In an exclusive interview, I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence reflects on his approach to the movie. I Am Legend is based on the 1954 novella by Richard Matheson and follows the plight of Robert Neville, who may be the last man alive after a superbug wipes out humanity. Unfortunately for Neville it also brought them back as vampires, who rise every night to attack him in his fortified home.
It’s still a powerful read after all these years and inspired everyone from Stephen King to George Romero. The movie was adapted twice prior to the 2007 version; there was 1964's The Last Man On Earth with Vincent Price, followed by cult gem The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in 1971. Warner Bros. spent years trying to mount a new adaptation - with one version set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be directed by Ridley Scott – before Francis Lawrence signed up to direct Will Smith for 2007’s I Am Legend. I Am Legend was a huge success and received strong reviews for Smith’s performance and its eerie depiction of an abandoned New York, but was also criticized for its generic CGI monsters and for essentially ignoring the book.
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Now in a new interview with Screen Rant, Lawrence shared some of his thoughts on the project, and how he wishes he’d approached it
"Looking back at it now, I think that we could have just done basically the story of the novella straight up and made the same amount of money in terms of ticket sales because people went I think for the last man on earth. They would have accepted the nihilistic ending, they would have accepted vampires instead of people with infections. We could have literally made the book, which I would have been much happier with, but you know when you're spending that much money you're panicking that you're making this weird little kind of art film about a guy alone with a dog in New York and you're trying to you know sort of create that spectacle."
It’s interesting to hear Lawrence echo critiques of I Am Legend others have made, especially in regards to the creatures not being vampires and jettisoning the book’s memorably bleak ending. The movie also has an alternate ending where it reveals the infected creatures are actually sentient, and Smith’s character has been hunting and killing them without realizing. Fans of the movie felt this ending was more powerful, and while Lawrence thinks so too, it turns out test audiences really hated it.
"I agree it's the better ending. I mean, it's the more philosophical version of the end, but in terms of story math we're doing everything you're not supposed to do, right? The hero doesn't find the cure, right? They drive off into the unknown and the creatures you've been saying are the bad ones the whole time you learn actually have humanity and aren't the bad ones - the hero's the bad one. And so you've basically turned everything on its head. We tested it twice and it got wildly rejected, wildly rejected, which is why we came out with the other one."
The current movie ends with Smith sacrificing himself to save other survivors, but the movie was such a hit Warners still tried to engineer a sequel. A prequel featuring the fall of New York and a sequel featuring a clone of Smith were written, but the studio scrapped the idea. Even if he has some regrets over how he approached the movie, Lawrence isn’t interested in a reboot, stating “I don't know [about a reboot] because I feel like I've gotten that out of my system, I don't know what there is in it that is interesting and new, right?” There was talk of a possible I Am Legend reboot back in 2014, but the project has gone quiet since then.