Set Visit: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Day 1

One of the many cool things about working for the site is that, every once in a while, I get to participate in set visits. Having only been on one previously, I’m far from blasé about this- and every time I get to go on one, I’m like a kid in a candy store. So- when I got an email from the  editors asking me if I wanted to grab a plane down to New Orleans and visit the set of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER- I responded with an enthusiastic hell yeah!

Now, being a Canadian, my knowledge of US history probably pales in comparison to our American readers- so you can imagine how SHOCKED I was to discover that one of the greatest U.S presidents ever was not only responsible for ending slavery- but also liked to lay some serious smack down on the undead. Attaboy Abe!

Ok, so this premise obviously takes a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. When I first heard the premise, I assumed ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER was going to be a spoof- its tongue firmly in cheek. Not so. Considering that I had a long flight ahead of me, I decided to pick up a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel- upon which this is based. Like PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES, Smith’s novel is a mash-up. It reads like THE LOST BOYS meets John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, and it’s a really fun read. But- at the same time, it’s not just a big joke. The premise is taken seriously enough that rather than be a comedy, a big-screen version was sure to be an action-packed, honest-to-God horror flick.

Already a cinematic-feeling book, I was happy to learn that Seth Grahame-Smith was also writing the screenplay, but upon arriving on the set in New Orleans, I realized that the book is merely a jumping-off point for what promised to be a massive summer blockbuster.

After a night drinking Hurricanes and Cherry Bombs (a cherry floating is diesel fuel- served in a shot glass) at Pat O’Brian’s, we arrived somewhat bleary-eyed (but not too much of course) on the ABE LINCOLN set, which was on the other side of the amazing Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (the longest bridge over water in the world).

Our first stop was the production designer’s office- where we were shown concept art for the numerous action sequences, including a massive seeming battle where Honest Abe, towards the end of the Civil War, has to fight an army of vampires looking to derail a train full of silver bullets (here, vamps are responsible for slavery and the Civil War). This sequence, which is not in the book- promised to be a massive set-piece, and just one of many being planned for the film. The concept art promised a huge action film, and soon- this would be reiterated, once we met director Timur Beckmambetov.

Famous for directing the Russian hits NIGHTWATCH & DAYWATCH, not to mention the successful WANTED, Beckmambetov seemed an obvious choice for the material, as he no doubt had every intention of making this not only a massively scaled action flick, but also putting his own idiosyncratic spin on it- no doubt aided by having yet another genre film maestro, Tim Burton, on-board as a producer. Looking at the storyboards, it was clear that we'd be seeing all kinds of wild visual flourishes, including a scene early on that promises to juxtapose the modern world against the pre-Civil War era of Lincoln in an imaginative, ambitious way. But- producer Jim Lemley, who worked with Beckmambetov on WANTED insists that despite the tongue-in-cheek title, this VAMPIRE HUNTER is no joke.

Lemley: It's a polarizing title, and it can play as a joke, which can be interesting for two minutes and then it's not interesting at all.

Beckmambetov, for his part, insists that despite the concept, and the fact that after all, this is a big-budget, summer action film- for his part he wanted to keep the film, to a certain extent anyway- grounded.

Beckmambetov: The most important technique is to ground everything. To make the fantasy world grounded and relatable- with great characters...that you will fall in love with and move with through the action scenes... and to develop, to open with them this new world with new rules and new ideas, and that's what we do...

Of course, as per the title, the character we follow just happens to be Abraham Lincoln- the great emancipator, and probably the most beloved, idealized figure in U.S history. To that end, rather than cast a big star in the part, the decision was made to go with little-known Benjamin Walker, who comes to the film without any movie-star baggage, and, both Beckmambetov and Lemley say, is able to disappear into the part.

Beckmambetov: He's honest. And he really believes, and is really determined to make this character great. I mean, he really IS Lincoln for me. We're making a movie about a historical figure and it's very important for us to have an actor who'll be behind Lincoln. He's not some famous actor playing Lincoln, he is Lincoln.

Lemley: It's a little bit like when I remember hearing Quentin Tarantino talk about casting INGLOIRIOUS BASTERDS, and how if he hadn't found Christoph Waltz it would have been hard to make. Same for us- if we hadn't found Ben Walker it would have been very hard to make the movie.

Of course, this isn't Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-bait biopic. Instead, this is Lincoln fighting vampires in 3D. And rated-R to boot. When I visited the set a year ago, the rating question was still up in the air, but Beckmambetov wanted us to be sure that we weren't going to be seeing cuddly, TWILIGHT vampires, and Beckmambetov promised that the vampires here would indeed be mean and violent, albeit not universally evil, with one of the lead good guys being Henry Sturges, a vamp who mentors Lincoln, played by British actor Dominic Cooper (THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE). On the more villainous side, we get the main baddie- Adam (Rufus Sewell)- and one of the big set-pieces late in the film promised to be Lincoln's raid on Adam's mansion, where he attempts to rescue his sidekick and valet Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie).

As for the 3D aspect, while parts of the film will indeed be post-converted- mostly the dialogue scenes, all of the action set-pieces were being shot in 3D, and Beckmambetov & Lemley promise the effect will be stunning- no doubt aided by the fact that none other than Caleb Deschanel (who shot THE RIGHT STUFF, and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST among others) was on-board as the director of photography.

The day we arrived, we saw them shoot an early encounter between Lincoln, and the vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), who in the book was responsible for the death of Lincoln's mother, and his first wife- Nancy (played by THE LOVED ONES Robin McLeavy). The scene leads into a large scale horse chase- with CGI by WETA, which was described by Beckmambetov.

Beckmambetov: The whole scene will be produced in 3D and the horses, everything will be digital. It will be three minutes of nonstop action, with hundreds of horses and people, with Barnes and Lincoln fighting.

Tomorrow, we'll have much more from the set of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, including interviews with Dominic Cooper, and ol' Honest Abe himself, Benjamin Walker.



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