Great Emancipator moonlights as vampire hunter: Timur Bekmambetov prepares wild fantasy about the 16th President
May 1. Film Journal
By Ethan Alter
If there were still any lingering doubts that Hollywood has become a global marketplace, 2012 will likely lay them to rest. So far this year, we’ve seen a foreign-produced feature win the Best Picture Oscar for the second time in a row (the French-financed The Artist, following in the footsteps of the British feature The King’s Speech), the release of an Indonesian action film to widespread acclaim and strong box office in the U.S. ( The Raid: Redemption), and a homegrown American blockbuster that faltered on these shores but is doing good business overseas ( John Carter). In the coming months, we’ll see many of the year’s biggest summer event pictures (The Avengers and Battleship among them) open abroad before playing on domestic screens, as well as a slew of high-profile awards hopefuls (including Gravity, The Hobbit and Les Mis?rables) featuring the work of actors and artisans from all over the world. All in all, it’s clear that movie studios can’t get away with just thinking locally anymore—with every feethey make, they also have to act globally.
Few contemporary filmmakers seem to grasp (and embrace) this sea change as completely as Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov, who got his start in the advertising game in Russia before crossing over into feature films. After two obscure, low-budget efforts, Bekmambetov broke though in a big way with the 2004 fantasy/action hybrid Night Watch. An enormous hit in Russia—where it became the highest-grossing film of all time before being surpassed by 2007’s The Irony of Fate 2 (also by Bekmambetov) and then again by James Cameron’s Avatar—the movie (and its sequel, Day Watch) received a successful worldwide release courtesy of Fox Searchlight. In 2008, Bekmambetov landed his first Hollywood assignment with the comic-book adaptation Wanted, which went on to become one of that summer’s surprise blockbusters, earning $135 million at home and another $200 million internationally.
Four years later, Bekmambetov is returning with his second studio feature, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, set for release on June 22—the height of the summer moviegoing season. A wild mash-up of a presidential biopic and an F/X-driven action picture, the film takes a seminal period in American history (namely, the Civil War) and adds a fantastical twist to it that audiences at home and abroad can potentially embrace.
In anticipation of another Wanted-style success, the National Association of Theatre Owners is presenting Bekmambetov with the International Filmmaker of the Year Award at their annual CinemaCon gathering in Las Vegas. When asked what that kind of recognition means to him, the 50-year-old director is quick to place his personal accomplishment in a global context. “It’s very important for Russia because it’s a huge film market, but only 10% or 12% of the [overall] market are Russian-made movies. I think this will help Russian filmmakers believe they can do more. Because what we have now is really a global market—every week, the whole world is watching the same movies and a lot of directors from a lot of different countries are making these movies. L.A. is the place where we work, but we’re always looking beyond that. And together we’re developing one unique film language; today’s movies have global themes and global techniques that people can understand all around the world. At the same time, every director from every country brings something unique that changes the trends here in Hollywood. The film world is like its own separate country, with a lot of personalities and individuals shaping each other, sharing ideas and challenging each other.”
Indeed, it’s only within this separate country (maybe call it the United Filmmakers of Multiplexania) that a Russian director could be handed such a quintessentially American story as the rise of Abraham Lincoln from self-educated lawyer to the 16th President of the United States. Bekmambetov himself recognizes the slight oddity of the situation. “It’s a paradox, but I think it must be [that way],” he explains. “The reason America has been such a powerful, influential country for the last 150 years is because of Lincoln and his idea of freedom—that until everyone is free, we’re all slaves. That idea was very attractive to the rest of the world.”
It’s also worth noting that, despite the director’s nationality, the source material is 100% American-made; the film is based on a best-selling book of the same name by New York native Seth Grahame-Smith (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Simon Kinberg). Both the novel and the movie take place on a parallel Earth (or is it…?) where vampires walk amongst men and treat them as their prey. As a young boy, Abe Lincoln discovers this frightening fact and devotes his life to combating the vampire menace, even as his career path takes him from a one-room log cabin in Kentucky to a law practice in Illinois on into the White House in the nation’s capital.
Although Bekmambetov describes himself as a history enthusiast, he admits that Lincoln and the American Civil War didn’t fall under his particular area of expertise. To study the period and his subject’s life in more detail, he turned to the experts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, as well as the Library of Congress. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the researchers at either of those institutions laughed him out of the room when he told them the title of the film he was working on. “They were very enthusiastic about the project. They want to reach a broad audience and they want people to be interested in Lincoln’s life. And, of course, they’ve got a sense of humor! They understood the tone of the movie and they knew that if people saw it, they’d buy books about Lincoln. People love to watch movies about Batman and Spider-Man and buy millions of books about them. Our movie is like a superhero origin story too; it’s the story of a boy who lost his mother and is driven by revenge to dedicate his life to fighting vampires. Abraham Lincoln is the first real superhero.”
While most historians agree that the real Lincoln likely didn’t get into brawls with bloodsuckers, Bekmambetov did strive to stay true to other aspects of his life. “We had a lot of consultants who helped us make this movie as historically accurate as possible. We studied the shape of his axe, the architectural plan of the cabin in Kentucky where he grew up, the way he would write his letters. We were trying to be very specific and very honest.” That desire for honesty also dictated Bekmambetov’s choice of who would play Honest Abe. Instead of going for an established star, he tapped up-and-coming actor Benjamin Walker—who first gained attention by playing an earlier American president, Andrew Jackson, in the critically acclaimed off-Broadway rock musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson—to don Lincoln’s famous stove top hat.
“First of all, he’s tall,” Bekmambetov says, laughing. “He’s not as skinny as Lincoln was, but he lost about 30 pounds for the part. And then he has a very unique quality that was important for Lincoln in that he’s very honorable and down-to-earth; he could be your neighbor. He also has a sharp and edgy sense of humor, which Lincoln had. Lincoln lived a dark and dramatic life, but even so, he was a light and delightful man with an unbelievable sense of humor and that’s what saved him during his darkest days.”
Beyond doing right by Lincoln, Bekmambetov also felt that maintaining a high level of historical accuracy would be instrumental in having audiences accept the heavy dose of vampire mythology that would be injected into the movie’s version of the Civil War era. “To use real history as myth is the high concept of the book and the movie,” Bekmambetov explains. “It was very important for me to keep the vampire mythology and the actual history as traditional and conventional as possible, because the combination of these two things creates the uniqueness of the project. Of course, there are some [liberties] we took when we combined the two worlds. For example, in our movie, vampires can work outside without being afraid of the sun because they created sunscreen to protect themselves. And today, ordinary people are using it the same way vampires did back then! Also, according to vampire mythology, you can’t see a vampire’s reflection in a mirror. Since that’s the case, you also can’t take a picture of a vampire because there’s a mirror in the photo camera. So in our movie, that’s why people invented photo cameras in the 19th century—not to take pictures of their families and houses, but to tell who is a vampire and who is not. Those kinds of details helped me ground the vampire mythology and connect it to real history.
“Vampires are often a metaphor for fear and for greed,” he continues. “In this movie, they also represent the upper class, the aristocracy at that time who use others to inflate themselves. Whereas Lincoln represents ordinary people and the belief that people have the right to be equal. Even today, we all experience the feeling that there is someone in our lives that is using our energy. It can be a boss, a colleague, a policeman—you feel empty after you talk to this person. That’s vampirism. And what’s important is that they’re invisible; they’re not an enemy we can recognize immediately, like zombies. They look like human beings, but they’re not.”
As focused as Bekmambetov has been on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for the past year, it’s only one aspect of his overall career. He also produces and develops material for his production company, Bekmambetov Projects Ltd., which funds both English and Russian-language features, including the recent Moscow-set alien-invasion film The Darkest Hour—which was released by Summit in December—and Yolki 2, an anthology film that racked up sizeable grosses when it played in Russian cinemas last year. As further evidence of his global outlook, Bekmambetov recently announced that he would be producing a Chinese-language remake of the original Yolki, to be directed by China’s most successful female filmmaker, Eva Jin. And while he doesn’t fully immerse himself in the marketing campaigns for his various projects, he draws on his advertising background for more unconventional promotional stunts, like the two-minute viral video he created for Wanted that scored 11 million views on YouTube in five days. (He declines to reveal whether he’ll be making a similar video for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, insisting that the Fox marketing team has the situation well in hand. “They made a great poster and a great trailer that immediately presented the movie to the whole world and got millions of views. They’re very good at what they’re doing.”)
While juggling multiple films in multiple capacities on multiple continents may sound wearying, Bekmambetov insists that he wouldn’t choose to work any other way. “I like to do many different things at the same time. I’m the kind of person who always has five windows open on my computer screen as I’m listening to music or watching a movie or reading a book and instant-messaging at the same time, all while driving a car! It’s a problem and I know it, but it’s a disease we’re all suffering from. I can’t change.”
Not that anyone in Hollywood will likely ask him to. As filmmaking’s rapid transformation into a global industry continues, individuals like Bekmambetov—who possess both strong creative and entrepreneurial talents, as well as a far-reaching vision that crosses borders—will become increasingly important players. As for what challenge 2012’s multi-tasking International Filmmaker of the Year recipient decides to tackle next, the only thing he knows is that it won’t be More Adventures of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “I never make sequels [to my own movies]; I did make Day Watch, but those movies were made back-to-back, so for me it was one film. I approach every project as a new world, with new people and new challenges. That’s what makes it interesting for me.”