The following interview with Richard Matheson was conducted for the unreleased book The Last Man on Film: Adaptations of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. © Copyright 2001 by David Brown and John Scoleri, and cannot be used or reprinted without our written permission.
Richard Matheson: The idea for I Am Legend came to me when I was about 16. I went to see Dracula and the thought occurred that, if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would really be scary. I did not write the book until 1952. We lived in Gardena, California and I set the story there, using our house as Neville's house. I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly. My son Richard provided a much more likely one- that it was prophetic because of AIDS. I don't think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires. If people want to assume it later, that's up to them. It has been said that a writer is entitled to an interpretation of his work that people choose to give it.
IAL Archive: Your works often have running themes throughout, especially your earlier work like I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man; one man, alone, against incredible forces, and a heightened sense of paranoia runs rampant-were these issues you consciously strove to write about, or were they themes they crept into your work subconsciously?
RM: I didn't realize until many years later that my "theme" was one man against insuperable odds. It's true though.
IAL Archive: I Am Legend is judged by many to be a classic and Hollywood keeps coming back to the novel; what, in your opinion, draws people, especially filmmakers, to this book time and time again?
RM: I don't know why Hollywood keeps coming back to the book just to not do it the way I wrote it. The book should have been filmed as is at the time it came out. It's too late now.
IAL Archive: Hammer Films first approached you to adapt I Am Legend for film, could you tell us about this, and how it finally ended up at A. I. P. as The Last Man on Earth? Is it true that Fritz Lang was going to direct for Hammer? Was your original Night Creatures script a faithful adaptation of the book?
RM: I wrote the script for Tony Hinds at Hammer. I was told that the censor wouldn't pass it because it was too horrible. I didn't believe it at first but, later, I was convinced that this was true. They had had so much trouble with the censor over their films about Frankenstein and Dracula that the censor wouldn't allow them anything. So it ended up where it did. No, Fritz Lang was not going to direct for Hammer. Val Guest was going to direct it. When it was brought to the United States, I was told that Fritz Lang was going to direct it. Unhappily, this did not eventuate. I believe that my script for Hammer was faithful to the book. I never choose to do otherwise. If a book is interesting enough to buy for a movie, why not present it as is instead of constantly changing it?
IAL Archive: Were you involved with The Last Man on Earth, or was your involvement limited to your initial script for Hammer?
RM: I was not involved with The Last Man on Earth except to put my pen name Logan Swanson on it because I disliked the script.
IAL Archive: Vincent Price was a fine actor, but do you feel he was right for the part of Robert Neville, and why did they change the character's last name for the film? If you do not feel Price was the right actor, whom would you have chosen to play the part?
RM: Vincent Price was a wonderful actor who did marvelous performances for the films I wrote for American-International. He was mis-cast in The Last Man on Earth however. At the time, I thought maybe Jack Palance would be good. Now I would pick Harrison Ford. But that will never happen.
IAL Archive: I Am Legend is basically an interior novel (we are in the mind of Robert Neville for a good part of the novel), do you consider this a factor in the considerable differing of your novel and the films that emerge from it? Or is it just the nature of the Hollywood beast to try to "improve" or reinterpret?
RM: Your last sentence explains it. It is just the nature of Hollywood to try to "improve" or reinterpret.
IAL Archive: You are a notable screenwriter as well author; did Warner Brothers approach you to be involved with The Omega Man or the current remake? If not, why do you feel you have been left out when you would be the obvious choice? Do you believe that a faithful adaptation can be made?
RM: I was not involved at all with The Omega Man. Who knows why they didn't approach me at Warner Brothers. No, as I think I indicated, I don't think a faithful adaptation will ever be made. It can be but it won't. Dan Curtis wanted to do a faithful adaptationÉ so did Michael Carreras.
IAL Archive: How did Warner come about obtaining the film rights to the book? According to The Omega Man press information, Orson Welles introduced Charlton Heston to the novel on the set of Touch of Evil. Were you aware of this connection? Does it surprise you that Welles was familiar with your novel?
RM: I didn't know that Orson Welles showed the book to Charlton Heston. I did hear that Heston was trying to get Sam Peckinpaugh to direct it. Yes, it surprises me that Orson Welles knew about my novel although I think that someone did mention it to me once.
IAL Archive: The Omega Man is very much a reflection of the time when it was being made (at the height of the Charles Manson trial); the 60's radicals became demented mutants calling themselves the "Family", how do you feel about this film as both derived from I Am Legend and as a stand alone project?
RM: I didn't like The Omega Man.
IAL Archive: What do you think of Charlton Heston's performance in The Omega Man? Do you think he was a good choice to play Neville? Were you troubled by the fact that your book was reissued as a tie-in with the film, when the two are so markedly different? Do you think the film inadvertently helped introduce a new audience to the novel?
RM: Actually, Charlton Heston would have been very good for a faithful adaptation of my novel. He's a good professional actor. I don't know if the film introduced people to my novel.
IAL Archive: Both The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man have Christ-like themes that were not present in your novel. In fact, I Am Legend, even suggests Neville is a monster, at least in the eyes of the plague victims-what are your thoughts on the varying interpretations?
RM: Neville was not a monster to me. He was trying to survive, no more. It was an irony that, in the end, he had become the legend, the feared one. I don't believe that the young woman who provided him with the poison regarded him as a monster, merely as a total anomaly in the new society.
IAL Archive: What is the status of the current I Am Legend film? And what is your opinion of Mark Protosevich's script? Beside yourself, what current writer would you most like to adapt your novel to the screen?
RM: I don't know what the current status is. Protosevich's script is well done but it is no more my novel than any of the other scripts. The only writer to properly adapt my novel is me. It won't happen though.
RM: I met George Romero who held up his hands in mock defense and said, "It didn't make any money!" I ran across his film on TV one night and thought, When did they make my novel into a film again? His series of films put the final stake into the idea of making my novel into a film. They should just stop trying. To me, vampires are totally passe anyway. They are disgusting creatures who smell bad and are revolting in every way. Turning female vampires into sexy creatures is absurd.
IAL Archive: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kurt Russell, Nicolas Cage and even Tom Cruise have been associated to the current Warner Brothers remake; whom would you like to see play Neville?
RM: I think Kurt Russell would be the best choice. Nicolas Cage next.
IAL Archive: Ridley Scott and Rob Bowman have been attached to the remake, who would you like to see as director? Who would you want directing if the film could be made the way you wanted it?
RM: I really can't get into an analysis of who should direct the film because the film is going to be (if it's made) just another departure from my novel. Give it up, Hollywood! Do something new!
IAL Archive: Hollywood has suddenly rediscovered your work with I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come. How do you feel about the two that have been filmed? Was your participation ever offered or considered? How does it feel to have your works around again so many years after they were originally written?
RM: I thought that Koepp did a marvelous job with his adaptation and direction of Stir of Echoes. He updated it but kept the story pretty essential to what it was (is) in the novel. I will not comment on What Dreams May Come except to say that a major producer in Hollywood said to me, "They should have shot your book." Amen. I must add that the producer, Stephen Simon, tried to get my script filmed for many years so I can't fault him for finally having to go the route he did in order to get the film made.
IAL Archive: At this point in your life and career, is there any special project, either an adaptation or original script that you would like do?
RM: My son Richard and I are working on a script together -- on speculation. I have a play, which will be produced as soon as we get an actor set.
IAL Archive: It has been nearly 50 years since you wrote I Am Legend, please give us a summation of your feelings on the novel and Hollywood's continued fascination with it.
RM: I don't know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it. The book is dated, the idea is dated. It should have been made as is when the book was published. Now it's too late. Whatever they do with it will have a patina of antiquity about it.