From rail-splitting to vampire-staking
TIRED of directing such outlandish, overthe- top affairs as Night Watch (2004) and Wanted (2008), Timur Bekmambetov decided to make an intimate, lowbudget, reality-based drama.
OK, not really, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may be about as close to that sort of film as Bekmambetov ever will come.
“I think the most important technique is to ground everything,” Bekmambetov says in reasonably good English despite a still-thick Russian accent, “to make the fantasy world grounded and relatable, to create characters that you will follow, that you understand, that you will fall in love with, and to move them through the action scenes, through the adventures, and to open, with them, a new world with new rules, with new ideas.
“It’s what we do, to find the character, to fall in love with him and to go with him through this adventure,” the filmmaker says. “It’s like in any movie.” Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a mash-up biopic and vampire thriller based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith. The film, adapted by Grahame-Smith and produced by Tim Burton, spins the heretofore-untold story of Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker). It turns out that America’s 16th president spent his early years mercilessly slaying vampires after learning that they’d killed his mother, and his anti-slavery stance evolved from watching vampires buy slaves not for labour, but for food.
Among the figures in his life are Henry (Dominic Cooper), who trains him to destroy vampires, fellow hunter Jack (Martin Csokas) and William (Anthony Mackie), Lincoln’s personal valet. Also on hand are Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln and Rufus Sewell as Adam, a powerful, ambitious and villainous vampire.
In the course of a half-hour conversation with a handful of visiting journalists, Bekmambetov reiterates the claim that – despite all the vampires, violence, cursing, 3D and special effects – his film is steeped in reality.
“It’s very interesting to find out what’s real in history, what we know, how it can be interpreted differently, and it becomes clearer,” Bekmambetov says. “History, when I was reading books in school, was quite boring and messy, and sometimes you can’t understand why people are doing this or that. It’s not relatable.
“The genre world helps to make it clear,” he says. “It’s more emotional, more relatable.
You understand why (something) has happened, because the historians, they worked for governments, for political systems during the century, every time, and the history, it’s just a mess. It’s a lot of facts, a lot of different opinions and a lot of propaganda mixed together. We cannot understand what has really happened and you cannot relate.
“Children don’t like to read historical books, but they will understand the history (of Lincoln) through our movie.” Bekmambetov strikes similar notes in discussing the first sequence he shot. In it Lincoln, axe in hand, will chase Jack around the grounds of a dockyard and stables, with a slew of horses on the verge of stampeding.
“There are no cars, there are no guns,” Bekmambetov says. “There are guns, but they’re very, very primitive. Today we shot this scene when Lincoln... It’s his first assassination, the first time he’s trying to kill a vampire. He fails because the musket is not perfect and he was scared.
“Ben Walker is an unbelievable actor,” the filmmaker says. “All the actors we’re working with, they’re great, and they’re helping me to create a world where you really believe fantastic things are happening.
But the characters are, every time, not sure it’s happening. We’re trying to figure out how to make it real, and not staged.
“There’s a lot of humour, but it’s not a tongue-in-cheek humour,” Bekmambetov adds. “The humour helps make this story relatable and grounded, and helps make the characters real.” Walker’s casting, it should be noted, is both a gamble and a deliberate choice. A virtual unknown in film circles, the 29- year-old is a stage actor and standup comic most recognised, ironically, for his stint as President Andrew Jackson in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Walker appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the rock musical in 2009 and then in the 2010-2011 Broadway version.
Bekmambetov caught a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, he says, and immediately realised that he’d found his Lincoln.
“Ben is honest,” the director says. “He’s really determined to make this character great. He is Lincoln, for me. It’s very simple to explain why it’s him. We’re making a movie about a historical figure, and it’s very important to have an actor who can be behind the character. It’s not a famous actor playing Lincoln – it’s just Lincoln.” So what about the vampires? How close to reality are they? Bekmambetov smiles and insists that they’re basically nothing more than people... with fangs.
“The vampires in our movie, they are very violent,” the director says. “They are mean and violent, but as human beings, we are not good, either. When I made Night Watch, I understood that the vampires there, they represent us. They had human qualities. They have tragic back stories.
“In the vampire genre, vampires are just a physical manifestation of our problems..
or of us.”