Will Smith on I Am Legend's Genre Concepts, Technology, and More
by Alex Billington
December 12, 2007
I don't think there's a single person in the world who doesn't know who Will Smith is or hasn't seen him in some movie at some point in their life. He's been in everything, from romance to comedies and especially action movies. Despite being the huge celebrity he is and being married to the nearly-as-popular Jada Pinkett Smith, he's one of the few celebs that is still down-to-earth, which is exceptionally rare. Starring almost entirely solo in I Am Legend, Will Smith delivers his latest performance since The Pursuit of Happyness last year, and damn does he do a good job. I attended the press conference for I Am Legend a few weeks back and it was a fresh relief to hear an actor talk about the adaptation in such depth.
Of all press conferences I've attended with big name A-list actors, Will Smith has been the first one that I've thoroughly enjoyed and I thought he actually said some interesting things. Rarely can an actor talk so much about working on a movie and what all went into it with such enthusiasm. Whether you're a big Will Smith fan or are looking for a much more in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes of I Am Legend, this is a must-read interview!
You carried the entire film on your back and you do an exceptional job with the isolationist aspect of it being solo, by yourself, with a dog. How did you mentally prepare for that?
Will: That was the terrifying part of even taking part in this film, the idea that there is probably eighty pages of just me and a dog. I was like, 'Okay, well there's good times I've had on camera and people have enjoyed me in a movie theater, but that might be a little too much Will for anybody.' I looked at it and worked with Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, the writers of the script, and we studied POWs and we found a guy who had been in isolation in prison, and we found the things and the people that could really create that texture of what that truly means to be by yourself. And the one thing that was across the board was schedule. Geronimo Pratt said that you would schedule things like cleaning your nails. You would have two hours that you would clean your nails, that was the only way to maintain sanity is that you had to have a regimen, a schedule. You had to do things that you trained your mind that would be done this day at that time. That was the basis of how we tried to create the scheduling. And then it's the idea of the internal monologue.
When you have no external stimulus, no one is talking to you, you lose the stimulus response concept with your thoughts and feelings. A guy told us, he said you forget the names of simple things. He says he remembers sitting in his cell one time and for about four hours he was trying to remember what these things were called, and he couldn't remember what they were called. And he said, 'oh, damn, fingers,' and it just dawned on him that's what happens when you don't have the stimulus response your mind really loses basic simple concepts. We really worked in that area with the internal monologue. Rather than someone saying it's a beautiful day today, you say, 'Yes, it is,' but you have to say both things to yourself. So, in a scene, I'll be sitting there looking and thinking it's a beautiful day, [and] did I clean my nails today? And the extensive internal monologue that you have to create, it does a weird thing on camera because 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.
Will, you're usually saving the world during the summertime and this is coming out during the holidays. What is your feeling about this coming out during the holidays and the PG-13 rating?
Will: Fortunately, the MPAA gets to make that decision. You show them the movie and they decide what the rating is. This film was a difficult decision-making process for me creatively. Akiva Goldsman and I, we met during the Oscar run when he won for A Beautiful Mind and I was nominated for Ali. We met, we hung out and we talked, and we posed a question to one another: 'Why do the big movies come out in the summer and the good movies come out in the fall? Why are they separated? Is there a possibility that you could take both and marry those ideas?' You could make a big movie that has a big idea and the big concept, yet put a person in the center of it and follow the character of whatever that situation is. It was difficult for me because there are genre concepts - for example, you never have a realistic situation with a dog in a summer movie the way that we do in this film. You just wouldn't do the real version of it, because the movie costs too much to risk it. So we truly tried to commit to the small art-house artistic truthful version that stayed to the source material and the feeling and that energy, yet have the big blockbuster package. We're hoping that people will respond to it. We know when people are going to go into the theater and be a little shocked by it, but hopefully that will turn out to be a good thing.
Give us a list of comfort items you need to see it through if you really were the last man on Earth.
Will: A pistol, because I'm out of here. [laughs] I'm going to the nearest bridge! That was another thing with this film that I realized. It's such a primal childlike idea, 'I just wish everyone was gone, I wish I was by myself.' No you don't! As much as people get on your nerves on the freeway, as much as people irritate you through your daily life, if you took every one away and you had it exactly the way you wanted it, it would be the most miserable existence that you could experience. I walked down the middle of 5th Avenue, we had it cleared for six blocks and as cool as that is, it's only cool because when we yell cut there's ten thousand people on the other side. Human connection and the groups that we form, and being a part of something that moves and changes the world, is such a basic, human, simple idea. There was absolutely no pleasure for me at all in experiencing that amount of loneliness and solitude.
There were two other movies made from this book beforehand (The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man) and did you look at those and did you read the original book?
Will: I looked at both of them. There are a couple versions of the book also. It is such a primal concept, the idea of being alone and the fear of the dark. Every four year old has thought about that idea of being separated from their family and being alone and it being dark and what comes out of the dark. To me, the idea just in general is so in the collective unconscious. We're all keyed into these fears and to these hopes. As far as the other versions, the thing that I felt that we would be able to do with this film is that there has never been this level of technology to support this idea where you actually can shut down six blocks of Manhattan and if a car goes by in the background you say, 'Damn, don't worry about it, let's just do the scene' and you can remove it later. So you actually can see empty New York, you actually can see fighter jets take out a bridge, that level of technology has never been around to support the weight of this story. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to see visuals and to experience emotion that in the past you haven't been able to.
How important is environment to you? How much of it was really there and how much was it imagination and how important is it to you to have the surroundings be as real as possible?
Will: I really got that concept from working with Michael Mann on Ali. It was important for Michael Mann to not shoot the Africa scenes in Mexico or in the Caribbean. He wanted everyone to take the flight that the characters took to Africa, and again you experience the same things and you go into and immerse yourself into the situation. You just can't beat actually walking down the center of a New York street with an M-16. What had to happen for me to be here? It really assists in creating the psychology of the character when you can actually be in the place and not green screen, or not in Baltimore playing it for New York. That you can actually go to the actual places is a huge assistance in playing a character.
You've taken risks in your career, so are you a risk taker and if so, how do you exercise that?
Will: It's interesting. I actually don't consider myself a huge risk taker. I'm a student of the patterns of the universe, so if I can figure out how something is seemingly risky but I got the numbers on my side, I get really comfortable taking a leap. I've told this story a few times about special effects movie and films like this. When I first came to Hollywood, my manager, James Lassiter, and I… I'm a kid and I said, 'I want to be the biggest movie star in the world!' He said, 'Okay, we should probably figure out what they do and plot a course.' So he went and got the top 10 movies of all time at that point and we tried to figure out what are the patterns.
And of the top 10 movies of all time, 10 out of 10 were special effects movies. 9 out of 10 were special effects movies with creatures. And 8 out of 10 were special effects movies with creatures and a love story. Independence Day is not really a hard call to make when you look at the numbers. So I Am Legend, in concept, is not a hard call to make, and then it becomes about execution. Then, can you get into that artistic place where you're advancing an idea, advancing a genre? You can spend your energy in the most difficult area rather than bumping your head around in ideas that have already been proven and disproven. All of that to say, I look at the patterns, so I'm using my maximum amount of energy in that last 10 percent. Jerry Bruckheimer said one time that the amount of energy that it takes you to go from 0 to 90, that's the same amount of energy it takes you to go from 90 to 100. What I try to do is get to that 90 spot with that maximum amount of energy left to be able to make that final, difficult, artistic, almost impossible push.
Thanks to Will Smith and everyone at Warner Brothers for the opportunity to attend this press conference. Be sure to check out I Am Legend in IMAX and conventional theaters this Friday, December 14th!