there may never be another one again or there may not be one for hundreds of years. Who knows? I mean there are a handful of people who operate on that level. I mean Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo, Einstein…


There's a list of people whose ideas changed the world.


Yes, and who function cognitively, and sometimes not just cognitively, in action, on a level that is really hard to fathom. I mean how I was just in Italy and looking at David or the Sistine Chapel, and you look at that and you think there is something going on here. There is something going on in Michelangelo that's just not ... I mean there are many great, great artists, but you look at Rafael, and Rafael's pretty great, too. Many people (were) working at the same time as Michelangelo, and you look at that and you think okay, this almost doesn't feel human. You listen to Don Giovanni or the St. Matthew's Passion and you think well, Bach and Mozart, or all of Shakespeare. You think I don't have any idea how a human being could do this. It seems almost God-like. 

And I think Lincoln in his field, and sort of unfairly not just in his field of political leadership, but also as a writer in at least two or three moments in his writing life, moves into that kind of imperium. And I think it's important to be able to say, "God, those people were astounding." But especially when you're dealing with the question of democracy and leadership and government, and what I'm really proud of this film was that it's partly about this mysterious and kind of radiant genius who was also a human being. And it's also about the House of Representatives, which is the most despised part of federal government.


I think what we really wanted to do was make something about Lincoln but also about the processes of government and democracy, because that I think is something, even if we don't have a Lincoln, we're as citizens able to participate in and to affect. And I think we always have the possibility and we have many times since the period that we're talking about, the federal government has done, state governments, local governments, people acting in concert have produced extraordinary transformation of society, of human life, of awareness. And I think that Steven and I and Daniel and everybody who worked on the film share a kind of faith in that. That this is still  ... that the Constitution of the United States of America is a rather extraordinary machinery, and it's still available to us to use. And I hope that's what people are…


Roll your sleeves up and get dirty working on it.


Yeah, exactly.


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