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How Will Smith found new meaning to life after death of his beloved dad

Seven decades on, It's A Wonderful Life still strikes a chord, and the makers of poignant new movie Collateral Beauty admit the 1946 hit was an inspiration. Director David Frankel, as well as stars including Will Smith, talk about the movie's message

By Susan Griffin

In Collateral Beauty, a grieving father withdraws from the world, and in his anger and desperation he writes three letters - to Love, Time and Death. They, in turn, appear and confront him.

It might seem a grim subject matter for Christmas, but Will Smith, who plays the central character Howard, believes its message is ultimately life-affirming.

"The idea of Collateral Beauty is being awake and actually looking and feeling and experiencing whatever is happening," says the 48-year-old star.

"No matter how dark or difficult the circumstance is, there's always collateral beauty. There's always a thread of light that you grab onto, and it leads you out of the darkness."

Shortly before shooting the film, Smith's father was diagnosed with cancer and died in November. "The idea of fate, I do think there is a magical way that things tend to happen," says the Philadelphia-born actor.

"For me, working on this particular story, dealing with a character who's experiencing a loss and then for me dealing with the loss of my father, there was a certain synchronicity that was powerful. This was the most transformative project personally I've ever worked on."

And he means it. "To be able to look at loss this clearly, it was so powerful," he continues. "I think what I came away with is much more clarity.

"A lot of the BS got pushed out of my life, a lot of things that may have been important and serious to me before Collateral Beauty have sort of washed away."

Comparisons have already been made to the 1946 classic It's A Wonderful Life, where an angel shows a depressed man what life would've been like if he never existed, and Smith reveals it was used as a reference.

"We wanted a little bit of heaviness, but to cut it slightly with the fun and the comedy of the story. We'll have to see what people think. We create, and hope for the best."

The film's directed by David Frankel, whose previous credits include the likes of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me.

"There are so many ideas here, especially loss and death, that we're all so terrified of and we resist talking about them," says the 57-year-old film-maker.

"Grief can drive you mad and can isolate you completely from the world and somehow life has to be restored. That's a powerful topic we all have to deal with."

He was "full of admiration" for leading man Smith.

"I think what amazed me was not so much any sense of suffering on his part, but the joy he brought to the set every day," explains Frankel.

"He's just the most joyful human being on the planet and he spreads that around to the actors, to the crew and to the thousands of people who follow us around the streets of New York."

Shooting in one of the world's busiest cities wasn't Frankel's biggest challenge - "the shoot itself went really smoothly," he says - it was "getting the tone right".

"Getting the mix of humour and drama was a lot of trial and error," he admits. But it was a challenge the actors were keen to participate in.

"Helen (Mirren) loves acting so much and it was fun to work with someone who would say, 'Let's do it again, let's do it again'," Frankel says of the Academy Award-winning actress, who appears as Death in the movie (Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore tackle the roles of Love and Time).

Mirren (71) admits she was "absolutely insulted" when asked to play the Grim Reaper. "Is this a hint of some sort?" she teases, laughing.

"But it was good because it made me think about it (death), actually. As you get older, you do obviously have it more and more in your life, so it's something you have to incorporate into your living life."

She was keen to make her character "as alive as possible".

"That was my major note to myself," says London-born Mirren, who was attracted to the role for a combination of reasons.

"First of all, it was the script. It wasn't like anything I'd read before. And then hearing about the casting and, absolutely, the opportunity to work with someone like Will was fantastic.

"But really the thing that nudged me was knowing David Frankel was going to direct it. I thought if anyone could get the tone right, it would be him."

Edward Norton, who plays Whit, a close friend and colleague of Howard's (Kate Winslet and Michael Pena also feature), confesses he had initial reservations about the movie.

"Only because someone called me and said: 'There's a holiday movie we're going to do'. I was like, 'Were you calling a different Edward?'" he exclaims, grinning.

"But when I read it, I thought it actually was very unexpected. It had a lot of wisdom in it that I thought was very poignant."

Like Smith, he believes it's the right time for such a movie.

"At the end of year, when you mark the passage of time, you tend to get reflective about whether the balances in your life are the way you want them," says 47-year-old Norton.

"You never know if you're going to be able to make the chemistry of something work, but I thought it was worth taking a crack at something that's trying to balance a meditation on death with something that's uplifting."

Naomie Harris (40), who stars as grief counsellor Madeleine, reveals the project has made her reassess her life.

"I'm someone who's very goal-orientated, so I never really enjoyed the journey of life that much," she admits. "Playing Madeleine actually made me realise I need to spend more time enjoying the journey, and appreciating what is, rather than what might come.

"Madeleine has an incredible ability to see the gift in life, to see the collateral beauty in everything, and it made me stop and analyse and realise that even in those times of my life when I felt like awful things had happened, I think they taught me incredible lessons.

"This movie's precisely the message we need at Christmas time, which is, life is fragile," Harris concludes.

"It's incredibly beautiful and we never know when our time is up, so let's celebrate the time we do have, be with our loved ones and be as incredibly loving as we can."

Collateral Beauty is released on Boxing Day

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