Politics & Policy

Remembering Ray

A visionary science-fiction writer, and a dispenser of good advice.

I knew Ray Bradbury off and on since 1980 when, as a student at the American Film Institute Center, I was asked if I could pick him up and bring him to school for his seminar. You see, Ray never learned how to drive.

But he knew very well how to give encouragement and enthusiasm to anyone.

As students, we spent the week prior to a seminar watching films the speaker had selected. They might be something they had been involved with, like Truffaut’s version of Fahrenheit 451 or something the speaker found interesting. The final film we saw was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ray began the seminar by saying, “I know you’ve all just watched 2001.” We all nodded. He added, “I just love that film. I have seen it many times. Now, can any of you tell me what it’s about? I am serious. I still don’t know.”

There was a moment of silence and it soon became apparent that many of us were clueless as well. And it was quite all right to be that way.

Several years later while I attempted to figure out why a science-fiction screenplay I had written was not being met with million-dollar offers from the studios, I wrote to Ray. I described the plot of my script, wondered if it might be too depressing for studios, and asked if he could take a look at it and give me his thoughts. He was in the midst of working on the Disney adaptation of his Something Wicked This Way Comes, and wrote a reply, in long hand, on production stationery featuring artwork of Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark.

“Yes, Ted, your story sounds most drear,” he wrote. He apologized that he didn’t have time to read my script, but had enclosed some notes for me that he thought I might find useful. The notes were on a short story, ‘The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse,’ which he had ripped from a paperback collection of his short stories.

I once commented that I dreaded getting rejection letters. He suggested that I make a list of all the publications I wanted to submit to and write one story a week. On Friday, send the story to the first one on the list, whether I felt it was ready to go or not. Then write another story the next week, and send it to the second publication on the list. Never stop. By the time I got my first rejection letter I could console myself with the fact that I had seven other stories out there waiting to be read, and then immediately send that first story, without revision, to the second publication on the list. It does work.

A good friend of mine, Lisa Mitchell, had been an acquaintance of Ray’s since the 1960s. She told me that when Ray received his National Medal of Arts, he had leaned over to President George W. Bush and said, “I knew you were smart when I learned you married a librarian.” This made President Bush smile broadly and say, “That was the smartest thing I ever did.”

I once was professionally fortunate enough to interview Ray and Harlan Ellison, separately, for an article on the question “What makes a science-fiction film?” Many films were dismissed because they were stories that could never happen. To them, science-fiction stories occur without violating the laws of science. At the time Ellison was conceptual consultant on Babylon 5 and spoke about how that series fell well within the genre of science fiction, rather than fantasy, like Star Wars.

Ray explained to me that he really didn’t consider himself a science-fiction writer, but he did have a very interesting example of a science-fiction film — Singing in the Rain. He explained that the plot exists solely because of a technological advancement, in this case sound coming to movies, and how that technology affects every character’s life.

I had to ask Ellison a follow-up question, and in the process wondered what he thought of Ray’s example. Ellison said, “Well, I respect Ray greatly, but you have to remember . . . ”

And there was a long pause. Then he said, “You know, Ray has a point.”

— Ted Elrick is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and frequent contributor to the International Cinematographers Guilds ICG Magazine.

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