Pursuit of Happyness' Gabriele Muccino

Though uniquely American story, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is directed by the Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino, best-known for the movie “The Last Kiss.”

Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) is a bright and talented, but marginally employed salesman. Struggling to make ends meet, Gardner finds himself and his 5-year old son (played by Smith's real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) evicted from their San Francisco apartment with nowhere to go. No longer able to cope, his wife (played by Thandie Newton) leaves him and moves to New York. When Gardner lands an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, he and his son endure many hardships, including living in shelters, in pursuit of his dream of a better life for the two of them.

The Real Chris Gardner

In 2003, executive producer Mark Clayman, a writer and actor, was one of many Americans who saw a story about Chris Gardner on TV's 20/20. As he recalls: “My wife and I are not avid 20/20 watchers, but we caught this segment, which discussed how Chris was faced with amazing obstacles, homelessness being at the forefront. There was a scene where he revisited a bathroom at a Bart station with his son, and he talked about how he used to bath him in the sink of the restroom.

Since we had a son who was a year old at that time, we both were moved to tears by it. I saw it not as a rags-to-riches story, but as a moving father-and-son tale. I turned to my wife and said, 'I've got to get the rights to this story and this could be a home run for Will Smith.”

Gardner's Version

Chris Gardner's phone had been ringing off the hook the morning after 20/20 segment aired, but Clayman commanded his attention, because, as he says, “he was honest, direct, sincere, and to the point.”

Will Smith

Black and Blumenthal contacted producer James Lassiter, Will Smith's partner in Overlook Entertainment. Lassiter, too, was impressed by the story: “I knew it would appeal to Will both as a man and as a father.” Lassiter sent the 20/20 tape to Vancouver, where Will Smith was shooting “I, Robot,” and less than 24 hours later, the actor responded.

American Hope and Will

Says Will Smith: “From the moment I watched the 20/20 piece, I saw the story as the embodiment of the American Dream. The concept this country is based on is the hope that any person armed with their own will and determination can create their situationfrom the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.

Why Gabriele Muccino

Though many directors expressed interest in taking on “The Pursuit of Happyness” after reading Conrad's script, it was Smith and Lassiter who lobbied for Gabriele Muccino despite the fact that he'd never directed an English-language film.

Muccino's 'The Last Kiss' has won the Sundance Festival's Audience Award, when it premiered there in 2002. His follow-up film, “Remember Me, My Love,” with Monica Bellucci, was admired by film critics around the world.

“I had watched Gabriele's last two Italian films and was really attracted to the intricate nature of emotions he was able to understand and depict cinematically,” says Will Smith.

American Dream from Foreign Perspective

Gabriele was really passionate about the material. But what sold us is when he said to us, “As Americans, you guys don't really understand the American Dream. To really appreciate the essence of the American Dream, you have to be a foreigner.' That's when we realized that his impression of the American Dream would be original and different and give the movie a unique take.

Universal Story

Producer Todd Black met Muccino at Will Smith's house and said to him, 'You're not American and this is an American story.' He looked at me and replied, 'It's not just an American story; it's a universal story. There's homelessness everywhere in the world. This could happen to anyone.'

Muccino was smart in realizing that this movie could reach out to people all over the world. The idea of being able to pick yourself up, work hard and ultimately have that hard work and perseverance pay offthat is applicable to any human, not just an American.”

For Muccino, the arc of the movie was appealing on an even more elemental level: “What really attracted me is the character's desperate attempt to survive, and that the most precious thing to him was protecting his child. Chris endures the unimaginable and still makes sure that not even the worst moments will have a bad effect on his son's life. It's truly a family's journeya desperate and unfortunately real voyage that becomes epic simply because it touches on so many universal values.”