Seth Grahame-Smith: 'We're not out to make a mockery'
Seth Grahame-Smith may be best known as the writer of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," the breakthrough
best-seller that mashed up Jane Austen's classic novel with overt zombie horror
and became a massive success. He followed that up with "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," this time
mashing up real history with a secret life for the 16th president. Both books
have been optioned for the screen, with "Lincoln" coming out next month and
"Zombies" hitting a few snags -- including losing three directors and leading
lady Natalie Portman -- but remaining in development.
We're sitting down to talk with Grahame-Smith about writing the screenplay
for Tim Burton's big-budget, big-screen version of the Gothic daytime soap opera
"Dark Shadows." Unlike the creaky but still
serious-minded '60s series, the new movie, starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, the vampire
patriarch of a dysfunctional Maine family, is also a mash-up of sorts, combining
broad humor with period flourishes (the story is set in 1972) and traditional
Will it work for fans of the original show as well as the general public at
large? That will be decided on May 11, when "Dark Shadows" opens. In the
meantime, we asked Grahame-Smith about writing the movie, writing for Tim Burton
and writing for the fans -- in that order.
MSN Movies: How familiar were you with the original "Dark Shadows"?
Because you're not the generation that grew up watching it.
Seth Grahame-Smith: I was familiar with it in the abstract. And I was
familiar with it through my mother, who would watch the reruns. I remember her
using the word "apologetic" about Barnabas. That stuck in my mind. That was the
only thing I really knew about the series: my mother describing Barnabas Collins
as the apologetic vampire. It's what made Jonathan Frid's interpretation of him
so unique, that he was essentially a vampire you could root for because he was a
victim of circumstance. Other than that, I didn't know specifically a lot about
So when I got the job, our executive producer David Kennedy, who worked with
("Dark Shadows" creator) Dan Curtis for years, and guys like Jim Pierson as
well, who is just sort of the king of the "Dark Shadows" fans, they inundated me
with books, compendiums and specially edited scenes. I was given a disc of
Jonathan Frid's personal favorite moments from the series ... but the other
resource that I really had was Tim and Johnny. From the very beginning of the
process, we sat around, the three of us, and started talking this out. They just
know so much about the series, and they remember so much about it. Rather than
doing the straight interpretation of a soap opera, you're remembering it through
the lens of them being kids and them being fascinated with it.
When you're writing for a director like Tim Burton, who has such a
specific style, do you keep that in mind while you're working? How much of that
is on the page, and how much of it sort of gets Burtonized while you're
I can't help but think about it when I write. ... I knew Tim already a little
bit as a producer on "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," but we hadn't really dug
in together the way we had to on "Dark Shadows." There was definitely a sort of
brief but intense period when I was sitting down with Tim and Johnny, where I
had to get over the "pinch myself" moment of it and just get to work, because
you're not there to be a fan, you're there to be a writer. At the same time,
Tim's work was so important to me as a filmmaker growing up in the '80s and
early '90s, when I was in my formative period. Those Burtonisms, those images
and those sorts of tropes are seared into my subconscious.
I wanted to, as a writer, make a very Tim Burton-y Tim Burton movie. I just
wanted it to have that dark funniness, that weirdness that sort of permeates
some of the stuff that is my favorite Tim work. It's always there. The other
treat here was that from the first meeting I had with Johnny, he was already
doing the voice. Not only did I know the actor who I'm writing for, but I know
how the cadence is and how the voice sounds.
Getting the tone right must have been one of the biggest challenges.
Did you worry about diehard fans of the show not enjoying the
Tim and Johnny are huge fans of the show. So they felt -- and I felt this,
too -- a responsibility to do something that would do right by the fans. We're
not out to make a mockery of something they love. It's not out to be camp and,
"Oh, how stupid and low-budget was 'Dark Shadows'?" Really you're actually kind
of doing the opposite. You're trying to do the most prestigious, heightened
version of that soap opera that you possibly can. I have confidence that when
people see the movie they're going to understand that it's not a farce. No one's
out to make fun of "Dark Shadows." We're paying homage to it in a way that Tim
and Johnny remember it.
Aside from Barnabas' origin, how did you decide on the story lines
you wanted to use, like the Julia Hoffman story and the Angelique
I think if you look at the characters that are the iconic Dark Shadows
characters, we didn't get them all in. We didn't get Quentin Collins in.
But you have a nod to him, which we won't spoil.
Yes, we do have a nod to Quentin Collins. And certainly if we ever did a
sequel, you'd be seeing Quentin. But this specifically focused in on the idea
that family is the only real wealth. And we hit on that over and over and over
again in the movie. We wanted it to be about Barnabas reconnecting with the
world and Barnabas reconnecting with his family. So in that you have to sort of
carve out what's the most important way to tell that, and what's the most
streamlined two-hour way to tell that.
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is up next for you on-screen, but
"Pride and Prejudice" has hit some snags getting adapted. Are you disappointed
that it seems to keep hitting some obstacles along the way?
Yeah, I'm disappointed. First of all, we have a great script by David O.
Russell and Marti Noxon. The script is not the issue. The source material is
popular and the budget is very doable. Obviously we lost directors and we
haven't found our Elizabeth. It's been a frustrating process. Talking to people
at Lionsgate, it remains something that is very important for them to do, and
they're very excited about it. My philosophy is if "Lincoln" does really well
this summer, then you'll see some renewed vigor to get that thing going.
What can you say about "Abraham Lincoln"? It's still vampires in a
period piece, but a very different period.
Very different movie. Couldn't be more different, First of all, the vampires
are not sympathetic or apologetic at all. They are terrible. Second, it is a
hard-R, hard-charging, muscular action movie with 3-D, head chopping,
bloodletting, badassery, and it's just a very different tone of movie. It's very
gruff, straightforward and dark. We say with "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,"
the joke ends at the title.
One of the things I'm proud of "Lincoln" for is that it's one of the only
movies this summer that's not a sequel, reboot, remake, reinterpretation, not
based on a game, not based on a toy, no robots in it. It's just something
completely different right there, smack in the middle of summer. I'm excited and
anxious to see how it does.
You're also writing "Beetlejuice 2" for Tim. That's another cult
movie that is very dear to fans' hearts. What's the challenge for you in doing
The challenge is to have the self-discipline not to do it if it's not worth
it. I have said this to Tim and to Michael Keaton, if I can't come up with a
story that's worthy of a film that I hold near and dear to my heart, then we
shouldn't do it. If we don't have something that we all feel like, "Wow, this is
worthy of carrying the torch 27 years later," then we should not do it just as a
commercial exercise, because I don't want to have to look fans in the eye and
say, "Hey, sorry for ruining our favorite movie." It's just not worth it. Life's
too short and there are other projects to do.