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Will Smith: a one-man show

LAST year, they shut down New York for a few hours so Will Smith could be alone. ¶ It came neither easy nor cheap, snarling traffic and making more than a few people very angry in the process. But one busy Monday morning in October 2006, a production crew for the sci-fi drama "I Am Legend" cordoned off several blocks of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and completely depopulated the area so the Oscar-nominated star of "Ali" could be filmed walking cautiously down one of the city's most traveled arteries in total solitude -- his surroundings utterly and perfectly still. ¶ "That was aggressive. I don't think anyone's going to be able to do that in New York again any time soon," Smith said, breaking into a wide grin at the memory. "People were not happy. That's the most middle fingers I've ever gotten in my career." ¶ Nobody said it was going to be easy portraying the last man on Earth -- a military scientist who survives a biological pandemic that has apparently turned the rest of humanity into night-crawling vampire zombies. Over the previous 12 years, a panoply of A-list actors have been attached to the role -- notably Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- but until Smith came along, none could shepherd the high-concept project into production.

Sticking Point A: The "Legend" protagonist is an island unto himself, spending his daylight hours trying to concoct an antidote to vampirism and retiring to his locked and loaded Greenwich Village brownstone at night when the freaks come out for blood. That means, for much of the movie -- even when backdropped by quintessential Big Apple locations including Washington Square Park and Times Square -- he's the last man on-screen.

Smith has bumped up against the apocalypse in movies before, battling legions of murderous androids in "I, Robot" and intercepting marauding aliens set on conquering Earth in "Independence Day." "Legend," however, represents a risk for one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Reportedly budgeted at more than $100 million, it's a big-budget one-man show in which he's seen emoting opposite a dog, various mannequins and computer-generated monsters. Think "Castaway" meets "28 Days Later."

"It is an extremely delicate balancing act -- not going too far one way or another," Smith said, dripping with movie blood now on the set of his postmodern superhero flick "Hancock." "The second you have one too many explosions, one music cue a little too high, you destroy it. You lose it all.

"It's not as certain as 'Men in Black.' "

Since combining forces with screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence on the project in 2005, the stated ambition with "Legend" has been to cross-pollinate summer blockbuster-style eye candy with the gravitas of an awards season Serious Film.

But "I Am Legend," which opens Dec. 14, arrives as the third big-screen iteration of celebrated "Twilight Zone" writer Richard Matheson's popular 1954 science fiction novella of the same name. "The Last Man on Earth," a low-budget version shot in Italy and starring Vincent Price, was released in 1964. And in 1971, the material was reworked again in the service of "The Omega Man," which pitted Charlton Heston against a clan of psychotic albino mutants. Matheson's book has also been cited as a primary influence on precisely the sort of genre movie "Legend" wants nothing to do with: George Romero's 1968 zombie masterwork, "Night of the Living Dead."

Since 1997, a who's who of big-deal action and genre directors have also flirted with remaking "Legend," among them: Ridley Scott, Guillermo Del Toro and Michael Bay, who was set to begin filming "Legend" with Smith in 2002, when the project was pre-empted by British director Danny Boyle's cerebral horror fantasy "28 Days Later." That film depicts a similarly disease-ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland -- replete with depopulated London locales -- in which a trio of heroes who likewise may be the last people on Earth battle flesh-eating zombies for survival.

The project's colorful development history left Lawrence -- director of "Constantine," the hit 2005 comic-book adaptation starring Keanu Reeves as a supernatural detective who battles Satan -- feeling somewhat apprehensive about mounting his own adaptation of "Legend."

"There's been some big talent attached," said Lawrence, on break from final editing of the film. "So people in the business are waiting to see it, wondering how [the other directors] would have stacked up. In terms of mass audience, I'm not daunted at all. But people in the business are daunting to me."

For Smith, who says he has felt compelled to have his movies "mean something" since topping the box-office chart with his inspirational father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" last year, the movie was a splashy way to pose certain big existential questions.

"The sneaky secret is that this one is Job," Smith said of his character in "Legend." "You take a man, take everything from him, and can he find a reason to continue? Can he find the hope or desire to excel and advance in life? Or does the death of everything around him create imminent death for himself?"

The actor paused for a moment, then added, "The question is, can you do that with a wonderful character piece wrapped in blockbuster clothes?"


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I think as soon as you wrap it in blockbuser clothes you take the heart of the film away..so I'm just really interested in how this will turn out.. it could be incredible..it could be awful...I would have loved if del toro directed over francis lawrence tho

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The City That Never Sleeps, Comatose


HE’D saved the human race from aliens in “Independence Day” and the “Men in Black” movies, from its cyborg Frankensteins in the sci-fi thriller “I, Robot.” He’d even helped some of the nerdiest humans have a shot at perpetuating the species, as a dating coach in the romantic comedy “Hitch.”

So perhaps Will Smith was due for a serious and seriously dark role in which the apocalypse has already come and gone, despite all his heroic attempts to prevent it.

In “I Am Legend” (Dec. 14), a lean and lonely Mr. Smith grapples with the isolation of being the last healthy man on earth, three years after a deadly virus — meant to cure cancer — has all but wiped the planet clean of people. A studly military man as well as a scientist, he hangs on in a Manhattan that has gone back to nature in a big way — gathering vegetables in a Central Park that will give new meaning to “green market,” stalking deer in the high grass of Times Square — while simultaneously searching for a cure and steering clear of the rampaging, nocturnal ex-humans who have transformed into bloodthirsty predators, and who know where he lives.

That Warner Brothers is releasing “I Am Legend” next month is itself something of a survivalist feat. Mr. Smith and his collaborators — the writer-producer Akiva Goldsman, the director Francis Lawrence and Mr. Smith’s producing partner James Lassiter — have achieved what other filmmakers and stars like Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger could not, despite more than a decade of trying. Getting the $150 million-plus movie made took nearly two years of planning, months of rewriting, a studio boss’s green light without a script, and — a week into the nine-month shoot — a complete overhaul of the method for rendering the creatures terrorizing Mr. Smith’s character.

All that, and only the biggest and longest-lasting moviemaking disruption of the daily lives of many New Yorkers since “The French Connection.”

“I Am Legend” is the third film based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella of the same title, with its cold war allegory of Us and Them. Vincent Price starred in the first, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), and Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” (1971). Warner Brothers had long wanted to remake it again, and Mr. Smith, who said he had been seeking projects involving the most basic urges and emotions (as in his last movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness”), said he had nearly made an R-rated, darker version, written by Mark Protosevich, with the director Michael Bay before “28 Days Later” (2002) seemed to “snatch the concept.”

Sitting in his two-story trailer on the Columbia Pictures lot, where he was finishing “Hancock,” a superhero drama set for release on July 2, Mr. Smith said he and Mr. Goldsman, who also co-wrote “I, Robot,” had been scheming for years to “sneak a little character drama into a big summer blockbuster.” Those big tent-pole movies, he said, “tend to start with, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if ...?’ And no, it has to start with character, and the story has to grow from a trauma that the character has to experience.”

In Mr. Goldsman’s reimagining, “I Am Legend” became, in essence, the story of Job, “and the question of the necessity for hope,” said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Lawrence, the director, added: “If you’ve already taken away the world, and his family, what else can you take away from him for him still to be able to rise up from the ashes? What keeps you from putting a gun in your mouth?”

And Mr. Lassiter, Mr. Smith’s longtime partner, said that while the last-man fantasy had attracted Mr. Smith early on, “there’s no saving the world in this.”

He continued, “Once you hit the realization — everybody’s gone — that’s a scary concept.”

Mr. Goldsman, who kept calling Mr. Smith back to the “Hancock” set, said later that he and Mr. Smith “share this fantasy that you can combine dramatics and genre, that genre movies can be character dramas and have great acting.”

“Big entertainment,” he added, “can be meaningful.”

A sought-after script doctor whose adaptations include “The Da Vinci Code,” Mr. Goldsman calls himself “the last stop for broken toys” at Warner Brothers. He also was a producer on “Constantine” (2005), the comic-book-based supernatural movie starring Keanu Reeves that was Mr. Lawrence’s first feature. When the studio’s production chief, Jeff Robinov, asked Mr. Goldsman to have a go at producing “I Am Legend” in 2004, he and Mr. Lawrence, who pressed to restore the “who’s the real monster?” aspects of Mr. Matheson’s novella, decided to extend their working relationship. (Mr. Goldsman, expecting to bring on another writer, said he banged out a treatment and then found himself finishing a draft.)

Mr. Smith came on board a year later but said he wanted to combine Mr. Goldsman’s and Mr. Protosevich’s ideas. So Mr. Goldsman said he, Mr. Smith, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Lassiter began “grinding” away at the story in marathon meetings, anticipating a 2007 production start.

By May 2006 the group had created a 35- or 40-page, scene-by-scene outline, when it became clear that Mr. Smith’s next movie — what became “Hancock” — was not ready for its autumn start. Someone proposed flipping the two films, which would mean starting “I Am Legend” in just 16 weeks, Mr. Lawrence said, and after a moment’s pause everyone agreed. The president of Warner Brothers, Alan Horn, gave a green light based on Mr. Goldsman’s earlier draft and the latest outline.

Even after shooting started, the talking and rewriting continued, Mr. Lawrence said. “We each come at it from a different angle,” he said of the four men in the room. “So you get this melding of different ways. When they meet, it’s kind of perfect.”

Mr. Goldsman, for one, said he had learned to improvise dialogue from Mr. Smith. And Mr. Lawrence raced into work ebullient after having watched Jane Campion’s film “The Piano” with the sound off, so as not to wake his newborn son, without missing anything — “story or feeling,” he said.

With long stretches of “I Am Legend” eerily silent, Mr. Lawrence said, he pressed his colleagues to work through their scenes without any words at all. “Underneath everything you should be able to boil it down to what it means without dialogue,” he said. “Because the truth is, everything should really be about behavior.”

Mr. Matheson’s story and the previous film versions were all set in Los Angeles, but Mr. Goldsman’s biggest stroke was to relocate it in New York, where the absence of pedestrians is a statement, not a commonplace, he said. Warner Brothers initially opposed filming in New York because of costs and logistical challenges, but Michael Tadross, a veteran New York production manager (whose credits include the similarly disruptive “Die Hard With a Vengeance”), got the city to approve closing the Grand Central viaduct, several blocks of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park, among other highly trafficked sites — albeit at night and on weekends — between September 2006 and April 2007.

It still took a warehouse full of plants trucked in from Florida to dress up the city streets as if weeds had overtaken them. And it took 1,000 to 2,000 extras, crammed into a specially built barge pier near the South Street Seaport in frigid temperatures, to simulate a panicked mob fleeing a quarantined Manhattan for the supposed safety of Brooklyn.

Mr. Lawrence said he had been trying for years to develop ideas for filming “empty urban environments,” even when he was directing music videos. “Something’s always really excited me about that,” he said. “What that’s like psychologically — to have experienced that much loss, to be without people or any kind of social interaction for that long.”

There are people, of sorts, lurking in the dark corners of “I Am Legend” of course. You just wouldn’t want to meet them. And Mr. Lawrence’s biggest challenge came a week into the production, when actors portraying victims of the rabieslike virus romped around on camera, but looked too much like romping actors wearing prosthetics. Mr. Lawrence, with the studio’s blessing, decided to enhance the actors with computer-generated effects, adding millions to the movie’s cost and weeks to its postproduction timetable.

“We just weren’t able to get out of people what we really wanted,” he said. “They needed to have an abandon in their performance that you just can’t get out of people in the middle of the night when they’re barefoot. And their metabolisms are really spiked, so they’re constantly hyperventilating, which you can’t really get actors to do for a long time or they pass out.”

Mr. Goldsman said he pined for the days “when science fiction and drama got to go together,” in films like “The Omega Man,” “Planet of the Apes” and other allegorical sci-fi films, which he said are rarely made in Hollywood anymore.

So what’s the allegory in “I Am Legend,” beside the blurred lines between good and evil, us and them?

“It’s funny, because we went back and forth,” said Mr. Lawrence. The story has no greedy comic book villain; rather, the virus arose “out of somebody truly trying to do something good, and accidents happen.” Virologists at the Centers for Disease Control, Mr. Lawrence said, told him and Mr. Smith that a pandemic could just as easily begin with a strange weather pattern.

“The truth is that this kind of destruction can come from anywhere,” he said. “And nature has a way of resetting and rebalancing.”


Edited by Ale
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