A Conversation with Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend
“Maybe now that I’m in my eighties, people will discover me…”
How did you get the idea for I Am Legend?
As a teen, I saw Bela Lugosi’s Dracula
. It occurred to me that if one vampire was scary, then if the whole world was filled with vampires and there was only one normal person left, than that would be even scarier.
Do you like Will Smith playing Richard Neville?
I like him very much. I’ve always enjoyed his performances. They sent me a book of art from the movie and I’ve seen photographs of [Will Smith] as Neville and he looks like he really immersed himself into the part.
How do you feel about the previous film versions of I Am Legend: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston?
The Vincent Price [movie] came closer to the book but I didn’t care for it too much. I wrote quite a few pictures for Vincent and he was marvelous in all of them but I think he was miscast in I Am Legend. And it was done in Italy…it’s not as bad as I thought, I saw it recently again. But it certainly didn’t capture the book all that well. I didn’t care for the Heston movie [The Omega Man]. It was so far removed from the book, though, it didn’t bother me.
Why do you think I Am Legend has remained so popular after more than fifty years?
Apparently, it’s the most popular book I ever wrote. I wrote it over fifty years ago and it’s still selling. I thought I only had a small legion of fans…I guess I have quite a few.
Indeed – Stephen King has said you were one of his main influences in writing…
Yes, Stephen King has said that I Am Legend was one of his main influences – it got him thinking the way he does: for instance, my idea of the vampires using freezer boxes in supermarkets instead of down at the graveyard – it could happen in your own neighborhood.
Do you see yourself as a horror writer?
I hate that word [horror]. I prefer to think of myself as an off-beat writer. I’ve written 5-6 western novels, a war novel, and a love story (Somewhere In Time). I guess you could call me an off-beat fantasy writer. I do write scary stories, but I think of terror, not horror. I’m a neighborhood terrorizer. I’m incapable – or don’t want to even try – to write a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or something set in a complete other world. I just can’t get interested if it’s not someplace that seems real.
How did you research the science in the book? Was that in your background?
No, I have no background in science. [I did] research, and then I had a doctor check it and it all adds up scientifically—from a biological standpoint. It is a vampire novel, it’s just my “scientific explanation of vampires”. To me, I Am Legend is the only science fiction I ever wrote.
Have you seen the movie?
No, I haven’t seen it yet – but I think they’re going to do a great job. The writer-producer and director are all very talented, and Will Smith is very talented. From what I have seen, they have done an outstanding job.
Will you attend the premiere? Are you doing any events?
I may attend the premiere in California. I’m also hopefully going to be signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank [scheduled for Dec 2 at 2:30pm]. People often come in with a truckload of my books to sign, but I’ll be signing the movie edition of I Am Legend, and then one other book for each person. If they want more, they have to go to the end of the line and start all over again.
Many of your books and stories have been made into movies. Which are some of your favorites?
Somewhere in Time -- I think that’s the best written of all my books. What Dreams May Come is not bad either.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
There’s a new movie version of my story Button, Button coming out. That should be exciting. Somewhere in Time is about to be a musical on Broadway. Ken Davenport is producing it – he had written telling me that he was thinking of using some of my major ideas for the show. I wrote him a song for it. I took [music] courses in college, but though I never really understood harmony, I can work out an arrangement on the piano by ear. I wrote many songs (years ago). I don’t know if it’s always true, but it seems like the author gets more power/influence over their stories on the stage than with movies/cinema—though the motion picture people have been very nice to me and I’m happy to be identified with I Am Legend.