Directors take a hatchet to history with Lincoln film

By Michele Manelis

Michele Manelis talks to the men behind the Lincoln movie adding a strange new spin to the legendary president's legacy.

Benjamin Walker portraying Abraham Lincoln in a scene from 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.'  Photo / AP
Benjamin Walker portraying Abraham Lincoln in a scene from 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.' Photo / AP

He might have been the 16th President of the United States of America, whose election brought about the Civil War but freed the slaves. But that was his job later in life. Because before that, he was America's answer to Van Helsing.

Well that's according to the best-seller by Seth Grahame-Smith, who is also responsible for the genre-mashing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. His Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is now a film produced by Tim Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, which follows his Russian supernatural thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch and his Hollywood action debut, Wanted.

Lincoln is thrown into the world of vampires when, as a 9-year-old child, he witnesses the horrific death of his mother. Unable to save her, he seeks revenge once he reaches adulthood, employing a silver axe as his weapon of choice.

Of course, the absurdity of the premise has to be taken for granted. Says Grahame-Smith, "We're making the movie for the people that go, 'You know what? I'm ready. I'm signing on, and I'm going with you. Abe, take me with you on this journey, this vampire-hunting journey through the Civil War."

It's the oddest title in a run of Lincoln movies which included last year's Robert Redford-directed assassination tale The Conspirator and the forthcoming Lincoln, with Daniel Day Lewis in the title role and directed by Steven Spielberg.

In Vampire Hunter, the relatively unknown New York actor Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln, with Brit Dominic Cooper as Henry Sturges, a vampire assassin who saves Lincoln's life and who comes up against the head of the 19th century fang gang, played by Rufus Sewell.

There were rumours at one point that Nicolas Cage would take the role of Lincoln. Bekmambetov almost does a spit-take at the notion.

"What? Can you imagine him standing next to the vampire in the poster?" he says, gesturing towards the picture behind him. He shakes his head. "I could not imagine."

Bekmambetov recalls the first time he saw Walker. "I saw Benjamin in a theatre. It was then that I realised he's the only actor who could play this role," he sighs, dramatically.

"Because he is Lincoln. He's an honest man, a man who can protect you, a man that never compromises. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he would become president one day. I would be glad. Can you imagine such a good man as president?"

The concept of a Russian director making a movie set to the backdrop of America's Civil War might seem curious.

Says Bekmambetov: "I've lived in America for the last seven years. I have a lot of friends, a lot of colleagues and I finally understood that Lincoln was a way for me to connect to the soul of this country. When I lived in the Soviet Union, why we were so excited about the American movies and the American cigarettes, Coca-Cola and what was attractive about it, was because there was an idea behind it. And this idea is what I understood in Lincoln. He is just one person. But he is America."

Walker, 30, who does stand-up comedy in a New York theatre that he runs called Find the Funny, says dryly, "They needed a tall actor to play him. There aren't many of those around."

Playing such an icon, particularly for an American, carries a huge responsibility. "I think the more I learned about Lincoln, the more complicated and conflicted I realised he was. There were so many facets to him. He was depressive, he was romantic, he was funny, and he was conflicted about some issues that we don't imagine him being conflicted about. He was a very dark, morose individual. That lends itself nicely to our story.

"I read a book called The Melancholy of Abraham Lincoln and that was a really helpful story because it's about his correspondences and the death in his life and how he dealt with it."

Walker immersed himself in the role.

"He was a man among men and considered a super-hero of sorts. He's the first hero. I think what's super about him is that he was a normal man who did extraordinary things. He was self-educated, he was raised in a log cabin. Maybe he did kill vampires," he says, straight-faced.

"Who knows? The world is so big and so complex. Who is to say they aren't out there?"
Budgeted at a reported US$69 million ($87 million), the villains of this stylised horror movie are not your run-of-the-mill vampires. Says Walker, "There's no garlic and wooden sticks. What Timur is doing is re-envisioning vampires in a more grounded, less mythical idea. Vampires have evolved and can be in the daylight. They have learned to acclimatise in the same way that humans can now live in the Arctic. They've adapted in ways which I find more fascinating and more frightening."

In real life, Walker is married to actress Mamie Gummer, better known as the daughter of Meryl Streep - which must be a little daunting.

He laughs. "Sure. I'll tell you, an international film star is pretty intimidating but the only thing more intimidating is a mother-in-law. That's much more frightening."

What: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Benjamin Walker as Lincoln
When: Opens at cinemas August 2

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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