After Liam Neeson dropped out, Steven Spielberg returned to his original choice for the titular role of Abraham Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis declined because he didn't know if he could play such an iconic role. It was Leonardo DiCaprio who convinced him to take the role after Spielberg told him that Day-Lewis declined. It is unknown how DiCaprio convinced Day-Lewis to take the role.
Daniel Day-Lewis originally turned down the role of Abraham Lincoln, sending Steven Spielberg this letter: "Dear Steven. It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I've since read the script and found it - in all the detail of which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principle characters - both powerful and moving. I can't account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another. But I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there's no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by 'Abe,' it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told rather than that of a participant. That's how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can't be sure this won't change, I couldn't dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility. I do hope this makes sense Steven. I'm glad you're making the film. I wish you the strength for it and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me. Daniel."
Describing his experience playing Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis said, "I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that's, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him... I wish he had stayed (with me) forever."
Steven Spielberg spent twelve years researching the film. He recreated Abraham Lincoln's Executive Mansion office precisely, with the same wallpaper and books Lincoln used. The ticking of Lincoln's watch in the film is the sound of Lincoln's actual pocket watch. Lincoln's watch is housed in the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Kentucky (not the Lincoln Presidential Library.) It is the watch he carried the day of his assassination.
During the three and a half months of filming, Steven Spielberg addressed his actors in character: he called Daniel Day-Lewis "Mr. President" (i.e. Abraham Lincoln) and Sally Field "Mrs. Lincoln," or "Molly" (i.e. Mary Todd Lincoln). Additionally, he wore a suit every day on set: "I think I wanted to get into the role, more than anything else, of being part of that experience - because we were recreating a piece of history. And so I didn't want to look like the schlubby, baseball cap wearing 21st century guy; I wanted to be like the cast."
In February 2013, numerous reports stated that this movie led to the final, official 50-state ratification of the 13th Amendment, nearly 150 years after it was approved by three-fourths of the states. In November 2012, Dr. Ranjan Batra, a (non-historian) academician at the University of Mississippi, saw Lincoln (2012), then did an Internet search to find out more about the Amendment. He and his colleague Ken Sullivan discovered that although Mississippi voted to ratify the amendment in 1995, a clerical oversight caused that vote to remain officially unacknowledged, since the Mississippi Secretary of State had never sent the vote's result to the U. S. Office of the Federal Register. After Sullivan also saw the movie, both men urged the office of the Mississippi Secretary of State to file that paperwork, which they did on January 30, 2013; on February 7, 2013, the director of the Federal Register confirmed its receipt along with the fact that Mississippi had finally ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
After ten years of development, director Steven Spielberg finally decided he would only "make 'Lincoln' if Daniel Day-Lewis decided to play him, and I would not make 'Lincoln' had Daniel decided not to play him."
Asa-Luke Twocrow, who plays Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker was a member of the film's rigging crew. His resemblance to the Seneca sachem was so uncanny, he was approached by the casting department to play the role. He would change into his costume as Grant's secretary, shoot the scene, and then change back into his crew gear and return to work as a rigger.
Sally Field was so determined to play Mary Todd Lincoln, she begged Steven Spielberg for the chance to screen test alongside Daniel Day-Lewis. Spielberg believed she was too old to play the part, but Field was adamant. She recalled, "I'm ten years older than Daniel and twenty years older than Abraham Lincoln's wife was and Steven told me he didn't see me in the role. But I knew I was right for this part and begged him to let me audition for it. He was kind enough to do that and Daniel is such a sweetheart that he flew over from his home in Ireland to screen test with me. I'll love him forever for that."
Steven Spielberg has explained that during the movie's climactic scene in which the names of House of Representative members are being called to vote on the 13th Amendment, the names of many of the men who voted 'No' --for various reasons--were actually changed in the film so as not to embarrass the living descendants of these men whose reputations might have been stained by their negative vote-casting.
Once Daniel Day-Lewis decided on the voice that he would use to portray Lincoln, he sent an audiotape of it to Steven Spielberg in a box with a skull and crossbones on it, so no one but he would hear it first.
During the time when he was expected to play the title role, Liam Neeson did an extensive and timely amount of research on Abraham Lincoln. He read over twenty books and visited with the then-existing Lincoln Bicentennial Committee in Washington, D.C. The committee granted Neeson access to Lincoln's history such as personal letters. Neeson also visited Ford's Theater and viewed personal items such as Lincoln's wallet and the Bible used for his inauguration.
The ticking heard from Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch as he sits at his desk and plays with it is the actual ticking sound from the watch he carried in his pocket. An audio engineer went to the museum in Kentucky where the watch is kept to get sound bites from it.
The great-grandfather of Michael Stanton Kennedy was a newspaperman from the town where his character, Hiram Price, lived. When filming the scene where the 13th Amendment passes, Kennedy started to cry and couldn't explain why until later, when he told Steven Spielberg "We're in this room recreating one of the most important moments in American history, and up there (in the balcony) with the press, sat my great-grandfather."
According to Steven Spielberg, it was James Spader's idea to have his character seen as indulging in hand-carving a wooden duck, a preoccupation that Spader's personal research revealed to be one of the major hobbies of Civil War-era America.
The Ethan Allen story that Lincoln tells (including its vulgar punchline) is an actual story that Abraham Lincoln loved to tell, according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is unknown if the story is true or not.
Toward the end of the film, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith are portrayed as romantic partners. Although there is no officially documented evidence in real life that the two had anything more than an employer/employee relationship, the two were the object of much speculation and rumor during and after their many decades of cohabitation. Some unusual aspects of their living arrangements that contributed to the contemporary rumor that they were romantically involved included the facts that she moved from separate servants' quarters behind the house into Stevens's main house; she frequently served as the hostess for events held at his house; and several of his family members referred to her in terms usually reserved for spouses in their correspondence. Stevens and Smith were also depicted as lovers in the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation (1915), although contrary to this film's reasons for inclusion of a romantic relationship between them, that movie's director, D.W. Griffith, used their relationship as racist propaganda and as supposed "proof" of the North's degeneracy.
Although some viewers were surprised by the usage of the word "fuck" in the movie, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the word back to (at least) the early 1500s, around 350 years before the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's presidency. In the movie, the word is used only twice, both times by the vulgar and rough Bilbo character as a way of demonstrating his uncouthness. Viewers who thought they also heard Lincoln using the term to describe "Tammany Hall hucksters" during a monologue actually misheard the then-common word "pettifogging," which means arguing endlessly over small legal details.
While giving a fiery speech against Abraham Lincoln, Fernando Wood calls him "King Abrahamus Africanus The First." This was the title of an 1864 pamphlet, which was illustrated with a drawing of Lincoln wearing a crown and subtitled "his secret life, as revealed under the mesmeric influence; mysteries of the White House." This pamphlet was printed by the "Copperheads," a group of Northern Pro-Confederate Democrats to which Wood belonged. It claimed that Lincoln had signed a contract with Satan to enable him to seize the US presidency for life and to "subvert the liberties of the American people and debauch their civic aspirations; to impose upon them in every imaginable form of low cunning, and cheat them with words of double meaning and with false promises, until by these, and kindred means, that end is accomplished, and his dynasty firmly established."
Steven Spielberg was already developing this film when he met with Doris Kearns Goodwin and confided in her that he wanted to make a film about Abraham Lincoln. She told him that she was in the process of writing her book Team of Rivals. Spielberg immediately decided to use it as the basis for the film, and asked to reserve the film rights before the book was finished.
Liam Neeson, who was attached to play Abraham Lincoln since the project began development, decided to drop out. According to Neeson, he felt he was too old to play the part after waiting so many years for the project to get the go-ahead. Incidentally, Daniel Day-Lewis is only five years Neeson's junior, though still closest in age to Lincoln, who was 55 and 56 years of age at the time portrayed in the film.
Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary have one of their famous fights, in which he threatens to have her committed to a mad house. In the case of this film, the issue they fight over is their son Robert's enlistment in the army. It would be Robert Lincoln who ultimately did commit his mother to an insane asylum, tragically leading to their permanent estrangement.
Daniel Day-Lewis was named Best Actor of the Year at the Academy Awards for his performance as Abraham Lincoln in this film. His Oscar was presented to him by Meryl Streep who was named Best Lead Actress the year before for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Streep was presented her Oscar by Colin Firth who had been named Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as King George VI in The King's Speech one year prior. So in a span of three years, lead acting Oscars were awarded for portrayals of the King England, the British Prime Minister and the President of the United States.
According to Steven Spielberg during a chat at the University of Southern California's film school, the film came very close to premiering on HBO as opposed to premiering in theaters. Spielberg claimed that the only reason why the film reached theaters was because of his co-ownership in DreamWorks, which was one of the studios behind the film's release.
Steven Spielberg told a preview audience in Manhattan that screenwriter Tony Kushner spent about six years working on the movie. Originally, it was conceived of as a biography film exploring Abraham Lincoln's entire life story, but eventually was whittled down to the events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S. detailed in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals".
Neither of Abraham Lincoln's two vice presidents - Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson - are depicted in the film, although one of the unidentified cameos in the "4 March 1865" shot might be Johnson. However, the House Speaker, Schuyler Colfax, who presides over the 13th Amendment vote, later became vice president for the first term of Ulysses Simpson Grant, another character depicted in the film.
In several scenes in the Cabinet Room, a tube can be seen hanging between the ceiling and the table. This is a rubber hose carrying natural gas (methane) from the overhead gas lighting system to the table lamp. The hose occasionally moves slightly, seemingly on its own, due to fluctuations in the pressure of the natural gas system.
The baton used by the conductor (Mark Ian Holt) in the Faust Opera scene with Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln was owned by William Kushner (screenwriter Tony Kushner 's father), who was a clarinetist, and for forty years, the conductor of the Lake Charles (Louisiana) Symphony Orchestra. It is an authentic 19th century baton, ebony with an ivory handle, that Tony asked to be used to honor his dad, who died in March 2012.
In this movie, Lincoln occasionally refers to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, as "Molly." This was a real-life term of endearment that Abraham Lincoln sometimes called her; it was a family nickname from her childhood.
In a scene wherein Robert Todd Lincoln debates with his father, who is getting ready for a White House event, Tad sits on the edge of the bed looking at glass photograph plates with a candle. One such photograph is of a slave named Gordon, who is also subject of a photograph entitled "The Scourged Back". These photos were taken by McPherson and Oliver out of New Orleans and were widely circulated by abolitionists as some of the earliest forms of propaganda in the fight to pass the 13th amendment to end slavery.
According to producer Kathleen Kennedy, the film commission in Richmond, Virginia was able to accommodate the production's pursuit of historical authenticity by granting extensive access to government buildings while they were out of session.
Toward the beginning of the movie, Lincoln is telling his wife about a nightmare he had the night before, and he says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." This is a quote from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet (act II, scene ii). Although Lincoln was almost entirely self-educated, he was an avid reader of Shakespeare's plays; in 1860, the author and critic William Dean Howells wrote that the then-candidate for president was "a diligent student of Shakespeare, to know whom is a liberal education." Daniel Day-Lewis played Hamlet in a 1989 production at London's National Theatre.
This is one of two film properties wherein Lee Pace plays the antagonist of a character named Bilbo. Here, Pace plays Fernando Wood, a Congressional opponent of William N. Bilbo. In Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, Pace plays the Elven King Thranduil, who gets at cross-purposes with Bilbo Baggins.
Harrison Ford was rumored to appear in the film in a role as Vice President Andrew Johnson at one point during the development of the film, but the rumor has since become completely unsubstantiated after all the delays and turnarounds on the film's development over the years. Ultimately, there is no mention nor sign of Johnson's character in the final version of the film, with the possible exception of the inauguration scene.
History buffs have frequently pointed out parallels between the lives (and deaths) of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The two men were elected to the Presidency 100 years apart (1860, 1960). Lincoln took it upon himself to end slavery, while Kennedy's time in office was marked by the Civil Rights Movement. Both men had southern Vice Presidents named Johnson. Lincoln was shot at the Ford's Theatre by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. Kennedy was riding in a Ford Lincoln Mercury when he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, who hid out in a movie theatre. This film adds three more similarities to the mix: it was produced by Kathleen Kennedy, features Tommy Lee Jones, who also appeared in JFK (1991), and both movies were scored by John Williams. Daniel Day-Lewis appeared in Gandhi (1982) with Martin Sheen, who played John F. Kennedy in Kennedy (1983). Sally Field played Sheen's wife in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). JFK's actual sister Jean Kennedy Smith appears in cameo as "House of Representatives - Woman Shouter".
Several scenes, including those set in the United States Capitol building, were filmed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. Ironically, that building served as the capitol of the Confederacy during the period in which the film was set.