Ang Lee. Will Smith. Jerry Bruckheimer. Titans in this industry, who we never thought would ever come together, are finally joining forces to do the one thing Hollywood is not prepared for: Cloning Will Smith. Mind blown, right?
In the new blockbuster, Gemini Man, Smith plays Henry Brogan, an aging assassin — the best in the business — on the verge of retirement. However just before the beat-down covert killer can utter the phrase, “Riggs, I’m too old for this sh–” he’s confronted by his younger, better, sexier self, who has been cloned and sent to kill him. Now, on the run with the only two people he can count on, Henry is on a mission to confront the masterminds responsible for cloning him, as well as the clone who represents the better days that have passed him.
The film has been in development since the late ’90s, and stalled for some time, because Bruckheimer needed the technology to catch up to the premise. And luckily, he found the one man who could do justice to the story: two-time Academy Award winner, Ang Lee. Last week, Paramount invited members of the press to sit down with Lee, Smith, Bruckheimer, co-star, Clive Owen, and the master VFX crew from Weta Digital, VFX supervisor Guy Williams, and VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer, to talk about the movie, and the challenges of finally bringing Gemini Man to life.
As the crowd settled, each individual member of the conference was called out to the most energetic set of unseen “WOO’s” from behind a curtain. Turns out the maestro orchestrating the energy, and setting the tone for the fun, hilarious conference, was the Gemini Man himself, Smith, hollering after every single name was called to the stage to wake up the crowd, and inject a surge of comedic energy into the proceedings. As the cast finally got settled, the event began and the first question was directed towards producer, Bruckheimer: What was it that made him fall in love with the story and how did it evolve since the first time it was brought to him?
“Well it’s been at least 10 years that we’ve been working on this,” he began. “And the issue was the technology hadn’t caught up with the creativity of the writers. So we had to wait for [The Weta Digital Team] and Ang Lee to figure out how to get this movie made. We did some unsuccessful version of this in testing, and it looked pretty awful. So we kind of put it on the shelf until Ang said, ‘I have a whole new way of doing this… and I’m going to create something really special.’ And he certainly did.”
Lee was then asked what made him the perfect guy to direct this movie. He responded by saying:
“Of course I’m the guy!” he joked. “Each time I make a movie I have that feeling, like I am the guy. There’s nobody else. This is my movie! You make that visceral connection… Actually the first person who talked to me was David Ellison, in his office at Skydance. As soon as I hear ‘clone’ and ‘younger version,’ I felt I was old enough to deal with this stuff… all the philosophical stuff hit me first. Then [after] what kind of fun we’re going to have. And I know we’re getting into a digital world and how we create it. I experienced Hulk 20 years ago, and not too long ago, I experienced the tiger in Life of Pi, so in my head I know it’s within reach. But I know with human faces, you’re playing with fire… it’s pretty scary, but at the same time it’s pretty exciting. So I signed on.”
Following Lee’s response, Smith was asked what it was that made him go, “I’m in!” to the project.
Smith begain saying, “You know I just loved the philosophical idea that we all plant the seeds of our own destruction. We are our own worst enemies. We make choices and we make decisions in our lives that set things in motion that we can’t blame other people for. And the battle of trying to overcome our karma. And I just thought it was a really clever and creative way to say that we are the architects of our ultimate rise or fall. And it’s a big part of why I love science fiction, because you can put those things under really wild visual landscapes.”
Next, Owen, an action and sci-fi veteran in his own right, given the masterpiece, Children of Men, and the cult classic, Shoot ‘Em Up on his resume, was asked what it was about Gemini Man that was much more challenging than his other projects.
“I think it’s like a brilliant coming together of something that’s full of action, it’s a great premise, it’s a huge movie, but it’s also about characters and drama. And it’s very intimate and personal. And I think Mr. Ang Lee is the ultimate director for a movie like this, because he’s on top of the technology, he’s on top of what huge drama is, but he’s also incredibly artistic, and specific, and detailed. So I was just hugely excited when I got the script.”
Given the challenges of the technology were initially what shelved the movie, the Weta team of Williams and Westenhofer were asked about when they realized that they finally cracked it, and what the “Ah-Ha” moment was for them.
Westinhofer responded saying that the first time Lee approached them, “We did look at what had been done in the past, and where the technology was. There had been pretty close attempts in Rogue One and Blade Runner a year before. And we thought that things had matured, and it was very similar to what we did in Life of Pi. And he asked, ‘can we do for a human what we did for the tiger?’ So we looked and said that technology’s close enough that if we put the same determination into it, we thought we’d feel confident we could do that… There was some fear involved, but we felt confident the technology was close enough, that with raw determination and the incredible skill and talent of the people at Weta that we can do this.”
Williams added, “We’d been toying around with digital humans a lot with stuntwork. But to really break this barrier we needed a project that supported it. The commitment not just to have something like a guy falling off a building, but to truly have a digital human stand in front of a camera acting and resonating with the audience, and delivering the lines and serving the story. And this film was the perfect opportunity to actually bring it all together.”
Smith also chimed in to add to this by saying, “I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and I don’t think people really understand the depth of what you guys have attempted and accomplished here. Junior (Smith’s clone in the movie) is not de-aging. So it’s not my face, and then they smooth out my face to make it look younger. It’s a 100% digital human in the same way that the tiger in Life of Pi… is a 100% digital recreation of a tiger. This is not me de-aged. It’s a 100% digital interpretation of me. It’s a digital character. It’s the first digital human. So it’s actually a spectacular thing to be able to make people feel emotion in that way, capturing the youthful eyes… You can’t fake innocence… As a young actor it’s easier to play older. But older, it’s impossible to play younger. Once you know some stuff it’s in your eyes. It’s in your cells once you know some stuff… So their job in creating of a digital human was to be able to sell that innocence and that youth, and to be able to sell a digital human in that way, and I think you guys did spectacular work.”
“I want to say that Will’s being very humble in this one aspect. Despite all that there’s no magic button that we can press to make him look young,” stated Westinhofer. “He had to ingest that and be himself at 23. We could put the look, and make sure he looked like his 23 year old self, but the performance and the innocence had to come from him, so that was well done.”
A question came up for Bruckheimer regarding the how rewarding it was to nurture a film that was not based on an existing IP.
“It’s always great when you find a piece of material you’re in love with, and you can bring it to an audience, and hopefully they’ll enjoy it the way you enjoyed it when you read it. And you have to understand that when they talk about digital Will, it’s his performance. So it’s 100% Will’s performance, on a digital full body. It’s not just that they replaced they head. It’s everything… So he played two characters in this movie. First he did the Henry part of it. Then he turned around and did the Junior part of it. So it was grueling for him to have to play two parts every single time those two characters were on screen together. So you have to understand the accomplishment that not only Weta did and Ang did, but his performance is outstanding for two parts. It’s so difficult.”
Smith was asked about how he separated his performance as Henry from his performance as Junior.
“What was really great that Ang did, was before we even met, he went through my filmography. And he grabbed things from Fresh Prince, Six Degrees of Separation, Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black. And he grabbed the scenes and was walking me through moments. He would say, ‘I love very much what you do in this moment in Six Degrees. In Bad Boys, this moment was good, but don’t ever do this in my movie,'” Smith joked. “So we sort of created a language of the old characters and the moments he was trying to capture. It’s funny, there’s a thing before you learn how to act — a powerful thing you have from not knowing. And it’s really difficult to recapture the ‘not knowing.’ And we found these really honest moments in some of my early work. So of all the things, that was the most difficult part. It was almost like going back to bad acting. Because there’s an honesty to it… Letting go of all of that stuff was really difficult.”
Later in the conference, Lee was also asked about the process of working with High Frame Rate Digital 3D for Gemini Man.
“To me it’s really the sharpness. I think when you’re doing 3D you allow people to be more immersive, to mimic how you experience things in real life… To invite them into that world, it’s not just clear [shots], it’s sharpness. The way you process the images through two eyes at an angle, it’s different than when you watch movies… This is something new. We want to experience the movie [more than] just watching it… Your mind needs to be sharper. It needs to be sharper in perception. Details have to be more accurate than when you begin with… When you visualize it, when you play it out, it takes a lot more details and sharpness, even processing in our heads, to believe it’s real life. So the frame rate needs to be raised. At least the basic is to be strobe free. Because in real life there’s no strobe. If your eyes want to believe that’s real, you have to get rid of the other obstacles to allow them to get into that world… It’s a new medium. Technology-related. But really a medium. And we’re trying to find a relationship with that medium.”
Smith was asked what was going through his head the first time he saw Junior on screen.
“It was really crazy the first time I saw it… It was chilling almost… The first time I saw it was one of my favorite shots in the whole movie, was when Henry flips Junior over in the catacombs and puts the light up to Junior’s face… And it was a little surreal and a little bit weird. And then I started getting excited about the possibilities. The “Young Will Smith/Young Marlon Brando” movie that can be made… it’s a full 23-year old digital version of myself. And my mind just went wild about what you’d be able to do. Even the action sequences. How the action sequences were done is — normally you’d do an action sequence, and you can’t actually punch someone in the face, so you take the shot, and the actor goes [mimics an actor pretending to receive a blow] and you keep going. Now what we were able to do with the technology was you’d do the scene, you’d do the swing, and they’d take the fist and they’d put it on the face of the digital character… So when you’re seeing those shots now, where we’re used to seeing misses with sound and blur, you’re seeing full shots in the same way we’re seeing MMA. So it was a great new way to do the action… So in terms of action I’m really excited about the use of this technology in the future.”
I think we can all agree that we are eager to see how Will and his digital doppelganger will impact the state of cinema going forward!
Gemini Man hits theaters October 11, 2019!