The last man on Earth is not alone. What an understatement. The last man – in this case, actor Will Smith – was definitely not alone on the set of Warner Bros.’ big budget adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic tale I Am Legend. Descending on Manhattan with a colossal crew, the production shut down entire city blocks while Smith played – as WB’s aggressive marketing campaign reminds you – Robert Neville, the supposedly lone survivor of a virulent outbreak that wipes humankind off the planet. Leading this army and pushing Smith through solitude and flirtations with madness was Francis Lawrence, director of Constantine and this latest undertaking that has seen directors (Ridley Scott) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) come and go.
Initially published in 1954, “I Am Legend” spawned two big screen adaptations, the Hammer Films-rejected Italian production “The Last Man on Earth,” starring horror’s sinister Vincent Price, and Boris Sagal’s “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston as a square-jawed, gun-totin’ Neville and Anthony Zerbe sporting albino makeup and contact lenses. “Omega” hit theaters in ’71 and in the subsequent decades, Hollywood knew a modern re-telling was due. Enter Lawrence.
ShockTillYouDrop.com caught up to the director for a one-on-one chat following a press conference at The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: Post-“Constantine” you probably had a wealth of projects to choose from. Why rescue “I Am Legend” from development hell?
Francis Lawrence: I read one of [screenwriter Mark] Protosevich’s drafts before I did “Constantine” and it stuck in my head. I hadn’t read the novel before that draft. When I was finishing “Constantine,” Akiva and I were talking about working together again and Warners gave him that project to resurrect ’cause they thought it was dead. He brought it up to me, and I finally read the novel. Even before these projects, I was always intrigued by someone surviving in an abandoned urban environment. Back when I was doing music videos I’d try to do that with some of the artists I worked with. Trying to sell this feeling of isolation and emptiness. I said, Let’s take a crack at it, and we went off with our own take from there.
Shock: Like Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers” – which was coincidentally published the same decade as Matheson’s novella – “I Am Legend” is one of those timeless stories that demands to be re-told on the screen every couple of decades. Why do you think that is?
Lawrence: I think people are really intrigued by the idea of the last man on earth. That concept is really interesting and in that there are different ideas to play with. Matheson, when he wrote his novel…his ideas are durable. You can transplant them in almost any generation. You look at “Omega Man” and they apply in a very different way than they did in the ’50s and they do now. It’s a classic idea of what do you do when you’re the last person on earth?
Shock: Then why do you think this incarnation has been such a tough nut to crack? The words are on the page and the themes are there.
Lawrence: I think there are a lot of reasons, I think the original material is not built like a feature. The original material, although a novella and a fair amount in terms of page count, structurally does not have a motor. And it’s sort of, as a film, structured like a short film ’cause it’s got a button. That’s what is tough about it, trying to create a motor. I also think that the creatures – the infected, vampires, however they exist in whatever form the story has taken – are difficult, because based on how much lucidity you give them, intelligence you give them, what can they do, what can’t they do, what do they represent – that’s been tough. We chose to tell the story of Neville and really create a hero’s journey, a character piece about somebody who is struggling to survive after so much loss.
Shock: And that falls all on the shoulders of Will Smith – was he signed on prior to your commitment to the film?
Lawrence: This project has been around fourteen or fifteen years. Somewhere along the way Will had been on board for a while. I think it was before “28 Days Later” and then that version fell apart. When I came on with Akiva, we both had relationships with him and thought he’d be perfect. We told him our version of the movie, he started to get interested in it again, liked what we had come up with – he also liked some of the old stuff he had been working on and we came up with our version.
Shock: The cause behind Neville’s isolation has always been a virus that wipes out mankind, but the origins of that virus has changed somewhat in your film. I thought for certain your would have fallen back on bio-terrorism, however, the cause is simply a cure for cancer gone awry. So, kudos for not taking the obvious route…
Lawrence: It was interesting because, in talking with the CDC, we learned this is how some of these things come to happen. These horrible viruses can pop up out of nowhere, it’s not just bio-terrorism. It can be a change in the environment that brings an unseasonable grain to the area which attracts an animal with a disease and something is born and spreads. That stuff is interesting to me, when it’s unexpected.
Shock: We’ve heard that you tried to portray the infected through practical means. Did you find something comfortable in doing them CGI?
Lawrence: We had a change. Originally, I might have wanted to do them digitally, but it was a very expensive ordeal so we decided to do everything live. We hired all of these actors, dancers and stunt people, put them through a boot camp, shaved all of their heads and put them through the makeup process. But what we found after literally one day of shooting is that real people couldn’t have the abandon we needed. There was going to have to be some digital augmentation anyway because there were attributes we needed to see – their jaws distending, hyperventilating because their metabolism is all jacked up. These are things people can’t do. We said, We just have to do these digitally. You get this different feeling from our creations because of their extended jaws and rapid breathing, their skin is sorta transparent. You get these subtle differences that I really liked.
Shock: And there’s a conscious decision to make them more animalistic, more primal than what they were in the book. This goes back to what you were saying about making Neville the focus, but did you and Akiva consider making the infected more human?
Lawrence: We have about an hour of footage that’s not in the movie, there are other things we have with the creatures. But the cleanest, clearest, most emotional through line we have in the movie is Will’s character. That’s the path we chose.
Shock: Downstairs Akiva told us “Legend” is a mix of Matheson’s book and elements from “Omega Man.” There’s a scene in the latter where Charlton Heston enters a theater and watches “Woodstock” – here, you have a touching moment of levity that has Neville watching “Shrek.” Was the film your choice? “Shrek” is a far cry from “Woodstock”…
Lawrence: For a while we had a movie theater sequence, then light became a very important thing in our story. Neville doesn’t go in the dark spaces. The idea of “Shrek” for us was that there’s something nice about a guy who has lost his family – it’s not nice – but there’s something nice about the experience of coming downstairs to find a child in front of the TV and “Shrek” is on. If you think about it, the last time he has seen that image was when his daughter was alive. There’s something powerful in that and then, beyond that, I liked the counterpoint. Here’s a film that’s fun and whimsical in this desolate world.
Shock: What are your thoughts on the last two adaptations – “The Last Man on Earth” and “Omega Man”?
Lawrence: “Last Man on Earth”…Vincent Price is one of my favorite actors, I think he was miscast. It just didn’t capture it and Price is not Robert Neville. The film also has big pacing issues. “Omega Man” is a little too tied to a specific generation, and a little cult-y to me. But both have very interesting ideas. You look back at “Omega Man” and you’re like, Oh, it’s all shot on the Warner Bros. lot.
Shock: There are a lot of afros on display, too.
Lawrence: There’s one mannequin in our film with a giant afro in the background – not sure if you saw that, but that was my homage to “Omega Man.” I got really paranoid about it on set that day because it’s kind of funny and I didn’t know if it was a mistake. But it’s just far enough away that it’s not corny.
Shock: Can you talk a bit about your representation of New York City? This is set in the near future. The fact that much of the drama takes place in the daylight belies the usual post-apocalyptic dismal fare we’ve seen on screen before.
Lawrence: New York City is such a great city to shoot in, but to be in such iconic places like the front of Grand Central Station. Will Smith shooting a machine in front of Grand Central was pretty great. We did a lot of conceptual work on this world and what we didn’t want to do is the grim stuff we see in movie after movie after a situation like this. We talked to scientists and ecologists and started looking into what would happen to a city after the population disappeared. And the truth is, nature would start to reclaim the city. It’d become a slightly more beautiful place.
Shock: I was visiting New York when you were shooting near 4th Street, where Tower Records used to be. You ran a tight ship – the production assistants were pretty sharp and aggressive.
Lawrence: [laughs] We’d have 150 to 200 P.A.s working on a given day, depending on where we were. There were so many of them and some of them were so distant, on the fringe of where we were shooting. I’d take a break, go to Starbucks, come walking back and I would get some dude who’d say, Sorry, man, we’re shooting. And I don’t have my badge and I’m like, I swear I’m the director. Yeah, right, he says. I would get stopped, Akiva would get stopped. We had to give speeches all of the time telling them they had to stay mellow, they can’t actually touch anybody, they have to be polite. There’s a core group that went through training with the city on how to treat people with respect ’cause you can’t actually stop people.
Shock: And what’s up next for you – “I’m a Bigger Legend”?
Lawrence: I’m working on a couple of things: I might do a pilot for NBC. Then there’s a movie at Disney that I’ve been talking to them about. It’s a re-telling of Snow White in 19th century China – that’s a cool project. And there’s a Chuck Palahniuk project that I’m working on, “Survivor,” that a friend of mine did an adaptation for.
If you’d like to read what Lawrence had to say about the prospect of a “Constantine” follow-up, click here.