Hollywood's Hottest Author-Screenwriter Spills Secrets on 'Beetlejuice' Sequel, 'Lego Batman'
After the success of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' and 'Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter' (and its new sequel), Seth Grahame-Smith is leveraging cross-genre cred as Hollywood’s all-purpose It boy
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A typical day for Seth Grahame-Smith resembles a typical day for many successful screenwriter-producers: meetings and calls about projects in development, such as the Stephen King short story he is adapting for CBS or the YA novel Scorpio Races set up at Focus; perhaps a visit to Warner Bros.' "Bricksburg" to strategize the follow-ups to The Lego Movie; or a few hours polishing the Beetlejuice sequel. But unlike most busy scripters, Grahame-Smith maintains a prolific life as the novelist behind such hit genre mashup books as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, whose sequel, The Last American Vampire, is out Jan. 13.
Grahame-Smith, 38, might not be poised for New York literary stardom, but he could be considered the poster child for Hollywood's new breed of creative multitasker. Like such peers as writer-producer-author David S. Goyer and Walking Dead comics mogul Robert Kirkman, Grahame-Smith is capitalizing on the current dismantling of walls among film, TV, digital media, books and other formerly siloed outlets. Call him one of the do-anything talents, those who are able to spread themselves across genres and platforms.
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Grahame-Smith cites J.J. Abrams as the patron saint of this movement. "He directs, he writes, he produces. He's the ultimate multihyphenate," says the married (and often exhausted) father of two young sons. But the club includes Chris Columbus, Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith. Even the most established authors increasingly dabble in Hollywood. King, who rarely had been involved in his film or TV adaptations, wrote an episode of Under the Dome and the screenplay for the upcoming A Good Marriage. J.K. Rowling is scripting her Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. After years of handing over his romance novels to studios, Nicholas Sparks has started a production company to develop his own material.
Producer Dan Lin, who is working with Grahame-Smith on adapting King's It and the Lego sequels, says the writer's ability to mix genres in his books is what makes him so in- demand in Hollywood. "I know 'mashup' is a popular word," Lin says, but getting "the subtleties of having multiple genres [in the same movie] right while maintaining a consistent tone" is a skill few possess.
For the Connecticut-reared Emerson College grad, success has come after a decadelong slog. Grahame-Smith worked a low-level cable development job and took side gigs on web series such as Clark and Michael, where he met and formed a partnership with David Katzenberg (son of DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg). To help make ends meet, he wrote quickie tomes such as The Big Book of Porn and The Spider-Man Handbook on contract for packager Quirk Books. His editor suggested a zombie mashup of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, so he dashed it off in six weeks. An instant hit in 2009, it sold nearly 800,000 copies in the first year (though as a writer-for-hire, he makes very little on the novel, or on the movie coming later this year).
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The book launched what Grahame-Smith calls his "insane" year. A few weeks after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published, MTV picked up The Hard Times of RJ Berger, a TV series he and Katzenberg developed about a high school kid with an enormous penis (it lasted 24 episodes). He signed a multibook deal with Grand Central Books to write novels, starting with 2010's best-seller Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Even before the book was done, Tim Burton snapped up film rights and pushed him to write the adaptation as well as the director's Dark Shadows. Then the Lincoln script landed on the 2010 Black List, and in September 2011, he and Katzenberg signed a development deal with Warner Bros. that allowed them to acquire projects. In less than two years, Grahame-Smith went from worrying about whether he could pay his student loans to being one of the hottest young writers in town. He's now repped by WME.
Dark Shadows and Lincoln flopped, but his phone kept ringing. Burton then gave him the plum assignment to conceive the long-delayed Beetlejuice sequel, which, with its mix of horror and humor, is a natural fit. Grahame-Smith says he is rejecting the idea of rebooting the movie with a new star in favor of bringing Michael Keaton back in a sequel set in the present day. He also took Keaton's "less is more" advice with the character, noting that in the original, Beetlejuice doesn't appear until almost the midpoint.
While that project simmers, he's producing 2016's Lego Ninjago and writing 2017's The Lego Batman Movie (it will be "huge in scope, the funniest Batman movie ever," he says, and will have "the most Bat vehicles and gadgets ever seen onscreen"). Lin says Grahame-Smith has been so helpful that he's now a full member of the "Lego Brain Trust" of Lin, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and editor-director Chris McKay (who will helm Lego Batman).
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Between those projects, he hopes to start filming his directorial debut in 2015, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. He and Katzenberg also are developing TV shows — the most promising probably is King's The Things They Left Behind with Greg Berlanti for CBS — and other movies, including a possible Gremlins reboot, Scorpio Races and a teen comedy about three virgins who get a Russian mail-order bride.
But first, there's a big rollout for Last American Vampire, which takes the character on a Zelig-like journey from Jack the Ripper to the Hindenburg disaster to the Kennedy assassination. That Grahame-Smith wrote a sequel to the book after Lincoln's soft box office is a testament to his commitment to multitasking as well as to the strong sales, including a better-than-expected 550,000-copy bump tied to the film's release. "If anything, it made me feel less pressure," he says of writing the sequel (he also acknowledges that a film version of American Vampire is unlikely). "I didn't have to take any consideration that so many people hold the movie in such esteem that I [had] to honor the changes we made."
If there's one thing Grahame-Smith bristles at, it's the one-star Amazon reviews that dismiss his books as "stupid" or made-for-Hollywood mashup titles. "I know I'm not Jonathan Franzen," he says. He calls his writing the literary equivalent of a good summer blockbuster: It "delivers on spectacle and fun but also connects with you emotionally and leaves you feeling like it was more than just a breezy read."
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