Director Tim Burton has been a fan of vampire movies since his childhood.
“I love vampire movies. I started watching them when I was five years old, maybe even younger,” recalls the visionary behind “Beetlejuice”, “Edward Scissorhands”, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, “Batman”, “Batman Returns”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Alice in Wonderland”.
“For me it’s not a trend; it’s a way of life. I think you can tell a vampire story a million different ways. That’s what’s so powerful about it. They’re something that existed before movies in every culture in stories and folklore. There’s something about vampires that goes to the subconscious, that’s really primal and almost private.”
It therefore comes as no surprise that the celebrated director, whose propensity for dark and gothic themes has been a hallmark of his critical and commercial success, has again struck gold this year with “Dark Shadows,” his recent adaptation of the ’60s vampire soap opera.
In his review of the film, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said, “the Gothy, jokey ‘darkness’ of Burton’s style is now beginning to look very familiar; he has built his brand to perfection in the film marketplace, and it is smarter and more distinctive than a lot of what is on offer at the multiplex.”
So what does Tim Burton do for an encore? Why, another vampire film, of course.
This time in collaboration with producer Jim Lemley (“Tristan & Isolde”) and filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), Burton is bringing Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to the big screen.
As the title suggests, both the book and the film depict Abraham Lincoln, the same beloved 16th president of the United States, as having a secret life as, well, a vampire hunter.
For Burton, the title alone of the novel was more than enough to intrigue him even before he actually read the book.
“Well, just that – the title – I loved it. I got interested in it even before Seth wrote the book,” he confessed. “My agent told me this guy was going to write this book called ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, and when I heard the title, I thought it would be the kind of movie that I would have loved seeing when I was a kid in the ’70s. I was a really lousy student, but this would have gotten me into history! The charm of it, for me, was that it follows the true story.”
Burton said it’s important to note that what makes “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” work is that it’s not treated like a joke.
“That’s the whole point. It sounds out-there and all, but it actually makes a lot of sense. I remember looking at images of Lincoln and thinking, “Boy he looks like he’s up all night hunting vampires.” He’s got that vibe about him; so it all made sense to me.”
The filmmaker said that despite its surreal concept, the film is based on what he calls “a strangely accurate historical account of Lincoln”. He was particularly amazed at the amount of cooperation the production crew got from the Lincoln Museum.
“We initially wondered what they might think of it, but they were really into it because it’s a way to get people interested in something that might not ordinarily be interesting,” he enthused.
Not that Abraham Lincoln is not interesting at all.
“He’s probably one of the most famous presidents”, he concedes. “And there have been movies about Abraham Lincoln in the past and they’re strange. D.W. Griffith did ‘Abraham Lincoln’ while John Ford did ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’. The strange thing about them is that they’re strangely horror movies – which is why this is such a good fit. It’s weird and this really wasn’t a stretch at all.”
Turning the revered historical figure into some kind of a superhero is not unusual for Burton either.
“He’s kind of like the original Batman, in a way. He’s a guy who’s got a day job and then he does this other thing. I think all heroes have a bit of a flaw and, obviously, his mother was killed by a vampire, so that propels him to do something,” he said. “Historically, he was really good with an axe so we just heightened that a bit, too.”
So why did Burton decide to just produce the film and hand over the directorial duties to Bekmambetov, who also recently completed the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller “The Darkest Hour”?
“As I started talking to Timur, I could see how into it he was getting, it was clear he was the perfect director for it”, he acknowledged. “The way he would talk about it, and the way he was thinking about it, it just made a lot of sense that he did it. America is basically a country of immigrants, too, so it seemed like somebody from somewhere like Kazakhstan could really bring something to it.”
In describing his own personal involvement in the film, Burton thought that too many cooks could spoil the broth so he thought a less-is-more approach was appropriate in this case.
“Being a director myself, I feel like I know how hard that it can be and so for me, especially with somebody like Timur, I wanted to see his version of the movie, so I just try to be supportive. As I said, I loved the material, so it’s a more trying to just get the project done.”
As for casting the lead role of Abraham Lincoln, Burton and Bekmambetov turned to 30-year old Benjamin Walker who initially made quite an impression in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags Of Our Fathers” and won the role over other hopefuls like Adrien Brody, Josh Lucas, James D’Arcy and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
“Lincoln is such an iconic figure; we needed an actor with the physical presence of Lincoln, but also his humanity. And then also being an action hero! Those are three difficult elements to come together. We were very lucky to get Ben. Casting’s always important, especially when you’re dealing with something like this. It’s important to ground this crazy notion and have a cast that people believe in and that are treating it seriously.”
So is “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” a must-see in 3D?
“I think so but I’m not one of these people that say ‘it’s 3D or nothing’. I think that each project has its own energy and vibe, but it can be a great added element. It’s just about the project, and some projects are good with 3D and some aren’t. It’s just another element that you think about and try to do something that makes sense, and not just as an afterthought,” the director concludes.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opens in 3D and regular cinemas on July 4.