Author Doris Kearns Goodwin wasn't even done with "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" when Steven Spielberg asked if he could turn it into a movie.
Spielberg likely saw then what readers of Goodwin's book would see when it was released in 2005: that Lincoln's political acumen — from his campaign strategy to the way he worked with rival-turned-secretary of state William H. Seward — makes for an extraordinary story.
The esteemed director's "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, will come to select theaters Nov. 9, then premiere nationwide Nov. 16.
Goodwin will speak the night before the national release in front of a sold-out Auburn High School auditorium as part of Seward House Museum's Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speaker Series. I recently talked with her over the phone about the process of turning "Team of Rivals" into "Lincoln," her thoughts on the cast, and how her book depicts Auburn.
Q. How close were you to the production of "Lincoln"?
A. I was pretty close at every stage along the way. Steven Spielberg got the rights in — it might have been 2001, before the book was even finished. I met him at a historian's meeting when he was doing a documentary on the 20th century. He found out I was doing the book and asked if he could have the first look at it, and we shook hands there. He decided he didn't want to wait, and started reading chapters as I finished them. I got done with the book in 2005, and Tony Kushner started on the script in 2006. I've seen probably 10 versions of the script. Tony became a great friend. Then I spent a couple days at the set and saw the movie in a private screening at Steven's house. It's a wonderful movie.
Q. Do you know if that was a final cut?
A. It was in August. I think there were still some edits, but it was probably 90-percent finished.
Q. So, having seen the movie, would you say there are any big differences between "Lincoln" and "Team of Rivals"?
A. Tony had originally written 500-600 pages and the script had more of the time span of the book, but they finally decided — rightly — that they had to create a story within the story. They needed a story that could reveal Lincoln's character, temperament, leadership, humor — things the book dealt with. Seward's a character, but (former Secretary of the Treasury Salmon) Chase is not, (former Attorney General Edward) Bates is not, because they're gone by then. Someday ("Team of Rivals") could be a miniseries. This is more of an up-and-down look, a deeper view into Lincoln and his leadership. It's hard to fit any more depth into a little more than two hours.
Q. With that smaller time frame, Seward's the only one of Lincoln's major rivals featured in the movie. Does that fact in any way alter the way he's portrayed in the movie, compared to the book?
A. Clearly by that time in the film Lincoln and Seward are already good friends, and the jealousy and early presumption on the part of Seward had gone away. You can see the fact they were once rivals in their bantering and their relationship. That's what happens when you focus on this time period — you still capture some of Seward's character. He's my favorite character in the book aside from Lincoln. I would have been heartbroken if he wasn't there — he's the central rival.
Q. When Spielberg secured the movie rights, did you have any notions about who should play the parts?
A. I don't think so. I always imagined that Daniel Day-Lewis would be possibly the best Lincoln, just knowing what an extraordinary actor he is and having huge respect for him. I'm really glad about David Strathairn; I had seen him in a movie my son worked on as an intern, and I saw the Edward R. Murrow one ("Good Night, and Good Luck"). Sally Field does an amazing job. I'm not sure I could have imagined that, but Spielberg did — and she's really good. When you give your book over ... it's more of a leap of faith. Once you put it in someone's hands with a whole set of different skills, you trust that person. Luckily, it all turned out.
Q. How did Strathairn's performance compare with your impressions of Seward?
A. That's the wonderful thing. Obviously there's so much you can imagine about a person from reading about them. There are so many letters to (his wife) Frances, and knowing his relationship with (his daughter) Fanny and other people talking about him, and what his son (Frederick, who served as assistant secretary of state to his father) had written. You can hear people talk about how his voice sounded and how he walked and his cigar smoking and the box at his house with his snuff. But what's great about seeing someone portray that person is that you've never actually seen them before.
Q. With Seward's heavy prominence in the book, it includes a lot of scenes from Auburn, such as him waiting in his garden to hear that he won the Republican nomination in 1860. For people in this area who still haven't read the book or will pick it up because of the movie, how do you think its scenes of Seward in Auburn will affect their perception of the city?
A. Hopefully one of the great things about being able to write about a place a person was living in is that it adds layers to their own understanding. They'll say, "This is where the train came in." Or they go to that house (The Seward House Museum), which is an absolute treasure. One of the reasons he became so big a character is because I went to the house early in my research, and I just was transfixed by how they kept it so close to what it had been at the time. They had his desk, his books, all the pictures, they even dressed the mannequins depending on the season with outfits they had from Frances and Fanny. And you could go in the garden area and see where he sat to hear the news he won the nomination in 1860. Hopefully some of those descriptions will give them that layer of understanding about their city.
Q. What lessons do you think "Team of Rivals" has with respect to politics today?
A. I think the most important thing is that it shows a leader who was able, right after the election, to mobilize a Congress and a lot of people who didn't want to pass the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery), and through compromise and attention to detail, he gets it passed. When you think about the fiscal cliff coming after this election, it's a lesson about leadership, with the ability Lincoln had to go across the aisle, to make bargains and deals and bring factions together — whatever means were necessary. No matter who wins, Congress is going to have to make the decision in November and December. And the action of the movie takes place after the election, after Lincoln wins in 1864, but before Congress comes in in March. That's a coincidence of timing. I think the other good thing is that it says Lincoln was both a really good man and a great politician, and at a time when people are so cynical about politics, that's a great lesson to learn.