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'I am Legend' writer credits comics, horror films and pop culture
By Dann Gire | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/23/2007 1:04 AM

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Parents, if you've got kids who hang around the house reading comic books, watching horror movies and drawing and writing really strange stories, don't despair.

Mark Protosevich says you don't have to.

"Don't worry. It will have a profound effect on the future," Protosevich says. And he means that it a good way.

He should know. The Chicago native and former film instructor at Columbia College spent his youth on the Southwest Side immersed in comic books, movies and lots of low-brow pop culture. Look what happened to him.

He grew up to write the screenplay for "I Am Legend," the highest grossing opening movie in Will Smith's career and the all-time record-holder for a December movie opening.

It only took him 12 years to get it made.

"Nothing surprises me anymore than it comes to the time it takes for a project comes to fruition," Protosevich says by phone from a house in Massachusetts. He wrote his first draft of "I Am Legend" in 1995 and since has rewritten the screenplay many times over the years.

At one point, Ridley Scott was set to direct it with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead as Robert Neville, the last human spared from a deadly virus that turns people into hungry vampires. Protosevich based his screenplay on Richard Matheson's classic novel "I Am Legend," already turned into two movies: "The Last Man on Earth" (1964) and "The Omega Man" (1971).

In 2003, Protosevich rewrote his script again with potential star Will Smith, but that deal fell apart. Finally, Smith returned to the project and "I Am Legend" burst on to the nation's screens Dec. 14. That happened after screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith became a producer and put a fire under the project. Goldsmith also rewrote portions of Protosevich's work.

(For the record, Goldsmith, not Protosevich, wrote the cliched, vaguely hopeful finale we see in the movie. The original ending was much darker in keeping with Matheson's novel.)

Still, it took 12 years of rejection and pain. Was it worth it? "Absolutely," Protosevich says. "It's fun to sit down and write this stuff. The most important thing to remember about this is not to worry about the outcome. Don't worry about whether it will sell or if people will like it. You have to have faith in your work. And have a good time."

Protosevich, 46, says his tenacity and success come from his Chicago upbringing. His dad, an electrician, and mom, a public school teacher, taught him a rigorous work ethic.

"I learned you have to be willing to start at the bottom and do what ever it takes to move forward. In Hollywood, I took a bunch of low-level jobs. When someone asked me to do A, B, and C, I did all of that plus D, E and F. And if I had the time, all the way through the whole alphabet."

When Protosevich turned 25, he decided to hit Hollywood. "I've got to at least try," he says. "I sold everything I had and drove out in a beaten up Ford Escort. I slept on a friend's couch. I worked. It took a long time before I sold my first script, 'The Cell.'"

An instant success?

"No," he says. "It was the 10th script I wrote."

What happened to the other nine?

"Hey, it was a learning process," he says. " I think there were only two or three in there I would ever show to people."

Next up for Protosevich: the film version of the Marvel comic book super hero Thor.

"I loved Thor!" he says. "He was my favorite comic book character when I was growing up. When I moved out to L.A. I sold a pretty substantial comic book collection to finance the trip. But I kept all my old Thors."

Protosevich promises that the movie version will deal with the elements that made Thor the god of thunder. "It's going to be like a super hero origin story, but not one about a human gaining super powers, but of a god realizing his true potential. It's the story of a Old Testament god who becomes a new Testament god."

It will be mythic, but also bear the unmistakable qualities of a Marvel movie, an epic fantasy adventure.

"I think it's going to surprise a lot of people," Protosevich the Hollywood writer said. "But I can't work on it right now because I'm on strike."