Sweat beaded the faces of nearly 400 Civil War soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the Louisiana humidity.
In formation, waiting. Ready to charge the hill, hollering rebel yells.
The movie director gave the word: ACTION! and the world blew up.
Fifty ground charges exploded at once, hurling concrete powder, heavy mulch and dirt clods up to 70 feet high, then raining down smoke and debris on all those Confederates shooting, coughing, pitching to the ground.
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In those few erupting, howling seconds, some Kansas City men forgot they were making a movie at all. And the fear captured on their faces was real.
Though the vampires were not.
“Oh, those vampires were cool,” said Christian Shuster, “stuntmen who really knew how to ‘vamp’ out.’” A year ago, the Missouri re-enactor worked three days on the movie set. His day gig is with Hallmark Cards.
Last spring, at least a dozen Kansas City-based hard-core living historians were invited to be “extras with knowledge,” as one re-enactor put it, because the producers of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible.
Setting aside the blood sucking.
A gag order stopped any locals from talking until now. Civil War heroics are blended with European demons in this movie genre smoothie that will be out June 22. Producer Tim Burton bought the rights to the book by Seth Grahame-Smith and hired him to write the screenplay.
The premise is that Lincoln saves the country with political decisions by day and slays the undead with his axe-slashing martial arts skills by night.
The top-hatted legend is depicted as the nation’s very first superhero.
The bad guys, who do not just hold slaves in bondage but feed on them, are depicted with white faces cackling with demonic glee, blood dripping from fangs. Feathery blue veins (some that pulse, thanks to the makeup artists) crisscross their jowls. They leap skyward, hissing with an unworldly air. Unfurled talons on every finger.
“Yeah, they were pretty scary-looking,” Shuster said, laughing, remembering the 30 or so male actors with that bloodthirsty look.
But “the nemesis villain girl?” Dressed in her antebellum-influenced but leather corset that clung to every curve, with her porcelain face, red hair, vamped-out eyelashes and bright red lipstick? Shuster’s sigh was deep.
“She often ate lunch with us,” he said, and many men noticed she avoided red-meat dishes.
Civil War enthusiasts from all over the country brought their gunfire-trained horses, their muskets, bayonets, canvas tents and enough uniforms to fight for whichever side needed them the most. Shuster fought on both sides.
“I have no qualms about letting my inner Yankee come out,” he said. “You know, spitting on dogs, cussing at ladies, like a good Jayhawker.” He’s normally a Reb captain in the re-enacting group the 3rd Missouri Infantry.
Another Missouri re-enactor, Patrick Cole, who is also a bagpiper and a paramedic in Lafayette and Johnson counties, tries for realism, but only so much of it. “I’m not a stitch-Nazi. I don’t hand-sew my stuff. I don’t have the patience to hand-sew a sleeve for hours and hours. That’s where the bar is for me. But I do tie rags around my boots.”
Cole is a member of Terry’s Texas Rangers, Company H, with the Razorback Flying Battery and its draft horses that pull cannons and caissons. He and the other re-enactors were asked to share their experience and correct any historical mistakes. The worst that Cole witnessed: an obese Confederate soldier who actually waddled on the field in the first battle scene. He was asked to leave.
“I worried that this whole moviemaking thing would turn into a farb fest,” Cole said, using the derogatory term for those with flawed Civil War attire. “It didn’t.”
One of the most authentic units was The Tater Mess Boys, with members from Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. These men were hard-core enough to scorn the hotel accommodations. Instead, they built a camp just outside the set, slept without tents, cooked their own provisions, shunned showers and, naturally, flush toilets. The genteel Hollywood set was impressed.
They watched as all the Midwest re-enactors gathered in the parking lot every morning by 6 a.m., marched in formation to the set, worked all day in the sun and continued drilling hour-after-hour.
The re-enactors’ discipline, attention to detail and dedicated immersion in Civil War culture stunned Mark Carter, the second unit director coordinating the battle scenes and action sequences. He made sure that his camera crew caught the little moments — a soldier reloading his rifle, hand-rolling a smoke or dropping to one knee waiting for the next scene.
“One guy tripped and gashed his nose,” Carter said. “It was all bloody. If it was me, I would have been to the hospital so fast. But he told me, ‘You wouldn’t stop in a war. You’d just keep going.’ So he did, too. The re-enactors would do anything and everything to make the battle scenes come to life. And anybody watching this movie will see that!
“ All these guys were really, really great to work with.”
Carter had a smattering of high-school Civil War lessons before shooting the movie. But after, he said, he has a much greater appreciation of history and the reality of the hardships the soldiers endured.
“Only maybe a tenth of people in the United States ever hike the Appalachian Trail. Those Civil War troops hiked through foliage like that for months, without our modern clothes or anything, and then they’d stop to fight a battle.”
Asked what new thing he learned about the Civil War, he replied, tongue in cheek:
“Vampires. I never knew they were around then. Think about it. The South wasn’t doing well, and then they suddenly picked things up. How? I’m just saying ”
Definitely the premise of vampires could be a stumbling point for Civil War purists, said Adam Canterbury, a re-enactor and college drama student from Edgerton in Johnson County. But he thinks the producers’ attention to historical detail keeps the movie from getting campy and gives the public a little more insight into the era.
“If people can just get past the title, I think they’ll enjoy the movie.”
Canterbury worked two weeks on the movie, longer than most of the other re-enactors. He was one of the extras in the crowd listening to the Gettysburg Address delivered by Lincoln, played by 6-foot-3 Benjamin Walker. “I got chills, it was so awesome. That was for me maybe the best part.”
The realism of the props — dead horses, corpses and even artillery pieces made of rubber for hurling by vampires — was interesting. And he’s certain that he nearly stumbled on a very flesh-and-blood Tim Burton, the film’s producer, dressed in Federal gear, running in the line. “I brushed shoulders with him.”
Looking forward to its release, Canterbury added, “I have a good feeling that all of us who participated in this will be proud of it once it’s out
“If nothing else, I’ll be able to say, it’s the most historically accurate vampire movie I’ve ever been a part of.”