[GUEST INTERVIEW] The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of: An Interview with “I Am Legend” Creator Richard Matheson’s Chronicler
[Editor’s Note: The following was originally published in September 2011 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.]
An Interview with I Am Legend Creator Richard Matheson’s Chronicler
by Gilbert Colon
Will Smith battles blood-drinking mutants in Manhattan. William Shatner witnesses a gremlin tearing apart a plane’s wing. A truck terrorizes a hapless motorist in Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length film. Robin Williams goes looking for his wife in the afterlife.
Smith, Shatner, Spielberg, Williams: these superstars are household names, and in the scenes described above they brought to life stories that are a celebrated part of film lore. But the man whose unique imagination produced the stories remains, himself, largely unknown. I Am Legend reaped $585 million at the box office…many of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes emerged from his pen…his work has been spoofed repeatedly on The Simpsons…a character on The X-Files was named for him…Stephen King called him an influence. Yet he has been laboring in the vineyards almost unrecognized by audiences for decades-until now.
Author Matthew R. Bradley remedies this oversight in his book Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Film Works. Recently I had the privilege of asking Mr. Bradley a few questions about his favorite subject.
GC: Richard Matheson is a prolific writer, and almost everybody who has ever watched television or been to a movie has seen a Richard Matheson story: The Incredible Shrinking Man, a Twilight Zone episode, Duel, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend or, most recently, The Box, yet almost nobody knows his name. Do you see Matheson as an unsung hero?
MB: Absolutely, which is one reason why I started documenting his career, first in interviews, then in introductions to his work, and finally in books. And it was quite a thrill when I was able to write jacket copy for several of his films while working at a Manhattan home-video company! I call him “the most famous writer you’ve never heard of.”
GC: Why, out of all today’s writers to choose from, did you select Matheson for your first book as an author, rather than an editor?
MB: Quality and quantity. Seriously, in addition to the manifest excellence of his work, I gradually realized that if you look at the history of horror, science fiction, and fantasy films over the past fifty years, all roads lead to Matheson, although he has extensive credits outside the genre. He’s worked with and/or influenced some of the biggest names in film and television: Jack Arnold, Rod Serling, Roger Corman, Hammer Films, Steven Spielberg, Dan Curtis, William Castle, Stephen King, and Chris Carter. That plus his “unsung” status led to my obsession.
GC: How did the idea for this type of book-a trenchant exploration of Matheson’s screen career-come about?
MB: The specific impetus, aside from everything I’ve said above, was quite bizarre. One of my New York publishing pals had signed up the first biography of Matheson, to which Richard initially gave his blessing. It turned into a train wreck that, among other things, plagiarized some of the material I had helpfully shared with the author, and Richard washed his hands of the whole thing, which wound up in self-published obscurity. During that fiasco, I decided to do my own book, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to write a biography, so I approached it via my lifelong fascination with the relationship between literature and film. Since I was commuting from Connecticut to Manhattan for the first eight years, I had plenty of time on the train for research, writing, and editing. I also had a friend and fellow writer who worked in publishing, loved Matheson, and rode the rails with me, so we would critique each other’s work across the aisle. Speaking of New York, Richard was raised in my onetime home of Brooklyn, where he got the idea for I Am Legend and wrote his earliest stories; he also wrote his breakthrough novel, The Shrinking Man, on Long Island, so he’s very much a native son.
GC: This book is for you a labor of love. Exactly how long did you work on it?
MB: Thirteen years, although during that time I had day jobs, a family, and many freelance assignments. More to the point, I was also recruited to edit a volume of Richard’s work (Duel & The Distributor) and co-edit The Richard Matheson Companion, so my own book got put on the back burner a lot. Like so many things, though, that turned out to be a double-edged sword, because the research we were doing for the Companion and its revised edition, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, enhanced my book and vice versa. Similarly, the long delay in bringing Richard Matheson on Screen to fruition enabled generous friends such as yourself to track down a number of Matheson-related items for me, which made it much more complete.
GC: Matheson has worked in various media (short stories, novels, television, film) and genres (horror, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, noir). Does he have a theme that defines him?
MB: He has described the leitmotif of his work as “the individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive.” Pretty apt for a guy whose family nicknamed him “Mr. Paranoia!”
GC: You began a fan and became a friend to Matheson. Prior to your friendship you corresponded with no other agenda than admiration. How did this relationship evolve into something more?
MB: As I recall, an author whose work I had publicized during my New York book-publishing career had an in at Filmfax magazine, enabling me to interview Richard and several of his friends and colleagues. I was determined to get them down in their own words while I could, and indeed, several of them have since left us, but a lot of that material ended up in the book. Richard clearly respected my efforts on his behalf, and came to trust me enough that he asked me to write introductions to, and eventually edit, some of his work. One of my fondest memories is of our first face-to-face meeting at the 1993 World Horror Convention in Stamford, when-after a screening of his film Burn, Witch, Burn-his son Richard Christian took me aside to tell me how much my friendship and my work meant to his father. He’s dedicated several books to me, and in his foreword to mine, he wrote, “If he wasn’t already my friend, [Matthew] would certainly be my loyal ally.”
GC: As part of your research, you even flew out to California at Matheson’s invitation and were granted access to his files, which were largely unseen, correct?
MB: That’s an overstatement, alas, although he did show me the filing cabinets where he keeps various scripts and things…in his garage! We found his teleplay for a long-lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, which we hoped to publish at one point, but unfortunately it turned out to be incomplete.
GC: As a longtime veteran of the genre, how does Matheson view today’s genre offerings?
MB: I haven’t discussed this in detail with Richard, so I won t presume to speak for him, but I think we both deplore the lack of imagination that has resulted in such a wave of unnecessary remakes, sequels, and rip-offs. I do know that he loathes explicit gore and other types of visceral horror, preferring the term “terror” to “horror,” so today’s genre films, which are hardly known for their subtlety, are probably a disappointment to him, especially the trend toward “torture porn.”
GC: What is your own assessment of the state of the genre?
MB: Pretty gloomy. As much as I enjoyed Avatar, I think it’s sadly symptomatic of an era in which filmmakers focus too much on 3-D and CGI at the expense of solid storytelling. Ironically, the first big boom in 3-D came during the 1950s, at a time when spectacle similarly dominated the genre, and I feel that Matheson and his friends formed a necessary corrective by returning to some more literary qualities. We can only hope that there’s another Richard Matheson, perhaps one of the countless people he’s inspired, waiting in the wings.
GC: What’s the next Matheson work we’ll be seeing on the big screen?
MB: Real Steel, based on his short story and Twilight Zone episode “Steel,” which concerned a future where human boxers have been outlawed and replaced by robots. Evangeline Lilly from Lost is co-starring with Hugh Jackman, who plays the role originated by Lee Marvin. Richard’s quite excited about that one-and so am I!
Matthew R. Bradley, currently the Copy Specialist for MBI, Inc., has written articles, interviews, and reviews for Filmfax, Fangoria, Cinema Retro, Mystery Scene, VideoScope, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. Richard Matheson on Screen is available from most major outlets (B&N, Amazon, etc.) and can be ordered directly from the publisher, McFarland. Stop by his blog, Bradley on Film, for more details, or simply to read his “cinematic musings,” at Bradley on Film.
Gilbert Colon, currently a County Clerk’s Office employee, has contributed to periodicals such as Filmfax, Cinema Retro, The New York Review of Science Fiction, as well as the book Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press).
Filed under: Interviews
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