Ray Bradbury turned 90 a couple of weeks ago, still kicking, still writing, and – as you can read in this LA Times article -- still dreaming the big dreams. As a kid, I read many of his stories, which (along with shows like the original “Twilight Zone”) exerted enough gravitational attraction to eventually nudge me into the orbit of Hollywood. Some of his stories were terrific, while others felt a bit awkward in trying to conjoin an uneasy blend of homespun 1950's social and cultural mores with an unfathomably futuristic technology. I recall one story told from the point of view of a young boy whose father worked as a rocket pilot in a future where interplanetary flights were as routine as intercontinental air travel is today. When the father came home from work, he’d mow the lawn, then sit on the front porch smoking a pipe like someone on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Bradbury was drawn to that kind of Norman-Rockwell-in-the-23rd-century story, which seemed a rather odd juxtaposition to me when I was very young.
But when his stories worked – hitting on all twelve turbocharged cylinders – they were strong enough to blow right past any such quibbles into another realm altogether.
Bradbury is the rarest of all birds here in LA -- a man-about-town who neither owns nor drives a car. He’s long been famous for attending various readings and film events all over the city, then at the end of the night, asking if anyone in the crowd could give him a ride home. Definitely not your everyday literary legend.
I met him once, very early in my Hollywooden career. During one extremely slow July, I spent much of my time out at Venice Beach, body surfing, lounging in the sand, and keeping an eye out for attractive young women. One day I ran into an old friend I’d gone to school with, a would-be director who needed some help shooting an interview for a documentary he’d been trying to finish ever since college. He'd given me one day’s worth of help back in our student days while I was making my own thesis film, so I owed him – and having worked on enough low budget movies to learn a little about lighting, I actually knew enough to be somewhat useful.
We picked up a few essentials at Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood – a 2K zip light, a couple of 1K fresnels, and a few C stands and flags – then headed out to Cheviot Hills, just south of the 20th Century Fox Studios in West LA. Ray Bradbury met us at the door dressed in a casual tennis outfit. Then in his very late fifties, he was in great shape, and a very gracious host. He led us downstairs into his basement study, where thousands of books lined the walls and narrow aisles festooned with all kinds of models and props from various movies and television shows. At one point I spotted a big jar full of liquid, with something ominous floating inside -– it looked like a human head -- and recognized it from an episode of the original “Twilight Zone” series. Moving through that study was like taking a tour inside Ray Bradbury’s head, a place where his imagination could run wild.
We set up the camera facing Ray seated at his desk, then hung the zip light to provide a soft wash of illumination. My friend – not yet much of a “director” -- was exceedingly vague as to what he wanted. He hadn’t prepared any kind of script or notes, but simply asked Ray to say something about what astronomy and the exploration of space had meant to him.
I was taken aback. Having gone to all the trouble of arranging to film an interview with Ray Bradbury (and to this day, I have no idea how he pulled that off), he was now asking the man to wing-it on camera? At best, such a lack of preparation was extremely unprofessional -- at worst, it planted one foot on the spongy soil of cluelessness and the other other in the realm of the rude.
Little did I know who we were dealing with, or that in Ray Bradbury, we had one of the few people in the world who could actually pull this off.
I gently clapped the slate, then tucked back into the shadows as he began to speak. My misgivings faded away as I listened with rapt attention. Doing what he does best, Ray Bradbury spun a story out of thin air, talking for more than ten minutes straight with nary a bobble or misplaced word. The man was smooth as silk, musing about how the stars and planets captured his imagination as a young boy and shaped his path in life, leading him to become one of the seminal figures of science fiction writing. After a long while I glanced at the camera, suddenly worried that the 400 foot magazine (16 mm film) might run out before he finished – and if it did, would my clueless “director” friend then ask him to do it again? But there was no cause for worry. Ray built his story to a climax, then tied it up in a pink bow (figuratively speaking) a good thirty seconds before the mag ran dry.
It was a jaw-dropping performance. I’d just witnessed unrehearsed, one-take perfection the likes of which I would rarely witness again over the next thirty-plus years. To say I was hugely impressed is a vast understatement -- in the slang of the time, he simply blew my mind. It was a magical day I'll never forget.
And so to Ray Bradbury, a literary giant in so many ways, and a wonderfully talented, gracious man, all I can say it this: