On the Set of 'Lincoln'
University Public Affairs
“Lincoln” attracted attention throughout the Richmond area last fall when Hollywood boldfaced names descended on the city to film the epic period piece that covers the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life.
Most locals were merely curious about the film and its large cast of stars, but many others saw an opportunity to get involved in a major film production. VCU, in particular, was well-represented on the set, as dozens of students, alumni and others with strong university ties landed work with the production, serving a wide variety of roles both on screen and behind the scenes.
For instance, more than 20 former and current students in the Cinema program in the VCU School of the Arts served as interns, production assistants and paid crew members during the pre-production and principal photography stages of the Richmond leg of the filming, while a host of students and alumni of the Department of Theatre, also in the VCU School of the Arts, were in the cast and on the crew.
The film, which has garnered strong early critical praise, opens nationwide this week.
VCU News spoke with four current VCU students who were part of the “Lincoln” production.
Kevin Inouye, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre, served as an extra, taking on the role of a member of the union cavalry.
Josh Jones, who is majoring in English and minoring in world cinema, served as an extra, playing the part of a union soldier in a number of scenes during six days on the set.
Marlee Kamis, a student in VCU’s Cinema Program, worked as an intern for the assistant directors department.
Nick Skliris, a student in VCU’s Department of Theatre, worked as an extra in multiple capacities and as a stand-in for actors Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (Robert Lincoln) and James Spader (W.N. Bilbo).
Kamis, who knows how to work a multi-line phone system, was enlisted to work at the front desk before shooting began. She soon met an executive producer and producer on the film.
Kamis: “Then (“Lincoln” director Steven) Spielberg walked by because he was leaving for the day. And he says, ‘Good night everybody,’ and I’m like, ‘Good night!’ And then Daniel Day-Lewis walks in for a fitting and I wasn’t even, I couldn’t even process it. That was the only time I saw him when he wasn’t in Lincoln clothes. Everyone else is jealous about that because every time they saw him he was already transformed.
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is real. All of these people exist, they’re real human beings who live and breathe and they’re introducing themselves to me and shaking my hand and speaking to me.”
Kamis: “I’d have my car packed and ready. I’d go to class, run to my car and immediately drive out to Mechanicsville or Petersburg or wherever we were going. I’d have a change of clothes in the car because I wanted to get there as soon as possible. Because if you don’t get there then someone else is going to be doing something that you could be doing and you’re missing an opportunity.”
Skliris: “I was there for four days as an extra. I was a dead confederate soldier, then I was a fighting confederate soldier and then I was a union sailor. So I came back to life and switched sides during those four days.”
Extras and stand-ins quickly learned to keep a low-key presence.
Skliris: “You have to be aware all the time. Always alert and ready to do your job. Speak only when spoken to. You have to be silent and prepared and patient.”
Inouye: “Being a background extra is the perfect way to see everything that goes on on a movie set.”
Inouye was selected for the cavalry because of his ability to ride a horse in formation.
Inouye: “I was stressed at first because I wanted to get it right. I couldn’t do anything else except ride on the horse at first – couldn’t really do any acting. Then I got more comfortable.
“I was lucky to have a horse that had been doing (the work) much longer than I had.”
Inouye worked with a number of expert re-enactors who gave him tips on the minutia of his appearance and actions.
Inouye: “It adds a depth to it. It doesn’t translate directly to the audience necessarily, but if it helps the actors get more into character than that will come across in their performance.”
The Scale of the Production
Jones: “It was massive. Every piece of equipment there was the best piece of equipment available.”
Kamis: “It really is as big as it gets. It’s a period piece directed by Steven Spielberg starring just about every major actor there is. It is just begging to win every Oscar.”
Inouye: “There was any army of people there making sure you looked right.”
Skliris: “One of my favorite weeks was in this old section of Petersburg. The roads were cobblestone and the buildings looked like they were around the time just after the Civil War. It was very impressive to see that. And, after they laid down a lot of dirt and mulch on the roads to give it the feel of that time period, I really did feel like I was there.”
Kamis: “The food was great. The first day of shooting: huge lobster tails.”
On Steven Spielberg
Jones said the large set initially seemed chaotic on his first day. “Then (Spielberg) walks out and everything is silent.” He was acting low key, wearing a peacoat, scarf and glasses, but everybody knew he was in control. When he gave direction to lead actors, he pulled them aside quietly. He seemed attuned to every detail, walking around the set and inspecting the smallest props. “He always said hi to the extras. He was just down to earth.”
Skliris: “He was very precise about everything, including the costumes. He had an incredible devotion to getting it right.”
Kamis: “Spielberg every day if you opened a door for him he’d say thank you. The first time it happened at the capitol building. He asked me something and then he walked away. And then his bodyguard came up to me and said, ‘You can breathe now.’”
On Daniel Day-Lewis
The star of the movie impressed with his devotion to his role. Students on set followed his methods closely. The actor only conferred with others who were in period costume, except for his interactions with Spielberg.
Jones: “We tried to be levelheaded and for the most part everybody was. It became commonplace (to be around him) but we still didn’t really get used to it. It was exciting pretty much the entire time he was there.”
Skliris: “I would study his spine. When you take on the role of a president you take on a lot of stress and responsibilities. In war time you age even more and so the amazing part was to see Daniel Day-Lewis’s spine. It had a slight curvature. I don’t remember the exact degree. It seemed like on different vertebrae – on like the top four – he had curved them anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees and he kept it at all times. I watched how he walked, how he presented himself. I would also see his interactions with Sally Field (who plays Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln) and I would see them off set and they would be holding each other as if they were a husband and wife, like a warm embrace, and I’d think, ‘That’s incredible.’ I really appreciated seeing that commitment to a role.”
On a bitterly cold, wet early morning shoot, Jones and a group of fellow union soldiers encountered Day-Lewis, who acknowledged the men by saying – while staying in character with the distinctive voice he developed for the role -- “You boys stay warm now.” Afterward, Jones and his fellow Yankees could not decide if Day-Lewis had wished them well or if it had been his character that had spoken to them.
Skliris: “The men were wearing these wool suits and sweating all the time.”
Jones was in a group of extras dressed as union soldiers who marched back and forth in their wool uniforms on an unseasonably warm November day, casting moving shadows on the ground for the shot. “That was the hardest day,” he said.
Kamis: “The roughest days were when it was raining and there also was a rain machine and all of the interns were in camouflage ponchos running around with a bunch of extras. It’s funny to watch the trailer now and say, ‘Oh, I was back behind that tent in that ugly poncho yelling at extras,’ but at the time it wasn’t great because we weren’t seasoned enough production assistants to know that water-resistant isn’t the same as waterproof.”
The Celebrity Cast
Kamis: “People who I would not be able to handle how famous they were were not a huge deal on that set. They would come sit next to you at the lunch table.”
Skliris: “Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, the first day I was standing in for him – the actor doesn’t have to talk to the stand-in at all, that’s totally fine – but the first day he came up and introduced himself and shook my hand. I had to compose myself. He ended up being an incredibly nice guy.”
Kamis: “For me, though, it wasn’t about meeting the actors. It was about meeting someone like Adam Somner.”
Those on the set quickly viewed Adam Somner, an assistant director on the film, and Janusz Kaminski, the director of photography, as key figures in the complicated machinery of the film. Both are long-time collaborators with Spielberg.
Kamis: “(Somner’s) my personal idol.”
Jones: “I aspire to be him. He’s loud, brash, to the point, but you know he cares so much and he’s funny. He’s in control.”
When the production assistant who typically tended to Somner’s needs was pulled away to work with a set of extras, Kamis got the call and was given a list of duties.
Kamis: "Adam would just say into the walkie-talkie, ‘Marmite,’ and that would mean someone needed to go and get that disgusting yeast extract and put it in hot water and bring it to him. I got to bring him those things before he asked for them and he was shocked and was like, ‘Thank you, dear,’ and he asked me to get him something else. I went and got it and I remember standing there with Steven Spielberg’s assistant and Daniel Day-Lewis’s assistant while Adam, Spielberg and Day-Lewis worked on something. And they call action and we’re standing there waiting and then they called cut and we all ran to our bosses and gave them their things and then ran back off, as if we weren’t even there.”
Kaminski earned a reputation as a prankster.
Skliris: “Kaminski was this amazing defuser on that set – an amazing defuser of stress and tension. He would crack jokes all the time and poke fun at people and blow cigar smoke in people’s faces, just doing random things to relax everybody. He’d been doing this work for a long time but he clearly still was having a lot of fun doing his job.”
The Set’s Surprising Civility
Jones: “The people who had the most power on that set were the ones who viewed other people as people. It was empowering to see that you don’t have to be cutthroat to be successful in Hollywood.”
Kamis: “They were really appreciative of all of the kids running around working crazy hours for free.”
Skliris: “I never saw anyone act as though they were better than anyone else. They all were concentrated on getting the job done.”
Kamis: “I don’t want to work for mean people now when I know that the best people are nice. They kind of spoiled us.”
Rumors proliferated on set, especially among the extras, who passed along tales of the stars, information they’d heard about the shooting schedule and other tidbits.
Jones: “I heard one guy got to Spielberg and proposed a Jurassic 4 script.”
The Finished Film
Jones hopes he made it into some scenes, though he’s not sure that even he will be able to pick himself out. He’s a bearded union soldier in a film filled with them. He played a dead soldier in the grass in one scene that made it into the movie’s trailer. He made a still image of the shot from the trailer, circled the bodies on the ground and posted it to Facebook, letting his friends know he was in there somewhere
Skliris: “I was in the trailer for a blip second, eight to 10 seconds in, fighting a union soldier. I thought, yep, that’s me, fighting in a swamp, trying to kill a guy.”
Kamis: “My parents have told me that they do not want to see this movie with me because every time they’ve seen something with me that I’ve worked on I talk the whole time. Like it took us 10 minutes to watch the trailer because I would pause it and say that’s when this was happening and that’s when I was sitting in a room with Daniel Day- Lewis and this was when Sally Field was crying.”
Kamis: “What I learned from that experience is that I’m on the right track. I have the right idea. I know this is what I want to do the rest of my life and seeing these people doing those jobs and the people who are the best at those jobs doing those jobs pushes me even harder to get to that point. I never had a doubt that this is what I wanted to do, but watching them just confirmed it.”
Jones: “The biggest thing I got out of it is the level of professionalism in the industry. The people on a movie set like this one have a pure understanding of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. The professionalism of the people with even the smallest jobs was obvious. There were a lot of people doing their jobs exceptionally well.”
Skliris: “You have to be incredibly patient and courteous and selfless. As with any art, it’s an idea that transcends yourself. Lots of people have to collaborate on it. It’s exciting seeing it at work – the diligence and the dedication. It was impressive.”
Kamis: “Even on the hardest days you know that we’re all a part of this thing that’s going to be really great. And we’re going to have this movie and we’re going to be like, ‘Wow, every single one of us had a hand in that.’”
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