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Tales from Development Hell: I Am Legend

By Ryan Fleming

Will Smith (left) in I Am Legend.

Picture courtesy Wired.

I’m afraid I have some sad news. This is the last article in this series. Ryan has reached the end of his material. I suspect that there will be an upsurge in withdrawal symptoms in the near future.


The last in this series. Appropriately, it is entitled I am Legend:




It takes a lot for a film to become legendary. One thing that is not required, however, is for a film to actually be made in order to become legendary. The abortive Superman Lives or A Confederacy of Dunces come to mind as films that were never made that have acquired their own legend because of that.


There can be a fine line between legend and infamy in such cases. Superman Lives became infamous after the fact for some of the demands studio executives made on the film during pre-production; A Confederacy of Dunces acquired a reputation of being cursed after several stars associated with it died young. Then there are unmade films that become legendary purely because of the enticing people and properties involved in the project. Such is the original version of the third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), to be directed by Ridley Scott and star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nick Cage as an implausible Superman in the never-made Superman Lives.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Matheson’s book was inspired by his notion that if Dracula alone was scary, then a world full of vampires would be utterly terrifying. Set more than two decades after its publication, it follows Robert Neville, the sole human left after a pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampiric creatures.


It was a major influence on future post-apocalyptic and zombie fiction. Its first adaptation was to be made a few short years after its original publication, by the UK’s Hammer Film Productions no less, but went unmade when the British Board of Film Censors told Hammer such a film would not be distributed in the UK. That version is worth an article in itself. The rights were sold on and the first adaptation became The Last Man on Earth (1964). An Italian production starring Vincent Price, distributed by American International Pictures in the US, Matheson actually scripted the film himself but was so dissatisfied with the results that he was credited under a pseudonym. A US-produced adaptation followed in 1971 as The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. That version leaned far more into action and science fiction than horror, with the vampires becoming nocturnal albino mutant Luddites. It received mixed reviews and has gone on to become a camp cult classic. Studio Warner Bros retained the rights to the novel, but Matheson’s work did not get another potential film until the 1990s.


From 1994, Warner Bros began development on a new adaptation of I Am Legend. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich had impressed with his spec script The Cell (2000) and was hired to write the film. The vampires were called ‘Hemocytes’ in Protosevich’s script and were made as civilised as the albino mutants in The Omega Man. That version of the script was well-received enough that it was fast-tracked under producer Neal H Moritz and stars such as Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas were considered for the lead role. Ridley Scott was hired as director, and he brought on board screenwriter John Logan to rewrite Protosevich’s script, having some issues with it. Logan’s version made the Hemocytes more animalistic and berserk but did not entirely remove aspects of intelligence. Whereas Protosevich’s version had been very action-driven like the prior Hollywood version, the Logan script leaned more towards a psychological thriller. That was the major appeal to Scott, who saw a method through which he could combine a blockbuster and a more artistic picture. The studio’s preference of Arnold Schwarzenegger for the lead speaks to the original action orientation. After negotiations, Schwarzenegger signed on to star in the film in mid-1997. All the pieces were in place.


Filming was to be done in Houston, standing in for Los Angeles. The entire first act of the film would contain no dialogue, highlighting Neville’s isolation and depression as seemingly the last man on Earth. Scott intended with the film to reinvent the on-screen persona of Schwarzenegger, who had already gone down the self-parody route in films like Last Action Hero (1993) and Junior (1994). I Am Legend would have had to see the former Mr Universe deal with grief and depression without his trademark quips.

It might have been - test footage of Arnie as the lead in I Am Legend.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Concept art and test footage exists for the Hemocytes, which were to be realised entirely using practical makeup effects. They were to appear pallid and sickly, with their bones almost showing through their flesh. Per the advice of Scott, these were inspired by 17th Century wax sculptures, and they would have been clothing themselves in discarded plastic and other waste material to protect themselves from the sun. That version of the script would also have retained something of the novel’s sombre ending. Ridley Scott’s direction of John Logan’s script was to be an extremely ambitious project and it was almost ready to begin filming. It would be that same ambition that would lead to it going unmade by those parties.


In late 1997, none of the major parties involved were coming off a string of successes. Scott’s prior three films – 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992); White Squall (1996); and GI Jane (1997) – had all been box office bombs. Warner Bros themselves had several big-budget sci-fi bombs like The Postman (1997) and Sphere (1998), the latter of which was released while the budget for I Am Legend was going up and up. Even the star, at the time seen as the most bankable part of a film, had seen his most recent action efforts like Eraser (1996) and Batman & Robin (1997) underperform financial expectations and be met with reviews from mixed to being considered one of the worst films ever made, respectively.

Was Batman & Robin one of the worst films ever made? You decide. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as Mr Freeze.

Picture courtesy Wired.

Batman & Robin had been from Warner Bros too, yet another recent failure for the studio. As the budget escalated over $100 million, the studio began to get cold feet. If it had been a straight blockbuster, they might be able to recoup more of the budget back from merchandising, but they might have difficulty getting a McDonald’s Happy meal tie-in for an R-rated, sombre, post-apocalyptic vampire film. Both Neal Jiminez and then a returning Protosevich were brought on board to rework the script, and Scott himself rewrote it once too in an attempt to shave $20 million off the budget. It was still not enough, and the project was cancelled in March 1998.


A new adaptation of I Am Legend did not die with the Scott version; before 1998 was out, Rob Bowman had been attached to direct a third Protosevich draft of the film. This was to be another action-oriented version, with Bowman seeking Nicolas Cage to star.


Cage himself was coming off another cancelled 1998 Warner Bros project: Superman Lives. Bowman would move to on Reign of Fire (2002) without the project ever getting off the ground. 2002 also saw Schwarzenegger return to I Am Legend, this time as producer with Michael Bay directing and Will Smith starring. Warner Bros president Alan F Horn disliked the version of the script to be used for filming, so the project was shelved again. Come 2004 and Akiva Goldsman, ironically the screenwriter for Batman & Robin, was asked to write and produce I Am Legend. Will Smith was still attached to star, and at his behest Guillermo del Toro was the first director approached for the Goldsman script. Del Toro declined in favour of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and instead Francis Lawrence was brought on board, having previously directed the Goldman-produced Constantine (2005), A new adaptation of I Am Legend would finally make it to screen in 2007, directed by Lawrence from a screenplay by Protosevich and Goldsman, starring Smith.


I Am Legend was a box office success, grossing $585 million globally from a $150 million budget. At the time, it was the highest grossing December releases in the US for a non-Christmas film and went on to become the seventh highest grossing film of 2007. Reception, on the other hand, could be described as a glass half-empty or half-full, depending. Smith’s performance was the aspect most singled out for praise. However, the changes to the source material, religious themes, and plot in the third act were criticised. The ending stands out in particular, which was an extremely late change to something more akin the The Omega Man, whereas the original ending, which was the version that made it to most home video versions, hewed more closely to the source material without being too sombre. It is the original/home video version of the ending that will inform a sequel revealed to be in development as of 2022. It will – apparently be completely ignoring the theatrical ending to the point where Smith will apparently reprise his role as Neville, who cinema audiences saw die in the film’s climax. A sequel might have been more forthcoming had the original ending been retained, but the broader question is how would a version made in 1998 with Scott and Schwarzenegger fared in comparison?


Warner Bros were perhaps right about Scott’s I Am Legend insofar as it would be a major gamble for them. There had not been quite that same mix of blockbuster and art done in a film to that point. Arguably even to this day there is nothing quite like what Ridley Scott wanted to do with I Am Legend. Perhaps Scott’s own Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) come close, but even those don’t quite fit the bill, being franchise prequels.


With that in mind, perhaps Warner Bros need to have another tentpole that could possibly make up for I Am Legend underperforming. Had Superman Lives gone ahead, then it may increase the chances of I Am Legend. It would still take some courage from Warner Bros, considering the inflated budgets of both and a string of recent disappointments for the studio. In a way, the two films would almost complement each other during 1998, with the superhero picture for families and the post-apocalyptic thriller for more adult audiences. As to Schwarzenegger’s ability to sell a film, Arnie versus vampire zombies is a lot simpler to sell than Arnie versus illegal arms dealers and corrupt elements within the US Marshal’s WITSEC, as Eraser can be summarised. It also has a name director whose successes like Thelma & Louise were still better known than his more recent failures. That and carrying some brand recognition for those who knew either the novel or its earlier film versions.


There might be something to be said for I Am Legend releasing in 1998 and being able to set itself apart from blockbusters perceived as unintelligent that year like Armageddon and the first US adaptation of Godzilla. As far as critics go, audiences might be more nonplussed, wondering why Schwarzenegger wasn’t saying anything for the first hour of the film. The action on screen might compensate, but there may be a disparity between critics and audiences in reception. Its success may lie more in international and home video sales, but that would probably not be enough for Warner Bros to regard it as a success.


On the other hand, maybe the combination of Scott, Schwarzenegger, and vampires would be enough to get the audience through the door, if not to leave it amazed. Depending on when it is released in 1998, it might join those other films in 1998 that seemed to be duelling over the same concept: Armageddon versus Deep Impact; Antz versus A Bug’s Life; Elizabeth versus Shakespeare in Love. I Am Legend versus Blade would be another example. Blade became a commercial success on a far smaller budget but received mixed reviews. It was an oddly dark superhero film compared to the norm of the time, as well as Marvel’s first direct foray into adapting their own works for film. Had I Am Legend syphoned off even part of the audience that went to see Blade, then the direction of superhero films in general, and Marvel films in particular, might be altered.


Blade would not be the only historic film impacted by I Am Legend going ahead in 1998. After its cancellation, Scott and Logan almost immediately moved onto a project for Dreamworks based on a spec script written by David Franzoni. That became Gladiator (2000), which went on to become the second highest-grossing film of 2000; won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture; established Russell Crowe as a lead and making Joaquin Phoenix a celebrity; and revitalised the career of Scott after the aforementioned box office bombs. All that despite a troubled production. Had Scott made I Am Legend and it been another disappointment, Dreamworks might not be willing to acquiesce to Scott’s demands, including bringing in Logan on Gladiator, which actually entered production without a finished script. If I Am Legend had been a success, then Scott might be entertaining offers of several productions from different studios. 20th Century Fox might be keen to lure Scott back to their Alien franchise, with a direct sequel to Alien: Resurrection (1997) having stalled due to the reluctance of Sigourney Weaver to return to the series. In this hypothetical scenario, would Scott choose outer space over Ancient Rome? He was attached to an Alien film in the early 2000s, with Aliens (1986) director James Cameron writing and producing. Could the year 2000 see Scott direct another film in the Alien series, instead of Gladiator, with Cameron following a successful I Am Legend?


The script for I Am Legend intended to be filmed by Ridley Scott is an enticing one because of its ambition and unique tone. It was those precise reasons that meant the film went unmade historically in 1998. Had Warner Bros been more cavalier over budgets and risk in 1998, then it would have been made, but that would have knock on effects to competing films in 1998 as well as to the careers of those involved.


Regardless of whether it was a success of a failure, it not being made actually proved pivotal in the recent history of films. Blade did not face a similar competing picture like so many others did in 1998. Scott was free to direct Gladiator which became a major success and established or revitalised several careers. Neither of these might come to pass had Scott directed a taciturn Arnold Schwarzenegger battling vampires in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.


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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.





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