Los Angeles – Writers Guild and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Tony Kushner has been chosen to receive the WGAW’s 2013 Paul Selvin Award for his adapted screenplay for Lincoln. Named after the late Selvin, who served as counsel to the Guild, the award is given to the WGA member whose script best embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and liberties, which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere. Kushner will be recognized, along with other honorees, at the Writers Guild Awards ceremony on Sunday, February 17, at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE.
“Tony Kushner’s eloquent script for Lincoln reminds us that, though we like to think of ourselves as the land of the free, in practice, freedom and equality are never a given, and that they are won only through struggle, often by the narrowest of margins and the greatest of sacrifice. The Guild is honored to recognize it with this award,” said WGAW President Christopher Keyser.
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.
EXCLUSIVE: It’s easy to imagine that when Steven Spielberg sets his sights on a movie, Hollywood’s most storied director doesn’t struggle like most others. That most certainly wasn’t the case with Lincoln. It took Spielberg a dozen years to find a handle on the 16th U.S. President’s sprawling political and personal story, three times as long as it took to fight the actual Civil War that defined Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. It took Spielberg half that many years to convince Daniel Day-Lewis, who looks so much like Lincoln that he could pose for the $5 bill if the image needs updating. Here, Spielberg explains to Deadline why it was worth the long years he and screenwriter Tony Kushner spent finding an under-told facet of the president’s life story that elevated Lincoln above a dusty history lesson.
DEADLINE: It seems unusual for the most successful director in Hollywood to wage an extended courtship as you did to get Daniel Day-Lewis to play Lincoln. Daniel once told me that he tries to find reasons not to do every movie offered him, and only says yes to the ones he can’t talk himself out of. This is because he pays such a high personal price to turn in these amazing performances. How did you court him and how did you finally convince him?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Well, it took a long time. Daniel certainly had about six years to think about it. But there were really two things going on. The first time around, I offered him not this Lincoln, not the Tony Kushner-written Lincoln, and not the Lincoln written on Doris’ book Team Of Rivals. It was an original Lincoln script that I developed. And that was when he first turned me down to play the character based on what he freely admitted was an intimidation based on the size of the figure, of Lincoln himself. I don’t think he ever forgot our encounter, though. And I don’t think he ever forgot the challenge that was offered to him.
DEADLINE: What finally turned him around?
SPIELBERG: What really, really did the trick was when he read the Tony Kushner script and I was able to get a take two. My good buddy Leo DiCaprio simply called him up one day and said “you need to reconsider this. Steven really wants you for this and he’s not willing to make the movie without you.” Based on Leo’s phone call to him, Daniel offered to read the Tony Kushner script, which he had never read, and also the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, which he had never read. That’s when the courtship part was over. Once he read the script, then he really had to come to terms with that big decision he would eventually have to make. Can I, with honor, equip this character in a way that I’ll be able to live with this the rest of my life?
DEADLINE: What’s the closest in any of your films where you put as much time into convincing an actor to star in your movie? Has there been another instance like this?
SPIELBERG: Never. Never. I’ve never gone on a campaign before, I pretty much take no for an answer. It’s one of the few times in my entire life where I was not willing to accept that answer.