Richard Christian Matheson may come from genre royalty (his dad Richard Matheson's long list of credits include the novel I Am Legend, many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and much, much more), but he's a very accomplished horror writer in his own right, having penned numerous acclaimed books and stories, as well as episodes of Tales from the Crypt, Amazing Stories, Masters of Horror, and Knight Rider. Richard's most recent project, arriving just in time for Halloween, is a web series for Netflix called Splatter, about a rock star back from the dead to torment his so-called friends.
Splatter brings together an insane amount of horror talent. Matheson wrote the script, directed by Joe Dante, produced by Roger Corman, and starring Corey Feldman. Viewers don't just get to watch the web series (you don't need to be a Netflix subscriber, either – it will stream for free on their website) – they get to vote on who lives and who dies. Splatter will premiere at http://splatter.netflix.com/ on October 29th, and will air weekly until the finale on November's Friday the 13th.
In our exclusive interview, Richard tells us about writing multiple scenarios for the same story, what draws him to horror, and working with some of the biggest names in the genre.
How did Splatter come together?
I got together with Roger and Julie Corman. I knew Roger from a lifetime of different projects that he and my father had done, but I had never worked with him. I thought this would be a great opportunity to finally work with him. I knew it was going to be web-oriented, and I was thrilled to work in that world. So we met, we talked, we became terrified and bemused at the structure. Part of the structure of Splatter is that the viewers are going to vote on the outcome of the narratives – who lives, who dies. It gave us pause – we knew it would be complicated and fascinating. I just plunged in and started writing – working on the plot lines and characters and the ways people died.
That original conversation Roger and Julie and I had must have been back in February. Each episode is approximately 10 minutes long because we had to allow for a "bend in the road" in terms of the narrative. The scripts became very hybridized and peculiar. It was more than just writing a script for a half-hour project – it was like writing triple that. I took a lot of aspirin along the way.
How did that structure change your writing process?
Once you get it all in hand, there is a way to do it to keep the flow moving. You have to constantly be aware that the outcomes can change. The reaction to that outcome will change. Then the reaction to that reaction will change. It begins to have this echo effect. I just wrote straight through, then began to allow for other possibilities. It was really like writing three different stories. You were writing the same story, but with three or four different outcomes – at minimum. I lose track of how many possible outcomes there are?
Did Netflix come to you, looking for a Halloween project?
I think they came to Roger. It's the first time Roger has ever produced content for the internet, and I think this is the third time Netflix has ever done this. What I think amuses him and thrills him a great deal is that he is giving creative license to his horror fans, by giving them a say in the outcome.
That has got to be gratifying, both for the creators and the fans.
It makes us all complicit. There is nothing more involving than knowing you are complicit. What we are interested in is who the viewers will bond with. Of all these potential fatalities, who will they vote "out"? It's always interesting to see what characters they like, and what characters they don't like.
It's kind of a popularity contest.
It's like a reverse popularity contest. You don't vote for the person you like; you vote for the person you don't like [who will be killed off]. As the writer, my task is to make these characters unlikeable in a way that is fun.
Do you guys have bets on who will die and who will survive?
No, we don't yet, but we should. I have my own suspicions, and I am sure Joe and Roger do, too.
Will the psychology of the viewers be revealed depending on which characters they vote to die?
Absolutely. It's a Rorschach in a way – people will take from it what they want. But when you get the collective reaction, I think it will say something very specific.
What inspired the story?
When I met with Julie and Roger, there was already talk of a rock n' roll backdrop. We kicked around some other ideas, but we decided that was the one that was most engaging. I am also a musician – I have been a rock n' roll and jazz/blues drummer my whole life – so that is a world I know pretty well, and I know the people who populate that world: the hangers-on, the parasites, the creeps, and all that. It is always a world I am comfortable in – I draw from my lurid and colorful history.
Then I just cooked up the characters and came up with a plotline that would allow for these different outcomes. Initially I had two or three more characters, but we simply didn't have the time [to include them]. These episodes are pretty quick, so we really had to compress as much in as possible.
Is this your first time doing a web series?
Like this it is. I have created my own little web series called Shockers. I am mid-stream with that right now. Each has their own unique challenges, but what they all have in common is that you have to be reductionistic. You have to pull it in really tight. I am also a short story writer, and they are really brief. By nature, as a writer, I tend to be very centrifugal – I pull everything to the middle as much as I can. So I am very comfortable doing these short pieces. In short story writing, it is called "flash fiction."
How does your process differ when writing an hour or feature-length piece, to writing a very, very short piece?
There are several things. You have to cut to the chase in every way. Humor is very helpful because you can sum people up in a way that requires far less exposition. You can convey a lot of characterization in a very small amount of dialogue. Writing legitimate, dramatic dialogue, you almost need a little more space to spread your wings. If it is cynical and funny, you can define a character in one line of dialogue. That is one of the key challenges is that you don't have much time to get things across. In the case of Splatter, we have five different characters who all need their own personas and their own voices. That is one of the bigger challenges.
Besides characters, did you feel like you had to scale back on anything because of the shortened format and, presumably, shortened budget?
Less than I would have thought. When I started writing, we didn't have a location yet, but we knew we wanted it to be a really cool rock n' roll mansion, but we didn't know how cool it would be. We didn't know what we would find and how available it would be. I would have to adjust the script depending on what that location would be. We ended up finding this amazing place, way up in the Hollywood hills. It looks exactly like where an eccentric rocker would live. Joe shot it beautifully. So as it ends up, everything I came up with for the script is in there except for those characters we had to cut. We cut them primarily because of length. Budget is always a factor, but it was more length than anything else. I don't know how long this thing is, but each episode is approximately 8-10 minutes.
You have already shot all the possible outcomes , right?
Will there be a chance for fans to see what could have happened, and view all the alternate story paths?
I hope so! We have all that [footage], we may as well take advantage of it.
Maybe a DVD release?
I think that would be a tremendously smart use of all that footage. I would love to see that.
Splatter has a great director, great writer, great producer, great cast… with all this greatness on set, was it a crazy atmosphere or a chill, hyper-professional atmosphere?
You never know what a set will be like. I had never seen Joe working, and every director has a different approach. I have been on sets where the director was really uptight, and the set almost felt flammable. Joe was so calm when I arrived on set. He is so serene and focused [while working]. I think the director really sets the mood for a set. It was very, very calm – like being in a zen monastery! Joe is very low-key, he knows exactly what he is looking for, but he is very inclusive. All those things you would want a director to be, I saw Joe doing. He was getting interesting shots, interesting performances… he is very subtle. As a person who wants to direct more, I am intrigued by watching directors at work. Mick Garris works the same way. There is an orderliness and, despite the subject matter, a gentleness.
How is the gore factor?
I think there was some internal discussion about how far the gore can go. I don't know what kind of restrictions Netflix has, but there were discussions. We tried to keep it intense but it is not a bloodfest. That's fine with me. Even though I write horror, that's never been my thing.
Another thing that was a great fit is that Joe and I both do a great deal of comedy. This script, with all the humor, but given to a different director, they may pull back on a lot of it. But Joe gets what the effect is.
And horror and comedy go really well together.
I think so, too. They both set you up and have a punchline. One just involves mortality and a certain amount of blood. But it is the same psychological dynamic.
Is that what draws you to horror as a genre?
I always like psychological horror. I used to run with a group of guys called the splatter punks. The description of us was, if they were the knife that cut the flesh, I was the needle that injected the virus. That is how I feel. I much prefer to see the psychological impact. I find that much more upsetting.
Did you feel pressed towards horror because of who your father is?
Not by him. He was and continues to be the most remarkable friend, father, and mentor. Whatever direction I chose to go in, he was always supportive of that. For a good amount of my career I was a comedy writer. But I had an interest in and a knack for horrors, so I ended up writing a good amount of that, too. Although my short stories would probably be more correctly described as magical realism.
Isn't it a great phrase? It comes out of South America. All it really means is ninety-five percent of the story is completely rooted in something that is real, but there is a five percent anomaly. That is what makes it so beguiling. You recognize what is real, but then there is that one thing that isn't. If everything is unreal, it is sometimes hard to be absorbed by it.
The stuff I have done has relied – in a very limited way – on blood and whatnot, but it is really about what people are going through.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a new novel called Paranoia. I'm working on projects with Ridley Scott and Bryan Singer, a couple of screenplays, I just sold a comedy series to HBO, and I just recorded an album with a couple of buddies of mine who are also writers: Preston Sturges Jr. [The Darkling], and Craig Spector [A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child].