October 25, 2007
Kushner’s (old) testament to Lincoln
(Page 2 - Previous Page)JJ: C.A. Tripp's book, 'The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,' which posited that Lincoln was gay, came out around the time Spielberg asked you to write the film. Has it affected the way you think about Lincoln?
TK: I think everyone assumed I was doing the film because of the gay angle, that it was going to be the 'gay Abraham Lincoln.' But I have to say that while I think the Tripp book is very interesting, I don't think there's enough evidence one way or the other to make a definitive statement about Lincoln's sexuality. When he was the president of the United States, Lincoln seems to almost never have slept. He never took a vacation in the entire time that he was in the White House, unlike the president who's in the White House now, and I don't get the impression that there was much or necessarily any sexual activity, or that he was ever really a person with a great deal of sexual appetite.
JJ: A number of people have wondered why a dramatist of your stature would want to write screenplays. In the theater it's very much been the Tony Kushner show, but when you write screenplays -- especially for a director like Steven Spielberg -- it's about someone else's vision. What was the draw when he called you about 'Munich'?
TK: There are a number of answers -- everything from the fact that I love movies to wanting to work with this extraordinary director to the subject matter. I've been engaged for years in the Middle East debate; I co-edited an anthology, 'Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,' which is one reason I came to Steven's attention. And I was really excited and surprised that Steven wanted to make this particular movie, which I thought was a very difficult, very ambiguous and sad story -- and one that would raise the ire of some in the Jewish community and also the war-against-terror crowd. That was an experience that I had had that Steven hadn't had yet. He was [mostly lauded] for 'Schindler's List,' and he was (and is) a great narrative filmmaker but not somebody who had made a lot of work that was hugely controversial.... I [warned] him that it wasn't particularly pleasant when one becomes targeted by those who are vigilant about crushing any dissent about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
JJ: Were you surprised by the virulent response to the film?
TK: When it first came out I went to a late showing near my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the theater was absolutely packed, and I watched it, and I was really frightened. I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we've done this movie, we're going to get a lot of s--- for it,' and we did. But I wasn't surprised after all.
JJ: A number of people denounced you, and Jehuda Reinharz, the president of Brandeis University, phoned you before you received an honorary doctorate there last year.
TK: We had a good conversation, and I think he was, like, relieved, that I wasn't a crazy person. I didn't get on the phone and say I want Israel to be destroyed. I absolutely support Israel's right to exist and to promote its security, but I also support a two-state solution and peace talks -- which should be conducted even with Hamas, and continued even when there are suicide bombers.
JJ: Did you feel betrayed by the Jewish community in a way?
TK: No, I don't feel betrayed. Listen, I 'get' it. Israel is a tiny sliver of land; we've gone through the Holocaust, and before that 2,000 years of brutality and hatred, and I believe that anti-Semitism is very alive in the modern world. This long history makes us legitimately afraid; we're only about 6 million people on the whole planet, and it would not be all that hard to get rid of us if someone really wanted to. But I don't believe that nationalism is a solution, and ... I don't believe that the survival of Jews as a people is any more guaranteed by the existence of the State of Israel than by pluralist democracy, which is ultimately the only hope for minority groups. The real hope is through instruments like the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons, and was first intended to secure rights for former slaves.
JJ: Which brings us back to 'Lincoln.' When will the script be finished?
TK: Actually I'm still struggling, and I'm late on my deadline for the first draft. Steven is being really great, and I'm still tackling it and we'll see what happens. So far I've never been fired from anything, and I'm hoping that will still be the case.
To learn more about the book festival, visit www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com.
For information about the "Wrestling With Angels" documentary, go to http://www.pbs.org/pov.
'Wrestling with Angels' trailer
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