First, you will meet Will Smith as you now know him: the skydiving, bungee-jumping, gracefully ageing 50-year-old actor in all his wisdom. Then you’ll meet Will Smith again, this time a computer-generated, 23-year-old version of himself, blemish-free and trembly in the mouth, more reminiscent to the roguish young man audiences fell in love with on ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ three decades ago.
‘Gemini Man’ is a film two decades in the making. But it’s not the plot that’s important, rather the fact that it features a universally recognised A-list Hollywood actor facing off with — well, himself.
“We all know about the younger Will, the swaggering, humorous, root-for-him kind of character. And the more mature, thoughtful Will of today,” says the film’s Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee (‘Life of Pi’). “We will see how the two of them conflict and work together with each other in this film.”
Twenty years ago, under development at Disney, ‘Gemini Man’ could have used make-up to age-up or age-down its protagonist, but the studio refused. At the same time, technology hadn’t caught up to their big ambitions.
By 2016, Skydance Media bought the rights to the script from Disney and continued VFX trials.
“We spent a year and a half on such testing with some of the best visual effects artists in the business,” says executive producer Chad Oman. “But it just didn’t work ... the technology still wasn’t there to create a fully believable, one hundred per cent, photo real leading character in a film.”
“The creation of Junior is not de-ageing,” explains producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “This is a one hundred per cent digital human character as portrayed by Will Smith … Our Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer [who worked with Lee on ‘Life of Pi’] and his team of artists, including Weta Digital, had to punch through the envelope and navigate their way out of the uncanny valley.”
With producers such as Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Don Granger on board, research and development continued. When time came, Lee chose to shoot Gemini Man in 3D, at 4K resolution, and in 120 frames per second as opposed to the typical 24fps.
On a more human level, Smith was meanwhile reckoning with the existential subtext of the script.
“The contact with a version of your younger self — and as I discovered when I started playing it, the converse, the contact with the version of your older self — it’s intriguing, it’s scary. I’ve heard people ask a lot of times, ‘If you could go back to your younger self and give yourself some advice, what would it be?’ And ‘Gemini Man’ actually creeps into that experience. It brings up existential questions about how to live a life,” says Smith.
Smith plays Henry Brogan, a DIA agent and spy hit man who, after years in a morally questionable career, longs to step away from the deadly circus.
“He’s done a lot of things that he is not happy about, and he wants out,” says Smith. “He retires from the agency, and they send someone to kill him. So in trying to figure out what’s going on and why they would send someone to kill him, Henry finds out that nearly 25 years ago, he was cloned, and they created an identical version of him that is just 23 years old” and who is out to assassinate him.
How did it feel for Smith to see his clone on screen for the first time?
“The first time it was ... whoa! Not the Junior character as much as the shot of my current self in the same frame with my younger self. The technology is so spectacular that it penetrates you emotionally. As far as I know, this is the first time it’s ever been done in this way, a one hundred per cent CGI human,” says Smith.
Logistically, Smith plays Henry across from an actor standing in as Junior, then switches to play Junior in performance capture. (Smith earlier this year appeared in another digitally rendered role — the Genie in Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Aladdin’.)
“People have played younger characters in a movie where they make the hair all grey and you make the person older, and then you make them younger, and that is an interesting approach,” says Smith.
But he described Gemini Man’s approach as “shocking, and jarring, and beautiful, and technologically exquisite.”
“I had to go back and look at old film and old tape of myself. There was almost an unrecognisable quality to my 23 or 24-year-old self when I went back. There was a freedom, and a recklessness to my early ‘Fresh Prince’, ‘Bad Boys’, ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Men in Black’ days,” said Smith.
“There was a creative recklessness that at 50, I admire, and that was one of the things I was trying to go back and recapture to get a sense of what were the thought patterns that led me to some of the behaviour that I had at that time. It was fun to explore and to seek.”
Smith also felt that, if he had to do it the other way around, as a less experienced actor, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“I couldn’t have, at 23 years old, played a 50-year-old version of my character with this technology.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Gemini Man’ releases in the UAE on October 10. Watch the trailer below.