Shooting Lincoln: How local talent and the Virginia film industry made Spielberg’s blockbuster possible

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Photo: Dreamworks Photo: Dreamworks

Lincoln never would have been made without the 200 block of East Main Street in Charlottesville. It may sound like gross hyperbole, but it’s true in a very mundane and specific kind of way. Because Erica Arvold—film producer, casting director, and acting advocate—has her office in a building there, and she was responsible for hundreds of the extras and principals who will fill the screen in Steven Spielberg’s epic depiction of the last four months in the life of the Great Emancipator.

According to a third party consultant’s report, the State of Virginia offered $3.5 million in tax rebates to DreamWorks, which in turn generated $32.3 million of direct spending in Virginia, 518 jobs, and a total economic impact of $64 million. Those don’t sound like union numbers to me, but let’s not split hairs. Bringing a Spielberg production to town is good news.

Erica Arvold—film producer, casting director, and industry educator—moved to Charlottesville from Los Angeles thinking she’d have to give up her career in the movie business. In the past year, she cast hundreds of extras in major projects like Lincoln and “Killing Lincoln” and produced her own independent film, House Hunting, which premiered at the Virginia Film Festival last Saturday. Photo: Courtesy subject.

Down in the basement of the same building where Arvold has an office, James “Ike” Eichling runs Ike’s Underground, a vintage clothing store. Eichling got one of those 518 jobs and the chance to sit across the table from Daniel Day-Lewis for two days playing Postmaster General William Dennison, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet and a powerful member of the Whig party.

Michael Kennedy got one too. Kennedy’s been a Virginia-based actor for 60 years and is a founding member of the Virginia Production Alliance, the state’s grassroots film lobby. He played Hiram Price, a five-term Senator from Davenport, Iowa and got a hug from Steven Spielberg for his trouble. Then there’s Waynesboro electrician David Foster, who acted as Daniel Day-Lewis’ stand-in and a “radical Republican,” and had the best view of the Irish superstar channeling the spirit of Father Abraham. And Lance Lemon, a Mechanicsville native and 2011 UVA graduate who played “African-American Union soldier.” Arvold cast all of them.

When I say that Lincoln couldn’t have been made without the 200 block of East Main Street, it’s literally true, but the film could have been shot in a lot of places, and it probably would have ended up looking very much the same.

Flip the script the other way, and it changes things. Every aspect of the modern South has a kind of causal relationship when you’re talking about Lincoln. If he hadn’t started the war, or ended it, or freed the slaves, or gotten the Thirteenth Amendment ratified, we would look very different, live in a different place, be different people.

Lemon wouldn’t have been an African-American UVA graduate from Richmond looking to pursue a career in film by playing a black Union soldier.

Steven Spielberg wouldn’t have spent 18 days on Church Square pretending the Capitol building was the White House or 10 years agonizing over a passion project that doesn’t have much in common with his other films.

“The irony of the fact that here we are filming in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, this story about Abraham Lincoln. That whole irony was not lost on them and they had great respect for the building we were in,” said Virginia Film Office’s Interim Director Andy Edmunds.

Blockbuster deal
Edmunds remembers the moment he was sure Lincoln was coming to Virginia. It was November 2010 and he’d spent the day before driving Steven Spielberg, his production designer Rick Carter, and a small group of insiders from location to location between Richmond and Petersburg.

“He left Richmond, went to New York, announced Daniel Day-Lewis, said I’m making this movie. And I knew then it was gonna happen,” Edmunds said.

Waynesboro actor David Foster is an electrician by trade, but for a few months last year he was also Abraham Lincoln. Foster served as Daniel Day-Lewis’ stand-in on the set and had perhaps the best view of the Irish actor’s collaboration with Steven Spielberg during the project. Photo: Norm Shafer

Edmunds had worked on Spielberg projects before, on War of the Worlds in Lexington and Minority Report around Gloucester, but the era’s most famous director had never come in person to scout. The Lincoln project was different, both in scale and significance. Edmunds, who has been at the Virginia Film Office for 15 years has spent the last nine of those years making Lincoln happen. He’d been working on it for seven years before that day in November.

“I have a 9-year-old son who wasn’t even born when we started,” Edmunds said. “It’s kind of interesting to see him and to know that’s how long it took to get it going.”

To understand why it took so long to get Lincoln to Virginia, you have to understand the rapidly evolving landscape of film tax incentives. According to Edmunds, Lincoln could easily have landed “anywhere from Massachusetts down to Georgia. Or even in Romania. For the pure economics of it, they probably could have gone to Romania and built everything. And then had some landscapes and it would have been a less expensive movie to make.”

When he first heard about the project in November 2003, things weren’t as complicated. States competed on historical films primarily based on the appropriateness of their locations.

“We used to compete purely on that artistic and logistical decision. Let’s come to Virginia because this stuff looks great for a script,” Edmunds said. “The game over the last 10 years has completely changed to where it became an economic decision first. The states on the shortlist that the studios would come look at were the states that had the biggest rebate programs. Tax credits.”

According to Edmunds, Spielberg could have gotten $11.5 million in tax credits from Georgia, while Virginia was only offering about $3.5 million. It was his job and mission to sell the other aspects of the package to Carter, who was the man on the ground, riding around for hours and hours with Edmunds in a van.

“Over a long period of time, you become very close friends and you know each other’s stories. It’s a relationship-driven business at the end of the day,” Edmunds said. “That relationship will only go so far when the economics become a reality and other states are offering millions of dollars to bring the movie to their state.”

Lincoln was a project with a long term of incubation, ostensibly because it was a passion project for Spielberg and a dramatic departure from his blockbuster bread and butter. But since that day in November two years ago, everything has moved pretty fast. The script, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and focuses on the last four months of Lincoln’s life. It’s not a war movie. Rather, as Edmunds said, “it’s a movie with a lot of people talking in a lot of rooms.”

His job was to find the right rooms, so he got to read the film script “in a kind of hermetically sealed environment.” The last four months of Lincoln’s life included his Second Inaugural Address, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Lee’s retreat from Petersburg and surrender, Lincoln’s triumphant visit to Richmond, and, finally, his assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

Edmunds is used to selling history. He worked on Terrence Malick’s 2005 Jamestown epic The New World and on the Tom Hanks-produced HBO miniseries “John Adams,” which was filmed in Williamsburg in 2007. He also helped bring “Killing Lincoln,” a Ridley Scott-produced National Geographic Channel television production that focuses on John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kill the president, to Virginia.

“Deals like these never really close because there’s never like any ceremony where something is signed. You never believe a movie is coming until the camera is set up, the trucks are here and they’re starting to roll film,” he said.

Making history
“It’s a testament to Steven Spielberg that he wanted to have some authentic feel to the movie, not only from the look of the locations in Richmond and Petersburg, but the whole region is just kind of dripping with authenticity. That period of history just kind of lives and breathes here,” Edmunds said. “Knowing that Lincoln had in fact walked right by the Capitol over to the White House of the Confederacy to visit Jefferson Davis’ home, two weeks before he was assassinated. He arrived on Rocket’s Landing here and walked up the streets of Richmond, to great fanfare and celebration from the freed slave population. Richmond has that deep story and they were kind of channeling and feeling the vibe.”

Once he and his team made the sale, Edmunds had to make sure the production came off without a hitch. That meant figuring out how to offer the type of control Spielberg was used to with a building that still housed the state government.

“Making a movie of this scale is kind of like disaster management. There are so many things that can go wrong at any moment. So many different departments that need to coordinate to execute the day,” Edmunds said. “You’ve got weather and actors’ schedules and all these other variables that can cost you $400-500,000 if you lose a day. So there’s all this pressure to make things go well, and it went very well.”

Michael Holt, emeritus professor of history at UVA, is a political historian who has specialized in the rise and fall of the American Whig party and the crises that led the country into Civil War. Holt, who is originally from Pittsburgh, spent three decades teaching a class called “Coming to Civil War” to UVA students, and says he still thinks of himself as a “carpetbagger.”

His Lincoln is the Lincoln that is the subject of 16,000 books and a highly contested academic battleground. Was he a visionary or a party man? Was the war his fault or his destiny? Was emancipation a primary goal or an opportunistic application of ideals?

And then there’s Virginia. Holt remembers a cocktail party at the Tredegar Museum to celebrate the award of the Lincoln Prize in 2005 being protested by a handful of neo-Confederates. He also remembers when the history of the war itself had a North/South orientation, focusing on campaign tactics, whether Lee could have won if he had had another division here or if Stuart had stayed closer there.

As a political historian, he appreciates the significance of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in January. Holt says Spielberg and Kushner’s decision to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s life simplifies his portrayal considerably. In those months, Lincoln was at his most straightforward, working assiduously to end the war and pass the Thirteenth Amendment.

He says the thrust of Kearns-Goodwin’s book, the idea that Lincoln preserved the Union by fielding a “team of rivals,” is a matter of interpretation and emphasis, pointing out that his colleague William Freehling, a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for a decade, has argued that Lincoln could have, perhaps even should have, prevented the war by reaching out to Democrats earlier in his administration.

Holt believes Lincoln thoroughly deserves his reputation as the Great Emancipator, a man who “hated slavery” and worked to end it, but he said emancipation has to be seen in its own context, which was thoroughly pragmatic.

“There is a certain justice in filming this in Richmond because I think it’s very clear that it was only Lee’s turning away McClellan from Richmond in the summer of 1862 that caused Lincoln to decide that he had to emancipate to win the war,” he said.

Still, he appreciates the dramatic tool the film will employ and said he’s looking forward to seeing the depiction of the Hampton Roads Conference, where Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward met a Confederate delegation led by Vice President Alexander Stephens on a riverboat to try to arrange a peace agreement. The Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln’s second-most famous speech, is fascinating because it had a retroactive effect on history even in its own day.

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln said. “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

For the purpose of the film, Richmond was Washington, D.C. and itself. The Capitol chambers were turned into the floor of the U.S. Congress. But Lincoln’s triumphant entry into Richmond prior to Lee’s final surrender needed no subterfuge. Daniel Day-Lewis lived on Church Hill and Spielberg lived downtown. The cast and crew lived on top of the history they were filming, a nuanced portrayal of the last months of the Great Emancipator.

Edmunds saw the film for the first time at a screening for the Motion Picture Association of America in Washington, D.C. last month. Having grown up in small town Virginia in the ’60s, seeing a movie in which the legal codification of emancipation is so much the focus had a profound effect.

“The nature of the story and the main thread of what they’ve grabbed hold of in this Lincoln story did very much personally resonate with me and that’s why it’s just such an amazing opportunity to have been a part of it,” Edmunds said. “To have grown up and seen that injustice and to see how that injustice early in our history was corrected in a big way but is yet to be completely resolved to this day. Hopefully it will as time goes by.”

But what did it feel like, after 10 years, when the lights came up in the theater?

“After seeing the film was over, seeing what kind of a remarkable achievement it was for Spielberg and for the actors involved and for us and for the state and for me personally, it was very much a feeling of sadness that it was over,“ Edmunds said. “It’s like I’ve had the trifecta of Virginia history to be involved with. It’s kind of like the astronauts that have gone to the moon. What do you do now?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/HokieRebelHoo Liz Savage

    1986 UVA MFA graduate of the department of drama Christopher Cartmill also portrays a theatre owner in “Lincoln”.

  • Max Terman

    I came to the Civil War through writing a novel about my ancestor’s Civil War experiences (Hiram’s Honor) and really look forward to seeing “Lincoln” and perhaps feeling my ancestor’s emotions when he saw Lincoln at a troop review before the battle of Chancellorsville.

  • Sam

    The title is misleading since anyone can cast extras.

  • Sam

    The paragraph below the title is misleading since anyone can cast extras. A great film that would still be great without casting c’ville extras.

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