NEW ORLEANS — 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,” 20th Century Fox’s 3-D adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel due in theaters Friday. On the set, the movie’s creative team took great pains to render the outre premise with gravitas — complete with some 8,000 hand-made period costumes and axes forged using 19th century techniques — arguing that the film 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. “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 re-envision 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. While the tale is rooted in facts, 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 on screen by Dominic Cooper) who helps him defeat the supernatural foes who seek to uphold the institution of slavery for their own despicable ends.
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. It was during that time that producers Tim Burton and Jim Lemley contacted him with the idea of turning it into a film, and he expressed interest 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,” he said by phone. “That was weird.”
Burton told the Los Angeles 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 tapped into my subconscious.”
The three, together with director Timur Bekmambetov, 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 ... 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,” Grahame-Smith said.
Another dilemma, 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.
Standing over 6 feet tall, the 29-year-old Walker had the right sort of physicality, but to win the role, the Georgia native 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 Gettsyburg Address. “I like to imagine I was just as nervous as Lincoln would have been at the moment,” Walker said.
“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,” said production designer François Audouy. “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 has to be completely believable,” he added of the reportedly $65-million production.
For the 50-year-old director of the 2008 action flick “Wanted” and a pair of Russian vampire films, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” blending history and genre was a draw. He was excited, he said, by the “chance to make a superhero movie about a real historical figure.”
“I think the Civil War still continues, the problems (Lincoln) 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.”