Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Timur Bekmambetov-directed and Seth Grahame-Smith scripted revisionist take on the life of the 16th President of the United States opens on June 22nd.
I recently hopped on the phone with Smith to talk about the film and his experience working with Bekmambetov. We also talked about some of his upcoming projects including Beetlejuice 2, Unholy Night and the oft-delayed Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.
The film, “explores the secret life of our greatest president, and the untold history that shaped our nation. As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln witnesses the shocking death of his mother, leading him on a path to an ongoing war – and ultimately to the presidency – he chronicles in a hidden diary. His journal reveals the incredible story of a clandestine warrior who never stopped fighting for the country he led and the people he loved.”
Benjamin Walker stars as “Honest Abe”, with Anthony Mackie, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Robin McLeavy, Robin McLeavy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jimmi Simpson and Alan Tudyk.
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I haven’t read the book, but what’s the process of adapting your own work for the screen like? Did you lose some of your favorite bits?
Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. I wouldn’t recommend it. The book and the film are very different. The book deals more in the minutiae of the real history of Lincoln, where the movie you saw was much more of a bloody and insane action romp. You’d expect that from Timur Bekmambetov [who directed Nightwatch, Daywatch and Wanted]. Adapting the book, it wasn’t so much the stuff we had to lose that was hard, it was all the stuff that had to be invented. In the book there was no Rufus Sewell character, there was no Anthony Mackie character. There’s no horse sequence, there’s no train sequence, there’s no silver at the climax. So it had to be such a different interpretation of it that it was actually like writing a sequel to the book rather than an adaptation of it.
You have these characters that you need to care about. What’s it like creating their arcs in a big, sprawling film that also has to service all of these action beats?
That was the biggest challenge. When you’re writing a book, you’re the writer, director, producer and star all at once. When you’re writing a film – even if it’s from your book – you have to be there to service the vision of the director. On top of that the studio has notes, the actors have notes and so on and so forth. One of the big challenges of this film that you’re getting at is that this is an absurd premise for a movie. And one of the ways to get by that is to treat the material as seriously as possible. If you were to just do the Mel Brooks version, it would be about as sustainable as an SNL sketch. So you have this director who you know is going to bring all this action to it, so the challenge is to thread Abe’s story through that and keep the audience invested in the characters. It’s very difficult.
You’ve been juggling this, Dark Shadows, Unholy Night and Beetlejuice 2. How do you keep room in your head for all of these different projects?
I keep them in different stages. So one is in an outline stage, one is in a script stage and the other is in a revision stage. One thing you can never do is write two scripts at once. I’ve tried that and it gets a little too schizophrenic, even for me. Again, I’m lucky to be so busy. So I try to stay disciplined and make time to write every day. I even make time when I’m on the road. I’m also lucky in the sense that I’m a pretty detailed outliner. So once I get to the point where I am writing the script I’ve done a lot of the plot work and character work in advance.
How closely did you work with Timur in developing the material?
Very closely. Timur has a process. He’s got his own effects studio in Russia and he has a lot of guys over there that will work with him in designing action sequences in pre-viz. We’ll do a lot of the work mapping out the beats, then it will go to Moscow to be pre-vizzed, then the animators will add their little flourishes to it. And then you can sort of transcribe it to the script ion a very detailed way. Otherwise I’d be sitting at the computer trying to write this instruction manual for these complex action sequences. Timur’s action sequences are so intricate and unusual that you really do need visual stimulus to help you and luckily Timur helps you out with that.
Where are you on Unholy Night and Beetlejuice 2?
Right now I’m writing the script for Unholy Night and I’m working on the outline for Beetlejuice 2 and I just finished an animated script that I want to make with Tim for one of his stop-motion movies.
Pride And Prejudice And Zombies has had a long trip to the screen, which is increasingly common these days. Do you have an update on where it is?
The only update is that it’s languishing right now. It’s frustrating, we’ve been close a couple of times, we just need a director. We’ve had a couple of great directors come in and drop off but it’s frustrating in the sense that we have a great script by David O. Russell and Marti Noxon. It’s ready to go with all of these great parts in it, so we really just need a director.
Back to Lincoln, did you have any trepidation taking on a real-life character who was such a lighting rod for civil rights? He’s symbolic of struggle that continues today regarding race.
That’s why I thought it was so important. I was a little trepidatious, but the reaction has been so much more positive than I ever could have imagined. Since the book has come out I’ve been invited to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum And Library twice to give talks and promote the book and the film. I’ve made friends with some of the scholars that are the pre-eminent keepers of the Lincoln legend and guardians of the Lincoln flame. And they’ve accepted the book and are excited about the movie in a way that’s totally unexpected. Even though what we’re doing is admittedly an absurd take on Lincoln’s life, we’re doing it with real care and consideration and respect for his ideals. And we’re bringing the legend of Lincoln to a new group of people.