A gold watch swings across his desk, cutting the shadows.
Listen closely for the loud beat of the swinging pendulum.
That pure, unadulterated tick is the sound of an original watch that Lincoln carried.
“I heard the actual pocket watch existed,” Spielberg said in an interview with The Post, “and I wanted to know whether they’d let us wind it and record it. I didn’t know if they would, and they did. I thought that was very important. So, every time you hear that little ticking in the story, that’s Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch.”
Spielberg dispatched a team to find other sounds that surrounded Lincoln in his final days. They collected the ring of the bell at the church Lincoln attended, the squeak of latches at the White House, the snatch of Lincoln’s carriage door, the weight of boots as a weary Lincoln walked through the White House, the creak of a seat from which he rose.
“We don’t often recognize authenticity as a dimension of sound,” said Ben Burtt, an Academy-Award-winning sound designer who conceptualized the audio effects in “Lincoln.” “You want the audience to believe the sounds are authentic.” and credible.”
After Burtt read the script, he began to consider which original sounds could help bring the movie to life.
Burtt discovered that one of Lincoln’s pocket watches was in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “I asked the question, ‘Has anybody wound it up to see whether it would tick?’ They said no. . . . I tried to encourage them to do this. There was a certain level of risk involved with tampering with the watch. Eventually, they bowed out.”
Melinda Machado, director of public affairs for the National Museum of American History, said the Lincoln watch — a fine English gold piece with a hidden message engraved inside it by an admiring watchmaker — was being prepared to go into a new exhibition called “American Stories.”
“Because of the exhibition schedule,” Machado said, “the timing did not work out.”
Burtt kept searching and found another watch that belonged to Lincoln at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Ky.
Greg Smith, who teaches film at American University, traveled to Kentucky to record the watch for the movie. Smith built a special felt-lined box to block outside noise. “We did a dozen recordings of the same watch,” to capture a perfect take, Smith said.
Smith also recorded the ringing of the steeple bell at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the pale yellow church across Lafayette Square from the White House, as well as the squeaks from the “Lincoln Pew.”