By MICHAEL CIEPLY
Published: May 9, 2011
EDGARD, La. — Mary Todd Lincoln, in shimmering evening wear, calls to her husband. They are late. A gaunt, black-clad president strides to join her in a horse-drawn carriage bound for Ford’s Theater.
Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox
Benjamin Walker, left, with the director Timur Bekmambetov on the set of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
The rest is history. But not the usual kind.
As the Lincolns depart, a vampire stares from his perch on the South Portico of the White House.
This is a film set, at the 179-year-old Evergreen Plantation here, and the cast and crew of the movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” are scrambling to deliver a summer blockbuster. It is set for release, in 3-D, by 20th Century Fox in June of next year.
The filmmakers are also creating one of the more startling historical revisions in movie memory. Their Lincoln, you see, is a devoted slayer of the undead.
Hollywood is certainly in need of an attention getter. And in building one around Abraham Lincoln, it might be poised to expand the presidential aura far more dramatically than did films like “The American President,” which turned a fictional chief executive into a romantic lead (with a hint of Bill Clinton), or “Air Force One,” in which a president became an action hero (foretelling a flight-suited George W. Bush?).
Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the pop-novel mash-up on which the movie is based, said he was beginning to suspect that his “Vampire Hunter” conceit tapped something deeper than originally planned. Speaking by telephone last week, he said he couldn’t help thinking of Lincoln and vampires on seeing President Obama with “his chest pumped up” after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“There’s something in the American psyche, we want our presidents to be warriors,” Mr. Grahame-Smith said. “We’re giving that to Abraham Lincoln, sort of posthumously in this case.”
A box-office slump finds theater attendance down by 15 percent from a year ago, and Fox is last among the major studios after an impressive showing in 2009 with its innovative “Avatar.” But “Vampire Hunter” is one of a handful of projects from Fox and other studios that promise to shake things up. No picture in the works is quite as audacious, however. Going a considerable step beyond the Grahame-Smith novel, it embeds Lincoln, played by Benjamin Walker, within a meticulously researched, surprisingly authentic, three-dimensional past — but with vampires.
“We are very committed,” said Timur Bekmambetov, the movie’s director. He spoke during a break in the filming one evening in late April, shortly after Mr. Walker, as Lincoln, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Mrs. Lincoln, had ridden to their destiny, or perhaps just to their trailers, there to prep for the next scene.
“What Lincoln did,” Mr. Bekmambetov said, “was like what Jesus did 2,000 years ago: he freed people.”
The idea of Lincoln as supernatural savior was born in 2008, when Mr. Grahame-Smith, who is based in Los Angeles, had just finished the manuscript for his successful Jane Austen sendup, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” He found himself in bookstores between tables full of “Twilight” novels and those piled high with Lincolniana. “Sort of shrewdly, from a cynical standpoint, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine these two things,’ ” Mr. Grahame-Smith said. That was the impulse behind his “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” novel, which was published last year by Grand Central Publishing.
Such literary stunts now abound — “Jane Slayre” and “Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter” are among the many. But Hollywood was particularly drawn to this one after Mr. Bekmambetov joined his fellow producers Tim Burton and Jim Lemley in shopping a film proposal that included a script by Mr. Grahame-Smith, who has written for television. If you don’t have a play-it-safe sequel, the next best thing in the contemporary film business is a premise shocking enough to stand out — hence “Cowboys & Aliens,” due from Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Studios in July — and a killer-Lincoln seemed to fill the bill.
On arriving at the Fox lot in Los Angeles in the midst of a bidding war for their project last fall, the three producers found a huge banner that advertised their film as if the studio already owned it. The Fox Filmed Entertainment chairmen, Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos, waited in an office that had bloody footprints, an ax and empty cavalry boots by the door. Clearly there are people who see a huge audience for this movie.
Mr. Burton said he was instantly captivated by the book’s premise, though he had never been a serious student of the country’s heritage. “I didn’t really learn much, but I like that idea of history being told this way,” he said, speaking last week from London, where he is getting ready to start shooting another vampire movie, the entirely fictional “Dark Shadows.”
The “Vampire Hunter” film, like the book, follows Lincoln from his boyhood on the frontier through his assassination by John Wilkes Booth and — because this is a vampire story — beyond. Young Lincoln, having learned that his grandfather and mother were killed by vampires, vows to kill every last blood-sucker in a country that is crawling with them.
On realizing that vampires are tangled in the slave trade, Lincoln’s resolve grows and takes on a moral dimension. To complicate matters he also learns that the creatures come in two varieties, good and bad.
This last is a point of convergence with Mr. Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan and is based in Moscow. His action films — among them “Wanted,” with Angelina Jolie, and the Russian-language “Night Watch” — depict warfare among magical forces that lurk just out of sight.
“I believe, I believe,” Mr. Bekmambetov said, when asked if this universe is rooted in conviction or is just a movie conceit.
The film’s production designer, François Audouy, has an unexpected approach to the historical aspects. He uses both computer effects and actual locations to blend the real and the artificial in ways that could only be imagined when Woody Allen posed with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in “Zelig” and Forrest Gump received a Medal of Honor from Lyndon B. Johnson. In the production office here in Louisiana recently, where the film will be shooting into next month, Mr. Audouy’s associates were sorting through a stack of seemingly authentic Civil War maps, just a tiny sampling of the myriad props that are turning “Vampire Hunter” into a true period epic.
“Your tax dollars at work,” said one associate. The map reproductions, she noted, were provided by the Library of Congress, which has lent a hand, as has Thomas F. Schwartz, the Illinois state historian.
In a telephone interview Mr. Schwartz said his main contribution was to show the filmmakers how they might slip vampires into Lincoln’s story with minimal damage to the historical record. “We’re more than happy to serve in that function,” said Mr. Schwartz, who has also been helping with a presumably more conventional project, Steven Spielberg’s planned film about Lincoln.
A pair of costume designers, Carlo Poggioli and Varya Avdyushko, figure they had made or rented at least 8,000 outfits for “Vampire Hunter,” many of which were scheduled to be shredded, burned or otherwise wrecked a week or so ago by a literal army of extras who will be playing out part of the Gettysburg battle. (The film has what Hollywood considers a midlevel budget of about $70 million, but Mr. Bekmambetov shoots quickly and has stretched dollars by finding virtually all of his locations within Louisiana.)
The superstar costume, Mr. Poggioli said, is a long coat worn by Lincoln when he steps out of his familiar character as a brooding, rough-hewn combination of moralist and politician and into his ax-slaying mode.
“We call it the fighting coat,” Mr. Poggioli said. The garment can hide weaponry while it cloaks Mr. Walker, whom the costumers say stands at almost 6 foot 4, a fair match for the historical Lincoln, who may have been a smidgeon taller.
Mr. Walker — who was cast after the impression he made as another president in the title role of the stage musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” — said he found Lincoln’s agile, ax-wielding inner killer by drawing on past experience. “I studied ballet,” he said.
Mr. Bekmambetov is concealing the full aspect of the non-humans in his film. “The one thing I’m not supposed to talk about is the look of the vampires,” Mr. Audouy said, but he promises something “unexpected.”