Ray Bradbury spent a lifetime in touch with his imagination — and encouraging others to get in touch with theirs.
The renowned writer of fantasy and science fiction, who died this week at age 91, lived most of his life here in L.A., the town of dream factories. And though he only wrote four screenplays, he often said he loved movies.
Bradbury gave hundreds of lectures in his life, most of them extolling the virtues of getting in touch with one’s creative side.
George Stevens Jr., who founded the American Film Institute, decided back in 1969, when the first film students came to the Institute, that he would tap into the huge pool of Hollywood talent to talk to the students.
One of the first people he enlisted to talk to them was Ray Bradbury. Bradbury made two more appearances at the AFI talking to students there, and all three conversations are contained in Stevens’ wonderfully engaging 2006 book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.”
Bradbury began his Oct. 1, 1969, talk to the AFI fellows by saying:
“I guess the secret of being alive and creative in this world is that you can hardly wait to see and do things. I think every day should be that thing of jumping out of bed and saying, ‘God, another day to do that thing that I love.’ That’s really what it’s all about. That is all I ever discuss when I go anywhere, and it’s what I’ll talk about tonight.
“I learned my first valuable lesson when I was nine years old. I collected ‘Buck Rogers’ comic strips. I loved Buck Rogers. I thought he was the greatest thing that ever happened in the world. All my friends made fun of me, and I listened to them and I tore all the strips up.
“About a month later I burst into tears. I asked myself, ‘Why am I crying?’ The answer was that something was gone from the center of my life. I had allowed other people to use their authority against my taste. The first lesson you have to learn in this world is to go by your own taste. Don’t listen to anyone else.
“Be what you are with all your heart and soul, because that’s all you’re ever going to have. You have to trust yourself. So I went back to Buck Rogers and said, ‘I love you madly.’ My life was restored, and from then on I never listened to anyone else in the world, because you’re the only person who knows anything about your loves.
“You can’t ever listen to the advice of anyone in this world about the things you need, the things you want, the things that excite you. The only way to explain these things to people is through your work. Those of you who are writers, get it on paper. Become your own critic. You’ll be the best critic you’ll ever have …”
Bradbury then spoke about his lifelong love affair with the movies, which began — and he said he remembered this — when his mom took him to see his first movie when he was three years old. It was the silent version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Lon Chaney.
Of the four screenplays Bradbury wrote, the best known is his screenplay for 1956’s "Moby Dick," directed by John Huston. Huston was one of Bradbury’s heroes. Bradbury, after publishing “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man,” arranged to meet Huston for an hour. They corresponded occasionally after that meeting and then, two years later, Huston “called me up [and] asked me over for cocktails at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” Bradbury told the eagerly listening students at the AFI.
Bradbury says that after he told Huston that he had just finished a new book, “Fahrenheit 451,” which would be published soon, “[Huston] said, ‘How would you like to come live in Ireland and write the screenplay of "Moby Dick"?’ Boy, was I being hit in the stomach. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’ve never been able to read the goddamned book.’ There was a long pause, and then he said, ‘Ray, why don’t you go home tonight, read as much as you can, and come back tomorrow and tell me if you’ll help me kill the white whale.’“
Bradbury did just that, and said yes.
A little later Bradbury told the students at the AFI, “Huston was a very smart director. He let me finish the first 50 or 60 pages before he criticized anything. He let me get a real start on the screenplay. Then, after a month, maybe six weeks, I turned in the first 60 pages and very honestly said to him, ‘Now, look, if this doesn’t satisfy you, fire me this afternoon. I don’t want to make money under false pretenses. I’ve known too many screenwriters who are prostitutes, who work 10 weeks, turn in a lousy script, and run. I can’t live that way. I’ve worked my damndest here to give you what I hope you’ll like. If you don’t like it, fire me and I’ll go home with the kids.’
“Huston said, ‘Well, kid, go upstairs and lie down and rest up a little bit, and I’ll read the script and I’ll tell you in an hour.’ I went upstairs in this big mansion and I lay down. I was a wreck. About two hours later I heard the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard in my life — John Huston standing at the foot of the stairs calling up to me saying, ‘Ray, come down and finish the screenplay.’ I wept …”
I never met Ray Bradbury, but more than anyone, it was his short stories that made me want to be a writer. I read “The Illustrated Man” when I was in the eighth grade, and it was a life-influencing book. The book is basically a collection of short stories Bradbury wrote between 1947 and 1951, all before I was born.
The stories are timeless. One of my favorites in “The Illustrated Man” is “Kaleidoscope.”
In the introduction to a 1997 reprinting of “The Illustrated Man,” Bradbury wrote, “We theorize about what goes on in the brain, but it is mostly undiscovered country. A writer’s work is to coax the stuff out and see how it plays. Surprise, I have often said, is everything.
“Take ‘Kaleidoscope,’ for instance. I decided one morning 46 years ago to explode a rocket and toss my astronauts out into a wilderness of space to see what would happen. The result was a story that was reprinted in countless anthologies and appeared and reappeared in high school and college auditoriums. Students across the country performed the story in class, to teach me once again that theater doesn’t need sets, lights, costumes, or sound. Just actors in school or in someone’s garage or storefront speaking the lines and the passion.”
Bradbury was passionate about his work. And his stories, so many of which he said began when he started thinking “What if,” are filled with life’s passion.
Please, take a few minutes to read (or reread) Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope,” which I found on the Internet, if you click here.
What if you read it, I think in my fantasy, and it inspires you as it inspired me? How wonderful! And somewhere, out there in the eternity of space, Ray Bradbury would smile.#