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I Am Legend – Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman interview

Francis Lawrence directs I Am Legend

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRANCIS Lawrence (pictured) and Akiva Goldsman, the director and writer of I Am Legend, talk about some of the challenges of adapting the original source novel from Richard Matheson and relocating the action from Los Angeles to New York…

Q. Can you tell us about the logistics of deserting New York? And how do you control Will Smith’s exuberance on set, or is he much more calm?
Francis Lawrence: Erm, no. It’s funny, Will actually told me a story about working with Robert Redford [on The Legend of Bagger Vance] and turning up on set. You see when Will comes on set, he comes in with everybody that comes with him chasing him and he’ll be singing and laughing very loudly. Robert Redford pulled him over one day and said: “You know, when you come on set you bring a lot of noise…” [Laughs]

You know what’s great about it, actually, is that he’s like that every day. When you’re making a hard movie it’s so much fun to be around. Even on a day when he’s doing the most heartbreaking or intense scene, he can switch off that, jump right into character with no problem, and then when he’s done with the scene or the take, he flips the switch and he’s that guy again. So, it makes making a movie really fun, especially a difficult one.

As for New York, we wanted to shoot on the streets of New York and Akiva switched the location from LA to New York just because New York would be a lot harder to shut down [laughs]. The city was really co-operative. We gave them a list of where we wanted to go, told them how many days we’d need to be in each spot, they gave us the traffic police and we blocked traffic. We had hundreds of production assistants in any given scene standing in doorways and just around corners politely asking people to not walk through our shot.

We would clear the locations. It’s funny because when you watch the film it’s very quiet and haunting but in truth when you’re doing that what you have is the pressure of thousands of New Yorkers who want to go to work and go to school just out of sight honking their horns, yelling at us and flipping us off.

Q. Why relocate the story from LA to New York?
Akiva Goldsman: The novel is set in Los Angeles for a number of very clever literary reasons: it’s the city of lost souls and there’s a sense of desolation. That’s great from a literary point of view. But in film terms, it’s very difficult to make Los Angeles iconic. It’s also always abandoned – I mean LA at four o’clock on a Thursday looks like the end of the world. We would have spent a lot of time going: “No, really, there’s nobody out there!” Moving it to New York was actually a storytelling device; it’s an engine underneath every scene. The accumulative effect of those – which are very likely not always oversold but always present empty places – start to really get into the bones of all of us.

Q. How was it from the writing perspective taking a script that was built around just one person?
Akiva Goldsman: Well, I wrote a terrific amount of dialogue for the dog! Then it turns out that dog’s don’t talk. It was actually really challenging to write scenes with no dialogue. It’s often the case with screenwriters – and certainly American screenwriters – that we like to over explain…

Q. How much inspiration did you draw from the other movies [The Omega Man and The Last Man On Earth]?
Francis Lawrence: We were really intrigued by the central idea that [Richard] Matheson’s novel had – you know, the last man on Earth was something that we really focused on. And also the scientific reason that these creatures were monster-like – we circled that. Then once we all got on board you start to look at all the other materials you have and there’s a great scene in Omega Man, that great opening sequence where he’s driving around Los Angeles… we sort of pay homage to that in the opening of our film. The mannequins – we use them differently but we bring those in. And then we also all have a bunch of our own ideas. There’s the wish fulfilment side and a lot of research went into what would happen if somebody was by themselves for so long? It put a lot of meat on the bone then.

Akiva Goldsman: Thematically, there’s a sort of dividing line between I Am Legend, the novella, and The Omega Man screenplay. I Am Legend the novella is darkly hopeless – it’s a product of the ’50s. And The Omega Man screenplay, which is late ’60s, early ’70s, is darkly hopeful. For us, what’s remarkable about the ending of this film is that it could be considered hopeful but compared to the original source material it actually is. We actually liked the evolution of the story across time, which is why we ended up combining those two pieces. Whenever you adapt anything, you can only follow your own imagination and you have to assume that there are those around you who have the same taste you do and they’ll like it as well. Somebody will always feel that something was missed and somebody will always feel that something was found but you can never quite predict who, what, where or when – you can only do the story as you see it based on what came before you.

Q. Both I Am Legend and Constantine, your last film, are about men leading a very purgatorial existence. Is this subject of particular interest and does it relate to the American experience right now?
Francis Lawrence: Not necessarily. What I’ve found after making this is that I have two interests in films: one is creating worlds and the other is I tend to like mythological stories and mythological heroes. That’s what Robert Neville is in this. It’s a very classic story and the same is true for the character in Constantine. They’re very different people but those are the themes I find that I’m attracted to.

Q. Who are your own legends in real life?
Francis Lawrence: It depends on what we’re talking about… if it’s film legends then Hitchcock and Spielberg. He’s a living legend I think. Musically and tied into the film, Bob Marley is a legend. His music is fantastic, his message is fantastic, and his philosophies were unbelievable.
Akiva Goldsmith: Will [Smith, laughs].

b>Read our review of I Am Legend

b>Check out photos from I Am Legend