The Man Behind Summer's Most Anticipated Movies
"What If?" has been the overriding theory of Seth Grahame-Smith's career. We've read the answers to "What If Zombies Attacked Elizabeth Bennet?" in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and "What If The 16th President Secretly Fought Fanged Foes?" in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Seth's latest endeavor asks, "What If The Three Wise Men Weren't As Holy As We Thought?"
Hence, Unholy Night -- a new novel that expands the biblical backstory given to that iconic trio. Although after a little digging, Seth realized just how little was truly known about the mystery men, allowing him to create a lush, fascinating and utterly compelling tale of intrigue and faith.
While a cinematic adaptation of Unholy Night is in the works, the big screen is already bracing for a pair of projects written by Seth: May's Dark Shadows and June's 3D adaptation of his book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I caught up with the endlessly inventive author to find out what inspired his latest creation, what difficulties arose in adapting his own work and why you shouldn't judge Dark Shadows off the trailer.
Insider.com: What was the genesis of this idea?
Seth Grahame-Smith: Usually I really have to will an idea into existence, but Unholy Night was the only time something has popped into my head fully formed. It was the summer of 2010 on a hot sunny day, so it's not like I was seeing Christmas trees, and this question popped into my head: "What do we really know about the Three Wise Men?" That was it. I started to get curious and I did a lot of research. I really dug into the New Testament and read the passages of Luke and Matthew, where their story really lives. We always think of the Three Wise Men as this extremely integral part of the Nativity Story but there's so little in the Bible about them. So much of what we know about them came later, so that got me really interested. I am always interested in how to tell a well-worn story in a new way – and if I could come up with some surprising things about them, that could be fun.
Insider: All the topics you've put a twist on could be seen as controversial -- but were you especially nervous to tackle religion?
Seth: I swear I don't pick controversial topics on purpose [laughs]. But I knew this would be a completely different thing because I would be talking about people's faith. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to do it unless I could do it respectfully. It's one thing to have a president chopping up vampires or zombies in a Jane Austen novel, but it's totally different when you're talking about religion. So I made some rules for myself.
Insider: Such as?
Seth: Number one, Jesus would never be more than an infant in the book. I was not going to get into the business of putting words in Jesus' mouth. In fact, the word "Jesus" doesn't even appear in the book. Second, when you're dealing with Mary and Joseph, they always have to be pure forces of good and not do anything controversial. The story lived in the heart of Balthazar, one of the Wise Men, so I had more room to play with their interpretation. That's really where I made some changes.
Insider: Have you heard any negative reactions?
Seth: Not really. I don't want to sound too sappy about it, but I really see Balthazar's journey as a pro-faith journey. He starts out a skeptic and it's only through his acceptance of something bigger than himself, devoting himself to something other than selfish needs, that he makes peace with his past. Without pandering to the most religious people out there, I wanted to do something entirely pro-faith.
Insider: Now that you've adapted a book you wrote for the big screen, is it tough to write a novel without thinking about the screenplay?
Seth: Yes, 100 percent. It's a challenge for me. I have to be disciplined to not write the novelization of some future movie. It's easy to think, "This is going to make such a great scene in the movie" when I’m writing the book, but that's not fair to readers. And it's not fair to the work. I tend to write cinematically anyways, because that's the background I come from, but I went out of my way in Unholy Night to write things into the story that I knew would never be able to translate on the big screen. There's a lot of internal monologues and dreaming. I was determined to not write this as blueprint for a script. But subconsciously, after adapting Abraham Lincoln into a script, I learned what makes a book easier to translate into a movie, so I'm sure subconsciously that affected me somehow.
Insider: Warner Brothers bought Unholy Night and you'll be adapting it, but where does that fall in your myriad of obligations?
Seth: [laughs] It's next. I'm writing an animated movie right now called Night of the Living and I'm weeks away from turning in that draft. Then I dive into Unholy Night – we're producing that with David Heyman, who did all the Harry Potter movies, so everyone's waiting anxiously for me to start that script.
Insider: You were also tasked to create a Beetlejuice sequel -- is that on the backburner then?
Seth: It's still a thing. It's a thing insofar as we control it at Warner Bros. We've met with Michael Keaton at length. I've met with Tim Burton at length. We've talked about it and everybody is, in theory, game to come back and excited about the possibility. But no one is going to commit to anything until I write something. I'm hoping that after I write Unholy Night, that will be the thing I dive into. But until there's a script or story to make people excited and prove we're not just bastardizing a beloved movie, there's no new news essentially.
Insider: Well it's not like there will be any shortage of your work on screen -- June brings Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. A book I loved, and a movie that has thrilled me with its trailers.
Seth: That's gonna be fun. The trick with this movie is that the joke has to end at the title. We wanted to present this in a really straight-forward, muscular way. Just like the book does, frankly. We don't do it Mel Brooks-style. In order to make that work, we needed an actor who could disappear into that role and make you believe that's real history. And Ben [Walker] completely does that. If you didn't have a Lincoln that could carry this tricky tone, you'd be screwed.
Insider: This was the first instance of adapting a book you'd written. Was that harder than you anticipated?
Seth: It was harder because you can not be precious. You have to go in there and kill your darlings. It got easier when I relaxed my ego a bit and just put my trust completely in the director. But it was a tricky script to begin with because it's dancing on the razor's edge of being cool and being silly. You really have to walk that tightrope.
Insider: What was the hardest cut for you?
Seth: It wasn't actually cutting stuff that proved to be the hardest, it was re-imagining the book because that had no central villain. We spent weeks and months coming up with a way to make a movie with no central villain before realizing we needed a central villain. So it got a lot easier when we invented the Rufus Sewell character. Also, the book doesn't have the big climax you want in a 3D summer tentpole movie. So we had to not only invent a thrilling climax but also a reason one should exist. There was a lot of re-engineering that went into that script and in some ways, it made me see where the book failed in a strange way. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of the book but one thing we did in the movie, which was really cool, is we added Anthony Mackie's character, Will Johnson. The book deals with these themes about freedom and slavery but in the book I don't give a strong voice to the oppressed. There is no proactive African-American. In the movie, Mackie is this kick-ass friend of Lincoln's who isn't going to be a victim. He fights back. I'm proud of that addition.
Insider: The action scenes in the book are very explicit -- how do you feel they're brought to life in the film?
Seth: When it comes to translating the action, Timur [Bekmambetov] is the perfect director. His ability to stage action is unparalleled. He's a mad genius when it comes to visualizing things in a way you've never seen before. Everyone's seen Timur bend bullets in Wanted and brought that inventiveness to the 19th century. There are parts of this that feel like Wanted with wagons. It's crazy what comes out of his brain. The action is one of the film's strongest suits.
Insider: But before we see that, Dark Shadows comes out in May. There are a lot of fans of the original series, so how much did you take into account their feelings and how much did you see this as a creation for this generation, which has never seen the show?
Seth: There are few people who love Dark Shadows more than Tim [Burton] and Johnny [Depp] – they brought that love and respect to the movie from day one. But we knew from the get-go that we wanted to have fun with it as well. We're not lampooning the original series, but we wanted people to have fun and be entertained. As awesome as the original series was, it could be very straight-forward. In retrospect, a lot of the humor that comes from it stems from the show being overly earnest in a way that lots of soap operas are. It was a tricky one, frankly. People are making assumptions based on the trailer that it will be some big romp, but in fact, there's some very dark, scary stuff in the movie. There are elegant, heightened, operatic and very dramatic things about this story. Ultimately, this is a movie about a family finding its way again. It's rather touching. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised.
Insider: So do you feel like the trailer is not a good representation of the movie?
Seth: I think it's a good representation of the film but if you watch the trailer frame-by-frame, you'll see a lot of really epic, Gothic imagery intercut with some of the funnier Barnabus stuff. I think the humor tends to overpower the trailer but I think that people are going to be pleasantly surprised by how much there is beyond the humor in the film.
Insider: That said, have you started to think about your star for Unholy Night? Did you envision anyone while writing it?
Seth: It was an ever-shifting image in my mind. It feels like a big movie-star role – he's a roguish, handsome, bare-chested swashbuckler. I always thought of Balthazar like a long-haired Indiana Jones. So I need a 30-year-old Harrison Ford. Raiders-era Harrison Ford, but with hair down to his shoulders in a loincloth.
Unholy Night is now available.