Weight of the world

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: A writer's examination of regret and redemption lured Will Smith to carry 'Seven Pounds.'

Ten years ago, writer Grant Nieporte struck up a conversation with a stranger at his brother's 30th birthday party. About a half-hour into their talk, he realized that he was speaking to the saddest person he'd ever met.

"Later, I asked my mom, 'Did he just get out of prison for killing someone?' because that was the kind of weight it seemed like he was wrestling with," Nieporte recalls. "She said, 'No, but he feels responsible in his professional life for a national tragedy and the loss of life that accompanied that.'"

It turned out the man had moved to the West Coast to get away from his mysterious past. "I thought, one way to deal with it is to move away, change your life and find a new occupation," Nieporte says. "What is another way? What are the lengths that a character would go to make amends for a loss of life? How many years have to go by before you can forgive yourself, and when is it OK to live again?"

Those questions eventually would become "Seven Pounds," the tale of a man despondent about a past mistake who decides to redeem himself by committing seven acts of kindness for strangers before taking his own life.

But the idea remained in the back of Nieporte's mind for the next seven years as he worked on the final two seasons of ABC's "Home Improvement" and served as a showrunner's assistant and writer on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "8 Simple Rules."

"I didn't know what the rest of the mystery would be or what the plan would be," Nieporte says. "It sort of germinated on and off, and I finally started writing in the spring of '05."

Nieporte completed the script later that fall, and it was sent out to studios and producers the week before Christmas. The first bite came from the eventual buyer -- Escape Artists, the Sony-based independent production company headed by producers Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch. They met with Nieporte in January 2006 and optioned the script the following month. Their first comment: They wanted Nieporte to make it more of a love story. The writer didn't bristle at the request because he actually had excised a romantic thread to focus on the mystery surrounding why his main character, Ben Thomas, is so despondent.

"I knew I had the right producers when they started saying, 'Wait. What scenes did you cut?'" Nieporte says.

Once there was a solid draft, the producers approached Will Smith and his production partner, James Lassiter. The group had worked together on 2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness," which earned Smith an Oscar nomination for best actor.

"Will told me, 'Look, I planned on reading two or three pages and putting this thing down, but you had me by the first page,' " Nieporte recalls. "He told me he had to know what happened to the guy. He read it straight through and called up in the morning and said, 'I've got to do this.'"

Smith too had a few notes, including revising the original fantastical ending to make it more relatable. "That turned out to be a great note because it allowed me to bring the love story (involving a cardiac patient) full circle in a way that I never had in my earlier drafts," Nieporte says.

With Smith on board, the producers next approached Gabriele Muccino, the Italian director of "Happyness," who led Nieporte through yet another polish that wiped away some of the narrative fat that accumulated through previous drafts.

Finding financing was not a problem. "Happyness" had cost Sony a mere $55 million and grossed $300 million worldwide, so the studio was more than eager to be in business again with the world's biggest movie star and the same creative team. The "Seven Pounds" budget was similarly modest -- slightly less than $55 million.

The next step was filling out the rest of the cast. The most significant component was an actress to play Smith's love interest, Emily.

Rosario Dawson had heard about the part and was determined to land it. She had been in the running to play Smith's wife in "Happyness" but lost out to Thandie Newton. And after high-profile but relatively untaxing roles in such recent films as 2007's "Grindhouse" and this year's "Eagle Eye," she was ready for something she could sink her teeth into.

"I've read some great scripts over the years that I haven't even had the opportunity to audition for because they were already out to someone else," Dawson says. "With this one, I was being given the opportunity, and I knew if I didn't do well on the audition it would be nobody's fault but my own."

Initial signs were not encouraging. Arriving for the audition -- "One of the few times in my life that I was actually early," she says -- Dawson was greeted by other actresses waiting for their turns. Once she was in the room to read with Smith, Muccino made her repeat her scenes over and over again.

"He'd say, 'Don't do that. You're furrowing your brow. Don't act like you're upset, be upset,' " Dawson recalls. "But when the casting director cried, I thought, 'OK, that's a good sign.'"

It was. Dawson got the part, joining an ensemble cast that also includes Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy, Elpidia Carrillo and Bill Smitrovich.

Before principal photography commenced in February in and around Los Angeles, Muccino put the actors through five weeks of rehearsal while he honed the script without Nieporte, who couldn't participate because of the WGA strike.

"I always rehearse," Muccino says. "This time, I had to push Will to a place he's never been before. This character has nothing in common with Will Smith in real life. Will is somebody who's full of life. The character is somebody who believes his life is over. Will had to go to a dark place from which he had to be saved through the journey of the movie."

When cameras began rolling on the 60-day shoot, Smith -- who also served as one of the film's producers along with Lassiter, Black, Blumenthal and Tisch -- demonstrated a remarkable ability to dip in and out of that dark place.

"He can literally come off of shooting the heaviest thing and be instant comedy, cracking jokes and entertaining, right there with it and interested in people," says Nieporte, who was on the set for the bulk of the shoot. "Then they say, 'We're ready for you, Will,' and he's right back into character."

While Smith's disposition remained outwardly bright, near the end of the shoot the actor admitted to Nieporte that the weight of the character's inner turmoil was causing him real psychic pain. It was on his mind all the time, even when he was home at night with his family.

"He said, 'I am just exhausted. I've got to shed this,'" Nieporte remembers.

Whether the finished film would affect audiences so intensely remained to be seen. Smith told Nieporte that the true test would be if it inspired what he called "the man cry."

"Will said, 'In "Pursuit of Happyness," we got the man cry,'" Nieporte says. "In this movie, I know we've got the man cry!"
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