Q&A: Seth Grahame-Smith

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • March 22, 2012

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Grahame-Smith wants to resurrect Beetlejuice. Doesn't he know he just needs to say the name three times?
Grahame-Smith wants to resurrect Beetlejuice. Doesn't he know he just needs to say the name three times?

The day after speaking at Emerson (his alma mater), author/screenwriter/producer Seth Grahame-Smith talked with the Berkeley Beacon about his books Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (both of which are slated to become motion pictures), as well as his hope to pen a sequel to Beetlejuice. He discussed how he chooses material, his commitment to sincerity, and where he hopes to see himself in the future. Read our coverage of his campus visit here.

Berkeley Beacon: When you chose Pride & Prejudice as the book from the public domain that you wanted to reinterpret, why’d you pick zombies as that extra flavor to add to the story?

Seth Grahame-Smith: Actually, I owe that moment of inspiration to my editor, Jason. He was the one who realized the two ingredients would work together. My contribution was, I went and read the original Pride & Prejudice a few times, made a bunch of notes, and I sort of looked at the original idea and found ways to integrate it into the original story … It’s strange that that book just has so many little moments, and characters, and settings, and details that lend itself to a zombie treatment. It’s kind of funny that only a few short years later, it feels like the whole zombie thing has blown over already. It’s kind of passé. But, it was the right book at the right moment I guess.

BB: How in-depth did you get with research?

SGS: I didn’t need to research any of the zombie parts, because I grew up as a horror fan and I watched zombie movies religiously since I was a kid, the George Romero movies. You know, for me, it was more about studying the language of Jane Austen, really digging into the book, and learning the rhythms of her writing and trying to mimic as best as possible that kind of Regency-era writing style, and her writing style in particular. So for me, the research was really more about the Jane Austen. The zombie stuff came naturally.

BB: After the book took off, there were some sequels that you didn’t write … I’m wondering if you had any involvement with them whatsoever?

SGS: None whatsoever. There was Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; Android Karenina; and other books that the same publisher put out but I didn’t have anything to do with them.

BB: Was there a reason why?

SGS: Because of the success of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, I was lucky enough to have other publishers come calling … I had already signed a deal with my current publisher, Grand Central, to do a couple of books and I was already working on Lincoln. And there was another layer to that. I didn’t necessarily want to be the guy that just mashed-up Jane Austen novels. I wanted to do something a little more original, something for myself and move forward rather than laterally, so Lincoln was the way for me to do that.

BB: I want to jump over to Abraham Lincoln for a second. You mentioned last night that the Twilight craze and the Lincoln anniversary both kind of happening in 2009 was kind of a main reason to mash those two up. I’m curious, what is it about adding a supernatural twist to a story that intrigues you?

SGS: I just love genre. I love the horror genre. I love the science fiction genre. I grew up reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury; I grew up reading Orson Scott Card and Dean Koontz and I just love those books. They’re satisfying, they’re pulpy, they’re fun. And I enjoy writing them. So, if I’m going to do anything to a pre-existing story or character, it’s probably going to be that genre treatment. And as a horror fan those sorts of creatures and images come naturally to me. I have a very extensive catalogue in my mind of moments and tropes to draw from.

So, with Lincoln, what really cracked it for me was understanding all the people that died under strange circumstances in his life. Of undiagnosed illnesses and things like that. And it seems that you could somehow construct the idea that vampires were behind some of those things and that his entire life was some sort of revenge story, then it would kind of work in a weird way. And it did. … For me, what really worked was this idea that Abraham Lincoln’s real life was this sort of superhero origin story. Here was this guy who had every disadvantage. He was the Peter Parker of his own time in a sense. He had no education. He had no good-looks. He had no connections. He had no money. And when he was nine-years-old, his beloved mother dies leaving him with a father that’s more or less estranged. And then his sister dies, his baby-brother dies, two of his sons die, his first love dies. And he’s battling depression and the country’s tearing itself apart and in need of a hero, and here comes the most unlikely hero of all. Who not only rises to the chief executive office but saves the nation and puts the whole country on his back. That’s a very heroic and genre-like story to begin with and it was the fact that I loved his real story that propelled me to add the genre element to it.

BB: When crafting the movie adaptation of Lincoln, last night you talked about how you owed it to the audience to make a sincere delivery of an absurd story. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SGS: My theory is, the more absurd the ask is, the more sincere your execution needs to be. For Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, I made every effort to be seamless. I didn’t want to zombie stuff to stand out. I wanted it to feel as if Jane Austen had written it along with the rest of the book. So I spent a lot of time and energy on language and rhythm and tone. With Lincoln, I never wanted this to be any kind of Mel Brooks treatment. I never wanted to wink at the reader and say, “I get it. It’s just a joke.” I wanted to be so straight-forward, so serious, and even so historically accurate that it made you forget how stupid the idea of Lincoln battling vampires can be. And luckily, the film takes the same approach. The joke ends at the title. And everything else in the execution is just sincere. And I think that’s the only way to do this. If you’re going to make this kind of commitment, you need to commit to it. And we have with the film, for sure.

BB: For a story you are writing, how do you determine what is worth your time? What’s worth coming back to as opposed to being lost in the shuffle?

SGS: A short film or a short story can be about a single idea or a single moment. A lot of things that come into my head are just great moments. But unless I can find a context for that moment that gets me excited, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth putting that much effort and energy into it. I have files upon files upon files of lines of dialogue that just sound good to me that I don’t know where to put, or moments that are in some unmade, unthought-of movie that I would just love to see someday. But really the beginning of everything is: What do you want to say? That’s the important thing that’s going to carry you through the entire process of it. With Abraham Lincoln, it was wanting to portray a hero as a superhero. With Unholy Night, it was wanting to say that faith is different for every person.

BB: Also, you are starting to get involved with a Beetlejuice sequel. I remember last night you mentioned you didn’t want it to be a remake or a reboot but rather a true sequel. Can you tease a little what’s cooking in your brain for a story you’d like to see?

SGS: All I can say is, whatever year we make the thing, it will be that many years have passed in the story. So, if we make it 27 years after they made the first one, it will take place 27 years later. The beauty of it is, if you put Michael Keaton in that makeup, he looks exactly like he did in the 1988 movie. It’s creepy and it’s brilliant. And I don’t really have much more than that other than to be truthful in terms of a plot but it’s slated for me later in the year to really dig into. But the important thing I’ve done so far as a producer is I’ve gotten Tim’s blessing to write a script, and I’ve gotten Michael Keaton’s blessing. And all I asked of them is, if I delivered a script you guys really love, would you be open to it. And that’s all they’ve promised and nothing more … So right now it’s really on me. No pressure.

BB: Where do you hope your career is, five years down the line, 10 years down the line? Now obviously, the past four years have been crazy big for you, so it’s kind of hard to predict, but where would you like to see yourself?

SGS: The five-year plan is the same as the 10-year plan. It’s just to still be a relevant filmmaker, still be a relevant writer, and a relevant author. To continue to grow my little company, to continue to grow my work with other producers, filmmakers, screenwriters that I can learn from. I’d still like to be at a home studio, making films. Hopefully in that time I will have learned to manage the intensity of it a little better in my own life and learn how to live a more balanced life, rather than living a real suitcase existence and a seven-day-week stress existence. But basically, I hope I’m still invited to the party in five years, because I worked hard to get in and I want to stay for as long as I possibly can.