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Behind the Scenes of 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'

With Benjamin Walker, Timur Bekmambetov, and Seth Grahame-Smith

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Benjamin Walker stars in 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'

Benjamin Walker stars in 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'

© 20th Century Fox

During 20th Century Fox's presentation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at the 2012 WonderCon, the book's author Seth Grahame-Smith said he came up with the idea for the novel while on a book tour for Pride, Prejudice & Zombies. Seeing books on Lincoln's life and accomplishments next to displays of the Twilight books inspired him to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And while turning the 16th President of the United States into a vampire slayer, Grahame-Smith did extensive research into Lincoln's life, incorporating facts into the story while inserting a 'hidden' side of Honest Abe that might have school kids mistakenly believing he did kill vampires (but not of the sparkling variety - those are strictly Stephenie Meyer's creation).

At a small press conference following the screening of new footage to fans, Grahame-Smith, director Timur Bekmambetov, and the man who plays Lincoln - Benjamin Walker - were asked if it's a little daunting knowing that for many kids this could be their first real exposure to Lincoln. "They should take notes," joked Grahame-Smith while Walker replied, "You could write a high school paper. If you know nothing about Lincoln, you’re going to learn a lot about Lincoln from this film."

Timur Bekmambetov added, "I'm sure in a year if you ask kids on the street, 'Who was Abraham Lincoln?,’ all around the world, they will tell you he fought vampires."

Walker, Bekmambetov, and Grahame-Smith also talked about the story, the tone, the violence, Abe's choice of an axe as a weapon, research, and the process of transforming into Lincoln during the March 17, 2012 press event.

Benjamin Walker, Timur Bekmambetov, and Seth Grahame-Smith Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Interview:

So much of the book is told through Lincoln's journal entries. How does that transition onto the big screen without losing anything?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "It’s a challenge. We incorporate voice over through Lincoln’s journal entries and letters to other people very sparingly. You don’t want to saturate people with voice over, but at the same time we do want to use that device. We do use the device of Lincoln sort of looking back on some of these events through his journal entries."

Benjamin Walker: "And the passing down of his stories is very much a key in his book and is in the movie."

Do you throw some politics in or is this just an action-packed movie from beginning to end? Do you have time to parallel both aspects of Lincoln’s life?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "You can’t make even an action movie about Abraham Lincoln without addressing politics because it’s such a huge part of his life. We do address the politics in the movie, but always in the context of politics, he’s using it as another weapon in his arsenal to fight vampires."

Benjamin Walker: "It’s not one of those movies where it's talking, talking – fight – talking, talking. It's all just different tools for telling Lincoln’s story. The fighting, the politics, it's all part of it."

Talk a little it about the tone. What were you trying to stay consistent with?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "It's tricky. Like I’ve said before, the premise is an absurd premise. I think that because it’s so absurd, it’s very easy to fall into doing it as a lark and making a joke of the whole thing. What we chose to do, and what I chose to do in the book, is to take an absurd premise and treat it very seriously and do it very straightforward. I think that what you will see in the tone of the movie is a very serious sort of muscular, straightforward presentation of a superhero origin story in a way. It is dark, it is violent, but we never flinch. We never wink at the audience and say, 'Ha ha, we know how silly this all is.'"

Benjamin Walker: "Right. The joke is in the title and that’s where it ends."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Yeah, absolutely."

You guys went very dark and violent in this movie. Was that always something you thought you were going to make a scary vampire movie? Or were you going to play with it more?

Timur Bekmambetov: "No, there was no choice because they are bad and Lincoln’s weapon was an ax."

Benjamin Walker: "Right. It’s not like you are a sniper killing them from a thousand yards out. You’re getting right up there in their face and you’re going their blood on you."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "We are not going to tickle them to death."

Benjamin Walker: "Right, that's a very different movie. And it was also a very violent, dark time in America. If you ground it in reality and are really asking practical questions, then that’s what you come up with."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "If you look at Lincoln’s real life story is a dark story. If you go and look at the facts, I mean he was a great storyteller, he had a great sense of humor but he was consumed by melancholy throughout his entire life and I don’t blame him because everyone around him died. Every couple of years someone he loved died or he had some sort of unavoidable tragedy or something that made him pick himself up."

Benjamin Walker: "The start of a war."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "A war or a nation to save all by himself. Like Ben said, it’s a very dark time and it’s a dark genre, so you put those two things together."

Timur Bekmambetov: "I think there is a difference between the terms because you can say dark or we can say dramatic. For me, it’s more dramatic than dark because he was a light character. He kept inside this light."

Benjamin Walker: "Hope and his own sense of humor. I don’t know how you’d get through all the misery he lived through and not be able to have a sense of humor."

Timur Bekmambetov: "Only his sense of humor saved him."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "That, and the ax."

Some people say that the weapon defines the warrior, so what came first: the ax or the Lincoln that would bear it?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Lincoln picked the ax for us. He was an actual woodsman in his life and was famous for it. When he ran for office he was called ‘the rail splitter’ candidate because he could famously take a log and chop it up into a bunch of planks with just his ax faster than most men could. Even into his old age, he was exceptionally strong and he grew up in the frontier chopping down trees. That’s a very real part of his life, that ax is really synonymous with who he is. There was really no other way to do it."

Timur Bekmambetov: "And it’s very symbolic for the genre, for the tone of the movie to use a real fact, a real quality he had and just to transform it into the fantasy."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "There are even things in the movie where we take the famous Lincoln imagery, like the top hat, or the Battle of Gettysburg, or his first inaugural address, and we put a slight bend on them to fit within the context of our retelling."

Benjamin Walker: "We are reexamining icons."

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a project that came up after Pride, Prejudice and Zombies was supposed to be going to go into production. Where is it at now, and what's happening with Wanted 2?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Timur can talk about Wanted 2 because I don’t know. Pride, Prejudice & Zombies right now it's kind of like Tim Burton was in that video before the presentation: it's just a little sick and we’ve got to get it better. The script I will say is fantastic. We have a great script by David O. Russell and Marti Noxon, and it is ready to go. We just need to find the right director and the right star to do it. I have all the faith in the world that after this movie comes out and after maybe Huntsman comes out and things do well in that space, I think that there will be a renewed interest in getting that going."

Timur Bekmambetov: "And about Wanted 2, there is a script and I’m so busy with this project I can not think about other projects right now."

How did you get into Lincoln? How many hours did it take?

Benjamin Walker: "Seven hours a day. That was a lot."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "That was for mostly for stretching you though, right? When we started this movie he was 5’7”."

Benjamin Walker: "That's funny! The guys that did the prosthetics, Greg Cannom and Will Huff, they did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. They are the best in the field, so we gave them the time. It was a long time sitting in the chair and it would get very frustrating, but then you’d look at yourself in the mirror and you would be Abraham Lincoln and it would be okay. But we did tons of research. It's kind of easy to step into it when you know what you’re talking about and you’re surrounded by people who know what they’re talking about. You have a team like Greg and Will and have a great stunt team, you have a great script, you have a great director, and you have Tim Burton. I pretty much couldn’t even screw it up if I tried."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Well, you still screwed it up! [Laughing] The thing that Ben is going to be modest about is the fact that he approached it very dramatically and very seriously. He’s a serious actor. He’s a well-trained actor, a very gifted actor. The things you won’t see in the movie are him caring around little trinkets inside his pockets as Lincoln, just so he would feel as though he had the real artifacts that Lincoln would have had in his pockets as he was giving his performance. What I can say about is watching it, you don’t see Ben up there, you see Abraham Lincoln up there."

Timur Bekmambetov: "What I can say about it is that it’s a very weird feeling when you have to direct the 16th President of the United States to tell him where to go and what to do."

You guys joke around a lot when you're talking about the film, but do you deal with in the movie how this vampire hunting has been kept a secret from history and how you guys are telling the real story?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Yes."

Timur Bekmambetov: "Yes."

Benjamin Walker: "We joke because we like each other."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "It’s easy when you have fun with people. But, I mean, we joke around a lot but the film is very serious and does deal with some very serious themes. In terms of the overall secret of vampires and what they are up to, yeah, that’s part of the mythology of the movie and we deal with it. Like I said in the panel, vampires, there’s really no duplicity about them. They are just bad in this movie and they have really bad designs on America. However, if you ask our villain, Adam, like all good villains I think in movies he’s right, because from his point of view what the vampires are trying to do is actually kind of noble and makes sense. When people see the movie that will make sense."

Timur Bekmambetov: "They came here 3, 4, or 500 years ago from Europe, probably from other places as any other immigrants to find their own land and to be free."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "They were being hunted in Europe and they came here just like other immigrants might have come over to escape persecution. Like all immigrants, they want to rebuild in their own image. That doesn’t quite mesh with what the humans have to say about it."

Benjamin Walker: "Or our 16th President."

Are these traditional vampires or did you play with the mythology of their powers?

Timur Bekmambetov: "Yes, because it was the only way to tell the story because it’s a mix of two genres and you need to keep both clean and simple otherwise it will be a mess."

Benjamin Walker: "And it’s practical. In my opinion, they are much more frightening because Timur wants to figure out the math of their day-to-day. Adam has been around since the pyramids. What’s that like to be immortal that long? How much life has he seen? What does it mean that maybe your barber living down the street happens to be an all-consuming evil? That seems much more frightening to me than this mythic character where we all agree on the rules. What are the practicalities of their lifestyle? That’s interesting?"

Seth, you said that in adapting your own work you had to lose something that you would like to have kept from the original. Is there a particular thing you had to get rid of that just didn’t work?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "One of the things that I liked that clearly didn’t belong in the movie and wasn’t really painful to take out but I like it was Lincoln's first love, Ann Rutledge. Before he ever goes to Springfield and meets Mary, he falls in love with a young girl named Ann Rutledge in New Salem. They have a courtship and before he has the ability to ask her to marry him, she up and dies, out of nowhere. Just like his Mom had, and his sister, and his young brother by that point, so you could imagine being in Lincoln's shoes and going, 'Well, why do we even bother because everything I love just gets buried.' That was an interesting character-building beat, but you have less than two hours and you've got to go forward. You don’t want to take the focus off the relationship that’s at the core of the movie with Abe and Mary."

To what extent are there greater real world political messages or undertones because you have a President who’s willing to take up arms and use violence against trespassers?

Benjamin Walker: "Sure, I think because we are adhering so closely to Lincoln’s actual life, you can draw them. I certainly wasn’t thinking about that making it. When you really commit to making history and doing your homework on history - history is going to repeat itself. I think more like history is mimicking our movie."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Yeah, it’s strange. It’s an accident I can tell you that this movie is coming out during an election year. Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe it's not that the country is so divided and politics is so vitriolic right now. When you look at a movie like this, you realize, 'Wait, things have always been divisive, things have always been fight and a struggle.' If anything, it makes you feel better about our politics today because back in the 1800s senators use to go onto the floor of the senate and beat each other half to death with their canes. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today, so we've got a little bit of a ways to go before we get that bad."

Have you designed this to be a couple of movies or is this just one right now? Have you built in things for future films?

Timur Bekmambetov: "He’s dead. We were in Springfield."

Seth Grahame-Smith: "We were in Lincoln’s Tomb and we can confirm... No, we actually opened up the tomb and he was not there. It was a shock to all of us. I think that there’s room for more of the journey. Hopefully the audience is hungry for more. We won’t say anything else except that it’s possible."

There is some part of the audience that might not be familiar with the fact this was a book prior to being a film. What would you want to tell them when they just see the trailer and think the title is kind of silly?

Seth Grahame-Smith: "Me personally? From a financial standpoint, buy the book and learn all about it. I think that the one message is, yes, the title is silly, we know it's silly but the movie delivers and it delivers in a serious way."

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hits theaters on June 22, 2012.

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