Thursday, February 11, 2010

Studio Stories V – Richard Matheson Puts Steven Spielberg on the Table

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

Richard Matheson (novels - I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come; screenwriter - Duel, The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories tv series) is one of the great modern age tellers of fantastic tales. He has an innate ability to find the compelling idea and frame it in a very accessible story. I was thrilled to encounter him in past years at more than one World Fantasy Con. He was the most humble, soft-spoken fellow one could hope for. And his son, Richard Christian Matheson is no different.
Matheson, in an interview by Patrick McGilligan in Backstory 3, University of California Press, 1997, on pp. 252-3, recalled:
...I never went into stories based on characters. I went into stories based on a story idea. Then I put characters in the story that I hoped would be believable and realistic in real life and maybe move you. But I’m a storyteller. The story is the thing. They can put that on my tombstone: ‘Storyteller.’  
...some of my ideas would come from other books (and movies)... someone would mention something... and I would pounce on it like a tiger... For example, (in Charles Fort’s book Wild Talents,) he describes, literally, a sequence that I made a whole short story out of... He said, in future times, psychic girls would fight wars; they will visualize terrible things happening to soldiers. And I got a great story out of that.  
I went to see a Dracula film and the idea came to me: If one vampire was scary, what if the whole world was full of vampires? That became I Am Legend. Another time I went to see a comedy, and (the character) was leaving an apartment and he put on (someone else’s) hat and it came down way over his ears. At that second I thought, ‘What if a guy put his own hat on and that happened?’ That’s where I got the idea for The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Matheson also described being in a story session with Steven Spielberg and the writing staff for their television series, Amazing Stories:
I remember an idea I came up with in one meeting. The premise was that, in the future, a spacecraft would come down and the aliens would examine this strange environment. Then, when they took off, the down angle would reveal, gradually, that it had been Disneyland. I came up with the notion that in the spacecraft, the aliens would remove their helmets and big ears would pop up, and we’d see that they were giant mice; they were turned on because they had found the source of their god. I remember Steven slowly laying his face down on the table - he was so amused by the notion. Unfortunately, it was never made.
Matheson might be called the Nikola Tesla of fiction, a seemingly bottomless fount of incredible ideas. #
Lee A. Matthias

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