NEW ORLEANS — The sun was just about to set over Lake Pontchartrain on a humid Louisiana day last May when Abraham Lincoln was summoned to action in a grassy field to wrestle to the ground the murderous nemesis who took the life of his mother years earlier. Lincoln bellowed with sorrow and rage, pinning an enemy beneath his 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 ridiculous-sounding Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 20th Century Fox's 3D adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel, in theaters Friday. The movie's creative team took great pains to render the outre premise with gravitas — complete with 8,000 handmade 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?" star Benjamin Walker said. "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, through his burgeoning interest in politics, his presidency and his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. The tale is rooted in facts, but it posits the fantastic conceit that Lincoln's secret crusade to drive blood-drinking monsters into extinction influenced nearly every important decision in his life.
He finds an unlikely ally and companion in a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess (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 four months. During that time, 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.
The three, with director Timur Bekmambetov, agreed that camp had no place in the adaptation. Over 18 months and several 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 is dispatched fairly early on; for the bulk of the story, he's fighting against vampires as a collective.)
"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.
At more than 6 feet tall, Walker, 29, had the physicality, but the Georgia native had to spend six hours with makeup artist Greg Cannom, who transformed him into the older, bearded Lincoln; Walker then had to deliver the Gettsyburg Address. "I like to imagine I was just as nervous as Lincoln would have been," Walker said.