If I didn’t know it well enough before, I know it now: everybody loves Will Smith. It’s a balmy September evening in Budapest – at the Budavári palace, to be exact – and we are celebrating Smith’s 51st birthday. Patience is a virtue. It’s a slow process. It’s not just that random groups of tourists spot him from all the way down the hillside, bursting into spontaneous renditions of Happy Birthday, which he obliges with waves and warm gestures. Later he’ll take to a town square for even more public partying with DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Even the normally cynical hacks seem enchanted by his presence. As he moves along the red carpet, he is subjected to many more renditions of Happy Birthday; he is handed cakes and home-baked cookies; he is presented with souvenir mugs from everywhere from Munich to Moscow. He bounces from journalist to journalist, supplying professional and polished answers.
As he is promoting Gemini Man, a film in which he plays himself and a younger variation of himself – more on that later – he is asked at least half a dozen times what advice he might like to impart to himself circa Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“I’ve talked about that a lot,” he says, gamely, again and again, in variations on the theme. “In my youth I was so naive, and I realise now that there’s a power in the not knowing. When you are in your 20s and you don’t know how the world is, you don’t know the difficulties you are facing.
“I look at these young kids today tackling climate change and how they believe that everything is possible. That’s the way you have to be. So I probably wouldn’t say anything to my younger self. I would not want him to know. I’d want him to be like the kids today. To believe that all things are possible, That’s such a powerful mindset.
“I would want my younger self to talk to my older self, not the other way around. My younger self definitely had many doubts, many fears, but I was a fighter; I enjoyed it when something got hard. That would make me obsessive, make me work around the clock. I want to maintain some of those qualities.”
He’s not the first person you might think of as a leading man for director Ang Lee, a film-maker who always, rightly or wrongly, feels obliged to apologise for his long and thoughtful answers.
The last time we caught up with Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he had just completed Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the first major studio feature shot in 120 frames-per-second 3D, with 4K clarity. During the shoot the rushes required a flight simulator borrowed from the United States air force for playback.
It was a strange career move for Lee, who once railed against the suggestion that he should shoot Hulk on digital rather than film. Billy Lynn was not universally loved, and Lee, who had previously worked on the technologically challenging Life of Pi, seemed determined to get back to less pioneering forms of film-making.
“Did I say that?” laughs the Taiwanese-American director. “And then I went and found something even more technical. I don’t think there’s anything harder than creating a digital human being. Especially when it’s a familiar face that we can believe in. I just continue to explore what digital cinema can offer us. I think when I said I wanted something less technical I was just tired. I’m a low-tech person in life. But I was eager to see those images. You don’t say colour film, right? You say silent film, you say black-and-white. I think that one day saying high frame rate will be like saying colour film. So here we go again.”
Again, in this context, means Gemini Man, one of Hollywood’s most challenging projects. The story of a retired government assassin (Smith) who is pursued by his own younger clone (Smith’s voice, motion capture, millions of pixels) was first conceived as an actioner with the late Tony Scott attached to direct in 1997. Gemini Man has subsequently become synonymous with development hell, passing from one leading man to the next, with names as various as Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Sean Connery all attached over the past two decades.
“We’ve had this for a long time,” explains the producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “The technology just wasn’t there. We did a bunch of tests. We tried deageing, which is one way to do it, but you can’t go back that many years with the character and get the kind of emotional performance we wanted. And then we have Ang Lee with his 120 frames per second on a 4K 3D rig. That made it even harder to shoot. Because you could see every muscle in his face. So Will Smith did a vocal performance, and Weta” – the visual-effects company founded by Peter Jackson – “created a whole different digital being.”
The new tech peaks with a spectacular four-minute hand-to-hand fight scene between Smith and his 25-years-younger self, a merry dance between the actor, his digitised equivalent, stuntmen and stand-ins.
“Ever since my first movie experience with fight choreography, on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I’ve wanted to shoot a fight that was more visceral,” says Lee. “And I couldn’t do that, because you have to doctor it and choreograph it carefully, because otherwise you hurt people. In 100 years of cinema there hasn’t been a way to shoot a truly realistic fight. It’s always dancing, not fighting. Fighting is not pretty. So we had to borrow techniques from animation. We had to do something that broke up the rhythms of a real fight. Because a real fight lasts four seconds, not four minutes, and it doesn’t look so great.”
Lee wrote a nine-page letter to Paramount when it offered him Gemini Man. He thought twice, he says, about hitting the send button.
“I had written about philosophical themes like nature versus nurture and about the metaphorical possibilities of meeting a younger version of yourself,” says Lee. “I waited to hit send because this was an action thriller, and I hadn’t mentioned either of those things. I worried I had written myself out of the job.”
He hadn’t. Mind you, if Smith isn’t an obvious collaborator, until the director’s late technological period, he was an even unlikelier team-mate for Bruckheimer. With credits stretching back to 1972, Bruckheimer and his one-time professional partner Don Simpson changed the cinematic landscape with a series of high-budget, high-octane blockbusters, including Flashdance, Top Gun, The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon, and such hit-making franchises as Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure.
When Lee was making his well-regarded cross-cultural indie trilogy – Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman – Bruckheimer was presiding over Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
“Ang Lee is a brilliant man,” says the veteran producer. “He thinks through the character and the story, and, when you talk to him and find out how he sees the movie, he finds a lot of deep meaning in Gemini Man. There are things that he put in there that the audience have to look out for.
“So it was a great experience, to be working with a man that is so intelligent and is also a sweetheart to work with. He has a great sense of humour. And I think he is the hardest working director I’ve ever worked with.”
Gemini Man may be the first Lee and Bruckheimer endeavour, but the producer had worked with Smith before, on Enemy of the State, in 1998. It has been a while, but they have now shot two films back to back, Gemini Man and the long-awaited Bad Boys for Life.
“Well, he’s a very busy man,” says Bruckheimer. “And it took us almost 20 years to get this movie made. Will Smith gets 50 scripts a day, and if he says yes to something that gets the movie made. He’s got a lot of choices, so you have to have material that’s really different and that will interest him. In this business you hope for the best and expect the worst. But if you want to entertain audiences you hire talented actors, writers and directors.”
We’re told that these are hard times for original science-fiction films, yet the cerebral space opera Ad Astra has, against industry expectations, topped the international box office for two weeks in a row.
Smith, who has scored hits with Men in Black, I, Robot, Hancock, and I Am Legend, is, predictably, upbeat about the genre. “Star Wars was the first movie that really blew my mind,” he says. “The combination of rap music and Star Wars really shaped my teen years. There’s something about science fiction that feels bigger in my mind. I just love creating these fantasy places in expansive worlds where anything you dream can be true. As a kid, that was an escape from the world. But as I got older I started to realise that science fiction is about real life.”
For Bruckheimer, 2020 looks less precarious than Gemini Man’s original sci-fi gambit, with sequels to Bad Boys and Top Gun already in the can. “It’s a pure coincidence really,” says Bruckheimer. “We’ve been trying to get Bad Boys made for a very, very long time. But with recent management changes at Sony, Tom Rothman” – the new chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group – “came in, and he loves the first two films and wanted to make another one when previous managers weren’t interested. With Top Gun it’s all about Tom [Cruise]. It’s a historic, seminal movie for him. If he’s going to do it, it had to be perfect, it had to be great. And I think we got a screenplay that he liked and that he worked very hard on.”
Gemini Man is released on Thursday, October 10th