Novelist and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith is a gothic mash-up master. He broke the mold with a title that caught everyone's sensibilities hilariously off-guard: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." (He's not involved in the movie version, which is mired in development.) Since then, he has been playing with genre and expectations. His script adaptation for Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" revealed a turn of phrase and a skillful ear for campy 70s horror. On June 22nd, Grahame-Smith's adaptation of his own bestseller hits screens: producer Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," starring Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell and Dominc Cooper. (Trailer is below.)
In our interview, the innovative ironist talks about gleaning inspiration from hackneyed bookstore displays and the incorporation of dark American history in his work, as well as his penchant for elegant period dialogue.
TOH: Why did you select Abraham Lincoln of all the presidents to be your vampire hunter?
SGS: Well, I have to go back to haow the idea originated. I was doing a book tour for "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and as part of the tour I would go to bookstores big and small all over the US. This was in 2009 and it was the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, so no matter where I was in the country, no matter the bookstore, there were two displays: Abraham Lincoln biographies and "Twilight" books. This was absolutely the zenith of vampire literature. In a moment of cynical aberration, I wondered if it would have some crazy synergetic effect. It got me interested enough to get into Abraham Lincoln biographies. I didn't know a lot more than middle school level information - the $5 top hat, honest Abe. During that initial research, I became hooked. The more I read about Lincoln, the actual man got under my skin. I began to ask: how did he do all this, when he had nothing -- no looks, no connections, no money, no name, no family?
TOH: What specifically about Lincoln's story affected you?
SGS: His life was so incredibly dark and fraught with peril and misfortune. His baby brother died, his mother died when he was nine, he was estranged from his father. With no worldly possessions or education, he dusted himself off and became a man of letters, married a woman of high station, and gained the highest office in the land, and then saved this land while burying two of his sons. His story is dark and gothic. It's like a super hero origin story: the outcast, disadvantaged youth who possesses some secret skill. With great power comes great responsibility, the hook from Spider-Man. When he achieves this power, he finds himself in the middle of the Civil War, taking the whole country on his shoulders and wrestling it into shape and then paying the price for doing this with his life.
TOH: How did you incorporate the Civil War into a gothic drama?
SGS: Sometimes we see the Civil War in movies and imagine these neatly aligned rows of men with muskets, walking in line to shoot each other. In reality the things that fascinated me were how absolutely ruthless and violent so many engagements were, how much suffering and how men were not prepared. Their shoes had worn through, their limbs were blasted off. The Civil War was savage. It all seems so organized, but it was chaotic. It fed into the genre narrative I was trying to spin with this bloodiness.
TOH: ALVH starts in the present day and looks back. You also juggle time periods in "Dark Shadows." How do you navigate these two time periods? What makes this interesting?
SGS: With Lincoln, it was just out of necessity because the framework of the story is looking through a journal of Lincoln with a modern retelling. With "Dark Shadows," the humor comes from the idea of Barnabas Collins being a fish out of water, totally unprepared for 1972. It's the same tools to achieve different effects: in one we're just using it for humor, but I enjoy writing period dialogue because no one talks like this anymore. There was a certain elegance in the way people communicated. Now, brevity is the soul of all communications. The real pleasure of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was to look at Jane Austen and the Regency period, but they're talking about zombies and beheading. After plotting, outline, organization, once you know your characters you get to put them in situations and watch them talk, then writing becomes an out-of-body experience.
TOH: What was your immersion in the "Dark Shadows" subject matter?
SGS: I was lucky enough to have people working on the film who were "Dark Shadows" experts. My mother was a fan of the show. I was given a compilation of different actors, favorite episodes, and encyclopedia matter. It made it much easier to digest and talk about an ideal "Dark Shadows" movie.
TOH: When did you first read "Pride and Prejudice"?
SGS: In high school, in Connecticut. I didn't finish it. I couldn't get my head around it, I couldn't get myself to care about Lizzie Bennet and her man troubles. I wasn't old enough or mature enough to realize other things were going on and the quality of wit and the quality of writing. When I was working on the book, I went back to revisit the original and read it over again. It was a really pleasant surprise that it wasn't a chore, and I was enjoying it and could engage in a different way.