Film carries the weight of a devastating burden

Ten years ago, screenwriter Grant Nieporte struck up a conversation with a stranger at a cocktail party. Sporting a leather sport coat and a ponytail amid a country club crowd, the man seemed like the most compelling personality in the room, and the two spent most of the evening talking. But behind this person’s wit and intelligence, Nieporte sensed something else.

“The more I talked to him,” he remembers, “the more I realized there was something in his past that he was just profoundly weighed down by, that he felt guilt and remorse over.” As the screenwriter said goodbye to his new friend, he thought to himself, “That is the saddest person I ever met in my life.”

That chance interaction got Nieporte thinking about the weight of personal responsibility and the lengths to which someone might go to make amends. This seed of an idea would eventually grow into the screenplay for “Seven Pounds,” Nieporte’s first produced script and the second collaboration between Will Smith and Italian director Gabriele Muccino, who guided the actor to an Oscar nomination for “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Opening Dec. 19, “Seven Pounds” tells the story of Ben Thomas (Smith), an engineer posing as an IRS agent who aims to right past wrongs by helping seven strangers in need, one of whom, played by Rosario Dawson, he unexpectedly falls in love with. Woody Harrelson brings a gentle humanity to the character of a blind pianist, and Barry Pepper gives his small but critical role a soul-searching intensity.

The film functions on many levels: It’s a love story, but it’s also a philosophical exploration of what makes life meaningful, and the consequences of selfishness versus selflessness. It’s something of a mystery as well, unfolding right up to the end as the enormity of Thomas’ situation is revealed.

Be warned: “Seven Pounds” is also, in the parlance of Hollywood, a real three-hankie weeper. In fact Dawson’s mother, after seeing an early clip, suggested that Kleenex might want to sponsor the film. “She said they should just give you a pack of tissues when you pick up your ticket!” laughs the actress, whose character, Emily Posa, suffers from congenital heart disease.

According to Muccino, the heaviness — pun intended — of “Seven Pounds” required “an extreme amount of bravery on behalf of Will and myself. The script was the most challenging and risky project we had ever read. I looked into Will’s eyes, he looked into my eyes, and we kind of said to each other, ‘I’m onboard, are you?'”

The experience, he says, was like flying without a parachute: “Either you crash or you learn to fly.”

Muccino compares the emotional honesty of “Seven Pounds” to American filmmaking of the ’70s, which itself was inspired by the European cinema of prior decades. Everything, he says, boils down to human relationships. “No matter if the hero flies on a spaceship or lives in ancient Egypt or San Francisco, the thing is how this man behaves and carries on with his life, with his own obstacles … and how he manages to make dreams move forward and look ahead to his own future,” he says. “Those elements are universal.”

On reflecting about the working relationship between himself and the actor, Muccino agrees it makes sense that it would be someone from outside the Hollywood system who could pull such raw performances from the biggest box office star in the world, noting: “I wasn’t intimidated by (Smith’s) stature because I didn’t grow up in this country. I wasn’t fed by the brightness of his career.

“I also knew that if things didn’t go well I could always go back to my own country and make movies over there,” Muccino adds. “This allowed me to be braver and more focused on what I really had to tell in the story, rather than what (the producers) wanted.”

For the naturally charming and charismatic Smith, the task of inhabiting a broken, downcast character like Ben Thomas took its toll. Nieporte was on the “Seven Pounds” set for most of the shoot (it was filmed on location in Los Angeles), and he recalls: “Will was starting to wear it around with him. … About a week shy of us being finished, he said to me, ‘I am exhausted playing this character, I just wanna be done. I’m going home a different person; it weighs on me. I’ve loved it, but I am done.'”

Muccino agrees, saying: “I definitely believe that it was the hardest point of his career.”

The director credits the story’s redemptive power with bringing Smith “back to life, to the sunlight. … Somehow the rescue of this man by this woman rescued the man behind the mask, who was Will Smith.”

Dawson, who appeared with Smith in “Men in Black II,” fought hard for the role of Emily and found herself deeply affected by the experience.

“The breath of fresh air that I think Emily Posa is in the story is the breath of fresh air that it was for my personal experience,” she says. “Even though her mortality is so close and her reality can be so dark, her spirit is so light. The fact of the matter is you can’t avoid death, and to really think about it in such a strong way … I felt really grateful for making a bit more peace with it.”

As she observes, “There’s no way to do a line reading on that kind of stuff. When you’re asking someone, ‘Do you ever think about dying?’ you really gotta mean it. And when you’re really speaking from the heart, and you’re not just like, ‘Hey, pass the sugar,’ it’s amazing the kind of conversations you can have.”

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