Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter Interview: Star Ben Walker and Writer Seth Grahame-Smith
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter opens in Australia on August 2.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and of course, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and actor Ben Walker, who talked about the new film that blends the real history of Abraham Lincoln with the less real notion of him being a slayer of blood-sucking demons of the night.
Seth wrote the screenplay for the film for producer Tim Burton, who he'd previously worked with on Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp. Ben Walker, whilst a relative newcomer to film (this is his first starring role) is a versatile actor and a comedian, who starred as another president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and who appeared as a young Liam Neeson in Kinsey.
Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director of Night Watch and Wanted, brings a remarkable visual flair to the film (in the footage we've seen so far) and we talked to Seth and Ben about bringing Seth's unusual concoction of historical drama and vampire hunting to the big screen.
Seth, why vampires, why Abraham Lincoln?
Well, isn’t it obvious? I mean, it was the film that was waiting to happen. The book, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” came to me as the result of a tour that I was on for “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. It seemed that everywhere I went – and this was in 2009, so it was the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth – every bookstore I went into, no matter where in the U.S., there were two displays in the front - an Abraham Lincoln biography display table and then next to it, “Twilight”. And, you know, every shop had the same two. And it just became one of those, you know, I call it the “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moments” – the chocolate, the peanut butter, they’re right there. Why don’t you just put them together? And it seemed so obvious to me.
Then I started to research the actual life of Abraham Lincoln. I read a few books, and I looked at some timelines, and I looked at some correspondence. And I said, there’s actually more to it, there’s a real dark super-hero origin story here, which I know, it sounds funny. But if you think about it, Abraham Lincoln, even in the States, we know so little about him. You know, he’s on our currency, we know he had a top hat, we know he was honest and we know he was President. And that’s about it. But when you research just a little more, you find out here is a man who battled tragedy after tragedy in his life. And who had absolutely no family name, no money, no good looks and no education.
And yet, he was able to not only become the Chief Executive of the country, but then save that country. So to me it was a very romantic story and very dark in genre, and so it seemed natural to add vampires to it.
Ben, you played president Andrew Jackson on stage, who fought duels, who walked around with the rattle of bullets in his lungs – versus an axe-wielding vampire hunter. What’s more fun and what’s more rewarding?
Oh, that’s tough. I think the most rewarding would be Abraham Lincoln by far, because though it is called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, that’s where the joke ends. We really commit to his life and what we know about his life, and what we researched about his life. And as an actor, that’s crack, it’s perfect, it’s what you love to do. And then you throw vampires in and it’s a dream job. So Abe Lincoln hands down.
Seth, Abraham Lincoln was your baby for years and years and years. And then Tim Burton comes along with his Russian mate Timur Bekmambetov, and they take it over. Now you’ve seen it on the big screen, does it match up to what you had in your mind when you wrote the book?
What’s wonderful about being an author is you are in charge. It’s your baby. But once you commit to doing a film and you actually want to write the screenplay for the film, you have to turn yourself over to the will of the director because the film is a director’s medium.
With a director like Timur, and with the kind of movie that we all wanted to make really, which was this big, visceral, muscular, crazy 3D summer movie, then there will have to be changes.
It was an interesting sort of exercise in checking my ego at the door and saying, okay, the movie is going to be a completely different animal. And now how do we make this the most fun, and I think that what you’ve probably gotten a sense from is that, you know, like Ben said, the joke ends at the title.
We don’t wink at the audience and say, isn’t this just a big lark and a laugh and you know, the joke is in the title. You know what you… you come to the cinema, you know you are seeing a movie called, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. So, you know, what we try to do is then take that and make it the most fun, satisfying product that we can to really just, light a fire under people, and do something different. I mean… one of the things I’m proud of about this movie … because on one level, it’s crazy that we’re making this movie. It’s crazy that Fox gave us all this money to make this movie. And it’s crazy that it got made on the level it did, but one of the things I’m proud of is that, it’s not a sequel, it’s not a re-make, it’s not based on a board game. It’s not based on robots, or a toy.
It is a summer movie that is just so weirdly and wonderfully different in its own thing, that that even of itself, is for me, as a fan, as a fan boy my whole life, would be enough, it’d be exciting.
But then you get the director of “Wanted”, and you get Ben who brings, this gravity to the role, and is not playing the joke. He’s playing this, absolutely emotionally grounded Lincoln. I don’t know, the movie is just … it’s unlike anything else out there right now. And it’s very interesting to see the finished 3D product. I’m still kind of getting used to seeing it all. I mean, because, I don’t know, for people who know the book… in the book, there is no, there is no Adam. There is no Will Johnson, who you saw played by Anthony Mackie, who is, Lincoln’s sort of vampire hunting partner in this movie. And there’s certainly no big thrilling train climax. And so all these things were invented for this movie and it was an interesting experience. It was an interesting experience taking that novel and translating it into something that was extremely cinematic and something like you just saw.
Ben, what was your reaction when you got the script for 'Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter'?
I said… really? Yeah. I was not familiar with the book. But I was familiar with Timur. And frankly, it could have been anything and I would have been interested. And, I think I had the same experience that a lot of people will have coming to this story with fresh eyes. That moment of… really? And then you realise… oh, really! That it becomes very committed and real and that’s where the fun is. That we don’t flinch and we don’t apologise. So, yeah, I was, I was just as shocked as I think a lot of people will be.
I think that, I mean more than anything, I think that’s one of the big hurdles with this film is, people look at the trailer and they go, wow, that looks crazy, but really? That’s the premise of the movie? And, so I hope that people will get the message, that we understand how insane the concept is. And that no, Abraham Lincoln did not actually fight against vampires to the best of our knowledge. But we are doing this, like Ben said, we are doing it one hundred and fifty percent. We are doing it unflinchingly and unapologetically. And if you want to go to the cinema and have a kickass time, watching the America’s 16th President beat the shit out of some vampires, then this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.
And also, I read a lot of scripts. And most of the time you don’t have to ask the question. There is no “really?”. It’s mostly, how did that get money? Or, this is so stupid, I’ve seen this twenty other ways. Or: another one of those? Jesus – Kill me!
But luckily, what it does - is it piques your interest. I was watching the trailer in a theatre and half the audience went, “Yeah!” and the other half… kind of chuckled. And that’s perfect. That’s exactly what we want. Indifference is for cowards. So you know, the people that cheer are going to love it.
And some people are gonna go, “this is stupid”. I mean that’s just gonna happen. We’re not making the movie for them.
We’re making the movie for the people that go, you know what? I’m ready. I’m signing on, and I’m going with you. Abe, take me with you on this journey, will you? This vampire hunting journey through the Civil War.
Anywhere. We can go anywhere together, Seth.
Was there some strange goings on with Russian director Timur Bekmambetov taking on on of the all time great American icons?
I have two stories. There’s a language barrier story. And then there’s a Russian doing an American Civil War history story. When we first started talking about the underground railroad being, you know, the way that the slaves were ferried north by Harriet Taubman and her associates and you know, rescued scores of slaves from the South. Timur, he loves talking about this – he was so engaged in the underground railroad – and this is in the early story meetings, we’re talking about what elements, you know. And then he had these renderings done of the world’s longest subway tunnel.
He wanted to do a climax, and we’re, no, no, no Timur! It’s not literally an underground railroad (laughs). So, that was one sort of history thing.
The other, and I love Timur, but he’s a mad genius. He’s a mad Russian. I would have… this always happened, where I was, I would be talking to Timur and he would say, “So Lincoln should look, uh… Lincoln should be bitten… uh… and he should be bitten when we see him.” And I would say, “No, Timur. If he’s… if a vampire bites him, then he’s gonna be a vampire. We can’t have him bitten.” And he goes, “No. Bitten.” And it took me about two months to realise he was talking about “beaten”. Like having the shit beaten out of him. And I can’t tell you how many false starts we had!
The accuracy, the attention to detail - we had this whole team of armourers that built these weapons and put shotguns in axes and one of them made me an absolute replica of the knife that was in Lincoln’s pocket the night that he died. So, it’s not in the movie, he just said this is what you would have in your pocket. And that attention to detail was in every single scene.
It’s all part of that attitude the whole film making team brought to this was, again, it was, look we know we’re making a crazy movie. But we’re gonna make it as earnestly and as beautifully and as kickassedly as we possibly can.
I’ve got another Timur story if you don’t mind.
He would always say, shoot it. Why aren’t we shooting, we should shoot. But in his dialect, it sounded like he was saying “shit”. Why aren’t we shitting? It’s a complicated question, Timur. Well, why are we not shitting? Let’s shit! Fine by me! (laughter)
Was it 3D from day one, or was that a discussion point?
Yes. 3D from day one. Even though it was not shot in 3D, it was always going to be. I mean it was sold. When Fox greenlit it, it was 3D and we knew it, and so everybody from Caleb Deschanel (the director of photography) to all the effects guys, to even the prop people and everybody was designing this movie to be converted and they knew it was going to be converted. So, it wasn’t of those movies they had to pull out of theatres suddenly a few weeks before it was released, to release it a year later in 3D.
And also, we make fun of Timur because he can take it, but he is truly a genius. And he uses 3D as a tool as opposed to a gimmick. And it was such an important tool because when you’re dealing with vampires, you’re dealing with proximity, and you want to really be able to feel that presence and that danger, and I feel like he wields that tool as if it were an axe.
The other reason for the 3D being so important is because when you’re fighting in the movie, you’re not shooting them from here to the balcony. You’re right in their face and you want to feel the distance between you and the axe, you know. Every part of the fight choreography was designed to enhance that.
One day there was a shot in the movie where he wanted to, just slice right across the lens. And he says, “Get closer, get closer.” And I’m like, “I’m gonna hit it, I’m gonna hit it.” “Get closer, get closer.” And I just knocked the matte box off, I mean I creamed this multi thousand dollar camera. I really hacked it. And he goes, “Great, we got it! Moving on!” (laughs) Yeah. And it is that important. And his attention to detail is that heightened.