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The Untold Truth Of I Am Legend

Will Smith has starred in many blockbusters, but none of them are quite like Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend." For one thing, it's one of the few post-apocalyptic movies that Smith has headlined. For another, "I Am Legend" has a much more somber atmosphere compared to other Smith star vehicles, such as "Bad Boys" or "I, Robot." On top of all that, this is a movie where Smith is the only human on-screen for much of the runtime. This feature rests almost entirely on his shoulders, and he manages to pull it off with skill. There aren't many movies headlined by this performer that check so many unique boxes, which is why "I Am Legend" has proven to be a standout title in his filmography.

While these aspects of the film make it unique in Will Smith's career, the behind-the-scenes history of "I Am Legend" also helps it stand apart. The making of "I Am Legend" includes a different director attached to helm the film, a surprising Jane Campion influence, and abandoned sequels and reboots, all of which may not even be known to hardcore fans of the movie. Fittingly for such a unique Will Smith star vehicle, the untold truth of "I Am Legend" is full of distinctive and memorable surprises, so read on to find out how this post-apocalyptic classic came to be.

The Ridley Scott version of I Am Legend

Though many may now associate the title "I Am Legend" with Will Smith being the last man on Earth, this story actually far predates its 2007 release or even Will Smith's 1990s ascent to movie star status. "I Am Legend" is based on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, and is the third and most recent adaptation of the book (other versions include 1964's "The Last Man on Earth" and 1971's "The Omega Man").

Following the release of "The Omega Man" in 1971, Hollywood spent years trying to develop a new adaptation of Matheson's novel and got close to doing so in the 1990s. According to Variety, this '90s version of "I Am Legend" was set to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape, and Ridley Scott was brought on to direct, in what would have been an epic first collaboration between the two.

The project progressed quite far along, to the point that makeup tests were done for the film's vampire creatures. However, it eventually fell apart thanks to an assortment of issues. These included budgetary concerns, first and foremost: Scott was struggling to achieve box office hits in the mid-1990s, and "I Am Legend" is a dark, depressing story that's anything but a sure thing for a film studio looking to recoup profits (via Den of Geek). Warner Brothers halted the project, so this version of "I Am Legend" went cold. Though disappointing for all involved in this incarnation of the film, it did pave the way for a different "I Am Legend" to get launched into the stratosphere a decade later. Once Francis Lawrence's film debuted in 2007, the long journey to produce a new adaptation of Matheson's classic finally came to a satisfying close.

The arrival of Francis Lawrence

By the time 2005 rolled around, "I Am Legend" had been through the wringer. Not only had the version from director Ridley Scott failed to come to fruition, but another incarnation had also fizzled out. This 2002 version was supposed to be directed by Michael Bay, produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and star Will Smith (via Variety). It just seemed like "I Am Legend" was doomed to be a cursed unmade blockbuster. But Warner Bros. was determined to get this production off the ground, and to not let a potential star vehicle for Smith go to waste. So, the studio pressed on and Francis Lawrence became the newest filmmaker to take a swing at the property in September 2005 (via Variety).

In this pre-"Hunger Games" era, Lawrence didn't have as lengthy of a feature film track record as the other directors previously attached to "I Am Legend." But earlier that same year, he'd helmed "Constantine" for Warner Bros., and the studio was very excited about his prospects as an artist. The plan was to start filming in 2006, but given all the false starts that "I Am Legend" had faced up to this point, it would have been understandable to greet this news with skepticism. Amazingly, though, Lawrence did end up directing this feature, and for this once-tormented film, that was tantamount to a miracle.

How 28 Days Later inspired I Am Legend

Although post-apocalyptic movies have been made since the first days of cinema, the subjects of these films often change with the times to reflect the political and social climate of the era (via EW). The 2000s saw a resurgence of apocalyptic films about invasions of foreign bodies (like zombies, vampires, or aliens) or viruses that turn humans into terrifying creatures, with the release of movies like "Resident Evil" (2002) and the 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake.

"I Am Legend" rode that wave of interest to massive box office profits, but while it may have been one of the most successful post-apocalyptic movies ever, it still faced some competition from other 2000s films. In fact, "I Am Legend" screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has discussed how another seminal motion picture from this genre and era — Danny Boyle's 2002 zombie flick "28 Days Later" — proved influential on how he would navigate the approach to a post-apocalyptic world.

Talking to Entertainment Weekly, Goldsman notes how he wanted to take on the "lost puppy" of "I Am Legend." But it seemed like the existence of "28 Days Later" would stop "I Am Legend" from happening, since this new film would tread too much familiar ground now. So, he and Lawrence figured out how to differentiate "I Am Legend" from "28 Days Later:" They would make something that was more about characters and emotions than monsters, and they would change the setting from LA to New York City. In the end, in this moment of 2000s global cinema, there was plenty of room for two (or more) post-apocalyptic thrillers.

I Am Legend was supposed to film after Hancock

When you're an in-demand movie star like Will Smith, you're always going to be juggling a number of balls in the air. The precarious balancing of multiple high-profile acting gigs means that you have to deal with sudden shifts in scheduling. So it was with Smith's attempt to film "Hancock" and "I Am Legend" back-to-back. Initially, Peter Berg's "Hancock" was set to shoot before "I Am Legend." However, Berg's comedic take on the superhero film ran into some screenwriting problems that forced a temporary postponement. Suddenly, a gap opened up in Smith's schedule.

As noted by The New York Times, Warner Bros. leaped at the chance to have "I Am Legend" shoot first, while "Hancock" went on hiatus. This wouldn't be a walk in the park, though, as the sped-up timeline meant heavily slashing the pre-production time for "I Am Legend." However, the studio still saw this as being the better alternative to having to wait even longer to make "I Am Legend." So, all involved in this post-apocalyptic tale went full steam ahead on getting "I Am Legend" done first. Despite all the effort it takes to get one of these mega-budgeted films off the ground, "I Am Legend" did end up dropping in December 2007, a full seven months before "Hancock."

Jane Campion's The Piano was an unexpected influence

The works of Jane Campion have proved influential in countless ways across arthouse cinema, but their impact has not been restricted to just independent meditative fare. It also extends to "I Am Legend," with Campion's Oscar-winning feature "The Piano" leaving a surprising and lasting impact on the creation of this post-apocalyptic blockbuster. Though it may sound like the build-up to a punchline, "The Piano" really did manage to influence director Francis Lawrence's creative direction for this big-budget project.

While talking to The New York Times, Lawrence recalled how he was watching "The Piano" while taking care of his infant son. Not wanting to disturb the youngster, he turned the volume of "The Piano" all the way down. As he watched the film without any sound, Lawrence found himself enraptured by Campion's filmmaking and the plight of the characters in this story. 

It was then that Lawrence realized something important for "I Am Legend," a movie where Smith is often the only human being on-screen. Silence does not equal a boring movie. The quiet nature of the captivating film "The Piano" cemented to Lawrence that "I Am Legend" could also wring transfixing drama out of sequences that largely eschewed music or a cavalcade of dialogue. As he noted to his creative team, "Underneath everything you should be able to boil it down to what it means without dialogue. Because the truth is, everything should really be about behavior." Once again, we see how the precise filmmaking style of Campion manages to have a positive effect on the world of cinema.

How Will Smith shaped his performance

Will Smith has basically built his career and iconic persona through his natural rapport with seemingly every actor that he's shared the screen with. Whether it's Tommy Lee Jones in the "Men in Black" movies, Kevin James in "Hitch," or Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys," Smith can be compelling with anyone and everyone, including dogs, as we see in "I Am Legend." This gift meant that "I Am Legend" was a unique challenge for Smith, who plays the last man on Earth, unable to lean on that entertaining chemistry he often sparks up with others.

Talking to Collider, Smith noted that part of how he prepared to play this character so outside of his comfort zone was by talking to people who've experienced extreme cases of isolation, like former prisoners of war and people who have been in solitary confinement. Talking to these folks revealed very specific details of the psychology of isolated people, such as the importance of a schedule, which Smith folded into his performance. 

Smith embraced the absence of dialogue for much of the film, which allowed him to subtly communicate a "human mind that is trying to defend itself." Through accepting such brutal qualities tied to this character, Smith was able to deliver a performance unlike any other in his filmography.

The struggles of filming in New York City

While "I Am Legend" used its share of green-screen and practically-built sets, the majority of the movie was shot where the story of this film adaptation takes place: New York City. The general hustle and bustle of this locale make it a logistical nightmare for any movie to shoot there, let alone one where there's only supposed to be a single human being left alive. This required sections of the city to be closed down, so the "I Am Legend" crew could film in this location and make it look appropriately sparse. As one can imagine, this did not go off perfectly smoothly, with Will Smith recounting to The Los Angeles Times that he encountered plenty of frustrated New Yorkers whilst he was filming this blockbuster: "People were not happy. That's the most middle fingers I've ever gotten in my career."

Though the process encountered its fair share of criticism and hurdles, Francis Lawrence remained committed to film "I Am Legend" on location, including the Brooklyn Bridge, where he managed to capture a lengthy and complicated set-piece (via The Hollywood Reporter). The result is that the world of "I Am Legend" has a tangible quality to it. Rather than coming off as otherworldly, there is a haunting relatability to the environments that the surviving characters navigate. All of the challenges presented in filming a story as sparse as "I Am Legend" in New York City paid off handsomely with this kind of quality ingrained into the movie.

The very last-minute reshoots of a new ending

Reshoots are common on films of any size, but they're especially prevalent in blockbusters. Sometimes, you just don't know how a movie is coming together until you see it in the editing room. Usually, such reshoots are done a few months before release to allow enough time for the post-production team to work on these sequences. It's rarer, though not unprecedented, for a film of "I Am Legend's" stature to commence reshoots just weeks away from its theatrical release.

That's just what this costly production did, though, with outlets like SlashFilm reporting in mid-November 2007 that Warner Bros. had just wrapped up reshoots on "I Am Legend," which was set for a December release. At the time, rumors spread that the studio didn't like the initial gloomy ending to this movie — which was more faithful to the ending of the book — and asked for reshoots of the finale.

The original ending of "I Am Legend" forced both Smith's protagonist Richard as well as the audience to question who the real monster is in this story, but this got swapped out for a more generic showdown between good and evil. This newer, more Hollywood ending robbed "I Am Legend" of a compelling moral ambiguity, while the way it feels so shoehorned into the story can also be attributed to the fact that it was executed during these shockingly last-minute reshoots.

Francis Lawrence's regrets over the CGI villains

"I Am Legend" was an undisputed hit at the box office, but critically, the results were more mixed. There was universal praise for Will Smith's performance and how well he carried so much of the film on his own, in addition to the well-realized sparseness of a haunting post-apocalyptic New York City landscape. However, there were equally rampant critiques over the conventional nature of the finale and the heavy reliance on CGI to create the Night Seeker adversaries. The latter complaint was one that was even shared by director Francis Lawrence, who discussed his feelings in an interview, while looking back on the film.

Talking to Den of Geek in 2011, Lawrence noted that he initially tried to render the Night Seekers with humans in prosthetics, but that approach didn't translate to screen, so he went the CGI route instead. However, the CGI used to realize these characters never looked quite right, which was a result of a compressed post-production schedule. Lawrence did feel that with more time dedicated to fine-tuning the CGI, these visual effects could've looked satisfactory. But in the final cut they never looked quite right, and Lawrence noted to Den of Geek that "one of the big downfalls for me, with ['I Am Legend'], personally, was with the visual effects." 

He also observed that the scariest scenes in "I Am Legend" were those that took cues from the likes of "Alien" and kept everything shrouded in shadows. Once the creatures were totally visible, however, the suspense was lost. Even if "I Am Legend" didn't quite click together, at least its director could be open about these shortcomings.

The box office feats of I Am Legend

Believe it or not, "I Am Legend" wasn't just a box office hit in its initial theatrical run, it was also a record-breaking one. The film managed to open to $77 million in its first three days of domestic play, cementing it as the biggest opening weekend ever for a December release at the time (via Deadline). At the time, it was also the biggest opening weekend ever for a Will Smith title, an impressive feat given just how many massive films he's been associated with during his career (via Forbes). In the years since this movie premiered, it still stands as one of Smith's biggest North American openings, with only "Aladdin" (2019) and "Suicide Squad" (2016) managing to score larger returns in this territory (via The Numbers).

"I Am Legend's" box office feats were all the more impressive given that this wasn't a sequel in a successful franchise. In a year where "Shrek," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "Spider-Man" all delivered third installments, "I Am Legend" was a reminder that original films (albeit ones based on previously existing source material) could excel financially. Once the dust settled, "I Am Legend" scored $256.3 million in North America, enough to make it the sixth-biggest title of 2007 in the domestic box office, which put it ahead of big sequels like "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" (via The Numbers). The film performed even better globally and took in $329.1 million worldwide, which brought its total box office profits to a whopping $585.5 million dollars. These accomplishments all made "I Am Legend" a, well, legend when it comes to its box office performance.

The original plans for an I Am Legend prequel

With "I Am Legend" becoming a massive worldwide box office hit, it was inevitable that Warner Bros. would turn its attention to the prospect of a follow-up. The only problem here was that the theatrical ending to "I Am Legend" didn't exactly lend itself to going the route of a sequel, seeing that Will Smith's protagonist Robert is dead as a doornail at the end of the film. But where there's money, there's a way for Hollywood, and so plans commenced for an "I Am Legend" prequel.

In December 2008, Will Smith revealed the concrete plot details of this prequel to Collider, noting that the movie would cover "the last stand of Manhattan." He also explained that the plot would span both New York City and Washington D.C., while this story would see Smith getting to hang around with a group of survivors rather than being alone. The beloved canine from "I Am Legend" would also be returning, though this time as a puppy. According to Variety, the project was moving along in development, with D.B. Weiss coming on to hammer out the script. However, after this significant update, there was total radio silence on this proposed "I Am Legend" prequel, until director Francis Lawrence confirmed to MTV in 2011 that this prequel wasn't "ever going to happen."

The abandoned I Am Legend reboot

With an "I Am Legend" prequel now off the table, it would seem like that was the end of the road for this post-apocalyptic tale becoming a potential multi-film series. But in October 2014, Deadline broke the news that a new direction had been pinned down for the franchise. Warner Bros. was now moving forward on a reboot of "I Am Legend," one based on an unrelated spec script entitled "A Garden At The End of the World." The script — which was described as "The Searchers" told through a sci-fi lens — had enough overlapping elements with "I Am Legend" for Warner Bros. to reconstitute it to work as a reboot of the 2007 film. 

The most interesting wrinkle here was the presence of Will Smith, or rather, the lack thereof. While the original "I Am Legend" prequel was designed from the ground up to ensure that Smith could still be a part of this saga, this new reboot was being configured from the get-go to not include him. At the time, Smith's reluctance to do sequels inspired the producers to opt for a totally new story with different characters, rather than try and court him. The lack of Smith suggested that this reboot would be going in wildly different directions compared to the original "I Am Legend," though audiences would never get to know what the plans were, since this project ended up fizzling out as well. So, we'll just have to wait and see what the upcoming "I Am Legend" sequel – which will star Smith again, alongside Michael B. Jordan — does with the story.