If you need a feel good movie about a black father on his job, then Pursuit of Happyness is the movie you need. The most remarkable thing about this film is that while the movie is super sentimental, it manages not to be corny. Many of us have read the book and seen the 2006 film. But we bet you don’t know the behind the scenes of how Chris Gardner’s story came to be featured on the big screen.
Why Will wanted to make the movie
In 2003, Chris Gardner was interviewed on 20/20. His compelling story of how he went from being homeless to being a multimillionaire caught Will Smith’s attention. In an interview published on About.com, Smith explains the moment he knew this film was for him.
“When I saw that 20/20 piece. Chris Gardner walks through and retraces the steps. There is a segment where he goes into the actual bathroom that he slept in with his son. I was like, ‘I’m making that movie.’”
The Rubik’s Cube
That’s not a stunt double’s hands you see when Will Smith is completing the Rubik’s cube in record time. He actually learned how to do that. He was trained by speedcubing champiobs Tyson and Toby Mao and Lars Petrus. They helped him learn to solve the cube in under two minutes.
Since Will was producing this film, he had some say in the type of director he wanted for it. And after Will had seen director Gabriele Muccino’s work in films like The Last Kiss and Remember Me, My Love, he was certain he was the one who would be the best fit for this movie. Muccino has a knack for taking the super sweet and making it powerful without being too sappy.
What did Chris think of Will playing him?
While Will Smith was, as he is today, box office gold, Gardner still had reservations about him portraying him. For that very reason actually. Will, up until that point, was most known for his action and comedy. And Gardner didn’t know if he could take on such an emotionally charged film. Surprisingly, it was his daughter who helped convince him to see it otherwise. In an interview with Oprah, he explained how she helped him get over his initial qualms.
“My first initial reaction was–first of all I love him. His music, his movies I’ve always loved him. But I thought ‘aww man, Will Smith. He never did anything like this.’ But my daughter, who has her grandmother’s wit and wisdom- my mother- she broke it down for me. She says, ‘Pop, if he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you.”
Relationship with Will
Once he agreed that Will was the man to tell his story, the two developed a rapport with one another pretty quickly. In another interview published on About.com, Gardner told the story of the trip he took to Will’s house and how the two were able to connect before shooting ever took place.
When I first met him, we go to the house with the idea to discuss the script. I take along the script and my notes, but I also brought along a picture of my son and I sitting in front of the house where we first lived in after living on the streets a year. I say to Will, ‘We can talk about the script or we can talk about these two guys. What do you want to do?’ You know what he chose? ‘Let’s talk about these two guys.’ We had a great conversation, a couple of hours, just he and I. Someplace in the conversation, he started looking at me like this [leaning back and holding his hand to his chin]. He had begun to study me. It made me uncomfortable. I’d never been studied.
I made a decision from the beginning I would trust him. I said to him, ‘I’m going to be as open as I can and I’m going to trust you as an artist to pick and chose, slice and dice, cut and paste, whatever artists do to tell stories.’ I’m very happy to tell people what they ask me about Will, what kind of guy is he: regular, sweet, kind, humble loving guy, but he has a sick, twisted perverted sense of humor. This cat said some things to me… I won’t say what. (Laughing) No. I went, ‘Oh my God!’ When he’s comfortable with you, he’ll say things and you think he’s serious.”
Whenever there’s a movie based on someone’s true life story, people always leave the theater wondering just how much was true and what was embellished. Well it wasn’t that much. While the movie makes it seem like Gardner’s homeless was just a few months, he was actually in that situation for a few years. In addition to the time lapse of certain events, Gardner’s run in with the law was initially about police responding to a domestic violence claim and they later found he had unpaid parking tickets and was arrested. The film just shows him being arrested for parking tickets.
In the movie, Smith sells a bone density scanner, in real life Gardner sold medical equipment but never a scanner. And lastly, in real life Gardner’s son was a toddler, just two years old when the events depicted in the movie took place. They made him older in the movie so he could be more expressive. But Gardner did say that at just two, his son said some very important words to him.
“I’ve got to tell you I saw one scene last night where my son says something to me that is probably the most important thing he’s ever said to me in his life when he says, ‘Papa, you’re a good papa.’ In the book, I had a chance to talk about where I was emotionally, how frightened I was. To have this boy at 2 years-old stand up and say you’re a good papa, and have that incorporated into the script and the movie, that was the big thing for me.”
Technically, Will was the bigger star when this movie came out. But surprisingly, he said the little Smith was the one who helped him break out of the super hero, action star shell and tap into the authenticity the film needed.
“I was struggling with a scene. Seven, eight times [Gabriele Muccino] was coming up and giving me notes. With a particularly difficult scene I was struggling and Jaden said to me, ‘Psst, you just do the same thing every take, Daddy.’ And I was like, you know, I was a little offended by that. But what he was saying was that innately he couldn’t understand how I was reading everything exactly the same way every time. He was feeling like, ‘Well, that’s not real. I thought we were supposed to be trying to make this real.’
I started watching him and you know how kids are. If he decides he wants to get up and walk, he’ll get up and walk. The cameraman will just follow him. But I had my blocking; I knew my left leg was forward. I knew that I was saying it with my left hand every time so in order for them to make the edit, I would do it with my left hand every time. He broke me out of a mechanical space.
Jaden on the experience
Perhaps Jaden helping Will break out of that mechanical space worked a bit too well. In a press junket interview for the film, Jaden explained the least fun part about working on the movie was his father’s insistence on not breaking character. Jaden said that Will was so into his character, even in between takes that when they were in the trailer and Jaden asked for some orange juice, this was Will’s response. “Sorry Christopher we can’t afford an orange juice.”
So what did the real Christopher think about the film? His father said some pretty profound words about his son’s reaction to not only the film but his limited memories of the time when they were homeless.
“He’s 25, and when you’re 25, you don’t have impressions. (Laughing) He is just so cool. He was so young [during that time]. You know what he remembers? I’m so thankful because maybe I did that thing right, he remembers that we were together every day. That’s what he remembers. He remembers a lot of moving, he’ll admit that, but he remembers we were together every day. As I’ve said many times, there are folks who live in multimillion-dollar houses with their children and their children can’t say that.”
What did Chris Think?
Will explained that having Gardner’s approval was of the upmost importance to him. So he sat near him when they debuted the movie and anxiously awaited his reaction.
“When he watched the movie, I sat behind him when he watched the movie, which is the most gut wrenching thing you could ever do is make a story about somebody’s life and then sit in the theater with him while they’re watching it… With Chris and with Ali, I’m not doing that anymore. Someone trusted you with their life story. It’s their family. It’s their experiences and it’s not like there’s going to be a second shot at it. It’s one time.
They have to love it. It’s a complete failure, if the movie makes X amount of 100s of millions of dollars and awards and all of that, and Chris doesn’t like it, it’s a failure. He turned around after the film. I’m sitting there and my heart is jumping and he looked and he said, ‘I can’t even talk to you right now.’ He got up and walked out. I was like, ‘Well, what the hell does that mean?’ But then we really went outside and he was crying. He just thanked me for the service to his family and he’s forever indebted for bringing his story [to the big screen]. And for me, it was a win from that point, so all of this is gravy time now.”
Perhaps one of the best things about this movie is that it humanizes the issue of homelessness in this country. It’s not just about lazy people not wanting to work. Often times it’s those who are employed or underemployed who were scraping and scrounging trying to improve their living situation. And not only did the film shed light on this issue, it also helped people who found themselves in situations just like Gardner’s. He explained:
“One of the coolest things happened on filming of Pursuit. This was a big-budget film. I don’t know what the final number was, but one day we hired 250 homeless people to be themselves for scenes at Glide. A day’s work for a day’s pay. Two days. A couple comes up to me on the set and said, ‘We’re both working. We’ve been trying to get off the streets for six months. We’ve saved everything. All we needed was another $500 to get a house, and we made that $500 working on this movie.’ That, for me, was the coolest thing in the world. What do you think: $50-60 million gets spent and $500 gets a family off the street? That’s a big deal.”