3:25 PM PST, February 13, 2013
This Friday at 4 p.m. at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner will pay a visit to one of his favorite Chicago haunts.
In the spirit of the movie “Lincoln,” which Kushner wrote and which revels in the backroom politicking behind the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, it's a private event, though in this case the public can get a piece of it online. Now in its fifth location and its 75th year (it opened the same year Robert Sherwood's “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” premiered on Broadway), the shop run by Daniel Weinberg is hosting Kushner for the latest in a series of online author chats and book signings, available for live viewing and e-questions at virtualbooksigning.net.
Kushner's “Lincoln” script was recently published by Theatre Communications Group. It's a good bet for this year's Academy Award in the adapted screenplay category; Kushner's work was inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals.” The writer of “Angels in America,” “Homebody/Kabul” and other works, including the final version of director Steven Spielberg's “Munich,” spoke by phone from his New York apartment Wednesday. He discussed the many drafts and many years it took to bring Spielberg's “Lincoln” to fruition, with the considerable help of the actor who signed on to play the title role. Kushner is quick to acknowledge Daniel Day-Lewis's valuable dramaturgical advice in addition to his performance insight, beginning with questions such as: “Why is this scene even in here?”
On the actor playing Lincoln: “Daniel turned it down twice, and in 2009 I got an email from producer Kathleen Kennedy saying, effectively, that we'd lost our Lincoln. And we were having trouble getting financing. Everybody said it was a very talky movie and ‘nobody's gonna see it.' But then Daniel called Steven, and Steven and I went over to Ireland and met with him, and five or six months later he said yes.”
Day-Lewis had some suggestions for Kushner's rewrite, and the new draft, Kushner says, was in part dictated by input from “an immensely intelligent actor. He says he doesn't write but he really should. He has an astonishing gift with words. Anyway, Steven and I had been hanging onto big scenes that we really loved, scenes left over from the end of the first screenplay. Very long scenes. And we couldn't quite let go of them and we'd stopped looking at them. And Daniel said: ‘I don't get it. This doesn't make sense. Why is this scene in the film at all?' And hearing it from his perspective, this fresh perspective, suddenly it was like: Sure! I'll let go of it! That gives me 20 pages to do something else!
“If I don't know what I want to have happen in a given moment, I tend to write elegant-looking place holders that don't mean a whole lot. Daniel was very good about pointing those out. … He needed a year after saying yes to the project, partly to move his family to the U.S., but also to take time for research and to think about it.”
On historical fiction versus documentary fact: “The general consensus among historians, among the ones who can handle the fact that ‘Lincoln' is, in fact, historical fiction, is that we demonstrate enormous fidelity to history and that, beyond that, we've actually contributed a line of thinking about Lincoln's presidency that's somewhat original. I hope we've done something to help people understand this particular moment, when Lincoln was dealing with the South at the point when the South wanted to offer a negotiated peace, with slavery still on the table.
“There is, however, a kind of ‘gotcha' mentality with some people, that if they find one historical fact amiss, the whole movie suddenly becomes a pack of lies. No work of historical fiction should be held up to that standard. It says something disturbing about our expectations regarding historical fiction. It's not meant to take the place of history. That's not what it's meant to do. That said, in D.W. Griffith's movie ‘Abraham Lincoln' I believe there's a scene when Lincoln stands up in the box at Ford's Theatre and recites the Gettysburg Address before he's shot. Now, that's taking too many liberties.
“I go into any movie that's historical fiction thinking, ‘OK, I'm here to watch a work of art, something delivering a series of opinions, and if it's a good work of art, these opinions become so deeply embedded in complexity and richness that I won't even be bothered by the opinions. I'll make my own mind up.' You don't go to the movies to do historical research, unless it's historical research about the movies.”
On the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop: “I love it. I discovered it when I was doing a residency at the Court Theatre. Years ago, I learned that Daniel, the owner, was doing an event with the author of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,' and at that moment I said to myself: ‘If our Lincoln movie ever gets made, if the screenplay ever gets published, maybe I'll do a book signing here myself. And so here we are.”
And C-SPAN will be there, too, for Kushner's virtual script signing.
For more information on the virtual signing event, which takes place 4-5 p.m. Friday, go to virtualbooksigning.net.
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