Film: I Am Legend

"I AM LEGEND" Movie Production Notes
from Warner Bros.

My name is Robert Neville...

(L-r) WILL SMITH as Robert Neville, WILLOW SMITH as Marley and SALLI RICHARDSON as Zoe in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ sci-fi action adventure “I Am Legend,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Will Smith, the star of such films as "I, Robot," "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," is no stranger to science fiction and has long had an affinity for Richard Matheson's timeless novel I Am Legend. "There are so many genres within it: horror, science fiction, and this wonderful character piece," the actor says.

"The psychology of being the last man on Earth has always intrigued me. The physical, emotional and spiritual lengths that Robert Neville has to go to just to survive present a beautiful opportunity to tell a universal story about the nature of humanity."

Francis Lawrence, the director of the new science fiction action thriller based on Matheson's tale, adds, "The idea of a man surviving cut off and alone in a modern urban environment was fascinating to me and one that I wanted to explore on film. 'I Am Legend' is the quintessential story of one man against the world, which is one reason why it continues to capture people's imaginations more than half a century after it was first written."

Complex and provocative, Matheson's 1954 novel, widely recognized as a primer for the modern-day horror-science fiction genre, has influenced generations, inspired countless imitators and spawned two prior movie adaptations: 1964's "The Last Man on Earth," starring Vincent Price, and 1971's "The Omega Man," starring Charlton Heston.

Screenwriter/producer Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "A Beautiful Mind" and a self-proclaimed lifelong fan of the author, says that he relished the opportunity to reimagine "I Am Legend" for the screen. "Richard Matheson is like a god to those of us who are science fiction geeks. There is a tradition within serious science fiction of reaching deeply into the roots of character to explore powerful themes--the idea of using science fiction as allegory. This film really grows from that ethic."

Goldsman worked from the initial adaptation of Matheson's seminal novel by Mark Protosevich, which had been one of the most coveted scripts in recent years. Protosevich relates, "This has been a passion project of mine for over a decade now, and I was thrilled to finally see it being made, especially with this level of talent on both sides of the camera."

"I Am Legend" tells a story almost entirely centered around a man living a solitary existence. The filmmakers knew the demanding role would require a high-caliber actor, and when they learned that Will Smith had an interest in the role, the main element of the project clicked into place. Smith, along with producer James Lassiter, his partner at Overbrook Entertainment, had been keeping tabs on the project's development over the years. He regarded playing the role of Robert Neville--a character who occupies the screen virtually alone for much of the film--as both a challenge and an opportunity.

Goldsman remarks, "As a writer, I believe greatly in the ability of the written word to describe and generate a character. But, ultimately, what is equally important is the ability to convey what is unspoken. Will is such a fine actor; he delivered an extraordinary performance wherein many of his thoughts and emotions are conveyed through his expressions and behavior."

Smith had to rely on other forms of expression to portray the emotional range of Neville's journey. "The process was very different for me because it's all behavior. It's just an incredible exercise to not be able to talk yet have to communicate," he offers. "To have to figure out how to communicate without words--for me, it's the center of what acting is. When you just go quiet for a while, you start to discover a whole range of things about your character and yourself. It's a fascinating place to explore, both artistically and psychologically."

Making his first film with Smith, Francis Lawrence found a sound anchor for the emotional story arc at the heart of the adventure. "What's fantastic about Will is that he has such a warmth and charisma to him," notes the director. "He brings so many dimensions to his role and takes you along with him at every moment. There's real sympathy for him, you're scared for him, you laugh with him and you cry with him...and all those layers exist at once in his performance. Most importantly in this role, he is able to convey everything he is going through, both physically and emotionally, often without any dialogue at all."

Perhaps the greatest compliment to Smith came from the man who first created the character of Robert Neville. "I think Will Smith is the perfect person to portray Robert Neville," author Richard Matheson states. "I've seen almost every film he has made, and he is always totally convincing in whatever role he is playing. In this story, his character is key and, therefore, he is key."

I am a survivor living in New York City...I can provide food.
I can provide shelter. I can provide security.

At the core of "I Am Legend" is one man's struggle to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds: alone and surrounded by the Infected--monstrous beings who kill without thought or rationale. His situation is made worse by the knowledge that it was instigated by his own kind. The roots of the pandemic that wiped out civilization and left Neville isolated and in a constant state of peril emerged from what was initially hailed as a breakthrough in modern medicine: a man-made retrofitted virus developed to combat one of history's most deadly diseases, cancer. But the initial success of the retrovirus was soon met with unimaginable repercussions.

Neville, a military virologist based in Manhattan, spearheaded the government's attempt to find a vaccine to combat the pandemic. But in spite of their efforts, the virus went airborne and the city was subsequently locked down with only the uninfected allowed to evacuate. In the resulting panic, Neville witnesses the tragic deaths of his wife Zoe (Salli Richardson) and daughter Marley, played by 7-year-old Willow Smith, who makes her feature debut opposite her real-life father.

Those of the Infected who didn't succumb to the virus were perhaps dealt a worse fate: their ravaged metabolism transforming them into creatures who dwell in the darkness of the city's vast underground, emerging from the shadows, driven by a singular, primal hunger.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Neville is also driven, but his need is to find a cure for the cataclysmic affliction. Somehow immune to the virus, he knows he has two weapons at his disposal--his scientific training and his own blood. "Neville knows these beings are infected with a virus that is a mutation of what was created in a lab," Smith relates. "Now he has been put in this position of being a lone survivor after being the one who, in his mind, couldn't save mankind."

Neville's experience as a military scientist also defines the way he chooses to live his life in the abandoned city. His approach is highly regimented, from the exhaustive physical conditioning to the setting of the daily alarm marking the exact time of sundown. "Neville is a very disciplined man," comments Lawrence. "It's what keeps him as sane as possible in a situation like this. His choices are extreme, but if that routine were to start to break down, it's very possible that he would fall apart."

With only the companionship of his dog, Sam, Neville struggles to keep himself one step ahead of the Infected. By day, he and Sam subsist by scavenging for supplies, working in the lab and broadcasting daily radio messages in hopes of finding other survivors. By night, they barricade themselves in a reinforced brownstone monitoring the Infected as they hunt and forage through the city streets, sniffing out any hint of prey.

As Neville marks time with various activities and duties, he also experiences a certain freedom. Whether joyriding through the streets in his Shelby, working on his golf swing atop a fighter jet, decorating his impregnable brownstone with priceless treasures, or cataloguing the city's vast food, gas and medical supplies with an intricate mapping system, Neville has free reign of the city's vast resources.

In the surrealism of the new New York, iconic places that were once centers of commerce, art and entertainment have now become Neville's personal playground, hunting ground and garden.

"When you're the last man alone in New York, there's some fun to be had, albeit lonely fun," says Lawrence. "We see these elements that seem so important to the world we live in, but after the pandemic happens and the world as we know it goes away, things that we spend so much time, energy and billions of dollars building are just sitting there rotting. They're absolutely useless."

"Neville has access to virtually anything," comments Smith. "There's a medical supply; he knows where canned goods are, where gasoline storage is. He uses the entire city as his home. And there's nothing like standing up on top of an aircraft carrier with a golf club."

It was not all fun and games, however. Sprinting down abandoned streets, hanging upside down twenty feet in the air, maneuvering a speeding Ford Mustang, leaping atop rusted vehicles and fighting stuntmen garbed in motion capture visual effect suits to portray the Infected are only a sampling of what Smith endured to accomplish the film's heart-pounding action scenes.

To choreograph these sequences, the filmmakers brought in veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and his accomplished stunt unit. Armstrong's 40-year career most recently includes such action-centered films as "Mission Impossible III," "War of the Worlds" and "Die Another Day."

Knowing Smith's ease at injecting physicality into his performances--whether fashioning the building blocks of a character or participating in key action sequences--the filmmakers welcomed the actor's hands-on approach to stuntwork. Months prior to filming, Smith began a nutrition and fitness program that yielded a leaner, trimmer physique. Working with longtime physical fitness trainer Darrell Foster, who years earlier had transformed him for his Academy Award-nominated turn in "Ali," Smith dropped 20 pounds on a regimen every bit as strenuous as Neville's own. Cites Foster, "We put him in desperate straits--high-altitude training for oxygen deprivation, heat, cold, humidity, low-caloric intake and many other adverse conditions. It helped him develop the mental aspects of his character as well as the physical."

By contrast, training with military and weapons consultant Sam Glen to handle Neville's specially modified rifle was far easier on the actor, who had handled firearms on previous films.

If there is anybody out there. Please. You are not alone...

Smith spends the most time onscreen opposite Neville's constant companion, a dog named Sam, portrayed in the film, primarily, by a three-year-old German shepherd named Abbey. Head animal trainer Steve Berens, whose motion picture credits include "Click" and "The Mask," understood that expectations were high for him to elicit a full range of emotions from his charge. Confidence in Abbey's innate ability coupled with a specific training regimen shaped the trainer's approach to eliciting a strong performance from his canine actor.

"It all lies in how you prepare the animal," Berens explains. "You train them day after day so that when they get on set for that particular shot, they understand and are committed to the whole situation; they're in the game. We know it's work, but the whole idea is to make it fun. If you do it correctly, with love and positive reinforcement, they truly enjoy it. It's about creating a camaraderie with your dog and then passing that on to the actor. And Will was terrific with Abbey. They really developed their own bond."

Everything about Neville's existence changes when his daily broadcast is finally heard by other survivors: a woman named Anna, played by Alice Braga (pronounced A-lee-cee), and a child, Ethan, played by Charlie Tahan. The two turn up unexpectedly just as Neville has walked into a trap set by the Infected. "I think that hearing Neville's message is the moment that Anna begins to believe there is hope, that there are people out there in the world," relates Brazilian-born actress Alice Braga. "This man is alive, and Anna makes the decision to go save him, even if the Infected are around. Trusting the unknown is what starts her journey of hope in the film. They need to connect and be strong together."

The filmmakers cast Braga on the heels of her performance in the Academy Award-nominated "City of God." "We were so taken with her performance in 'City of God,'" recalls Goldsman. "Alice has a natural beauty and an innate compassion that is evident. There's a glow about her that is palpable; she generates a sense of well-being, which is important because Anna represents hope in the movie. She gives Neville something to reach out for again, and I think Alice brings that quality to her character very authentically."

For many months, Neville had been desperately trying to find human survivors, but at the moment when he encounters the first two human beings he has seen in years, the conflict between needing human contact and fearing it becomes all-too-clear. "At first he's not certain they're actually there," says Smith. "The previous night he had an awful hallucination so there's an uncertainty in what he's seeing. It's his deepest desire, his greatest dream, but the second he's free to have that contact, there is a huge rejection of it. That dichotomy is a wonderful psychological place to explore as an actor."

Braga derived considerable insight into the role of Anna by delving into research about survivors of horrors from Katrina to the Holocaust. "How do people keep walking and keep living after something like that?" she proposes. "The more I read, the more I understood that it's about having hope. My character has belief and hope still inside her even after all she has seen. I learned a lot about life through this search for Anna."

Neville is immediately struck by Anna's profound faith even when faced with his own embittered disavowal of a higher power. "Anna always struggles to keep moving," Braga remarks. "Her desire to stay alive and her hope for something more drives her, especially in reference to Ethan, the little boy. Will's character is big and strong; it's easier for him to survive than a girl and a young boy. When she finds him, she sees from looking around his house that he is just struggling to survive, so she makes the decision to trust him and believe that he can be someone to live with in this crazy world."

At the age of eight, Charlie Tahan was thrilled to be cast in the role of Ethan, a young survivor who is traveling with Anna. "Ethan is really quiet because his real family is gone and he has seen really bad things," says Tahan. "The streets are empty and there's nobody else around except the creatures. At first, he doesn't trust Neville much. He's not sure if Neville is bad or one of the Infected. Neville knows Ethan doesn't trust him so he tries to make him laugh. Even when we weren't on the set, Will could make me laugh a lot," adds the young actor, who calls working with both Smith and Braga "the experience of a lifetime."

Finding Anna and Ethan and hearing their incredible tale of survival gives Neville a taste of hope. Smith offers, "It's the classic human struggle with faith and science. Anna is speaking from a distinctly Judeo-Christian background, but the ideas of spirituality are universal. Everyone who loses people they love asks those questions and goes through stages of belief and lack of belief and fear and anger with God...all of that. And given the losses that Neville has endured and the circumstances of his life, he has every reason to ask what kind of god would allow this type of suffering?"

Continued on next page

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