Exclusive: director Francis Lawrence on what went wrong with I Am Legend

A fascinating yet flawed movie, I Am Legend was ultimately let down by some uneven visual effects. We spoke to director Francis Lawrence about just what went wrong...

There are many great things about Francis Lawrence’s 2007 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel, I Am Legend. The extraordinary overgrown New York landscape. Will Smith’s lonely, haunted performance. Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich’s economical script which, for the first hour at least, is entirely convincing.

While the movie diverges greatly from Matheson’s 1954 novel (as did the two previous adaptations, The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man), the premise is the same. Following the outbreak of a virus, much of humanity has mutated into an aggressive race of nocturnal monsters, leaving lone, immune protagonist, Robert Neville (Smith), to defend himself in a sprawling, dangerous city.

And yet, having managed to build the film’s world so effectively (and its overgrown, deserted New York is surely one of the most memorable post-apocalyptic landscapes of recent years), I Am Legend then loses considerable momentum when the Dark Seekers are brought out in full view. Brought fitfully to life using CGI, the Dark Seekers, a horde of rabid, slavering humanoids that hunt in packs, looked too artificial to inspire the fear the movie needed.

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The distracting appearance of the Dark Seekers is doubly perplexing when compared to the quality of the filmmaking and effects work elsewhere. A couple of iffy lions aside, CG has been used brilliantly to create the illusion of an empty New York City, and the movie’s beautifully shot throughout.

A few weeks ago, we saw some make-up test shots that revealed that I Am Legend was originally going to be shot with old-fashioned actors and latex, and from the footage that appeared online, the results looked to be far more effective than the ones seen in the final film.

So, with director Francis Lawrence in the UK to promote his latest movie, the romantic drama Water For Elephants (which is in cinemas now), I couldn’t resist the chance to bring up the topic of I Am Legend, and ask him about what occurred behind the scenes.

It turned out, in fact, that Lawrence was happy to speak quite openly about I Am Legend, and it was his experience on that film, he said, that prompted him to choose a less effects-heavy movie like Water For Elephants for his next project.

“I really wanted to do a movie that I could approach in a more organic way,” Lawrence said. “I was really disappointed by that part of the process on I Am Legend.”

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Lawrence then spoke quite candidly about the rush to complete the effects shots for the film‘s final third, a factor that would certainly explain the variable quality of the CGI, as well as the movie’s rushed, muddled conclusion, which was reshot after negative comments from test audiences.

“Having done a movie with so many visual effects shots, and then coming to the end, where you have the plug pulled because you have a deadline, and you have to deliver the last reel, and you know there’s a hundred shots in the movie you’re not satisfied with, was a real disappointment to me.”

I then brought up the subject of the make-up effects footage mentioned earlier. Lawrence hadn’t seen it, but my mention of it prompted him to describe what happened when shooting began on I Am Legend in 2006.

“I wanted to do it with real people in the beginning,” Lawrence said. “We actually cast this huge group of people, like, 50 dancers and parkour guys. And we shaved their heads and they worked with movement coaches and we created this behaviour for everybody. And we built these suits, this guy called Christien Tinsley built them.

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“We actually started to shoot with them. Second unit started first, and we were doing stuff with them running across Washington Square Park towards the house, and I was really worried about it, because they needed to be fast, and we were going to have to augment them and duplicate them. They had to be aggressive, and I just wasn’t convinced it was going to work.

“When I saw the dailies, I broke out into a cold sweat. They were very pale, and covered in this chalky powder to protect their skin, which was a really interesting concept, but it looked like a bunch of mime artists running across Washington Square Park. It didn’t work at all.”

It was then that the decision was made to realise the Dark Seekers using computer graphics, a process that wouldn’t be without pitfalls of its own.

“And one night, we shut that all down and decided we were going to go for CG. We basically postponed anything we were going to shoot with creatures until much later. We went to a whole other design process. We used the same actors, but now they were in these speed skater suits with dots, and it was all performance capture, which would be translated to these things.”

Sadly, the final rush to complete the film resulted in the variable effects work in the final cut. Had the production been granted another few months to work on the CG, Lawrence argues, I Am Legend may have been a very different looking film.

“It was better than doing the live versions at that time, because it didn’t work, but we needed six more months on the post end to get all the visual effects right,” Lawrence said. “Because there were some close-ups that were stunning, and then you get some shots that I never got right, and it just fucking blows it. It just kills it. And it’s just, like, one of the big downfalls for me, with that movie, personally, was with the visual effects.”

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Dodgy effects weren’t, of course, the sole problem with I Am Legend, and here, too, Lawrence was refreshingly candid about the film’s shortcomings.

“If you want to go even deeper into it, part of the problem was, if you look at the movie, the most effective part of the film is the scene where he [Will Smith’s character] goes into the dark building, because you never see [Dark Seekers].

“And the truth is, if you go all the way back to the great creature movies like Alien, the best thing is, you never see them. As soon as you get into the back third of the movie, and there’s this huge horde of creatures you’ve already seen that aren’t scary any more.

“I think that’s also one of the mistakes. They should have just been hidden. They should have been much more hidden in shadows, and barely getting a sense of movement. It would have been much more viscerally scary.”

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I Am Legend was a flawed yet brave attempt to get a singularly downbeat novel made within a studio system. And while six more months of post production may still not have resulted in a perfect movie, we can’t help wondering what I Am Legend would have looked like had that extension been granted.

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