My dad saw a commercial for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and thought it was hilarious, so it crosses all generations. Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the book as a follow up to his popular Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has not been made into a movie yet. Abe Lincoln made it first under the direction of Timur Bekmambetov. We got to speak with Smith by phone while he was doing press in New York, and he warned us he was coming to the end of his assembly line.
Seth Grahame-Smith: You’re catching me on day two of the junket so if I start to sound like an automaton, answering every question with my stupid boilerplate, just interrupt me.
CraveOnline: I will do that. Now since you knew you were adapting your book for Timur, did you write slow motion into the script?
[Laughs] No, I just put an extra space between each letter, just to stretch out the time. You’ve got to find interesting ways to do those Timur speed ramps in the action beats.
How did knowing the director you were writing for affect the way you adapted the script?
Well, the book and the movie are obviously very different and a lot of that is just knowing who your director is from the get go. I mean, here’s the guy who directed Night Watch, Day Watch and Wanted. So stylistically you kind of know what you’re in for. You know it’s going to be very inventive, sort of over the top action. So that did inform a lot of the writing but Timur also rolled up his sleeves and got intimately involved in the story of the script too and had a lot to say in terms of the broad strokes of what was going to be in the movie versus what was not going to be in the movie. It was an interesting process of adapting my own book and not always an easy process either, because as an author, you’re the director, the star and the producer all in one. You’re kind of the unquestioned auteur of the story and when you make the transition into the screenwriting, you’re there to service the director’s vision. Then the producer’s going to have a say and the studio’s going to have a say and all of the above, so it becomes this all hands on deck approach.
Is that your boilerplate?
I don’t know, I can’t even tell anymore. You know, at times it was challenging. At times it was frustrating.
Are you surprised the Abe Lincoln movie came first, before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
Yeah, I am and a little frustrated by it because we have a great script by David O. Russell sitting there, with a rewrite by Marti Noxon, no slouch herself. A sort of ready made concept and a very affordable movie and a big hit book, and it’s just kind of sitting there hanging out.
Were you not involved in that adaptation?
No, that was David O. Russell wrote the adaptation and Marti rewrote it. It’s a great adaptation of the book. They did a great job and the script’s sitting there. We need a director. That’s what it comes down to. We need a director to hang out with the movie and get it cast up and get it going. I think if Lincoln works on any level, I think there might be a renewed interest in it, but momentum is everything when you’re trying to get a movie going and that project’s definitely lost its momentum.
Does David O. Russell not want to direct it?
He was attached but after he wrote the draft he left. So I don't know. I don't know where that stands. I’m not a producer on the film unfortunately so I’m sort of sitting on the sidelines with everyone else, waiting to see what happens.
Did you do any more Abraham Lincoln research for the movie on top of what you’d done for the book?
Yeah, I did. Specifically I researched the character of William Johnson and his relationship with Abraham Lincoln because we added the character that Anthony Mackie plays to the movie. He’s not in the book, but most of the research came when I was writing the book and getting ready to write the book.
I actually haven’t read Abe Lincoln but in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the fights were maybe a page each. Did you have to elaborate the action in the script?
Oh yeah, yeah. The sequences that had to be invented were the real pain in the ass, because writing action sequences is like writing stereo instructions, like writing a manual for a computer. It’s just so technical and beat by beat. It could not be less creatively fulfilling. We have some crazy over the top action sequences throughout this movie that weren’t in the book, so they had to be invented from the ground up. That was part of the challenge of adapting it.
What about the ones that were in the book and had to be translated?
Those were hard too but actually, now that I think of them, there weren’t that many action sequences that were directly lifted from the book. Even when Abe attacks Jack Barts, it’s very different from how it goes down in the book. When he attacks Jack Barts in the book he’s 12 years old and it happens in his log cabin in the frontier. So virtually everything in terms of action came from Timur’s mind. The challenge as a writer was just to A, put my ego aside and get on board, get with the program, and B, just keep up with crazy Timur’s crazy inventiveness.
What was the most painful cut from the book?
Probably losing Edgar Allen Poe as a character. I had Poe and Jack Armstrong in the book fighting side by side with Lincoln. They kind of became a team in the way that Will Johnson and Lincoln do in the movie. I really liked that mental image of little Poe and huge Abe fighting vampires side by side. Because the book was so gothic and I wanted the movie to be somewhat gothic and absurd as well, I was sorry to see that image go. But if the movie does well maybe we’ll get to see it.
Did The Raven movie have to do with losing the Poe character?
No, because we were already shot by the time the Raven movie reared its head.
So that was just a preproduction decision?
Yeah, it was a decision I think that once we added the character of Will and the story started to take shape and the trio became Henry, Will and Abe instead of Abe and Jack and Poe, there wasn’t any room for it. It was like a hat on top of a hat.
With the Beetlejuice 2 job, how much of that is your ultimate fan sequel versus what Tim Burton wants?
Well, right now it’s all ultimate fan sequel and the reason is I keep trying to crack the story and I’m just not happy with anything yet. I’m being really, really self-critical when it comes to that because the original movie is so important, not only to me but to a hell of a lot of people. The last thing I want to be known for is the guy that f*cked up Beetlejuice. Unless the story is incredibly appropriate and works and has its own reason for being, I don’t want to do the cash grab version of the Beetlejuice sequel.
Knowing how Hollywood deals work, can you even think about whether you want any of the original characters back? Besides Betelgeuse, Adam and Barbara or the Deetz family?
Yeah, I definitely want to see the Deetz’s again and the Maitlands for that matter. Maybe we even see a younger version of Juno, who knows? The only person I know for sure that I want to see is Michael Keaton in that makeup again.
Is the time that’s passed since the first Beetlejuice your friend or your enemy?
It is probably my enemy because I would love to have the Maitlands as they were and just pick up where we left off, but we’re going to use that time as part of the story. Those 27 or 28 years are going to be important in where we pick up.
Is there any caution that, let’s say they can’t make a deal with Alec Baldwin or Geena Davis, you have to have a backup plan?
Yeah, for sure. I’m trying to build into whatever the story is, build in those safety nets so that we don’t live and die with each individual deal.
What kind of new characters can you create for the Beetlejuice world?
I don't know yet actually. I’m not just being evasive. I’m really not far enough down the road yet with the shape of the story to know exactly what that would entail.
Why can comedy sequels be so dangerous?
Well, I mean, all you have to do is look at Son of the Mask or Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Caddyshack II for Christ’s sake. Caddyshack II almost ruins the legend of the first Caddyshack. I don't know. Some movies are just lightning in a bottle. We learned that with Ghostbusters. You had all the same players come back, the same director, the same writer, the same stars and just the magic wasn’t there. That’s the biggest concern with Beetlejuice is that that movie in a way is a beautiful accident. Trying to recapture a beautiful accident is a very difficult thing.
What are some of the missing stories from Dark Shadows that we didn’t get to see in the final cut?
The main story that didn’t make it was the blossoming of the father/son relationship between Barnabas and young David. That sort of goes a long way towards I think explaining why you have Victoria Winters saying that David idolizes Barnabas and things like that. In the end, I actually don’t know. I don’t know why that fell out of the cut but that was the main one I think that was missing.
What were the differences between adapting an old TV show and your own novel?
Well, adapting the TV show was strangely more straightforward because I had Tim and Johnny sort of telling me exactly what the ingredients they wanted in a Dark Shadows movie was. So I had experts and “Dark Shadows” fans giving me their sort of compilations and favorite scenes and favorite episodes to draw on and I had all sorts of backgrounds and character biographies to help me. There was no sort of pre-existing shape that I was mentally married to like there was with Lincoln. It was much more of a straightforward process with Dark Shadows.
When they came out with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, were you like, “Oh come on, that’s just ridiculous?”
Well, you know, to a certain extent yes but I also understood it. The Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book was such a big hit for Quirk, they’ve gone on to make more of those. They’ve made Android Karenina. They even had a Pride and Prejudice prequel called Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Now they did Franz Kafka’s Meowmorphosis with a cat on the cover. I guess it’s to be expected.
I was just joking about the idea that there would be a line past which it’s too much.
I don’t have any opinion one way or the other.
Have there been new horror movie survivor rules since you wrote your book How to Survive a Horror Movie?
Not really. Those are the tried and true rules as far as I’m concerned. Look, Cabin in the Woods touched on a lot of them recently. I think those rules were sort of specific to a lot of the slasher movies and ‘80s horror movies that I grew up loving but at some point it could probably stand to be updated.
Right, aren’t there rules for surviving a found footage movie or a torture movie?
A found footage movie is actually interesting. That’s the one update that we are missing, isn’t it? It’s the Paranormal Activity kind of rule set. That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll write an additional chapter and republish that or something.
For the kindle.
Yeah, right? You could do that pretty easily. That’s a good idea.
Do you know if Andrew Garfield took your Spider-Man Handbook to heart?
I hope he did, for God’s sakes. I don't know, it’ll be interesting. I’m going into that movie with an open mind. Even though Tobey Maguire’s body isn’t cold yet, I think it looks interesting. I’m going to give that movie a fair shake. I like Andrew Garfield as an actor.
What’s next for you, more screenwriting or novels?
All of the above. I just published a book not too long ago called Unholy Night. My sort of 9 to 5 screenwriting job right now is adapting that for Warner Brothers into a movie. I just wrote an animated movie, one of the stop motion type movies for Tim that I’m hoping he produces and directs. On the novel front I’m just gathering my ideas for what I’m going to write next year.
Has the animated movie been announced?
It’s called Night of the Living and it’s not been greenlit yet but the way I describe it is it’s an animated ode to all the monster movies and horror movies I grew up loving.