HAMPTON ROADS.COM/by Dianne Tennant
It started, as these things will, months ago, when Steven Spielberg announced that he would film a movie about Abraham Lincoln in Richmond this fall.
Production started in early October and the city went all starry-eyed as Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mrs. Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (not Lincoln), Gloria Reuben (not Mrs. Lincoln) and other Hollywood types started dining in local restaurants and strolling around local streets and parks. You can follow their every move on Twitter.
But honestly, it all started in 1865, when the real Abe Lincoln arrived in Richmond unannounced. Defying war, he walked its streets openly, hailed and adored by some – not all – for visiting the capitol of the Confederacy. Fans followed wherever he went and longed for their own personal brush with fame.
Which begs the question: Is this movie just deja vu all over again?
The production trucks parked in front of the capitol in late October. They didn’t try to hide. Signs on the door panels read, “Operated by Office Seekers Productions, LLC,” which is code for Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, which goes by the working title of “Office Seekers.”
Black electrical cables crossed and re-crossed the pavement, and a cherry picker lifted rolls of cable to the roof where they could be run into the rotunda.
A truck driver stood on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. He said he lives just down the road, in Chesterfield, making him a living example of how movie money trickles downhill. Next to stargazing, the part of the movie Richmond likes best is the money being spent by Spielberg’s people on hotels, food, rentals and entertainment.
During the real Lincoln’s visit in the closing days of the Civil War, a crowd of former slaves followed the president around, lavishing praise. One eyewitness wrote: “??‘God bless you, Father Abraham’ went up from a thousand throats.”
Richmond is more discreet these days. No crowds, no cheering, but some broad smiles on the faces of merchants and local hires. God bless you, Father Spielberg, who is reportedly renting a condo at Vistas on the James. God bless you, Father Day-Lewis, who dines alone, looking remarkably like the original Father Abraham, on pumpkin risotto in Church Hill restaurants. God bless you, George Washingtons, and all you Benjamins and Jacksons, too.
The film will be an estimated $35 million boon to Virginia, the governor’s office has said.
Inside the capitol gift shop, cashier Dana Brown looked at a Lincoln bobblehead doll in the window and said, “We’ve been selling a lot of them. When we first started, we sold a lot of Thomas Jeffersons, but now we’ve been selling more Lincoln bobbleheads.”
An eclectic furnishings store called These Four Walls, at the corner of 14th and Cary, has for sale a coffee-table book called “Lincoln in 3-D” that comes with 3-D glasses. The store also hung an oval portrait of the 16th president in its window as a welcome sign.
“We’re really trying to embrace the movie and welcome the cast and crew,” said the beautifully named sales associate Courtney Proffit, who said the store threw a Lincoln party earlier in the month. “We invited the cast and crew but, unfortunately, none of them showed up.”
That was not the case in 1865, when Lincoln was followed around town by worshipful fans.
“The crowd increased so fast that I had to surround the president with … fixed bayonets to keep them off,” one Union officer wrote of the scene.
There were no crowds at the capitol around the “Office Seekers” trucks. On the flip-up cargo doors of one, written in black marker on hot-pink tape, were the mysterious words “(76) Swampies (42) lunch boxes.” Other pieces of tape referenced squids and suicides and snakebites.
The driver said someone inside the truck would be able to explain, but at that moment a young blond woman wearing a name tag with “Office Seekers” in big type printed diagonally across the background – very cool – bounded over, with bayonet fixed, and said, “Any press needs to talk to our public relations.”
The truck driver skedaddled.
Lincoln landed at Bottoms Up Pizza in the section of Richmond called Shockoe Bottom, although, of course, the pizza place wasn’t open in 1865. Today a massive flood wall blocks the river. It is worth noting that it would also prevent Lincoln or any other Union sympathizer from entering the modern city, should any attempt to re-create the historic landing. Five layers of highway flyovers and three elevated railroad bridges obscure the sky.
A short walk away is the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, where the historic Lincoln paused 146 years ago. Today, a sign warns “Richmond Police Cameras are recording you 24 hours a day.” Spielberg’s cameras are rolling elsewhere.
A Twitter post in October squealed, “Film crew setting up outside of my window at #BTSR” – presumably the Richmond Baptist Theological Seminary – “for the new Spielberg movie @ Lincoln!”
“They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln or his coat tail or even to kneel down and kiss his boots,” a Union officer wrote, and that aptly describes fans in Richmond today.
Star sightings are posted daily on Twitter and Facebook and online stalking guides, which remind stargazers to mind their Richmond manners – look, don’t touch; no photos; remember Southern hospitality means discretion and personal space. Nonetheless, it is easy to find out that Spielberg has been seen at the Irish pub Siné, Daniel Day-Lewis at the Hill Cafe and Sally Field at the Lift Coffeehouse.
They were more elusive on this day, but a break came when a Watergate-style Deep Throat asked for my phone number and then said, “Let me get you some dirt.”
Where Lincoln walked in 1865, cars now zoom, and you have to step lively to cross Broad Street at Monumental Church. The parking meter police circled the block endlessly, looking for lawbreakers, and hordes of medical students crossed paths with tourists, jamming the sidewalks.
“Though there were many times when we had to fight for a path through the crowds, he did not seem to feel the danger,” a Union officer wrote of Lincoln’s visit.
In the midst of the modern crowd, overshadowed by buildings of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College of Virginia,stands the White House of the Confederacy, where Lincoln sat in Jefferson Davis’ chair, just days after that president had fled Richmond.
On this day, an African American woman from Woodbridge sat in the shady courtyard, gazing silently around her. Her name was Rebecca Carpenter, and she was trying, she said, to learn about slavery. She had been to the capitol earlier in the day, where she had seen the statue of civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill but not noticed the production trucks of Steven Spielberg.
The Union officer had written of Lincoln: “He looked far off with a serious, dreamy expression,” and so did Carpenter. A train of tourists on Segways came rolling single file down the sidewalk in the footsteps of Lincoln, past the Confederate White House until, one by one, the riders leaned to the right and vanished from sight around the corner.
Word got out that Spielberg had pulled his own disappearing act on the nearby city of Petersburg.
First, tourism officials said he would film in downtown, then the story went around that he wouldn’t, but Kevin Kirby, director of special events and guest services for the city, said last week that filming will take place in early December around the farmers’ market, with its cobblestone streets, wrought iron and – very important – no overhead power lines.
“They say you can run into the actors all over Richmond,” said Nancy Robertson, who works in the Petersburg Visitor Center, right next to the farmers’ market. “They say they’re a lot of fun. They have a lot of money – they can be fun.”
Several casting calls for extras had been held locally, co-worker Evelyn Franklin said, but they were very specific, so much so that neither Robertson nor Franklin qualified: Women sizes 6 to 12, at least 5-foot-6; black men of a certain height and certain age, with no tattoos, no bald heads, no corn rows, no dreads.
“I wouldn’t fit anything,” Franklin said.
Lincoln the president visited Centre Hill a few blocks away, but Lincoln the movie will not.
So back to Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, because it was rock-solid certain that Lincoln could be found there, yesterday and today and tomorrow as well.
“He’s up there on the hill,” said the parking lot attendant at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center, which encompasses the ruins of the iron works. She was right – a bronze Lincoln sat on a bench with his arm around his bronze son Tad in front of words carved into masonry: “To bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Also found on the hill was a young woman named Sophie Courser, who was lying on her back in the sun on a large rock, reading “The Help,” the novel about black servants working for white families. Courser had come from New Hampshire for her brother’s fencing tournament in Richmond and didn’t know there were celebrities near.
Steven Spielberg’s in town, she told her brother, but he seemed unimpressed. Then a phone call came in from Deep Throat:
Sally Field is staying at the Jefferson Hotel ($415 a day for a studio suite, $245 with a corporate discount, according to the Jefferson’s website), and Tommy Lee Jones was expected to check in any day.
In the words of Deep Throat, “a young girl – she used to be on E.R.” (that would be actress Gloria Reuben) was also a guest at the Jefferson. An additional tidbit of information was offered: The entire cast and crew favor Perly’s, a restaurant in the Fan District.
And the big man? Daniel Day-Lewis, the famously intense actor portraying Lincoln in Spielberg’s movie? Well, running into Day-Lewis would appear to be a walk in the park.
Dusk was falling on Libby Hill Park, under the gaze of the stone-faced soldier atop the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Local residents did yoga on the sidewalk, and walked their dogs.
“They were drunk with ecstasy,” a Union soldier wrote in 1865 of the crowd following Lincoln. “They would gladly have prostrated themselves before him, allowed him to walk on their bodies, if by doing so they could have expressed their joy.”
The same could be said for Day-Lewis. Richmond is ga-ga for the star of “My Left Foot” and “Last of the Mohicans.” He is the actor most desired by Richmond’s stargazers, who rhapsodize about his smile, his eyes, his hair, his intensity. Not so the historic Lincoln, about whom a bystander wrote: “I had a good look at Mr. Lincoln. He seemed tired, and old and I must say, with due respect to the president of the United States, I thought him the ugliest man I had ever seen.”
Day-Lewis, famous for staying in character even after filming has stopped for the day, has grown a beard, according to tweeters.
As night fell on Libby Hill Park, a bearded man sat alone on a bench, looking down on the site of the former Libby Prison, where Union prisoners were confined and where Abraham Lincoln made his last stop before leaving Richmond. It was not Day-Lewis, although he has been seen here, walking by himself, and reading. It is said he has refused photos and that the locals respect his privacy.
The bearded man walked away. The sun went down in shades of red and gold, a deja vu if ever there was one – every sunset the same, every sunset a little different. Tomorrow is another day.
Lights will light, cameras will film, all the way through Dec. 10.
Lincoln will walk through Richmond – again – and the city will rejoice.
Lincoln-era quotes are from CivilWarTraveler.com and the National Park Service.
Diane Tennant, (757) 446-2478, firstname.lastname@example.org