When Seth Grahame-Smith began to write the “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” he didn’t let the epiphany of a wacky title affect his dead-serious alternate universe story — our 16th President, leader of the people by day and slayer of the undead at night. Though he couldn’t have expected that the premise to catch the fancy of A-List filmmaker Tim Burton, who heard the title and experienced a brief flashback.
“When I heard about Seth’s book, I heard the title and I said, ‘I want to see this movie,’ ” Burton said doing press rounds along with the director and cast. “It reminded me of when I used to see triple features [with titles] like ‘Scream Blacula Scream’ and ‘Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde.’ This seemed like a movie you’d see in Times Square.” Though Burton feels the most important element of the endeavor was a straight face. “I liked the fact that it felt like a real story,” Burton said, stressing that tone was most important.
Director Timur Bekmambetov, who previously helmed the comic adaptation “Wanted,” saw a slightly more contemporary influence within the project when he came on early as a producer. “I read the book proposal Seth wrote,” Bekmambetov says of the book’s thirty-page origins, “and suddenly understood that it’s not stupid, it’s not crazy. I immediately understood that this is a superhero origin story.”
Benjamin Walker, who steps into the considerable shoes of Honest Abe, admitted that he was fairly confused upon first hearing the title. “It raised more questions than it answered,” Walker says. Though to him, the most important question was who was directing. “I’ve been a fan of ‘Nightwatch’ and ‘Daywatch,’ and I knew he was going to make something we’ve never seen before.”
Speaking of “never seen before,” Bekmambetov purposely sought out an unknown for the lead role, because, “Lincoln is the star. It’s not about an actor trying to be somebody. With Ben, I was absolutely lucky, because he can play this character from 19 until 55. And nobody knows him, so people believe it’s the real story.” Bekmambetov feels that audiences will be impressed by the dimensions of Walker’s talent, as his performance is the focal point for an otherwise outlandish, special effects-filled extravaganza. “The most exciting visual effect of this movie is his transformation into the older Lincoln,” Bekmambetov says. “And it’s not only about the makeup. It’s more about the drama, about this transformation, how this [physical] transformation compares to this character transformation. Any CG effect only works if it’s emotionally supported by the story and the character.”
Not to say Walker didn’t have any help in the makeup and prosthetics department. Walker had to apply different amounts of makeup daily as the project shot non-chronologically. “We would do old age on Tuesday and young on Wednesday,” he says, noting the amount of time spent in the makeup chair. As far as what had to be added to Walker‘s features, he reveals, “Young Lincoln, it’s a nose, partial brow and two ears, because he had very large ears. Later on in his life, it’s fifteen pieces, it’s an entire face, wig and contacts. It takes about six hours to apply.”
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is the latest big budget effort to shoot in 3D, and both Burton and Bekmambetov agreed early in the process that this would be a creative decision, the best possible way for them to realize their shared vision. “From the moment we read this book, we understood it would be a 3D movie because it’s a unique journey to be there,” Bekmambetov says. Though Bekmambetov was also using history itself as a motivation to employ the format.
“Timur showed me some pictures from the Civil War that actually were in 3D,” claims Burton. “It was almost the first use of 3D photography.” Bekmambetov confirms, “Three years after the photography was invented, they created the Second Eye and produced 3D photos. And all the famous photos [of the war] are in 3D.”
Beyond the technology, the actors remained focused on living up to their real-life inspirations, a process that was fraught with emotional demands. Walker, who credits the book “Lincoln’s Melancholy” as a key bit of research, says of Lincoln, “You can see the effect the Civil War even had on his frame. He had a miserable life, consumed with death and disease and fraught with conflict.”
But this was a process that placed a level of importance on the many facets of Lincoln as a younger and older man. His approach was to avoid being worshipful, as he says with that approach, “you potentially rob him of his complexity and his humanity, you make him larger than life, more than human. And you remove what truly made him heroic, which was that he was human, and he was complicated and conflicted about his decisions. And when people treat him as something sacred, that’s when they really start messing with him.” He states that ‘Vampire Hunter’ is a film that gets the man right, with or without embellishments. “What we’re doing is taking a fresh look, being as thorough with the history as we possibly can, and being respectful of the man. I think Lincoln would get a kick out of our movie.”
As Mary Todd Lincoln, Mary Elizabeth Winstead found herself learning all about a First Lady of decidedly conflicted portrayals. “I heard about her, and knew what she was remembered for, which seems to be her mental institution days, and that she was the possible bipolar first lady, things like that,” Winstead says. Being a fan of the script, however, she made it a point to seek out whatever accuracy the source material provided. “She was so fantastic, so outspoken, and so many men wrote terrible things about her because of this,” Winstead says. “And the more I read about her, the more I was interested in [the part].”
Things were a bit trickier for Anthony Mackie. While he was playing a real character in Will Johnson, a former slave who ended up working alongside President Lincoln in the White House, the character had not existed in the novel. However, Mackie’s appreciation of the true-life story helped him deliver a heartfelt portrayal of a man Lincoln would call a friend. “I feel one of the reasons the Civil War was fought was [Will Johnson] being Abraham Lincoln’s friend and working with him at that time had to garner a certain level of humanity, respect and dignity,” Mackie says. “When he passed away after the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln used money out of his own pocket and had him buried at Arlington Cemetery. And on his headstone, it says William H. Johnson, Citizen. And it’s still there today. And it’s remarkable that not only do people not know that story, but people have no idea who William H. Johnson is.” Mackie felt it important to do justice to a little-known aspect of Lincoln’s historical presidency, volunteering, “I’m a huge supporter of recontextualizing history, to make it more upbeat, instead of a boring chalkboard, with some fat lady writing on it.”
But most importantly, no matter how many physics-defying battles that occur in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” the key was to remove any shred of humor, irony, or sarcasm inherent in the premise. “The tone of the book is very similar to the movie and [Tim Burton] was insistent on protecting this,” Walker reveals. “The joke is in the title, and that’s it. So my job was to treat it like a period movie, a drama that happens to have realistic vampires in it.” Walker proudly says that during the entire production, “I can’t recall a time when I thought, that’s ridiculous.”
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opens this Friday.