A 'Legend' in the making
The real battle in getting a post-apocalyptic Will Smith blockbuster made in New York is with the paperwork -- and the elementsNew York. Nighttime. Post-apocalypse. As a life-warping illness devastates the American populace, survivors gather at a pier by the Brooklyn Bridge, desperate to be evacuated.
It is a central moment in Warner Bros. Pictures' "I Am Legend," the much-anticipated $150 million-plus sci-fi actioner starring Will Smith and directed by Francis Lawrence. But as impressive a nail-biter as this particular scene will surely be, its drama is rivaled by that of the process of mounting and shooting it on six successive nights in January.
"The physical scale of the Brooklyn Bridge scene was the most daunting," says location manager Paul Kramer, who began prepping back in July. "There were so many moving parts."
In addition to complying with the requirements of no fewer than 14 government agencies, producers had to bring in a crew of 250, plus 1,000 extras, including 160 members of the National Guard in full combat gear. They commandeered a flotilla of Coast Guard boats, grappled with hypothermia-inducing temperatures, coped with dozens of production-related injuries -- and nursed a frozen helicopter.
All this cost the studio at least $5 million, according to executive producer Michael Tadross -- six times that, if Internet reports are to be believed.
While four Department of Defense Humvees and three Stryker armored vehicles waited on shore, a 110-foot cutter and a 41-foot utility boat, two 25-foot Response Boat Small craft and nearly 30 crewmen circled frigid waters for six nights.
To handle the "evacuations," a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter flew in with a crew of five, as did an Army-issue Black Hawk helicopter with four crew members. The dock on which these copters land in the film is actually a spud barge dressed up to look like a pier and floated in from Staten Island.
Then, to light the bridge as never before, crews worked weeks in advance, securing permission from the city's transportation department to dangle lights from catwalks and set up other lights on shores all over the waterfront. Scores of klieg lights were positioned to capture the 124-year-old landmark's every angle and curve -- from the Brooklyn side of the East River all the way to the South Street Seaport and into Manhattan. Even jaded New Yorkers, accustomed to seeing the bridge every night, commented on the vista.
The bridge scene is likely the most expensive shot in the city to date (in the completed film, it will serve as a flashback) in what the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting is calling the biggest movie to be filmed "start to finish" in New York. "Things are done in this film that have never been done before," Tadross says. "The hardest part of shooting this scene was its enormity and the logistics."
Creating such a tableau would be difficult in any large city, but accomplishing it in post-Sept. 11 New York seems nothing short of Sisyphean. The number of permits and permissions involved was staggering. "Just finding out who you needed the permits from and who needs to sign off was a job," Kramer says. "I needed to get permission from the (Economic Development Corp.), (the Department of Environmental Conservation), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the New York City (Department of Transportation), the New York State DOT, the Department of Small Business Services, the FDNY, the NYPD Harbor Unit, the NYPD Aviation Unit, the (Federal Aviation Administration), the U.S. Army, the National Guard and the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting."
If that seems Byzantine in its web of red tape, there is a reason. According to John Battista, deputy commissioner of the MOFTB, the hoops are all about safety.
"The priority is the safety of the general public," he says. "We have to have communication with all agencies, from the federal to the state to the local. We were in constant contact with those involved. Ten years ago, if we needed to get something done, it took a quick phone call. We had no fears. But after 9/11, we have to be more cognizant of what's going on around us."
Permits weren't the only challenge. Because the barge was not a true helicopter-landing site, the FAA required test landings. The MOFTB wanted sound tests, and the fire department needed trucks on the shore -- just in case.
NYPD divers were on hand at all times, augmented by a team of eight additional
officers. The Coast Guard organized safety briefs for a possible water rescue and also
dispatched a member of its Vessel Traffic Service to ensure that filming did not impede maritime operations.
"It was surreal because we were acting out something so similar to a real evacuation," says Cmdr. Kevin Raimer of the Coast Guard's Motion Picture and Television Liaison Office. "It was fun to do a movie, but the reality would have been a lot less light-hearted. Also, some of the crew had worked in New York during 9/11, and it brought back memories."
Sept. 11, 2001 also was on the minds of those at the MOFTB, which was concerned that waterfront commotion might confuse New Yorkers. "We wanted to make sure (residents) really knew this was a movie shoot and not a terrorist attack or cause for concern," commissioner Katherine Oliver says.
There were other logistical issues, including handling and directing legions of extras and production assistants. "How do you feed 2,000 people?" Tadross asks.
Quelling their appetites seemed minor compared to keeping them warm during one of the winter's coldest snaps. High temperatures were in the low 20 degrees, say those on the set, but lows could hit 10 degrees -- and the wind off the water didn't help. Producers erected a "tent city" nearby, but that offered little comfort during shooting.
"We renamed the film 'I Am Frozen,'" extra and comedian Anne Biondich says. Ambulances were called to the set several times.
"There were problems with hypothermia," Lt. Anthony Chapman of the NYPD Movie/TV Unit confirms. "It was brutal out there." (Producers say a diabetic collapsed after moving from warm to cold, but they were unaware of other hypothermia cases.) At one point, it was so cold that the landing gear on the Dolphin helicopter malfunctioned. But just when conditions seemed at their worst, star Will Smith stepped out of his two-story trailer and warmed people up by rapping his 1991 hit, "Summertime": "Summer, summer, summertime/time to sit back and unwind ...."
"Legend" is due to be released in December.