Lincoln has been a passion project for Steven Spielberg since he locked down the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals more than a decade ago. The result—a concentrated look at the final four months of Lincoln’s life, when he struggled to pass the 13th amendment and end the Civil War—is an awards contender with Daniel Day-Lewis at the helm. TIME hosted a VIP packed-house screening of the Presidential biopic last night in New York City. (Guests included Oprah Winfrey, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Lauren Bush and Kurt Andersen.) Spielberg, Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner were on hand to talk Lincoln fears, questions they would have liked to ask the 16th President and what ended up on the cutting room floor.
The famously reticent Day-Lewis—shorn of his Lincoln beard—spoke about the difficulties of becoming Lincoln. “If you approach Lincoln head on, it’s like a child in front of a monument. You have to come at him from an angle—behind his left shoulder.” Though he said he initially was scared to take the role (“I thought it might be impossible…”), he did spend a year researching the man and finding his voice. “It’s lucky for me that no one can say positively what he sounded like,” Day-Lewis said. When mention of his mastery of Lincoln’s thin, reedy tenor drew applause, Day-Lewis talked method: “I try not to dismember a character—a life—into its component parts. Because the voice is such a deep personal reflection of character, I leave it alone. If I’m very lucky I begin to hear a voice—not supernatural—but it’s a powerful moment. Thank god it did happen in this case. I began to hear a voice as I drew closer to the man.”
Spielberg spoke about the type of movie he wanted to make, how he purposefully remained in the claustrophobic world of Washington D.C. as Lincoln worked to abolish slavery. “There couldn’t be a cutaway to a battle or a cutaway to snow melting as the next year of Civil War starts,” he said. “That would have been a different kind of movie—a movie movie. I had to stay inside Lincoln’s process.”
But what didn’t make it into the film? Not much, according to Spielberg. “I’m not going to name names of movies I made, but I made a long film and people seemed to like it. In 1993,” he joked of the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. “We looked at an hour and 43 minutes of outtakes for that film… There were too many things I was so sad I took out. But there were only 25 minutes of outtakes for Lincoln. That’s a tribute to Tony’s screenplay.”
That’s not to say that Kushner didn’t have his own challenges while writing. When TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel, who led the panel, asked, “How do you write the dialogue for the man who wrote the Second Inaugural,” his response was quick: “It was terrifying.” (The multiple drafts of Kushner’s script included the addition of the word “disenthrall” at Day-Lewis’s request. The actor had come across the word in Lincoln’s writing and liked it. Though a long speech originally slated for Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens on what a dreadful piece of writing the 10th amendment was didn’t make the cut. “Steven said to save it for an op-ed piece,” Kushner said, drawing laughs.)
Perhaps the most poignant question of the night came when the men were asked what one question they would pose to Lincoln if given the chance. For Kushner, it was a matter of regret: “Andrew Johnson was in many ways a disastrous choice for vice president. Are you sorry you picked him?” Spielberg focused on the future Lincoln never saw: “What specifically is your plan for reconstruction after the war? What is your plan to stave off hate crimes?”
Day-Lewis chose a different approach: “I wouldn’t have asked any questions at all. I would have probably expressed a sense of gratitude. For me, growing up in southeast London, it’s so inconceivable that in my life I’d play this man and grow to love him. I would just thank him.”