Santa Cruz native opens up about his creative role in Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic
Now that our collective post-election hangover has mostly subsided, politics are probably the last thing you’re looking for in an escape outing at the movies. But Steven Spielberg’s new film—about the triumph of the political process in a time of near-apocalyptic social discord—might surprise you.
Toby Thiermann, a filmmaker from local production studio Impact Media Group, worked on Lincoln for six months of last year and was on the set in Virginia for the duration of filming.
The biopic, which covers the final four months of the title character’s life, details his struggle with the ongoing Civil War, as well as his clashes with members of his own cabinet regarding the decision to abolish slavery.
Thiermann’s contributions to the film were threefold: assisting Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter, shooting behind-the-scenes documentary footage, and appearing in the film in a cameo role as a cartographer.
As written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln is the most performance-driven film of Spielberg’s career, which means that the production design and set decoration play a crucial role in the blocking of a scene and how actors interact with the constructed space. “The production designer touches the script before anyone gets there, so Rick envisions these environments ahead of time, and we took a huge amount of effort in order to allow the director and the actors to feel comfortable and natural within them,” says Thiermann.
Part of that effort is the painstaking lengths for historical accuracy. “We recreated the second floor of the White House, almost to scale, inside this huge warehouse in Virginia,” Thiermann says, reflecting on one of the many sets he helped construct. “And we tried to match historical pictures to make even the wallpaper accurate to the type and the design of wallpaper that Lincoln may have had in his White House, and we had that custom hand-printed in Virginia.”
In addition to Lincoln’s numerous Oscar-recognized below-the-line artists, you would be hard-pressed to find a film with a deeper bench of acting talent. Several inches of column space could be spent simply listing names from the enormous ensemble, but it is headlined by a pair of two-time Oscar winners, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, who play the president and first lady, respectively.
In his cameo role as a cartographer—“It’s funny because my family actually owns a local map company here in Santa Cruz,” he says—Thiermann appears in a scene with Day-Lewis, as one of the beneficiaries of a long-winded joke told by Lincoln.
Day-Lewis’ performance as the nation’s 16th president counterintuitively complements his seismic turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and adds to the actor’s still-growing legend. Aside from those aforementioned Oscars—not to mention an acclaimed overall body of work—Day-Lewis is famous for his complete inhabitation of a character for the duration of a film’s shooting schedule.
It is a process that has become almost mythical in its retelling, but to what extent is the myth a reality? “It’s a complete reality,” says Thiermann. “Daniel was in character the entire time, even when he wasn’t on set. He lived in a period home, he wore period clothes, and he slept in a period bed, and those were all things that he requested so he could really become Abe Lincoln while he was there.”
Moreover, Day-Lewis’ preparation for and devotion to his role benefited the rest of the set, according to Thiermann. “I think it changes everyone’s dynamic when you’re working with an actor that’s that serious,” he says.
That sentiment has stayed with Thiermann long after leaving the set. “I think being involved in a project like Lincoln—once you taste that level of professionalism and talent—it inspires you to do your best work and to try and work with people that are at that level,” he says.
Thiermann believes that audiences will find something to take away from the film as well. “It’s a really awesome piece of American history,” he says. “To learn that Lincoln was such an influential president, and he put so much on the line for his ideals and his beliefs—he’s profoundly affected the direction of our nation.”
‘Lincoln’ is currently in theaters.
Photos: Toby Thiermann