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Initially, the director of the upcoming vampire thrill ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, Timur Bekmambetov, was to serve as a producer until Tim 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 writer Seth 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 producer 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.