We take an in-depth look at Francis Lawrence's end of the world epic!
What's the Fuss?
I Am Legend. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, this end of the world epic was originally intended for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The book has already seen two adaptations. The first came in 1964 and was entitled The Last Man on Earth. It starred Vincent Price as the lone survivor of a worldwide plague. The second version came in 1971 and was entitled "The Omega Man". It found Charlton Heston in a similar situation. Now, Will Smith is the last man standing in New York City. This time, the virus that wipes out the human populace is manmade. And Smith, playing Neville, is in a race against the clock to find a cure while having to single-handedly battling rabid vampires that sound exactly like Mike Patton on a hate-rager.
Who are we Fussin' about?
Actor Will Smith. Director Francis Lawrence. Writer Akiva Goldsman. Smith first hit the social scene as a teen hip-hop artist and quickly became a phenomenon when he and his partner Dj Jazzy Jeff released their 1988 hit Parents Just Don't Understand. He spent six years on the acclaimed sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And he made a name for himself as Mr. Fourth of July, a weekend which saw the release of his hit films Independence Day, Men in Black, and Bad Boys II. Director Francis Lawrence is a popular music video director that has worked with such luminaries as Aeromith, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, and Gwen Stefani. In 2005, he directed the cult hit Constantine, which starred Keanu Reeves. And he shares the dubious distinction of being named after Gidget (Frances Lawrence was her birth name). Akiva Goldsman is an American screenplay writer best known for winning a 2001 Oscar for his script A Beautiful Mind. His filmography also includes The Da Vinci Code and Batman Forever.
What's all this Fuss about being the last man on earth?
After a manmade plague kills off most of the populace and leaves the rest of the planet suffering from a form of vampiric rabies, Will Smith as Neville finds himself the lone survivor in an apocalyptic wasteland. He must traverse the lonely streets of New York City alone, his trusted German Shepard his only companion. This was a challenge to Smith, as he had to fully immerse himself into the mind of an isolated soul.
Smith states, "Being alone was the most terrifying part of even taking on this film. There were eighty pages of just me and a dog. That might be a little too much Will for anybody. I looked at it with the writers. We studied POWs, and we found a guy that had been in isolation, in prison. We found the texture of what that truly means." A self-imposed schedule seemed to always be on Smith's mind while performing the character. He needed his thoughts to be preoccupied on screen, "One thing that was across the boards was this internal schedule. Geronimo Pratt said that you would schedule things like cleaning your nails while in isolation. You would have two hours were you'd clean your nails. That was the only way to maintain your vanity. You had to have a regiment. You trained your mind to know that this had to be done at this time of the day. That was the basis of how we tried to create the schedule. You don't realize it, watching the film. But there are times that I am thinking, 'I need to get home and clean my nails.' It's a look. A thought on screen."
This internal monologue was the only thing that kept Smith locked into any particular scene where he was on-screen alone, "When you have no stimulus, and no one is talking to you, you lose the stimulus response concept process with your thoughts and your feelings. A guy told me that he'd forget the name of simple things while he was in isolation. He remembered sitting in his cell one time, and for about four hours he was trying to remember what these things were called (holds out hand and wiggles his fingers). He couldn't remember what they were called. He said, "Oh, damn, fingers!" That's what happens when you don't have the stimulus and response. Your mind really loses basic, simple concepts. We really worked with the internal monologue. You don't have someone saying, "Gee, it's a beautiful day today." You have to say both things to yourself. In a scene, you will see me looking. I am thinning, "Gee, it is a beautiful day." And then I have to also think, "It really is." There is this extensive internal monologue that you have to create. It does a weird thing on camera. When you see it, it looks full. It looks like there is a lot of stuff going on. Even when it's just a dude sitting there with a dog."
Director Francis Lawrence helped Will prepare for these psychologically taxing scenes by doing a lot of research. What he learned helped him map out this lonely existence, "I talked with a psychologist from Massachusetts that deals with people who are kept in isolation for long periods of time. That was interesting to me. This idea of people that didn't have any social interaction for long periods of time, what it does to their mind, and how they survive it. It's about keeping your sanity, and things like that. These were ideas that Will and I would talk about. And we would bring them to Akiva."
Akiva had no problem writing the experience down on paper. He claims to be in a constant state of isolation, locked in his office, sitting at his computer. Goldsman says, "I'm a writer, so I always think I am the last person on Earth."
What's all this Fuss about Abby the German Shepard?
In the film, Neville's sole bit of companionship comes from a German Shepard that he has raised from a pup. The dog is played by an untested two-year-old female named Abby. The pooch didn't set out to be an actor. It just happened that way. As director Francis Lawrence explains, "We were all very nervous going into this, knowing that we were going to be working with a dog. Animals can be pretty tough to work with. Fortunately, we had a terrific trainer and a great dog. Abby was a rescue. She wasn't even a movie dog. She was two years old. Steve, the trainer, only had a couple of months to work with her. She could not have been easier to work with. The trainer was great, she was great. Abby never gave us any problems. I think there was one day the trainer was playing catch with her. For whatever reason, she wouldn't play catch. So we had to use a back-up dog. Other than that, it was mind blowingly easy. I would put her in and shoot her like a character. She would do what she wanted to do. Her reactions were natural. It wasn't hours and hours of trying different things. It was pretty unbelievable."
Where is Abby now? Francis tells us, "She belongs to the trainer, Steve. I actually went up and visited Steve at his ranch, and I saw Abby again. She is doing great. We had a rule on set, and this was so that we could keep her attention. No one except Will and the trainer was alloyed to interact with her. Otherwise, off camera, she would have a bunch of friends. Nobody touched her until we were wrapped. Then when we wrapped, the crew gathered around and everyone got to love her up a little bit."
A lot of people remember Will's first big hit for one key scene alone. A scene that is hated by most cinephiles. It's that part in Independence Day where the dog escapes the flaming alien fireball, leaping over a parked car to safety. Anyone that has read the original Matheson book already knows the fate of Neville's dog in the film. Was this Smith's answer to that notorious scene in Independence Day some ten years ago?
"That film was rated PG-13. The MPAA makes that decision. You show them the movie, and they get to decide what the rating is. This film turned out to be a difficult decision making process for me creatively. Akiva Goldsman and I met during the Oscar run where he won for A Beautiful Mind and I was nominated for "Ali". We hung out and we talked. We posed a question to each other. Why do the big movies come out in the summer and why do the good movies come out in the winter. Why are they separated? Is there any chance that you could take both, and marry those ideas. Can you make a big movie that has the big idea and the big concept, yet put a persona at the center of it and really follow the character through the reality of what that situation is? It was difficult for me, because there are genre concepts. You never have a realistic situation with a dog in a summer movie in the way that we did in this film. You just wouldn't do a real version of it, because the movie cost too much to risk it. You know? We truly tried to commit to the small art house truthful version that stayed true to the source material. That feeling and that energy. Yet we still have that big blockbuster package. We hope that people respond to it. We know that people are going to go into the theater and be a little shocked by it. Hopefully that will be a good thing."
What's all this Fuss about Will Smith's extremely toned body and grey hair?
In the film, Will Smith pulls off a scene that will be remembered for years to come. It doesn't have anything to do with vampires, or guns, or crazy car stunts. It is a simple, overlong shot of him doing pull-ups in the doorway of his secluded home fortress. More than one squeal of delight shot through the theater when his bared abs first came into view. His body is a chiseled bit of perfection.
Apparently, Smith didn't just get into shape for the role, though. That was just a perk of working out. The real reason he stays in shape is his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, "There are wonderful elements of being in shape that keep a marriage going. It is important to me to stay in good physical condition. You marry a little firecracker, and you have to stay in shape."
How does Will stay in shape? He is a consummate jogger. As he tells it, "I feel very, very confident that the keys of life, for me, are reading and running. The running aspect is how you connect with your weakness. When you get on a treadmill, you deprive yourself of oxygen. What kind of person you are is going to come out very, very quickly. You are either the type of person that says they are going to run three miles, then stops the treadmill at 2.94 and says that is three miles. Or, you get off after a mile. Or you are the type of person that runs hard through the finish line, and you get to three and realize, "God, I really could do five." And you do two more. That little person inside of you starts to say, "You feel our knee? I think we should really stop. I think we hurtin' ourselves right now. I don't think this is healthy anymore." Once you get control over that person on the treadmill, it allows you to get command over that person in life. Getting in command of that person in life has been really important."
Diet was also an important key to keeping that physique in check, "For me, the important part and what we found out from our research is that eating is something you do just because you have to. There is no pleasure. There is no real desire to eat. You just know that your brain is not going to function if you don't. So, losing weight and working out became a part of the regiment. It was something that you have to do in that situation. For me, I have a much easier time losing weight than putting it on. "Ali" was fifty times harder to put the weight on, then it was to drop it here. You run thirty miles a week. You get up and do five miles a day. Your body will look like what ever you want it to look like."
Will's hair has been gray for some time. This is one of the few movies in which he's been able to show off his natural look. Joking, he claims to have never blackened his roots, "I don't dye my hair. What you mean?" He then went on to explain the process behind choosing that perfect look for his character, "It is a big thing. What are you going to do with your hair for the role? What is it going to mean. Like with The Pursuit of Happyness. Pierce Austin is my barber. He came up with the brushed back shag for Chris Gardner. It is such a huge part of the presentation of the character. How you are says everything about you when you step in front of the camera for the first time. I think it is a huge element and a huge aspect of trying to have the audience suspend their disbelief."
Who's Fussin' in New York City?:
In order to achieve the film's authentic look, director Francis Lawrence closed down six New York City blocks for shooting. Sure, he could have digitally altered the landscape to make it look empty. But realism was a key element in bringing this iconic story to the screen. It would have been a lot easier for the crew to empty out Los Angeles, But Lawrence didn't want to do that. He explains, "The book actually takes place in Los Angeles. We wanted it to take place in New York. We felt it was a more iconic location to empty out. Los Angeles is empty a lot of the time. New York is never empty. We just thought it was more striking to shoot there. I always wanted to shoot it in a real place. I didn't want New York to look like a paining. Even though I think there are people that do great CGI work now, I think when you shoot on blue and green screen all the time, the film starts to look a little painterly. It also informs the actors in a different way. When they are out in the rain on a real street. They have to walk out in the middle of this street. There should be cars, but there aren't. It all feels different. It feels different to the actors. It feels different to the crew. It adds a bit of naturalism that we are looking for. Even though we emptied out the streets, there was still work we had to do. There was still life going on, lights in the background. There was steam coming out of buildings, and traffic lights were still changing. We had to paint that stuff out. But you had the core of a real place, and real light, and particles in the air. It just adds realism."
Smith agrees. The experience helped him nail his character's sense of lonely isolation, "I walked down the middle of Fifth Avenue. We had it cleared out for six blocks. As cool as that is, it is only cool because when we call cut, there are ten thousand people on the other end. The human connection and the groups that we form, and being a part of something that moves and changes the world is such a basic and simple human idea. There was absolutely no pleasure for me in experiencing that amount of loneliness and solitude. I love people. It was hard for me not to have anyone else around."
Will felt that shooting on location was important to the film, something he learned from one of his past collaborators. He explains, "I really got the concept of realism from Michael Mann working on "Ali". It was important for Michael Mann not to shoot the Africa scenes in Mexico. Or the Caribbean. It was important for him to have everyone take the flight that the characters took. You experience the same things, and immerse yourself in the situation. You can't beat actually walking down the center of a New York street with an M16. You start to think about what really happened for me to be there. It helps in creating the psychology of the character. When you can actually be in the place, and it is not green screen, or it is Baltimore filling in for New York. You can actually go places. And that is a huge assistance in playing the character."
You'd think that shutting down six city blocks would be a challenge. But the director enjoyed the experience. Francis says, "The weird thing was that on a daily basis there was little pressure. The city was so helpful. The crew was really good at doing what they did. The pressure came with the fact that we had to shoot everything on the weekend. And we were chasing the season. The real pressure was, "Are we going to get rained out?" And, "If we get rained out, we won't be able to shoot this until next weekend." That would push the next weekend's work back even more. So there was a real race to get this shot before the leaves were gone. That was the real thing that was wearing on my shoulders. In the daytime, you have to let a lot of traffic through. And you have to wait ten minutes for the traffic to stop, and to get people pushed back behind buildings and stuff. Once we got that stuff worked out, it worked really, really well. And people were pretty friendly. There was the occasional problem, because you can't really stop people and hold them back. People would sometimes come marching through a shot."
Smith claims that a lot of middle fingers were shot his way during the scenes where they had to shut down the city. But according to Akiva, "All the middle fingers were from Francis."
What's all this Fuss about staying true to the book?
This is the third time that Richard Matheson's story has been brought to the screen. This is probably the truest vision of his work ever committed to celluloid. Writer Akiva Goldsman was committed to staying within the lines of what Matheson had originally created, stating, "What is great about the source material is that it is very durable. It applies and moves pretty well from decade to decade. We would always call Matheson to see if he'd read the latest draft of the script. He was really onto something."
Matheson was the one that signed off on Will Smith playing the lead. The actor appealed to the acclaimed author. Which was a high compliment for Smith, "That is extremely helpful. When you do something that is someone's baby, it is so important that that person feels you have done justice to it. It was important to me that Mr. Matheson felt I could do it. And that he was on board for how we were planning on doing it. At the end of the day, I hoped that he felt we had done a service to his vision. For me, when he signed off, it was all-good."
Smith took it upon himself to become familiar with the past incarnations of the story, "I looked at both of the movies. There are also a couple of versions of the book. It's such a primal concept. The idea of being alone, and the fear of the dark. It is like every four year old has thought of that idea. Of being separated from their family and being alone. To me, it is the idea just in general. It is in the collective consciousness. We are all keyed into these fears and hopes. As far as the other versions of this story goes, I thought what we'd be able to do with this film is be able to bring this level of technology to it to support this idea. We are able to shut down six blocks of Manhattan. If a car goes by in the background, we can just remove it later. So, you can actually see empty New York. You can actually see Fighter Jets take out a bridge. That level of technology has never been around to support the weight of this story. Now, we are able to see visuals and experience emotions that we haven't been able to in the past."
What's all this Fuss about God and Mannequins?
In the film, Will Smith hits on a mannequin. It was a hard scene to pull off, but he sells the notion of a man slowly slipping into madness, "For those types of moments, I have to connect to the actual situation. There are actors that connect to their own past. But I have to connect to what is in the room and what the character is experiencing. I need months and months of preparation on a particular scene. I have to go through the Mannequins. How long has this guy been here? He's named the mannequins. Okay, this is a guy who put these mannequins there for a specific reason. This is a girl he wants to have a relationship with, because there is no one left on this planet that he can have a relationship with. I need her to love me. For me, "Female mannequin that I need to love me!" That is not hard for me to find. The only leap is that it is a mannequin. You just erase the idea that it is a mannequin. It becomes a person. So I am convincing myself that this is a person. I feel this emotion. I need to wipe this idea that she is not real away, and truly try to connect with this person that won't talk to me."
And what about God? The end of the film calls that age-old question into the fabric of the story. Does God actually exist? Is their fate and destiny? Will Smith believes in a higher power. He explained the way he approached the material, "I believe absolutely, unquestionably, that there are forces in the universe at work that science can't explain. I think there is an end to human knowledge. At that end, beyond that human knowledge and into the unknown, we call it something to be able to talk about it. I think if people didn't have to put a specific name on it, we would all across the boards agree that this force from beyond the unknown should be called "A Higher Power". Lets just call it a higher power. Let's call it the X factor. Lets call it God. Lets call it Allah. Things happen that are beyond our control, and things happen in an interesting way that actually have patterns to them. You know? There are things like karma. There are things that are mysteries that seem to have human qualities that are beyond anything we can understand. I absolutely believe and try to tap in, and understand, and become a surfer of the Tao. You know? To find that energy. There are things that people do to try and connect to an energy that we all know is out there. Yes, I believe there is an energy. Yes, I try to connect to it. Yes, I try to use it and be in the good graces of that energy so that things happen in my life the way I would like them to go."
When is the Fuss going to hit the fan?:
I Am Legend will hit theaters on December 14th, 2007. Just in time for Christmas.