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It’s been a big summer for writer Seth Grahame-Smith
(pictured left) and vampires. First came Tim Burton’s reimagining of DARK
SHADOWS, which Grahame-Smith co-wrote, and this Friday sees the arrival of
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, which he scripted based on his own
best-selling novel. Read on for Grahame-Smith’s thoughts on adapting LINCOLN
and postmortem on SHADOWS…
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, released by 20th Century
Fox and counting Burton among its producers, tracks Lincoln from his younger
days through his years in the White House, all the while clandestinely slaying
the bloodsuckers living among us. Trained by the mysterious Henry Sturges
(Dominic Cooper), joined by childhood friend William Johnson (Anthony Mackie)
and opposed by ambitious vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell), Lincoln swings a mean ax
and takes part in some insane, over-the-top action setpieces courtesy of
Russian director Timur Bekmambetov. As those who have read the book know and as
Grahame-Smith explains, this screen incarnation is quite a different take than
FANGORIA: You were in a unique position on ABRAHAM LINCOLN:
VAMPIRE HUNTER, as the author of the book who also got to write the screenplay.
SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, I was excited for the opportunity,
because I had always wanted to be a screenwriter. I had actually moved out to
LA to do that, not to be an author. I’m kind of an accidental author, I guess—I
took an unexpected turn into writing books instead of movies—so LINCOLN was an
opportunity to get that first big-paying gig as a screenwriter. I was excited,
I was intimidated and it turned out to be very, very difficult, because it’s
hard to adapt any book, but in adapting your own you have to deal with your own
ego, and you’re a little more precious than usual. Especially with this film,
because people who know the book are going to see that the movie is vastly
different in many ways, and that took a lot of work.
FANG: Is that a concern—that die-hard fans of the book are
going to come to the film and see something different?
GRAHAME-SMITH: On some level I’m concerned, but I also
believe that you have to make the movie your director is interested in making.
In this case, we all committed to making a big, muscular, over-the-top,
visceral action-movie version, where the book is much more steeped in the
minutiae of Lincoln’s life and history. There are footnotes, it’s very
thoroughly researched and the fun of the book is the interweaving of real
history and the genre story. The film has that interweaving of history, but
you’re also dealing with the guy who directed WANTED and NIGHT WATCH and DAY
WATCH, so you know there are going to be these extraordinary and yet absurd
sequences in it.
The main similarity between the book and the film is that,
in both cases, the joke ends at the title. It is a crazy, absurd premise—some
might even say ridiculous, and they would not be wrong to think that—but the
joke ends at the title, and what follows is a very sort of sincere, straightforward
execution of that idea. People ask me why I didn’t do it as a comedy, and the
reason is that it wouldn’t be sustainable. I don’t know a way to do that
without being boring; putting a joke on top of a joke wouldn’t work for me.
Both of them—not to get all preachy and grandiose about it—do portray Lincoln
in this very genre way, yes, but also stay true to the ideals of the man. We
take this heroic life and we just make it superheroic.
FANG: Were you the only writer on the feature?
GRAHAME-SMITH: No. About a month before we started shooting,
I went to London to work on DARK SHADOWS with Tim Burton. Simon Kinberg, one of
the producers on LINCOLN, came in and did a lot of production work with Timur,
because Timur likes to rethink and invent as he goes. He’ll have an idea and he
needed someone there to whip it into shape, so Simon did a good amount of work
on that. And then once they put it all together, I came back in during post,
wrote some additional scenes that were put in the movie and stayed on through
voiceover, ADR and all that stuff.
FANG: Was there any trepidation about taking off for DARK
SHADOWS and leaving your baby in the hands of others?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yes, they’re certainly was. But ultimately,
that’s the thing about film: When I’m writing a book, I’m in charge, but when
you’re on a movie, the director is in charge. In this case, whether it was me
or Simon working with Timur, it was really Timur dictating what he wanted
during the process. Sometimes we fought a little bit, and that’s healthy—it’s
part of making a movie. But ultimately, it’s Timur’s version of my story.
FANG: It must have been interesting to have a filmmaker come
from another country and take on this American icon.
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, and that’s one of the great things about
it. In America, we tend to put Lincoln on a pedestal—and deservedly so—but in
doing that, you rob him of some of his humanity. Timur didn’t have that
baggage. His statues were of Lenin and Stalin, you know [laughs]? To him,
Lincoln was just this guy on the $5 bill. So when he came on, he was much more
interested in the man than the myth. Right in the beginning of the film, it’s
“History prefers legends to men…” and that sets up the whole thing. That’s
really the whole approach to the movie, and that’s why Timur was, in a strange,
Russian kind of way, the perfect director for this.
FANG: When it came to adding a central villain, the major
action scenes, etc., did that take a bit of an adjustment on your part?
GRAHAME-SMITH: An adjustment is putting it mildly. It was a
tectonic shift in thinking, was what it was. None of that was in the book. That
was where the real labor of this was for me: letting go of the beats of the
novel and boiling it down to what it was saying, what the ideas and themes were
and how to preserve that and put it in the context of, “We need to make a big
action movie.” And in doing that, we needed a villain to espouse all the
nastiness of the vampires. We had to invent Adam. And after having the
opportunity to think about it, we were dealing with issues like slavery and
there was no African-American voice in the book representing anything but the
victimization side, and so where was the African-American fighting against
this? That’s where William Johnson comes from, who just happened to be a real
person in Lincoln’s life. That’s one of the things I think the film does
narratively better than the book, having Will there to join the fight with
Lincoln. And then the big setpieces you’re talking about, like the horse
FANG: That’s one of the highlights of the film. Where did
that idea come from?
GRAHAME-SMITH: That came from Timur. Actually, I don’t think it’s in the book,
but I wrote an early draft in which they lay a trap for a vampire and he
escapes on a horse. Timur took that and, in his own crazy Russian Timur mind,
made it 1,000 horses. I love that sequence, but every time I see it, I’m like,
“There are 50 horses in the corral, tops, and then they break out and it’s like
50,000!” [Laughs] That’s just the way Timur approaches it. I mean, bullets
don’t bend either, but we all loved that in WANTED, so… Adam, Will, the horse
sequence, the silver in the end, the Underground Railroad, the train
sequence—none of that is in the book, so it was a wholesale reinvention. In a
way, it was like writing a sequel to the book, where I was inventing something
absolutely new. It reminds me of, if you go to Disney World and go on the
Indiana Jones ride, it’s kind of Indiana Jones, but it’s completely different
and all new, and it’s the ride version of what the films are. This is exactly
the same thing.
FANG: How do you feel about the way DARK SHADOWS turned out?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Well, it’s pretty close to what I wrote.
Look, I’m proud of the film. I think you can make valid criticisms that the
third act gets a little crazy and that tonally it’s doing a lot of things at
once, but again, it tries to be weird and different. To me, it’s a very Tim
Burton-y Tim Burton film. That’s all I ever really wanted it to be. Obviously
I’m disappointed that it didn’t do better, but I loved the experience of it. It
began a relationship with Tim as a director and with Johnny Depp as an actor.
You know, I got to go to England and make this ridiculously big and
ridiculously weird movie, and it was an incredible, life-changing experience.
So I can’t have any regrets. You put yourself out there, you do the best you
can and sometimes the movie gods are with you and sometimes they’re not.
FANG: Do you think you’ll ever revisit vampires again, or
have you gotten them out of your system at this point?
GRAHAME-SMITH: I don’t know. Maybe eventually; never say
never. But it’s interesting; specifically, I feel like there’s more to Henry
Sturges’ story, at least in terms of how it relates to the book. And I’ve been
thinking about Henry a lot since I wrote ABE; there’s 400-some-odd years of
history there that doesn’t pertain to his actions with Abraham Lincoln, and you
wonder how much more American history he was privy to. Whatever happened to him
after he left the Roanoke Colony, and whatever happened to baby Virginia Dare?
That stuff is bugging me…
FANG: What’s the current status of your projects with KatzSmith Productions? Is
the BEETLEJUICE sequel still going, and what’s up next for you guys?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Well, what’s next right now is I’m adapting my novel UNHOLY NIGHT into a screenplay for Warner Bros., and producing that with David
Heyman of the HARRY POTTER franchise. I just wrote an animated movie that I’m
producing with Tim and trying to get him to direct, which would be one of his
stop-motion pieces like FRANKENWEENIE. That one’s based on an original idea
I’ve had for a long time that’s an ode to classic monster movies. So those are
the two immediate writing projects in terms of production. BEETLEJUICE 2—it’s
there, but again, what I’ve said about it before and what I truly believe is
that… I’ve sat down with Michael Keaton about it, I’ve talked to Tim about it
and everybody’s interested and has said, “Yes, if we can crack the right
story.” But how I feel about it is, if you’re just gonna do it as a cash grab
or because you can, it’s better not to do it. I don’t want to be the guy who
ruins the legacy of one of my favorite movies. If we can come up with something
that makes sense and is cool, great, we’ll give it a try. Otherwise, better to
leave well enough alone, I think.
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