Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: Creating the Presidential Superhero
Abraham Lincoln. Vampire Hunter. The very words evoke a juxtaposition that is unexpected, if not downright bizarre. 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 a vampire story. At the same time, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” presents the Great Emancipator as the country’s first superhero. The film explores the secret life of our 16th president, and the untold story that shaped our nation. Visionary filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Director of “Wanted”) bring a fresh voice to the bloodthirsty lore of the vampire, imagining Lincoln as history’s greatest hunter of the undead.
This dichotomy is at the core of the Lincoln we meet in the film. These seemingly conflicting themes grabbed the attention of Burton, his fellow producer Jim Lemley, and Timur Bekmambetov. Even before screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith completed the novel, Burton heard the title and his mind kicked into gear. Lemley, who produced [with Burton and Bekmambetov] the animated film “9,” felt Burton’s sensibilities were a perfect match for the material.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” fits squarely within Bekmambetov’s creative and aesthetic wheelhouse. The Russian filmmaker previously helmed the box-office smash “Wanted” and before that, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” which offered compelling portraits of vampires in a world both familiar and fantastic. Like Burton, Bekmambetov paints on a huge canvas, presenting visually stunning imagery. It was the project’s central idea and cleverness that attracted the Russian filmmaker. Initially, Bekmambetov was to serve as a producer until Burton convinced him to take the reins as the director of the film.
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. The idea for his book “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” came from screenwriter Grahame-Smith’s observations he made during a 2009 tour to promote his previous tome, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, another exploration of an unexpected connection between disparate cultural entities. Grahame-Smith’s vampires were polar opposites to the romantic figures captured in the pages of the books he saw on display at the tour’s bookstores. His creatures of the undead pay proper reverence to the classic tradition of vampires in the movies.
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.
Most important to Walker was the opportunity to portray not only what made Lincoln a giant, but also a relatable human being. 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.
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. Then, as an adult, Abraham is ready to act, but 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. Henry instructs Abraham – physically and intellectually – on the fine art of vampire hunting, for a purpose far greater than revenge. But the teacher is far from being a righteous figure. Certain revelations lead Abraham to question Henry’s true purpose. Is he a dedicated hunter of unspeakable evil, or an evil manipulator with dark intent?
A figure in Abraham’s life beyond reproach is his friend and bodyguard, Will, portrayed by Anthony Mackie. The character – which did not exist in the book – becomes a catalyst in Abraham’s life. The only other person closer to Abraham is his wife Mary, portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Their first meeting at a Springfield, Illinois general store is full of sparks, potential and sweetness, providing a stark contrast to Abraham’s dark and secret life as a vampire hunter. Their feelings for one another escalate during a memorable picnic for two, during which Abraham confesses to Mary about his other life. But the bright sunshine, pastoral and romantic setting, Abraham’s halting delivery, and the sheer outlandishness of his claims, lead Mary to think it all a huge joke, and they both break out laughing. Of course, there’s little that’s humorous about Abraham’s deadly secrets. After his picnic “confessional,” he decides it’s best to keep Mary out of his life as a vampire hunter.
There are few secrets between Abraham and his über-nemesis Adam, the chief of all vampires. The first of his kind in existence, Adam, played by Rufus Sewell, is a creature of almost limitless power. Adam is a warrior, leader, politician and pragmatist. Abraham absolutely rejects Adam’s overtures for an alliance, and so must face the vampire’s full fury. Adam commands nothing less than a vampire army, and his chief lieutenant and bodyguard is a gorgeous vampire named Vadoma, played by Erin Wasson. Vadoma, Adam and Abraham are the key players in one of the film’s biggest set pieces – a showdown at Adam’s plantation, where Abraham takes on dozens of vampires in a dizzying, dazzling dance of hand-to-hand (and axe-to-head) combat. The contrast between the scene’s genteel opening and its dark, edgy and violent conclusion is subversive.
More than anything, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” springs from the essence of two filmmakers – Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov – who are masters at looking at something in ways never before imagined.
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