David James/DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox
Steven Spielberg, center, setting up a shot for “Lincoln.”
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If there were an oral history of the making of “Lincoln,” it might start with a 6-year-old Steven Spielberg visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington one winter. “I was freezing my little tush off, and my uncle brought me to meet this giant,” he recalled in an interview here on Monday. “I had no idea who he was except he was bigger than me and really intimidating.”
The young Steven was so scared he didn’t want to look the statue in the eyes. “Then, just before I left, I dared myself to look up into his face and suddenly felt like we were in some way related,” he said. “It was a very familiar feeling, a very warm feeling, and I felt very safe and protected just at a glance.”
“That,” he added, “was an image never forgotten.”
Cut from this moment, with its childhood expression of timeless wonder (a stare that has come to be known, in movie-geek circles, as the Spielberg Face), to a set in Richmond, Va., nearly 60 years later, where hundreds of artisans, technicians and performers are laboring to get the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life on screen. The mood, many said, was reverential: Daniel Day-Lewis, as Lincoln, was called the president even when he wasn’t in front of the camera, and when radios crackled with word that he was entering a scene, the set went quiet.
“It had this sacred quality,” Joanna Johnston, the film’s costume designer, said.
“Lincoln” leads the Oscars with a dozen nominations — spread among many who are already nominees and winners many times over — but it was a bear to make, even for professionals at the top of their field. It had been decades, Mr. Spielberg said, since Lincoln’s story was dramatized on the big screen, a gap he found daunting.
“Are wiser, more sage minds or filmmakers telling me that he’s unattainable?” Mr. Spielberg said he asked himself. But his schoolboy fascination — he studied encyclopedia entries about Lincoln (“Popular? No, I wasn’t,” he said) — drove him on.
“I was interested in somebody that looked so awkward and looked so uncomfortable in his skin, could have done the things he did,” Mr. Spielberg said. “The most compelling thing, growing up reading about Lincoln, was that he seemed to be more a man of the people than most presidents are given credit for.” Constituents took their problems directly to him, he said, “and the fact that he actually listened to them was provocative and kind of stirring to me.”
Still, the movie took more than 12 years to come together. It started with a chance conversation between Mr. Spielberg and the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin before a millennium celebration in Washington. Mr. Spielberg bought the rights to her book “Team of Rivals” even before she wrote it, and she sent him a chapter at a time.
Early scripts encompassed all four years of the Lincoln presidency as well as big battle scenes, and, with Liam Neeson screen-testing as Lincoln, the production had a stylized visual feel.
It was “much more about Lincoln’s premonitions and dreams,” Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer, said. When Tony Kushner signed on to adapt the screenplay, tied to the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the details of Lincoln’s life came into focus, Mr. Kaminski said.
“We see him not just as a leader of the nation and a man who changed the world forever, but also a father, as a husband, as a man who has to deal with a wife who is obviously a little bit mentally disturbed, with the loss of his child,” he added. “So you have a chance to see this icon as a regular guy.”
Mr. Kaminski, an Oscar winner for “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” is one of the many veteran Spielbergians who worked on the film, allowing for a cinematic shorthand.
“It’s very much an instinctive process,” Rick Carter, the production designer, said.
John Williams, the composer — and with 48 nominations, the second-most recognized person in Oscar history, after Walt Disney — created a score that he viewed as an accompaniment not to the visuals or emotions on screen but to Mr. Kushner’s dense script. “Principally our role was to try to find textures and tempos that were suitable to the pace of the dialogue,” he said. The soundtrack, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Mr. Williams conducted, is quieter and less dramatic than most of his film compositions (“Star Wars,” “Jaws”).
Michael Kahn has been Mr. Spielberg’s editor since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” filmed in 1976. They edit as they go, looking at footage a day or two after they shoot it. Mr. Spielberg spent more time in the editing room for “Lincoln” than for previous projects, Mr. Kahn said.
They lingered on the actors’ glances. “Steven and I have done so many action pictures, but this was different,” Mr. Kahn said. “This is a good dialogue picture. And what Lincoln said is so important and so historical, and so we were leisurely. We stayed with people and let them talk things out.”
Mr. Kahn, who attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island (“I was meant to be on this show,” he said, his Brooklyn accent intact), was sanguine about criticisms of the movie. “I’ve been on so many movies where they’ve always said it’s too long; you have one ending, you have two endings, you got four endings, and yet we’ve done well,” he said. “If they like the show, they’ll like a couple of minutes more.”