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Interview: Seth Grahame-Smith talks ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Lilly James PPZ (inset Seth Grahame-Smith) Photos: Screen Gems/Sony

By Tim Lammers

In today’s zombie culture, there’s no question there’s a danger of over-saturation, especially given the massive success of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” its companion series “Fear the Walking Dead,” and a slew of feature films — some scary and some funny, hence the subgenre the “zom-com.”

Fortunately, best-selling author Seth Grahame-Smith was at the forefront of the new-wave zombie movement in 2009 with his smash novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which is a mash-up of the zombie culture and Jane Austen’s literary classic about the intertwining romance between men and women from different social classes in England in the 1900s.

In a recent phone conversation, I told Grahame-Smith the first time I heard the title of his novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” I exclaimed, “Oh, my God, is this guy a genius or what?” Grahame-Smith, however, said, other reactions to his work were not as enthusiastic.

“Most people stopped at ‘Oh, my God,'” Grahame-Smith said, with a laugh. “To this day, I think there are people who still don’t know what to make of it.”

The reason he thinks the book endured, and ultimately was adapted into a feature film of the same name, new in theaters nationwide Friday, is because the novel came out when the proverbial iron was hot. As for why the iron was hot before he struck it, Grahame-Smith said he’s not sure.

“I can’t attribute the book’s success to anything else than good timing,” Grahame-Smith observed. “We just happened to have the right book at the right time, and hit the zeitgeist in the right way. I wish I could figure out why it worked, because I’d be able to replicate it every time out, but for some reason, that one idea struck a chord in people at that time.”

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Given the proliferation of zombies in pop culture, it’s hard to say how “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Quirk Books) would be received as a new novel today. But if the film version is any indication, my guess is that it would be perceived as fresh as the day the ink dried on the first copy of Grahame-Smith’s novel. The film — which stars Lily James (“Cinderella,” “Downton Abbey”) as the novel’s legendary heroine, Elizabeth Bennet — has a narrative as naturally captivating as Austen’s original classic, but is enhanced by the inclusion of a growing zombie army.

So, no matter the number of the new zombie projects to lumber in the public’s view, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still towers head and shoulders above any flesh-eating wannabe gnawing at its ankles.

Grahame-Smith, whose big-screen credits include the screenplays for director Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and the Burton-produced “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (based on his own novel), said he took very seriously the idea of infesting a classic like “Pride and Prejudice” with zombies for his novel (director Burr Steers adapted the film’s screenplay), which is why characters like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy play it straight in the midst of all the bloody madness. One thing’s for certain: neither the novel, nor the film, are parodies of the original source material.

“What I try to do each time out, not only with my books, but TV and movies, is try to give an A-level of execution to a B-genre concept,” Grahame-Smith, 40, explained. “To me, the more audacious the title or concept you’re trying to get across is, the more you really have to put in the work, the research, the time to make it unexpectedly make sense. When I wrote, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ on its surface, it was a very ridiculous proposition.

“But I also did my due diligence and researched Lincoln’s life — his speeches, his letters, his personal correspondence — learning not only about the things you don’t necessarily learn in American history class in high school, but really becoming a mini-Lincoln scholar so I can really understand the man, who he was and the times he lived in, and try to make this ridiculous book seem plausible,” Grahame-Smith added. “The biggest compliment I can get from a reader time and time again, is that they say they forget while they are reading the book that it never happened and it’s absolutely absurd. That’s really the fun for me, to pull a book-length sleight-of-hand trick on the reader.”

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Needless to say, Graham-Smith devoured all things Austen while preparing to write “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

“With ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ it was not only about reading and re-reading the book in depth, but reading everything I could get my hands on that Austen wrote, and everything about her, her life and her time,” Grahame-Smith said. “I needed things to seem authentic so I could to the best of my ability mimic the voice of one of the most gifted writers of her time.”

Now that Austen’s voice has been reconstituted once again, this time in cinematic form, Grahame-Smith hopes that “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t get pegged by potential audiences as a chick flick. He’s pretty confident that the word “Zombies” in the title will make guys more amenable to take a date to the film, and once they get there, they will discover that there’s something for both him and her.

“I’ve been telling people it’s the ultimate date movie,” Grahame-Smith enthused. “Guys are going to go and they’ll love the bad-assery of it and watching these beautiful women kick zombie ass, and in addition to the girls watching their fellow women kick zombie ass, they’re also going to love the fact that it hews pretty closely to all the same romantic overtones of the original ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ We’re not actually taking anything away from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ we’re simply taking that original story and adding zombie mayhem to it.”

Grahame-Smith, whose most recent novel is “The Last American Vampire” (Grand Central Publishing), said he’s done with the script for Burton’s hotly anticipated “Beetlejuice” sequel, but a start date for the production is yet to be determined.

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Reviews: ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Frozen Fever,’ ‘Run All Night’

Lily James and Cate Blanchett in Cinderella

By Tim Lammers

“Cinderella” (PG) 4 stars (out of four)

Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh masterfully directs an instant classic with “Cinderella,” Walt Disney Pictures’ latest animated great-turned live-action fairy tale. Preceded by the 2010 blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland” and the 2014  summer hit “Maleficent” (the “Sleeping Beauty” tale told from the villainess’ point-of-view), “Cinderella” emerges as the best of the three re-imagined tales so far – mainly by  sticking with the narrative fairy tale fans know and love while making subtle yet strong changes where it counts the most.

Lily James stars as Ella, who as a child loses her mother (Hayley Atwell) and gains a cruel stepmother (the deliciously evil Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) when her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries. Trapped as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters after her father dies, Ella – who is dubbed “Cinderella” by one of the stepsisters – sees a glimmer of hope through a chance meeting with the handsome Kit (Richard Madden), who keeps secret from the young woman that he’s really a prince who will soon inherit a kingdom.

Interview: Helena Bonham Carter (U.S. exclusive)

Interview: Kenneth Branagh

“Cinderella” works on every level, from using real landscape complimented by lavish castle set pieces and costumes; to stellar acting, a mystical atmosphere, Patrick Doyle’s moving score and the perfect mix of humor and heart.

The movie is also very emotional, especially in times of loss, but not necessarily depressing. It effectively helps build the character of Cinderella, who while taught by her dying mother to “have courage and be kind” – shuttering the damsel in the distress characterization from earlier interpretations of the tale.  Cinderella is now a strong and independent young woman who is an equal, essentially, to the prince, even while their social status couldn’t be any further apart.

Naturally, “Cinderella” wouldn’t be “Cinderella” with all of its classic elements: there’s the pumpkin that turns into the carriage, the mice that transform into horses and of course, the iconic glass slippers; but even those elements feel fresh and vibrant thanks to the wondrous performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

And while Bonham Carter is only in the film for about 10 minutes (first, as an unrecognizable beggar lady who tests Cinderella’s will to be kind, only to transform into the giddy, Bibbidi-Bobbidi white-gowned magician who creates the girl’s transportation to the beautifully staged Castle Ball) – she makes the most out of every second she’s on-screen. Thankfully, Branagh puts his talented star to good use by making her the narrator of the film, and even has her sing the iconic song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” during the end credits.

Despite the smattering of talent that surrounds her, James’ glowing performance as Cinderella helps the “Downtown Abbey” star carry the film with relative ease on her delicate shoulders. She’s the perfect choice to play the time-honored character with a sweet smile, an air of innocence and steady charisma and charm that makes you root for her from start to finish. True, we all know how the tale ends, but what an exc

iting, freshly mowed path through the gorgeous forestland “Cinderella” takes us on to get there. It’s a brilliant movie suited for girls and boys, and women and men of all ages.

Playing before “Cinderella” is the new “Frozen” short film “Frozen Fever,” a delightful seven-minute tale about a sniffling Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), who’s trying to arrange a birthday party for her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell) despite a nasty cold. Elsa’s under-the-weather for the entire short, but her condition helps produce clever additions to the world of “Frozen” and the loveable goofball snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).

Most importantly, parents may find their children letting go of the Oscar-winning “Frozen” song “Let it Go,” as “Frozen Fever” debuts a memorable new song, “Making Today a Perfect Day.” It’s a perfect song for a perfect mini-sequel of sorts, since it takes place after the events of the first film.

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“Run All Night” (R) 3 stars (out of four)

Liam Neeson is back with a particular set of skills – although time does appear to be catching up with him, finally – with “Run All Night,” a gritty, fast-paced crime thriller that boasts a terrific cast to help the film rise above its convoluted storyline.

Neeson stars as Jimmy Conlon, a broken-down former hit man for his longtime friend/powerful New York City mob boss Sean Maguire (Ed Harris). In an unfortunate set of circumstances, Jimmy shoots and kills Sean’s only son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) who was a hair-trigger away from his shooting Jimmy’s son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), for witnessing a murder.

Despite their long history together, Sean orders a hit on Mike so Jimmy can suffer the same pain of losing a child. But Jimmy’s not going to give in easy, and devises a plan to stay on the run throughout the night with his estranged son, in an effort to try to make things right with his former crime confidant.

Neeson seems only to be playing a variation of the “Taken”-like character that’s dominated the action crime genre in the past few years, and it appears now that he’s just on this side of being unbelievable. Neeson’s a big man at 6 feet 4 inches and is no doubt fit for a man of 62, but given the physical and mental toll his life of crime has taken on him (he’s executed dozens of people, with some of the hits closer to home than he’d like to remember), and it’s a wonder how he disarms and beats people (or shoots them with skilled precision) for a guy who walks with a limp and was falling-down drunk just hours before.

Harris, meanwhile, is chilling as the ruthless crime boss, while Kinnaman – who rose to prominence in the brilliant AMC-turned-Netflix-series “The Killing,” is excellent as the moral compass of the film. He’s about the only main character that you can root for, given Jimmy’s and Sean’s menacing pasts. Vincent D’Onofrio also shines as the film’s only straight cop in a city otherwise owned by Sean’s power, while Common is wicked as a hit man hired to complete the job that his crew can’t seem to get done.

In the end, fans of shoot ’em ups with high body counts will no doubt be satisfied by “Run All Night,” despite the film’s obvious faults. And while “Run All Night” leaves more to be desired, it’s at least a major improvement over Neeson’s lackluster third film in the “Taken” franchise.

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U.S. exclusive: Helena Bonham Carter talks ‘Cinderella’

Helena Bonham Carter in 'Cinderella'

By Tim Lammers

When Helena Bonham Carter was cast in the pivotal role of the Fairy Godmother in director Kenneth Branagh’s new live-action version of “Cinderella,” there were some rumblings of surprise on the Internet, where various journalists questioned whether she was better suited to play the wicked stepmother instead.

Given her past as deliciously evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the last four “Harry Potter” films and the delightfully funny but unforgiving Red Queen (“Off with their heads!”) in “Alice in Wonderland,” some thought that despite her experience with a wand, the magical staff that the Fairy Godmother was better suited for somebody not known for playing such dark characters.

Of course, those same people tend to forget just how versatile the two-time Oscar nominated actress really is. Whether it’s good or bad character, Bonham Carter has proven throughout her illustrious, 32-year screen career that she wherewithal to play them all.  Still, Bonham told me in an exclusive U.S. interview, that she was taken aback when asked to play the character associated with the iconic phrase, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”

“I was surprised not to be asked to be Cinderella, because I’m in some time-warp denial,” Bonham Carter told me, laughing, in a recent phone call from London.

Always funny and lively in her interviews, Bonham Carter told me she had fun bringing the effervescent Fairy Godmother to life during the making of “Cinderella,” yet inside she took the role very seriously. After all, “Cinderella” is a legendary tale that has been told countless times in different variations on screen and the stage over the years — chief among them the 1950 Walt Disney animated classic — so Disney, which also produced the new live-action incarnation, knew this new version had to work on all levels.

As it related directly to Bonham Carter, she knew her role would be under the burning spotlight, because the Fairy Godmother, who apart from Cinderella, is perhaps the first character people associate with the classic fairy tale.

“It was really flattering and nice to asked to play the role, but having said that, it was a quite a responsibility, and I was apprehensive about it,” said Bonham Carter, who also narrates the film. “My first reaction was, ‘What great fun! This can’t be a losing situation,’ but on close inspection, I got somewhat freaked out. The Fairy Godmother is iconic as an idea — there’s no real image of her apart from the character in the animated version — there isn’t really an obvious image and I didn’t want to replicate what’s in the cartoon.”

Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide on Friday, “Cinderella” tells the time-honored tale in a familiar, historical setting, yet gives the title character (Lily James) a strong sense of independence. Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother as a character with some bits of uncertainty: a giddy magician not quite aware of the full extent of her powers.

“I thought I had to re-invent the wheel a bit, so people would genuinely believe the character with some sort of credibility,” Bonham Carter said, recalling how she prepared for the role by examining the mind of the Fairy Godmother. “I thought, ‘Why a pumpkin?’ because it’s not immediately obvious that you would choose a pumpkin as your source material to turn into a carriage; and ‘Why glass?’ because glass isn’t immediately obvious to make a slipper with.’ Also, I wondered why the magic was running out at midnight.

“All of these choices she made sort of led me to believe that she was this accidental magician, or her

magic wasn’t quite up to scratch,” Bonham Carter added. “Accidents happen, and often in history, the greatest things have been born of the greatest accidents. I thought it was funny that things that have ended up being iconic, like the glass slipper and the pumpkin, were all improvised in the first place.”

Interview: Kenneth Branagh talks “Cinderella”

Branagh, who has worked with Bonham Carter before, told me in a separate interview that he was absolutely enchanted by the direction the actress took with the character.

“The Fairy Godmother may have great plans of how these transformations may go, but not always the skills, and I think Helena does that beautifully,” Branagh said. “She also adds this sort of poignant touch, when she follows Cinderella’s coach for just a step and says, ‘Goosey, off you go.’ There’s a really wonderful maternal, protective look on her face that lets you know she loves this kid. She feels for her in addition to all the fun she’s had with her.”

Plus, the director said, Bonham Carter has impeccable comedic sensibilities.

“Helena brings a joyful, delightful and silly sort of lunatic kindness to the character, which is a variation of the sorts of the kindness theme that is central to the film,” Branagh said. “The beautiful sort of dotty, ditsy, dizzy comic brilliance she brings is a lovely kind of literal fairy dust to sprinkle into the middle of the movie.”

The theme of kindness is important because it’s essentially what grounds “Cinderella.”  We first hear the phrase, “Have courage and be kind,” uttered to a young Cinderella by her dying mother, and Cinderella lives by those words despite the fact that she’s trapped as a servant to a cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters after her father dies.

Bonham Carter, much like Branagh, hopes viewers take those words to heart.

“I think they’re terribly important words, particularly in this day and age with social media,” Bonham Carter said. “People think there’s an anonymity and a lack of responsibility whenever they write something, because they’re not necessarily held to it. So many people are suffering because of bitchy comments about not being liked or whatever.”

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Helena, Mom face-off

Bonham Carter’s “beggar lady” is the first character Cinderella sees before she transforms into the Fairy Godmother, and the actress says she was thrilled to get to have extensive prosthetic work done to play the small, but very important role. The beggar lady sets up a key moment in the film, because she tests Cinderella’s will of kindness and observation of others less fortunate than her, even though her heart has just been crushed by her evil stepmother.

“Sadly, it took me less long to become the character described in the script as ‘1,000 years old’ than it took to become the Fairy Godmother. It took me only four hours to age 1,000 years,” Bonham Carter, 48, said, laughing. “When the designers approached me and asked me, ‘What do you think you’re going to look like when you’re 80?’ I said, well, my Mom’s around, so they took a face mask of her. Having said that, Mom doesn’t look 80, so they had to add wrinkles on top of the mask. It did look a bit bizarre, and God knows what some psychotherapist would say about me wearing my own mother’s face.”

And while the end product didn’t exactly resemble her mother, there were still some features of the face that to be resolved.

“In the end, I had to post-sync all of her lines because her upper lip is bigger than mine, so apparently I was completely inaudible,” Bonham Carter said. “Still, I always love being in prosthetics. I don’t like process of putting it on or getting it off, but being in it is all fun.”

As of our conversation, Bonham Carter’s mother still hadn’t seen the film, but the actress warned her mother not to be shocked by the makeup when she gets around to it.

“Having seen the film myself, you don’t recognize her. So I told her, ‘Forget that it’s you, Mom, because it’s not the most flattering,'” Bonham Carter said with a laugh. “Mom is still really beautiful.”

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Interview: Kenneth Branagh talks direction of live-action ‘Cinderella’

CInderlla Kenneth Branagh on set

By Tim Lammers

Having the good fortune to talk with actor-director Kenneth Branagh time and again over the past 15 years, the one constant I’ve noticed — and it’s a very important one at that — is his infectious passion for what he does. Whether he’s in front of or behind the camera — or both — Branagh’s enthusiasm for his work is reflected in every frame of his movies, and his latest, as director of the enchanting Disney live-action update of “Cinderella,” is no different.

“I have the luxury of being in this job that involves the allowance of my passion and enthusiasm,” Branagh told me, humbly, in a recent call from Los Angeles. “I never get tired of realizing what a privilege it is — the enthusiasm and the passion come very easily because it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide on Friday, “Cinderella” stars Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) in the title role, who after the death of her mother (Hayley Atwell) and later, her father (Ben Chaplin), becomes trapped in a household as a humbled servant to her cruel stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and her two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). But through a chance meeting with a handsome prince (Richard Madden) and some magical help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Cinderella’s misfortunes, if the shoe literally fits, may very well change.

U.S. EXCLUSIVE: Tim talks with Helena Bonham Carter

Branagh especially needed passion and enthusiasm in bringing Chris Weitz’s script to life for “Cinderella,” mainly for the fact that there were so many potential downfalls associated with the project. It’s hard enough adapting a well-known piece of literature such as a hit novel, much less one of the most-beloved fairy tales of all-time. Needless to say, updating “Cinderella” and giving it a different sort of spin without compromising the integrity of the original tale was a tall order for acclaimed director — and this is filmmaker who has mastered the works of William Shakespeare several times throughout his illustrious career.

“I really like the challenge. People have expectations, but I’ve done a lot of work in the classical field with masterpieces and universally-known things,” Branagh said. “By doing them, in a sense you’re proving they’re classics because here you are doing it again. Part of the reason they live across the ages is because they can be seen again — can be reevaluated. In the case of ‘Cinderella,’ here’s a myth and character who’s been around 2,500 years across various cultures. In the modern world, it’s something that many people cherish with their memories from the 1950 Disney animated classic.”

Branagh, 54, said he was taken aback by being given the chance to take the helm of “Cinderella” — the latest in Disney’s efforts to re-imagine their animated classics in live-action form following “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent,” which presented “Sleeping Beauty” from the classic villainess’ viewpoint.

“Apart from being pleased and surprised — and it was very positive surprise to be asked to direct a fairy tale — I was happy to be given the chance to discover why we continue to be drawn to this story and whether there was a new way to present it,” said Branagh who also interpreted “Thor” for the character’s film debut. “I thought that there was, in a very subtle but significant way, from the inside-out. Essentially, it had to do with sort of a recalibration of Cinderella’s character, and that’s where we started.”

Anchoring the film are five very important words that Cinderella’s dying mother tells her as a young child: “Have courage and be kind.” Branagh knows those words are simple, but couldn’t be any more powerful; and he hopes the words, which are repeated throughout the movie, aren’t lost on viewers.

“People have said to me, ‘Are those words a little simplistic?’ But it’s very hard to produce simplicity, especially in art,” Branagh observed. “All the simple things are usually packed with meaning. Shakespeare has an equivalent in ‘King Lear,’ where Kent is in the stocks and has been cruelly treated, but at the end of a speech where he tries to convince himself that he will recover he says, ‘Have patience and endure,’ which you may call a Shakespearean paraphrase for ‘Have courage and be kind’ — ‘patience’ involving compassion and love, and ‘endure’ the courage and determination to be resilient. I was determined to make an uncynical film about important things that could be inspirations.”

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Filmed in mostly real settings with real props and set pieces — save the visually spectacular scene where the Fairy Godmother works her magic — Branagh is proud that he could give the heart within the classical exteriors a different sort of beat with its more modernized characters.

“We set the film in a classical framework and looks like you might expect a fairytale to look — very lavish and opulent — and have things that you’d expect Cinderella to have like mice that turn into horses and a pumpkin-turned-carriage, and a ball,” Branagh said. “Yet, it also has a girl not passively awaiting the arrival of a man who is simply choosing to be a victim of fate; but someone who deals with her challenges, and the cruelty and the ignorance that she’s subject to by being aware of other people. That in a way is a way to deal with your own problems — to think of someone else. She does that with humor, and she does so with passion.”

Also, Branagh added, Cinderella asks questions — particularly of the evil person who is trying to keep her down.

“‘Why are you so cruel?’ she asks the stepmother, and I think Cinderella’s apparently simplistic path through this story is an inspiring one and triumphant,” Branagh said. “It doesn’t make her weak and it doesn’t make her passive, nor does it make her pious and self-righteous. She stumbles and she falls, like we all do, but ultimately her self-belief and her belief in the power of love is really her all-powerful way of living.”

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