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Hearing History In The Sounds Of 'Lincoln'

Daniel Day-Lewis takes on one of America's most famous presidents in <em>Lincoln</em>.
David James
Daniel Day-Lewis takes on one of America's most famous presidents in Lincoln.

In the new movie Lincoln, actor Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of attention for his spot-on portrayal of the 16th president. But Ben Burtt, the sound designer, also deserves credit for the film's authenticity. You may not know his name, but you surely know his work.

Burtt is something of a legend in the movie sound world. He has won numerous Oscars, including for his work on Star Wars.

Burtt invented that iconic swoosh of the light saber, using the hum of an old projector and the buzz of a television set.

When it came to Lincoln, Burtt wasn't going to settle for recreating the sounds of Lincoln's life in some studio. He wanted to capture the real thing — sounds Lincoln actually heard.

So Burtt and his team set out, recording equipment in hand, to capture the sounds from actual objects that have survived the years since Lincoln knew them.

"I love American history and I've always been a student of it," Burtt tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Interview Highlights

On capturing the ticking of Lincoln's pocket watch

"A pocket watch, at that time was a very intimate item, something carried in the pocket of, say, Lincoln's vest, his coat — it's kind of next to his heart. It's something that would have been with him at all times."

"Eventually I discovered a watch which is in the possession of the Kentucky Historical Society. This was a watch passed down from Lincoln's son, Robert Lincoln. And so they brought in a watchsmith and they wound it up. It takes a key to wind a watch from that era. And lo and behold, there was the ticking of the sound of Lincoln's actual watch." 

On recording the bells of St. John's Episcopal Church

"I felt that another sound from Lincoln's era that he would have heard would be any church bells or bells ringing in the neighborhood of the executive mansion in that time period. And our investigation showed that there were at least two bells still in existence in Washington, which were in churches that you easily could have heard from the White House."

On tracking down Lincoln's actual carriage

"The carriage that Lincoln road to and from Ford's Theatre is actually in the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Ind., and it's obviously too delicate and too valuable to be hooked up to horses and run through the streets anymore. But they allowed us to come and record the doors opening and closing, the latches and the doors."

On why he went to such lengths to get authentic sounds for the film

"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."

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