Kris and I attended Lincoln Friday (early evening, OK, matinee) and we both enjoyed it immensely. I’m wondering what you thought of the movie ... but this clip from an article about how they worked to get Lincoln’s abundant speaking sounding like what would have been said in the 1860s is a good exhibit of the work done by moviemakers…
IMAGINE THAT you’re Steven Spielberg and you need a script for your new film: a meticulous re-creation of the final months in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Keep in mind that it’s a modern Hollywood blockbuster but is set a century and a half ago. It portrays real people with distinctive regional quirks, and revolves around perhaps the greatest orator in American history. Oh, and it’s two and a half hours of mostly talking. How would you ensure that the language of the film was just right?
What Spielberg did, after some false starts with other screenwriters, was to hire Tony Kushner, a playwright with a talent for channeling diverse voices and whose only previous movie work was on Spielberg’s “Munich.” Whatever its other cinematic virtues, “Lincoln” is undoubtedly a linguistic achievement, imbuing vintage 19th-century dialogue with contemporary vibrancy.
Curious about how Kushner pulled it off, I got in touch with him to learn more about his writing process. One key to making the language historically suitable, he told me, was having the 20-volume print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. A complete set of the OED—which includes deep histories of all its entry words, with examples—was one of his first purchases when he started earning money from his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, “Angels in America,” Kushner said. Through the many drafts of “Lincoln,” he checked every word that he thought might not have been appropriate for 1865.