Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln. Emancipation Proclamation;, Gettysburg Address, really tall hat — the iconic staples of 16th President of the United States. But the new action thriller Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, hopes to pull back the curtain on an aspect of Lincoln’s life that few are privy too: his vampire killin’ days.
Based on the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, AL:VH stars up-and-comer Benjamin Walker as the lanky Prez, under the eye of Russian action director and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted). If the idea of one of the most important political figures slicing away at bloodsucking monsters sounds loony…well, it is — but that doesn’t mean the creative team is taking it anything but seriously. “We’re making a movie, not a historical record and…art’s a metaphor,” explained producer Jim Lemly. “I think any way you can explore metaphor to make it relevant or expose it to a bigger audience or tell a story in a way it hasn’t been told — I think that’s the what we’re attempting to do. We feel we remain very truthful to the essence of Abraham Lincoln, because it’s very important to us. He’s doing these ridiculous, insane things, but his character is the Abraham Lincoln that you know. He’s a moral man who represents the best of humanity. I think what is a noble ideal for all people, to try and obtain and achieve. ” Lemly also revealed that Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the script) visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois to pick the brains of the country’s leading Lincoln experts. The historians endorse Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — so aside from the fact that Lincoln is slashing open vampire’s heads with an axe for most of the film, AL:VH shouldn’t be that far off from Spielberg’s Lincoln movie.
A trip to the Louisiana set of the movie revealed an action flicks steeped in historical fact, sets modeled after real life locations and architecture, with plot set-ups rooted in Lincoln’s actual life. “New Orleans is an amazing city because it has this buildings and locations that are still very much preserved,” explains production designer Fancois Audouy. After working on several films with AL:VH producer Tim Burton (including his ill-fated Superman) and supervising Green Lantern, Audouy was tasked with designing the movie and fitting New Orleans for all of the production’s needs. “You can find a 150 year old mansion in the Garden District. The Old Governors Mansion is still in terrific shape. We found these terrific streets called Joliet St., in downtown, and we turned them into Springfield, Illinois, which is very important to the Abraham Lincoln mythology. He met his future wife there. He had his first job. He learned how to become an attorney there.” The movie takes place across the American landscape between 1820 to 1865, hitting everywhere from Illinois and Kenucky and Lousiana to Washington DC. Extensive research helped Audouy recreate the various sets (they used real designs of Lincoln’s log cabin, for instance), but lighting the entire movie became the crew’s most difficult task. “Timur was very interested was the color palette. One thing that we tried to do was to create a color script like in animation, that shows the lighting journey, which is very difficult to do as a live action film. It´s much more easy to do in animation where you can control every single frame. Here you show up on location and you have to react on the weather and the sun, things you don´t have control over it. So, we have been trying to compress as much as possible staying away from primary colors and keeping the color temperature consistent, and underline the sort of emotional journey.” Anyone worried that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would be another horror movie with every scene set in a dimly lit night scene, think again.
Besides devising a creative way to recreate the 1800s, designers on the movie had to recreate and breath life into two highly recognizable images: vampires and Abraham Lincoln. Greg Cannom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) created the vampire effects for the film, which Lemly describes has evolving throughout the movie. “It plays through layers and evolutions and different stages of it, depending on what’s happening. Different extremes. So it has all the conventional things, but it looks at it in a very unconventional way with the visuals.” Actor Dominic Cooper (Captain America), who plays Abe’s vampire mentor Henry Strugess in the film, was also blown away by the vampire design — and even got a little input into his getup. “I got this cool ridiculous what looks like an ’80 pop star hairstyle. And I love The Lost Boys so I wanted this much influence in my costumes as I could. Plus my guy needs to be timeless, he never died, he’s been around for hundreds of years, he needs to be very worldly.”
Then it came to finding and decking out the right Lincoln. Lemly explains that finding an “unknown” was always the goal. “The idea for us was that it was very important for you to believe this happened. Not to believe that this is an actor that I know and now he’s playing Abraham Lincoln. So we want whoever it is to just disappear.” Director Timur Bekmambetov and the crew landed on Ben Walker, who was coming off the success of the Broadway show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. “If we couldn’t have found Ben Walker, it would have been very hard to make the movie,” admits Lemly. “Just working with him without make-up on, meeting in New York, Los Angeles and doing all these things that ultimately lead to a process where Greg Cannom, this make-up artist made him Abraham Lincoln. And he came and delivered the Gettysburg Address to us, and it just gave us chills. Unbelievable.” Transforming Walker through makeup was step one, but facial features weren’t the only key to bringing Lincoln to life. “The idea was first of all to make an immediately iconic look, kind of super heroic look, but which would still be the president we all know,” says Costume Designer Arya Adyushko. The costume team created 12 coats to serve all the purposes of the movie, from delivering rousing speeches to beating the living crap out of vampires. Versatility was key with the coat, as it also had to hold Abe’s go to weapon: the axe. Adyushko’s parter in crime, Carlo Poggioli explains: “The fabric was special, to be able to fight to do everything, so it was very difficult. We made it in Italy. A factory, where they made it special because it’s a mix of different things. Wools and linen and things.” The hat was also key — while Abe won’t be seen fighting with it on in every scene, it does play an important. “He has something in the hat!” reveals Poggioli.
Touring a day’s shoot is a surprise: the locations and sets are just as organic and tangible as the creatives described. Built off a lake in the rural outskirts of New Orleans, the scene featured Walker as Lincoln, axe in hand, preparing to ambush an unsuspecting who’s corralling horses in a nearby barn. As Walker puts it, “The movie opens with him trying to vindicate his mother’s death by killing a man who killed his mother. The first attempt at assassination before he has had any training whatsoever goes horribly awry largely in part due to the fact that the man he is trying to kill is already dead – he is a vampire. So I think what you are going to see today is his second attempt at killing this man now that he is prepared to do so as he is now educated in the ways of vampirism and in the ways of an assassin.” Bekmambetov describes the sequence as the opining of a major action scene, which we see hinted at in the film’s first trailer (spot the shot of Honest Abe fighting on horseback). Whereas Wanted was known for its flashy, stylized CG effects, the scene on hand is surprisingly light on effects. While the film will use plenty of green screen to enhance the scenic vistas of Louisiana, the lush backdrops of the marsh area and green pastures are the only thing needed to make this particular scene a visual feast. That and a few unwieldily horses — a group of background actors that don’t take kindly to Bekmambetov’s direction (that’s method actors for you). Even with the uncomfortable arrangement of huddling behind monitors cramped into the barn, surviving New Orleans humidity and fighting off killer flies, Walker’s performance is still something to behold — the guy moves with a confidence that only a President could carry. Or an action star, dispelling any worries that a newcomer can’t hold his own in a summer blockbuster.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a hard mash-up to swallow — but when a cast member admits he had a difficult time warming up to it, suddenly the idea becomes a little easier to comprehend. When Cooper was first offered the movie, he had a gut reaction. I didn’t read it immediately because it sounded like a bit of a joke.” But he came around: “I thought that the original screenplay picked all the really interesting dynamics of the characters and I immediately wanted to be part of it. Because it didn’t take itself too seriously, it wasn’t a serious biographical piece, but at the same time you learned a lot from it. And I also thought that Timur has an incredible vision and I love the way he shoots action sequences.” We’ll know whether the reality of AL:VH will sell us on the alternative history of one of America’s most famous President’s when the movie hits theaters June 22, but there’s one thing that I learned on set: everyone involved is dedicated to making it work. So much so, Lemly even insists that the goal is reinvest people in American history. “Anything to open the door to a bigger audience.”