Bekmambetov blends fact, frights for 'Lincoln'

The title “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” sounds like the premise for an Antebellum joke. But in the hands of director Timur Bekmambetov, audiences can expect something a bit deeper from the Fox 3D action horror pic, which rolls out globally June 22.

Using genre tropes to reinterpret history is an arrow foremost in Bekmambetov’s quiver; in the 2004 Russian supernatural thriller “Night Watch,” he portrayed modern Russia in transition from Communism to post-Soviet chaos as a society in the grip of an ancient battle between the forces of light and darkness in a world that included vampires.

Bekmambetov made a name for himself with the $4 million pic, loosely based on the novel “The Night Watch” by Sergei Lukyanenko. The adaptation was critically well-received and earned $33.9 million worldwide. Fox Searchlight picked up U.S. rights, releasing the film in 2006.

The pic also earned the helmer a Hollywood gig, directing Angelina Jolie in the 2008 action-adventure “Wanted” for Universal, which cumed $341.4 million worldwide, and established Bekmambetov as a filmmaker who could deliver the goods.

His collaboration with producer Tim Burton on the screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s graphic novel returns Bekmambetov to the world of allegorical pulp. It’s that reimagining of history that excited Bekmambetov when Burton first showed him the story.

“I thought it was a totally crazy idea when I read the treatment, and immediately understood what an incredible approach it was to reinterpreting the life of a great American president,” says Bekmambetov, who worked closely with the Library of Congress and Lincoln library and museum in Springfield, Ill., during the making of “Vampire Hunter.”

With Burton, whom Bekmambetov met via Mike Simpson, the agent they share at William Morris Endeavor, the Russian helmer describes a working relationship that is “very simple and easy, based on trust and understanding,” adding: “I really like him, and he understands what I am doing.”

Call it a cross-cultural detente in the world of sociopolitical horror. The director sees many similarities between Lincoln and the Russian Czar of the time, Alexander II. “They were friends and shared ideas and visions, though they never met,” he says. “They both freed the slaves in their countries — the Czar in 1861, Lincoln in 1863 — and Russia supported Lincoln during the Civil War. To know both countries brings a new dimension (to the project).”

Combining history with shape-shifting is certainly something with which Bekmambetov is familiar. Born in the Soviet Union in 1961 (he turns 51 on June 25), Bekmambetov grew up in Gurvyev, a town in Kazakhstan that straddles the geographic border between Europe and Asia. Each day on his way to school, he would cross a small bridge over the Ural river that marks a continental, cultural and historic divide.

When he moved to Moscow as a teenager as the old Soviet empire was collapsing around him, he was thrust into a world in which life roles became fluid.

“Living in Moscow during the crazy days of the early 1990s, when it was enough to declare that you were a banker, a gangster or a film director to in fact become one, everyone had to cross and re-cross lines and barriers that most people in more stable societies barely even recognize,” Bekmambetov recalls. “Some people could not cast off their Soviet character and were drowned in the swift and dangerous currents of the times; others simply reinvented themselves.”

Bekmambetov’s self-reinvention goes on apace as he describes a surfeit of upcoming projects from the living room of Walt Disney’s former home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, a Skype connection and half a world away from his Moscow home.

While his ambitious plans to make a big English-language project set in Russia haven’t yet come to fruition, he is using St. Petersburg exteriors and interiors for Michael Mitnick’s script “The Current War,” which chronicles the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to create the first sustainable electrical current. The movie won’t be a genre reinterpretation of the story, nor will the viewer be expected to believe that Edison took creative breaks in imperial St. Petersburg, but Bekmambetov has long wanted to use Russia’s “window on the West” as a setting, and sees this as an opportunity.

Back home in Moscow, where the director says he wants to spend more time, he has some very Russian projects in the pipeline, including a remake of the classic Soviet comedy “Gentlemen of Fortune” (Dzhentlmeny udachi) that drew an aud of more than 65 million when it was released in 1971. It’s the sort of innocent Soviet caper that still captures the hearts of Russian audiences with its simple plot of a kindergarten director who’s a dead-ringer for a master jewel thief.

His Moscow-based company Bazelevs, which boasts its own state-of-the-art post-production and vfx unit, is working on genre movie, “How I Slayed the Dragon,” which will dive deep into Russian mythology for a tale that is likely to have international as well as domestic appeal.

And Bekmambetov is also working with Chinese partners on a Chinese-language version of his successful New Year’s franchise “Yolki” (aka Six Degrees of Celebration), with a third Russian entry in the holiday-season series also on tap.

But for a dedicated shape-shifter, there is no avoiding genre-bending ideas: Knowing that Russian audiences are familiar with the story of “The Wizard of Oz,” but have a taste for sci-fi more than fantasy, Bekmambetov is also working on an action version of the tale, “The Warriors of Oz” — in which the young wizard learns to fight on the side of good.

No word if there are any vampires involved.

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