Novelist and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith is a gothic mash-up master. He broke the mold with a title that caught everyone's sensibilities hilariously off-guard: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." (He's not involved in the movie version, which is mired in development.) Since then, he has been playing with genre and expectations. His script adaptation for Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" revealed a turn of phrase and a skillful ear for campy 70s horror. On June 22nd, Grahame-Smith's adaptation of his own bestseller hits screens: producer Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," starring Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell and Dominc Cooper. (Trailer is below.)
In our interview, the innovative ironist talks about gleaning inspiration from hackneyed bookstore displays and the incorporation of dark American history in his work, as well as his penchant for elegant period dialogue.
TOH: Why did you select Abraham Lincoln of all the presidents to be your vampire hunter?
SGS: Well, I have to go back to haow the idea originated. I was doing a book tour for "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and as part of the tour I would go to bookstores big and small all over the US. This was in 2009 and it was the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, so no matter where I was in the country, no matter the bookstore, there were two displays: Abraham Lincoln biographies and "Twilight" books. This was absolutely the zenith of vampire literature. In a moment of cynical aberration, I wondered if it would have some crazy synergetic effect. It got me interested enough to get into Abraham Lincoln biographies. I didn't know a lot more than middle school level information – the $5 top hat, honest Abe. During that initial research, I became hooked. The more I read about Lincoln, the actual man got under my skin. I began to ask: how did he do all this, when he had nothing — no looks, no connections, no money, no name, no family?
TOH: What specifically about Lincoln's story affected you?
SGS: His life was so incredibly dark and fraught with peril and misfortune. His baby brother died, his mother died when he was nine, he was estranged from his father. With no worldly possessions or education, he dusted himself off and became a man of letters, married a woman of high station, and gained the highest office in the land, and then saved this land while burying two of his sons. His story is dark and gothic. It's like a super hero origin story: the outcast, disadvantaged youth who possesses some secret skill. With great power comes great responsibility, the hook from Spider-Man. When he achieves this power, he finds himself in the middle of the Civil War, taking the whole country on his shoulders and wrestling it into shape and then paying the price for doing this with his life.
TOH: How did you incorporate the Civil War into a gothic drama?
SGS: Sometimes we see the Civil War in movies and imagine these neatly aligned rows of men with muskets, walking in line to shoot each other. In reality the things that fascinated me were how absolutely ruthless and violent so many engagements were, how much suffering and how men were not prepared. Their shoes had worn through, their limbs were blasted off. The Civil War was savage. It all seems so organized, but it was chaotic. It fed into the genre narrative I was trying to spin with this bloodiness.
TOH: ALVH starts in the present day and looks back. You also juggle time periods in "Dark Shadows." How do you navigate these two time periods? What makes this interesting?
SGS: With Lincoln, it was just out of necessity because the framework of the story is looking through a journal of Lincoln with a modern retelling. With "Dark Shadows," the humor comes from the idea of Barnabas Collins being a fish out of water, totally unprepared for 1972. It's the same tools to achieve different effects: in one we're just using it for humor, but I enjoy writing period dialogue because no one talks like this anymore. There was a certain elegance in the way people communicated. Now, brevity is the soul of all communications. The real pleasure of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was to look at Jane Austen and the Regency period, but they're talking about zombies and beheading. After plotting, outline, organization, once you know your characters you get to put them in situations and watch them talk, then writing becomes an out-of-body experience.
TOH: What was your immersion in the "Dark Shadows" subject matter?
SGS: I was lucky enough to have people working on the film who were "Dark Shadows" experts. My mother was a fan of the show. I was given a compilation of different actors, favorite episodes, and encyclopedia matter. It made it much easier to digest and talk about an ideal "Dark Shadows" movie.
TOH: When did you first read "Pride and Prejudice"?
SGS: In high school, in Connecticut. I didn't finish it. I couldn't get my head around it, I couldn't get myself to care about Lizzie Bennet and her man troubles. I wasn't old enough or mature enough to realize other things were going on and the quality of wit and the quality of writing. When I was working on the book, I went back to revisit the original and read it over again. It was a really pleasant surprise that it wasn't a chore, and I was enjoying it and could engage in a different way.
TOH: The first notable thing about "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is the disturbance of the marriage plot and its replacement with something else.
SGS: The first motivation was to preserve as much of the Austen as possible. That was job number one — I didn't want to get into the business of redrawing the character, I was just amplifying to different extremes, trying to make every character the same as they were in the original novels, but that much bigger and amplify what Austen did in the original novel. She was trying to skewer and make fun of the aristocracy for being so singularly focused on the importance of good marriages, when there is so much more to life, as well as the antiquated idea that a woman is nothing without a good husband. Mrs. Bennet is ridiculously focused on marrying her daughters when she should be focused on keeping them alive. Society is so polite, they can't say zombies — they say 'dreadfuls,' or 'unmentionables.' They pretend things aren't as bad as they are — true to time and birth and sensibility.
TOH: You also play with the awareness of modesty at the time. Was this for comic effect or social critique?
SGS: Yes, Lizzie shows an ankle while doing a round kick; it's that sort of ridiculousness that's in Austen's book. I left it in for tact and I did it for comic effect. My goal was to entertain.
TOH: "Pride and Prejudice" is one of just a handful of books that's both universally respected and individually adored. Were you trying to stir things up by picking this?
SGS: Not, not at all. I had no expectation that the book would be particularly successful. My nonfiction books had various degrees of failure, we saw this as an experimental, little lark, no harm no foul if it didn't work. The publisher only printed 10,000 copies and then the second week the book was out, no one could get it. If we had any inkling… This book sort of presented itself as the perfect book for this treatment, not just because it was beloved but because the themes work with mashing it up and when you talk about zombies with this proper aristocratic treatment, it's just funny. The book is in the public domain so we didn't have to pay anyone to license it – it belongs to the world.
TOH: And what's next for you — more screenplays and books?
SGS: A mix of both. The next thing now is the opening of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" on June 22, getting the work out for the next few weeks. I'm writing an animated movie for Tim Burton, that he's reading now. And there's a new book, "Unholy Night," that Warner Brothers bought and I'm working on screenplay. And then beyond that, thinking about what my next book will be. I don't know yet, I may write something that is not as mash-upy or as ridiculous, but maybe something more traditionally scary.