"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" 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.

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. Notes producer Tim Burton, "Lincoln's entire life mirrors the classic comic book superhero mythology. It's a duality: during the day he's the president of the United States; at night, a vampire hunter." 

That dichotomy is at the core of the Lincoln we meet in the film. "He was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time," says director Timur Bekmambetov. Adds screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his best-selling novel of the same name: "Lincoln's life story is an archetypal superhero origin story. He's as close to an actual superhero as this country's ever seen. Forget about vampires. Lincoln had neither family name nor money. His mother died when he was a youngster. In fact, everybody he loved had died. With no education, and armed with just his mind, he became president and saved the nation."

These themes grabbed the attention of Burton, his fellow producer Jim Lemley, and Timur Bekmambetov. Even before Grahame-Smith had completed the novel, Burton heard the title and his mind kicked into gear. "It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see," Burton claims. "It felt like it could have the crazy energy of the films of my youth, which had a lot of weird mash-ups of horror movies."

Lemley, who had produced with Burton and Bekmambetov the animated film "9," says that Burton's sensibilities were a perfect match for this material. "What Tim does so brilliantly is to take conventional imagery and stories and turn them on their head, and examine them from an unexpected perspective."

The movie also fits squarely within Bekmambetov's creative and aesthetic wheelhouse. The Russian filmmaker had previously helmed the box-office smash "Wanted" and before that, "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," both offering 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, claiming, "I immediately reacted to the story because it was so clean, simple and powerful."

Initially, Bekmambetov was to serve as a producer until Burton convinced him to take the reins as the director of the film. "I wanted to see Timur's version of this story!" Burton says. "A big plus was that Timur is from another country, so he provides a different perspective on these characters and historical events."

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. "Everything had to be presented in a very straightforward way," says Grahame-Smith. "We never wink at the audience; not even once. Tim Burton really supported us and protected that vision."

Grahame-Smith notes that his idea for his book "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" came from an observation he made during a 2009 tour to promote his previous tome, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," another unexpected connection between disparate cultural entities. The author/screenwriter recalls, "That year marked the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, and many of the bookstores on my promotional tour had two displays: one featured books about Lincoln's life; the other was a vampire-themed display, including the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse books [upon which the television show 'True Blood' was based]. It led me to think about combining the two subjects."

Grahame-Smith's vampires were polar opposites to the romantic figures captured in the pages of the books he saw on display. His creatures of the undead pay proper reverence to the classic tradition of vampires in the movies. "The vampires in our movie aren't romantic or funny, and they certainly don't sparkle," he notes. "Our vampires are bloodthirsty and cunning — and most frightening of all, they've become a part of the fabric of everyday life, working as blacksmiths, pharmacists, and bankers." 

The vampires' principal foe is one of history's most beloved figures, whom many consider our greatest president. 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. 

"Ben brings humanity and a mischievous quality, which felt very real, to the role," says Tim Burton. Adds Jim Lemley: "Ben captures Lincoln's honesty, integrity, courage and sense of purpose."

Most important to Walker was the opportunity to portray not only what made Lincoln a giant, but also a relatable human being. "What's dangerous about playing an icon is not allowing the character to be human," says the actor. "You must allow the character to be vulnerable or even silly. Luckily, Tim and Timur were open to making Abraham a flawed, funny and conflicted man."

"The human side is always the most important thing," Burton concurs. "And the character has to have a sense of humor because no one could survive as a vampire hunter without it."

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. "My reaction was, 'Oh my god, it's Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address!" Lemley exclaims. 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. Nancy was a woman of intelligence and heart, imparting on her son the notion that, "until everyone is free, we are all slaves." Abraham never forgot those words, which came to define his views toward slavery. Nor would he ever forget the eternal evil responsible for his mother's death: a vampire (and local businessman) named Jack Barts, portrayed by Marton Csokas, against whom Abraham swears revenge. 

But his first attack against Barts 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. "It's a choice," Henry tells Abraham, "between doing something extraordinary or being satisfied with simple vengeance."

"Henry finds the young man's thirst for revenge to be uninteresting," says Cooper. "But he sees Abraham of being capable of so much more, and thinks he can help him rise above a selfish quest."

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. "Henry is at the top of his game at being a vampire hunter, but he's also very flamboyant," says Cooper. "He enjoys life to its fullest and often goes to extremes in doing so."

But 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. 

Mackie says he was drawn to the project by the chance to work with Bekmambetov and Burton, both of whose films he had long admired. "I loved 'Wanted,' and I loved that "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a historical movie that turns history upside-down," says the actor. "And Tim Burton brings a magical aspect to everything he does, and this time he's presenting a kind of underworld you've never seen before."

The only 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. 

"The beginning of Abraham and Mary's relationship is like a romantic comedy," says Winstead. "They're young and there's a real connection between them. She's attracted to his intelligence, integrity and humor." 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. "Mary and Abraham's relationship complicates his journey because he has to decide what's more important — his marriage or his vow to slay the undead," says Walker. "As we all know, Abraham is an honest man, so he must ask himself, at what point can he be completely honest with Mary?"

"It's interesting because that's something all couples deal with, in the 19th century as well as today," Walker continues. "How do you reconcile a relationship with your life's passion?" Only with Abraham, that "passion" is killing vampires. These secrets lead to an unspoken rift in their marriage. "Mary is not involved in this part of his life, which causes tension," says Winstead. "She knows Abraham is hiding something from her, but she cannot ask what it is."

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. Author-screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who created the character especially for the film, as its central villain, was attracted to the idea of someone who has existed for untold millennia. "I wondered what it would be like to live for hundreds of thousands of years — to have been around since the building of the pyramids," says Grahame-Smith. "What kind of personality would emerge from that eternal existence?"

Adam is a warrior, leader, politician and pragmatist. With his aristocratic bearing and Southern plantation home, Adam is like a malevolent Rhett Butler — a mix of elegance and menace. His goals, says Tim Burton, are in some ways quite relatable. "If you cast off your moral assumptions, then all Adam wants is a place where he and those like him can call home. He wants freedom for his kind, but of course that comes at a horrible cost for so many."

Adam hopes that Abraham will become a formidable ally, instead of a deadly foe. "Adam, with all his abilities, is a politician and pragmatist, much like Abraham himself," notes Sewell. "And the wonderful thing is, he gets a chance to meet with Lincoln, warrior-to-warrior, and in a way, president-to-president, because Adam sees himself as the leader of a kind of vampire nation. Adam doesn't use force against Lincoln, not at first, because he'd much rather have Lincoln on his side."

Abraham absolutely rejects Adam's overtures for an alliance, and so must face the vampire's full fury. "Adam can transition from an erudite, sophisticated and cultured 'man' to a creature capable of tearing your head off and sucking your lungs out through a hole in your throat," says Sewell.

Adam commands nothing less than a vampire army, and his chief lieutenant and bodyguard is a gorgeous vampire named Vadoma, played by Erin Wasson. Wasson characterizes Vadoma as "a woman of few words, and an assassin. She and Adam make a good team."

Vadoma is a fearsome soldier but her uniform is far from traditional Confederate Army issue. Instead, the sexy vamp favors a leather corset — her armor, of a kind — as well as a long, high-collared jacket. "She can also be one of the [vampire] guys," adds the actress.

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. Bekmambetov calls it a "waltz of death" because the action explodes in the midst of a party whose guests are…slowly dancing. 

The contrast between the scene's genteel opening and its dark, edgy and violent conclusion is subversive. "The battle has incredible energy and velocity, and challenges what you think you know about big movie fight scenes," says Lemley. "It starts off like something from 'Gone with the Wind,' and then people are flying around a room, vampires are jumping off ceilings, and heads are being lopped off."

The plantation melee is just one of several big action scenes, which also include a Civil War battle that sees Union soldiers overwhelmed — in shocking ways — by their Confederate foes who are more than what they seem. Additionally, there's a stampede unlike any you've experienced before, where Abraham finally exacts vengeance on the vampire, Jack Barts, who killed his mother. Atop and across the backs of a thousand charging horses, Abraham runs, jumps, and fights, in a fast and furious battle against his powerful nemesis. The scene is a marvel of visual effects wizardry, overseen by visual effects supervisor Craig Lyn and Weta Digital, the house responsible for the groundbreaking VFX on "Avatar" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," among other notable titles.

Abraham is many years older and well into his presidency when he makes his last stand against his vampire foes in and on top of a train speeding to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — and the Civil War's defining battle. For this gravity-defying action sequence, the filmmakers built a full-sized and faithfully recreated locomotive and tender. Here, too, the magic of the digital world gave Bekmambetov the necessary tools to bring his unbridled imagination to life.

These action/fight/stunt scenes were born not in Hollywood, nor in the production's home in New Orleans, but thousands of miles away, in Kazakhstan, home to fight choreographer Igor Tsay and his Acting School of Fighting Kun-Do. There, Tsay and his team storyboarded the elaborate action sequences, which were pre-visualized and further developed in Moscow.  

In the weeks leading up to production, famed stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "Wanted," "The Fast and the Furious") and fight coordinator Don Lee ("Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides") worked with Walker to transform the actor into a battle-hardened, axe-wielding hunter of the undead. Walker's grueling regimen included kicking, stretching, yoga, boxing, and endless hours training with Lincoln's vampire-slaying weapon of choice: a specially tweaked axe. 

Walker more than impressed his trainers. "Ben is a stud and one of the best actors I've ever worked with," says Rodgers. "We mixed the worlds of slick Hong Kong-style martial arts with bareknuckle brawling, and Ben stepped up in every way." The modest actor will only claim that, "Well, I hit myself in the head a lot with the axe."

The axe and many of the other props were the work of property master Guillaume DeLouche, who put together his own facility and brought to the production the last remaining craftspeople of their kind who specialize in historically correct manufacturing of axes, knives, guns and rifles. All weapons were built using methods identical to those employed in the 19th century. 

Abraham's axe itself is an engineering marvel capable of transforming into a gun. It was hand-forged by a gunsmith and bladesmith, and custom made with a hickory handle. "We took everyday objects of that era and gave them a twist," says Tim Burton. "Everyone is familiar with muskets, bayonets and axes, but nobody had thought of turning them into a single weapon." 

Home to the production was the grand, resilient and historic city of New Orleans, some of whose well-preserved homes and buildings date back 150 years. The Louisiana metropolis is rich in vampire lore — it is home to Interview with a Vampire (and its many sequels) author Anne Rice — and, says Jim Lemley, "there's something fascinating and edgy about New Orleans." François Audouy designed the production, grounding the film in historical reality while providing majestic and richly textured sets, including the aforementioned Southern plantation and locomotive hurtling to Gettysburg.

Another key figure in bringing Lincoln's world to life is legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC, a five-time Oscar-nominee for his work on such films as "The Natural" and "The Right Stuff," and whose many other notable credits include the luminous "The Black Stallion" and "Being There." Using the "new" to capture the "old," Deschanel employed digital photography and high-tech Arri Alexa camera to give the film the proper period look. "Timur and I wanted to make a movie about some real historical events, so we looked at a lot of photos from that period," says Deschanel. "In most of those old photos everything is perfectly in place, but we decided to give the cinematography a certain roughness, with more imperfections than perfection."

Deschanel's painstaking methods produced magical, if sometimes delayed results. Benjamin Walker remembers, "I'd be sweating in my [old-age] makeup and prosthetics, and Caleb would be worrying about an unlit candle. And I'm thinking, who cares about the candle? And then you'd watch the dailies, and go, oh my god, that candle makes the scene. I'm transported to a different world and time. It's only happenstance that there are vampires there."

The combination of rich period atmosphere, a unique perspective on our 16th president, and the army of the undead he's hunting, makes for a motion picture experience like no other. For the writer who gave birth to it all, Seth Grahame-Smith, the film's release caps a journey that began with his best-selling book. A key element in capturing Lincoln's personality was making sure his humor came through. "He could be the life of the party, and was an exciting and entertaining man," Grahame-Smith sums up. "I think he'd love our movie."

"I always enjoy exploring something new with each film, something I haven't seen before," adds Jim Lemley. "Even though it's a little bit crazy, the film stays true to the essence of the man."

More than anything, the movie springs from the essence of two filmmakers — Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov — who are masters at looking at something in ways never before imagined.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is produced by Dune Entertainment. The movie is directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel. Producers are Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov and Jim Lemley. Executive producers are Michele Wolkoff, John J. Kelly, Simon Kinberg and Seth Grahame-Smith.


FACTS

Genre: Action
Runtime: 105 mins.
Release Date: June 22, 2012
MPAA: R
Tagline: President by day. Hunter by night.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Production Company: Dune Entertainment






 
 
 
 
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