With over 100 published works of fiction and 50 films/television episodes under his belt, Richard Matheson is one of the most prolific and influential writers of our time. Perhaps best known for his novel, I Am Legend, science-fiction and horror fans will also quickly recognize titles such as: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time and The Night Stalker. During his tenure as a writer for The Twilight Zone TV show, Matheson was also responsible for some of the most memorable episodes to creep through the airwaves, including the indelible "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet".
The author's short story, "Steel" was initially published in 1956 and was then adapted for one such Twilight Zone episode in 1964. Now, 47 years later, the tale has been reshaped as the feature-film Real Steel directed by Shawn Levy and starring Hugh Jackman. We had the chance to sit down with the literary icon in his Calabasas, CA home on a gorgeous Friday afternoon to talk about this latest adaptation of his work.
Real Steel was a passion project for producers Don Murphy and Susan Montford, who developed the film for seven years, eventually convincing DreamWorks co-founder Steven Speilberg to get on board as an executive producer. They came across Matheson's original narrative while researching another project and found themselves entranced with the idea of a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer who was struggling to make his way in the new world of robot boxing as a fighting 'bot owner. Monford felt that our current economic conditions (and the reality that certain jobs are becoming irrelevant, forcing many to adjust and learn entirely new skills) made the main character's plight all the more germane at this time. The film has since evolved into a hybrid sci-fi/sports movie/family drama with a more light-hearted tone than the grittier source material.
Spielberg and Matheson share a history in that the producer directed the television movie Duel, which the author penned; Matheson also worked as a story editor on Spielberg's Amazing Stories. As such, Real Steel held a place of particular significance for the producer and was one of only a handful of projects that DreamWorks took with them when they left Paramount for Disney.
"Steven Spielberg called me and sent me a copy of the script," Matheson told us, "which as I recall is quite different from the actual film. But it was close enough to my story and I told him so, and that's why he gave me credit where ordinarily if they purchase a story it's peripheral credit."
Screenwriter John Gatins recalls that Spielberg added what he refers to as "the Amblin spin" which shifted the script to focus on the relationship between a father and his estranged young son. As to the original tale, Matheson sees the connection to Real Steel in that:
"There was the basic idea of people going to see prize fighting matches between robots, because it was no longer feasible to have men do it. I had two ideas at the same time. One I was going to write a story about women boxing, which I never did, and now they actually do it. Clint Eastwood made a movie about it ("Million Dollar Baby")."
Matheson did note some thematic differences in this iteration of the tale.
"In my story, the premise was that wars had killed so many men that there was no room for prize fighting anymore. Human prize fighting. I don't think they mention that in the movie."
The element of war is not in fact present in the film, though the author does believe the idea could remain relevant in today's world had the filmmakers chosen to explore it, citing Afghanistan as an example of present time volatile geopoliical conditions.
As we discussed in our interview with director Shawn Levy, the film functions under the premise that fight fans became hungry for greater and greater extremes and that when boxing, and even the UFC, became too tame for them, robot boxing took over.
"I recognize that they had to do what they did," Matheson noted. "The adaptation had to be different."
Producers Murphy and Montfrod confess that they tend to be a bit "darker" and say they were headed in more of a Requiem for a Heavyweight directon initially with the film, whereas Spielberg guided the team towards the creation of a tale that was more akin to the tone of The Champ. They finally split the difference and feel they have ended up with something of a Rocky.
Matheson, who is not always a fan of the adaptations of his work (The Box is a notable example of a film that failed to capture the simple morality tale that was his short story Button, Button) was ultimately quite pleased with the combined efforts of the creative team behind Real Steel.
"It's very good," the author praised. "There was nothing I disliked. I thought Hugh Jackman was outstanding. It's a beautiful job, Shawn Levy did a wonderful job."
When asked if he was a boxing fan as a general rule, Matheson told us he, "used to watch Sugar Ray Robinson and I thought he was very good."
Sugar Ray Robinson is the man current boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard took his from. Leonard, was responsible for choreographing the fight sequences in the film. (Read more in our interview with Sugar Ray Leonard.)
When we pointed out that connection to Matheson, he replied:
As we have discussed, we find the effects to be one of the most successful elements of the film. The novelty of the technology necessary to create both the officially sanctioned and underground worlds of robot boxing blends seamlessly into a world which we recognize as being just to the left of our current reality. Director Shawn Levy specifically chose to have the production design of the film feel very similar to our current city and country-scapes, noting that, in truth, though we have ipods and ipads today, a "diner is still a diner" and that as much as they do change, in many ways, "things don't change that much."
Matheson also enjoyed the sense of realism present in the depiction of the tech, saying:
"The thing I like about "Real Steel" is that it's one of the few genuine science-fiction stories. Where most science-fiction stories are...they call it science-fiction but it isn't, really. They just slap together a few sci-fi effects and stick it in an ordinary movie."
In fact, despite the place he holds as a revered sci-fi scribe, Matherson revealed that he does not consider himself to be a science-fiction writer and that for him,"Steel", was the exception, rather than the rule.
"I regard my stories as fantasy. Even though I was just elected to the science-fiction hall of fame, I don't think of myself as a science-fiction writer."
When we asked him to clarity what he considered science-fiction to be, he replied:
"Science-fiction is perfectly logical, and it could happen. Whereas fantasy, which I prefer, means that there are no rules. Anything can happen and it usually does. It has to be logical, it has to be done in a way that seems like it makes sense to you. But at the same time, there are no strict rules as in science-fiction."
When we followed up with the query, "So do you think we could have boxing robots?" The author said simply:
Stay tuned for more from our conversation with Matheson in which we discuss vampires, fairies, zombies, I Am Legend (and its various adaptations), the evolution of his career, what interests him as an author at this stage in his life, and who he considers to be a legitimate science-fiction author.
Real Steel opens in theaters this Friday, October 7th.
Shawn Levy directs a cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn with Steven Spielberg producing.
Follow me on twitter @ jrothc.
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