“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is not the most cinematic of books. If Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel was a completely faithful adaptation, it’d make for a ten-hour movie. In its translation to the big screen, the story has been stripped down to a two-hour, atmospheric, and violent 3D actioner. The director who took on the challenge of bringing Smith’s tonally tricky novel is Timur Bekmambetov, the filmmaker behind Night Watch, Day Watch, and Wanted.
Like his previous films, Bekmambetov once again blends both fantasy and reality with his Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He plays with more than a few fantastical and silly ideas, but always keeps them attached to the real world. This time around, though, Bekmambetov gets to capture that style of his with 3D.
Here is what Timur Bekmambetov had to say about the power of 3D, how free dreaming and character informs his visuals, and why Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is his Dusk Watch:
Could you talk about collaborating with Seth and whittling it down to a basic three act structure, and the challenge involved?
Yes, Seth was a very, very good partner. We found a way to create a solid story, by adding the train sequence and the twist with the silver concept. It was tough, but I hope we succeeded. I hope we found a way to create a solid, dramatic story.
This is a random thought, but this is your third movie with a train sequence [Laughs].
Which was the first?
In Night Watch, with Anton and his son.
Ah, yes! Oh my God, you’re right [Laughs]. It’s subliminal. In my childhood, I was probably afraid of trains. I’ll have to go to the doctor to figure that out.
[Laughs] There are some more obvious connections in your work, like grounding fantasy in reality.
Yeah, that was a goal. It’s dangerous with this project, to make a mistake and fall. There’s a very tiny line between fantasy and biopic, and we were trying to follow the tone of the book [there]. The book had it. The book is a perfect example of being tonally elegant and mysterious.
Did a part of that come from having the actors play it as straight as they can? Like, in the horse sequence, do you just tell Ben [Walker] to play it as serious as he can?
Yeah, Ben, if you remember, catches and saves the horse [Laughs]. It was important for Ben to create a naivete and not to be goofy or silly, and I think he did it. Not so many actors can play good people. I really like what Seth wrote with the Henry character, which is dramatic. What we did, for the script, was add three more characters: Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, and Erin Wasson. Rufus has an important role since he helps get out the vampire truth, the vampire mythology. I think it’s a cool idea that vampires, like anyother immigrant, came here for land and a home. They’re trying to be free, but unfortunately Lincoln says, “No, no, guys.”
When it comes to Abe and your previous projects, how early on do you know what you want visually?
We were lucky, because we had a great visual effects team with different companies around the world; there was my company in Moscow, who made the blood and the vampire transformations; there was a great fantasy sequence which was developed in Moscow, and then produced at WETA; the train sequence, at the end, was pre-vizualized in Moscow and produced at a studio called Method.
Did you ever consider using 3D before and why did you think it fit this film?
Of course. I think we’re lucky, as filmmakers, because we’re living in a new era where we’re not cyclops anymore, as we have a second eye [Laughs]. We get to learn how to make these movies. I was trying to do 3D movies in 2D before, with scary movies in a 2D world. I can imagine how easy it’d be to do a bending bullets story in 3D. When I imagined this movie, it was crucial to make this movie in 3D, and it was the only way to make it look contemporary and relatable, if you open the second eye and lure the audience into the 19th Century world. 3D gives me the chance to seduce audiences ‐ where you can stay next to Lincoln, smell him, and feel him. It’s like theater, not shadows on the screen you have to interpret.
It’s funny that, in a period setting, you made your camerawork even more playful.
Yeah. The camera is a little bit more static, but the 3D gives you the feeling it’s emotional and dynamic. The 3D makes everything more saturated, with the actors, the camera movements, and the colors. The lighting is unique. We developed our own lighting technique. If you watch it again, you’ll see every scene has a lot of atmospheric effects: smoke, rain, and dust. In 3D, you have to feel the air. You have to kill black. To be simple, you need to kill black, and that’s why cartoons look great in 3D, where everything has a brightness. It was a challenge for this movie, since it’s a vampire movie and half of the movie is night scenes. That’s why on the night train sequence we created a digital smoke, and it makes the 3D world very believable.
What are some of your visual influences, does it change from project to project?
Usually, for me, all the visual effects is coming from the story and the characters. At the same time, it is a rational explanation. Irrational? Who knows, it’s just free dreaming, you know? I don’t know why it happens, like the train. I have to think about it. I can explain the train: the only way from Washington to Gettysburg, to deliver silver, is on a train, so it’s logical. The train is cool and 19th century, but why it’s in my movies, I don’t know [Laughs]. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small town, and every time I had to go to school I had to jump on a train.
[Laughs] Could Dusk Watch possibly ever happen?
I hope so. By the way, this is Dusk Watch. I think it is. It’s the story of a vampire hunter, same as the Night Watch. Abraham Lincoln and Anton have similar businesses. By the way, three days ago I presented the movie on an Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, in the Persian Gulf. All these 2,000 young boys saw the movie. There was a signing session, and every second I heard, “When will we see the next Night Watch?” [Laughs] I’m, like, how do know you this Russian movie?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens in theaters this Friday, June 22d.