(The following set report comes from contributing writer Todd Gilchrist.)
It's not every day you can say you watched Abraham Lincoln chase down a man with an axe, but on a hot summer day in 2011, that's exactly what yours truly and a small cadre of entertainment journalists did. Visiting the set of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the experience felt predictably jarring, seeing a convergence of history and modernity, technology and humanity. But with Timur Bekmambetov in the director's chair, such contradictions are par for the course: The filmmaker announced himself to the world with the genre mash-up Night Watch, and then brought his visceral, overcranked style to the world of Wanted. Chronicling America's fourteenth president as an assassin of fanged bloodsuckers, the filmmaker seemed oddly at home.
We toured the set of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last year, during which time we joined a group of press in a discussion with Timur Bekmambetov about the process of adapting novelist Seth Grahame-Smith's book of the same name. In addition to addressing the odd pairing of a Russian filmmaker and American president, he discussed the process of adapting his ultramodern style to the period landscape of the 1800s, and offered some insights into what about this story makes it not only an exciting adventure, but a surprisingly timeless one as well.
What was the motivation for you to tackle this particular subject?
Seth Grahame-Smith's book is historically accurate in a lot of ways with the details of Lincoln's life outside of vampires. How did the book and now the movie kind of change or broaden your understanding of who Lincoln was?
Timur Bekmambetov: Not only Lincoln, but in general history, because it's very interesting to find out what's in real history, what we know, how can it can be interpreted differently. And it becomes more clear, because 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. He's now relatable, and the genre world helps to make it clear.
Timur Bekmambetov: In a more emotional, more relatable way. Like you understand why it has happened, because historians worked for governments, for political systems during the century, and it's a lot of facts, a lot of different opinions and a lot of propaganda mixed together and we cannot understand what has really happened and you cannot relate. My children don't like to read historical books, but they will understand the history through our movie.
This film seems like it would require a delicate balance between the historical and fantastical elements. It sounds like you're really trying to ground it in reality -- can you talk about finding that right tone and working it in with your style?
Timur Bekmambetov: I think the most important technique is to ground everything, to make the fantasy world grounded and relatable -- just great characters. You will follow. You will understand. You will fall in love with them and move with them through the action scenes, through the adventures and to develop, to open with them with the new world with new rules. To find the character, to fall in love with and to go with him through this adventure, it's like in any movie.
Do you feel like you've had to adjust your style of shooting action or any of that to fit into the reality world?
Timur Bekmambetov: Yeah, of course. There are no guns. There are guns, but they're very primitive, yeah. Today we are shooting this scene when Lincoln-it's his first assassination when the first time he was trying to kill a vampire and he fell and because the musket was not perfect. And all of the actors we're working with, they're great and they help me to create a world when you really believe that where the fantastic things happening. It's not like you can throw in horses and running on top of the horses like on the surface of the road and it's real. We're trying to figure out how to make it real, how to make it not staged and just to be real. There is a lot of humor, but it's not a tongue in cheek humor. Its humor makes this story relatable and grounded and makes them real.
How tough has it been to merge your muscular visual style with the film's period setting?
Timur Bekmambetov: It's paint. It doesn't matter what kind of paints you use. I made a lot of period commercials in Russia in the '90s, and it was really fun because there was no film industry at that time and there was one bank that supported me to make shorts about different kings and queens all around the world. And it's a world where it's interesting to discover with the audience, to go there.
Is the film being shot in 3D or is it post converted?
Timur Bekmambetov: We are shooting in 2D, but we made a lot of experiments and we understood how to do it. If you plan ahead, if you know what you're doing then it even helps you to create the convergency. We're using convergency not as a technique just to create 3D movies, but as a film language element because when you are doing it that way, you can use it as a tool to break the rules of the world. You can play with the reality and the 3D is a tool to play with it.
What was it about Benjamin Walker that really made you guys go 'this is our Lincoln'?
Timur Bekmambetov: He's honest. He really believes and he is really determined to make this character great. I mean he is him for me. He is Lincoln and it's a choice. It's very simple to explain why it's him, because we're making a movie about a historical figure and it's very important to us to have an actor who will be behind the Lincoln. It's not about a famous actor playing Lincoln. It's just Lincoln.
Can you talk a little bit about vampires? Recently vampires have been depicted as very friendly or sparkly - how are the vampires portrayed in your movie?
Timur Bekmambetov: Vampires in our movie they are very violent. They are mean and violent, but as human beings because we are not good either, they represent us. It's not different-it's not a creature. They have human qualities. There are tragic back stories, and vampirism is just a physical manifestation of our problems. And this movie is about freedom and Lincoln gave us freedom, and the vampires have their own understanding what freedom is because they just live much longer and they feel they are a superior race and they have their own understanding.
Talk a little bit about shooting down here and how much of this you're using as a character, these great locations and this area of New Orleans?
Timur Bekmambetov: It was a big decision because it's easy to go to Europe and to shoot there, but we decided it's better just to be here, because this land, New Orleans, still has drama from the time when there was a Civil War. You still feel it here. You still feel there is a drama that happened 150 years ago. There is no conflict on the streets probably, but you feel people still thinking about it, still feeling it and it was a very dramatic time in American history.
If the title tells us everything that audiences need to know about the plot, what to you is the deeper theme or the emotional underpinnings that people are going to connect to if they are not immediately drawn to the idea of Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires?
Timur Bekmambetov: First of all, there was one line we were trying to use to remember why we are making this movie. It's a Lincoln phrase that says, "Until everyone is free, we're all slaves." And it tells a lot about him and about the movie -- he had a unique ability to make very tough decisions and to recognize what is good, what's bad, and at the same he was very open and believed that human beings can help themselves, can change their lives. They don't need somebody else to rule them. They don't need somebody else to teach them. We are smart and powerful enough to change our world as we need.