My interest in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was first piqued when I heard a story about the sounds used for the film on NPR. Okay, that’s not strictly true. My interest was actually peaked when I heard Daniel Day Lewis was cast in the eponymous role. A Brit as Lincoln? Quel horreur! But let’s get real, Lewis is one of the greatest living actors of our time, not to mention the choosiest (he’s only made 5 films in the last 15 years!) so the screenplay for Lincoln must have some meat to it. And seriously, just look at him! Spitting image.
But I digress… back to the sounds used in the film. From the ka-chunk of a carriage closing to the thud of boot steps, the sound sound designer for Lincoln went above and beyond to make the film sound authentic. Creating authentic costumes and creating authentic sets and/or using historically accurate sites so that a film looks right is one thing, but I’d never heard of going to so much trouble for sound.
Sound designer Ben Burtt, whose accolades include whipping up the iconic sounds of light sabers for the Star Wars franchise, dispatched a team of sound engineers across the country to record the sounds Lincoln did/might have heard in DC, South Bend, IN, and Frankfort, KY. Why? He told Guy Raz, “I felt, well, here’s a chance to get in touch with actual history. I always do research when you’re collecting sounds and making sounds for a film, and authenticity is normally not necessarily the prime directive in doing sound design. You’re always searching out sounds that have the right emotional impact and they may not even be authentic at all. But for this film I didn’t want to make guesses. I wanted to essentially capture the spirit of what might have been.”
The Sounds of St. John’s and the White House, Washington, DC
In DC, the sound crew recorded at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Lincoln worshiped, and at the White House.
According to historical accounts, St. John’s figured prominently in Lincoln’s life in DC. He would often walk to the church in the evenings. “He was always alone,” said Hayden Bryan, executive director for operations at St. John’s. “The president would arrive quietly and leave before the services ended to walk back to the White House. He would sit by himself. He had no aides. No security. Before the service ended, he would get up. The worshipers didn’t even know he was here.”
At St. John’s the crew recorded noises from head to toe, so to speak. They climbed into the bell tower to obtain the unadulterated sound of the bell tolling – a sound Lincoln would have heard from the White House just across Lafayette Square from the church They also recorded the creaking of the “Lincoln Pew” as Byran sat and stood and the sounds of footsteps on the floor boards. “These are the actual floor boards Lincoln walked on to get to this pew,” Greg Smith, film professor at American University and sound engineer for the film, said.
At the White House, they recorded a French clock purchased during Andrew Jackson’s administration that was on the mantel in Lincoln’s executive office. The sound is used in the movie in many scenes filmed in Lincoln’s office. Other audio effects collected from the White House included the sound of the latches as doors opened and closed, and the sound of someone knocking on those doors. As well as the sound of heavy boots on the White House floor.
The Sound of Lincoln’s Pocket Watch, Frankfort, KY
“I could have recorded a watch that belonged to my great-grandfather, and the audience would have accepted it,” Burtt said. “But there is something sacred about working on a film about Lincoln.” Kentuckians would agree. As I mentioned yesterday, Lincoln is a big deal here in the Bluegrass State.
To record the ticking of Lincoln’s personal pocket watch, which is in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), Smith traveled to Frankfort, Kentucky. Where, according to museum director Trever Jones at the KHS blog, historyburgoo.com, “We set up in the ‘vault’ – the quietest and most secure room in the building – and began recording. Greg [Smith] has worked on numerous films and had chosen his equipment carefully. I attached a small microphone to the watch while Bill [Bright] positioned everything just right in a box to muffle ambient noise while Greg recorded. We recorded the watch open and closed in various ways until Greg pronounced that he had everything he needed.”
The circa 1860 watch had not been used in decades, but watch expert and KHS curator Bill Bright, reported it to be in perfect working order after examining it. The timepiece is a “yellow gold key-wind hunting-case pocket watch” with a porcelain dial from Tiffany and Company. It is believe that the watch was purchased by or gifted to Lincoln after he became president. It is speculated that Lincoln may have been carrying the watch the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.
If you want to see and hear Lincoln’s watch, it is on display in Frankfort at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.
The Sound of Lincoln’s Last Ride, South Bend, IN
The carriage used to transport President Lincoln and his wife to Ford’s Theater the fateful night of his assassination is on display at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana.
The audio work was done by Donnie Rogers, owner of South Bend-based Grassroots Media. The audio session at the museum took about 30 minutes, Rogers said. To eliminate background noise, the museum shut down the air handlers on the air conditioning system and closed the overhead doors in that section of the museum. “We used a sound blanket to build a small room around ourselves,” he told the South Bend Tribune. The sounds of the carriage doors opening and closing and the the sound of it’s metal springs and suspension were captured for use in the film.
The carriage was built in the early 1860s by Wood Brothers of New York, an upscale carriage manufacturer of that era. It has a collapsible leather hood and fabric-covered padded seats. It is believed to have been a gift to Lincoln.
It’s in fragile condition, the carriage went through a careful process to stabilize it in 2007. During conservation, workers discovered the carriage originally wasn’t black, but rather painted dark green with burgundy, gold and white details with an elaborate cursive presidential monogram — A.L. — on each door. After Lincoln’s death, the carriage was purchased by a DC area doctor and used in his practice.