Francis Lawrence, Alice Braga and Akiva Goldsman Interviewed – I AM LEGEND

     December 12, 2007

Opening this Friday is the new Will Smith film “I Am Legend.” By now almost all of you have either seen a commercial or a billboard and know about the movie…but for those who don’t, here’s the synopsis:

Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a brilliant scientist, but even he could not contain the terrible virus that was unstoppable, incurable, and man-made. Somehow immune, Neville is now the last human survivor in what is left of New York City and maybe the world. For three years, Neville has faithfully sent out daily radio messages, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But he is not alone. Mutant victims of the plague—The Infected—lurk in the shadows…watching Neville’s every move…waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Perhaps mankind’s last, best hope, Neville is driven by only one remaining mission: to find a way to reverse the effects of the virus using his own immune blood. But he knows he is outnumbered…and quickly running out of time.

I saw the film and while some may have some issues with how it breaks away from the original story, I dug director Francis Lawrence’s take on the material and found it to be quite enjoyable. I also thought Will Smith was great, like he always is.

Anyway, recently I participated in a mini-press conference with Director Francis Lawrence, Writer/Producer Akiva Goldsman, and Alice Braga – one of the only other actors in the film.

During the Q&A we talked about all the usual stuff – from making a huge sci-fi film in New York City to all the challenges of bringing the material to life. It’s a great read and worth your time. The only thing I’ll say is some spoilers were discussed. Nothing major…but this is an interview you might want to read after you’ve seen the movie.

Finally, when “I Am Legend” opens this weekend, all the prints will have a special “Dark Knight” trailer. But if you want to see the trailer the way director Christopher Nolan wants you to see it…you’ll have to see it in an IMAX theater, as that’s the way he shot all the footage. As I wrote a week or so ago…the footage is INCREDIBLE.

As usual, you can either read the transcript below or listen to it as an MP3 by clicking here. And if you missed the movie clips, click here.

Akiva, we understand that you were a big fan of the original story, and I’m just wondering at what point did you start writing the screenplay for this?

Akiva Goldsman: I came onto this screenplay–wow, I’m totally ambivalent about talking as a writer. I think I might have to mostly talk as a producer. So I hired the writer, me, about two years ago? Two and a half years ago? Warner Brothers had yet again decided that the movie was in the broken toy pile, which Warner’s has a tendency to do with this screenplay. It had had about a zillion incarnations. So, as is their wont, they sort of said, anybody want it? And I raised my hand. And that was probably mark 719th draft. Or some such number.

Can you talk about the changes you made to the book. This movie, I guess, is being billed as one of the more accurate adaptations of Richard Mattheson’s book, but clearly you made some changes to you.

Akiva Goldsman: Well, if you look at the source credit, you’ll see that it really is adapted both from Mattheson’s novel, and from Omega Man, which is really an intact work of its own. And it’s a little bit of a hybrid. I don’t want to sort of say specifically what we did and didn’t change. We tried to stay true to the spirit. Obviously one of the most contentious issues always in the development of this property has been the ending. So I leave it to others to determine to what degree they find it faithful.

I wanted to ask Alice how you got this part, and what you can say about this part, since you’re kind of a surprise since the posters say he’s the last man on earth, and maybe the director would want to comment on the casting as well.

Francis Lawrence: Alice we cast, she was actually the first and only person we had read with Will, and the reason we cast her is we found something very warm and authentic about her, and there’s something very believable about her, and she had really strong qualities of a survivor, that I think impressed all of us. The other thing is being from a different country instantly made our story more global. Assume that she showed up in New York City, and it felt like our issue wasn’t just in Manhattan, that, you know, all across the globe.

Was it written as a woman from Brazil originally?

FL: no.

Alice Braga: Um, thank you. That’s the first time I heard it. No, I read for the casting director here when I was in L.A., as lots of actresses get materials. And then I read the sides, because you don’t get the script, and I remember the sides, I was really curious about it. And I did the reading, and I loved the reading. But then I flew back to Brazil, and then they called me, and said well, Francis would like to meet you and would like to put you to read with Will. When I came in the room it was really magical, because you’re like it’s not Will Smith, it’s not Will Smith, how can you read with that, with passion. And so it was pretty interesting, because they made me so comfortable in the room, and they really wanted to pull it out. I did the reading, I got the part, it was wonderful, the creation of the character and all of those things. Francis was really with me all the time, trying to build that and trying to inspire me to understand that we’re all like–I read the book, I didn’t want to just take notes with the book, I preferred to be talking with Akiva and Francis all the time. And it was a great challenge, I think, it’s the type of character that when, when you’re trying to portray someone and it’s an extreme situation, it gives you a lot of work and a lot of room to play around, and they completely opened the door for us.

And how would you describe her?

Alice Braga: she’s a really strong character in a way that she, we talked a lot about having hope. And having hope not just in life, but in love and everything else. So I think it’s wonderful to be able to portray that, not just stick her with one particular thing, like believing in one thing or the other, but just believe in yourself and life and in love.

For Francis and Akiva, there are a few hints that this is a New York of the future, like the Superman/Batman poster and the gas prices, but otherwise it is the New York of the present that we’re all familiar with. Can you talk about the decision to keep it in that setting instead of really post-Apocalyptic distant future.

Francis Lawrence: Sure. You know, we did a lot of conceptual work on this world before we got started, while Akiva was working on the script, and what we didn’t want to do is exactly what you’re talking about. We didn’t want to do the same grim world we see in movie after movie after a situation like this. And so we started to do research, and we talked to scientists and ecologists and people, and really started looking into what would happen to a city once the population disappeared, and the truth was nature would start to reclaim the city. And there have been since our film, not because of our film but since our film, there have been scientific studies, and we’re sort of in line with the types of animals that would start to repopulate, the types of plant life that would start to repopulate. How, you know, the air would start to get cleaner, the water would start to get cleaner. It actually would probably start to become a slightly more beautiful place.

I won’t give away the joke, but did Warner’s want that joke in there, did you fight for that?

Francis Lawrence: That was Akiva’s thing, by the way. He was the, he’s the man behind all the movie posters, throughout the film.

Akiva Goldsman: One of the big changes from the source material, obviously, is the relocation to New York, which was something that we did because novelistically, it’s really very effective to render Los Angeles empty, but cinematically, Los Angeles is always empty, so it’s very difficult to kind of really do that sort of stark, ohh, where did everybody go? Very different in New York. So that was sort of, we did that, and then once we got to New York, we just picked a specific date and we built a sort of present, and I took every DC poster and character that I could think of that Warner’s hadn’t made, slapped them up there. Some of them we got cleared and some of them we were just, we stalled, so that clearance never saw them, so I’m pretty sure that somebody owes somebody a lot of money for that Batman versus Superman poster.

Francis Lawrence: But we did some kind of fun stuff too. There are certain things in Times Square, there’s, a bunch of the scene takes place around the tickets kiosk, where you can buy tickets for the Broadway plays, and that’s actually not built yet, but we got the designs from the city and actually built our set to be how it will look in the year when our viral apocalypse is supposed to happen.

It’s the staircase that’s not built.

Francis Lawrence: yes.

That’s still unfinished.

Francis Lawrence: We built our version, shot it and–

Akiva: yes. This is like nerds on parade. We were like look! And then it’ll look like that.

I have a question for Francis and Akiva, just following up on that. If I’m not mistaken, this is biggest shut down of New York streets since Vanilla Sky. You really got a great access to close down part of Manhattan and how difficult was that and did you have any problems with the fact that so many New Yorkers maybe thought you were doing 9/11 all over again. Did you have any problems with that?

Akiva: We didn’t have the 9/11 problem. We had almost every problem you would imagine you would have in New York when you try to shut the streets down. I am a New Yorker. By the end of the shoot, which was endless, none of us would tell anybody what we did for a living, because you’d be at a cocktail party and you would hear across the room, ‘oh, you’re that motherfucker.’ There was not someone that we hadn’t stopped from getting somewhere by the end. But, New York actually, they were great. I don’t think they saw us coming, but once they sort of took us in, they were really amazing.

Francis Lawrence: yeah, the city was really helpful. I mean, they let us shut down pretty much everywhere we wanted to shut down. I mean, you name it, we shut it down.

What was the–how long did you shut down the streets?

Francis Lawrence: Wow, I don’t know.

Akiva: I have no idea.

Francis Lawrence: 40-plus days. Just cuz you know, we did 6 days alone up by Grand Central and the viaduct, and there’s the whole chase through the city at the start of the film. That’s 57th Street, 6th Avenue, Herald Square, Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, 42nd Street, I mean it’s, all of those sections have to be, for a minimum of a day or two, shut down for a while. It was tricky.

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I was surprised that they gave you a PG-13 rating, and what did you have to cut out, maybe, to get it to a PG-13?

Francis Lawrence: Um, we were always aiming for a PG-13, we didn’t have to cut anything out. Um, you know, we, it’s tricky when you want to try and make a movie that’s intense and scary, you know, it was never our intention to have any overt sexuality or of gore or extreme violence, but sometimes you get into that gray zone of intensity, and we just hope that that didn’t push us over the edge, but we didn’t have any problems.

Can you talk about working with Will Smith, but also, um, Akiva and Francis, what was done to shape the project beforehand to shape Will Smith’s star persona?

Akiva: Well you know, Will was actually associated with this project before we were. Um, Will has had a long courtship, relationship, affinity to–Will has been attached and unattached to I Am Legend for quite a while, and had a very specific sort of game plan to have done the movie years ago, so we all sort of came to it with very strong ideas about how to construct the object and reconstruct the object. It wasn’t so much how do you remake it for Will, but how did Will’s point of view and all of our point of view sort of come together in order to create this version, which is really sort of a hybrid of some stuff I did, some stuff Mark did, stuff Will brought to it and stuff Francis brought to it.

And working with Will?

FL: Working with Will. Uh, now I know all of you guys have heard stories, so it’s a bit of a cliché, but Will’s a pretty great guy to work with. He’s really, he’s as professional as can be, he’s as positive as can be, his energy is always fantastic, he’s very smart, he’s really good with story, he’s a really good actor, um, he’s very inventive and creative and has great instincts, you know? He was, you can’t ask for a better person to work with. Other than Alice.

Alice Braga: What Francis said. And also, as an actress working opposite him, it’s an enormous pleasure to work with someone who just wants to give you more and more and more, and just wants to open the door for you to be really comfortable, and just, as he said, such magic, which is wonderful. He just, all the time, he was pushing me harder and harder and just look in my eyes and say, ‘do you want one more, do you want to try this, do you want this?’ or pushing me to somewhere where he wanted me to go. And this is so generous; this is the best thing you could have from someone like him. He could be just in his own world and that’s it. And for me, then, learning and I’m in the beginning, and it’s my first American movie, and it was an enormous pleasure working with him.

Akiva, every adaptation to date has the catalyst for the virus, has been indicative of the times. Omega Man was a nuclear thing, Last Man on Earth also dealt with nuclear. This film deals with something very simple: a cure for cancer that mutates. Why didn’t you lean toward something that might have been more terrorist related or something more timely, I should say?

Akiva: Well, we actually, and this also is reflected in the casting of Emma Thompson in that cameo at the very beginning. Uh, Francis and Will, this would be chapter one on nerds on parade, spent an unbelievable amount of time at the CDC, and I’m pretty sure are probably infected right now with something, so you should all wear masks. Um, but, I think that finally came to this idea that it’s too easy for, it’s too easy to always assume that things will go wrong because someone was twirling their mustache. Um, that in fact sometimes things go wrong out of people trying to do right, and that was, sort of trying to take a different turn on it. So that was where I think we came out. You really liked that, that was really you.

Francis Lawrence: Yeah, I really liked that. I mean, it was also just interesting in talking with people at the CDC, that this is how a lot of things come, you know, happen, and these horrible diseases and viruses that come around, you know, can pop up out of nowhere. It’s not just bio-terrorism and things like that. It can be a change in the environment that brings unseasonable rain to an area, which attracts an animal and they have a disease and suddenly something’s borne and spread. That kind of stuff is interesting to me. Where it comes when it’s unexpected.

Was there a parallel between Hilary and Barack with Emma Thompson being the woman, white woman, and Will Smith being the black man? We noticed that last night.

Akiva: No.

Could you talk about the creatures and was it live action or all CGI?

Francis Lawrence: Uh sure. What we did was we did motion capture for the creatures. So what we had was–

Akiva: Tell them they were real.

Francis Lawrence: What’s that? I mean they were real. No. What we did was we started a boot camp for creatures, so we had a creature choreographer who was working on creature movement, and then we hired a bunch of dancers and stunt people, and they trained every day and they worked on movement every day and we would sit down and meet with them a couple times a week and practice things. And then on set they would be in character but they would be wearing these skin tight suits, and we would shoot them as if they were in character and there were these other cameras that were spread out around the set that were capturing their movement and tracking these dots that were attached to their bodies, and they were then digitally replaced by our CG characters. But all, including facial performance, was all built on the real people that we had in the room. And that way we could have you know, people could interact and Alice could interact and Will could interact with real people and there’s real performances. And the alpha male, sort of, the main bad guy in the film, was an actor as well.

I read that when you start this you were going to have the actors just do it.

Francis Lawrence: Yeah–

And you had to come up with say $20 million for the budget.

Francis Lawrence: we had one day of shooting with practical makeup and our performers and I could see and we could see that it wasn’t really going to work. It was in Washington Square Park–

Akiva: You ever see Mummenschanz? Remember Mummenschanz? It was like attack of the angry mimes.

Francis Lawrence: And what we realized very early on was just at night and barefoot that we weren’t going to get the sense of abandon that these creatures needed to have. That even though some of these people were stunt people, running across Washington Square Park at night, half naked and barefoot, it’s 35 degrees out, was just not going to work. So literally one night, we went to dailies, I started to sweat, and everything started to change and we changed it all that night.

And the dog–

Francis Lawrence: the dog was fantastic. I mean, the dog–that was Abbey, and Steve Barens is the trainer. And we all wanted a German Shepherd and he sent me some pictures and I saw some German Shepherds that he had trained, but their faces were very dark and I wanted a dog that felt a little friendlier, so he went searching and he found a dog, a two year old German Shepherd at a rescue, which was Abbey. So she had never been trained, never worked in film before. And he only had a couple of months. So he started working with her, introduced her to Will, and I had to say she was fantastic.

Akiva: Tell the story about petting.

Francis Lawrence: oh yeah. There was a rule on set that nobody could interact with her other than the trainer and Will. And that was so that, everybody was dying to pet her because she was the most beautiful, friendly dog that I had ever seen, but nobody could touch her, except Alice told me today that she touched her all the time.

Alice Braga: I read an interview and I was like oh my god, the guy never stopped me.

Francis Lawrence: But what was great, was when she was finally wrapped, and you know when an actor wraps, the crew gathers around, and she was finally wrapped and it was the one day that everybody could finally go and pet her, and she was very excited that she got all that attention from everybody that she had been dying for.

Akiva: she’s a star.

It’s a surprise in the film when he calls her Samantha–

Francis Lawrence: That was Akiva. That was all, that was Akiva’s invention there, which was a pretty powerful moment. A really, really great idea, in a scene that’s already tough.

I have two questions for you. The children in the film were awesome. Did you guys have to insulate them from some of the more intense scenes? Were they on set when some of the other things were going on? Because they’re so little, I imagine they’d be kind of afraid. And the other question is, have you guys thought about, and it might be a little too early for DVD, but alternate endings, maybe upping it a little to a higher rating?

Francis Lawrence: Um, well first of all, the kids. Willow is definitely not afraid of anything. Not anything that I know of. Willow is a pretty tough girl, so she was not insulated. And I think it was actually the opposite for Charlie, because Charlie was a lot with Alice, and a very young boy, very good but, you know, he’s a kid, so sometimes it’s hard to keep his attention. And so sometimes we would actually before takes make the scene more intense to get him kind of locked into the scene. And so she would really, Alice and Will would really help out with that and that would get him in, because he’d be messing around with the crew and all this stuff between takes. You got to bring him back into it.

So you traumatized the child.

Francis Lawrence: No, Alice. Alice traumatized him. Alice would.

Alice Braga: Because going with what you said about the creatures. They were for us Teletubbies. That literally was an attack of Teletubbies with dots. And the kid was like–So we were like shaking him, not traumatizing, but bringing a little bit, and it was funny, because after the third day he was just by himself doing breathings and we were doing push ups and he started to do push ups and just together. It was good.

For Francis, are we going to be getting another Constantine?

Francis Lawrence: Oh, I don’t know. We’ve talked about sequels, but I don’t know that anybody’s come up with an idea yet that we’re all super excited about. But it would be cool to revisit that world.

Alice, is Sonya Braga really your aunt?

Alice Braga: Yeah.

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