spielberg’s lincoln | on set
I often wrestle with wholeheartedly applauding the excessive sharing of one’s life these days; for, overall, with the decline of the West in the 21st century, and the overwhelming disappearance of social norms in the modern age through the sometimes ugly pick-axe of social media, and the popularity and irresistible verdicts of the Internet courtroom system, over sharing and under thinking is without question at times damagingly in vogue. This post is long enough that I see it as a journalistic entry; I have been working on it off and on since the day it occurred. It was delayed partly by the pace of my own life; partly due to NDA before the film was out; and partly because I am still processing.
Human social media interaction, while staying faithful to the origins of human interactions in countless ways, has adapted new means of assigning and dismissing mathematical significance and insignificance. Those of us that indulge in it regularly perhaps share more than we probably ever should have with far more people than most of civilization and history has even had the means to encounter; in the meantime consuming our time and devaluing the actual experience and insane pace of life at the cost of an archaeological and narcissistic hunt for passive aggressive, often mostly self-interested, antiseptic, and distant acknowledgment. This regurgitated acknowledgment usually manifests itself with a level of circular and self-referential obsession previously unanticipated. It could be said that this generation looks closer and deeper at itself than any generation in the history of humankind, with less context and opportunity for anything worth looking at to co-exist as a result of the death of objective substance and rationality as a normal commodity for social progress as civilization declines and continues to disappear. We have more flying at us and our brains than any beings in history; the case for the sheer volume of much of it being generally less meaningful than before is immense. It has shocked me at times to see the mere amount of content a single being can generate centered primarily around themselves; it serves as a constant reminder to me that true freedom contains the component most often to escape seekers; the total sacrifice of and death of self.
It’s as if the howling whirlwind of fundamental technological function meant to eliminate the ubiquitous and undeniable lack of fellow identification, loneliness, and isolation we so try to avoid as humans has done the one thing we fear the most; intensify and exacerbate those same very things they are meant to eliminate. The sensory and the immediate and the cheap have made emaciated, bleary-eyed husks of us, shuffling through the doldrums of morally decaying civilizations with appetites that consume far too much of what will rarely slow us down enough to produce an original thought or feeling or draw us closer to reality in an ultimate sense. As one gets older, one perhaps finds an increasing loneliness in personal experience; both a large family deep into its senior years and having no family at all can equally dictate the experience of communication impossibility and isolation. With the age of the Internet, we’ve at times all become an overly large, senior family with all the accusatory and selfish traits often too close to the surface.
Why do I begin a post about my experience on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with comments about communication? Some experiences dictate that certain events and encounters and feelings in one’s life are unable to be truly shared or communicated. I could write volumes about the deepest experiences one can have in life; the relational or spiritual, but they would still just be words on a page apart from the actual experience of the events and encounters, and my experience in life dictates that the reality of some things are still fathoms deeper than the deepest shovels can go. I would view the same with regards to my generation which is woefully anti-rational thought and anti-truth; the experience of actually encountering such things in the reality of one’s life is as revealing as the difference between drinking ice water for the first time after a lifetime of tasting only horrible soda – as a manner of reflection, what is the point of sharing fresh water in a world that worships soda? I cringe at the food analogy, as food itself seems to be one of the only remaining categories of life that my generation thinks actually deserves rationality and discernment; if our age would apply the same attitude towards their diets that they do towards philosophy, religion, and moral thought, they would swiftly eliminate themselves from the survivor pool.
This post is not at all meant as a means of showing off “something super cool and glamorous I did.” If you knew me well, you would realize the sheer odds of me ever ending up on an actual movie set with Daniel Day Lewis and Steven Spielberg are more numerous than all sand, and if you knew me well, you would know it would surpass my own ability to expect outcomes that match overly defined passions and feelings. I know many people in my immediate surroundings who have far more to brag about and have done far more impressive things and would have ample stories to share; nonetheless, on a personal, insular, internal level, it accomplished a level of pattern matching in my life that even I find somewhat ludicrous and droll in the sheer unlikeliness of it; an oddity matching my most powerful inspirations that I still can hardly believe took place. I also share intimately with Daniel Day Lewis’ own manifested ability to hold at a long arm’s length and manifest a clear dislike for the tired and tar-baby world of pretend fame and worthless, ignorant, and fleshly cultural idolatry; the age of “fame that isn’t fame” has absolutely nothing to do with my creative vortexes, and even less to do with how I see my own individual purpose in life.
From a very young age, my immersion in the art world through my intense violin training and music accidentally brought me in contact with the acting of Daniel Day Lewis for the first time; I didn’t realize it at my young age, but I was encountering output from one of the greatest actors who ever lived at an incredibly formative time in my artistic development. My appreciation for this individual’s art has only grown immensely, as my experience and love for other forms of art also grew, my understanding and honest awe of his ability and dedication and total and indiscernible disappearance into his roles only grew. As a matter of fact, at the age of 15, picking up my violin and playing the gaelic reel from “Last Of The Mohicans” before I even saw the film, then experiencing the movie as my first R-rated Michael Mann film after having read the original novel twice through before age 14, colored decades of my life, loves and interests. At the time, I didn’t realize that freight train that was passing me by was closer to an earthquake, given the immense intensity, talent, and gifting behind the individual generating much of it.
As I developed as an artist and primarily as a musician/violinist over the years, I began to more intelligently recognize Daniel’s identity as a true artist and nothing more, and nothing less. I had a handful of encounters with quite rare performers in the classical musical realm; those who were so consumed by their gift and their unending appetite for truly blood-shedding excellence and performance that the very expression and zenith of their form was never anything more than the actual and literal Chase for Perfection; those who could not settle on anything and never would, because the term “settle” was simply extricated from their vocabulary and practice; the context of the audience was simply a blank spot for, they were titans engaged in the gladiatorial arena between self and performance and nothing else; those for whom the fast food meal of fame and recognition were useless, empty, and completely and totally irrelevant apart from the purpose of the art to which they were dedicated.
Those who the word “good work” or “incredible work” would simply ring hollow towards their Ecclesiastical chase towards fighting the only true barrier to further discovery; one’s self. Those who are the best at what they do are constantly aware of the tiny but always inevitable pool of where they are failing; they do not take pride in their current accomplishments, and those past accomplishments only serve as the energy and muscle and fuel to provide for the unending pursuit of what remains, and they are woefully aware of their limits, their identity as creatures, their weaknesses, and that each performance and drawn breath is a gift and an opportunity and not much more. This virtue is so important yet so rare; so valuable, yet so little preached or shared, yet also so all consuming and even borderline destructive to those who may have the chance of being set ablaze by it. Too go thus far with your art is to truly learn how much an immersion factor the self is to performance, yet how much it is also an obstacle, the real and sometimes only true obstacle.
There is a reality, an immensity, and an intensity in true performance and true gifting that becomes a reality of philosophical, psychological, and spiritual impact rather than dry notes or words on a page that received a good “heave-ho” followed by a golf clap generated by half an attention span. There is an actual spiritual energy and spark and a light behind those who are set on fire by performance, who are entirely consumed by it; who are still and eternally in lock-step in the seasonal spring moments of their relationship with performance and perfection – and it is equally true in every art form that has ever existed. The farther we go, the smaller we realize we are, the less in love with ourselves we are and more in love with true performance which I believe to be an ultimate form of giving – when that self simply removes itself from the stage and the equation altogether. I count myself small and privileged to have had some distant experience and dim perception of these things that are as large as eternity. I do not think that for most readers of this post, I would have to try to connect the dots between what I just wrote, and one of the greatest living actors of today.
Fast-forward almost 20 years, when I ended up on the Lincoln set with Daniel Day Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Steven Spielberg, it was my very first official Hollywood film. I am one among millions of people who love the arts, acting, and filmmaking, and even if I was a full time A-Lister, there are still very small odds of ending up within walking distance of him, far less on an actual set as he blazed through one of the landmark characters of his career.
Ending up on that set was like a very well scripted trip or dream based upon my own personal history and psyche; oddly enough there are days where I flash back to it and wonder myself if it really happened. It’s as if a life long sports fan who has every card and stat memorized for all sports ended up going to lunch with Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali, for a single day, on one of the only days those three ever happened to be together.
After a few months of haphazard interactions, my final and unexpected exchange with the casting office was brief – at the time, I lived north of Washington DC, and they said “can you be here in Petersburg, VA at 5 in the morning?” It was 9 pm the night before; Petersburg was 3+ hours away. To be there at 5 in the morning, I’d have to leave around 2 am, which is not too far from when I usually turn the lights out – so, I decided to just stay up all night. My son Dakota Flynn was only a few months old, and I’d had a very busy week and hadn’t slept more than 5 hours or so in the previous 48 hours or so. Dakota Flynn Groveman had been born a month early at a huge 7.5 lbs for a preemie, but the usual restlessness and tremors of a new child arriving was heightened by the trial and testing of his month long stay in the NICU at a hospital over an hour away.
With no script or scene details or delineation of the day’s events, I had absolutely no idea what to expect or whether I would even see or run into Spielberg or the principals. I arrived around 4 am in Petersburg, and most of the old section, downtown area of old Petersburg was part of the set and blocked off. This area of Petersburg is already old enough that not a whole lot had to be done to transform it; though, when I returned to the area about a year later I was surprised to see how much they had altered.
I parked my car in the lot close to the river, realizing I was the first extra there. Due to the infant living in my house, I already felt like I was at the end of being up for two days and knew it was going to be a tough day. I discovered how blessed I was to even be there on set that day as the entire film schedule only had three days of shooting left, and they needed something around 200 new extras in addition to the 300 they already had just for that day.
The room we were in filled; soon there were hundreds of us sitting there, getting our breakfast, meeting each other, trying to grab a few minutes of sleep. Since I and others were new extras without a prior fitting or costuming, we had to wait 3-4 hours to go through. As I sat there and waited my turn in the big log house cafeteria area we were in, people around me would leave in the 21st century and return in the 19th. In the dusky morning light, still hours from sunrise, and the dimness of the old building, it was a bizarre effect. This one a dignified and somber old gentleman in a top hat with a deep white beard; this one a crusty, dirty, sweaty, tired looking soldier; this one a polite and beautiful lady; this one a doctor; this one a blood tattered amputee with a crutch – it began to blur, but slowly, I felt we were going back in time; our individual identities were being dreamily Rip Van Winkled by the surrounding set which already whispered loudly that we were in a different time period, and it was time for each of us to follow the beckon of the quiet, martial and dirt-filled street corners and the presence of a military camp, cannons, an armory, and a hospital, and step into the past. A past that is long ago yet so recent; a past so close behind that we could sit in buildings and furniture used by people from that time with only a bit of wear since the end of the war.
Costume was a funny experience; as we were at the end of the queue, it had largely been sacked, and it was hard to find a right fit; one of the lead costume people was not having a good morning. At receiving a question about a hat fit from an older man, he slapped the hat forcefully back on the guy’s head, delivering a loud and dramatically insulting insult about how he felt like he was teaching beginning algebra. It is funny in retrospect, but at the time, it was quite awkward and rude.
After going through makeup where they carefully and photographically documented each alteration to my person in case of callback, I was placed in a costume as a Union regular; at one point a PA asked me if I wanted to be a wounded soldier; I contemplated it for a second and felt it might make me immobile for a day, and decided against it.
We went to our holding area and waited some more. Finally , we were called forward and assigned our location for the morning’s first shots; myself and about 20 other soldiers were in a Union camp right next to a main street area, and my specific group of people were arranged around a campfire at the streets edge. I placed myself as close to the street as possible.
During downtime in this spot, I gazed out at the set. I was amazed at how much time it took me to find out where the cameras were because of how busy the set was. There was a wide variety of carriages and horse drivers, extras migrating about, props and set alterations being installed or moved about, lighting gear, batteries, scrims, scaffolding – it was as busy and overwhelming as any section of Times Square. I stared out in between the gaps of the seething mass for about 15 minutes before I found the first Panavision camera I could firmly identify.
At this point, Spielberg walked up directly behind our camp and little group of soldiers, wearing a heavy parka, as today’s shoot was mostly outdoors and, being November on the East Coast, it wasn’t warm. He touched base with the assistant directors who were overseeing our camp and was chatting with a Panavision operator on a dolly immediately behind us as well. A bunch of the extras around me were discussing whether it was really him – he was only about 15 feet away, but some were somehow convinced it was a look alike.
One guy said “nah, that’s a guy here on set who looks almost exactly like him.” As every person there did, I wanted to meet him or introduce myself – it would have been easy to walk over and act like I had a reason to; plus there were many reports of him being friendly, but the busyness of the set reminded me that I wouldn’t want to be annoyed by an extra if I was in his shoes, and I didn’t want to be the guy who got the evil eye from assistants by opening the gate for Spielberg or a principal to be hounded. For me, given my age and trajectory in life, a casual or “starstruck” introduction to such people has little import for me; I would like opportunity to meet them in a setting where I can share my own work.
At most, the assistant director in charge of our camp was also functioning as a bit of a props guy, as it was his job to light the propane canister which generated flame behind our fake campfire. Movie sets can be tense locations just from the liability issue alone; any number of riff-raff could be present, especially on a day with hundreds of extras. To underscore the point, this same AD had developed a rivalry with one of the regular Union soldier extras on set who happened to be in my circle around the campfire and pointed at him when he lit the fire, and said “I’m watching.” From other long term extras, I immediately heard all kinds of stories about this guy and his rivalry with the AD, and found out in addition to his fire sins, he was actually somewhat of a Spielberg stalker and had handed Spielberg handwritten personal letters on more than one occasion.
We were told that we had to look busy around the fire, and the AD walked around and nodded quickly at what we had already somewhat randomly chosen as our location. One guy decided he was going to play a soldier asleep in a tent; he stuck his legs out the tent flap opening, leaned back on an actual Civil War blanket, and hilariously actually slept most of the morning. I was sitting facing the fire and the street and directly towards the Panavision camera which I had decided was probably the main camera. The AD walked us through about 2-3 minutes of “action” to see how we would block and move; all very improv, loose, and he simply wanted us to repeat what we were doing each time. He modified a couple things in a slight manner, wanted to make sure someone was stirring the pot, etc. etc. and that was it.
The street traffic had narrowed down to only people in costume, but it was still heavy. Of a sudden, without hearing anyone call action, a carriage rolled down the street in front of us in the early morning light, and it was carrying Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robert Lincoln.
They sat opposite each other in the open carriage, but on the opposite and far sides of the seats. The relational magnitude between them was immediately obvious and did not begin or end in relation to “action” or takes. It was as if Lincoln had dragged Robert on a trip to the DMV while all his friends were having a party. It immediately reminded me of parent/child tension I am so familiar with from being a child but also having my own. This was all perceived without me knowing anything of the scene being shot. Seeing this scene a year later confirmed what I could draw on immediately even though I didn’t have a single page of script at the time. They were closer to me than even in this shot, I could have shook Lincoln’s hand as they drove by.
I find it somewhat redundant to describe how much DDL appeared and moved and spoke like the real Lincoln – the film has been released and the magnificence of the performance can be viewed in its Oscar-winning power. Though I was only there for a day, I want to emphasize how much of DDL’s performance is NOT on screen – the film merely captures a couple hours of it, like the very surface of the ocean, instead of the whole thing. As much as his performance is breathtaking and magnificent and eerie and spiritual in the film, there were many moments of intensity, nuance, feelings, insight, and depth that will never be on screen – not only because they might be in an alternative take or camera angle, or a longer take than ended up in the film, but because many of them took place when nothing was even being filmed. His entire life and existence and being is the performance; this includes the downtimes on set as well as the action moments. The film world and the world at large have discussed these things for many years and agonized over or tried to peer into his process – as much as one can feel silly in costume as someone from a different age, there was an absolutely electric energy that flowed from Lincoln in spades; it shouted to me as an actor, “I have crossed over entirely.”
In the brief visionary establishments of his persona that have never fully left my mind’s eye, he appeared altogether weary, aged, a Lincoln fighting great burdens and stooping posture; his hat and coattails registered as some sort of ghost or seer; he didn’t move or walk as much as he floated; an Ichabod Crane of American history; yet somehow still undeniably and boldly determined and resolute. One did not envy whatever he was carrying; but little doubt was left that he was meant to carry it and that some result would issue forth.
Seeing his performance after my experience that day galvanized all the preceding events; we were here peering through a dim, dusky portal into a different time, and perhaps all of us collectively mirroring it beyond our own aims. Perhaps the synergy of those little moments in Petersburg awakened events or feelings or realities closer to the real events in not-so-distant history moreso than anything since the actual events themselves. The entire mood of the scene and the principals and the setting seemed to introduce an almost heavy, slightly compulsive air; it felt like we were at war and there was need in the air.
It seemed they ran through the carriage journey down the two streets, past our encampment then in front of what was a Union hospital; then they called action. Lincoln and Robert stopped in front of the hospital and had a short conversation. Back to our campsite; the sleeping soldier with his feet protruding from the tent snored the day away; our group around the fire seemed to have come up with a nice degree of layers of melancholy and creativity. We had our different marks given to us by the AD… we merely created a little variety and had fun with it. It was a wide mix of actors, drifters, and do-no-gooders; it is interesting in and of itself to see what happens in the deep aperture lines of a film set. There was one particular aspect of being in this crowd that disturbed me; some extras were particularly coarse and insensitive to the nature of the day’s challenges; I recall one noticeably coarse and seemingly uneducated individual loudly screaming “method act THIS!” when Lincoln went by, and underneath I burned in chagrin knowing that there’s no way such things couldn’t at least register on the radar of the performers and cause them to despise and keep their distance from the extras even more. Some complained of the scope or length of the scene and said they had been on “big blockbuster sets” and “this is nothing,” all I could do is sort of blink at the sheer lack of comprehension and appreciation.
The way our routine went during this early part of the day – start out on one knee by the fire, stir the pot – another soldier was passing around a pot of imaginary stew which we were all sampling – just before the pot got to me, a fellow extra clapped his hand on my right shoulder and said “it’s good to see you here – where are the rest of your boys?” I would say, “What you see is all that’s left.” A sad nod, and a comforting touch from this soldier – then I would stand and walk towards the edge of the camp near the street, and another soldier would meet me and we’d converse. After about take two or three, I realized the second soldier I was talking to was Mr. Spielberg Stalker. I started to mess with him a bit and during action asked him if had heard Josie Wales was riding with Quantrill’s Raiders down South; the first time I asked him this, the look on his face was priceless.
Every time Lincoln passed our camp in the carriage, I would turn to him and touch my hat in subtle salute till he passed. No one had given any instructions to do so and no one else in my camp was doing so. At one point, word came through our AD’s that Spielberg wanted “more soldiers in the camp to acknowledge Lincoln.”
I also learned by watching Spielberg work; the set was remarkably efficient given the scale of events, and most directing he did were mere touches and subtle, face to face, quiet conversations with the actors or camera operators or directors; no shouting or over obvious feedback; the day unfolded like it had already been rehearsed thousands of times before it actually happened.
At this point, things got interesting; a stranger and his friend came over to our circle of our mostly new initiates around the campfire. He was about 5’3″, looked a bit like a dwarf, had long red ringlets; his friend was only a couple inches taller and was quite rotund with long black curls hanging down around his shoulders, all which framed a grizzled but patchy grey and black beard. Upon observing our routine I just described, Red (I will call him this as I have no other reference) immediately began to mock our “acting,” and our “commitment,” and loudly bragged about how he had been on set for months and we didn’t know the first thing about how things worked, that we were amateurs, he had a musket assigned to him, we did not, these “newbies actually care about what’s going on today, and they are mistaken!” Overall, I found it a bit amusing that someone would care enough to play this sort of game; I will be nice and blame it mostly on extreme boredom.
Long story short, it was one of the most direct attempts at bullying and hazing I have seen in a long time. He had been adjusted by an AD and instructed to cross the street after Lincoln passed and interact with us, then cross back, which was a change from how we had started out the day. Each time he crossed, after his initial assault and volley of verbal abuse, he would shout the word “TITTIES!” at our group, repeatedly, after every word someone in our group said, then he’d cross back. No one in our group really responded to him, most just looked away or stopped their usual routine and gave a kind of glum face. I had had enough; after a couple short retorts in reply and trying to get him to stop, in the middle of his “TITTIES” tirade, again, I stood up, walked over to him and asked him to stop. He merely seemed to feed off the request and upon returning again on the next take, he merely hurled his insults even more. I spoke to him again and said “how come so many short guys are like you?” I of course know many that are not and I don’t use height as a measurement of character or quality, but when dealing with a bully, I have found it best to call them out in ways they are treating others.
With this question, he said “man, you’re uphill!” and then stopped for a bit, but the next time he returned, he began the bullying again, renewed. I had really had enough, so I stood up, walked over to him and got right in his face and said “why don’t you just fucking cross the street?” Sometimes bullies do not respect anything but fists, bats, and sticks in return, and sometimes they must begin as words.
At this treatment from me, his buddy tapped him on the arm and whispered something in his ear, and the jibes ceased. Afterwards, people were sharing the story of the confrontation around the set, I discovered that Red was not popular and was a bully everywhere he went, and I later heard a group of extras slashed his tires on the last day. That last part is unfortunate and I have no idea who was responsible; but you do reap what you sow. Overall, the entire encounter played out in a sort of meta fashion; the soldier ridiculing us led to a situation that could have led to a fight in real life; certainly this may have echoed down the chambers of time, some distant dismal or cheery interaction of real tired soldiers a couple centuries ago.
For a good part of the rest of the day I was off by myself in a distant part of the set as deep background; during this time, in-between several shots, due to infant-induced sleep lag and driving all night, I put my back up against a covered wagon and drifted off for a few minutes. After what couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes, I woke with a start, feeling as if I had slept for hours, knee-jerk invigorated and able to slog through the rest of the day despite my extreme fatigue. It was brief, but I slept the sleep of the incredibly tired, that which often is followed by bewilderment and confusion; I will never forget the moment I first awoke and felt the thick wool Union uniform and clapboard shoes, stared up into the sky with a rough covered wagon at my back filling the frame and the musket lying next to me; my mind did a quick re-arrangement of centuries, but wasn’t sure which one I was supposed to end up in.
As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea what was being shot that day, nor the sequence of character, lines, or anything at all; the actors gave us plenty of clues through their body language and demeanor alone, but of course, I was able to piece things together afterwards. For those who have seen the film, the scene I was in is definitely the pinnacle of emotional tension and acting in the film between Lincoln and Robert; and it immediately precedes very intense scenes between Lincoln and Mary, scenes that were shown at the Oscars and reference some of the best performances in the film.
Ultimately, Robert is having a difficult time because Lincoln won’t let him join the military; this scene lends to the complexity and trial of Lincoln’s life as it comes during the height of the suspense and subterfuge and political plotting required to get the 13th Amendment signed to abolish slavery, while hopefully also ending the war. Brief vignettes in this movie give us only a glance at the real burdens of Lincoln’s life in the few months before his assassination; but they are planned masterfully, and leave one with a quiet appreciation of someone who truly gave all to each area of calling in his life. Being a parent is often a cacophony of conflicting goals, feelings, desires, all wrapped up in the furious glory of a life being lived to the full; to operate this as an American President in the middle of a war is a burden few have probably ever approached. The timing of the familial scenes in the script is masterful, giving us a look at how much Lincoln did while caring very little for himself. His life was an amazing cacophony of impossible challenges happening at once; with outcomes that are still being felt today.
The climactic scene of the day we shot was the emotional face to face argument between Lincoln and Robert. As the scene progresses, Robert is by himself, trying to roll a cigarette after seeing a cart filled with severed limbs, dumped into a pit of rotting body parts, immediately after proudly telling his Dad he was somewhat impervious to the effects of war. Having entered the city together, Lincoln returns after visiting wounded soldiers and finds Robert upset and alone. His inquiry leads to the argument, which ends with Robert yelling at Lincoln that he would be “ashamed all his life.”
During this scene, I watched as Spielberg actually held/ran the camera and focus during the shot of Robert rolling the cigarette; as it was a closeup, we could watch closely and not get in the way. I was fascinated with how the day had unfolded and how the most pivotal moments of the day were inarguably during the most beautiful moments, with soft setting sun and deep shadows highlighting all. At this time, I was in a group of about 40 extras, watching and waiting; an assistant director came by and picked only seven of us to be moved even close to the camera during Lincoln and Robert’s argument. In the film, there is a long boardwalk that Robert walks down before seeing the flotsam of war; Lincoln walked down this boardwalk, noticing Robert long before he calls his name in inquiry; I was placed immediately next to the boardwalk. At call of action, we were instructed not to look to the right or at the actors and proceed on by. Although Lincoln was sitting or standing near us during many moments of filming earlier in the day, this was the closest I was to both principals during an actual action scene for an extended period of time in the entire day of shooting.
The way the film was cut during this scene meant I was cut out of it; instead of the somewhat lengthy walk down the boardwalk as Lincoln processes what is going on with his son, the film cut directly to Lincoln’s feet overshadowing Robert, appearing somewhat out of nowhere, as Robert tries to roll the cigarette.
If they had cut a longer shot, I likely would have been in scene immediately as Lincoln turned the corner off the boardwalk to walk closer to his son. I inserted this photo to show the sidewalk I was walking next to, and this is the place where Lincoln and I passed each other on during each take. Throughout these entire scenes, though I can’t be found in close proximity in the film, I was only a few feet away, moving on by.
This meant I was passing by during some absolutely beautiful and intense acting from Lincoln; as he turned to gaze at his weeping son, there was such a true tiredness, weariness, sadness, that flowed from him in spades; it all blended with this dogged sort of determination that seemed to drive his weary carcass on towards the inevitable; inevitable in the sense that in each complex layer of his life towards the end, he had to do precisely and probably often exclusively what he absolutely must. I say this having witnessed Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln pass me by on the boardwalk only inches away; I will never forget how much his performance quietly shouted in such subtle moments like this that didn’t even end up on film. It was an amazing experience I will never forget. I had to remain in character myself and could not absorb as much as I wished; these things spoke volumes with mere glances.
When children play, and are left alone by adults, their play often mutates into deeper form. Kids may have shorter attention spans, but they also have incredibly deep, powerful, and energetic ones. I have noticed when my kids are busy and left alone for extended periods of time, sneaking a glance or a listen to their play reveals wonderful and incredible development; entire characters and worlds and ideas take root and grow up and pass away and they get lost in their own civilizations and cultures. With more time and dedication, the fantasy grows deeper and the lines between identity and personality and experience blur. I would volunteer unquestionably that similar growth patterns manifest themselves in the performing arts, which really are a complicated form of adult play. With more time and focus, the realities become deeper and something takes place.
Around the time of the final shots of the argument, the sun was setting, and my tiredness had overtaken me to the point where voices and interactions seemed dim and distant. A look to my left down the street as I passed the boarded walk revealed silhouetted figures walking in fog backlit by the setting sun with a deep orange glow; a top-hatted figure with a cane appeared and wafted in and out of the fog bank like a ghost, illusions subtracting clarity as to his actual direction.
As I reflect back on that moment, the synergy and fusion of all of us on set seemed to have reached the bell curve of fantasy play; a quietness settled on everyone, and the actors already so lost in their characters became actual historical representations of their real counterparts. Even the world around us seemed to play along, as the sun seemed to take extra long to set that day, providing its unearthly orange glow in ever deepening but not swallowing shadows. I seemed to no longer hear much conversation not related to the film; I forgot hearing “Action” or “stop,” and time seemed to blur. As Lincoln worked his sad way towards his angry son, he stopped on the boardwalk and stared at him for a few seconds before moving closer; the wind picked up and blew a circular eddy of dead leaves in the street, tossing Lincoln’s gray hair underneath his top hat like ceaseless waves; his coattails extended out behind and beside him, once again projecting visions of the ghostly and pedantic schoolmaster from Sleepy Hollow.
The takes continued on interminably, till all of a sudden in the last take he did, Lincoln stood in the middle of the street muttering to himself as the wind continued; he turned and glanced directly at me and a couple other extras a few feet away, and then walked off set, the last time I ever saw him.
In widely published materials after his performance in Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis said that he felt a deeper love for the character of Lincoln then any other character he had the privilege to be acquainted with; he also said he felt a deep and indescribable sadness upon leaving the character behind, along with an immense burden about the outcome and end of Lincoln’s life. Spielberg and Joseph Gordon Levitt reflected a similar sadness about the experience of making the film, and growing close to Lincoln and watching him fade off into the horizon at the cessation of shooting. Spielberg mentioned he could hardly say goodbye to Daniel on the last day; for him, it was almost unbearable.
On my own personal level, entailing life long battles with intense artistic callings, and the impact someone like Daniel Day-Lewis has had on my personal experiences with art; the sheer impossibility of actually being on set with him in character; there was a much briefer but albeit equally real experience on a personal level of that exchange between impossibly deep appreciation and sadness. It was a day I will never forget, and one that I emerged from a different person than when I entered it. I am not that visible in the film; and I am content with merely being another passing shadow or ghost in the background and being out of the way of the larger film in the same way Daniel Day-Lewis removes himself to make space for his characters.
After the end of primary activity for the day and the sun fully gone, upon waiting around on set as long as I could in hopes for another callback for possible additional scenes, which ended up being postponed, I ran into the aforementioned character of “Red” on my way out. We passed each other with a smirk, both undoubtedly remembering the ridiculous encounter from earlier in the day. “Titties,” he muttered softly, as he passed me by.