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April 16, 2012

‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’: Fake history, but an honest Abe

Posted in: Movies

Director Timur Bekmambetov, right, and actor Benjamin Walker discuss a scene on the set of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

The 16th president, portrayed by Benjamin Walker, delivers the Gettysburg Address in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

Vadoma (Erin Wasson) spreads her wings as Adam (Rufus Sewell) watches in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

Vampire Hunter Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) battles Vadoma (Erin Wasson), as Adam (Rufus Sewell) watches in a scene from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

Vampires Adam (Rufus Sewell, left) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson) trap Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

The vampire Vadoma (Erin Wasson) traps Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, unleashes his wrath against the undead in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

The sun was just about to set over Lake Pontchartrain on a humid Louisiana day last May when Abraham Lincoln was summoned into action in a grassy field to wrestle to the hard, unforgiving ground the murderous nemesis who took the life of his mother years earlier. Lincoln bellowed with sorrow and rage, pinning an enemy beneath his considerable weight. This was not the weathered president struggling to bear up under the agonizing grief of a bloody and brutal Civil War. This was a young man primed for a fight to the death.

Funny thing, though — no one in the assembled crowd of onlookers seemed to bat an eye that Honest Abe was facing off against a vampire.

Such is the straight-faced approach to the somewhat ridiculous-sounding “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Fox’s 3-D adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel due in theaters in June. On the set of the film, the movie’s creative team took great pains to render the outré premise with gravitas, arguing that the movie should be more than a winking, incarnation of tiresome literary mash-up tropes.

“It’s kind of all there in the title, isn’t it?” conceded star Benjamin Walker, relaxing in a director’s chair between takes. “I guess my initial reaction was, now what? Since you establish what it is so clearly and bluntly with the title, how much freedom does that give you to be real? We get to reenvision one of the greatest American heroes as a hero in a thriller.”

The book recounts roughly 45 years of Lincoln’s life, from about 1820 to 1865, tracing his evolution from a poor young man devastated by the loss of his mother, up through his burgeoning interest in politics, his presidency and his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, battles the undead in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

While the tale is rooted in factual history, it also posits the fantastic conceit that Lincoln’s secret crusade to drive blood-drinking monsters into extinction influenced nearly every important decision in his life. In his quest, he finds an unlikely ally and companion in a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess (portrayed onscreen by Dominic Cooper) who helps him defeat the supernatural foes who seek to uphold the institution of slavery for their own despicable ends.

February marked the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, and rarely has a day gone by in this election year that the 16th president and his landmark achievements aren’t name-checked in some fashion. What’s perhaps more unusual is that he’ll be the subject of two movies due out before the end of 2012 – first, Lincoln will fight the undead; months later, a Steven Spielberg film based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” will tell the story of the final four months of his life, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.

Although Walker is a relative newcomer, he does have experience with revisionist history. After first earning attention in several stage productions, the 29-year-old Georgia native garnered critical acclaim for his starring turn in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” an irreverent retelling of the life of the seventh man to hold the highest office in the country that ran on and off-Broadway.

“I seem to only play strange interpretations of American presidents. Next is Polk,” Walker deadpanned.

The idea for this hodgepodge of history and horror sprang from the mind of Grahame-Smith, a struggling screenwriter turned novelist whose 2009 book “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” sparked the trend of draping genre trappings over classic literature (“Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” “Android Karenina,” et al.). For his follow-up, Grahame-Smith reimagined the life of Lincoln through a B-movie lens, penning the manuscript for “Vampire Hunter” in just four months, a period that became “a very Red Bull-fueled intensive time in my life,” he said speaking by phone.

Grahame-Smith, who studied film at Emerson College, said that Tim Burton and producer Jim Lemley contacted him when he was in the early stages of the Lincoln book with the idea of turning it into a film, and he expressed interest then in writing the screenplay. They agreed, which was great news for the author, though he found himself in an interesting creative conundrum: “I was writing the book knowing that I was going to be writing the movie after I wrote the book. That was weird.”

Burton told The Times last year that he immediately sparked to the idea for the film. “Something hit me inside that said I just wanted to see that movie,” Burton said. “I don’t know why. I grew up on weird perverse movies, and it just seemed like one of those kind of movies that just tapped into my subconscious. I remember going to the Cornell Theater in Burbank, where they’d do like three movies for 50 cents, and that would have been the kind of movie I would have seen there.”

After the novel was completed, Grahame-Smith met with Burton, Lemley and director Timur Bekmambetov to discuss the direction for the script, and the four agreed that camp had no place in the adaptation. Over the course of 18 months and a number of drafts, they hit upon the idea of creating a central villain, Adam, played by Rufus Sewell. (In the book, Lincoln has just one specific enemy who’s dispatched fairly early on; for the bulk of the story, he’s fighting against vampires as a collective.)

“It was very late in the process when we all sort of came to this realization, we need somebody to be the heavy in this movie,” Grahame-Smith said. “We went along trying to be, I think, too faithful to the book. We all came to the realization that it would really serve the movie if there was a bad guy, which seems like such a simple thing, but when you are starting with source material you’re trying to balance being faithful with being compelling.”

Finding the right actor to head a cast of characters heavily populated with historical figures — Alan Tudyk plays Stephen Douglas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Mary Todd Lincoln — wasn’t easy, Lemley said.

“It’s an unbelievably challenging role,” he recalled on the set. “We made a list — it didn’t matter if they were names or not — who could inhabit the body of Abraham Lincoln believably. You start to make that list, it’s not an easy list.”

The 16th president, portrayed by Benjamin Walker, delivers the Gettysburg Address in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

Standing over 6 feet tall, Walker had the right sort of physicality, but to win the role, he had to spend six hours with makeup artist Greg Cannom, who transformed the actor into the elder, bearded Lincoln; Walker then had to deliver the Gettysburg Address. “I like to imagine I was just as nervous as Lincoln would have been at the moment,” Walker said.

Talk to anyone involved with “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and you’ll hear a common refrain about the filmmakers’ painstakingly detailed approach to historical accuracy and authenticity. Sitting together in a cavernous warehouse overflowing with custom-made gowns, shoes, suits and hats, costume designers Carlo Poggioli and Varvara Avdyushko proudly recount how they created about 8,000 costumes for the film after undertaking countless hours of research.

Property master Guillaume DeLouche explains that the stakes Abe uses are made from ash wood that came from the flooring of a 17th century Huguenot house. Production designer François Audouy describes how Kentucky craftsmen were hired to hand-forge the axes using 19th century techniques that Abe wields. (As to why the film was shot in Louisiana and not in, say, Illinois, that comes down to tax breaks and financial incentives for the reportedly $65-million production.)

“I think there’s an immediate assumption when you hear Tim Burton and you hear Timur Bekmambetov is that it’s going to be ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with axes,” Audouy said. “The historical nature of it is sort of the foundation that everything else is built upon. We’re telling the story as if it really happened. In order for the audience to be completely immersed in this conceit, everything, in my view, has to be completely believable.”

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)

With a round, white moon rising, the atmosphere on that May evening took a more decidedly supernatural turn. Uneasy horses whinnied in a stable, the electric buzz of unseen insects charged the air, an alligator swam by just beyond the wooden boards of a temporary dock where Abe and his ax would have to battle an undead assailant. As the minutes ticked by, Bekmambetov called together a circle of crew members to draw for them his vision of how the scene should play out.

The 50-year-old, born in what is now Kazakhstan, communicates best visually, it’s explained — Walker described him as “a professional with the imagination of a 6-year-old boy” — which makes sense if you think back to the manic energy and balletic action of his previous movies, including 2008’s action flick “Wanted” and a pair of Russian vampire films, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch.”

Bekmambetov said he was excited by the “chance to make a superhero movie about a real historical figure,” and as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, the Moscow-based filmmaker brought a unique perspective to a project about a beloved U.S. president, a man the director said is “still very contemporary.”

“I think the Civil War still continues, the problems he was trying to fix still exist…,” Bekmambetov said. “Maybe one of the greatest ideas he had was until everyone is free, we’re all slaves. For me, it’s not about slavery, it’s not about racial inequality, it’s about freedom. We’re not free because we live in fear.”

– Gina McIntyre in New Orleans

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