Will Smith, I Am The Legend

Today's lesson: how to film a movie about the end of the world in the busiest city in the world. First, stop the traffic.

One Saturday morning last year, director Francis Lawrence stood in the middle of Sixth Avenue in New York. A voice crackled over his walkie-talkie: "Locking up 42nd Street down to 34th."

At each intersection of one-way Sixth Avenue, police stopped the cross traffic, as well as the vehicles heading north at 34th Street. Production assistants ushered bystanders back into doorways and off the corners, so that within the viewing range of the camera, the stretch was empty. The first day of shooting the film of I Am Legend had begun.

"Just standing there and looking on a Saturday morning down Sixth Avenue and it's completely empty and it's because they're letting us film our movie, and it's cool," Lawrence says. "It's not a power thing, it's just, 'Man, I'm lucky being able to experience these sorts of things.'"

I Am Legend is about the end of the world as we know it, a place swept clean of humanity by a lethal virus that began life as a cure for cancer, shepherded into existence by, among others, military scientist Robert Neville, played by Will Smith. The film is loosely based on the 1954 novel of the same name, written by Richard Matheson.

The virus spares Neville, whose wife and daughter die in the frenzied evacuation of Manhattan, but transforms countless others - human and animal - into zombies with aggressively anti-social dispositions, the usual netherworld aversion to daylight and extraordinary strength and agility.

Smith, Lawrence and Oscar-winning scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman went to considerable lengths to explore the mindset of a man totally alone: I Am Legend begins with Neville three years into his solitary existence.

The questions the film provokes, not least of them being the recent American fascination with apocalyptic scenarios - two such books, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, became best-sellers - have forced Smith to ponder the difference between the man he is and the guys he plays on screen.

"Ali didn't step forward [after being conscripted into the US Army] because they wouldn't call him Muhammad Ali, and he knew he was going to jail, knew what the situation would be, but he could not," Smith says. "He wouldn't step forward. I just remember thinking, 'What would I do?' I don't know if I would be enough of a man to give up everything I have right now, the way Ali did for that principle.

"When I look at Robert Neville: what was there to live for, what was there to hope for? To wake up every day and to try to restore something that is good and gone. I like to believe I would put my chest up and stand forward and march on [loud, inspiring voice] and continue to fight for the future of humanity. But I would probably find a bridge - 'I'm comin' to join ya, Elizabeth [Neville's wife].'

"It's a tough question. I don't know. I don't think so. There's a part of me ... you want to be tested to know what you would do but you really don't want to be tested. That's the space I've lived in with quite a few of the roles I've played."

Part of the film is carried by Smith's elan and buff presence. He dropped eight kilograms for the role, illuminated in a single shirtless scene where he does a series of chin-ups, to many sighs from both genders in preview screenings.

In many ways, his part is a reprise of the everyman roles of other movies he has starred in, from Enemy of the State to Men In Black, Hitch and The Pursuit of Happyness. In this case, it's an everyday guy, trying to get by after life as we know it has ceased.

"He's attracted to those roles," Lawrence says. "If you can set aside the fact that he's a superstar, he's kind of an everyguy, oddly enough.

His sensibilities are that way.

"He's better than anyone I know at being just like a member of the general audience, which is partially why he's so successful, because he can sit back and imagine being a 16-year-old kid in the theatre and knows what he wants to see, what he wants to feel.''

In person Smith is tall and fit-looking, with the build of the runner who averages 50km a week, as he does. If anything, that physique yields to his personality, with a loud guffaw of a laugh and a charming and intimate manner - a big salesman for larger-than-life movies about the unexpected travails of an everyday guy. The press were in the palms of his inordinately large hands.

As executive producer and star, Smith had significant say in most aspects of the production of I Am Legend, not least of them casting, with his seven-year-old daughter, Willow, playing his screen daughter, Marley. Willow's older brother, Jaden, nine, appeared as his father's screen son in last year's hit The Pursuit of Happyness.

"Jaden is Johnny Depp," his father says. "He just wants to do good work. He doesn't care what money he gets, he doesn't care [how] many people see it or don't see it. He loves acting. He just wants to make good movies. And Willow is Paris Hilton [laughing]. Willow wants to be on TV [louder laughing]. We're managing both of those in our household."

Other than the challenge of emptying New York, Lawrence had to deal with the challenge of a one-man show, where that one man has no one to talk to but his dog.

Inspiration arrived by accident.

As Lawrence's wife fed their newborn son one evening, he watched a DVD with the sound muted. The movie was The Piano and Lawrence found that even without dialogue he could pick up every nuance of Jane Campion's unlikely, beautiful love story.

"My wife and I were struck at how we could follow it and not just follow, but feel it," Lawrence says.

"I got very excited and I said to the guys [Smith and Goldsman], 'This is what we have to do. We have to apply that thinking to this movie because there's really no dialogue, so whatever we do we have to treat it like a silent film, so not only can you follow it, but you have to be able to feel it without sound.'"

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