The crowd began to gather at 6 a.m., clustered behind barricades blocking access to Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. At first, there were only a few dozen people, but within an hour, there were hundreds, all gathered to see Will Smith shoot his latest film. As the cameras rolled, the superstar quietly walked down the street, utterly alone except for the German shepherd trotting behind him. When director Francis Lawrence called ''Cut,'' the crowd let loose with applause while the filmmakers chuckled over the irony of the spectators' very presence. ''It was surreal,'' says Smith, recalling the moment many months later. ''It's kinda difficult to feel like you're the last man on earth when you're shooting in New York.''
Smith doesn't mean this in an actors must block out the world and concentrate kind of way. In I Am Legend, the Oscar-nominated star of Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness plays Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist who believes himself to be the sole survivor of a man-made plague that has wiped out most of humanity and turned the rest into nocturnal, vampiric mutants. Hopelessly alone, Neville spends his days looking for a cure and his nights trying to avoid becoming monster food.
Adapted from the 1954 novel by revered sci-fi/fantasy author and storied Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, the enigmatically titled I Am Legend marks Hollywood's third pass at the material, after 1964's Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth and 1971's Charlton Heston cult classic The Omega Man. While those took a rather conventional horror-movie approach, this $100 million-plus version aspires toward themes both timeless and timely (existential plight, xenophobia, pandemic jitters) and is filled with panoramic, how'd they do that? shots of an eerily empty Manhattan. ''It's a deeply quiet movie,'' says writer-producer Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). ''It's epic yet intimate; huge but tiny at the same time.''
For the actor at the center of what's largely a one-man show, Legend represents the fulfillment of an elusive goal: perfecting a blend of populist popcorn fare with ambitious art films, or what Smith terms ''summer movies'' and ''fall movies.'' ''There's a sweet spot I've been chasing in my career,'' says Smith. ''Gladiator, Forrest Gump these are movies with wonderful, audience-pleasing elements but also uncompromised artistic value. I Am Legend always felt like it had those possibilities to me.''
He hasn't been the only one to see the potential. During the film's 12-year trek toward the big screen, Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas and directors James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro have been linked to the project. Director Ridley Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger got the first green light from Warner Bros., and in 1997 they were about to roll film when the studio yanked the plug because of a then-outrageous $108 million budget. Warner Bros. tried again in 2002, with Michael Bay directing a script by Mark Protosevich (The Cell) and Smith attached to star. But the following year, 28 Days Later a fresh British flick about a zombie virus that ravages London left Legend's creative team feeling they had been scooped. Bay and Smith moved on; the studio lost interest. Legend, it seemed, was lost.
Enter Goldsman and director Lawrence, who, in the fall of 2005, were looking for a follow-up to their successful Constantine. Goldsman a self-dubbed ''sci-fi geek'' with a passion for The Omega Man couldn't resist taking on such ''a lost puppy.'' He and Lawrence believed they could sidestep 28 Days Later with a film that was less monster-movie-ish and more allegorical and character-driven. ''In the back of your head, you're always wondering if you're taking on something you can't crack,'' Lawrence admits, ''but I was pretty positive that we would.''
NEXT PAGE: ''By the conclusion of this shoot, I wouldn't tell people what I did for a living because they'd go, 'Oh, you're that motherf---er.'''