AICN Legends: Mr. Beaks Talks REAL STEEL, THE TWILIGHT ZONE And Much More With Richard Matheson!
I was a fan of Richard Matheson long before I knew there was a Richard Matheson. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Nick of Time”, “Night Call”, “Steel”, “Little Girl Lost”… I just assumed these fantastic tales sprung from the imagination of the man in the suit and tie. DUEL? That was Steven Spielberg. All those great Edgar Allan Poe movies with Vincent Price? Roger Corman.
There was no “Eureka!” moment. I just started noticing the name “Richard Matheson” on a lot of movies and TV shows I adored. And I kept noticing. Until I finally started reading. And once I started reading, I slowly began to realize that Richard Matheson was responsible for much of the wonder in my life. Ever since, I’ve been in awe.
Matheson’s writing career was launched with the publication of “Born of Man and Woman” in THE MAGAZINE OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY in 1950. Four years later, his novel I AM LEGEND hit bookshelves and captivated an entire generation of fantasists (Stephen King has repeatedly cited Matheson as a primary influence). The films started coming in 1955 with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and they have not abated. And then there’s his staggeringly prolific television output: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE NIGHT STALKER, LAWMAN, NIGHT GALLERY, AMAZING STORIES and so on. There is so much Matheson out there, and much of it is exceptional.
Though Matheson is now in his eighty-fifth year, he has no intention of winding down. He has a new novel out, OTHER KINGDOMS, and another one on the way. And then there is REAL STEEL, the robot boxing extravaganza loosely based on his short story “Steel”, which was previously a TWILIGHT ZONE episode starring Lee Marvin. Perhaps this is the beginning of the Matheson renaissance that should’ve happened in the late 1990s (if only WHAT DREAMS MAY COME hadn’t been a complete bungle). If so, Matheson and his son, R.C., are prepared, as they’ve recently announced that the entire Matheson catalogue is up for grabs to the highest studio bidder (provided they’re allowed to retain some creative control).
A couple of weeks ago, I was offered a half-hour interview with Matheson to discuss REAL STEEL. This turned into an unstructured hour-long conversation about his entire career. We talked about Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tourneur, Basil Rathbone, Gene Roddenberry, Steven Spielberg, the influence of HELL HOUSE (which I believe to be his masterpiece) and much more. Basically, we talked about the last sixty years of horror, science-fiction and fantasy, because that’s what Matheson represents. He is legend.
Beaks: As I said, it’s a pleasure to meet you and talk with you.
Richard Matheson: Thank you.
Beaks: Especially for “Steel”, which was, as a child, one of my very favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes.
Matheson: Yeah, that was a good one.
Beaks: With Lee Marvin.
Matheson: And the fellow from MARTY.
Beaks: Joe Mantell.
Matheson: Yeah, he was good, too.
Beaks: As with many of these stories, as a kid I often just credited them to Rod Serling. Then you get older and you realize “Oh, there are all of these other wonderful writers!” That’s when I discovered your work.
Matheson: Yeah, I did fourteen of them. My friend, [Charles] Beaumont, did about twenty-three of them.
Beaks: Even today, and this is not true of many shows, if I were to turn on the TV tonight, I could watch a classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode.
Matheson: It’s amazing how long it’s lasted.
Beaks: They’re just great stories.
Matheson: You know why? It’s because Rod, being a writer himself, recognized good writing when he saw it and left it alone. Also, black and white is much more dramatic than color. It can get so many more nuances and shadows.
Beaks: So have you seen REAL STEEL?
Matheson: Yes, they brought a copy over here and I looked at it.
Beaks: What did you think?
Matheson: I think it’s a marvelous job. I think Shawn Levy did a brilliant job of directing, and I like Hugh Jackman a lot. The whole cast was good. Someone told me how they did the robot thing. I assumed there were men inside these metal suits, and he said, “No, the men have sensors all over their body, and when they move the metal man moves.” It’s very effective.
Beaks: And you didn’t mind it deviated from your story?
Matheson: Well, that’s always the case. I mean, basically the idea was in my story… I just got a whole bunch of letters from these sixteen- and seventeen-year-old high school kids in Los Banos, and almost every one of them to the last said, “I hate to read, but I loved I AM LEGEND.” And they credited me with inventing the whole vampire-zombie thing. I don’t know where they got the zombie thing, because there were no zombies in it. But I think maybe I reactivated the vampire idea, and now I’ve activated the robot fighter idea.
Beaks: And I wonder, given how dangerous can be, especially now that people are taking steroids and other performance enhancers… fighters are taking more punishment than the human body is really meant to take. So you begin to wonder, were you prescient somehow? Are we going to eventually have robots fight in the place of humans?
Matheson: Well, I went on the assumption that what’s probably kind of accurate is that all of the military casualties would make boxing very difficult to succeed.
Beaks: In terms of how “Steel” became REAL STEEL, did you meet with any of the screenwriters: John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, or Jeremy Leven?
Matheson: No, I never met them.
Beaks: How did you know there was interest in making “Steel” into a film, and what did you think at the time?
Matheson: Oh, I heard about it from… [producer] Don Murphy. He kept in touch with me.
Beaks: Did he kind of give you an idea of what they would be doing with the story? Did you ever give notes or give them suggestions?
Matheson: No, no never.
Beaks: In the past, when your work was being adapted for the screen, you often found a way to stay involved. You adapted THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, for example…
Matheson: Yeah, that was my first.
Beaks: How did that adaptation go?
Matheson: I don’t know. Back then, when I sold the book to Universal, I insisted on doing the screenplay. You can’t do that today; you have three or four other writers in the barn waiting - and some of them are very good. I mean, obviously the [REAL STEEL] guys are good writers because it turned out so well.
Beaks: How did you feel about the father-son story in REAL STEEL?
Matheson: That was a new addition, yeah. It was well done. It’s like the picture of I AM LEGEND: it’s not my book either, but it was well done. If I were to adapt [“Steel”], I might have to do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might have to.
Whenever I have done a screenplay for whatever I have written, it’s usually turned out very well. I did a screenplay for SOMEWHERE IN TIME that turned out very nicely. I did a screenplay for a television movie, the one with Dick Van Dyke, THE MORNING AFTER, where he was an alcoholic. They did a beautiful job with that, and followed my script. And I did the script for THE NIGHT STALKER and a sequel to it. Dan Curtis left my script alone and it turned out well.
Beaks: Can you think of an instance where there was another writer who came on after you had worked on a screenplay, and you were happy with the end result?
Matheson: Well David Keoepp did his own screenplay on STIR OF ECHOES, but he did a very good job. When they do a very good job then it doesn’t bother me that they change it somewhat. It’s when they change it, and it turns out to be a piece of dreck, then I don’t like it.
Beaks: But you have been very fortunate throughout your career that, I think, most of your work has turned out very well.
Matheson: Especially in television.
Matheson: You know, I used to write scripts for LAWMAN, and Jules Schermer was the producer. He left my scripts alone and they turned out very well. And then of course THE TWILIGHT ZONEs. They were always well cast and well directed. I have very little to complain about - although I did complain sometimes.
Beaks: Did you write the introductions and the epilogues for your TWILIGHT ZONE episodes?
Matheson: I didn’t know that I could in beginning. The first few I didn’t, and then when I started to do it - I did the one for “Steel” - I thought it was very good, very well done. I enjoyed it.
Beaks: Now when you wrote those, were you writing with Rod Serling’s voice in your head?
Matheson: Oh sure, sure. I would imitate him in my office.
Beaks: How was he as a collaborator?
Matheson: Oh, he was very reasonable. I mean they made some requests for changes, but it was always very reasonable and acceptable, so I had no problem in that respect.
Beaks: Today, there would be would be all sorts of people attempting to influence the writing.
Matheson: Well, back then the writer, I guess, was maybe more respected. At least I got respect with TWILIGHT ZONE, LAWMAN, TV movies, Dan Curtis… I was very satisfied.
Beaks: Speaking of television, you had the opportunity to write for William Shatner a few times.
Matheson: Well, he did two of THE TWILIGHT ZONES and the one STAR TREK that I wrote. He did a brilliant job on all of them.
Beaks: There seems to be some linkage with the characters he played in the two TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. Are we perhaps seeing the same character in those two episodes?
Matheson: If it turned out that way, it was accidentally. I mean the only resemblance would be that they were two men who got involved in a very perilous situation, one of them actually physically in peril and the other one mentally in peril. No, I don’t see how anybody could think that, but I can believe anything…
Beaks: Do you have a favorite of the TWILIGHT ZONE episodes you wrote?
Matheson: Well, “Steel” is one of my favorites. I liked [“The Last Flight”], where the WW1 pilot lands in a modern airbase. I liked “Night Call” with Gladys Cooper, where she gets phone calls from a guy who is dead. That was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who I got the job and they said, “Oh, well he’s a movie director; it will take too long.” He had the shortest shooting schedule I believe of any director on TWILIGHT ZONE. He was so well organized.
Beaks: Well he had to work quickly with Val Lewton, because their films were made on the cheap.
Matheson: Oh, very much so. When I was a teenager living in Brooklyn, I wrote letters to Val Lewton. I wrote one letter in particular where I told him I had figured out what he did to scare people. It was so simple: one is you draw the eye all the way to the right side of the screen or the left side and have something jump out on the other side, or have a long period of dead silence… dead silent… and then suddenly broken by anything - the nickering of a horse, a bus stopping - and it makes you jump out of your skin.
Beaks: And then you worked again with Jacque Tourneur on COMEDY OF TERRORS.
Matheson: Yeah, yeah he did a wonderful job. That’s one of my favorite movies.
Beaks: Yeah, that’s one that is not as well known as it should be.
Matheson: I think it’s very funny. I think that Boris Karloff did a wonderful job. Vincent Price, always - except for the first I AM LEGEND [THE LAST MAN ON EARTH], when he was totally miscast. But Peter Lorre, Joyce Jameson... very proficient and very funny. And Jacques did a great job of directing.
Beaks: When you worked with Tourneur, would he ever give suggestions on your screenplay or did he just shoot your script?
Matheson: No, I don’t recall him doing that. Maybe he did, but… I don’t remember him doing anything like that.
Beaks: Speaking of legends, you wrote for Buster Keaton in “Once Upon a Time”.
Matheson: Yeah, well, there was a lot more movement in my script. I had a whole sequence of him going through a car wash and a supermarket, and I guess they decided they couldn’t afford it. So they shot this long, endless scene in a repair shot with Jesse White playing a repair man. Yeah, I remember going over to Buster Keaton’s house with a writer named William R. Cox. He had a house over in Canoga Park, and he had a little train set that would bring drinks out to you while you were sitting in the yard.
Beaks: (Laughing) How was Buster at that point in his career? How was he to work with?
Matheson: Well he didn’t have much of a career at that point. It was all, in retrospect, what he did. As soon as he signed up with Metro, they sort of cut the ground out from under him, and he had to do what they said rather than what he had always done for himself.
Beaks: I still think he is the most brilliant physical comedian of all time.
Matheson: Oh, he’s wonderful, yeah. I remember Bill Cox said that when Keaton did that thing on the ship [in THE NAVIGATOR], he had a scene where he’s diving in a diving suit and he played traffic cop to the fish. Keaton decided that it slowed the plot down too much, so he cut it out, which is a sign of a good storyteller, to recognize for yourself that you have gone too far - not that anybody would mind it now. I was watching a Chaplin thing last night, THE CIRCUS. I didn’t find it amusing at all. I mean, he’s the great classic silent picture comedian, but… the ones that really get me are Laurel and Hardy. But Keaton has a special attraction as a comedy actor.
Beaks: And an economical storyteller. His best films are fairly simple.
Matheson: The one about the train in the Civil War that cost a bit of money…
Beaks: THE GENERAL…
Matheson: They collapsed a whole bridge on that movie. (Laughs) You know, another one that I think is marvelous that people don’t seem to recognize as much is Harold Lloyd. I mean. if he would go five minutes without a joke, he’d have to figure out something. He didn’t like to have his pictures slow down at all, and he had a charming personality.
Beaks: Did you learn something about pacing from silent comedians in terms of your own storytelling?
Matheson: Perhaps. (Laughs) I don’t know.
Beaks: Because pacing is very important in your work. The half-hour TWILIGHT ZONE episodes are, I think, some of the most brilliantly constructed stories ever.
Matheson: Yeah, well Chuck Beaumont and I were the first two writers who ever were assigned to do TWILIGHT ZONEs, and we got the assignment because we had already written stories and we knew how to fit into that structure: you have an opening, like a cliffhanger, you present the concept, then cut to Rod, and then in the first act you are leaving them hanging with another cliffhanger. And at the end if you can get them a twist, so much the better.
Beaks: What did you think of the second version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with John Lithgow?
Matheson: I didn’t care for it. I mean, I was very elated when I knew George Miller was going to direct it, and Lithgow did a wonderful job. I think he got an Emmy nomination for the [AMAZING STORIES episode] I wrote for him called THE DOLL. [Ed. note: actually, he won an Emmy for THE DOLL.]
Beaks: That’s a great episode.
Matheson: Yeah, that was a nice one. But I didn’t like the fact that [in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”]… I thought the situation with Shatner was better in that he had had a nervous breakdown, and he was coping with that as well as the thing outside and might have a breakdown again. With Lithgow, it was just “I’m scared to death of flying. I’m sick with fear from being in an airplane.” That just didn’t do it.
Beaks: How are you with flying? What inspired that story?
Matheson: Well, I was flying once and I looked out the window and there were all of these cloud banks, and I thought it would be interesting if you saw a guy skiing out there. Then when I thought about it some more, I thought “Well, that’s hardly frightening,” so I turned it into the creature on the wing.
Beaks: How was it adapting Edgar Allen Poe for Roger Corman, and how do you feel about those films?
Matheson: Well, the first one [HOUSE OF USHER] was the closest to Poe, although I added a woman to it. I noticed in the [AMPAS magazine] yesterday they have a picture of [Myrna Fahey] strangling Vincent Price, and she’s this little girl… (Laughs) five-foot-three or something. He’s six foot four or something, and she’s strangling him! But it was very well done, and Roger did a good job. Roger always left my scripts alone. The only thing he ever did was he would say, “It’s too long, we’ve got to cut it down.” And then when he was shooting, he would say, “It’s too short. We need some extra material.” I mean, TALES OF TERROR… there were a few of them, like the first story [“Morella”], although it wasn’t well done was the closest to Poe. The others, like THE RAVEN… I mean, it was ridiculous even to quote Edgar Allen Poe. It was “Edgar Allen Matheson.”
Beaks: (Laughs) Well, I enjoy the combination of the two. I think they complement each other well.
Matheson: Again, the performers in it were excellent, and I thought the comedy came across very well.
Beaks: There was a point in your career when you became fascinated with, as you call it, “the supernormal”. You began to write stories, primarily HELL HOUSE, that dealt such issues. What got you interested in this subject?
Matheson: Well I’ve always been interested in, as you said, the supernormal - which is really a more accurate phrase. “Supernatural,” I think, is not accurate. It’s all natural. I’ve always been interested in it, and then, as time went by, I became more and more intrigued by the whole metaphysical aspect of life. Then I discovered this book by Harold W. Percival called THINKING AND DESTINY, an absolutely brilliant book that should have caught on more than it has. I thought it was so good that I asked the people who published it if I could make a short book out of the opening of it, which included… politics and survival after death. I took the simplest aspects of his opening pages and wrote a book called THE PATH, which they are still publishing; the people who published THINKING AND DESTINY have a magazine called THE WORD, and they asked if they could sell it themselves. I get no royalties; I just let them have it. Then of course I did WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. Now there was case where the picture turned out abysmally, I thought. The fellow who used to run Universal, [Tom Pollock]… he told me one day, “I should have shot your book.” They should have.
Beaks: Getting back to HELL HOUSE, which I think is an incredibly influential book in terms of the way it comes at the haunted house story with elements of science and parapsychology. These elements were then worked into films like POLTERGEIST, THE ENTITY, all the way up to INSIDIOUS, which came out this year. How do you feel when you see something like POLTERGEIST, which is so clearly influenced by your work?
Matheson: Well, POLTERGEIST was inspired by one of mine, and I never got credit for it. I had one of those old videos of THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode [“Little Girl Lost”] of the little girl that goes into the fourth dimension through the wall of her bedroom. They sort of used that idea and made their own concept of it.
Beaks: But things like ectoplasm… I feel like many people were introduced to this concept through HELL HOUSE.
Matheson: Well, I have this big book by German scientist [Albert von Schrenck-Notzing] about ectoplasm. It has photographs of this horrible looking stuff coming out of psychic’s mouths and ears and vagina. I thought [THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE] was rather well done. I liked the cast quite a bit. The girl who played the medium was a little young. She was much older in my story.
Beaks: I like that movie, but I feel like they could maybe take another crack at HELL HOUSE.
Matheson: Oh, I’ve been trying to get them to do that for a long time. I’m trying to talk 20th Century Fox into remaking it and following my book even more [closely]. I was originally going to do it with a producer named Stanley Chase, and it was going to follow my book very closely. I mean, [the 1973 film] didn’t deviate from it that much, but they could have come closer. It was about the time of ultimate censorship, so I had to cut out all of the really raunchy stuff from the book, which I would probably stick back in now for good or for bad.
Beaks: I think it should be in there.
Matheson: At that time when it first came out, I was hoping that Rod Steiger and his wife would play the doctor and his wife [Ed. note: Steiger was married five times, but I’m guessing Claire Bloom]. I forget who I visualized as the medium, but in the book she was a movie actress. Oh, it would be better. If I could get Shawn Levy to do it, that would be great.
Beaks: There are still many of your stories that have not been filmed.
Matheson: Well, my son and I have started an organization called Matheson Entertainment, and so far we are one the verge of selling two of my stories - both of them Shawn Levy wants to direct. We’ve got about a hundred and fifty different projects that are available.
Beaks: And you’re still writing. How have you been able to stay so prolific? What would you recommend to younger writers?
Matheson: Write what you want to write. Don’t write what people tell you. If you do what people tell you to do, you are in trouble. Of course when you have four children to support, that gives you inspiration. (Laughs) I mean, what else can you do? I’ve never had a dry period. I’ve never had a blank period. Right now I have four or five ideas. The problem I have now is I seem to be coming down with a small dose of Parkinson’s Disease, which makes your writing very illegible. I don’t know quite how to create them at the moment.
Beaks: You could dictate.
Matheson: Yeah, well I’ve never done that. That’s what Rod did. He would dictate the scripts. That’s why so many of them are kind of wordy: good words, but wordy.
Beaks: I read an interview once that you said when you worked for Douglas Aircraft, you wrote whole stories in your head.
Matheson: Oh yeah. I wrote an entire story, the one about a poet who is dying and he’s a terrible person [“To Fit the Crime”]. He insults his entire family, and he ends up going to hell - and hell is just full of people just uttering banalities all of the time, and singing it in four part harmony. “Well, that’s the way it is. Tough luck, old man.” And he’s saying, “This is complete and utter hell,” because he’s been the lord of language and he’s not getting any of it back.
But, yeah, I worked on a rotor table cutting big pieces of metal out for airplanes. I hope none of them crashed.
I just found before… I’ve got a novel coming out in December, I guess, and I found something I wrote when I was fifteen years old. It seems I’m just going to insert it in the novel, insert it in a spot.
Beaks: How does it compare to your other writing? Does it feel like it’s by the same person?
Matheson: No, it’s the first novel I’ve had turned down by Tor for god knows how long, simply because there’s nothing spooky about it. It’s all about family values and everything. I’m glad it’s going to be published, but what’s interesting is that’s about my old family: my mother, my father, my brother, my uncles, my aunts, cousins, and things they never said about their lives. I decided I would write a novel that had them all articulating the things that are really bothering them, which they never did in real life.
Matheson: It’s a biological fantasy. The first line of the novel is “The strangeness of this book is that it never happened.”
Beaks: And you are communicating things you believe they might’ve thought?
Matheson: Well, they say things, they articulate things that I believe they should have articulated based on what I had observed about their personalities and the dynamics of their life together. I’m happy with it.
Beaks: Aside from the newer things you have written and HELL HOUSE, is there a story or a book that you would like to see done again, something you think could be done better than it was the first time around?
Matheson: I think they could do almost any of them. THE SHRINKING MAN has been out so long that it reverts to me next year, and we may try to do that. Jack Arnold did a good job with the physical aspects, but when they told me they were going to remake it, and they wanted me to do the script, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it. But I want to follow the time structure of the novel, where we start right in with him in his cell with the spider chasing him, and then step through the book, how it progressed and what happened to him as he got smaller and smaller.” They decided they didn’t want that, and maybe they were right. I don’t know. But that’s one that could be redone. Certainly a newer version of HELL HOUSE should be redone, much more graphically. and I don’t know, the television ones weren’t too bad. I was happy with most of the TWILIGHT ZONEs, some of them more than others.
Beaks: Certainly you were happy with “Prey” in TRILOGY OF TERROR.
Matheson: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, Dan Curtis showed me a version of “Prey” that was about ten minutes longer, which he had to cut down. He was very good at that and he did a good job on THE NIGHT STALKER.
Beaks: I have to ask: is it true you do a great Basil Rathbone impersonation?
Matheson: I used to do “Tums! Tums, for the tummy!” (Laughs) He did an ad for Tums. I had an interesting talk with him one day when they were making COMEDY OF TERRORS; he was telling me how they spent three days doing the duel for [THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD], and how careful they were. He said he got a lot more shots because he knew how to duel and Errol Flynn really didn’t. They did the whole picture of COMEDY OF TERRORS in about ten days, and here he’s telling me they took three days just to do the duel in ROBIN HOOD. He was a very nice man Peter Lorre was very nice. Vincent Price was the nicest man I ever met in the business. Boris Karloff was very genial and pleasant.
Beaks: How was Christopher Lee on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT?
Matheson: I never got to know him. This guy who was interviewing me the other day said that Shawn Levy is a very nice person and that Hugh Jackman is a very nice person. Because I told him I was dazzled by the fact that [Jackman] did OKLAHOMA, he said, “Well, that’s the kind of thing he really thinks he’s most suited for, musical comedy on stage.” He seems to be able to do anything. He’s a good actor. He sings, he dances… my god, what can that man not do?
Beaks: (Laughs) Yeah, you lucked into a good star for this movie.
Matheson: I’ve got a producer in New York who, for some time now, has been trying to set up SOMEWHERE IN TIME as a musical on the stage. It calls for a good male part, so I told this interviewer who said he was going to see Hugh Jackman in a week or two, “Tell him about SOMEWHERE IN TIME!”
Beaks: He’d be perfect. And that could be a great musical. I think that’s a great idea.
Matheson: We’ve discussed various actors and how effective they are. Kevin Spacey is another one. He’s a brilliant actor.
Beaks: I wish you the best of luck on that.
Matheson: Thank you. Yeah, I would love to see it. Once in a while I see… like anything that Bill Shatner was in turned out great, even the STAR TREK where he had a split personality.
Beaks: “The Enemy Within”.
Matheson: He did a good job on that.
Beaks: Were you ever asked to write more STAR TREK episodes?
Matheson: No, I don’t think Gene Roddenberry cared for me very much. I remember telling him on the one with Shatner that I thought that the whole B story… I hate B stories, and they added a B story of the crew down on the planet. My original script spent the entire time dealing with dual personality and how it affected the ship, and I told him so and maybe he didn’t like that. I had some good ideas though. I submitted ideas for other stories and they were nixed by Roddenberry, I guess.
Beaks: It sounds like he had a personal distaste.
Matheson: It could be. Usually I’ve gotten along with almost anybody in the business. He was never nasty or anything. He was always very polite and pleasant.
Beaks: So all these years later, and here REAL STEEL is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, whose career was partially launched by DUEL.
Matheson: Well, I don’t even know if using “Little Girl Lost,” and kind of taking some of it for POLTERGEIST… god, he must have felt guilty or something. Because he hired me as the creative consultant on AMAZING STORIES, and I didn’t do too well on that. (Laughs) I rejected two of his stories. I’m not too political when it comes to this kind of thing. If I don’t like something, I don’t like it, I don’t care who did it.
But he called me and sent me a copy of the script for REEL STEEL, although as I recall it was not the same as it was in the movie. He asked me “Does it resemble your script for STEEL?” It did, and I told him so. So then they paid me money for it, which they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Beaks: Good answer.
Matheson: Yeah, I have an odd relationship with Steven. I sent him this latest book called OTHER KINGDOMS; he took it with him on vacation and read it. He said he liked it very much, but he didn’t think he wanted to make a movie out of it. But we have always had a very amiable relationship. I can remember sitting with him when he had an office at Metro. I remember sitting with him in this big office; all of the drapes were drawn, and it was sort of dark in there, and I was telling him he ought to meditate. At the time I was into transcendental meditation, and I said, “You ought to meditate.” He said, “This is my meditation.” Which was very nice of him to say. It’s a positive relationship, no doubt. God knows the man has talent.
I guess I might have done JAWS. He told people that JAWS is “DUEL with a shark.” I was invited to do the script for what turned out to be CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but I didn’t want to do it. I would love to do another film with him somehow. It will probably never happen now, but I have great respect for his talent.
Beaks: Why didn’t you want to do CLOSE ENCOUNTERS?
Matheson: At the time I just equated it with a spaceship story. Ultimately I can’t say I’m crazy about the movie. It was very ornate and flamboyant. It was done on a very high level of skill, but it was a lesser effort, I think.
Beaks: Well, it’s been a pleasure to get to pick your brain. These are some of my favorite stories.
Matheson: I enjoyed talking. I don’t usually talk very much, I’m usually very quiet, so when I get a chance to talk…
It was a privilege to listen, sir. REEL STEEL opens October 7th. Matheson’s novels and short story collections are readily available.
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Oct. 7, 2011, 2:14 a.m. CST
On a Richard Matheson story too, hot damn!
Oct. 7, 2011, 2:17 a.m. CST
by Dr Eric Vornoff
Great interview and Matheson is a legend. I'm almost getting interested in seeing Real Steel, and after seeing the trailer that's close to a miracle.
Oct. 7, 2011, 3:14 a.m. CST
Great insight into Matheson's talent and history...very worthy and totally on the ball.
Oct. 7, 2011, 3:18 a.m. CST
really great job. It was a fantastic job. Great writer. Really great. I'm happy how it turned out.
Oct. 7, 2011, 3:31 a.m. CST
Still a brilliantly modest man. I've read tons of his stories, but have a feeling I'm only just scraping the surface of the ouevre of such a prolific genius. I actually though Real Steel was a rip off of Steel and Matheson wasn't getting any credit, as he wasn't listed on imdb. I found it hard to believe they made something so pappy sappy out of a hard-edged satirical idea. That's Hollywood.
Oct. 7, 2011, 4:06 a.m. CST
To my regret, I've only come to his books later in my life. Wish I'd grown up with them, I love all of them I've read. What a cool guy. Great interview too.
Oct. 7, 2011, 5:45 a.m. CST
by Carl's hat
The Night Stalker The Night Strangler Trilogy of Terror Duel Thriller Twilight Zone man...the list is gold.
Oct. 7, 2011, 6 a.m. CST
Although in a few of his books he has a habit of pooching his endings pretty badly. Worst case of that is SEVEN STEPS TO MIDNIGHT, which is an incredibly gripping, epic amnesia/chase story. But the ending is so bad I almost threw the book across the room. Still, he's fucking brilliant most of the time.
Oct. 7, 2011, 6:45 a.m. CST
by Col. Tigh-Fighter
And a great man, Nice one, Beaks
Oct. 7, 2011, 7:10 a.m. CST
Now this is why I like AICN: You get interview with truly iconic people in the genre. Matheson is one of the all-time greats, and he has stories about everyone. Seems to be a very well-adjusted, modest person too. Great stuff.
Oct. 7, 2011, 7:23 a.m. CST
by The Krypton Kid
Oct. 7, 2011, 8:12 a.m. CST
how producers/studios insist on changing the guy's stories so much. Still disgusted and dismayed that we'll now never see a faithful version of I Am Legend, after Will Smith's travesty - well not in my lifetime anyway. For those of you who like westerns, check out some of Matheson's, such as the Gunfight. I don't know if it was a phase he went through or what, but he's a natural at the genre. Awesome stories.
Oct. 7, 2011, 8:30 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
No lie, this is a great movie. If you've never seen it you must. If you're on a date, or for us married folks sitting on the couch trying to pick a movie you'll both like, pop this in. This movie pretends to be a romance, but it's really about the what ifs of time travel. It has incredible acting by Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, and the late great Bill Erwin. Guys watch this for the time travel story. Women watch it for the romance. I guarantee you will get lucky watching this. I have a feeling The Time Traveler's Wife was heavily influenced by this. That too is watchable the same way, and once again, you will get lucky.
Oct. 7, 2011, 8:31 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Oct. 7, 2011, 8:43 a.m. CST
And he's absolutely right about 'Little Girl Lost'-- there is no way that the Poltergeist is not taken from that. What a guy.
Oct. 7, 2011, 9:11 a.m. CST
by Col. Tigh-Fighter
Great little film. And kick arse location too. It is a friends favourite film.
Oct. 7, 2011, 9:15 a.m. CST
In Hell House, he describes the dwelling of the title as "the Mt. Everest of haunted houses". Matheson is the Mt. Everest of horror writers. King gives him a section in Danse Macabre, and has always been open about Matheson's influence on him. King and Ray Bradbury provided intros to his recent Tor retrospectives, and you can chart a straight course from Bradbury through Matheson to King which is the mainline of late 20th Century American horror, in books and tv/film alike. It's truly impossible to overstate his importance to the field.
Oct. 7, 2011, 9:33 a.m. CST
...a mass market paperback from a few years back called California Sorcery, which showcases Matheson, Robert Bloch, Bradbury, Ellison, the sadly forgotten Charles Beaumont and others who made up the so-called "Southern CaliforniaSchol of Horror": a group of sf, fantasy & horror writers for magazines who all moved to California to take advantafge of the opportunities in movies and television in the Fifties. The collection has a story from each, but also has a long introduction about their migration, breaking into the field and successes, rich with anecdotes of the time and comments from those left. Essential if you love this stuff as much as I do. And if you don't, get those two recent Tor collections I mentioned above, Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet...and maybe you will.
Oct. 7, 2011, 9:38 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Long before the internet some guy took out an advertisement seeking other fans. He created INSITE, the international Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts, or something like that. Bill Irwin went almost every year. RIP. Jane Seymour went a couple times, and I think Reeve did too. The hotel has the record for the longest porch. It is a beautiful location. The movie tanked at the box office. There were some issues that year, including a big writers strike or something. You can't hide true genius. Between Matheson, and the cast this has blossomed. It's not even a cult classic. It's a classic.
Oct. 7, 2011, 9:59 a.m. CST
This was a fantastic interview. Thoroughly enjoyed and much appreciated!
Oct. 7, 2011, 10:13 a.m. CST
because he posed the question of such creatures existence in the light of modern science. One of the great things about the novel 'I Am Legend' is it is as much a story about Robert Neville coming to grips with his relentless inner scientist as it his killing of vampires (who of course are more like zombies, so much so that Matheson had to divide them into two groups, the undead, and the sick). Except no one has really explained zombies, unless you count the Canadian gem 'Fido', which I do, being a Canadian.
Oct. 7, 2011, 10:20 a.m. CST
The Incredible Shrinking Man will always be (IMHO) his greatest achievement/treatise on existentialism....
by Amadeo Zeller
I always felt that Stephen King's "THE MIST" was his homage to Richard Matheson...And I hope The Incredible Shrinking Man's rights does revert back to him next year. The very thought of Eddie Murphy starring in the remake (as was reported many years ago) would be an abomination...Not that I don't like Eddie Murphy, but until he stops fucking around in the garden, and starts taking his craft serious, he should just consign himself to doing sub-par comedies.
Oct. 7, 2011, 11:09 a.m. CST
I am a fairly normal heterosexual dude, and SOMEWHERE IN TIME is one of my favorite movies. What the characters in the movie overcome in order to be with each other is heartrending. SPOILER ALERT: Yeah, the travelling through time and the sheer waiting that she has to go through is one thing. But for her to stay behind at the hotel after the stage company has left, and everything points to Christopher Reeve being the flake that her manager said he was -- for her to leave behind her entire world in the remotest hope that he might still be at the hotel -- for her to keep faith like that after all hope seems lost -- that was pretty awesome. So the scene where she sees him and calls up to him while he's on the porch is one of my favorite movie moments of all-time. All-Time, mutherfuckers! As for a musical, that seems like it might be a good idea, especially if they keep John Barry's melodies. His contribution to the movie was not just sublime, but key to the film's endurance. HOWEVER, someone did try to put lyrics to the theme once upon a time and Michael Crawford sang it, and if you ever get a chance to hear it, DON'T. It's so horrible -- with godawfully trite lyrics ("...a love that's here, that's now...") mixed with Crawford's overemotive singing style, it's an insult to any memories you may have of the movie.
Oct. 7, 2011, 12:08 p.m. CST
Stephen King doesn't do homages. He rips people off.
Oct. 7, 2011, 12:33 p.m. CST
by I am_NOTREAL
particularly about the hash Will Smith made out of "I Am Legend." He only rendered the title of the piece completely meaningless and irrelevant. (yes I know Francis Lawrence directed that POS, not Will Smith, but Francis Lawrence ain't tellin Big Willie Style what to do) That would really chap my ass if I were the creator, but Matheson seems above it. At least The Omega Man could be bothered to use a different title.
Oct. 7, 2011, 1:27 p.m. CST
do it again as a series, but this time, do it in black and white, on a low budget. Make it a writers' medium again. Get a host who's not a known actor. Preferably someone who's not an actor at all. Then again, so much about TZ was lightning in a bottle. Serling's talent, charisma, and odd personality. Geniuses like Matheson and Beaumont. I've been a fan of Matheson's tv work since I was a kid and used to subsribe to Twilight Zone magazine (edited by Serling's widow), which enabled me to read original scripts from the show, fantastic short stories, and interviews and biographies of great writers (with a bit scifi/fantasy/horror movie previews). I first heard of Lovecraft and Machen, for instance, from reading Twilight Zone magazine. That was a huge part of my (what they now call) tween and teenage years. I miss that magazine.
Oct. 7, 2011, 1:30 p.m. CST
"And they credited me with inventing the whole vampire-zombie thing. I don't know where they got the zombie thing, because there were no zombies in it." Because "Night of the Living Dead" was based on "I am Legend." They just (a) changed vampires to zombies and (b) didn't bother crediting you.
Oct. 7, 2011, 1:45 p.m. CST
It's a really fine novel, that is creepy as hell, and doesn't wuss out at the end with a lame explanation of the Giant Spider from Space or some other bullshit. It's the real deal, and anyone who likes horror should read it.
Oct. 7, 2011, 1:57 p.m. CST
And I really hate the term "epic fail" but it applies here.
Oct. 7, 2011, 2:30 p.m. CST
I would love to just shoot the shit with him like that you lucky fuck
Oct. 7, 2011, 3:53 p.m. CST
THIS is why I (still) come here! A few years ago I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an anthology of Matheson stories at my local bookstore, which I grabbed immediately upon seeing 'I am Legend' on the cover. Being a big fan of 'The Omega Man' I was keen on reading the source material. Awesome stuff! Funny how the Heston movie was closer to Matheson's story (a novella really, I think) than was the Will Smiff abortion. A year or so ago my nephew (who was 14 @ the time) was raving about the Smith film, and I gave him my copy of the book. 'Read this!' I tell him, and he's like, 'Awesome!' - then I see him like two months later and he tells me he hasn't had time to read it! But he HAS finished 'Call of Duty' on the Xbox! WTF!? Kids. They suck.
Oct. 7, 2011, 5:12 p.m. CST
They removed pretty much everything that was cool from the book. Oh well it's his work and if he wants to sell it out nobody can stop him. It seems he doesn't really care that much about what happens to his stories. I guess he is not the sentimental type.
Oct. 7, 2011, 5:53 p.m. CST
He is legend.
Oct. 7, 2011, 7:09 p.m. CST
It would be a shame if he didn't
Oct. 7, 2011, 7:10 p.m. CST
...he mentions that he and his son have re-appropriated the rights to over 150 of his books/stories, so it seems to me that he does care. Many times the author doesn't have the rights to their own IP's, having sold them years before (Sony owning the rights to Spidey films perhaps, or any Alan Moore property, lol- probably bad examples). He seems more of a go-with-the-flow guy. He's had a career that spans over half a century, so I don't feel he's a 'sell out'. God bless him for caring enough to continue doing what he (obviously) still loves. Lucky man.
Oct. 7, 2011, 7:33 p.m. CST
-- so glad Quint didn't get this assignment.
Oct. 7, 2011, 11:53 p.m. CST
Oct. 8, 2011, 12:20 a.m. CST
Saw the movie last night & noticed it in the opening credits: "Based in part on the story "Steel" by Richard Matheson."
Oct. 8, 2011, 12:25 a.m. CST
The thing is, so much of his stuff has become pop culture lexicon, it would be like trying to get the rights to oxygen
Oct. 8, 2011, 12:39 a.m. CST
I don't typically read the interviews on here, but when I saw Matheson's name I had to read it. Good work. I loved getting a little insight from the legendary writer.
Oct. 8, 2011, 1:30 a.m. CST
by Carl's hat
The man had just zoomed into the stratosphere (literally) with Superman:The Movie. Huge movie back in the day, still is. Reeve could have picked any role he wanted, he would've had scripts being thrown at him left, right and centre. But what does he do? One of the hottest actors in the world at that time chooses to take on the role of Richard Collier, a low key kinda role, in a little movie that had an odd premise, it wasn't action packed or had a huge budget. Somewhere in Time, a movie that flopped at the box office and for years after was regarded as pure women's schmaltz, got slammed by Leonard Maltin has now gone on to a huge cult following. Everything in it clicked; The comradery amongst the crew and cast, Jeannot Szwarc (another cult tv figure) as director, John Barry's sublime soundtrack, the location shooting on Macinack Island and Matheson's screenplay based on his own book. Wonderful movie. In my top 10.
Oct. 8, 2011, 2:57 a.m. CST
who co-wrote THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, one of my favorite comedies ever.
Oct. 8, 2011, 3:59 a.m. CST
Thanks for this interview. Marvellous! Matheson is a god and is for me what he obviously is for you.
Oct. 8, 2011, 4:33 a.m. CST
And he's not afraid to go against the grain and not declare undying love for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. I disagree with the old man, but that's beside the point, he has his opinion, and i'm certain it's well founded, and is not afraid to say it. He's not in the job of ass-kissing, that's for sure.
Oct. 8, 2011, 4:34 a.m. CST
Big Willy Smithie's is the furthest.
Oct. 8, 2011, 7:59 a.m. CST
on my radio show fifteen years ago, and they were solid, class acts. Great show, terrific stories. Beaks did the better interview, though.
Oct. 8, 2011, 10:59 a.m. CST
I have a padded button leather custom Twilight Zone pinball machine. It is the ONLY pinball machine that I have. Thanks for the memories!
Oct. 8, 2011, 12:03 p.m. CST
In The Last Man on Earth. It's the only movie that does I Am Legend justice. I'd like to know why he didn't like him in that movie.
Oct. 8, 2011, 1:47 p.m. CST
With The Twilight Zone, thankfully, Beaumont will never be forgotten, but his literary work deserves a larger readership.
Oct. 8, 2011, 1:55 p.m. CST
If they would just stick close to the novel, brutal bloody bleakness and all.
Oct. 8, 2011, 8:11 p.m. CST
I'm leaving in a couple of hours to attend a Midnight screening of "The Raven" here in Louisville. Richard Matheson is the best classical horror writer of our generation.
by The Reluctant Austinite
The Baxter Avenue Theater here in Louisville is showing Vincent Price movies every Saturday at Midnight in October. I've been a Richard Matheson fan most of my life. When I see his name in the writing credit, I know the film will be intelligent, classy and literate. Screenwriting is rarely ever allowed to be that good anymore.
Oct. 9, 2011, 2:34 a.m. CST
Love the film. And a little film from '97 called Titanic heisted wholesale the core mechanic of the film.
Oct. 9, 2011, 2:06 p.m. CST
by Chris Ballard
Looking forward to any new projects that him and his son can put together,
Oct. 9, 2011, 3:48 p.m. CST
Great job. I'm jealous. :)
Oct. 9, 2011, 3:54 p.m. CST
I remember seeing that in a theater, when I was very young. I think it was the first time I actually CRIED openly in a movie theater. And yes, the score was very memorable. Hell, the whole film was memorable. I re-watched it in glorious HD recently. Some channel is re-playing it. (one of the HD Cinemax channels?) Looked beautiful. And held up well. Now I'd like to re-watch Time After Time. I remember that one is supposed to have one of the most realistic chases in cinema history. When they take a turn on the SF streets, they supposedly end up right where they should based on the actual geography. Before I read about that, I assumed that was something movies payed attention to and tried to get right. I guess not. I'd also like to know if that movie holds up as well. In any case, you can't beat David Warner and Malcolm McDowell.
Oct. 9, 2011, 5:41 p.m. CST
Shame the studio felt a need to butcher the original and turn it into a Robin Williams "feel good" fest.
Oct. 9, 2011, 10:35 p.m. CST
I would have asked more about that because it puts him in the position of the people you asked him about, Beaks: he was doing an adaptation of another author's work. The results are generally acknowledged by everyone involved, including author Jeff Rice, as excellent. And in a sense, Mathesobn made the Kolchak character that we know and love. Still he was basically brought in to rewrite another author's work, with very little input from that author. I'd wonder where Matheson's sympathies lies in that case.
Oct. 9, 2011, 11:38 p.m. CST
Matheson is to horror/sci-fi as Tolkien is to fantasy. they both inspired generationS of writers after them.
Oct. 10, 2011, 8 p.m. CST
Oct. 10, 2011, 8:01 p.m. CST
Oct. 10, 2011, 9:41 p.m. CST
Oct. 11, 2011, 8:41 a.m. CST
Yeah, it is one of those films, as has been said many times in this talkback, where everything just works. From casting to music, it all gells. Everything looks so beautiful, especially the two of them. My moms favorite movie, she holds the impression that at that time, there were not two more attractive, appealing people than Jane Seymor and Christopher Reeve, and I would have to agree. The ending is classic, I don't think enough people get how hard it is to create a scene where it it at once sad and depressing and sweet and uplifting.
Oct. 11, 2011, 2:45 p.m. CST
My sci-fi horror dream writing team would be Matheson, Critchton, King, and Bradbury.
Oct. 11, 2011, 6:40 p.m. CST
by Kentucky Colonel
I didn't know that the Baxter was showing Vincent at Midnight this month. Killer! Matheson is the SHIT! A wonderful interview, indeed. You didn't happen to tend bar under the watchful eye of Stuart "I can do a headstand" Neff, didja???
Oct. 13, 2011, 3:58 a.m. CST
by V. von Doom
You did very well portraying Mr. Matheson as one of the old school gentlemen. He could probably press far harder for monetary rights but it doesn't seem to interest him as much as living a good life and being a good writer. Where would our collective fan-geek world be today without Mr. Matheson? His contributions to "The Twilight Zone" alone are some of THE touchstones and foundations of our interests. As to horror, "Trilogy Of Terror" made young DOOM wet his armor back in 1975. How did that movie ever make it past the ABC censors? Just thinking of the evil Zuni doll still generates goose pimples today! Mr. Beaks, keep up with quality interviews like this and you will never suffer for lack of interest! Good craft, great writing.
Oct. 19, 2011, 6:37 a.m. CST
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