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Kathleen Kennedy: the power of the President

It may be directed by Steven Spielberg and star Daniel Day-Lewis, but Lincoln’s journey to the screen was not easy. Jeremy Kay speaks to producer Kathleen Kennedy.

Lest anyone believe world-renowned directors are inured to the tortuous business of making movies, there is a cautionary tale from Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg’s fellow producer on Lincoln.

“We ended up with Disney, DreamWorks, Participant and Fox to get this movie made,” Kennedy explains. “People think anything Steven decides to do is easy but this is the perfect example of how he isn’t that much different from anybody else.”

On paper the nature of the project - a very verbal, albeit witty and gripping, account of the bipartisan effort to abolish slavery that is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed book Team of Rivals - did not suggest one of Spielberg’s commercial smashes.

Potential studio allies were afraid to commit and Kennedy admits the search for the right partners was stressful. But several notable players stepped up. With less than a year to go before the start of what had been a long-gestating production process in and of itself, the film-makers saw their first breakthrough.

In late 2010 DreamWorks co-chairman Stacey Snider approached Participant Media. The companies had enjoyed their collaboration on The Help and Spielberg’s new movie, an educational story that wore its inspiring heart on its sleeve, was right up Participant’s street.

“Participant stepped in immediately and they were an early partner,” says Kennedy. “It was the next partner who was difficult to find because a lot of people passed.”

In January 2012, shortly after production had wrapped in Richmond, Virginia, Fox came on as co-financier.

Under the terms of the deal, Fox International would distribute outside North America while Disney would release the film domestically per its ongoing agreement with DreamWorks.

On Dec 13, 2012, the day Kennedy spoke to Screen about the 13-year history of the project, Lincoln crossed $100m at the North American box office. Its tally stood at $161.8m by Jan 21. After nominations and acclaim from critics and audiences alike, the box-office performance was the latest note of validation, and the perfect tee-up for the international launch: the film’s roll-out began in Spain and Mexico on Jan 18.

Passion play

Kennedy says she and Spielberg, with whom she teamed on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and The Adventures of Tintin to name a few, worked on Lincoln “off and on” since 1999.

Long-gestating passion projects are commonplace - especially so this awards season - and Spielberg had to muster all his tenacity, intellectual rigour and lofty social connections to ensure that despite his typically busy schedule he never lost sight of the 16th president of the United States. “Steven had always been interested in Lincoln and had always wanted to make the film,” Kennedy says.

The breakthrough came in 1999. “He was in DC producing the Millennium celebration and Doris Kearns Goodwin was there and they fell into conversation.” Goodwin, a celebrated historian, told the film-maker she was preparing a book about the men who served in Lincoln’s Cabinet from 1861-65. Spielberg told her he wanted to option the movie rights and DreamWorks did so in 2001.

The book came out in 2005 and in the intervening period Spielberg and Kennedy kept in close contact with Goodwin during her research. It would be another three years before Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels In America who had written the Munich script for Spielberg, came on board as screenwriter.

“We went through two different screenplays that were unique in themselves,” says Kennedy. “We were looking for the story to tell and at the same time Doris was writing the book.

“It was a book we could not necessarily adapt in its entirety and do justice to what she had done. So the challenge was finding the slice of Lincoln’s life and the [relevant] moments in her book and that’s what Tony Kushner did.

“He spent a lot of time with Doris and wrote a long script. Steven pored over it and they began to focus in on the part about the passage of the 13th Amendment [the law that abolished slavery, enacted in 1865] and felt it would allow us to focus on who Lincoln was.”

Goodwin’s book brimmed with academic discovery. Spielberg knew the combination of her scholarship and Kushner’s intellect and storytelling expertise could bring to life a critical juncture in US history.

“[The passage of the 13th Amendment] isn’t what a lot of Americans are used to learning about in school,” says Kennedy. “It was an event that a lot of people were familiar with but the details of the process [were new].

“Steven and Tony realised this was a great opportunity to focus on Lincoln and the political process that so clearly defined America and the ideas behind democracy. If you can accomplish that it gets you back to some of the ideas that made this country great and maybe some of the ideals that have been lost.

“It is going to be interesting to see to what extent the movie travels. It was wonderful to see the recognition from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association [which in December nominated the movie in seven categories].”

Lincoln lost out to Argo in the best motion picture - drama and best director categories at the Golden Globes, but Daniel Day-Lewis picked up the prize for best dramatic actor. Lincoln also has 12 Oscar nominations and 10 Bafta nominations.

“Tony recognised the Lincoln that Doris found was very similar to the Lincoln he ended up writing in the screenplay.” One of the on-screen president’s most striking features is his sense of humour. “It gives him a dimension that makes him accessible and human,” says Kennedy.

From the start the film-makers were clear about who they wanted for the lead role. “We pursued Daniel but initially he had turned us down. Then we had conversations with Liam [Neeson]. We never really explored anybody else.”

When Spielberg and Kushner finished the script, they returned to Day-Lewis who committed to the project in September 2010 and threw himself into a year’s study prior to the shoot.

In the ensuing months key cast members Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field came aboard. Jones was Spielberg’s first choice for the role of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Field so impressed in her audition with Day-Lewis for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln that they called her with the good news straight away.

“Even while we were shooting War Horse we were casting because there are over 148 speaking parts [in Lincoln],” says Kennedy. “We paid close attention to what historical figures looked like and tried to see if we could combine an actor’s ability with a physical approximation.”

A four-year dialogue with the Virginia Film Office had fostered what Kennedy refers to as a warm and trusting relationship with its director, Andy Edmunds, whose patience during the stop-start build-up to production paid off.

“Richmond’s government buildings are very, very similar to the White House,” says Kennedy. “Once we knew a lot of the shoot would take place inside Congress we began to explore whether we could shoot the interiors.

“The film office was so anxious to have us there that they allowed us to shoot while they were out of session. The fact we could make the movie in the US was very important.”

The shoot ran from September to December 2011.

Now that she and Spielberg have let go of Lincoln, Kennedy can take pride in their accomplishment. But not for too long. She has a new role. Last summer George Lucas named her co-president of LucasFilm as part of his succession plan.

On Oct 30, Kennedy was appointed sole president when the Walt Disney Company announced it was buying LucasFilm for a little more than $4bn. The transaction closed in mid-December and Kennedy is now lining up a seventh Star Wars episode in time for a 2015 release. All this means the producer, who has earned eight best picture Oscar nominations but has not yet won, will not saddle up with Spielberg in the immediate future, although other opportunities lie on the horizon.

“It takes me out of the mix for a little bit, but not for very long because in addition to Star Wars there’s Indiana Jones and Steven is very much a part of that. So who knows.”

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