After Earth: Will Smith and M Night Shyamalan Q&A with Alex Zane
Crash landing in UK cinemas on the 7th June is an epic journey starring father and son duo Will and Jaden Smith. Directed by M Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense, Signs), After Earth promises to be this summer’s biggest blockbuster.
TV host Alex Zane was joined in Leicester Square with the two main actors of After Earth and M Night Shyamalan to find out about the upcoming movie and what it is like to work with the stars of The Pursuit of Happiness.
So, first of all, how did the idea for the film come about?
Will Smith: I called Night to wish him a happy birthday and he was like “first of all you’re not coming to my party, and I don’t want a present. I want to make a movie. Pitch me a movie, right now!” So I was like, “errrr…” and I pitched the idea of After Earth…and I was like wait a minute, that’s like – a real movie. And then I think it was probably about 10 days later…
M Night Shyamalan: …and we met in Los Angeles.
WS: Yeah, we met in L.A. and Night had come up with all these ideas, and he really forced it through. [To Night] You know, thank you, because I was being lazy!
MNS: I think you thought I was joking…and yeah and I called and said yeah I’ll do it.
WS: And I said I’m in, that’s cool!
So this is how Hollywood works: a phone call, an idea, and there we go! What’s it like working together, having had that conversation in your front room, and now seeing this multi-million dollar movie onscreen?
Jaden Smith: It’s amazing – I love it! Because only halfway through the movie did I realise that this is actually a sci-fi movie. I mean this is my favourite type of movie to make and I am actually making it! It has explosions, extra terrestrials, black people with swords… I was like this is amazing, this is exactly the movie I wanted to make. I am just happy we got the opportunity to make it. I think people are really going to enjoy it.
Night, you’ve got a father and son here – a real life father and son – playing a fictional father and son on screen. Does that as a director make it easier for you or does it present a whole new host of problems?
MNS: It’s a unique experience. I always use the parent when I am directing a younger person, but then him [Smith] being in the movie is an added thing, so sometimes I had to protect him so he could do his performance. And sometimes it’s just me and Jaden, and he’s very guarded – he’s a very sweet kid, he doesn’t like to show his emotions. He’s very quiet, very sweet, and I’m like “No, no, its ok, you can come out, come out,” and sometimes I can’t get all the way, so I turn to Will and I’m like: “Go beat him up.” And he goes, he’s the father – he’s the daddy – he won’t get in trouble…so it’s fine!
The scene we have just seen is quite an intense: “you need to do this or… we…are… going… to… die.” I imagine your relationship with your dad at home is very different?
WS: Oh no, it’s similar to that! I’ll be like “Jaden, eat your spinach, or… we… are… going… to… die!”
JS: It is similar in some ways, but Cypher and my dad are two completely different people – that’s what’s so confusing. When I am talking to him I could be speaking as Kitai, or I could be speaking as Jaden. On Pursuit of Happiness it was a different story – it was the same person. It was like, literally, “Yo dad, can I get some orange juice out of the fridge,” and he’d be like, “We can’t afford any orange juice, Christopher,” and I’m like, “We can, it’s in the fridge already!”
WS: Yeah I was just way more in character.
JS: He was way more in character! He stopped showering and buying things for like a month.
Obviously you are a producer on the movie as well, Will. What’s it like as the producer knowing your son is going to be running around Costa Rica doing such physically active and action-packed stunts?
WS: Right, so you are a producer and a father, so you got to go back as the producer and your job is to make sure the movie gets made. And as a father, you just want to make sure your kid stays alive for the process. So there was this one time…
MNS: I could tell who was coming up to the set, the father or the producer, and this one time I was like: “Oh, the father is here.” We were on a cliff – you going to tell that story?
WS: Ok, so we walk out and Night sees me coming – and I can always tell when Night is about to ask me to do something that is way too dangerous for Jaden to do. I see Night looking over the cliff, and it’s like a 400 metre drop and he’s going “pfft” [pulls face], and then he sees me coming and he is like [nods head as if to say it’s nothing]. So Night’s like: “Err… hey, Will how you doin’? So listen, I’m thinking, we’re just going to wire Jaden and hang him over the cliff, and we are going to have him crawl up…” And I’m like…
MNS: First of all let me make it clear, there was no danger – it’s scary but there is no danger! And then Jaden comes over and looks over the edge and says, “No. No way I’m doing that,” and walks away and I’m like, “I guess we aren’t doing that shot!”
WS: It’s difficult sometimes because as a father there is a certain amount of push you want to give your son; you know, as strange as it sounds, movie making is our family business. It’s like a pizzeria or a car dealership – you know, that’s what the whole family does – so I want to push him and I want to teach him that the directors designed a shot and tested it so clearly it is safe, but the father was winning out more times.
MNS: You know Will is an athlete, and Jaden is too. They are very skilled. There are lots of times when the guys will be doing parkour – you guys know what parkour is right?
JS: Acrobats, running, jumping, flipping, diving, escaping something and you know, just looking cool at the same time!
MNS: So yeah, there were times when I would be fine with what he did, like parkour off a tree and run off but then Will would push him even further and get him to go faster and do it harder.
We saw the baboon scene where Jaden is being chased by the baboons who are obviously CGI. Jaden you looked genuinely terrified in that scene, so what were you actually running from there?
JS: There are people chasing me with grey suits, so that was kind of scary…
WS: Yeah, because there are people in the suits.
MNS: Grey spandex.
WS: Yeah, in grey spandex suits and these guys are like [makes a strange animal noise]…
JS: So it is equally scary…They are actually really good at it – they run around like this and they crawl [gets out of seat and starts acting like a manic baboon]. And they are really good, they know, they are trained to look like baboons. They’re talented. They almost could get billed as actors – it’s an acting job that they are doing.
And in terms of the scale of this movie, this is certainly one of your biggest movies – and it’s a blank canvas. I mean really you can create any kind of world visually that you want, which as a director must be really exciting?
MNS: We spent a year working on the way the world would look. We had all the production designers at my house, we were building models and looking with the CGI guys at how we would design the creatures – it is unlimited you know, and I think what was really helpful in terms of pushing me as I’m a very still and quiet person, but Will kept asking me and urging me to be bigger and broader in terms of my creativity and really trying to make it as exciting as possible, so we got both in the movie.
What was like for you guys to work with Night? When you first made that call to make the movie?
WS: That was the element that I thought was most interesting about this collaboration. You know Night is able to take a shot and it looks and feels like nothing is happening, but he knows just how to make it hang long enough that the audience goes, “Ah come on…oh no wait no…why’s he holding the shot,” and he is able to create such tension with what’s seemingly nothing. And for me you know, I’m summer movies – you know, loud, explosions, action sequences – but to be able to focus on what is an epic summer blockbuster movie but to pay that much attention to the delicate nuances of just a simple father and son story at the beginning of it…to me we created something really special in that blend.
How do you access the heightened emotions that we have seen in all your films, especially since you are working with Jaden? How do you differentiate between the family emotion and this film emotion?
WS: First and foremost, for the access you have to clear your own personal blocks. You have to be able to be vulnerable in front of anybody, you have to be comfortable looking silly, you have to be comfortable making mistakes, and you have to break the thing inside of you that doesn’t want people to see. Because as soon as you allow people to see, all of a sudden you get access to things that you didn’t realise you had access to.
The camera hates emotional blocks. You put a camera in somebody’s face and they are uncomfortable about delivering emotion then it looks fake, and you feel it. You immediately know it is not real.
JS: [sarcastic] I was so scared…
WS: Well yeah, that’s part of it. But by the same token, you got to be able to just be quiet, be nervous, to really love someone [reaches out and strokes Jaden – laughs]. Really at the end of the day it’s about finding ways to get comfortable in front of your father. That block you have for your father is the block you will have for the camera…is the block you are going to have when there is a pretty girl behind the camera that’s working, and you want to look cool for her, you don’t want her to see you cry, so that block – you can use your father if he makes you uncomfortable, because that’s perfect – that’s the discomfort you have to break to be able to bare yourself in front of the camera.
JS: What you were saying about being afraid of girls, being afraid of the camera, being scared in general – it’s really about being afraid of what people think. You are such an amazing actor because as a teenager in Philly, he [Will] would go to the mall, stand up on the chair and say, “Hey, can I have your attention everybody? My name is Will Smith and I am going to be famous one day – you guys don’t know me yet,” then he would sit back down. He was just comfortable saying and doing anything, so when you got in front of the camera you were ok to let that emotion go.
WS: Yeah that was like practice for me to break that fear. Girls are great too! At a party, get comfortable walking up to a girl and saying hi, and getting rejected, hard, in front of your friends. You got to break that, because in acting, every take is rejection. That’s what it is. You do a take and people don’t clap, that’s rejection and you don’t want that to close you down, because burying yourself is what makes you look strong on camera.
MNS: I am going to jump in just there, because each of these guys has what Will calls “blockages” but what I would phrase “habits to protect you”. You can see here just from their two different kind of personalities that Will’s defence mechanism is going extroverted – big, loud, he is going to distract you. Jaden’s is to go still. So they can each still do their magic and all their emotion, just in a different vocabulary.
Photos: Pathways Pictures (1-4), Filippo L’Astorina (5-6)
After Earth is released nationwide on 7th June 2013.
Watch the trailer for After Earth here: