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August 09, 2012

Seth Grahame-Smith wants to resurrect ‘Beetlejuice,’ ‘It’

Posted in: Movies

Seth Grahame-Smith is reflective about his experience writing "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and "Dark Shadows." "On one hand I got to make two movies with some extraordinary visionary filmmakers," he said. "On the other, the movies didn't work. So while it's great to be on the scoreboard, you also have to own the fact that you're now 0-2." (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Seth Grahame-Smith made his literary debut with the 2005 history book, "The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies." (Quirk Books)

Grahame-Smith's 2006 "The Spider-Man Handbook: The Ultimate Training Manual" included a forward by Stan Lee. (Quirk Books)

Grahame-Smith continued writing for a niche audience with his 2007 book, "How to Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills." (Quirk Books)

Grahame-Smith's 2008 satirical book "Pardon My President: Fold-and-Mail Apologies for 8 Years" includes apologies to Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, the people of Iraq, and others. (Quirk Books)

Grahame-Smith's first novel (and first genre mash-up) was "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The 2009 bestseller added gruesome horror elements to Jane Austen's classic. A movie based on the book is in the works for a tentative 2013 release. (Quirk Books)

Also in 2009, Grahame-Smith made his comics debut, writing the Hulk issue of the limited series "Marvel Zombies Return." (Marvel)

Following his "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" success, Grahame-Smith wrote another mashup, this time drawing on history instead of classic literature. "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" hit shelves in 2010 and quickly became a bestseller. (Grand Central Publishing)

Grahame-Smith and his Katzsmith Productions partner David Katzenberg teamed up to create, write and produce "The Hard Times of RJ Berger." (MTV)

Grahame-Smith penned the screenplay for Tim Burton's 2012 silver-screen adaptation of the TV series "Dark Shadows." The film, which starred Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins, was a box-office disappointment. (Warner Bros.)

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" also got the big-screen treatment in 2012. Grahame-Smith wrote the screenplay for the Tim Burton-produced film, which starred Benjamin Walker as the vampire-slaying president. (20th Century Fox)

Grahame-Smith said he hopes to adapt his most recent novel, "Unholy Night," for the big screen. The 2012 book is a revisionist telling of the nativity story about a thief who becomes the unlikely bodyguard of the infant Jesus. (Grand Central Publishing)

“I believe that I now have to earn back some of that cred with the audience because I think that people are going to look at me a little skeptically,” Grahame-Smith said. “And that’s fine, they should. I want to be judged harshly because that forces me to really sit down and focus.” (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“There are so many stories to tell in the worlds of science fiction, the worlds of fantasy and horror that to confine yourself to even doing historical revisionist fiction, whatever you want to call it — mash-ups, gimmick lit, absurdist fiction — I don’t know if I want to do that anymore,” Seth Grahame-Smith said. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Two months ago, Seth Grahame-Smith looked like he would be the breakout star of a crowded summer movie season. The “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” novelist-turned-Hollywood screenwriter had two films set for release within weeks of each other: Tim Burton’s soap opera send-up “Dark Shadows” and an adaptation of his own bestseller, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

The first starred Johnny Depp as an aristocratic vampire who must navigate the strange social mores of 1970s Maine; the latter cast newcomer Benjamin Walker as an ax-wielding incarnation of the 16th president who, out to avenge his mother’s murder, hunts down the monsters secretly advancing the practice of slavery. Both flopped.

Suddenly, the 36-year-old — whom the Wall Street Journal had proclaimed “one of Hollywood’s most sought-after young players” — didn’t seem quite so whiz-bang successful.

Seth Grahame-Smith. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve thought a lot about this summer and what it means,” a reflective Grahame-Smith said recently over a cup of coffee. “On one hand I got to make two movies with some extraordinary visionary filmmakers…. On the other, the movies didn’t work. So while it’s great to be on the scoreboard, you also have to own the fact that you’re now 0-2.”

The typical cycle of movie promotion sees filmmakers sitting down with journalists before their work is ever evaluated by critics or paying audiences. It’s rare that a producer, director, actor or screenwriter talks openly about what happens when their films don’t connect. But Grahame-Smith is publicly owning up to the box office letdowns in a way that might fall just short of being characterized as an apology tour.

He and “Prometheus” screenwriter Damon Lindelof went so far as to appear on a panel titled “The Art of Being Despised” during San Diego’s Comic-Con International in July to directly address fans who felt dissatisfied by their work.

“People literally on Twitter were telling me I’m the worst writer, I’m a soulless hack,” Grahame-Smith said. “‘You should kill yourself.’ These are people who follow you on Twitter.”

Grahame-Smith and Lindelof are hardly the only filmmakers who’ve had to contend with unhappy viewers lately. “John Carter” director Andrew Stanton and “Battleship” helmer Pete Berg are responsible for two of the biggest movie disappointments of the year. (“I didn’t take it that seriously when I was a success, so I’m not taking it that seriously when I’m a failure,” Stanton good-naturedly told The Times this year after his sci-fi adventure failed to click with critics or audiences.)

In light of recent events, Grahame-Smith said he’s found a way to cope by planning to step out of the public eye and spend more time on what matters most: improving the quality of his work. Which means fewer interviews and public appearances and more time devoted to screenplays and a new novel that he’s due to begin writing in January.

“I believe that I now have to earn back some of that cred with the audience because I think that people are going to look at me a little skeptically,” Grahame-Smith said. “And that’s fine, they should. I want to be judged harshly because that forces me to really sit down and focus.”

How he arrived at this precarious career position is itself an unusual tale. Raised in Bethel, Conn., Grahame-Smith grew up voraciously reading sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels, particularly the work of Stephen King, much of which he discovered in his stepfather’s makeshift basement library.

He studied film at Boston’s Emerson College and moved to Los Angeles after graduation. Before long, he found himself partnered with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s son David and running a mildly rude comedy series for MTV, “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” but it was with the publication in 2009 of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” that his writing career took off.

Although the concept of introducing the walking dead into Jane Austen’s famous romance sprang from the mind of an editor at Quirk Books, the oddball idea dovetailed nicely with the writer’s slightly off-kilter, genre-inflected sensibility. It also brought Grahame-Smith to the attention of Burton, Timur Bekmambetov and Jim Lemley, who optioned his follow-up “Abraham Lincoln” before the novel was even finished. As part of that deal, Grahame-Smith was tapped to pen the script for the three producers, with Bekmambetov also opting to direct.

Translating the story to the screen wasn’t easy. The book doesn’t have a conventional three-act structure that builds to a show-stopping climax; it’s told largely through Lincoln’s journal entries and interior observation, and in terms of tone, it plays its ridiculous premise entirely straight. There’s also no central villain; one, a vampire named Adam played by Rufus Sewell, had to be invented for the movie.

Still, the draft of the “Abraham Lincoln” script that won the film its Hollywood greenlight also earned a place on the prestigious Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in 2010. It subsequently went through more than a dozen revisions, with the film ultimately taking on a darker, more muscular tone that gleefully earned its R rating with balletic scenes of stylized violence. Also, the original planned ending of the movie was changed, Grahame-Smith said.

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

“Timur’s one of those directors, he’s always inventing,” the writer said of the “Wanted” filmmaker who helmed “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” “He’s just an idea factory, and the ideas and the revisions and the inventions don’t ever stop just because you’re shooting.”

While the period action horror film was shooting on location in Louisiana, Grahame-Smith was spending time traveling from his Los Angeles home to London to work with Burton and Depp on “Dark Shadows,” the update of the supernatural cult soap opera that centered on lovesick vampire Barnabas Collins. The film blended melodrama with fish-out-of-water comedy and a dash of splashy satirical romp.

“Dark Shadows” has earned about $79 million in domestic ticket sales — better than 2007’s Burton-Depp collaboration “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which brought in almost $53 million, but far less than their 2010 fairy tale “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned about $334 million domestically and more than $1 billion worldwide.

In an interview with The Times, Burton shrugged off the fate of both “Shadows” and its roughly $37-million grossing counterpart “Abraham Lincoln.” “There’s no such thing as a sure thing,” Burton said. “If anybody goes into something thinking that, it’s not accurate … it’s kind of the great thing about film, it’s still a chemistry, it’s not an exact science.”

Burton fully endorsed “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — “I love it. It’s my kind of movie,” he said — and he’s continuing to work with Grahame-Smith on other projects.

Before the end of the year, the writer is hoping to complete the screenplay for a potential stop-motion animated feature for Burton titled “Night of the Living,” and he’s optimistic about crafting a possible “Beetlejuice” sequel that would re-team Burton with actor Michael Keaton — though the director hasn’t settled on what film he’ll shoot after the release of October’s “Frankenweenie.”

At Katzsmith, the company Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg run together, those two movies are part of a roster of nearly 20 projects in active development — that list also includes a planned two-film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “It” set to be directed by Cary Fukunaga (“Jane Eyre,” “Sin Nombre”).

“Seth is an incredibly dedicated writer who brings not only a deep love of movies but also a vast knowledge of them,” wrote Dan Lin, another of the producers on the two “It” movies, in an email. “It’s been exciting to work with him as a fellow producer on ‘It’ because he’s about much more than just ‘genre deconstruction,’ or the mashing up of classic texts with well-known genres.”

But the most pressing priority, Grahame-Smith said, is the “Unholy Night” screenplay he’s writing for Warner Bros. It’s an adaptation of his latest novel, released through Grand Central in the spring. A revisionist take on the Nativity story, the book follows a loner antihero named Balthazar who becomes an unlikely bodyguard to the infant Jesus.

The sweeping sword and sandals saga debuted in March at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list and received largely positive reviews, with many critics pointing up the book’s cinematic veneer. It’s also a tentative first step away from the mash-up genre, territory that Grahame-Smith is by now eager to leave behind as he considers his next novel, the subject of which he hasn’t settled on.

He worries that readers might not necessarily follow him down a radically new path.

“There are so many stories to tell in the worlds of science fiction, the worlds of fantasy and horror that to confine yourself to even doing historical revisionist fiction, whatever you want to call it — mash-ups, gimmick lit, absurdist fiction — I don’t know if I want to do that anymore,” he said.

“You still have to respect what your audience expects. If you’re Stephen King and you have a massive body of huge-selling well-respected work, you can pivot and do whatever you want. I don’t have that body of work, I don’t have that audience that’s comfortable with me enough yet to follow my bliss with me.”

Seth Grahame-Smith. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Grahame-Smith returns to King again and again in conversation, citing the veteran writer’s long and prolific career as inspirational. In those moments, talking about his literary idol, the husband and father of a young son (who, with his wife, is expecting another baby boy this fall), sounds possibly more like his former self, a pop culture-obsessed adolescent with a penchant for fantastic tales and an overactive imagination rather than a successful novelist or a Hollywood screenwriter coming off a bad summer.

“I’ll never reach that height, that’s just a fact,” Grahame-Smith said. “By the time he was my age, he’d written ‘The Stand’ and ‘It’ and ‘The Shining,’ but that kind of prolific output and that kind of consistent quality is what I aspire to, that kind of big inventiveness and terrifying writing that’s infected with a sense of fun and characters that are memorable and well drawn.

“My goal now is picking myself up, dusting myself off and getting better at what I do,” he said. “If you write really good material, the rest just falls into place. There’s really no trick to it.”

– Gina McIntyre


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