BEHIND THE SCENES
"In 7 days, God created the world. In 7 seconds, I shattered mine." -- Ben Thomas, Seven Pounds
About the Filmmaking Team
In 2006, with The Pursuit of Happyness, director Gabriele Muccino and star Will Smith happened upon on an extraordinary story – that of a homeless father who courageously rebuilds his life, becoming a corporate success on nothing but grit, love and hope. The film would go on to become a major hit and to garner widespread acclaim and honors, drawing both Academy Award® and Golden Globe nominations for Smith’s deeply affecting performance.
Now, the alchemy of another original, emotional, thought-provoking story brings the pair together again for this year’s Seven Pounds, a provocative love story between Ben Thomas, a man preparing to do something extraordinary for seven strangers, and Emily Posa, one of those strangers, whose life-changing effect on him was never part of the plan. The draw for both director and star was the chance to create a different kind of screen love story, one which is not just about an unpredictable and deep romance but about the greater redemptive power of selfless love.
"I was drawn to the story because it’s about a very mysterious journey that is itself a declaration of love," says Muccino. "To me, it’s about a man who is gripped by loss and gets an unexpected chance to have a newfound experience of life. It’s a challenging, unsettling, moving story with an incredible amount of emotion. And the exchange of ideas and exchanges of inspirations that has been so incredibly powerful in this movie could only have happened with Will Smith."
Smith feels similarly. "I was blown away conceptually by the script," he says, "and by its ideas about finding purpose, about the powerful necessity to attach meaning to our lives. It’s an incredible modern love story I don’t think we’ve seen before. And this team led by Gabriele has such powerful insight into human emotion – they know how to find it and nurture it. I felt that when you put all that together, and add in people like Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson, it would be a real recipe for success."
Smith continues: "For me, it was also another chance to tell a story about this same central human idea that continues to fascinate me: how do we as humans overcome great trauma? How do we go on when everything goes wrong? In that vein, Seven Pounds is a redemptive story, and one that also has a truly unexpected ending."
Screenwriter Grant Nieporte notes that he sees Ben’s urgent quest for personal redemption as something more – as a highly unconventional love story that broadens his horizons far beyond what he ever expected.
"The story began for me as a mystery but it became a back door into a love story that’s as unexpected for the audience as it is for Ben," Nieporte says. "Ben’s only focus is trying to find good, decent people to help, but in the process he starts to find himself in a place he never imagined happening: being charmed and getting drawn out by and having very strong emotions for Emily. He thinks he is essentially dead to the world, and then he meets her and nothing is the same. I love that when he finally finds this very unusual woman who can bring him back to life, who can open his heart, he has to make a very difficult decision that brings his story full circle."
When producers Jason Blumenthal, Todd Black and Steve Tisch of Escape Artists – who also produced The Pursuit of Happyness -- came across Nieporte’s script, it stood out as that rare thing in today’s Hollywood: a story they’d never before encountered. Blumenthal recalls, "The minute I read the script, I knew we had something very special. It was unlike anything I had ever read, unlike anything I’d ever seen. I loved that that the deep mystery of it evolves and unfolds before your very eyes. It starts off with an IRS agent who is doing something that most people watching this movie will find foreign—he is actively seeking people to help. Then, as we discover why through the course of the story, it becomes an incredible love story."
Adds Black: "This love story was organically there and the idea of telling a unique love story in 2008 was very exciting. We knew right away we wanted to make it."
Blumenthal, Black and Tisch also intuited that this would be the right project to reunite the team that had been so successful and had become so close to one another on The Pursuit of Happyness. Says Tisch: "We had been able to get Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness because the material was so good. And we felt that as with Pursuit, Seven Pounds would give Will an opportunity to play a character he’s never played before, to go into new and exciting territory."
So, in turn, they brought the screenplay for Seven Pounds to producer James Lassiter, Will Smith’s partner at Overbrook Entertainment. Lassiter recalls that his reaction was strong and immediate. "I was drawn to Seven Pounds by its unique story of loss, sacrifice, and redemption," he says.
The main character, especially, piqued Lassiter’s interest in making the film. "The protagonist is an entirely original character, one that you don’t usually see on the screen," Lassiter continues. "I was thrilled by the opportunity to tell this story – as a producer, you don’t get those chances every day."
With Smith coming on board, there was a similar consensus that Gabriele Muccino, the Italian director who made such an auspicious Hollywood debut with The Pursuit of Happyness, should again take the helm. Muccino had built an exceptional rapport with Smith during the course of filming The Pursuit of Happyness, even developing a shorthand way of communicating with the actor. Even more importantly, the producers felt Muccino had just the right sensibility to handle the film’s mix of raw, romantic feelings, human mystery and larger life questions with both honesty and a vibrant, creative visual style.
"I felt from the very beginning that the film would be in very capable hands with Gabriele at the helm," adds Lassiter. "The Pursuit of Happyness was very rewarding experience for me as a producer, so I was very excited to work with Gabriele again."
Known for his method of using intensive rehearsal and probing conversations to get to the heart of characters, Muccino’s temperament was a match with the intensity of the drama. "What Gabriele was able to do so well was evoke the visceral feeling of the love story," says Black, "and bring it to the screen in a passionate, compelling way."
Adds Tisch: "Gabriele brings a non-traditional kind of energy and point-of-view to filmmaking that’s very special. And because this was the second time that he and Will were working together, that made it even more intense."
Muccino was equally excited to reunite with the team. "What’s so great about this particular team is that they allow me to keep my European approach while making movies in Hollywood," he comments. "As for Will, we have an incredible amount of trust in each other and that makes anything possible. I can easily say I have never worked so well and so easily with anybody in my entire life."
Will Smith Takes on the Role of Ben Thomas
In Seven Pounds, Will Smith plays a man in a search of seven lost souls – and a coming-to-terms with himself. Driven by a tragic accident, Ben Thomas is on a mission to drastically improve the lives of a group of complete strangers. But much as Ben wants to help the world, he is also a man who feels cut off, alone, unable to relate to the very humanity he seeks to help – until he meets Emily, who brings a rush of emotion and exhilaration back to his life, complicating everything.
The role was quite unlike any Smith has tackled in his celebrated career as one of Hollywood’s most popular and diverse leading men, including his two Oscar® nominated roles as the iconic Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali and as the striving father in The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith says he was especially intrigued by the nuances of this role, and because it’s about a man who is in the middle of a transformation he doesn’t think is possible.
"The interesting thing is that Ben begins this story as someone who’s obviously trying to commit to loving acts, but he isn’t able to commit to the pain of actually loving someone," he explains, "and then suddenly Emily gets him. She gets him in that way we all get got – in that way that one day you look into someone’s eyes and she looks different than she did yesterday. There’s a glow and a light that’s illuminating and you know your life has changed."
Ben’s life is changed in ways he never saw coming – and those entirely internal but profound changes are at the heart of Smith’s performance. "The delicate part of the story was revealing how Ben is actually thinking mostly about himself when he begins his plan, but only after meeting Emily does he start to naturally become more self-less. That one little turn on the road to redemption is what makes his story so powerful," he says.
Still, the conflicted perspective and extreme emotional lockdown from which Ben begins to emerge over the course of the film were overwhelming at times, admits Smith. "Ben is so much the complete opposite of who I am, with the darkness of his thoughts and feelings, that it was a very difficult emotional space for me to live in during the production," he says.
Part of what bolstered Smith through Ben’s dark night of the soul was the very intense yet organic chemistry that developed between he and Rosario Dawson. He says: "She just captured the heart and humility of Emily and it was very inspirational to watch the way Rosario opened up in the film. The thing about Emily is that she has also experienced trauma, but she reacts to it in a very different way than Ben. She can still laugh and dream about life, whereas Ben has refused for a long time to even imagine the possibilities of a brighter life. I think that’s what draws him to Emily. He can’t figure out why she’s still reaching for life, and the more he sees that, that more it gets to him."
Most of all, Smith was inspired by the larger scope of the story. "The love story between Ben and Emily is beautiful but that’s just one layer of it. For both Gabriele and me, Seven Pounds is ultimately not only about a man and a woman who find each other at a moment of crisis for both of them but a love story between a man and humanity."
Rosario Dawson as Emily Posa
Once Will Smith had committed to Seven Pounds, the search was on for an actress to play Emily. It was Gabriele Muccino who suggested Rosario Dawson, who has been emerging as one of today’s most sought-after leading ladies, with roles ranging from the action of Eagle Eye and Sin City to the drama of Shattered Glass and The 25th Hour. Says Muccino: "Rosario carries a tangible vulnerability that matches with her sensuality. There’s a cleverness that comes across through her attitude – and it was that cleverness that I felt we needed in order to believe that somebody like Ben could be rescued by a woman like Emily."
Dawson fought hard for the role. "This was one of the best scripts that I’ve read, period," she says. "As soon as I read it, I knew that this was a character that I loved, this was a journey I wanted to take. These characters just really moved me with their authenticity. Every single person was just incredibly real. So, I auditioned like crazy and dedicated myself to making sure I was a part of this."
Those auditions quickly won over the rest of the team. Steve Tisch says, "When Rosario auditioned with Will it was fantastic how those two just took the screen. There was vulnerability, there was honesty, you cared about them, they cared about each other -- the chemistry was fantastic."
Once on the set, Dawson was up for the challenge. "I think the tightrope of this performance was trying to be as true as possible. What this film is trying to achieve in the bigger picture is quite subtle and powerful, and the key to that is allowing the audience to believe in the reality of these people," she says. Muccino made that easier, she explains. "He might be the most emotional person, let alone director, I’ve ever known," she muses. "And that has been absolutely vital for this project."
It also helped that she had such a strong affinity for Emily. "I love that Emily is stubborn and independent. I love that she’s a survivor and she’s always found a way to take care of herself," she says. "But now she’s feeling alone and there’s part of her that realizes she’s going to be increasingly at the mercy of others. So the challenge was to show that loneliness while also showing her curiosity, youthfulness and fierce resolve to live."
Another challenge of playing Emily lay in the details of her heart defect, which impacts the way she moves, the way she looks, even the way she breathes. "Someone in her condition would be out of breath all the time, which is a really difficult thing to experience," she says. "But I wanted to give a bit of that feeling that she is wading through water all the time, to remind you of just how difficult this is for her, while at the same time, showing her determination."
All of this, says Dawson, was further inspired by her collaboration with Will Smith. "I’ve worked with Will before but I was blown away by this experience," she says. "The way he plays Ben, with his emotions hidden away, was an incredible choice. I just appreciated the level of commitment Will was willing to put towards this character."
Like Smith, Dawson ultimately sees the love story of Emily and Ben as part of something larger. She sums up: "I see Seven Pounds as being about a lot of different kinds of love: the love that you hope for, the love that you have to accept, love for yourself, love for strangers and most of all, love for life itself."
The Supporting Cast
Ben Thomas begins his quest for redemption with a list of seven names – each of them desperate in some way, each of them an integral part of his plan. One of those on the list is Ezra Turner, a blind concert pianist, who is played by Woody Harrelson, the versatile actor who has jumped between comedy and drama with ease as witnessed recently by his roles in the Oscar®-winning No Country For Old Men and the comedy Semi-Pro opposite Will Farrell. Harrelson might not appear the obvious choice for such a specific role, but he had all the qualities for which Muccino was searching. "Woody has a gentleness to his soul that was crucial for Ezra, who is very sensitive, who feels shut down because of his blindness, but has a heart ready to dive into life, which Woody is able to reveal," says the director.
Harrelson personally dove into two forms of training for the brief but powerful role: taking lessons from a number of different piano teachers and working with the Braille Institute to experience as accurately as possible how to navigate the world like a blind person. "One of the reasons this part was so rewarding was all the wonderful people I met studying piano and learning to portray a blind character," he says.
Harrelson admits the role was a challenge, one which he feels Will Smith helped him to meet. "I remember the first day on the set I was so nervous about playing a blind piano player and Will came in and he was just patting people on the back and giving hugs, and I thought ‘It’s pretty amazing that the biggest star in the world is one of the nicest guys in the world’ – and that put me at ease. He really was that way the entire time I was on the set. And yet, he was also very focused on the work and always open to trying new things, and I think that helped us all get the full emotional content out of the story."
Harrelson also enjoyed working closely with Gabriele Muccino in developing Ezra and his relationship with Ben, the full nature of which remains a puzzle until the very last moments of the film. "Gabriele is an extremely talented filmmaker," he says. "He really pushes you. He always shoots straight and tells you exactly what he’s feeling – and somehow he always seems to know what will make the scene better and your character come out more."
Other vital supporting characters surrounding Ben in the film include Ben’s younger brother, played by Michael Ealy – a Golden Globe® nominee for "Sleeper Cell" whose film roles have ranged from Barbershop and 2 Fast 2 Furious to Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna – and Ben’s loyal friend Dan, played by Barry Pepper – a Golden Globe® and Emmy nominee for portraying Roger Maris in Billy Crystal’s telefilm "61," and known for roles in such films as Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile.
Ben’s brother, intimately connected to Ben’s quest to make amends yet currently estranged from him, is desperately trying to meet with Ben in person through the first part of the film. Ealy recalls how Will Smith came up with an idea to make their telephone conversations crackle with emotional tension. "When we rehearsed our scenes together, it wasn’t quite clicking but then Will had the idea that if we actually spoke on the phone during the scene it would make so much more sense. So we tried that and when I couldn’t see him, when I couldn’t see his reactions, it naturally created all the tension that needed to be there. It was absolutely great."
The role, like many others in Seven Pounds, involved moving through a pendulum range of emotions for Ealy. "Gabriele Muccino loves conflicting emotions," notes Ealy. "With my role, the key was trying to balance anger with love. When Ben’s brother finally confronts him it’s explosive, it’s passionate, but there’s a sense that this kind of feeling can only come between two people who really care about each other."
Meanwhile, Ben’s oldest friend and lawyer, Dan, faces the dilemma of how to help Ben complete a mission that is remarkable yet fraught with big moral and legal questions. Says Pepper of the role: "Dan is trying to come to terms with an intense struggle within that has him deeply conflicted spiritually, emotionally, and professionally. He is seeing the torment that his friend is going through and wants to honor his request for help, yet it means he has to sign this covenant to orchestrate the most difficult task he could ever imagine."
Working closely with Smith allowed all of this to unfold naturally, says Pepper. "Will is all about finding the truth," he observes." What makes him a great actor to work with is that he’s incredibly present and open, no matter what you throw at him. He doesn’t use a bag of tricks to help himself emote, he just lives in each moment. I was moved by this script, because it deals with my favorite themes, what we all love about timeless storytelling – sacrifice, redemption, true love – but it’s only when you see how it’s all going to come together with the other actors and the directors vision that you truly know it’s going to work, and this one was electric from the moment I set foot on the set."
Also taking roles as the other members of Ben’s enigmatic list is a diverse ensemble that includes Mexican-born actress Elpidia Carrillo (Nine Lives) as Connie Tepos (and popular child star Madison Pettis as her daughter) and Bill Smitrovich (Eagle Eye) as George Ristuccia.
The Style of Seven Pounds
The look of Seven Pounds is suffused with an urgency and unfolding beauty that Gabriele Muccino felt would bring what he calls "an extra layer of storytelling" to the movie. "I wanted the look to be stylized," the director says, "because Ben’s mind is somewhat tweaked. He’s living in a bubble so he sees the world differently – it’s a very beautiful world that surrounds him, yet he feels detached from it. He sees other people experiencing the beauty but he can’t, until he meets Emily."
To find the right aesthetic for the movie, Muccino recruited French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who recently shot Ridley Scott’s Provence-set romantic comedy, A Good Year. "I had worked with Philippe on a commercial and felt he was unbelievably talented," says Muccino. "Together we used famous paintings as references and I felt that Philippe was almost able to paint the movie. He starts with everything in a very bleak place and unravels that into a very bright and colorful world."
A similar transformation is found in the work of production designer Michael Riva, who previously worked with Muccino on The Pursuit of Happyness. Riva explains: "Initially, the whole design is tainted by Ben’s inner vision of the world so we used a very sort of dark, warped palette and details on the sets were drained of color only to later explode into rich magentas. After Ben meets Emily, everything that’s dark and bland becomes more and more colorful."
Riva notes that last year’s breathtakingly visual screen adaptation of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, directed by the painter Julian Schnabel, had an inspirational effect on him, as did the 1960s French film The Things of Life, a haunting portrait of a man’s regrets, directed by Claude Sautet. "They both have a lyricism and a beauty that I wanted to see in Seven Pounds," he explains.
Scouting across Los Angeles, Riva also worked closely with Muccino to develop the personal environs for each of the characters. "Emily and Ezra, for example, each have their own signature environment," he explains, "with different looks and different feelings that speak to their personalities. So the colors in Emily’s house are very vibrant and bold, whereas everything around Ezra is very Spartan, organized and simply functional."
One scene where the vision of Muccino, Le Sourd and Riva all come together is the moment when Ben and Emily connect in a lush, wide-open field far from the rush of the city. The scene was always central to Muccino’s blueprint of the film and he pushed his artistic team to make it happen in the way he envisioned. Recalls Riva: "Gabriele told us he wanted to create a very Tuscan, romantic, sentimental feeling for that scene. But here we are in the middle of a desert and I didn’t know of any place like that in Los Angeles! We looked and looked and looked. And amazingly at last we found this big, beautiful field of tall grass in Charmlee Park in Malibu – and it was just what Gabriele wanted."
Producer Jason Blumenthal says of the sequence: "It’s one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. The two characters never even touch—that’s how powerful the relationship is – and yet now, none of us can imagine the movie without it."
Muccino had long intuited the scene in the field would be a visual linchpin of what drives the romance between Ben and Emily. He says, "For me it was a way to display the sense of life surrounding Ben and Emily, these two humans lost in a moment of profound natural beauty."
For the whole filmmaking team, Muccino’s commitment to pulling as much emotion and love out of every scene became an unending source of motivation. "Gabriele was constantly telling the producers, Will, Rosario and the whole cast and crew, this is a love story first and foremost and never lose sight of that," recalls Todd Black. "To his credit, at every turn, from the way he shot the movie to the production design to the music he picked for the film, every single thing he’s done always comes back to telling a love story."
Muccino hopes that story of Seven Pounds will evoke both the personal and the higher side of love for movie-goers. He summarizes: "I hope audiences will take away that feeling of how unique life is. Sometimes we take life for granted and sometimes a movie can remind us of how volatile, how fragile and how ephemeral things are – but also how magical. Sometimes a story can remind us about the beauty we’re surrounded by, the people we love and the gifts that connect us."