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'He said: "Jim, I'm the President."' Oscar-winning Canadian Jim Erickson on Lincoln

B.C. resident Jim Erickson won an Oscar Sunday for his work on Lincoln’s production design.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

It was the first day of production on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Set decorator Jim Erickson was setting up a shot down the long hallway on the White House set they'd built in an old tobacco warehouse. He wanted to make sure everything was in the right place, and had the right look.

"And I just feel this presence coming beside me," Erickson remembers. "And I turn to my left and it's Daniel Day-Lewis. And it's like there's this huge energy force. This heavy-footed, slope-shouldered gait, and he goes walking along down the hallway. It was just amazing. There was no doubt: That was the President."

Erickson is telling the story Monday morning, after winning the Academy Award on Sunday for best production design (with Rick Carter). Recovering from the flu, Erickson, 63, didn't travel to Los Angeles, but watched with family and neighbours from his home on Saltspring Island, where he's lived for 13 years.

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"I didn't quite believe it," says Erickson, who thought Les Misérables or Anna Karenina would win. "We were jumping up and down, drinking Champagne."

Erickson worked with Day-Lewis (who took home the statue on Sunday for best actor) twice before, on The Last of the Mohicans and There Will Be Blood, and has tremendous respect for the method actor. But he also learned a lesson on Lincoln. In their first meeting on the project, Erickson was presenting some research (he can't recall the details), and said something like, "Oh, the President … would do it this way." Day-Lewis's response was clear: "He said: 'Jim, I'm the President.' And from that point on, I knew that that's how to refer to him. Everybody on set referred to him as the President. Nobody called him Daniel."

Erickson was born in Minnesota and moved to British Columbia in 1974. He worked at a mill and driving a truck and eventually with props at CBC Vancouver. In 1979, as Vancouver's film industry was developing, he landed his first feature: Mr. Patman. Credits since include Mississippi Burning, Ali and Snow Falling on Cedars.

It was a Vancouver-shot production, Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, where Erickson first worked with Carter, which led to the Lincoln gig – and the Oscar.

He's using the opportunity to voice his feelings on a battle close to home: the fight to improve British Columbia's film tax incentives. A "Save BC Film" campaign is under way, urging the province to improve the production tax credit here to match – or get closer to – the incentives offered by Ontario and Quebec.

"I got a bunch of calls … and I thought … maybe now that I have one of those golden statues, maybe some people will listen to what I have to say."

What's happening now doesn't affect him personally – Erickson has retired – but he is concerned about the industry's future if the province won't improve the tax credit.

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"I'm always amazed that government can find tax incentives for gouging huge scars in the Earth and pulling the trees out, and pipelines across fragile environments and for 300 to 400 … permanent jobs. That's astounding. But for 5,000 jobs they can't find some tax incentives?" he asks. "The math doesn't work out."

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