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The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Tony Kushner on Lincoln

Over the last few weeks, Vulture has spoken to the screenwriters of 2012's most notable movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. What pivotal sequences underwent the biggest transformations on their way from script to screen? Today, Tony Kushner details the deceptively simple scene in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that he revised the most. He told his story to Jennifer Vineyard:

I think the hardest scene to write, for some reason, was the buggy ride between Mary (Sally Field) and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) near the end of the movie. You don't know a lot about what they said on the actual buggy ride, and there were so many things they could have talked about — it was actually a very long ride! I'm sure I'll always think, Maybe I should have had them say this; maybe I should have had them say that.

It became a question of what sort of flavor we wanted at the very end, and this is the one we decided on. It was important that it not sound like they knew the movie was ending or that Lincoln was going to be assassinated, because for them it was a new beginning. It was the end of the war and the beginning of a life after the war, and the one thing she always insisted that he said to her then was, "We've both been very miserable for so long. Let's try to be happier." It's just so impossible to hear that now without your heart breaking, because you know they only had a few hours left together!

The only thing that I wish we could have included is that, on their buggy ride, they stopped at the Sixth Street naval yards. I found this out fairly late in my research, but in the attack on Wilmington, they actually only had four ironclad ships, so the admiral made up fake versions of the USS Monitor —they look like the Monitor, but they're actually just pieces of plywood with a turret on top — and they floated them into Wilmington Harbor and caused great terror because people thought it was a whole fleet of Monitors, and there was no way to sink that! So Lincoln and Mary stopped at the naval yards because a couple of the fake ships had been brought into the Sixth Street naval yards, and he apparently helped her stand on the deck of one of them, and they held each other as it bobbled around. I love that image, and I wish we could have included that, but there was so much in this film, in his life, and only so much we could have done, so that had to go.

I wrote, literally, about a hundred different versions of the scene. Long versions, short versions, involving different things that happened or may have happened on the buggy ride. We kept shifting back and forth until we finally found the one that I could live with and Steven and Daniel and Sally liked. Am I happy with the way it turned out? They play it so beautifully, so yes.

Photo: Samantha Becker