AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK PROTOSEVICH (PART 2 OF 2)

With films like THE CELL (2000), POSEIDON (2006), I AM LEGEND (2007), THOR (2011) and the OLDBOY remake (2013) to his name, Mark Protosevich is one of the busiest and most sought-after screenwriters in the business. I spoke to Mark about his early, formative filmgoing experiences, getting his start in the film business and working on those five screenplays. In part two we spoke about POSEIDON, THOR and the 2013 OLDBOY.

Read Part One.

How did you get involved with POSEIDON?
Jeff Robinov, who was President of Production at Warner Bros. at the time, had been my agent when I first established myself a screenwriter and we were very close. Jeff called me up one day and asked me if I was interested in writing the remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). I confess my initial gut reaction was ''no'', but after some thought, I decided to do it. It had been a few years since THE CELL was released and in the time following I had seen three projects come very close to getting made, but they all fell apart, which was extremely disappointing. One was a military/political thriller called 'World War Three'. The producers were committed to making it and were actively searching for a director when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and everyone agreed – including myself – it would be grossly inappropriate and morally offensive to go forward with a project that dealt with a similar incident. The second was an adaptation of 'A Princess of Mars', when it was set up at Paramount, that Robert Rodriguez was going to direct. I met with Robert in Austin and he had his art department working on designs and the whole thing was very thrilling – but it never came to fruition. The third was I AM LEGEND, which of course did eventually get made, but this was when Will Smith first came on board. So at this time, I had spent years on projects that I was really proud of, only to see them go nowhere. When Jeff offered me POSEIDON, I thought, ''This movie is going to get made, no matter what'', and that’s what propelled me to say ''yes''. I was so frustrated and desperate to see something actually filmed, that I wanted to do it. Also, it was a very sought-after assignment at the time and to be offered it was incredibly flattering and a bit of a coup.

Were you a huge fan of the original film?
I was eleven years old when I saw it for the first time – in its initial release – and I absolutely loved it. I remember watching a 'making of' documentary on TV at the time and seeing the upside-down sets and thinking the whole production was just the coolest thing ever. That said, it didn’t really linger with me into adulthood as other films of the time did, films like THE EXORCIST (1973) or THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). I think my feelings about it are more affectionately sentimental and nostalgic more than anything else.

What were your priorities and goals in writing the remake?
When I agreed to write the remake, I watched the original for the first time in years and very quickly realized that the project was going to be much more difficult than I had at first thought. The original film is very much of its time. I believed that simply re-creating characters based on those played by Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and the others would be a mistake, as would duplicating the key theme of 'Man v. God'. I strongly felt that it wouldn’t play for a contemporary audience and advocated creating an entirely new set of characters. My goal was to approach it like John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939), one of my favorite films. I wanted to take a very disparate group of characters, keep them in a confined space, introduce a serious threat, and then see what happens when they interact with one another under extreme duress. I wanted characters of different classes, different races, and different backgrounds. In my drafts the Kurt Russell character was as an ambitious and wealthy African-American man about to mount a campaign to become governor of Georgia. Needless to say, a lot changed. For research, I took a transatlantic cruise on a luxury liner and based a lot of my script on my experiences. But, for example, when I wanted to include an elderly character – because there are a lot of elderly people on cruises - the studio told me that an 'old' character was unacceptable. I had a teenage boy who is wounded in the disaster and needs to be carried by stretcher by the others, but I was told that no teenage male actor of any significance would agree to be portrayed as weak and ineffectual. The most interesting part of my script, for me, was presenting a real moral question… If you are in a group of people trying to survive a disaster, what do you do with those who slow you down because they are old, wounded, or traumatized? Do you take them along or do you leave them behind? Such human dilemmas are what attracted me to the project, and I tried hard to include them, but they were not greeted with much support.

How happy are you with the finished film?
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have worked on the film, but ultimately, what I learned from my experience with POSEIDON was that just because a movie will most likely be made, or that other writers are clamoring to do it, or that it might be very lucrative, I should listen to my gut. Since then I have tried – if possible - to only take on projects that mean something to me personally, that strike a creative chord, or because the project offers an opportunity to work with an actor or producer or director that I greatly admire. Even though I treasured the chance to work with Wolfgang Petersen – he’s an absolutely terrific person, I admire him a great deal and we still stay in touch – POSEIDON was not a great experience for me. I confess the material never truly resonated with me. I had my own challenges with it, but more than that, I felt creatively stifled during the development process. I felt like every idea I had was challenged, questioned, and scrutinized. Never in my life have I felt more like someone was standing over my shoulder – literally, in some cases - reading what I’m writing, and saying, ''Why are you doing that?'' My first draft was met with disappointment by the studio – rightfully so - and I was quickly informed that they would be hiring two teams of other writers who were going to do their own drafts. When offered the opportunity, out of sheer pride I wrote another draft myself, the version of the story I had always wanted to write if I had had complete freedom – a draft I called my ''fuck you'' draft – and THAT ended up being the draft that was green-lit by the studio! Jeff Robinov called me up and said, ''Thank you.'' I’ll be the first to admit that taken as a whole the draft was flawed and far from perfect, but it was interesting – at least to me. I did one more pass, but after that Warner Bros. just started throwing other writers at the movie. I swear, I think there were at least a dozen other writers involved over the course of the film’s development and shooting. What I’ll never forget is that when I finally saw the film at a test screening, I felt like a Mack truck had hit me. Yes, what was onscreen resembled what I wrote, but in so many other ways, it was like looking at something utterly alien. If it were a person I had created, the skeleton was there, but the flesh, the hair, the personality? I didn’t recognize it. The absolutely wildest thing is that there’s not a single line of dialogue in the film that was written by me, yet I got sole credit! Not one of the other writers on the movie even sought credit. I don’t want to sound too disparaging of the film, though. I think the visual effects are terrific and I think the movie works in a weird way as a horror film, with the ship and the sea trying to kill a cast of characters. But it’s certainly not the movie I imagined it could be and I don’t feel personally connected to it.

What was the biggest challenge of writing THOR (2011)?
When I was growing up, Thor was my favorite comic book character. In fact, I was obsessed with him. I remember that before I moved out to L.A., I sold most of my comic book collection, but I kept all my Thor comics, and I still have them. When I heard that Marvel was thinking of doing a THOR movie, I had my agent contact them. I developed a very detailed pitch for the film and they really liked it. I was greatly enthused about doing it and it was tremendous fun writing the script. At the time, though, Marvel was in a state of flux. They were just starting to set up an approach to the different properties they had, and had only recently begun acting as a full-fledged production entity. When I was hired, the film was going to be a stand-alone movie entirely set during Viking times. When Thor was cast out of Asgard, he found himself in a world in which people believed in Thor, Odin, Loki, etc, as their gods. When I handed in my script, however, Marvel's business plan had changed because of the success of IRON MAN (2008), and everything became directed toward an AVENGERS (2012) movie. It was decided to approach Thor in a more conventional, contemporary way, and the whole Viking aspect was jettisoned. Other writers were brought in with the idea of bringing Thor into the modern world. In my initial meetings with Marvel, they had been hesitant about that. In fact I recall one executive in a meeting commenting that, ''The last thing we want to do is HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1969).'' The version that was made is a lot of fun, but it's a different vision than mine. Mine was much more about Norse mythology and Viking life and how they intertwined. Most of all, it was a story about an Old Testament god becoming a New Testament god. I think what Marvel is doing now is very smart, admirable, and obviously successful. If there is an auteur behind the Marvel films it is Kevin Feige, the head of production. I can see his influence in all the movies.

What aspects of your script were retained in the final film?
The Thor-Loki-Odin dynamic, Thor's arrogance getting him cast out of Asgard and Loki having a hand in Thor getting cast out were all from my script. In my version, when Thor was cast out he went from being a god to being a slave in the Viking world. He had to attempt to prove his value and get his hammer back. The story dealt a lot with Nordic mythology and was an epic quest more akin to LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-03) than what you would expect from a superhero film.

How did you get involved with writing the OLDBOY (2013) remake?
From the first meeting to the film's release, it took five years to get the film made. I became involved because of Will Smith. I got a phone call out of the blue from his assistant, asking if I could hang around to accept Will's call in five minutes. When I spoke to him, Will said ''Mark, I want you to write my next movie. It's a remake of OLDBOY (2003). Have you seen it?'' I told him that I loved the original film. He then said, ''We've got lots of ideas, but what you need to do is come out to L.A. and meet the director. It's Steven Spielberg.'' Not a call you get every day! A few days later I was sitting down with Steven and Stacey Snyder in their office at Dreamworks. We got along well and talked about what the film could be over a series of meetings. I was hired to write a very detailed treatment. I re-watched the original film a number of times and other films with similarly strange plot reveals, like VERTIGO (1958), DIABOLIQUE (1955) and OBSESSION (1976). Revenge thrillers like POINT BLANK (1967) and GET CARTER (1971) too. What I had here was a great opportunity, not only to work with Will again and Steven for the first time, but to write in a genre that I hadn’t before, but greatly love. I thrilled to the challenge of getting inside the mind of the lead character and I became obsessed with the project. When you write a treatment, that's when you really begin to see a film in your head. In a lot of ways, it's the most difficult part of the process because you really have to have a very concrete idea of the structure of the scenes and the motivations of the characters. When I finished writing, I was tremendously excited about the project.   

How do you think a Spielberg OLDBOY might have been different from the Spike Lee OLDBOY?
You know, I have never really thought about that. But the one thing I will say is that in the meetings with Spielberg, he was always bringing up that we couldn't go soft on the material, and that if we were going to do the movie, then the final revelations in the original had to be similar or even more troubling in our version. Steven's son is a big fan of the original film and Steven said in a meeting, ''He told me that if we don't do the ending he's not going to speak to me again!'' That's where his head was at at the time, but it's all conjecture because Steven was out of the picture before the actual script was even written.

How crushing was it when the Smith/ Spielberg OLDBOY fell apart?
There were many complicated deal issues that arose while I was writing the treatment, but right before I handed it in it looked like everything was moving forward. After I submitted it, I got a call about three hours later from one of the Dreamworks executives. My initial thought was, ''Wow! He's already read it and is so excited about it that he had to call me right away!'' But he said,''Mark, I'm so sorry. Everything's fallen apart. Steven's pulling out of the project, and because of that, Will's pulling out too.'' I've had a few soul-crushing days as a screenwriter but this was a very bad one. I was incredibly dispirited because I had been so passionate and excited about the project.

How did you end up returning to the project?
What happened was that the producers still wanted to go forward. At that point they had no one attached, but I had become so invested in the project that I wanted to go forward too. The treatment that I had written had gotten a terrific reaction, and I felt very strongly that I had a vision of the film in my head – it’s hard to turn back when you’re really seeing the movie in your head. I worked with the producers on about three different drafts of the screenplay, and after sending it out to actors and directors, Josh Brolin and Spike Lee expressed interest. Spike was looking for more of a studio-based film, something that he could just direct, and he really liked the script. He and Josh had also wanted to work with each other too.

Were you at all intimidated at the prospect of remaking such a cult classic?
If my agent had called me up and said ''Are you interested in writing a remake of OLDBOY?'', I  would've turned it down, because the original was so powerful and unique and has such a devoted following. The reason I got involved was because Will Smith and Steven Spielberg were involved and wanted me to write it. The interesting question that arises though is, ''When they pulled out, why didn't I pull out too?'' The answer is that on a creative and emotional level, I had simply become too invested in the material. I was obsessed and felt I could write something really special and personal. I wasn't thinking about how the Internet film community would react. I'm very proud of the script that I wrote and I stand by my work. The critical response to the film was all over the place, but there were a few reviews that I’ll always treasure, especially Richard Brody’s in the New Yorker. The box-office was incredibly disappointing and I really didn't see that coming. I don't think I fully realised how revered the original film is, and how it would affect the response to the remake. When I was going into this, my templates were THE DEPARTED (2006) and TRAFFIC (2000). If you look at the source material of those films (the Hong Kong INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy, 2002-03, and the UK TV mini-series 'Traffik', 1989), the story, the plot material and the characters are all virtually identical, and specific scenes are identical. But the approach is different from the originals. The fans of those originals are not as rabid as the fans of the original OLDBOY, and so those remakes never suffered any backlash and weren't compared unfavourably to the originals. Of course there are things I could've done better, but I think the remake is a good film, and no matter what, I’m very proud of my screenplay.   

I spoke to Mark by telephone on 18th December 2013, and would like to thank him for his time.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK PROTOSEVICH (PART 1 OF 2)

With films like THE CELL (2000), POSEIDON (2006), I AM LEGEND (2007), THOR (2011) and the OLDBOY remake (2013) to his name, Mark Protosevich is one of the busiest and most sought-after screenwriters in the business. I spoke to Mark about his early, formative filmgoing experiences, getting his start in the film business and working on those five screenplays. In part one, we spoke about his early years, THE CELL and I AM LEGEND.  

What were some of your formative cinematic experiences?
Well, most of the first movies I saw, I saw on television. I grew up in Chicago and the local TV station WGN had a program on Sunday afternoons called 'Family Classics'. That’s where I discovered one of my favourite films of all time, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938). I loved all the Errol Flynn films – CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE SEA HAWK (1940). ‘Family Classics’ also showed films like TREASURE ISLAND (1934) with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, the Clark Cable/Charles Laughton version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), and a lot of the Ray Harryhausen movies, my favourite being MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961). Seeing these films for the first time, albeit on TV, were terrific experiences. On Saturday nights, WGN had a program called ‘Creature Features,’ which is where I first saw all the classic Universal horror movies, and I became obsessed with them. My whole life revolved around Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. There was a company called Aurora that made plastic models of all these characters and I used to build and paint them and keep them in my bedroom. I had my mother sew me a cape and I would wander around the neighborhood pretending I was a vampire. The Universal films were hugely influential for me, but when I was a little older I was exposed to the Hammer films, and there was a quality to them that was perhaps more attractive - in a very different way. They were more adult and there was a greater sense of the monsters posing a real threat. They were also more modern than the Universal horror films, which felt like products of a different bygone era. I’ll never forget watching the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing DRACULA (1958) with my mother and both of us being terrified, thrilled, and delighted. I now have a beautiful, huge French poster for that film and it hangs in my living room.

But in terms of actual cinema-going experience as a child? It was the usual Disney fare. CINDERELLA (1950), THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), MARY POPPINS (1964)… I think I even remember seeing SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)and even as a kid realizing, ''This is horrible.''

One experience I very strongly remember was at nine years old being taken to see THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) by my parents. My older sister had seen it and had raved about it and once she assured my parents there was no nudity or sex in it (the violence was fine), they decided to take me. It was my first 'adult' movie experience in a theater and I was absolutely thrilled. It was quite exhilarating – especially the car chase.

Which film do you see as your most important moviegoing experience?
When I was twelve or thirteen I had perhaps the most profound and influential moviegoing experience of my life. I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) for the first time in a theater. This was 1973/1974, a re-release, but I had never heard of the movie and it hadn’t appeared on TV yet, at least not to my knowledge. There were theatres in my neighborhood that on Saturday and Sunday afternoons would show triple feature horror movies. It was essentially cheap babysitting, as parents would give their kids money for a ticket and candy and just dump them in the theatre. The place was full of kids, and normally it was nuts - kids talking, running down the aisles and so on, because most of the movies shown were things like GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971). But when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started, the whole place went silent. Every kid watching it was mesmerised and terrified. I would usually go with a friend, but I was there by myself this particular time, and I remember at a certain point in the film being so frightened that I looked over at this other kid who was by himself and I could see he was in the same state I was in. So I got up and I sat next to him because it was more comforting to be 'with' someone than being alone. We didn’t say a word to each other, but it helped. I remember coming out of the theater after that bleak ending and realizing I'd never seen anything like it before.  I was shaken, but also thrilled because – in retrospect – it showed the powerful effect a film can have on an audience. All I can say is that I’ll never forget it.

What fuelled your ambition to become a screenwriter?
When I was very young I thought that I would be an actor. From the ages of twelve to fifteen I really enjoyed performing, but as I got older, I hated auditioning and it was unpleasant for me to think that it - auditioning - was something I'd have to do for the rest of my life. I was also drawing a lot at that time, so I was also thinking of going into illustration, which was my primary focus when I was in high school. I thought I would write and draw comic books as a career but I got to a point where my drawing skills peaked at only a certain level and would most likely stay that way. I realised that I didn't really have what it takes to be a comic book artist, but I'd always written stories though. I remember writing my first vampire tale in the fifth grade. My high school offered a film class and it was mostly film history, but you could also make your own Super 8 film as your final project. I made a stop-motion animated film about humans enslaved by robots. One human tries to escape and a robot tracks him down and in the end, they both die. I spent weeks building an elaborate spaceship model and a moon colony model on the ping-pong table in the basement. On a personal and creative level, everything just came together for me while making that little Super 8 movie.  At that point I knew that I wanted to have a career in film and for me, writing the story and script was the most satisfying part of the process. Also, I was getting exposed to some wonderful films at that time, like TAXI DRIVER (1976) and CHINATOWN (1974). When I was first in college it was the German New Wave and Fassbinder, Herzog and Wim Wenders, whose films I love ‘til this day. I went to Columbia College in Chicago and they had one of the best film programs in the country at the time. In the first few weeks of my first class, I shot a very short piece using 100ft of 16mm black and white film. I cut it with a block splicer, tape, a viewer and a couple of reels. I fell in love with the whole process. Also, it was a very nurturing school. The instructors and my fellow students were all supportive, excited, and passionate. My four years there changed my life. 

What led to your first script that got sold, THE CELL?
I wrote a few feature-length scripts in college. The first was a post-apocalyptic story where society was divided into groups depending on what kind of music they liked! There was a punk gang, a heavy metal gang, a funk gang, etc. Very ROAD WARRIOR (1981)-influenced. It wasn't very good but it was fun to write. Another was a post-Civil War western, and the third was a horror film about a small town whose inhabitants were undergoing a strange evolutionary change. The concepts were all intriguing, I thought, but in retrospect, the scripts themselves needed so much more work. The most common mistake a young screenwriter makes is thinking that their first draft is the last draft they need to write. I certainly know better now! After I graduated, I was asked to teach the introductory film production course at Columbia College and I worked as much as I could as a freelance writer in Chicago, even doing a little bit of film criticism. I also made some short films at that time, one of which won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. I was always writing, and just before I moved to L.A. I had written a script about a father who investigates his daughter’s disappearance in Mexico. It was sort of a spiritual cousin to BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977).  It was called 'Phoenix Rising', and it garnered some interest from an agent and a producer, but nothing came of it. The goal of moving to L.A. was to establish myself as a screenwriter, but it took six years before I sold my first script, which was THE CELL. In those six years I was writing at least a script a year. I wrote a gritty thriller, a science fiction piece, and a children's movie, amongst others, all the time while working various jobs in the movie industry. I would get 'nibbles' of interest in my work as a writer, but nothing ever panned out. So I would try and try again.

What were some of those jobs?
When I moved out to L.A. I didn't have much money at all and I needed to work. My first real industry job was as a receptionist at Mercury/Douglas, a production company in which Michael Phillips and Michael Douglas were the partners. They had a story analyst, or 'reader', there, and I felt like THAT was a job I could do. Writing a synopsis of a screenplay’s story and then providing a critical analysis of it? Yeah, I could do that. I told Michael Phillips that if their reader got backed up, I could pick up the slack. I started filling in, writing 'coverage', whenever I had spare time, and I got good at it. That led to my second  job - as Scott Rudin's reader. This was when Scott was just starting out as a producer. I worked for him for a year, reading countless books, plays, and screenplays. My desk was always piled high with material. In terms of learning what makes a good screenplay, I probably learned far more that year than I did in four years of film school, just by reading the screenplays that were submitted to Scott for consideration. This was the time when I was first exposed to work by writers like Steve Zaillian, Eric Roth, Paul Attanasio and Scott Frank. To me, their material was clearly so much better than that of other writers and they really inspired me. I still think Steve Zaillian’s original script for AWAKENINGS (1990) and Eric Roth’s original script for THE POSTMAN (1997) are two of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. After that I became a studio reader for Columbia Pictures – I was even in the story analysts union – and worked a lot for Amy Pascal, at the time one of many Vice Presidents at the studio. She was a very supportive mentor and was influential in my being promoted to the position of Creative Executive. I was quite good at writing story notes on projects, which is karmic because I’m the one who now gets studio notes! I then worked as Director of Development at Orion Pictures, around the time they were releasing DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). It was great to be there and I worked with some really wonderful people, but unfortunately, Orion was financially troubled and the studio fell apart. My last executive job was at MGM, as Vice President of Development. I was good at story, I was good in a room with writers, and I felt I could really help develop scripts.  All these were great assets for an executive, but still, what I really wanted to be was a screenwriter. So I placed all my bets on the script for THE CELL. If it sold, I’d commit to being a writer. If it didn’t, I’d devote myself 100% to being an executive or producer. When I showed the script of THE CELL to the man who became my agent, he said,''We're going to sell this, but it's not only a good concept, it’s a really good piece of writing.'' After the script did indeed sell and it become my writing sample, I was offered the opportunity to write I AM LEGEND (2007), and blessedly I’ve been employed as a screenwriter ever since.

What kept up your motivation for writing during those six years?
I showed the scripts I wrote to various people in the industry and occasionally I'd get some interest from a producer or agent but nothing happened. What was more important though, was that I got a lot of encouragement. Honest, heartfelt encouragement from people I trusted. So I just kept writing. What often separates having a screenwriting career from not having a screenwriting career is perseverance. I’ve known many people who write one script and think their career will be made by that one piece, and when it doesn't happen, they get disillusioned and start complaining that the industry is conspiring against them. It's always someone else's fault. When I got rejected, I just thought, ''THAT script didn't work, so I'll write another one.'' I did that again and again. It’s the same for every successful writer I know – when you get knocked down, you stand up and start over again.   

What inspired you to write THE CELL?
At the time I was incredibly fascinated by serial killers. I was doing a lot of research about actual serial killers and I found that many of them were victims of extreme abuse when they were children. I was intrigued by the question of whether it was possible to develop compassion for someone who has done terrible, dreadful things, but has suffered their own kind of torture. Or should we not have compassion for a killer because in the end we all have to be held accountable for our actions? So while I was thinking about serial killers, I was also thinking about the science fiction concept of being able to see someone else’s dreams. It’s a provocative, visually rich idea. I am and always have been an armchair psychologist when it comes to the topic of dreams. I find them fascinating and insightful. The idea of seeing other people's dreams had popped up in 'Star Trek' and the film DREAMSCAPE (1984), as well as in sci-fi literature, and I suppose I was always curious to see what would happen if I delved into that area too. I had also been having some freaky dreams about drowning, which is one of my great fears, even though oddly enough I swim every day. Writing THE CELL was the perfect way to blend together these different areas of interest.

How was your collaboration with the director, Tarsem Singh?
When I was writing the script, somewhere in my mind I was thinking that the dream scenes were going to look like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (1987) or something like that, but when Tarsem came on board, it became something else entirely, because he was coming from such a richly visual world. THE CELL was one of two times (the other was OLDBOY) where I was on set every day during the production, doing the day-to-day rewrites and watching the filming. THE CELL is very much my script but the visual world of it is very much Tarsem's creation. Nobody, certainly me, could have anticipated where he would take the images. To this day I meet people who absolutely love the film and I meet people who actively hate it. I understand both reactions and now, years after its release, I’m delighted that it provokes such a strong response. Personally I think it was ahead of its time and deserves a second look by its detractors. At the time of its release, Tarsem was criticised as being concerned about the visuals and not so much about character and story, which might have been true. But I think it's an interesting movie. It's very unique, and you can't say that about too many films. The thing that was frustrating for me was that when people read the original script, they'd tell me it was a real page-turner. In retrospect, I wish the film had more classic suspense. It could have been an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but it's something different than that. I still appreciate it though, and I think Tarsem is a very interesting filmmaker. I am curious to see what he does in the future. I particularly liked THE FALL (2006).  

I AM LEGEND (2007) had a long road to production. How long did you work on the project?
I was involved with the film off and on for almost ten years and was hired on four separate contracts by Warner Brothers. My agent put me out there as a new writer, with THE CELL as my writing sample, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Warner Bros. especially liked it. We had a meeting and he told me, ''I love THE CELL. I want to talk to you about three projects. The first one is I AM LEGEND.'' I said, ''We don't have to talk about the other two.'' And to this day, I don’t remember what they were! I was a huge fan of Richard Matheson. I loved the book 'I Am Legend' (1954) and going back to early great film experiences, I saw THE OMEGA MAN (1971) at a drive-in with my older sister, her boyfriend, and my other sister. I was ten at the time and it made a huge impression on me. So in this meeting with Lorenzo, I thought ''I have to write this.'' I worked up a take on the material, was hired to write the script, and the response to the first draft was incredibly positive and absolutely solidified my position in Hollywood. To this day – within the industry – it’s the script for which I’m best known. I specifically remember my agent reading it and telling me, ''You're going to have a career.'' At one point he told me that every year there’s one script that every person in the industry reads, and that year it was my first draft of I AM LEGEND.  Within weeks of my turning the script into the studio, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on to star and Ridley Scott signed on to direct.

Why didn't the Ridley Scott version happen?
I have strong memories of meeting Ridley’s production designer, Arthur Max, and looking at all his wonderful drawings in the art department. It was incredibly exciting. And then it all fell apart, primarily over cost. Warners had just released BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) and THE POSTMAN and they did not do as well as expected, so they were reluctant to spend the kind of money Ridley wanted to spend. About a year later they wanted to do a more down and dirty production with Rob Bowman directing, who had done the X-FILES movie (1998), and with Arnold starring. I was hired to do those drafts, but once again the film never happened and the project languished for a while. A few years later I got a call telling me that Will Smith was interested in doing it and I had a great meeting with him at his house. I did a draft for Will, and I loved working with him – he’s a genuinely great person. Michael Bay was supposed to direct, but then 28 DAYS LATER (2002) came out and everyone felt it was too soon to do something so similar.  If you looked at the draft I revised with Will Smith, I think it's about 70% of what you see in the actual film I AM LEGEND. 

How did the project get resurrected and eventually made? How different were your unused ideas?
The project languished again for awhile, but Will's interest never waned. When Akiva Goldsman got a production deal at Warners, he brought in Francis Lawrence to direct, and with Will and his producing partner James Lassiter, they put the whole thing together. At first, Akiva had some radical ideas about changing the script. I had set the story in Los Angeles and he wanted to move it to New York City, but the location wasn’t the issue. He proposed a scenario in which the deadly outbreak was limited to Manhattan Island, which was then quarantined and cordoned off, turning it into a de facto prison for the Infected. The rest of the country – the rest of the world – was fine. Neville chooses to remain on the island to do his research because his infected wife and child are there. The inherent threat was that if the 'zombies' escaped the island, the outbreak would spread. I was offered the opportunity to write that version of the story, but I had real problems with it, the most significant being that it eliminated the core 'last man on earth' concept from Matheson’s book. When I raised these issues, I was told Akiva had decided to write the script himself and I was no longer involved with the film. The funny thing is, when the film went into production, I thought that was the version they were going to shoot! Imagine my surprise when I was sent the final shooting script and saw that it was essentially the draft that I had worked on with Will Smith years earlier. Unbeknownst to me, Warner Bros. had rejected the alternate take and decided to use my Will Smith draft as their foundation. The shooting script was now set in New York and Akiva had greatly revised the third act. In my version of the screenplay, the woman who shows up is a tough, cold, and drug-addicted victim of sexual and physical abuse, but she’s a survivor, hell-bent on protecting her younger brother. In their initial meeting, the creatures take her brother and she assumes he is dead. She finds refuge with Neville and a hesitant relationship builds between them, but that is shattered when the leader of the creatures proves to them that the boy is still alive, held captive in the abandoned hospital that the creatures call home. Neville realizes it’s a trap, but the woman goes after her brother anyway. Neville’s then faced with a test of his humanity… Go after them or survive. Alone. Of course he rescues them and destroys the leader, but what he finds in the hospital is that the creatures are breeding, that they are forming 'families', and that forces him to re-evaluate them. Are they monsters? Or just another life form? Anyhow, all that was scrapped to introduce a more hopeful, spiritual element to the story. And from what I was told, Warner Bros. never would have gone forward with my darker version, and perhaps it would not have been as popular a film as it was if it weren’t for the more positive quality to the third act. Although I have to admit, I hate the final minutes of the movie – when they find the group of survivors in Vermont. The other thing that I have to say is that people always give me shit for killing the dog. I didn’t kill the dog. Akiva did. In my version, Neville can’t bring himself to do it and lets the dog go, giving him the chance to survive in his new form.  Then, at the very end of the original script, Neville’s dog confronts Neville, the girl, and the boy. The dog is now the leader of a pack of mutated dogs and the pack wants to kill them, but Neville’s dog, asserting his authority, lets them go. I wanted to suggest with this moment, and the discovery that the creatures are breeding and that they care for their children, that there is something hopeful, something sensitive and aware occurring in these new life forms, and that the future may not be so bleak after all.

Was the version of the film that got made considerably more stripped down than the Ridley Scott version?
Well, Ridley worked on a few different versions.  There was my original draft, then he worked on a draft with John Logan, that was quite different, and when that draft was set aside, I was brought back and we developed yet another version. It’s impossible to list all the differences, but for example, in the first draft, the creature could speak, and one of them had previously known Neville, which brought an added dimension to their relationship. The creatures had their own society with its own rituals. It definitely had much larger, deeper thematic qualities, and in a lot of ways was a “siege” film like ZULU (1964) or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976). There were so many different versions of the script over the years, it’s impossible to document all the variations.

Can you talk about the I AM LEGEND sequel that you wrote?
During the shooting of I AM LEGEND, I went to New York and met with Will Smith, Francis Lawrence, James Lassiter, and Akiva Goldsman. They told me of Warner Bros.’ desire for a sequel – perhaps even a trilogy of films – and everyone wanted me to be a part of it. I came up with an idea and awhile later started writing the script. Bear in mind, this was when the Neville character lived at the end of I AM LEGEND. This original ending is included on the DVD and it’s what I was working off of when I wrote the sequel. In the sequel script, Neville, the woman, and the boy have spent months searching for other survivors but have found none. They’re angry and frustrated and about to lose hope when they come upon an organized group of human survivors – mostly former police and military - using Attica prison as a 'fortress' to protect them from the Infected. I don’t watch the television show 'The Walking Dead' (2010 -), but I know that a similar prison-based idea was used and it makes perfect sense to me. Anyone with half a brain would realize that a prison compound is tailor-made to act as a secure safe haven. Anyhow, during the course of the story, Neville comes to realize that despite the other survivors’ desire to create an all-American 'hometown', there is a dark underbelly to their world. There is no true individual freedom and many of the citizens in leadership roles subjugate dissenters and enjoy torturing captured Infected. Needless to say, there was some political subtext. At one point in the story, Neville is betrayed by the group and left for dead in Manhattan, but the leader of the Infected from the first film saves him. Neville learns that the Infected have established a primitive society, but their children are sick and dying and the leader wants him to save them. The key thematic element was that Neville begins to see his former enemies as 'human'. Ultimately, Neville develops an understanding with the leader and together, they help the worthy survivors at Attica defeat both their oppressors and a brutal, barbaric, subhuman faction of Infected that threatens them all. My intention was to set up a scenario so that in the third film, we would address the ideas that pop up in the later chapters of Richard Matheson’s original novel – that the Infected are transitioning to become the next level evolutionary human life form on the planet and that Neville is an anachronism. I was very excited about the potential of the whole thing when I turned in the script for the sequel – or hopefully what would be seen as part two of a trilogy – to the producers. I waited for a response. And waited. And waited. Until I got a phone call from Akiva saying, ''We re-shot the ending. Neville dies at the end.'' It was that abrupt. My heart sank and I felt sick. All the work I had spent months doing on the sequel script was for nothing. This kind of thing happens all the time in the movie business, but this incident really frustrated me. To this day, I think the trilogy could have been great.

Read Part Two.  

I spoke to Mark by telephone on 18th December 2013 and would like to thank him for his time.