Editor Michael Kahn collaborated with director Steven Spielberg once again on Lincoln – an intimate portrait of one of America’s greatest leader’s in the final four months of his life and presidency, and during his defining battle: the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, permanently abolishing slavery in the nation.
About what is one of the longest relationships in the film industry – 37 years – Kahn quipped, “I don’t do dishes or windows.” He simply attributes the success of his collaboration with Spielberg to the fact that, “We like each other.” Like other editors who work regularly with a particular director there is also a comfort level that goes beyond the mutual respect. “I understand Steven’s reactions and he understands mine,” Kahn added. “There are no surprises.”
Kahn doesn’t get too involved in the script stages, or “anything outside of editing,” coming onto the film a few weeks before the start of production. Once Spielberg starts shooting, Kahn starts editing. Although other editors might breakdown a script ahead of time that is not the way Kahn works. “My script is the dailies. My script is the film,” he explained.
During production, Kahn has an editing trailer right next to the director’s trailer. They screen dailies together on the Avid and the director selects takes, which saves time according to Kahn, who shows the edited scene to Spielberg the next day. “It benefits him to see it quickly,” he said. Then, whenever the director is free between takes, they run revised scenes, adjusting the edits as they go, so that by the end of production, the cut is more polished than most assemblies and includes the takes that the director prefers. “By the time he gets to see the whole cut, it’s not a surprise to him,” explained Kahn. “He’s seen everything already.”
Lincoln contains the most dialog of any Spielberg film, but that did not affect Kahn’s approach to the film. It was mainly a matter of selecting the best takes. With an actor like Daniel Day Lewis in the lead, there was a wealth of brilliant performances. “Daniel, all day he walked around as Lincoln,” revealed Kahn. “What an actor. We would sit there amazed. He was very consistent. The changes were slight. Every performance was a gem. I get chills up my spine.” The performance had such an effect on the filmmakers that Spielberg went to set dressed in a suit and tie out of respect for Lincoln.
Kahn spoke about the “great script,” commenting that the filmmakers just had “to make sense” of it all by creating a consistent performance arc, not only scene by scene, but throughout the whole picture. Spielberg worked with both Lewis and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter, Tony Kushner to shape the story. Kahn was fascinated “watching the interplay between these brilliant men.” As with almost any film, a few scenes were cut from the final edit. “Steven is very careful about putting in the right pieces,” said Kahn. “I’ve never seen him so careful and considerate of the actor. It was meticulous the way he did everything.”
The project greatly affected Kahn. “I felt very patriotic doing the film. I was so thrilled because I was learning so much. I felt special doing it. I felt wonderful,” shared Kahn. “It’s America. It’s all about us.”