Film: I Am Legend

"I AM LEGEND" Movie Production - part 2

Continued from Previous Page | My name is Robert Neville...

I will be at the South Street Seaport every day at midday
when the sun is highest in the sky...

WILL SMITH stars as Robert Neville in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ sci-fi action adventure “I Am Legend,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo by Barry Wetcher, SMPSP

The catalyst for the circumstances of Neville's life is a man-made virus, born out of a revolutionary cure for cancer that then morphed into an unstoppable infectious microorganism. It sent the filmmakers on a research expedition into the science surrounding the complex study of viruses and virology.

Their research began with tutorials from the discipline's top educators and culminated with a visit to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC granted Smith, Lawrence and the producers the rare opportunity to meet with its scientists working within its Biosafety Level 3 labs, which contain some of the world's most deadly and virulent contagions. It was there where they began to understand that the possibility of a retrovirus spiraling out of control is no longer just the fodder for science fiction stories but is all-too-plausible.

Goldsman comments, "There's a realization that some viruses are quite possibly at the top of the 'food chain.' It's humbling and terrifying to see how durable and profoundly impactful one mutated virus can be."

The filmmakers gained access to some of the nation's top virologists, from microbiologists working in high level biohazard labs to the "virus hunters," who venture out to hot spots around the world seeking answers to the next potentially lethal pandemic. "It was fascinating," notes Lawrence. "We were able to see firsthand how a virologist thinks and how they view the world of viruses."

From Neville's adherence to safety protocols to laboratory schematics mirroring the CDC's actual labs, the filmmakers were able to garner a wealth of information for the project. Smith was particularly grateful for the opportunity to apply so much practical research into building his character. "I love doing research," he notes. "It's difficult to deliver a character like Neville emotionally when you don't understand the science that drives him."

The experts at the CDC also provided invaluable insight into the components and ethics of mass evacuations and quarantines. In addition, New York's city, state and federal agencies lent their expertise to the filmmakers to orchestrate some of the film's more explosive and dramatic sequences, including those of chaos in the streets, as well as scenes in which Neville is completely alone in the once-bustling city.

The New York City of the film's 2012 setting is an awe-inspiring shadow of the metropolis we know today. The filmmakers wanted to avoid the standard sci-fi concept of burned-out urban blight, and instead create a degrading snapshot of a moment in time--quarantined buildings, looted businesses, biohazard warnings, and a gridlocked traffic jam of now-empty cars--all being taken over by a tangle of overgrown foliage and resurgent wildlife. It was Francis Lawrence who conceived of the eerie starkness of a Manhattan that had literally become an urban jungle, reclaimed by nature.

Production designer Naomi Shohan, who previously collaborated with Lawrence on "Constantine," helped conceptualize his Eden-esque take on the city. "The visual result of the initial pandemic is a city littered with the detritus of emergency response actions, military and medical, and the chaos of a frantic population," describes Shohan. "The look is not significantly distinguishable from the ravages of war. Then moving forward in time allowed us to transform the landscape and give it a poetry that played well against Neville's desperate situation. Eventually, it becomes a city that has been transformed by imploding infrastructure and uninhibited nature."

Together with her art department, Shohan did extensive research to approximate the end results of the various scenarios that the city would have faced, including the sudden cessation of water and power and the growth rates of the vegetation, as well as animals and insects. "Ruptures in the water mains would have opened sinkholes, swallowing streets and parts of buildings," she describes. "Fires from electricity and gas would have taken more, and irrepressible nature would have begun to reclaim her place. Suddenly, instead of streets full of medical and military litter, the great canyons of New York City would begin to resemble certain romantic visions of the American West depicted by 19th-century painters. We arrived at a kind of timelessness; the hardness and grit of the city, once engulfed by nature, becomes a sensual landscape."

In concert with that vision, Lawrence comments, "I wanted to take a naturalistic approach to filming this movie. I wanted to shoot here on the streets of New York in broad daylight and in real places. It informs performances and informs our shot choices."

The director looked to Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) to evoke the simplicity of emotion he envisioned for Neville and his world. "We really tried to focus on using the camera to make sure that we feel what Neville's feeling, whether it's loneliness or fun or darkness. Andrew really helped make the camera a vehicle for the emotional value of every scene," Lawrence relates.

Along with the inner journey, the camera would need to record high throttle action of Neville's life on the edge that, in some cases, would be augmented with visual effects. Filming at odd hours on weekends to avoid the city's trademark throngs of people, the action unit still had early-risers stopping in their tracks to aim their camera-phones at the spectacle. One of the most notable sequences involved Neville racing a modified Mustang Shelby through a gauntlet of abandoned vehicles and obstacles littered throughout the city streets, which was shot over a month of weekends at locations around the city.

It was a formidable logistical challenge to film the bulk of a movie in which the central character is living a solitary existence in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Yet the filmmakers were insistent on staying true to the location. "You can't fake New York," asserts New York-based executive producer Michael Tadross. "It has a unique backdrop, and we were lucky enough to film in places where no one had filmed before."

Liaising with government agencies on all levels, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Film and Television, Tadross and location manager Paul Kramer each played a role in securing some of the busiest and most iconic locales. The production team was granted unprecedented access to some of the city's landmark locations. Additionally, they were allowed--for short periods of times and on off-hours--to clear entire city blocks to effect an area devoid of people, save Robert Neville. Even the briefest exterior shot required the area to undergo a transformation that included dressing the location with abandoned cars, crumbling building facades, and artificial plants, shrubs and weeds laid into cracked pavement, with a layer of muck completing the patina of decay.

"We never did anything in a small way on this movie. Every time we hit the street it was big because of the post-apocalyptic setting. We could never utilize the existing environment as it was. The world we created was quite unlike anything the city had seen before. It was quite a challenge every place we went," recalls Kramer.

The list of New York locations for "I Am Legend" tapped into all the diverse and eclectic neighborhoods within three of the city's five boroughs, encompassing the Grand Central Terminal, the Flatiron Building flanking Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, the trendy streets of TriBeCa, the Meatpacking district, Columbus Circle, and Chinatown.

Filming over the course of several weekends on the luxury-shopping thoroughfare of Fifth Avenue proved to be one of the most challenging locations. The complete halt of foot and car traffic from Madison and Sixth Avenues, which flank Fifth Avenue to the stretch of road from 57th to 49th, involved hundreds of production assistants, traffic agents and local law enforcement.

For Smith, clearing out such a busy locale was awe-inspiring. "You realize that in your entire life you've never seen an empty picture of New York," he relates. "It's a powerful image. When we cleared out that section of Fifth Avenue, it became really clear that we were doing something unprecedented."

Lawrence concurs, noting "Fifth Avenue was quite an experience. The amazing thing was everybody was quiet as we rolled. Watching the video monitor, I would get caught up in the dialogue and the sight of Will walking up an empty Fifth Avenue. Then, as soon as I yelled 'Cut,' you just heard a roar of applause from the thousands of people lined up on the opposite side of the street for blocks. Nobody took pictures or made a sound during takes. It was incredible. We did that all day long and it was unbelievable how respectful everybody in the city was that day. We really appreciated it."

The consideration of the many onlookers was rewarded when, on a particularly cold and windy day, Smith delighted them, as well as the crew, with an impromptu performance of "Summertime."

"...And make no mistake, My Fellow Americans, we are at war for our very survival.
And so it is with great sadness but greater resolve that tonight I have signed
an executive order quarantining New York City. God be with us..."
-- Radio message from the President of the United States

In a stark contrast to the emptiness of the post-pandemic Manhattan, thousands of actors and extras packed the streets to evoke the panic and chaos of the earlier quarantine and evacuation of the city. Three months of preparations included securing permits through dozens of agencies and maneuvering a maze of stringent guidelines to coordinate the logistics involved with flying multiple aircraft to and from a water-based film set.

The majority of the scene plays out on a pier at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, as much as that prime location offered Lawrence a stunning backdrop of the New York skyline, it did not offer an actual pier. With the cooperation of almost a dozen city, state and federal agencies, from the NYPD Aviation unit to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Conservation, production brought in a barge and anchored it to the riverbed with a gangway to the shoreline, creating a de facto pier.

Production's lighting department then began a week-long process of laying down cable and rigging the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the barge and surrounding streets, with dozen of lights to illuminate the normally dark stretch of street beneath the FDR expressway.

Several days prior to filming, military equipment began to arrive, arranged by military and weapons consultant Sam Glen, who proved indispensable to the production. Working closely with the U.S. military was vital to the success of filming the sequence.

Filmed over six nights near the South Street Seaport, the intricate action sequence encompassed dozens of pieces of military air and ground equipment, including a New York National Guard Black Hawk and Coast Guard H-65 Dolphin helicopters, Humvees and armored Stryker assault vehicles (the newest addition to the U.S. arsenal). Large and small water craft, provided for in partnership with the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, all played a part in the scene and ensured the safety of the thousands of actors, extras, filmmakers and crew who were present on the waterfront. Over 150 military personnel were on hand--both in front of the camera and behind it--operating the equipment used to film the sequence.

"Everybody agreed it was important to use real troops in the scenes, for their expertise and for authenticity's sake," says Glen. "New York's famous 69th Infantry Division, under authority from the Department of Defense, was kind enough to allow us to hire their troops on off-duty status as background extras. They are trained for urban peacekeeping so it adds another layer of realism to everything."

While Lawrence was committed to as much practical filming as possible, CGI was needed to augment both the sprawling vision of an abandoned city and the Infected who have taken it over. Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs ("The Matrix" trilogy) was charged with creating the Infected, who are carnivorous shells of what once had been human beings. Sirrs and the team from Sony Pictures Imageworks, lead by visual effects supervisor Jim Berney, brought the creatures to life via digital character creation and motion capture technology. Stunt performers wore specialized suits equipped with markers that allowed their movements to be replicated in the computer. CGI and visual effects makeup was incorporated to complete the effect, resulting in creatures who are completely hairless with skin that is semitransparent, allowing you to see through to the first layer of muscle. The Infected are led by the Alpha Male, portrayed by actor Dash Mihok.

The Kingsbridge Armory, a former National Guard armory in the Bronx, provided the cavernous backdrop for much of the visual effects work, but most notably for the Times Square set rendered unrecognizable in a sea of green grass. Production also took over the 100,000-square-foot interior of the Marcy Avenue Armory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The facility housed the four sets comprising Neville's reinforced lair, a four-story brownstone, the exterior of which was filmed in Washington Square Park.

Neville's bunker, where Neville, Alice and Ethan barricade themselves against the Infected, was conceived and designed by Naomi Shohan. The designs were further enhanced by special effects supervisor Conrad Brink, who added multiple hydraulic rigs and pressurized air cannons to literally shake the building to its foundations as explosions erupt around the brownstone.

For all the intense action and innovative visual effects that went into the production of "I Am Legend," Goldsman still finds the most powerful and compelling aspect of the film to be the inner journey of its main character. "It's really a story of loss," he says. "It's about what happens when we lose that which we love. Our supposition was simply that when you experience catastrophic loss, the world stands still. And in order to express that dramatically we created a world standing still. It's also a story about rebirth, and what you need to do to heal. It may be science fiction, but it's a story that any of us can empathize with."

Will Smith echoes the dualistic nature of the film as both an epic science fiction thriller and the emotional journey of a human being. "It's layered, and you just continue to peel each layer," he says. "And it's interesting when you start to get down to the fourth and fifth layers where it's a little more oblique and people can draw their own conclusions. This film is an experience, and hopefully it will be a cathartic one for the audience. Of course, we want it to be exciting, but it also brings up thoughts and questions. That's the line we wanted to walk with this movie."

"I Am Legend" Index

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