His follow-up to ''Happyness'' adapts a classic sci-fi story that aims to weave elements of the art house into a popcorn zombie film
Credit: Barry Wetcher

The crowd began to gather at 6 a.m., clustered behind barricades blocking access to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. At first, there were only a few dozen people, but within an hour, there were hundreds, all gathered to see Will Smith shoot his latest film. As the cameras rolled, the superstar quietly walked down the street, utterly alone except for the German shepherd trotting behind him. When director Francis Lawrence called ”Cut,” the crowd let loose with applause while the filmmakers chuckled over the irony of the spectators’ very presence. ”It was surreal,” says Smith, recalling the moment many months later. ”It’s kinda difficult to feel like you’re the last man on earth when you’re shooting in New York.”

Smith doesn’t mean this in an actors must block out the world and concentrate kind of way. In I Am Legend, the Oscar-nominated star of Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness plays Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist who believes himself to be the sole survivor of a man-made plague that has wiped out most of humanity and turned the rest into nocturnal, vampiric mutants. Hopelessly alone, Neville spends his days looking for a cure — and his nights trying to avoid becoming monster food.

Adapted from the 1954 novel by revered sci-fi/fantasy author and storied Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, the enigmatically titled I Am Legend marks Hollywood’s third pass at the material, after 1964’s Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s Charlton Heston cult classic The Omega Man. While those took a rather conventional horror-movie approach, this $100 million-plus version aspires toward themes both timeless and timely (existential plight, xenophobia, pandemic jitters) and is filled with panoramic, how’d they do that? shots of an eerily empty Manhattan. ”It’s a deeply quiet movie,” says writer-producer Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). ”It’s epic yet intimate; huge but tiny at the same time.”

For the actor at the center of what’s largely a one-man show, Legend represents the fulfillment of an elusive goal: perfecting a blend of populist popcorn fare with ambitious art films, or what Smith terms ”summer movies” and ”fall movies.” ”There’s a sweet spot I’ve been chasing in my career,” says Smith. ”Gladiator, Forrest Gump — these are movies with wonderful, audience-pleasing elements but also uncompromised artistic value. I Am Legend always felt like it had those possibilities to me.”

He hasn’t been the only one to see the potential. During the film’s 12-year trek toward the big screen, Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas and directors James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro have been linked to the project. Director Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger got the first green light from Warner Bros., and in 1997 they were about to roll film when the studio yanked the plug because of a then-outrageous $108 million budget. Warner Bros. tried again in 2002, with Michael Bay directing a script by Mark Protosevich (The Cell) and Smith attached to star. But the following year, 28 Days Later — a fresh British flick about a zombie virus that ravages London — left Legend‘s creative team feeling they had been scooped. Bay and Smith moved on; the studio lost interest. Legend, it seemed, was lost.

Enter Goldsman and director Lawrence, who, in the fall of 2005, were looking for a follow-up to their successful Constantine. Goldsman — a self-dubbed ”sci-fi geek” with a passion for The Omega Man — couldn’t resist taking on such ”a lost puppy.” He and Lawrence believed they could sidestep 28 Days Later with a film that was less monster-movie-ish and more allegorical and character-driven. ”In the back of your head, you’re always wondering if you’re taking on something you can’t crack,” Lawrence admits, ”but I was pretty positive that we would.”

NEXT PAGE: ”By the conclusion of this shoot, I wouldn’t tell people what I did for a living because they’d go, ‘Oh, you’re that motherf—er.”’

Confident in Goldsman and eager to stay in business with Lawrence, Warner Bros. soon announced that Legend was back. Very quickly, the duo hit upon a big idea: relocating the tale from Los Angeles to New York. Goldsman, a Big Apple native, felt the new setting lent it some timely resonance and differentiated it from its predecessors. By Christmas 2005, he had a script and sent it to Smith, for whom he had co-written I, Robot. The actor dug it enough to come back, even if he felt the writing wasn’t quite there yet. ”It’s a $100 million-plus movie where the lead doesn’t talk for the first hour,” says Smith. ”It’s really just me and a dog. That’s tough. We desperately had to get in there and figure out how to make it riveting.” That took work: improvising scenes, reintroducing elements from Protosevich’s earlier script (the scribe shares credit with Goldsman on the finished film), meeting with experts on infectious diseases and solitary confinement, and exploring earlier films in which an isolated soul struggles to survive. In other words, says Smith, ”we took a big hint from Tom Hanks in Cast Away.”

I Am Legend finally went into production in the fall of 2006, and for six months, it turned New York into a studio backlot. The film’s congestion-causing presence wasn’t always welcome. ”By the conclusion of this shoot,” says Goldsman, ”I wouldn’t tell people what I did for a living because they’d go, ‘Oh, you’re that motherf—er.”’ During six frigid nights last January, Legend took over the Brooklyn Bridge to shoot a flashback of people fleeing Manhattan. The six-minute sequence required 1,000 extras, the construction of a fake pier, and the assistance of the Coast Guard and the National Guard. At one point, Smith warmed up the frosty extras by performing his 1991 hit ”Summertime.” ”We had a good time out there that night,” laughs the actor.

Six months later, Lawrence and his effects team are holed up at Sony Imageworks in L.A., eradicating all the people in New York — the Fifth Avenue rubberneckers, the workers in their skyscraper windows, the cars moving in the background — and adding animals and vegetation to create a New York reclaimed by nature. The director’s visual inspiration? John Ford Westerns. ”We didn’t want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic,” he says. ”A lot of the movie takes place on a beautiful day. There’s something magical about the empty city as opposed to dark and scary.”

Also on Lawrence’s to-do list: finishing Legend‘s monsters. Their appearance is one of the film’s two closely guarded secrets. In fact, nobody can even agree on what to call them. To Goldsman, they are ”the Infected” (as in 28 Days Later). Smith’s character refers to them as ”dark seekers,” while the actor himself often wants to call them zombies. They’re not exactly vampires either, though Goldsman will say that they have vampirelike drives. As for that other secret, it concerns the film’s cryptic tagline, ”The Last Man on Earth Is Not Alone.” A coy Goldsman says that Smith represents ”85 percent of our cast,” and that while a Web rumor about Johnny Depp making an extended cameo is not true, another recognizable face does pop up in the film.

Even without a Depp drop-in, Smith is sure Legend hits that sweet spot he’s long sought. More important, the film lives up to a new standard of his. ”With The Pursuit of Happyness, I turned a corner,” he says. ”My movies need to mean something. I Am Legend is essentially the story of Job, the idea that life is awful if you can’t connect to the possibility that there’s a reason for everything. To have those ideas at work in a movie with special effects — that’s magic.” Thinking back to that day of shooting on Fifth Avenue, Smith says he didn’t mind the gawkers, especially now that Legend has given him a taste of true solitude. ”As much as you wish people would just get the hell out of your face…that is so not true,” he says. ”Because if everyone really did, that would be a miserable existence.”