Q&A: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Writer on Literary Mashups and the Movie that Shouldn’t Exist

"It’s a high-octane summer action movie, and that didn’t come easily to me"

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June 19, 2012 - New York, New York - Seth Grahame-Smith attends the ''Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'' Movie Premiere on June 18, 2012 at The AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York City. (Credit Image: © Robin Platzer/Twin Images/UPPA/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Seth Grahame-Smith is perhaps best known for his mashup novels, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. On June 22, the film adaptation of his vampire book—now called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, with a colon—opens in theaters. Grahame-Smith spoke to TIME about learning to write a movie, adapting his own work and straying from the accepted vampire mythologies.

TIME: What was it like to adapt your own book for the screen?

Seth Grahame-Smith: It was a challenge because the book and the movie are so vastly different. The book is much more sort of about the minutiae of real history and how that interweaves with the vampire story, whereas the film is really just an all-out, over-the-top genre expression of an idea. It’s a high-octane summer action movie, and that didn’t come easily to me. I don’t really conceptualize the right big-action set pieces very well. So that, coupled with the fact that I had to get my own author ego and the sense of ownership out of the way, made it pretty challenging.

And now that you’ve seen it onscreen, what was that like?

Well, it’s surreal, first and foremost. I mean it makes me laugh in a way, seeing how here’s a movie that, by all accounts, shouldn’t really exist. It shouldn’t really be a big-studio summer movie. So on one hand, it’s kind of astounding to me that a book with such a ridiculous premise got made into a big movie to begin with, and then got made into the kind of sort of insane, over-the-top movie that it is.

Your working relationship with Tim Burton—did it start with Abraham Lincoln? Is that how you ended up doing the screenplay for Dark Shadows?

The way that I understand it Tim had heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and was interested in whether I had any other projects or ideas. He and [Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov] had produced a movie called 9 together, an animated movie, so they were already producing partners. And they approached me together about turning Lincoln into a movie before I was even finished with the manuscript. As soon as I turned in the manuscript, we got to work on adapting the book immediately. That mostly constituted sitting with Timur and sort of listening to Timur’s crazy take on the idea and transcribing as fast as I could and trying to keep up with his imagination. And once I wrote an early draft of Lincoln, Tim was impressed and asked me to work on Dark Shadows.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

I’ve read that you said that the inspiration for the book came from seeing Twilight near Lincoln biographies. Have you read Twilight?

I’ve seen some of the movies. I mean, Twilight is not for me. You know, it’s not meant for—I’m a 36-year-old father and not really the target audience for Twilight. I think people try to make something of—like ‘well, you know, I did this book as a reaction to Twilight.’ That’s not accurate. There’s no Stephenie Meyer beef or anything. I actually commend Stephenie Meyer. I haven’t read the books, but if you can get that many millions of young people to read books, then I have no problem with you, regardless of what you write.

Are you a fan of other vampire things?

Yeah. When I was younger I loved some of the earlier Anne Rice books—Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat. But more than the vampire literature specifically, I’m a fan of vampire movies. I’ve always, I think, like many people, just been attracted to the character, you know. What I love about vampires and what makes them unique among horror characters is that they’re the only horror character that human beings generally aspire to be or would choose to be if given the choice. I think, all things being equal, none of us would choose to be a zombie or a werewolf. But there’s some aspirational quality to vampires.

It sounds like you’re more interested in the vampires than the vampire hunters, like the Buffys and the Blades.

I think vampires as characters are fascinating. You can tell a large story that doesn’t necessarily have to be contained within a single century. What would a 500- or a 1,000-year-old human mind be like? What would that person talk like? What would they have seen? You know, in the new Ridley Scott movie Prometheus, I find the character that Michael Fassbender plays, David, very fascinating because he’s not burdened by things like aging or dying, and when everyone else is in cryo-sleep he has the whole ship to himself and he chooses to watch Lawrence of Arabia and ride bicycles around the hangar bay. It’s a very introspective and solitary existence being a vampire because everyone you know eventually dies.

(MORE“Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” Author Writing Burton’s “Dark Shadows”)

You mess around a bit with the vampire mythology though. Like the way you get around sunlight, and stakes aren’t main weapon. What was your philosophy about how far to go?

I felt there was some license there because there have been so many vampire stories and so many takes on the mythology. Bram Stoker had his own take on a very old folk tradition of vampires, and he invented his rules to complement what had already been around in European folklore for centuries, and people have been sort of twisting that and building off of it. This is not the first time that vampires have been able to get around sunlight. The one thing we did do in the movie that was an interesting choice on Timur’s part was that we added the rule that vampires can’t kill other vampires and therefore that’s why this human class of vampire hunter is needed.

I noticed there’s also a lot of vampire blood. I was surprised that they bled.

That’s also a Timur addition—just wanting to use the 3D effectively. That blood is flying at you. You know what we ended up with is not even so much an adaptation of the book but really like a re-interpretation because there are parts of it that are just so drastically different. But they both take this ridiculous premise and they execute it without winking or flinching. We don’t at any point in the movie say, ‘hey, isn’t this funny and isn’t this all a laugh.’ We don’t need to put a joke on top of a joke. That was something I was very careful with in the book. I wanted it to be almost like as if David McCullough had written this real study of something that had really happened.

Grahame-Smith is currently adapting his new book, Unholy Night, for the screen and working with Tim Burton on an upcoming stop-motion film.

(MORE: Benjamin Walker on Becoming an Axe-Wielding President in ALVH)