|I Am Legend concept art by Sylvain Despretz|
Every Friday I feature artwork from a classic of science fiction cinema or television. This week's "Flashback Friday" post is on the unmade I Am Legend (1998) movie.
Recently, some special effects videos from the proposed I Am Legend film by special effects artists Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis showed up online and it started me thinking about the project. So, I dug out some old artwork and interviews.
I Am Legend is a 1954 horror fiction novel written by Richard Matheson. Since then it's been adapted into movies several successful movies like The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007). Back in 1995, Warner Brothers began developing an adaptation with Ridley Scott directing and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was supposed to be a sophisticated, dark, artsy and psychological film with minimal dialogue. Unfortunately, as the $100 million budget kept climbing, the studio shut down the project. Scott went on to make the wildly successful Gladiator. One of the artists Scott worked with to visualize the film was Sylvain Despretz and he shared concept art and did an interview years ago about the project.
Sylvain Despretz is a freelance director-screenwriter who's worked on Hollywood projects like The Fifth Element (1997), TRON: Legacy (2010) and the unmade live-action Akira movie.
Click on the images to enlarge. Warning: Some of the artistic pieces are female nudes and NSFW
According to the UK Magazine SFX, after working on the abandoned Tim Burton Superman Lives film, Sylvain Despretz ran into famed Alien director Ridley Scott on the Warner Bros back lot. "I ran into Ridley Scott and so went over to say hello and at one point in the conversation he said, grinning, 'So how are you enjoying Superman?' And I said, 'Well...' And he explained that he was here with I Am Legend, this big Schwarzenegger picture that I had only just read about. I was given an open invitation to drop by and look around which I did that very afternoon." He rang up the office, sent over some storyboard samples and got hired.
He'd heard of the book and film, but really wanted to work with the legendary director. "I had seen The Omega Man in the 70s," recalls Despretz. "I always remembered that tremendous opening scene with Charlton Heston rolling down a deserted Los Angeles and crashing his car into a dealership and getting into another one. Personally, I thought it was a bit odd that they were remaking the film, but at the end of the day I didn't care because Ridley Scott was making another science fiction film and I wanted to be on it."
Despretz joined a small art department that included The Matrix concept artist Tani Kunitake under the supervision of production designer Arthur Max (Seven). He acclimated himself to the project and the Ridley Scott experience. "Ridley had been away in England for a couple of weeks," recalls Despretz, "and I had the chance to read the script and the book. When he came back we had an 8:30am meeting and he sat down and said, 'So, scene one', and we just started going at it. He had the first scene completely sketched out and talked me through it, noting which buildings were not going to be used. He would talk about certain elements he was considering that I would then take away to work them up to a level that would be practical. Then you can hand them to people and not only discuss the terms of where action is going to be placed, but also what the subtle elements of the action are."
He insists all credit for the work he did belongs to Ridley Scott saying, "They're not mine, they're Ridley's. He explains it very precisely because he knows what he's doing. He doesn't just tell me what to do, he also sketches it. He does little diagrams telling me where the camera is and what we will be looking at. Ridley is a better storyboard artist than almost any working storyboard artist in the business. If you look at his drawings, they’re stunning. You can see the juice of the composition; he just knows what he wants and he’s good at it. Usually he’s very random. He’ll kind of dream up scenes. His favourite thing to say is, ‘Okay, I thought this scene would open like this. I don’t know why but instinctively I see it this way.’ And that’s how it starts.”
The Will Smith movie retained many elements from Ridley Scott's version. For example, the world was decimated by a vaccine for cancer and, unlike the book, the creatures that Neville fought weren't vampires, but zombie-like creatures. The focal point of Neville’s survival is his continuing conﬂict with the Hemocytes. In the book the creatures were vampires, while the ﬁlm representations resembled zombies. Despretz said Ridley Scott wanted a film that was more like hard SF. "Arthur [Max] had done tons of research on starvation and burn victims," says Despretz. "There were some very gory photographs that we looked at depicting different deficiencies and illness. We also went through many documentaries because Ridley told us he wanted an emaciated look, and was thinking about using CGI to give actors a skeletal appearance. I found this extraordinary medical book on skinless bodies - atrocious stuff - and everyone thought it was great to use. We also looked at Third Reich photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s Nubian portraits because Ridley was really into their tribal paints. He felt that the Hemocytes had some level of sophistication; although you didn’t know exactly how sophisticated they were, they were deﬁnitely using symbols and body paints while being clothed in rags.”
While there are "many, many rumors" why the film project was cancelled, Despretz insists that most are wrong. Despretz sighed, "It started with the actor’s fee being too expensive. The thing you have to keep in mind is that if a $100 million dollar film spends one ﬁfth of its budget on the star it suffers. That’s one ﬁfth that can’t be allocated to either visual effects or sets and that seriously compromises the ability to make the film and everybody was unanimous that the film needed to be more expensive.
"I think there was also another problem that nobody could agree to what the ﬁlm was saying. I think the studio thought a lot about the picture and debated about the point of making it. They were afraid of an apocalyptic story which did not have an upbeat ending; they were really scared of that. It was a film that basically had an actor, a dog and a bunch of dead bodies walking around. At one point someone at the studio actually said, ‘We like the script, we just don’t think there’s enough people in it’. While someone else said ‘We need a romantic interest’.”
Despite the studios meddling, Despretz insists the film would have been brilliant. “If Ridley could have done what he wanted it would have been a terriﬁc film,” says Despretz. “It would have been a stunning mood piece, unlike anything that anyone would have expected or had been released. It was way beyond an action movie. It had action in it, but the film didn’t depend on it. The character of Neville was so original. Ridley had very interesting ideas on how to use him and his nature as an architect. By the time he’d become the last man on earth he had actually turned his home into an incredible museum of beautiful paintings and gorgeous structures. He had gone to the Getty Museum and had just taken Monet paintings and put them in his house.”
Here's a video of the makeup tests
Here's a video of the makeup tests
See you next Friday for the next "Flashback Friday" post!
Click on the links if you want to see more of Sylvain Despretz' work or I Am Legend artwork on my blog.
What do you think of the concept art and storyboards? If you've seen I Am Legend what do you think of the Ridley Scott version?
Official I Am Legend Summary
Directed by Ridley Scott
Production Design by Arthur Max
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Planned Release Date: 1998
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