Sunday, April 6, 2008
A final chat with The Omega Man
The Following is an excerpt of an interview conducted with Charlton Heston on February 22, 2001 for a book I was working on with David Brown titled The Last Man on Film: Adaptations of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. © Copyright 2001 by David Brown and John David Scoleri.
IAL Archive: Is it true that Orson Welles introduced you to the novel I Am Legend on the set of Touch of Evil? Can you give us any insights as to his thoughts or impressions of the novel?
Charlton Heston: Its possible. I have no memory of it. He tended to focus very carefully on whatever he was doing. He may have mentioned it to me. I think if he had, I would have looked at a script. But I have no memory of it at all.
(editor's note: It is with great pleasure I can finally confirm the story with a second source: http://www.wellesnet.com)
IAL Archive: What are your thoughts on Matheson's novel?
CH: It was made, as I think you know. I forget who made it, but I remember
IAL Archive: Vincent Price - The Last Man on Earth.
CH: Last Man on Earth, thats it. And I saw that. I ran it. Its not really a good film. Vinnie was a wonderful actor and he did many horror films; that became his genre almost, but I don't think this one was successful. It really wasn't very well written, in my opinion. Then that was the only contact I had with the project until Walter Seltzer, with whom Ive done several films, ran across it. He said: Look, the Italian film is not a good one. Thats not Vinnie Prices fault. He [Seltzer] said: I think theres something in here. How difficult it was for him I don't know, but he obtained the rights to it. And then we cast it. And then we made the movie. It was an unusual movie and turned out to be an enormously successful one. I still get checks on it, which pleases me and pleases my accountants.
IAL Archive: Matheson's novel I Am Legend dealt with vampires.
CH: That was not in Omega Man.
IAL Archive: Right. Whose idea was it to change it to mutant zombies, and was a more faithful adaptation ever considered?
CH: No, because it seemed to us that we needed a new script. It is the same idea really. The remarkable thing about the movie is that its about the last man on Earth. And everybody, I think, has a kind of awareness of what it would be like to be the last man on Earth. Whether there are bad creatures around or not, thats another thing, but imagine if you woke up in the morning and there was your house, but there was nobody there, and you got in your car and drove around and everybody's gone. And your are, indeed, the last man on Earth. Its kind of a central idea in stories of this kind, I think. And we arrived at a good version of the script, which centered on that. For one thing, I was so proud of the fact in casting the girl now, this has nothing to do with the script that I chose obviously it was my choice Rosalind Cash. That was the first time a black actress had ever been given a leading role opposite a white leading man.
IAL Archive: Was the studio pretty nervous about this?
CH: No, they made no comment one way or the other. They were not idiots, I guess. And I am very proud of that. She was very good in the part. Unhappily, she did not have a long career. I never worked with her again, but I would have been happy to had a project come up.
IAL Archive: Were you familiar with Matheson's other works cause he was an established screenwriter and was he ever considered to write the screenplay for Omega Man?
CH: No, simply because we did not think the Italian version was a good one. It had good people like Vinnie Price, but we thought it was wise to go ahead with other people, which we did.
IAL Archive: What do you think of Omega Man after 30 years?
CH: I'm quite proud of it. I think its a good movie. I suppose, not least, because it continues to give me money. It was difficult to make well, not really difficult. I mean a lot of it was night shooting and thats always hard. It went very smoothly.
IAL Archive: I imagine it was probably pretty hard to get Los Angeles in such a deserted state.
CH: No, you just got to do a shoot on Sunday. Because then you can shoot down by the Waterworks or where ever you want to go; its easy to block off the traffic on Sundays. And all that stuff we did on Sundays. There wasn't that much of it, you know. But it worked very well. And I was pleased with everybody who worked on it and I'm proud of the film.
IAL Archive: Omega Man was made during the Manson trial. Matthias and his followers, referred to the Family, seem to have been inspired by Charles Manson and his family, act like a lot of the militant groups opposing the government during this era. Was this intentional, or did real-life events creep into the material?
CH: It might have been, but he [John Corrington] never said that to me. If he did, it was his idea, not mine, nor should it have been.
IAL Archive: John Corrington was a very interesting choice. He did not have an established track record as a screenwriter. Why was he chosen to write the script for Omega Man?
CH: He and his wife at the time - I have no idea what his later experience was. they were both hired, in my memory. He proved to be appropriate. You know, doing a screenplay is tough. Its very hard to do. You're using someone else's money, other peoples ideas. If you're the writer, you don't get to control that. But I was very pleased with what he did.
IAL Archive: There are definite Christ-like analogies in Omega Man. Neville's blood is mankind's salvation. Neville dying in the crucified position. At one point in the film, the little girl asks Neville Are you God? One of the films ironies is Neville's dual role as destroyer and savior. As part of the military-medical complex, he was a member of the brain trust that created the germ for martial purposes. Yet Neville is also salvation for the remainder of mankind for his blood contains antibodies derived from an experimental vaccine he developed and, in a moment of desperation, used on himself. He is both redeemer and redeemed. What are your thoughts on this aspect of the film?
CH: I think that is a fair comment. You've expressed it more fully and interestingly than Ive heard it done before, but the idea of the Christ image was undeniable; there was no question of that. I think it was important to do what I think we did, which was to make the point, but not make a great deal of it.
IAL Archive: You mention in your autobiography that the studio was made nervous enough by the Christ comparisons to insist that one scene was cut from the film (the little girl making a secret offering to Neville.
CH: I thought that scene was a great scene. I loved that scene.
IAL Archive: So, you don't think the studio was right in cutting that scene?
CH: No, I don't. Its their movie; they're paying for it. Theres no point getting into an argument about it. But I thought the little girl on the bicycle, with the little things to be left where he would find them, was very good.
IAL Archive: Do you think that these underlying themes, that fans have picked up on, that has contributed to its cult appeal?
CH: How would they pick up on it because its not in the movie?
IAL Archive: I don't mean the little girl scene, but the other Christ-like analogies that did remain in the film.
CH: Well, thats undeniable, that I fell as if on a cross is clear, and I thought that was one of the best parts of the movie. Its an ideal ending. My character has to die, but he is leaving the possibility for the future of mankind, which is precisely the Christ figure. And I lay in the pool, spread eagle, as though on a cross was all part of it. I thought that was a good idea. I think it was filmed well. I think its a good part of the film.
IAL Archive: That's one problem I have with the script of the remake of Omega Man. They allow Neville to live at the end.
CH: Well, thats ridiculous.
IAL Archive: Otherwise its a pretty decent script, but they want to give it a Hollywood Happy Ending.
CH: Well, Hollywood movies don't always have happy endings. There are many that don't.
IAL Archive: Right. But Neville died in the novel, in Last Man on Earth and in Omega Man. Studios shy away from killing off the hero. I think it weakens this particular story, allowing Neville to live.
CH: Well, I'm sorry to hear that.
IAL Archive: Yes, I am, too. You worked with Anthony Zerbe on Will Penny: was the casting of him as Matthias your decision?
CH: Yes. Well, not my decision, my choice. I made several films with Walter Seltzer, who was the producer, and we both agreed that Tony would be ideal, and he was.
IAL Archive: He certainly made a memorable villain.
CH: And hes also very plausible in the first scenes in the beginning where hes the TV commentator.
IAL Archive: Your characterization of Neville is one of your strongest. How did you go about preparing for the role?
CH: Theres nothing to prepare, you just have to do the guy. Throughout my career, most of the men Ive played have been formidable authority figures. Presidents, Kings.
IAL Archive: Police detectives.
IAL Archive: You played a detective in Soylent Green and in Two-Minute Warning.
CH: Oh, yeah. Almost every part Ive played has been a kind of formidable authority figure: Cardinal Richelieu, you mentioned the guy in Soylent Green, Neville, Moses, if you like.
IAL Archive: In Matheson's novel, Neville becomes a sort of boogey man to the vampires, stalking and slaying them while they sleep.
CH: So do I in Omega Man.
IAL Archive: Yes
CH: I go stalking through empty apartment buildings and hotels to find some sleeping vampire and then kill him. You remember that, don't you?
IAL Archive: Oh, yes.
CH: Well thats obviously an element we did use from the novel.
IAL Archive: The obvious move for Neville would be to leave the city. Why do you think he remains?
CH: Well, if I were the last man on Earth, really the last man on Earth, where everybody's dead but me, first I would go over to the art museum and bring back a Rembrandt or two, as Neville does; you don't notice it much in the film, but it counted for me. He can do what he wants. He doesn't have to change his clothes. He just goes into a store and picks up a new set of pants and a shirt. Whatever he wants. And theres plenty of gas, so he doesn't have to worry about gas prices. And we do that, too. I think that was part of what we were trying for, to present to an audience what it would be like to be the last man on Earth.
IAL Archive: Neville also talks to himself and plays chess against himself.
CH: Of course, who else is there to talk to?
IAL Archive: Was the film trying to suggest that Neville was losing some of his faculties?
IAL Archive: He hears the phones ringing and there really are no phones.
CH: If I were truly the last man on Earth, I would talk to myself. Ive been out in the woods, hunting and things. Theres no one else to talk to, so you talk to yourself. Why not? In Neville's case, there is no one else to talk to. Thats part of the beginning of the film. When he finds that there is actually someone else alive, that changes the direction of his behavior.
IAL Archive: Its interesting that you mentioned Neville hoarding art. I know that, in your political beliefs, you are a conservative. It has been said that Matthias and his followers represent the counter culture movement, trying to bring down the establishment with their burning of art, banning of weapons, and Neville is trying to maintain his culture. You know, the barbarians are at the gate.
CH: The guys are idiots. They don't know anything. Would you give up a Rembrandt, a Pollock?
IAL Archive: When Matthias and the Family get into Neville's home, they proceed to destroy the art.
CH: Of course they do.
IAL Archive: Given the conservative outlook, this would seem to be in contrast the sentiment evoked from the footage from Woodstock utilized in Omega Man. What were you trying to convey with the specific scenes you chose?
CH: Well, they weren't specific scenes, they were scenes of Woodstock. Those are scenes of live people.
IAL Archive: Right, but I meant those particular shots you chose to use in the film.
CH: Oh, it didn't matter, just footage from Woodstock. Its all the same. Its people, real people. That wasn't my idea, but it was a great idea. Who can he turn to for some kind of connection with human beings? Woodstock, because there was a lot of footage about it. And he finds out how to get into a movie theater and how to run it. And he probably does it, I felt, every two or three weeks. He would go over there - who's to stop him - he can do what he wants. And what he wants to do is have some feeling of humanity. I was not a fan of Woodstock, I promise you, but in his place I would probably say, Yeah, those are people; real people. We were a real people.
IAL Archive: In your autobiography, you wrote: We got OM down to where we want it. I think the cuts good now. Later, you mention that they cut it deeply since you last saw it. Can you elaborate on some of the changes that were made?
CH: Well, you mentioned one already, the thing with the girl on the bicycle, which would have been a marvelous idea. People who run studios get to make those choices, its their money, and I was sorry that they cut that, but I don't recall them cutting much else.
IAL Archive: There's a scene listed as the woman in the cemetery crypt, where Rosalind Cash's character was supposed to come across a mutant with a dead baby.
CH: We didn't shoot it.
IAL Archive: I see. The actress name appears in the final credits.
CH: Well, they might have shot it, but it wasn't in the movie.
IAL Archive: Of course, I thought this might be the cuts you were referring to in your autobiography.
CH: That kind of thing, of course. But that kind of thing is normal. The guys who have the money get to make the choices.
IAL Archive: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man and Soylent Green all have some things in common. They all were loosely based on novels, they are all set in dystopian futures and they all have a common theme-a lone man struggling against terrible odds
CH: Thats my part. I play it all the time.
IAL Archive: Thats what draws you to the material then?
CH: Oh, sure. Let me give you an example of what I am trying to say. When Arnold was doing - what the hell was the name of that movie where I was the head of the CIA?
IAL Archive: True Lies.
CH: True Lies. Very good film, I thought. The Director
IAL Archive: James Cameron.
CH: Yeah, Jim Cameron. He sent me the script. He said Could I come over and talk to you about it. I said, I think thats a great idea. And we had coffee. I said: Why do you want me to play this part? He said I need someone in that role who could plausibly intimidate Arnold. He didn't mean the real Arnold, you understand, but the character. And I said, Thats the kind of part I play all the time. Presidents and tyrants and kings - martyrs and so on. Those are the guys I do. I said: You bet your ass I can intimidate Arnold. I'm not saying that there was any confrontation about it, but we both understood that he was supposed to be afraid of me in the role. And it was fine. I enjoyed it enormously.
IAL Archive: In regards to the remake of Omega Man, the script is not faithful to Matheson's novel either. Do you think that there are problems, inherent to the novel, which prevent a faithful adaptation from ever being mounted?
CH: Well, the difference between a novel and a film is a thousand miles. Its a very different undertaking. And anyone who takes a novel and Ive done films based on novels - The Four Musketeers is a great example.
IAL Archive: Dumas.
CH: Yes, but you do the best you can. A film is a different medium. You're not attacking the original work if you change it.
IAL Archive: Oh, no, I agree. I know Matheson was ambivalent, at least, towards Omega Man. He didn't really dislike it. But he said it was such a total remove from his novel that he couldn't really form an opinion on it, negative or otherwise. As a stand-alone project, I agree with you. I think Omega Man is such an unusual and memorable film, it would be a shame not to have it.
CH: Thats exactly how I feel. I understand well, of course, every writer - Ernest Hemingway for god sakes hated For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Hemingway is the greatest American writer of the century, I think. But, of course, you change it; its a different medium. And writers are always pissed off about this. Well, they should be, but they're not the ones that make the film. If the movie turns out to be a lousy film, then they were right. If the movie turns out to be a good film, then they were wrongthey should shut up.
IAL Archive: Speaking of varying from novels, the secret of Soylent Green was a plot development that was totally absent from Harry Harrison's novel Make Room! Make Room!, which has been viewed by some to overshadow the books other messages about population explosion and society's attempt to deal with the consequences. Why was such a drastic change made in the plot?
CH: I think its a very good film. Its a better film than Omega Man.
IAL Archive: It is definitely another film of your that has achieved cult status.
CH: They are unusual films.
IAL Archive: They certainly are, but they have struck a chord with filmgoers.
CH: I think thats fair. Certainly, Soylent Green is - you can argue - a better film than Omega Man.
IAL Archive: It is definitely more meaningful, message wise.
CH: For one thing, it has Eddie Robinson. You don't get Eddie Robinson in every film. As you probably know, it was his last film.
IAL Archive: And it really had beautiful music.
CH: Stunning and just wonderful. And Eddie was dying at the time. We wanted him originally for Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes. He said: Look, my hearts gone to hell. He did a makeup test. He said: I cant handle that makeup, its too tough. And he was right. It was a good film, a very good film, of course. Then when he did the character in Soylent Green, he was marvelous in it! That last scene with him is just stunning.
IAL Archive: Thank you for taking time to do this interview. I know fans of Omega Man will be anxious to hear what you have to say.
CH: Your welcome. Its part of the job. I'm just glad the film is still significant.
The entire transcript of this interview is available online at The I Am Legend Archive.