IN PURSUIT OF CHRIS GARDNER
In 2003, executive producer Mark Clayman, a writer and actor who had been transitioning into producing, was one of many who saw a story about Chris Gardner on "20/20." As he recalls, "My wife and I are not avid '20/20' watchers, but we caught this segment, which discussed how Chris was faced with amazing obstacles, homelessness being at the forefront. There was a scene where he revisited a bathroom at a BART station with his son and he shared how he used to bathe him in the sink of the restroom. Since we had a son who was a year old at that time, we both were moved to tears by it. I saw it not as a rags-to-riches story but as a moving father and son tale. I turned to my wife and said, 'I've got to get the rights to this story and this could be a home run role for Will Smith."
Chris Gardner's phone had been ringing off the hook the morning after the "20/20" segment aired, but Clayman commanded his attention, Gardner recalls, "because he was honest, direct, sincere, to the point." A meeting was set up at the production company, Escape Artists, whose three partners Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch had, in the past, individually been responsible for such films as Antwone Fisher, American X and the Oscar®-winning Forrest Gump. "The way I saw it," says Blumenthal, "Chris Gardner's story was universal. It was about how far a father would go to protect his son and to keep him safe. It contained an emotional nucleus that touched everyone and we used that as a stepping stone into a story inspired by Chris Gardner's life."
His partner, Todd Black, was also moved -- and inspired. "I immediately said, 'My God, this is a fantastic story. It's like Rocky -- a guy who is completely beaten down and goes on to succeed.' It was definitely a movie, and we wanted to be the ones who made it."
Black and Blumenthal contacted producer James Lassiter, Will Smith's partner in Overbrook Entertainment. Lassiter, too was impressed by the story "and I knew it would appeal to Will both as a man and as a father." Lassiter sent the "20/20" tape to Vancouver, where Will Smith was shooting I, Robot, and less than 24 hours later, the actor responded. "From the moment I saw the '20/20' piece, I saw this story as the embodiment of the American dream," says Will Smith. "The concept this country is based on is the hope that any person armed with their own will and determination can create their life, can create their situation -- from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. Any time you see someone who displays that kind of greatness and diligence, the natural question you ask yourself is -- would I have been able to do that? Would I have been man enough, father enough, husband enough to stand up and face the adversity the way that person did -- the way that Chris Gardner did? These were all questions I asked myself."
PUTTING HAPPYNESS INTO WORDS
The next big step was turning a 15-minute television segment into a full-length feature film. "It's always about finding the right writer," admits Black. "Fortunately for us, we had just worked with Steven Conrad on The Weather Man. When we showed him the tape, he said, 'I know how to make this into a movie. You've got to let me do it.'"
Despite giving his blessing to Escape Artists to develop a film inspired by his struggles, Gardner was initially wary of the license that needed to be taken to turn these events into a story for the screen, according to Blumenthal. "It was really important to us to meet him so we could reassure him that, no matter what changes we made for dramatic purposes, we would fight passionately to preserve the integrity of how he had lived, and continues to live, his life."
After the initial meeting, the producers arranged for screenwriter Conrad and Gardner to meet in Chicago (where they both live). Gardner worked closely with the screenwriter, fielding many questions and serving as a sounding board. "Steve's a Chicago kind of guy, which gave me a sense of comfort, since we had to spend a lot of time together. I told him my story and then he decided which elements could be used in the movie. Steve was very clear with me that he was a dramatist, not a biographer. I told myself from the very start, 'Chris, you've signed away your life rights, so you've got to give Steve artistic license.'" (While the movie was being made, Gardner decided to write his own version of his story in the non-fiction The Pursuit of Happyness, which was released earlier this year to strong reviews).
Among the most prominent changes were turning the character of Gardner's son from an infant into a five-year-old boy and the elimination of the small stipend Gardner received from his internship. The script also required the creation of characters who were composites of various people Gardner had encountered during that period of his life, including the mother of his young son.
"Chris was very honest with me about that period in his life," says Conrad. "We both thought that the most important thing for the movie was to dramatize what it feels like to be broke. He was okay with some dramatic invention as long as I got the feelings right, especially what it's like when you have no one to depend on but yourself."
In addition, Conrad added some color by making the lead character a whiz at the Rubik's cube (which was a fad in the early 1980s), though the real Gardner had never picked up a Rubik's cube in his life. In the movie the cube serves as a cue to help the audience understand the extraordinary skills that make Will Smith's character stand out from the other candidates in the internship program.
The producers were very pleased with Conrad's first draft. Black, who had known Conrad since the early 1990s and had gone on to produce his first screenplay, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, observes, "Steve's script was magical, like nothing I'd ever read before. He took the true-life happenings and combined them with some original dramatic material -- and it all worked."
Producer Lassiter was equally enthusiastic. "When I had watched the initial "20/20" tape, I found it fantastic and inspirational, but I didn't know how you could make a movie out of it. When I read the script, I was amazed. Steve absolutely captured the essence of what the story should be -- and from that point on Will and I were in."
THE PURSUIT OF A DIRECTOR AND A CAST
Though many directors expressed interest in taking on The Pursuit of Happyness after reading Conrad's script, it was Smith and Lassiter who lobbied for Gabriele Muccino, despite the fact that he'd never directed an English-language film. One of Muccino's movies, The Last Kiss, had won Sundance's Audience Award when it premiered there in 2002, and his follow-up, Remember Me, My Love with Monica Bellucci, was admired by film critics around the world. "I had watched Gabriele's last two Italian films and was really attracted to the intricate nature of emotions he was able to understand and depict cinematically," says Smith.
Adds Lassiter: "When we met with Gabriele in Paris, he was really passionate about the material. But here's what really sold us. He said to us, 'As Americans, you guys don't really understand the American dream. To really appreciate the essence of the American dream, you have to be a foreigner.' That's when we realized his impression of the American dream would be original and different and give the movie a unique take."
"As soon as Gabriele said that Americans take the American dream for granted, he had me hook, line and sinker," says Smith. "I became intrigued by the idea of non-American eyes capturing the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful aspects of this story."
Muccino's attitude even managed to win over producer Todd Black. "I first met Gabriele at Will's house and said to him, 'You're not American and this is an American story.' He looked at me and replied, 'It's not just an American story; it's a universal story. There's homelessness everywhere in the world. This could happen to anyone.' Gabriele was smart in realizing that this movie could reach out to people all over the world. The idea of being able to pick yourself up, work hard and ultimately have that hard work and perseverance pay off -- that is applicable to any human, not just an American."
For Muccino, the arc of The Pursuit of Happyness was appealing on an even more elemental level. "What really attracted me is the character's desperate attempt to survive, and that the most precious thing to him was protecting his child. Chris endures the unimaginable and still makes sure that not even the worst moments will have a bad effect on his son's life. It's truly a family's journey -- a desperate and unfortunately real voyage that becomes epic simply because it touches on so many universal values."
As for working with Smith, Muccino maintains that "Will's approach is completely honest. He has a real urgency to do something different, something dramatic and very real. It was a huge pleasure to take him on this journey. We had a fantastic relationship. I learned a lot from him, and hopefully, he also learned something from me."
Early in the development process, the filmmakers started talking about the importance of the actor who would play Chris Gardner's five-year-old son. They met with more than a hundred kids. "Then we met Jaden Smith and it was night and day," says Blumenthal. "Jaden was this kid. He came in with sincerity, honesty and rawness. We cast the absolute best person for the job!"
Jaden Christopher Syre Smith also happens to be the seven-year-old son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Producer Lassiter admits that "Hiring Gabriele was a gamble, but not as much as casting Jaden Smith in the part of Christopher. It was a big gamble because if Jaden didn't absolutely nail it, it would look like nepotism."
Smith, proud father that he is, had no such doubts. "That boy stole all our scenes together," he laughs. "I don't appreciate that. It's a good thing he's my son, because if he was somebody else's kid, I would have had to cut him out of the movie."
On a more serious note he adds, "There were concerns at the beginning that as his father, I would have difficulty focusing on my performance in our scenes together. But the reality turned out to be something completely different. When I would look in Jaden's eyes filled with the pain and anger little Christopher was experiencing at that moment, it added to the reality of the scene because I really felt I was failing him as a father. It produced an overwhelmingly powerful emotion in me."
Muccino appreciated that bond as well as the natural ease and chemistry Smith and his son shared off-screen and was determined to capture it with his camera lens. "The best example of that are the 'knock-knock' jokes in the film. They were not in the original script. Then, one day, I heard Jaden telling a 'knock-knock' joke during rehearsals. I thought it might be a good idea to introduce that kind of lightness to the movie and would be a reflection of the child's condition as well. Although he and his father are going through hell, he's still smiling and telling 'knock-knock' jokes, which shows that it hasn't touched him -- proof that his father is protecting him. The movie even ends with a 'knock-knock' joke."
Finding the right actress for the pivotal role of Linda was crucial. The filmmakers were looking for an actress who was extremely strong, who could tap the different emotional places in the movie. She needed to be a caring, compassionate and loving mother who starts out as the breadwinner of the family. She had to convincingly portray someone who is so unhappy that she has no choice but to leave her family and to try and find a better life alone.
Thandie Newton, who received rave reviews for her performance in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Crash, was chosen to play Linda, a mother who ends up leaving her son in the care of his father. Says Black, "After seeing her in Crash and meeting with her, we all agreed that Thandie would be able to convey Linda's dilemma in a way that other actresses might not."
Newton had her own take on the story. "I was incredibly moved by the strength of this father's love -- not just for his son -- but also his belief and love for himself. He did not want to abandon his son in the way that he had been abandoned as a child," she says. "It's such a story of optimism and hope, despite the really tough spot that they find themselves in."
In approaching Linda, Newton had a unique perspective. "I'm very aware from the past work I've done, and also from life, that mental health and depression can really make a person feel that they can't cope. I don't think most people would be able to endure this family's situation. I certainly wouldn't be able to. It's very important that you understand the pain that Linda is in when she leaves her family."
Because Linda was a newly created character, Newton felt she had a bit more latitude in her portrayal. "Linda is a character of fiction, so I was left to create what I felt was right within the context of the story. It was a challenge, but I feel very, very happy with how it turned out."
A cameo role that wasn't originally in the first draft of Conrad's script, but the real-life Gardner insisted it be added to the film, was that of the Reverend Cecil Williams, who has spearheaded Glide, one of the most successful homeless programs in the country, which is housed in the Tenderloin area of downtown San Francisco.
"When I read the first script, Cecil Williams wasn't in it," says Gardner, "so I called Todd Black and said, 'Look, if there wasn't a Cecil Williams, there wouldn't be a Chris Gardner.'"
Later, when it came time to cast the role, the producers hired Reverend Cecil Williams himself. "I had to audition for the role and then I was hired by the producers to actually portray myself in the film", laughs Williams. "I always wanted to be in movies. Sometime ago, I had a very small role in a film, but working on this film has been a very different experience. This is my first major role in a motion picture and I am playing myself."
Reverend Williams recalls his first connection with the real Chris Gardner. "I saw him in line in the 1980s. Chris really stood out from everyone else because he was the only man who always had a baby with him whenever he was in line. I knew that he had something to offer. He was always smart, always up to something. I knew he was going places, but I didn't know that he was as assertive and as well-meaning as he has turned out to be. When Chris finally moved to Chicago and began to put things together, especially his finances, I got this call from a man saying 'I want to make a contribution. You're my home church. You helped me. And now I want to help you.' Chris is one of those people who received and is now giving back -- and he's doing a good job of giving back."
Besides inspiring a film about his struggles, the real Chris Gardner also proved to be an inspiration on the set of The Pursuit of Happyness. "Having Chris here for the inevitable times when we didn't completely grasp the nature of a scene and have him tell us what he was actually thinking and feeling at that precise moment, was an invaluable asset for us," says Smith.
Adds Muccino: "Chris was extremely inspiring for me and Will. We learned a lot from him. He has been hugely important -- particularly in the brokerage scenes. We changed dialog and improved the way Will dealt with clients and entertained them as a result of Chris' input."
Gardner had always been a huge admirer of Will Smith's, but when he heard that he was thinking of taking this role, Gardner was overcome. He certainly never expected to see portions of his life re-created by a major movie star. "I knew Will was a great actor, but I didn't know how great until I watched him working on The Pursuit of Happyness," says Gardner.
When actor Kurt Fuller, who plays Walter Ribbon, first encountered Gardner, he had no idea he was the person who had inspired the movie. "This man came up and started talking to me. He knew my name and movies I made 15 years ago. At first I thought, 'Is this the head of the studio?' It turned out to be the real Chris Gardner. He was such a charismatic, articulate, warm guy. You could just see how this guy drew people to him."
Since Fuller was portraying someone who existed in Gardner's past, he continues, "Having Chris on the set and having him recount not only what happened, but how he felt when it happened, was better than research. It was like having somebody whisper the truth in my ear. I completely connected with that."
"The way I see it," adds producer Lassiter. "Chris' presence added nuance -- he opened it up so there was room for humor and Will could be funny. The humor became heightened when a scene was at its most tense, something Will has a unique ability to do."
For Muccino, the ease of the relationship between Chris and his son, as embodied by Will and Jaden, makes "the movie play like a love story -- but in this case we don't have a woman and man meeting each other. Instead, we have a father and son walking together through life. Their relationship is very strong, very powerful," says Muccino
Producer Lassiter echoes those sentiments. "At the end of the day this movie's about relationships and love. It's about what you would do if you ever loved someone enough that you would be willing to do anything. You relate to this man who literally will do anything to protect his child."
"I hope audiences will feel inspired to have faith in themselves after seeing this movie," says Thandie Newton. "If you look at this guy, his story, and know that it really happened, I think it will allow you to appreciate the riches that life gives you and help give you the strength and courage to navigate some of the tricky parts."
"Twenty-five years ago, Chris was homeless. The idea of this kind of escalation through society is something people dream about," says Smith. "But to actually hear about someone who actually traveled that journey resonates with all of us," he says.
"The real Chris Gardner is a pillar, he is a rock," adds producer Blumenthal. "He is an amazing man. My first idea for a logline on this movie was 'Some superheroes are real,' because in my eyes, what Chris Gardner did and how he led his life, makes him a superhero."
"I want the audience to understand that this movie is not a fantasy," says Muccino, "this was someone's life. Someone really went through this kind of nightmare and succeeded."
That someone was Chris Gardner, a loving father, successful financial broker, an inspirational speaker and published author. "My life has been portrayed in some media outlets as a rags-to-riches story," he says. "That part isn't important. What is important is the commitment I made to my children to be there for them. Ask any parent and that's going to be the common thread we all have -- to be there."
THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO CIRCA 1980; PRODUCTION DESIGN
ABOUT WILL SMITH
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
GABRIELE MUCCINO (DIRECTOR)
STEVEN CONRAD (WRITER)