ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER 30 Minute Q&A with Benjamin Walker, Timur Beckmambetov, Jim Lemley and Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith

     February 22, 2012

ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER Benjamin Walker, Timur Beckmambetov, Jim Lemley Seth Grahame-Smith interview slice

For Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, we were taken to Springfield, Illinois to talk to star Benjamin Walker, director Timur Bekmambetov, producer Jim Lemley and writer Seth Grahame-Smith. They showed us the film’s trailer, producer Tim Burton’s introduction, a behind the scenes featurette, and gave us a Q&A for over 30 minutes. Here’s a few of the things they talked about:

  • On casting Benjamin Walker, they saw him playing Bloody Andrew Jackson
  • It was shot in Louisiana for budgetary reasons
  • Writer Seth Grahame-Smith sees the film as like a superhero origin story
  • Expect it to be bloody and scary
  • There is the possibility of a sequel
  • For the director, it was about finding the reality of the fantasy
  • The original story came from seeing Twlight books and Lincoln biographies

Hit the jump for the video and transcript.

We were there mixing Lincoln historians and journalists, and people involved with the museum as employees, so the mix of question represents that spectrum. Writer Grahame-Smith dominated the conversation, and if any of the questions are geared more toward Lincoln, and Lincoln-esque things it’s because of the mix. The crew took a little to warm up, but it was a lively discussion, especially considering we didn’t get started until around ten at night.  Here’s the video.  Further down is the full transcript.

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-movie-posterDid anybody ever tell you that you look like Abraham Lincoln because you really do have a sharp resemblance when you watch the trailer, just seeing how you look. How tall are you?

BENJAMIN WALKER: I’m 6’3″ and if you say I look like Abe Lincoln that’s a kind compliment.

Did anybody ever tell you that?

WALKER: I’ve never gotten that, no. And that was a big concern when they were casting was who was going to be able to make the make-up work and so much of this film is in recreating that time period and that man. No I’ve never gotten that but I may from now on.

SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: Can I say something else? What’s important to is that Ben, as of now, has not been in a ton of movies and he’s fresh to people. There’s a version of that movie where you’ll go out and get Tom Cruise to get Abraham Lincoln. If you want to get a bigger movie star and put him in big platform shoes but I think that person would kind of bring the baggage of who they are to this role. Part of the crucial part of the movie is that you have to forget that it’s not Abraham Lincoln, you have to accept it at face-value and also you just need an actor to do it and I think when you see the film there is no question that Ben is that guy.

JIM LEMLEY: It’s funny because his role before this was “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” on Broadway. Timur (Bekmambetov) and I had heard about him from our casting director and so we got on a plane, went to New York and went to his play. Then Timur worked with him, etc etc and then he came to Los Angeles. It was awesome.

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunterWhy did you opt to do shooting in locations other than the actual Lincoln sites here?

LEMLEY: I think it’s simply an economic question. When you start to think about what’s going on in the screen, and of course the film is an illusion anyways with what you can put on screen. If you can go to Louisiana and the tax benefit is just a substantial…. Louisiana is great because we have to span this fifty year period but it was really an economic question.

You can see how the concept is uniquely clever, but what makes that concept sort of work or what is it that makes it not just a great short idea but a film?

GRAHAME-SMITH: Emotion and that the real story of Abraham Lincoln and the themes of his life, the themes of blowing yourself up, literally making something of yourself when you came from nothing, no education, no family connections, no wealth of any kind. I thought about this when I wrote the book too, not just to say that just because he’s kind of trained like a superhero, but you think that there is no character like Abraham Lincoln in world history. We were talking about this today, there is no Russian equivalent of Lincoln, somebody who went from nothing and rose not only to the highest office of the land but saved that land. In that way that’s how I’ve always thought of it, even in terms of the book as a superhero origin story. I’ve said it in a million interviews ever since that he’s the first and true American superhero. What we’ve done in a very big, very genre way is realize that as — we’ve taken that concept and made it into the action movie version of that concept where we’re literally doing a literal superhero origin story in the 19th century. As weird as that is, I grant you it’s weird but I think it works. Part of why I love the fact that this is a movie is here’s a summer tent pole movie but it kind of has no business being there in a way because it’s so out there in a concept but it’s not a sequel, it’s not a remake, it’s not based on a video game, it’s not based on a toy and there are no robots in it. In terms of summer movies that sets it apart and I’m really excited about that.

Will there be action figures?

GRAHAME-SMITH: There will be action figures, obviously! But, you know, it’s the chicken and the egg question.

I love this book. I love that you’ve been very involved when it comes to them making this movie. Was there anything that they wanted to do that you were like “No, they’re not doing that to my baby!”

seth-grahame-smithGRAHAME-SMITH: Oh my God. By the end of the process, no, I just said yes to everything. It was a really strange and unique sort of process for me to adapt my own book because I knew going into it that — look at the people you’re working with. You’re working with Tim Burton, with Jim Lemley who produced these huge movies and you’re working with the director of Night Watch and Wanted. You know what you’re getting into and you know you’ve got to rise with that bigness. There was — we had a lot of discussions about stuff. We went through so many different iterations, so many different drafts, really experimenting with things but I’ll tell you something and here’s a perfect example of how — there are many differences, by the way, between the book and the film. One of the things we realized very late in the process of the screenplay was that my book had no central villain. There was no villain in the book to sort of give voice. There was villains, there was the vampires at large. It’s very helpful it turns out in films to have a villain to go up against your hero. So that’s one thing, we created a character that sort of gave voice to that and all the other evils that the vampires do. There’s a big climax that I won’t give too much away about that’s not in the book. The book didn’t have the big climax. Everybody knows that Lincoln gets shot, gets buried and that’s kind of it. There’s a little epilogue and that’s it. So certain things have to change and I’m very pleased with the changes we made because I think the things that we clung to are thematically important and they do justice to the real Lincoln story and the real Lincoln ideals.

Forgive me but I have to ask, what can a horror fan and a vampire enthusiast expect from this movie?

GRAHAME-SMITH: What can the horror fan and the vampire enthusiast expect from this? I’ll let Timur answer that but what were the horror — what can we speak about…

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: I don’t think that the vampires in the story were particularly fierce.

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-benjamin-walker-closeupGRAHAME-SMITH: It’s going to be very bloody, parts of it are going to be very scary, but this is a point of personal value for me, as a horror fan my whole life, this movie puts vampires back where they belong and that’s as bad guys and not as heartthrobs. They should be beheaded with an axe and not kissed by tweens, all right? So in this you’re going to see badass vampires who’ll be treated right as the villains that they are.

This question is for Timur. The fact that you grew up in Russia, did it kind of help you directing this film that’s based around an American icon? You know, this is loosely based around him.

BEKMAMBETOV: What Seth was trying to explain earlier, I was trying to remember the same figure like Lincoln that we had in Russian history that was connected and contemporary for us and unfortunately I couldn’t. But I feel that this was an adventure for me, this process, and I think that — I’ve lived here for six years in the United States and this movie helps me to connect to the country, to the people and understand more.

Seth you mentioned that this was a bit of a superhero story, and of course one of the things about superheroes is that while they all have origins, not a lot of them have endings while Lincoln does have an ending. If the film proves to be successful, are there any other stories to tell of Lincoln? Can we see sort of a prequel but the stories that took place within the time period of this one?

GRAHAME-SMITH: The short answer is yes, absolutely. I think for me the book there was an epilogue that leaves things a little open. I think in the film, without giving anything away, we know definitively it’s the end of an origin story. We leave not only a mentor story but possibly (inaudible) story so yes.

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-rufus-sewell-benjamin-walker-erin-wassonWALKER: Because this is (inaudible) Lincoln punctuated it but it’s probably going on now.

This question is for Timur, with this film from what we’ve seen, also in Night Watch, Day Watch and Wanted you’ve got the real world but you also have this alternate reality going on. You have superhero figures doing battle in a war that the real world isn’t really aware of. What would you say brought you to this sort of narrative?

BEKMAMBETOV: I really believe that any fantasy you need a reality otherwise you cannot relate, you cannot relate to the characters. This book was very, very interesting for me because this book has a real story behind it and for me it was fun to break it, to change it and to play with it. And that’s what I really like to do with this job, is to play with a toy and break it until I’m satisfied.

GRAHAME-SMITH: We talked a lot about, in the process of crafting the script and making the movie, we talked a lot about these two worlds. There’s the historical world, the Lincoln world that is familiar, and then there is what we’re doing which is the genre world. Make no mistake, this is a genre movie that’s in between three worlds.

BEKMAMBETOV: The real world, Lincoln’s world, the fantasy world and our world, the world we’re living in now, this combination.

GRAHAME-SMITH: And that’s one of the things that makes this movie really unique is — it’s a genre movie, it’s an action movie and yet there’s a historical movie in there and there’s a very emotional movie in there as well about Lincoln, as played by Ben(jamin Walker), who like the real Abraham Lincoln suffered endless heartache in his life, endless challenges, endless setbacks. Death was all around him at all points of his life. I don’t think there was a two year period in his life after he was nine years old that he didn’t have some incredible setback or loss, things that would just crush me personally and most of us. And that was interesting to all of us in that I think a genre way. He has almost this super-heroic ability to pull himself up and to find his inner strength as you saw in the first scene when he finds his strength and that kind of a blend of one of those things where history, reality, our world and the genre world all blend together in a scene. It’s an interesting balance, it’s one of the things I love to write about it.

BEKMAMBETOV: He’s not a genre character, he’s a real man, that what was important for me. It’s not a genre story, it’s a real story with a genre elements.

WALKER: It’s humanist at its core. It’s a humanist story that — it’s the best of what we all at some level, male, female.

GRAHAME-SMITH: And I think there’s just one more element to add. There also has to — you can write anything you want about Peter Parker and nobody’s going to get that angry. But you have to approach the life of Abraham Lincoln with a certain amount of respect for the real man, the real heartache and the real intelligence. That’s what the differences — we’re talking about a real person here whose story is well known, whose story is important to a lot of people, ourselves included. So that’s one of the other things that sets itself apart from your typical genre movie.

LEMLEY: We fully believe that he himself would approve and like this, because of it’s truth.

Okay, so let me just play devil’s advocate for a second. When you’re making this with all of the vampires and stuff, you have to admit True Blood, Twilight, it’s definitely a genre right now. So when you say there was no inspiration from that genre for your film, or was there? There was never any talk about Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter before this, I was just curious —

GRAHAME-SMITH: For me, no, I didn’t take inspiration from — when you’re writing the book, there was no inspiration. I don’t think True Blood premiered yet and there’s certainly no inspiration from Twilight, although my wife loves those books I have to say. The inspiration for me came from the life of Abraham Lincoln. This was born of me going on the book tour for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I’ve told this story a bunch of times but I’d go to all of these different bookstores around the nation and there were two things that were always the same: in the front of the bookstore, at that time, were a table of Twilight books and right next to that table of Twilight books, this is 2009 so we’re talking about the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, there was also a table of Lincoln biographies. And that was sort of the connective tissue for me. It was like “Hey, people love the Lincoln books and people love vampire books.” Then I set off on a journey of exploring the actual life of Abraham Lincoln and fell in love with the real story which is a story of darkness and heartache and what I saw as a superhero origin story. And so taking his real life as a road map, I then just — you know, I wrote the vampires that I wanted to write as a horror fan, the scary vampires. If anything, it was more Christopher Lee in this than Edward.

Timur Bekmambetov The Darkest Hour Moscow Set VisitBEKMAMBETOV: I’ve been fighting vampires since 2003 in a different language.

LEMLEY: Which is why I knew it because him (Grahame-Smith) and Timur are vampire guys, I’m not at all so it’s good to be with the others.

WALKER: Well you talk about genre, something that you guys work in that world. If I, in trying to act like Abraham Lincoln, allow myself to think like that, think in terms of genre or start creeping out into the abstract I’m not doing service to the man. The joke is in the title and the movie is the commitment to it, down to the buttons on the jacket that I wore. The amount of work that went into making it real, meticulous and thorough was mind-boggling to me. To me it’s a drama, of course it is, it’s Lincoln’s struggle with himself and the evils around him and building his life around his family.

GRAHAME-SMITH: And I think that’s another thing that’s going to set itself apart for people when they watch it, is that they’ll watch Ben’s performance. It’s an other-worldly performance that’s surprisingly honest and it’s surprisingly touching and grounded like Timur is saying. That’s why we get together and we get away with the bigness of this because we always know that at the core of it is this emotional story, this real story that you’re kind of really interested in through Ben’s performance.

WALKER: I’m trying to make a better country and I have to lop some heads periodically.

You mentioned our world and I’m wondering how that plays into the film?

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-rufus-sewell-erin-wassonWALKER: I think I can answer that. There was a level of embracing the contemporary in terms of the world that is created and the world that’s existed. There’s a level of charm that you can relate to on a contemporary level and that’s what I think you meant.

BEKMAMBETOV: The film’s still the same and I think our audiences, young boys and girls, and we are telling the story for them. In my mind, it’s addressed in the movie, not addressed to the soldiers in the 19th century, it’s addressed to our audience watching the movie.

I do believe that this movie is going to touch people around the world because of the nature of the character. We’re talking about fantasy, we’ve talked about vampires, but one of the things we haven’t talked about here is about the real poet inside. When the elections were going on in America, or when things weren’t precisely going on at it’s best, what do you think is going to be the reaction?

GRAHAME-SMITH: That’s an interesting question. It’s a political, it’s an election year so automatically we’re talking about being divided, right? I think that, for me if anything, I’m not saying that the movie sets out to do this but through the lessons of Lincoln, if this movie gets people thinking about the actual Lincoln, thinking about the legacy of the real guy, I think that if anything, talking about being a uniter to a country that was literally tearing itself apart and he reeled those guys back in.

LEMLEY: As it is now in sort of our more — through the pungency rather than through the musket which is —

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-benjamin-walker-erin-wassonNobody’s seceding.

LEMLEY: Yeah, nobody’s seceding, right, but through those channels — I don’t know, would you guys say that it’s an overtly political movie? I don’t think so.

WALKER: I think it’s a metaphor in any case and what I think is really powerful about this is the metaphor grounded in the reality that you’re an American, you understand because of that character, and that metaphor can be applied and used basically for your feelings released, thoughts about it, onto it. It’s just a powerful metaphor how it … how can it be used? I don’t think that’s a word that can.. it got used in a political way?

GRAHAME-SMITH: We’re also dealing with Lincoln’s life, so we can’t escape the politics of it because politics was a huge part of his life. I think it’s an interesting time for the movie to come out frankly. I think it’s a relevant time for it to come out.

Seth, you were saying that the Twilight movies are kind of faux-pas vampire movies..

GRAHAME-SMITH: I didn’t say that they were faux-pas, I was saying that they were not my cup of tea as far as my vampire stuff goes. I understand why they’re popular. I don’t want to anger the Twilight-ers, believe me.

The tweens. [laughs] I pretty much wanted to ask all of you what you think the whole vampire fascination is all about in our society especially. Because we have I guess the serious vampire that goes all the way back to Nosferatu and Dracula to the vampires now like the ones we see in True Blood, Twilight and that type. This is getting them back on the serious mode?

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-posterGRAHAME-SMITH: My answer why I’ve always been fascinated with the vampires is first of all I’m fascinated of the idea of immortality. As a human being whose life is limited to a certain and at this point undetermined number of years, the part of me wants to life forever to see what’s going to happen. Vampires, though they have to pay a pretty hefty price for it with fangs, killing, drinking blood and not being able to walk out into the sun in most cases, they get to live forever.

WALKER: But not in our movie, we’ll get to that. They have to wear sunglasses and sunscreen. They invented sunscreen.

GRAHAME-SMITH: Guys, it wasn’t Coppertone, all right? But why for me is that number one, there’s a darkness to them that just sort of representative of the darkness that we all have in our hearts at some points, or at least I’m just speaking to myself, I don’t know, Jim definitely does. For me it’s the ideal of immortality and it’s kind of like the — there’s a real sexuality to the fact that you’re putting your teeth in someone and stealing their lifeblood, taking their essence. There’s no surprise why people find that sort of erotic in some cases, and also why people find it scary and even a little sexy.

BEKMAMBETOV: I think the scary thing is that they can convert you. That’s the scariest thing. Because we know that Lincoln was killed in a theater, but during the whole movie you’re afraid that they’re going to bite him and we don’t know who was killed in the theater.

WALKER: So take that!

abraham-lincoln-vampire-hunter-movie-posterHi Ben. I was wondering if you could touch upon why you got involved in this film, to introduce yourself to American audiences in a large scale. Did you know it was going to be a tent-pole franchise-style when you originally tried out and talked to Timur and could you touch upon working with your co-stars Dominic (Cooper), Mary (Elizabeth Winstead) and Rufus (Sewell)?

WALKER: The thing that drew me to the film and that I was focused on, in terms as why I want to do this was the ability to work with Timur (Bekmambetov). I come from the stage, I come from stand-up comedy. You’re right, this is something that’s very new to me. I had no idea what this was going to be for me and I still don’t, but I knew that working with this team I could get better at what I do. So that’s why I wanted to do it. I got to portray a man that I thoroughly admire. Second part of your question was co-stars. Well Mary Winstead, no offense to the actual Mary Todd, but Mary Winstead really is an attractive girl. She does her some justice and everybody was great to work with. Mary of course was a brilliant actress. Dominic Cooper, he’s my mentor in the movie and I don’t have as much experience as he does in film so he was very much my mentor through the process. A lot of great.. Marton (Csokas), oh my God he plays this scar vampire and he can be horrifying. There’s some scenes with Marton I’m actually scared for my life. Of course Anthony Mackie. Anthony and I actually went to college together so we had a repore and vocabulary that worked nicely and that was the same way that William Johnson and Lincoln had a rapport and a history together. Rufus Sewell, also horrifying. He also brings this gravity with him that is an authority that translates so nicely to a character that has existed for as long as recorded time. I believe that he was around back when they were building the pyramids. His authority and presence can encompass something as wild and far-fetched as a vampire and make it very real and grounded and make it funny, charming and every actor in the movie I learned something from and I really enjoyed working with.

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