Tony Kushner on His Lincoln Screenplay, Séances and the Greatest Political Speech of All Time

TIME spoke with the Pulitzer Prize winner on what he learned over the six years he spent researching and honing the blueprint for Steven Spielberg’s film

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Tony Kushner’s first draft of his screenplay for Lincoln ran to a mammoth 500 pages; the streamlined final result focuses on the last days of the Civil War and Lincoln’s fight to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. Over two telephone conversations, TIME spoke with Kushner (a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Angels in America) on what he learned over the six years he spent researching and honing the blueprint for Steven Spielberg’s film.

On Lincoln as movie hero:
“Steven [Spielberg] and I spent many years working on the script together, and I wanted to make sure that we weren’t making a film that was simply hero worship. I didn’t want it to be, ‘This was the greatest guy that ever lived, and it’s too bad that he’s not here now, and he could come and save us.’ Because what’s the point of that? So we worked very hard on making a movie about the realities and the specifics of the political process.”

On Lincoln’s greatest speech:
“I have always revered the Second Inaugural Address, which is the greatest thing Lincoln wrote, one of the greatest things any human being ever wrote, and, I think, the greatest political speech ever. It’s so breathtaking that he delivered the thing as his inaugural address, telling the North as well as the South that this horrendous war has been occasioned by the evil of slavery and by the North as well as the South profiting from it. It’s unimaginable today. And Lincoln was certainly not a fool as a politician. He knew the dangers of saying these things, but he believed in the people and he believed they could hear the truth. It was very hard for him to write the speech. It was one of the few times he closed up the White House and wouldn’t talk to anybody for almost a week. I think he went into a very, very dark and difficult place to write that speech, and emerged with this 721-word masterpiece.”

(MORE: TIME talks to Steven Spielberg about the making of Lincoln)

On Lincoln the autodidact:
“He had this unbelievable curiosity about everything. He wanted to know how everything worked. He loved machinery of all kinds. He was fascinated by the telegraph and completely horrified when Samuel Morse turned out to be a repellent right-wing Democrat who hated Lincoln’s guts. He read the Bible, obviously, and had something like an eidetic memory and an ability to pull forth Bible quotations very easily—not coming from a church background but from his love of the prose and the poetry of the Bible. He adored Robert Burns, and he had some unfortunate tastes in some so-so, cheesy, mid-19th-century sort of flowery poetry. He also loved Dickens, which is always a good sign.”

On Lincoln and modern-day Republicans:
“I’ve always been very intrigued by the arc the Republican Party had taken from being a progressive, pro-government party during the Civil War to the thing it is today. I didn’t understand as much about that as I understand now that I’ve spent six years working on Lincoln. And the frequency with which modern-day Republicans like George W. Bush will claim direct connection to the man who basically created the federal income tax, the national bank, national currency, national holidays, the draft and many other manifestations of Big Government—that was intriguing to me.”

On Lincoln the Shakespearian:
“He loved Macbeth. He loved ‘I am in blood, stepped in so far that should I wade no more’—that going forward is the same as going back. There is great truth in that for the commander-in-chief at a time when 800,000 people in the North and South were dying. The horror of that was very difficult for him, and Shakespeare clearly helped him maintain his sanity. In Hamlet, he said that everyone was mistaken in thinking that the great speech is “To be or not to be…” The great speech, he said, is really Claudius’s speech, where he asks how he can really be forgiven if he retains the benefit of his offense. Which is really the point of the second Inaugural Address.”

(MOREVisiting Lincoln’s Springfield)

On Lincoln’s ghostly supporters:
“Mary Lincoln had regular séances where she communicated with the ghost of her son Willy after Willy died. All four of her half-brothers fought for the Confederacy, and three of them died during the war. And the Lincolns lost a number of friends. They were dealing with a great deal of loss and death, and Mary believed—as did many, many people in the United States at the time—in communication with the dead. In 1864, the National Convention of Spiritualists in Chicago communicated with the spirit world, and the spirit world told them they were endorsing Abraham Lincoln in his re-election bid.”

On Lincoln’s as President Obama’s tutor:
“It has always seemed to me that Barack Obama has studied intensely and learned a great deal from Lincoln. There’s this wonderful thing that John Rawls, the philosopher of law, says, and I think he’s actually quoting an old maxim: that the politician thinks about the next election, but the statesman thinks about the next generation. More than any President than I can remember, President Obama really seems to understand that he’s building something. I think he inherited a situation that’s as desperate in its way as what Franklin Roosevelt inherited. Nothing is as desperate as the Civil War that Lincoln stepped into, but the mess that Obama inherited from the previous administration is as great as anything an American President other than Lincoln has faced.

“One of the things it has required of him is a willingness to compromise his own, I would assume, deepest desires in order to keep government functioning, in spite of the unprecedented level of obstruction from the Republican Party. And I think he’s asked the people who support him to understand that maintaining a hold on power and rebuilding a progressive base in the halls of power in Washington is going to be the work of not just this term and the next term, but many terms to come. This is very much what Lincoln was faced with. He had to get re-elected, but he also had to keep the border states from seceding. It’s a very mature and difficult understanding of democracy, that democracy isn’t an expression of pure ideals or personal purity, and that the pace of change is sometimes much slower than we would like.”

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Correction: Samuel Morse’s surname was originally rendered as “Morris.” Thanks to TIME reader @samryan for pointing out the error.