Exclusive Interview: I Am Legend Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman
by Alex Billington
December 10, 2007
Even with the writers strike underway, it's still rare that writers get any time in the spotlight. Thankfully last week I had the opportunity to chat with the talented Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, and now I Am Legend. He's adapted the works of John Grisham, Isaac Asimov, Richard Matheson, and Dan Brown, and is a smart and experienced screenwriter. Akiva participated in a press conference alongside of Francis Lawrence and Alice Braga for I Am Legend, and after hearing brief bits of what he had to say, I wanted to get the full scoop and thus I interviewed him in person. I wanted Akiva to explain, in his words, how this adaptation isn't directly from Matheson's novel, but rather a mesh of ideas and how he was able to craft all of this into a great screenplay.
Personally, I enjoyed this interview almost more than any others I've done. Something about talking with a screenwriter who's written the scripts for some of the most prolific movies in the past decade. Read on for all things I Am Legend straight from the screenwriter. I Am Legend arrives in both regular and IMAX theaters this coming Friday, December 14th.
You were pretty involved working with director Francis Lawrence and Will Smith, can you talk about how involved you were in terms of working with them on set while filming?
Akiva: Sure, I pretty much was there every second. I mean, that's how Francis and I work together, and that's how Will and I work together, and I've worked with both of them before, so it was actually really nice. It was a really good combination of people. I mean, the movie's huge, but it was also tiny. Because it's got a very small cast. It was essentially, for most of the shoot: me, Francis, Will, and the dog. Alice [Braga] was there for a period of time, but you know, Will is alone for much of the movie. It was great fun.
So you were on set quite a bit?
Akiva: I was on set every day. Oh yea.
Are there a lot of changes you bring to it on set? Is there some sort of idea that comes around when you're working with them?
Akiva: Oh yea. I think that fundamentally movies evolve while you're making them. I think you have to be reasonably nimble as a filmmaking collaborative to try to process and incorporate new ideas. Because the movie teaches you how to make the movie. You don't really know until you're there what it's going to look like or feel like. So you sort of need all hands on deck all the time in order to do the best possible version of the scene you were going to do that day or a new scene that you didn't think you were going to do that day.
Another thing that was mentioned was that this is a mesh combination between Omega Man the movie and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend book. Can you explain that and how the process went in terms of originating with Richard Matheson's book and how you progressed to the combination of the two?
Akiva: Sure. Well, I think that what happened was, obviously Richard wrote the novel, then there were two movies. There's a Vincent Price movie called The Last Man on Earth, and then there's Omega Man. Then Mark Protosevich adapted I Am Legend based on both the novel and the Omega Man screenplay. So right from the birth of this incarnation it was always a hybrid. And as we move forward, we stole amply from both objects in order to try and create whatever this version of the story was.
Can you go over how you approach writing from a novel from such prolific writers like Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons), John Grisham (The Client, A Time to Kill), Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), and Richard Matheson (I Am Legend)? How do you, as a writer yourself, approach that, even for someone who's new to screenwriting, how do you take a novel and adapt it for the screen in a way that doesn't "hurt" the source material.
Akiva: Well, I think you can never be sure that you're not going to hurt the original source material. Any alteration will potentially be perceived as damage, because it's change. And it may be damage, or it may be improvement, or it may be purely a lateral step. Fundamentally I think that there's an obligation to attempt to be true in spirit to the source. And you have to make a determination about what the source is.
In the case of A Beautiful Mind, for me the source was both the biography and John Nash. I wanted to feel what I thought was the truth of those two objects. For Angels & Demons, it was very much the text, the text, the text. For A Time to Kill, it was kind of an idea of the text. I think it varies depending on your relationship to the material. I do think that in any case, what you have to do, is read, read, read the object, and then put it away. And attempt to craft the story in your head. Even if it's just as you remember it. So you sort of put it through the filter of your own screenwriting template.
With I Am Legend, were you concerned that the fan reaction from Richard Matheson's novel would be negative?
Akiva: I couldn't not be concerned - we will undoubtedly displease some people and please others. I think that fundamentally, the most literal adaptation of the novel is probably a movie that's so small that it would probably require a different time in the movie business to make it. Or you could say it was made, either in the Vincent Price piece earlier and then it sort of has evolved through things like 28 Days Later into sort of these smaller iterations of that same genre. I think that we tried to be true to, again, the spirit of the novel. And some people will be frustrated and others won't, as is always the case.
Nobody loves everything, except my mother!
I was going to jump ahead to Angels & Demons, Sony had delayed it because the script wasn't finalized. How much more work do you have to do on it?
Akiva: I'm so in writers strike mode on that thing...
Oh, are you not even allowed to talk about it?
Akiva: Yea, I'd rather not.
I understand. With I Am Legend, is it really different for you to approach something where it's the individualized story, and where it's focused all around Will Smith and how he's interacting just with himself. Obviously the other prolific movie was Cast Away with Tom Hanks. The focus is just on that one character and not only with writing dialogue, but everything else that goes on with him – is that a vastly different experience?
Akiva: It was really fun. It's fun because it's Will, because it's an actor of his caliber. And so to try to craft scenes where there's no talking, is a kick. We all rely on dialogue constantly in life and obviously in screenplay. So it was a really, really fun challenge, I enjoyed it.
And did you have a good time with the scenes in the video store and Will talking to himself?
Akiva: Yea, yea, hilarious. It was actually, we did a lot of sort of— I refer to it as "nerds on parade" because we were so exacting about— like there are movie posters up that aren't in fact movies yet. We really had fun doing all that stuff, just being very precise. No one will notice it but us, but it made us all happy.
Well I saw in Times Square there was the Batman—
Akiva: Superman vs Batman, yep, yep.
That was cool!
Thanks to Akiva Goldsman and everyone at Warner Brothers for the opportunity to interview one of the most profound screenwriters in Hollywood. It's rare that writers are featured in the spotlight in comparison to actors and even directors, and I'm honored to have had the opportunity to interview one as talented as Akiva. Be sure to check out I Am Legend in the theaters on December 14th and see Akiva's work played out perfectly by Will Smith and Francis Lawrence.