Caleb Deschanel is no stranger to heightened reality, having lit the Arthurian baseball magic of “The Natural,” the trippy astronaut hero worship of “The Right Stuff,” and the harrowing transcendence of “The Passion of the Christ,” as well as the majestic beauty of “The Black Stallion.” But nothing could prepare the five-time Oscar nominee for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The violent mash-up of historical drama and absurdist horror has the tormented Abe wielding an axe to quell the undead and save the Union. It’s pure Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), who revels in non-linear, stylized action. Just when you think “Vampire Hunter” is about to go off the rails, it never ceases to engross us with gory thrills and unexpected pathos. It’s like Alan Moore meets “The Matrix” meets Bekmambetov’s own remarkable “Night Watch.”
“I thought it was a historical drama — little did I know,” the cinematographer jokes. “The title itself is so fascinating and there’s something really intriguing about the idea of it. As soon as it becomes a vampire movie, it’s doing a whole different kind of movie — it’s Jekyll and Hyde, you know? But I think it’s not all that different from Greek dramas and tragedies because it’s an alternate world of vampires taking over the role of the gods.”
Deschanel not only found it a challenge figuring out the reality of the movie but also working with Bekmambetov, who’s always coming up with new ideas to try out, even at the last minute, which keeps editorial and post in a constant state of flux. “Working with Timur was a learning process. What’s normal for me is not normal for him. He has a really good visual sense and he has an understanding of ways that you can add elements of movements to frames that brings a reality to it that’s great.
“Reality in movies is the reality of the story you’re telling so it may not match the reality as we know it, but the reason there’s art is that it tries to bring some kind of understanding of all the suffering and joys and pain that we go through. Storytelling brings some value to it. Stories that are mythological and fantastical are appealing. This is certainly one of those. You just don’t know going in how much pathos there’s going to be and where it’s going to go.”
Still, Deschanel does a masterful job of conveying the opulent South, the endearing romance between Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the larger than life presence of the 16th President. “Lincoln had so much death in his life that you knew you were dealing with a moody guy. It’s amazing that he survived and equating those tragedies with vampires is an interesting idea. There are obviously different ways of handling it and Abe used his axe, but I always thought it would’ve been fun to have more of an intellectual crisis between him and the vampires and their world.
“You felt like you were making a historical drama, but when you get into the vampires, you found yourself exaggerating the moonlight and the creepiness of it. So it would take on a life of its own. Like Martin Csokas: he had such a great quality and as soon as you went to his face, you knew you were dealing with a vampire.”
This was only the second time Deschanel got to shoot digitally with the Alexa. His first time was on the Billy Friedkin-directed black-comedy, “Killer Joe” (July 27), a gritty gore fest of a different kind, in which creepy Dallas cop Matthew McConaughey moonlights as a hit man. “I was relatively pleased with it. After a while, I got to the point where I thought I could shoot it like film because the latitude was pretty similar. But I’m still at the point where I run to the monitor. The highlights and contrast aren’t comparable yet but it takes more experience to learn how I would expose it differently than film. Most shots are right down the middle with something you don’t have to worry about, but when you’re stretching it to the top and bottom of the limit, that’s when you find a difference. I was reluctant to accept it now it’s accepting.”
As for 3-D, which Deschanel also had to contend with as post conversion on “Vampire Hunter,” he’s still ambivalent. He’s waiting for the time when 3-D has enough brightness so you can perceive color normally. “The way you would normally compose is often times thrown out the window. You tend to compose things more in the middle of frame in 3-D than you would in a conventional frame. You can really see composition in 2-D but in 3-D your composition is much more complex. Everything has to be artificially enhanced. But you do gain something else with 3-D: you have a sense of space and heightened reality. It’s a complicated process, and it took a lot more time than I expected. Part of it had to do with the fact that they kept editing the movie and changing it.”
But what made it all worthwhile were moments such as Lincoln’s stirring Gettysburg address “where you suddenly felt the weight of the moment in history that is preserved.”