Vampires and Abraham Lincoln. It seems like such an unlikely combination, but to Seth Grahame-Smith, it makes perfect sense. After the success of his mash-up novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, Grahame-Smith thought the historic Battle of Gettysburg could be perfectly transformed into an American vampire classic. The novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was also a success, and then Tim Burton and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) came on board to produce the novel as a film.
After an extensive search for the perfect Lincoln, prominent stage actor Benjamin Walker (“Kinsey”) was picked to do justice to the task.
Moviehole’s reporter Hugh Humphreys loved the finished product – and scored a chat with Benjamin and Seth when they were in Sydney.
What was it the filming process like, especially being in 3D?
BENJAMIN: Well, Timur [Bekmambetov, director] certainly used it as a tool, which is really important when you’re dealing with a menace that kills you based on its proximity to you, like vampires. I feel like a lot of movies use 3D as a gimmick, but I don’t feel that we did. The fact that Abraham uses an axe is significant, you’re not going to get away with using it far away, you’ve got to get right up close and personal in their faces. And the 3D just embellished that, and welcomes you into the story. You can really feel the vampires breathing down your neck!
SETH: And I feel many films use it as an afterthought, whereas this was designed as part of the process. Everything – sets, from the way it was shot, to the way the fight scenes were choreographed – it was always going to be in 3D and everything was working towards that.
And so why vampire hunters?
BENJAMIN: Well, the team for one. I mean it could have been anything, but the fact that Seth was writing it, that Tim Burton was producing and Timur was directing it, it was kind of a no-brainer. These were people I could learn from and have wanted to work with, all I had to do was buckle up and not screw it up!
What stood out for me in the movie are the action sequences. How did you enjoy getting into that world?
BENJAMIN: It’s like a dream job! It’s like the job you imagine as a kid, playing with sticks and rocks in the backyard with your friends. But you can’t divorce the action from the story. Seth and Timur really put thought into it as a continuation of the story; that it’s not narrative stops, fighting begins. They’re inseparable. You’re learning about Lincoln by the way he fights, you learn about his relationship with Adam by the way he fights. It’s not just visual – although it’s really visually stunning and fun – it’s enriching the story and is important to the story.
What was it like learning to swing an axe like that?
BENJAMIN: Great, a lot of fun actually!
BENJAMIN:Oh yeah. But I had a great stunt team; they put the artist in martial artist [laughs].
One of the things that many people think when I hear the title is that the film is a great big joke. But the film really isn’t like that – how did you reconcile the subject matter with making a serious action movie?
SETH: That was always the marching order we had. The book is very serious and there’s no acknowledgment of how ridiculous the concept is; which is how I wanted to write the book. And luckily we had Timur and Tim and the whole team who all agreed with the approach. We knew you could never wink at the audience. We could never turn and go “isn’t this ridiculous” and get back on with it, because that would ruin the whole thing. And one of the things I love about the film, and specifically Ben’s portrayal of the film, is that it’s really earnest and honest and nuanced. We’re not playing for laughs; we’re not playing to be ridiculous. We’re playing to be scary and entertaining as hell. And we do that unapologetically and unflinchingly.
Is that the same approach you took to playing Abraham as well?
BENJAMIN: It’s a period movie for me! It just happened to have some action. And that’s where the fun is. As soon as you apologise or allow that tension to be released, or falter in your commitment to it, I think it becomes disrespectful. And were making an honest movie because we’re telling the audience that upfront.
And it’s not gimmicky at all!
BENJAIN: Yeah. Cute is boring.
Talk me through working with Timur. What is the “Crazy Russian” like?
SETH: [Laughs] Yeah he is reasonably crazy! He’s a mad genius. I love him. He’ll challenge the hell out of you though as a writer or an artist. For me the challenge was staying on my toes, because the ideas are endless and they come at you like bullets in “The Matrix”. And you’ve got to catch the good ones and dodge the ones you just don’t know how to do. And he never stops; his brain is a wonder.
BENJAMIN: His imagination is alive and well and really run havoc on set. In a good way.
How did you find the adjustment for writing for film rather than a novel?
SETH: It’s challenging but ultimately really fulfilling and a huge learning experience for me. The biggest thing I learned was you’ve got to get your ego out of the way and put your trust in the filmmaker. When I’m writing a book, I’m the king; I’m the unquestioned auteur. In film I merely serve as the director’s vision. Timur is the king, it’s his territory, and that’s a process – breaking from the ego of the author and doing what’s best and most entertaining for the film.
And what do you expect audiences will take away from the film once they see it?
BENJAMIN: I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised. The title piques curiosity and they’re going to get to see something fresh and new, and are going to see a great American hero as an action hero. What’s great about it and that Seth does new things. It’s not just a reboot or a sequel and prequel; it’s something new an that surprises you. And the fact we’ve committed to it so fully and so many different components make it good, people will be pleasantly surprised.
SETH: I hope people are wildly entertained, frankly. And thrilled by it. And I hope they take away at least some feeling that not just the Lincoln we portray in the film, but that the real Lincoln was a badass and an awesome hero.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” hits Australian screens tomorrow, August 2.