Abraham Lincoln. Vampire Hunter. The very words simply evoke a juxtaposition that is totally unexpected, if not downright bizarre. Sure, it sounds like a really absurd idea: take the life of Abraham Lincoln, often cited as the greatest US president, and throw in some nasty, bad-ass vampires. It's certainly going to be very different from the Lincoln bio-pic that Spielberg is currently working on. When I first heard about the whole premise, I completely dismissed it just on principle, but the more I hear about the upcoming film, the more it seems like it takes itself as seriously as possible, using the vampires as a device to create a very social, yet character driven feature. Yet it's an idea to which the filmmakers have fully committed. Their work is a portrait of the man and leader we've all studied and the seminal events that defined him and our nation— interwoven with the immersive, visceral action of an adventerous vampire story.
At the same time, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER presents the Great Emancipator as the country's first superhero. Notes producer Tim Burton: "Lincoln's entire life mirrors the classic comic book superhero mythology. It's a duality: during the day he's the president of the United States; at night, a vampire hunter." That dichotomy is at the core of the Lincoln we meet in the film. "He was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time," says director Timur Bekmambetov. Adds screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his best-selling novel of the same name: "Lincoln's life story is an archetypal superhero origin story. He's as close to an actual superhero as this country's ever seen. Forget about vampires. Lincoln had neither family name nor money. His mother died when he was a youngster. In fact, everybody he loved had died. With no education, and armed with just his mind, he became president and saved the nation."
These themes grabbed the attention of Burton, his fellow producer Jim Lemley, and Timur Bekmambetov. Even before Grahame-Smith had completed the novel, Burton heard the title and his mind kicked into gear. "It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see," Burton claims. "It felt like it could have the crazy energy of the films of my youth, which had a lot of weird mash-ups of horror movies." Lemley, who had produced with Burton and Bekmambetov the animated film "9," says that Burton's sensibilities were a perfect match for this type of material. "What Tim does so brilliantly is to take conventional imagery and stories and turn them on their heads, and examine them from an unexpected perspective."
The "vampire hunter" portion of the story offers explosive thrills, scares, and stunts, but the filmmakers never forgot that they were also presenting a portrait of a beloved figure, as well as the monumental events that shaped our nation and continue to define contemporary discourse. "Everything had to be presented in a very straightforward way," says Grahame-Smith. "We never wink at the audience; not even once. Tim Burton really supported us and protected that vision." Grahame-Smith notes that his idea for his book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter came from an observation he made during a 2009 tour to promote his previous tome, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, another unexpected connection between disparate cultural entities. The author/screenwriter recalls: "That year marked the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, and many of the bookstores on my promotional tour had two displays: one featured books about Lincoln's life; the other was a vampire-themed display, including the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse books [upon which the television show "True Blood" was based]. It led me to think about combining the two subjects."
Grahame-Smith's vampires were polar opposites to the romantic figures captured in the pages of the books he saw on display. His creatures of the undead pay proper reverence to the classic tradition of vampires in the movies. "The vampires in our movie aren't romantic or funny, and they certainly don't sparkle," he notes. "Our vampires are bloodthirsty, viscious and cunning— and most frightening of all, they've become a part of the fabric of everyday life, working as blacksmiths, pharmacists, and bankers." The vampires' principal foe is one of history's most beloved figures, whom many consider our greatest president. This story covers 45 years in Abraham Lincoln's life, from 1820 to 1865, and is set in Kentucky, Illinois, and Louisiana and, of course, the nation's capital. So, who would follow in the footsteps of some of our most accomplished actors, and play the iconic leader and fearless vampire slayer? The nod went to stage actor Benjamin Walker, who coincidentally already had accrued some "presidential" experience as the lead in the play "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which had a Broadway run in 2010.
"Ben brings humanity and a mischievous quality, which felt very real, to the role," says Tim Burton. Adds Jim Lemley: "Ben captures Lincoln's honesty, integrity, courage and sense of purpose." Most important to Walker was the opportunity to portray not only what made Lincoln a giant, but also a relatable human being. "What's dangerous about playing an icon is not allowing the character to be human," says the actor. "You must allow the character to be vulnerable or even silly. Luckily, Tim and Timur were open to making Abraham a flawed, funny and conflicted man."
"The human side is always the most important thing," Burton concurs. "And the character has to have a sense of humor because no one could survive as a vampire hunter without it." Walker, a 6'3" Juilliard-trained actor certainly had the physical stature to portray the lanky Lincoln. But could the young actor, 29 at the time, convey, physically, the Civil War-era figure whose iconic, aged visage graces our history books and currency? Bekmambetov, Burton and Lemley put Walker to the test— a screen test— during which the actor donned prosthetics that aged him to 55, and delivered one of the most renowned speeches in history, the Gettysburg Address. Walker more than impressed the filmmakers. "My reaction was, 'Oh my God, it's Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address!" Lemley exclaims. Looming ahead for Walker was the imperative to drop 30 pounds to achieve the requisite Lincolnesque leanness, as well as hundreds of hours of weapons training to turn him into the ultimate hunter of the undead.
Before Walker takes center stage as Abraham, we meet the character as a child. His journey begins when his mother Nancy is stricken with a disease of unknown origin— but recognizable to young Abraham as resulting from a vampire's bite. Nancy was a woman of intelligence and heart, imparting on her son the notion that, "until everyone is free, we are all slaves." Abraham never forgot those words, which came to define his views toward slavery. Nor would he ever forget the eternal evil responsible for his mother's death: a vampire (and local businessman) named Jack Barts, portrayed by Marton Csokas, against whom Abraham swears revenge. But his first attack against Barts fails, and Abraham narrowly escapes with his life. He is rescued by the charismatic Henry, a high-living and refined ladies' man. Henry, portrayed by British actor Dominic Cooper, is not interested in Abraham's simple quest for revenge. Instead, he instructs Abraham to control his rage, become stronger, and fight for the greater good of mankind. "It's a choice," Henry tells Abraham, "between doing something extraordinary or being satisfied with simple vengeance."
The combination of rich period atmosphere, a unique perspective on our 16th president, and the army of the undead he's hunting, makes for a motion picture experience like no other. For the writer who gave birth to it all, Seth Grahame-Smith, the film's release caps a journey that began with his best-selling book. A key element in capturing Lincoln's personality was making sure his humor came through. "He could be the life of the party, and was an exciting and entertaining man," Grahame-Smith sums up. "I think he'd love our movie."