Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has been adapted into films before, most notably 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston. Naturally, there have been changes since then.
I AM LEGEND
How do you make Will Smith seem like the only living human when you’re shooting in the city that never sleeps? That was one of the technical challenges confronting Legend director Francis Lawrence, who filmed in New York partly as a reaction to The Omega Man‘s Los Angeles setting. ”There are so many places in L.A. where you can find yourself alone,” he says. ”But not New York.” The production got the city’s okay to lock down long stretches of 57th Street, Sixth Avenue, and Park Avenue, but on a weekend schedule broken up over three months. And even with 200 production assistants stiff-arming would-be passersby, visual-effects artists still had to do ”signs of life removal” on wide shots. ”You can close off 10 blocks, but there’s always some traffic light that’s on, or steam coming off the top of a building,” says Lawrence. Meanwhile, vegetation and wildlife were digitally inserted to show the city being reclaimed by nature. One early location idea was to actually shoot Smith’s survivalist tending a cornfield in Central Park, but that didn’t pan out. (The scene had to be filmed elsewhere.) ”The Conservancy barely lets you walk on the grass, let alone have equipment,” says Lawrence. ”And forget planting corn.”
THE OMEGA MAN
No city does traffic jams like L.A., so it’s no wonder Omega is remembered for its opening shots of the fast-fraying Heston cruising down eerily empty streets in his ragtop. The desolation was simulated by shooting in the perennially low-profile downtown area — hardly a spot that was all pastoral orange groves when the film was made 37 years ago, but certainly one that had more manageable traffic, recalls producer Walter Seltzer. ”We shot all the deserted-city stuff in one day, from light to dark on a Sunday,” Seltzer says. ”Of course, when we made this, digital work was unheard of. So if you look sharp, despite all the barricades we had, you can see a very snazzy convertible drive across the screen.” (Not Heston’s — his is the one that stops periodically to machine-gun zombie haunts.) In an era when actors like Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier had to go the blaxploitation route for really juicy roles, the movie also drew attention for color-blindly having big-haired tough girl Rosalind Cash get down with Heston. Lawrence couldn’t resist giving that now-quaint touch a wink in Legend: ”There’s a mannequin with a big Afro in the background of one scene,” he laughs. ”It’s my one very specific homage.”