Dark Shadows and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter don’t fit the bill of your average summer blockbuster. An adaptation of a slightly obscure soap opera about a vampire? We don’t see those often enough in the summer season. A hard-R actioner featuring one of our greatest presidents shredding vampires to bits? That’s another unheard of type summer tentpole.
Although Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s names alone can create money out of thin air, Dark Shadows is not the sort of film we often see as a May release, and the same goes for June’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The man partly responsible for these two going-against-the-norm pictures is author/screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith. Grahame-Smith had to tackle some difficult tasks when it came to making these two projects ‐ like making an accessible Dark Shadows film and adapting his own epic and tonally tricky novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Here’s what Seth Grahame-Smith had to say about writing for the screen, the soap-operatic tone of Dark Shadows, and the straight-faced badassery of Abraham Lincoln slaying vampires:
Thanks for making the time. With “Unholy Night” just getting released and two movies coming out in the next two months, I’m guessing you’re pretty busy.
Yeah, it’s a cool time, a scary time, and an anxiety-ridden time. You know, it’s different with a book. You work on a book for a year, and then a year goes by before it comes out. You kind of forget about it, then it comes out, and it’s not like opening weekend. Books will have a life of their own. They grow very slowly over many months or even years. You work on a movie for two years, and then it all comes down to a weekend. Having two movies in back-to-back months is exciting. It’s exciting to see Dark Shadows billboards, but there’s so much anxiety wrapped up in how it’ll be received and how it’ll do. It’s my first time going through this. It’s a little bit of everything: exhilarating and terrifying, all at once.
It’s easy to understand that anxiety, with how three days can destroy or make a success of two years of work.
Not even that. You know where you stand by Friday night, basically. I’ve talked to people who’ve been through this many years, and they say by Friday night your weekend is either exhilarating or horrible [Laughs].
[Laughs] You’ll keep checking Deadline for the numbers, right?
Yeah, yeah, I know…I definitely won’t read the comments on Deadline, though.
[Laughs] Never read the comments on Deadline.
[Laughs] Never read the comments in general is what I’ve learned! No good can come from reading any comments.
Unless you’re on Film School Rejects, of course.
Well, that’s true. It’s a whole different breed of movie geek.
Do you know what you’re going to do opening night for Dark Shadows?
I’m probably going to be inconspicuously going around L.A. theaters with friends seeing how crowds are and maybe popping into a few screenings and watching it with an audience, hopefully. If I’m paralyzed by anxiety, I’ll probably stay home, curl up into a ball, and turn my phone off [Laughs]. You can imagine you’re in the back of a theater and people start rolling out or if you ask if the show’s sold out and they say, “Nope, tickets available for every show!” [Laughs] There are so many things that could go wrong, and I’m pessimistic in nature.
I don’t think you’d have to worry about people walking out. I know Burton doesn’t like the idea of being a “brand,” but when you buy a ticket for one of his movies, you know what you’re getting.
To me, with Dark Shadows, this is a return to my favorite part of his brand: the Sleepy Hollow, irreverent, dark, weird, and comedic tone of movie; it’s really hard to pigeonholed it in one genre. I know some people have been concerned about the trailer being too comedic and everything, but when you see the film there’s a lot of high-drama and sweeping, Gothic imagery. There’s a lot of bloody moments in the film; it’s got a lot of everything. Mostly it’s just got that infectious sense of fun weirdness all Burton movies have.
Even Burton seems to have a problem describing the tone and genre the movie fits.
I call it soap-operatic, which mean all emotions are dialed up to 11, whether it’s the weepy dramatic moments or fish-out-of-water Barnabas’ moments. Everything is heightened and fun. Look, it’s 1972, which is the first time we get to see Tim Burton take on 1972, but it’s still everything the series was too: Gothic, dark, multi-layered, and an ensemble. I try not to get too defensive about it because I’m really proud of the movie, but obviously people really love the original show and are worried. You see “Is Tim Burton going to ruin this?” in all the talkback and comments you’re not supposed to read, but no one loves that original series more than when Tim and Johnny did when they were kids, which is why they pushed to get this movie made.
Even from the music to Danny Elfman’s score to the imagery to the costume design, there’s so much tribute in the movie. It’s also an update, though. We could’ve remade House of Dark Shadows or Night of Dark Shadows, and just committed 100% to a dark and brooding tone throughout, but that movie is not for a lot of people these days; it’s not something I would’ve had as much fun participating in. I’ve never worked on anything of this scope and size before. When we were making the movie I would just wander around Pinewood, and just look at the backlot where we built the entire town of Collinsport, the harbor, and the boats floating on a fake ocean in the middle of nowhere, all these incredibly detailed sets. For me, it was amazing how detail and love went into this film. I think people will get the film.
When you write for a director like Burton, do you write emulating his style or do your own thing and let him interpret?
No, I would write as a fan, in some ways. His films have been some of the seminal films of my life, and made me want to work in movies. I can remember, like a lot of us, seeing Batman four times in the summer of ’89. You know, I was there wearing my Batman shirt at school [Laughs]. I can remember my mom picking me up after seeing Edward Scissorhands in the middle of winter. You know, Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure too. These movies were just touchstones of my childhood. You know the sensibility, that it’s a dark and weird of sense of humor. You also know what the movie is going to look and feel like.
The other advantage I had on Dark Shadows was I got in early on in the process where I got to sit around a table with Tim and Johnny, and just talk about the movie and what moments could be fun for Barnabas. Johnny would act the scenes out, and he was already working on his voice and mannerisms. When you’re writing, not only do you know the actor you’re writing for, but also how is going to speak. It’s an incredible advantage because it lets you write dialog that you know is going to sound grand or funny coming out of his movie. I also knew what Barnabas was going to look like early on. I remember in one of the first meetings we had Tim came up with the idea of extending his fingers, and Johnny took that [idea] and said he could very delicate in the way he touches things and apprehensive towards the world around him. Those meetings really shaped everything out.
Johnny was the only piece of casting I knew when I wrote the draft. I wasn’t writing for Helena [Bonham-Carter] or Michelle Pfeiffer, since they came on later. Once they came on, I was able to make some adjustments for things I thought they could do really, really well.
Was having all those notes and meetings to go off a similar process to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, where you have a good map to go?
It’s a totally different process. You know, with Dark Shadows, I had more room to play and invent, frankly. With Abraham Lincoln, it was tricky; it was tough egotistically tearing out pieces of my book I liked. It was also tough because it wasn’t necessarily what we had to cut out for Abraham Lincoln, but what we had to add.
Like the villain?
Yeah, the book had no central villain. This was really problematic when trying to shape the movie without a villain, so we realized we needed a villain and we invented Adam, Rufus Sewell’s character. It is an adaptation, but there’s parts of it that are so drastically different. Like, the whole third act culminates into this fantastic, amazing train chase. You know, obviously that’s invent from scratch. Anthony Mackie’s character was invented from scratch, and I think the book would’ve been better if it had an Anthony Mackie character. It’s interesting because it’s a completely different type of challenge. I didn’t know who I was writing for, so I just wrote Abe as I written him in the book. We were lucky enough to get Ben Walker, who just became this character. If you didn’t have an actor like that, you’d be dead with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. With Dark Shadows, it was much more of a free form kind of exercise. With Lincoln, you were bound by beats of the book, but you also had to invent whole passages and make everything work together. It was really tough and laborious, man. When you have a director like Timur who never stops coming up with good ideas your challenge as a writer is to keep running as fast as you can.
I’d imagine finding the structure would be a pain. I’m re-reading the book right now and I’m at page 100 where Abe finishes his training with Henry, and that whole set up could make for its own movie.
Yeah, yeah, it could. When you see the movie, you’ll see we really restructured the bookends, the way Abe comes upon Henry, and really combined a lot of things. For instance, Abe doesn’t meet Henry when he’s that young anymore; he meets Henry when he’s going after Jack Barts, who he actually doesn’t go after him when he’s young. We’ve combined a bunch of different things through single events, because we had to power through the whole move in an hour and fifty minutes.
Were there certain structural beats you found difficult or couldn’t fit in script form?
Yeah. First of all, structurally, yes. You have to get the movie into a three act structure, so you need an inciting incident, a turning point going into the second act, a midpoint in the second act, a low point at the end of the second act, a raising of the stakes and a climax in the third act, and a resolution. All those classic sort of movie beats you have to conform the book into; it’s tough. Obviously a book is a 20 hour investment; say if it’s 300 pages, while a movie is a 2-hour investment, so you only have 10% of the time to basically tell the same story. You have to consolidate some characters, lose some characters, combine some scenes, or lose scenes entirely; it’s a tough exercise. It would be tough enough adapting someone else’s book and making those hard choices, but when it’s your own book you have to deal with your own ego about things.
It’s funny that you’re saying this because I was going to ask if you never have to deal with writer’s block adapting your own work, but it sounds much more challenging than that.
Yeah, it wasn’t that. The challenge on Abe wasn’t so much the lack of ideas, but how many ideas we could get through. I mean, Timur is a one man idea factory; he just never stops throwing “what-ifs?” at you. It’s a completely different challenge, whereas Tim gives you all the room in the world to go explore and come back to him with ideas, but that can also be really daunting because, like, what if he hates the ideas? [Laughs] I tend to write a lot of outlines and treatments, so before I go off into drafts at least I know if I’m on the right track or not.
Timur seems to get the tone of the book as well, with how serious it is.
Yeah, we always say the joke ends at the title. I think some people are still wondering if we’re doing the Mel Brooks’ vampire movie [Laughs]. Are we giving it that kind of tongue-in-cheek treatment? Absolutely not. We’re committed to doing a full force and muscular action movie, and we will never wink at the audience and never back down from the seriousness of our ridiculous premise. We don’t do any of that self-aware stuff. There’s no line in Abe like, “Boy, after we kill these vampires we’re going to rest for four score and seven hours ago!” There’s none of that. We’re not making a joke out of the idea of Lincoln, and I don’t know how we would do that tongue-in-cheek version.
I would imagine the tone would be difficult to achieve on screen, when you’re meshing a very serious life like Lincoln’s with a very genre filmmaker.
To a certain degree, it becomes a revenge movie. Yes, we don’t gloss over the fact that Lincoln had a really dark life, and we portray that: he loses his mother, a son, and a few of his friends. He’s a “Let’s go and get on with it” type of guy, like he was in real life. Tonally, yes, you’re absolutely right. When you have a premise that’s absolutely ridiculous with a straightforward execution, you have to give people cues early on that we’re not messing around. I think the trailers and posters have all done a good job of setting the tone of, “No, this is badassery, not a joke,” and now it’s just whether or not we can make the movie deliver on that promise.
Dark Shadows opens in theaters on May 11 and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens on June 22.