Visiting After Earth

As many recall, Peter David, Mike Friedman and I have been writing bible material for 2013’s After Earth film starring Will and Jaden Smith. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, its set in the future and we’ve had a ball filling in gaps and expanding on concepts found in the script.

Early last week, Peter said we three were invited to the set in Philadelphia to watch one of the final days of shooting before production wrapped and headed out for location filming. How could we say no? I arranged a day off from student teaching and on Friday, we took a road trip south.

The Budd Studio has been home to other productions, including Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. A huge structure, it was home to various sets and departments. Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the sets, looking at where key scenes had been shot just days before. We saw other sets still under construction for the final days of filming and were taken into the art department to see scale models and set designs. We were shown props and costumes, finally bringing words on the page to life. The overall design is quite cool and not at all what I expected.

I got to meet Caleeb Pinkett for the first time. Caleeb has been our main contact for the AE work so it was great to put a face to the voice. He couldn’t have been nicer to us and clearly delighted to have us on hand to see the ideas made manifest.

One set was being dressed for a shot and we stuck around to watch Jaden film a scene. And film it and film it. About five takes for what seemed relatively the same performance.  When that wrapped, they moved on to ready a different shot so we repaired to the Overbrook executive tent. Within were couches, desks, chairs, snacks, and two ping pong tables where a tournament has been ongoing. Mike wound up playing the head of the hair department, who came equipped with his own paddle, which says something about how seriously they take this.

Eventually, we were invited to join the crew over at craft services. We piled our take out trays high with tasty food and as we were eating, of course, Will Smith came out of his trailer to say hi. Will has been a quiet supporter of the work we’ve been doing but we’ve never spoken directly before. He’s taller than I imagined and far friendlier than I could have hoped for. He was out of his costume but still had fake blood on his forehead from a scene he shot before we arrived. When Peter wanted to take a picture, Will hung between me and Mike as if we had mugged him.

Later, after the break was over, we got to watch Will feed Jaden lines for a new scene and it was interesting because even though Will’s lines were pretty much the same take after take, Shyamalan was directing Jaden for different reactions. After several takes, he told Jaden he had what he needed and the teen could experiment with the next take, which resulted in some nice moments. His dad noticed and was raving about it to the director, clearly proud of the boy. They wrapped and Jaden ran over to say hi to Peter, who then introduced us.

Will wanted to still talk so we followed him and Caleeb back to the trailer but detoured when he saw the cupcake truck had arrived. He couldn’t decide from the menu so suggested a six pack and then Peter quipped something so Will doubled the order and strode off. No sooner did we enter the two-story trailer than an assistant arrived with the cupcakes. So, there we are just chatting away, eating cupcakes. Then Caleeb showed us an animatic (basically storyboards with vocals, music and sound effects) for a different project. He proceeded to act out the remainder of the story, clearly thrilled with it and just wanted to share it with us. Mike offered up one concrete suggestion and Caleeb seized on it. Clearly, there are no egos here, just people who want to make their ideas the best they can.

By 4, Will was done for the day as were we so we bid farewell and drove home, pretty damn happy to have had the experience.

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