From the January 1999 issue of the Hollywood Scriptwriter.
Reprinted in the book, CONVERSATIONS WITH RAY BRADBURY, edited by Steven L. Aggelis. (2004 from Texas University Press.)
This on-line version of my conversation with Ray Bradbury has an expanded introduction from its earlier printed versions, and the Q&A section appears in its full length as I first transcribed our conversation from audio tape.
This Ray Bradbury interview is Copyright © 1999 by Jason J. Marchi. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint, copy, quote or distribute by ANY means is strictly prohibited. To reprint this interview or any portion thereof please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
An interview with Master Storyteller: Ray Bradbury
by Jason J. Marchi
Ray Bradbury is a grandfatherly man with a deep mellifluous voice, snow white hair, and a youthful exuberance fitting of any twelve-year-old boy full of wonder. Ray is also a huggable man who is as kind and loving a human being as he is a great writer.
To meet Ray Bradbury in person is to be dazzled by his joyous laugh, his ready smile, and eyes that sparkle like marbles -- eyes that see the world in unusual and insightful ways. His thick, workman-like hands translate that keen vision into stories and plays, essays and poems that have entertained millions and changed forever the lives of more people than you can pack into an amusement park. And at age 79, Ray Bradbury has been changing people’s lives for over half a century.
Ray Bradbury's influence the world over is so extensive that fans in the former Soviet Georgia are celebrating Ray's 80th birthday on August 22, 2000. In the words of Alexander Maypariani (one of New Century's past contest entrants), "Bradbury's work is very close to me. He is a large poet here in the Republic of Georgia. There will be a birthday celebration on his behalf. [Bradbury] is admired for his lyrical books. They help us to survive in conditions that are not very good for artists."
To know Ray Bradbury is to love him even more than we already do by reading his books. When Ray becomes passionate in his discussions he punctuates the end of each sentence with a "Huh?" With this sound he is both urging us to understand and letting us know that he has just spoken a wise man’s truth.
One of the most defining moments in my life arrived when Ray invited me to visit him at his home back in 1997. It was a 17-year dream come true. Suddenly I was sitting in Ray Bradbury’s living room talking shop.
The late afternoon sun poured in through the white plantation shutters while we sat and talked. Ray sat forward on the edge of his seat seemingly as interested in me as I was fascinated by him, and I could hardly contain my breath knowing that here sat the man who single-handedly changed my life forever--though mere words, a few dozen stories.
Ray's stories alone had taught me to release my imagination without reservation and to never fear writing my own stories in my own way. Ray had taught me to release my own voice and not allow myself to be constricted by those bad teachers and even worse editors who want to make all writers sound the same on the page.
Ray’s life was equally changed by a man from his own past, one Mr. Electrico -- a carnival barker who, when Ray was twelve-years-old, gave the young inquisitive a personal behind-the-scenes tour of the after hours carnival. With a lighting charged sword Mr. Electrico touched Ray on each shoulder and proclaimed, "Live forever!" That was the year, 1932, when Ray began to write.
Today, Ray’s greatest gift his is ability--like that of a minister--to lift-up those souls he touches both through his written words and those who are privileged to meet him in person. Like Mr. Electrico had done all those many yesterdays ago for one impressionable boy, today Ray passes on that love and that energy to all he meets.
As for Ray Bradbury’s work, he became world famous writing mostly short stories -- a feat few writers have done before or since. In 1997 The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit was made into a feature film staring Joe Mantegna, Esai Morales, and Edward James Olmos. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit began life, like most of Bradbury's works, as a short story. The author then adapted the story into a stage play in the early 1970's. And finally, in 1998, he again adapted the play into a film script which Stuart Gordon (Fortress) directed. The film made its festival debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, were the audience gave high praises for this highly original tale about five financially challenged East L.A. men who purchase a white suit that changes their lives the night each man wears the suit for a few hours. The film contains all the magic that Bradbury has put into so much of his writing.
Three years ago Mel Gibson purchased the rights to film an updated version of Fahrenheit 451. This book, about a dystopian future where fireman start fires rather than put them out becomes a great metaphor for censorship and Big Brother. 451 is considered by many to be Bradbury’s most powerful work, and few doubt that 451 will stand as one of the world's greatest literary masterpieces for as long as there are men and women around to read books.
Like The Wonderful Ice Cream Suite, Fahrenheit 451 also began life as a short story, 25,000 words in length, and was first published in 1950 in Galaxy Magazine under the title The Fireman.
Two years later Bradbury expanded the story by another 25,000 words to become the novel, which was immediately published in three monthly installments in the fledgling Playboy Magazine. In 1966, famed French director Francois Truffaut wrote his own screenplay adaptation of the novel and directed the first filmed version. Twenty years later lyricist Georgia Holof and composer David Mette developed the operatic version of Fahrenheit 451, which has played to audience delight in small theater productions across the country.
Mel Gibson is quoted as having said to a talk-show host, "Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most important novels ever written." Most would agree. The novel is required reading in high school and college English classes across the nation.
In October 1998 New Century Writer's Founder and Executive Director, Jason J. Marchi, spoke with Ray Bradbury by telephone while the author was in his Los Angeles home taking a break from working on rewrites of the 451 script for Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions.
JJM- You’re busier than ever these days.
RB- Thank God.
JJM- How is the writing for Gibson going?
RB- It’s been a crazy week. Problems with everybody. With Gibson, and Universal on The Martian Chronicles, and Disney on another project. So, it’s good to talk to you.
JJM- You’re in the midst of several movie projects now.
RB- Three movie projects and four novels.
JJM- Tell us about the film projects.
RB- Well, Fahrenheit 451 is one. I’ve turned in a screenplay on that. And there have been six more screenplays since then, by other writers. And for Universal, I’ve turned in three screenplay versions of The Martian Chronicles. But they’ve assigned an idiot to revise it. That’s the problem I’m having right now. And for Disney I’m promoting The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, which is a beautiful film, so that’s good news. I’m going to all these film festivals all over the United States and people love it. So that’s good.
JJM- You’ve both adapted your own work for the screen or had your work adapted by others. Have you had any luck maintaining control over these adaptations?
RB- Well, mainly on television with The Ray Bradbury Theater I had total control, so it was a wonderful series of programs. I did 65 scripts.
JJM- Since we’re talking about adapting work for the screen, was it easier when you first started writing for Hollywood then it is to adapt your work today?
RB- It’s always been bad because the producers think they know what they are doing and they don’t.
JJM- It was that way when you were writing the film version of Moby Dick for John Houston?
RB- That was different. But that was difficult too because John Houston didn’t know the novel any better than I did. So it was a process of reading and rereading and trying to understand. But John didn’t comprehend the book any more than I did. And back then there weren’t any producers around, thank God.
JJM- Mel Gibson will definitely be directing the new film version of "451"?
RB- Yes, he will. [Editor's note: According to Army Archered of Variety, in early February 2000 Mel Gibson announced that after 13 rewrites he has decided to shelve the filming of Fahrenheit 451 because "The opportunity for that one has passed me by."]
JJM- Who will be playing the main characters in the film?
RB- He hasn’t cast it yet. They haven’t told me. You’ll find out at the same time I do.
JJM- You spent some 20 years trying to get your book Something Wicked this Way comes made into a movie.
RB- That’s right.
JJM- Did you push to have 451 remade or did Mel Gibson first approach you?
RE- Mel Gibson came to me.
JJM- Tell me about your version of the script for Gibson that’s different from the 1966 Francois Truffaut version?
RB- I went back to the novel and I adapted the novel. He [Truffaut] didn’t do that. He used parts of it, but he left out a lot. So I put back all the missing pieces.
JJM- What process did you use when referring back to the novel to write the film adaptation?
RB- Well, you know, when there’s good dialogue there you use it. I’m a screenwriter automatically.
JJM- 451 has had man lives -- short story, play, novel, musical, and Truffaut’s 1966 movie. Why another movie version of 451?
RB- You’ll have to ask Mel Gibson. But, first of all it should reflect the novel. The original version by Truffaut was very good. It had a lot of good stuff. I watched part of it on TV the other night again. I hadn’t seen it in years. And it has a very good cast accept for Julie Christie who played Clarrise as "the girl next door," which was totally wrong. Clarrise has to be sixteen years old and naive. And Julie Christie was not sixteen and not naive.
JJM- So you’re hopeful that Gibson’s version of 451 will be a more true rendition of the novel.
RB- Well, I hope so. You never know.
JJM- You’ve been writing for about 68 years now.
RB- Just about, yes.
JJM- Do you think that 451 is your most definitive work?
RB- All of them are. They’re all my children.
JJM- Is 451 your favorite?
RB- No. They’re all my favorites. I have four daughters, I don’t play favorites with them. I have eight grandchildren. I don’t play favorites with them. And I’ve got 600 short stories and I don’t play favorites with them.
JJM- My former English professor, Gary Goshgarian, who teaches literature at Northeastern University, has the following question from his students. It comes up every time he teaches the 451novel in class, which he’s been doing for 25 yeas now. What happened to Clarrise in the novel? It’s not clear how she died. She just vanishes near the end.
RB- Well, everyone’s talked about this, so in my stage version I brought her back alive, and in my musical I brought her back alive. And in Truffaut’s film she comes back alive. So that will happen also in Mel Gibson’s movie. She was too good a character to lose.
JJM- Then why did you leave her out of the end of the novel?
RB- If I were revising the novel today I would do what I did in the stage play -- let her come back on-scene for a moment.
JJM- I’ve read that one of your methods of writing is to listen to your characters when they speak to you of their own volition. Do your characters, like Clarisse, still talk to you after all these years? Still ask for changes to their stories?
RB- Oh yeah. I’m working on a murder mystery now with a character called Constance Radigan. She’s been in my first two murder mysteries, and I killed her off in the first one. As I was revising that first murder mystery she came back and knocked on the door and said "I refuse to stay dead. Put me back in!" So I put here back in and now she’s in three books.
JJM- What do you do differently today when adapting your work from when you first started?
RB- Nothing. I still adapt right from the original work. I go right to my short stories, right to my novels, and they come right off the page. I had lunch with Sam Peckinpah twenty years ago. He wanted to do Something Wicked This Way Comes as a screenplay and I said, "Sam, how you gonna do it?" And he said, "Rip the pages out of the book and stuff them in the camera." And he was right. All of my work is photogenic. I’m a child of cinema. I grew up seeing thousands of films. That goes into your blood stream, and when you begin to write you write for the screen automatically.
JJM- Your family moved to Los Angeles when you were fourteen. Had you not moved to Hollywood, and gotten so much direct exposure to the Hollywood community, do you think you would have become a different writer?
RB- Hollywood was a good influence because I was madly in love with films, and the films had a direct influence on me. I don’t know, really. If I’d stayed in Waukegan, Illinois, what would have happened to me as a writer? That’s a hard thing to guess. But Hollywood was perfect. I was exposed to movies when I was one year old. My mother was a fiend for movies. I went to the movies twice a week when I was one and two, and when I was three I saw The Hunchback of Notredame, with Lon Chaney. When I was five I saw The Lost World. And then The Phantom of the Opera. I saw thousands of films. All silent films and sound films. So, now I think, if I hadn’t been anywhere near Hollywood films would have influenced me.
JJM- So you fell in love with films very early.
RB- Oh God, yes! One year old.
JJM- You’ve adapted quite a bit of your own work. Other than Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, have you adapted the works of other writers?
RB- Very few. Very few. I don’t want to do other people’s work.
JJM- So it’s not a good idea to adapt other people’s work?
RB- You can’t do that. It’s not yours. You can’t write other people’s ideas.
JJM- I think lots of school children across the country would like to hear that. I remember some of my teachers forcing the students to write about the subjects the teachers were interested in.
RB- If the teachers do that they're stupid. Let the kids come up with lists of their own ideas. Their own fears, their own hopes, their own desires, their own loves. And they can write about those.
JJM- I love talking about short stories, but many of our readers are interested in writing directly for Hollywood. What’s your advice for dealing with the difficulties of breaking into film writing?
RB- Don’t do it! There are thousands of scripts out there already. The competition is terrible and most of it is crap. It looks easy, but you should be writing short stories and novels instead. You’ve got young writers with visions of $100,000 and $200,000 screenplay fees and that’s what’s luring them on. It shouldn’t be that. You should love literature. You should live in the library. Forget about films. That came late in life to me. I was in my 30's.
JJM- You’ve inspired so many young people to become writers, filmmakers, actors -- Leonard Nimoy, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas to name a few, but who first inspired the writer in you?
RB- L. Frank Baum; the Oz books. Edgar Rice Boroughs; Tarzan. And John Carter; The War Lord of Mars. Jules Verne. And Buck Rogers -- the daily strips that appeared in the newspapers everyday in 1929 when I was nine years old.
JJM- Can we still learn from these writers today?
RB- Some of them. It depends of your age. You can’t read Edgar Rice Boroughs when you’re in your late teens because you’re too old. But when you're ten, my God, Tarzan is just wonderful! But you can read Jules Verne because he still reads well at any age that you pick him up. And the Oz books aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t advise reading them past the age of eighteen.
JJM- Who else might we read and learn from today?
RB- Robert Heinlein was a friend of mine when I was 19 and he was 31 and just starting his career. He has published a hell of a lot of fascinating material. All of his early short stories were great influences on me because his stories were very human. And they taught me to write about human problems instead of technological or robot problems.
JJM- What makes your work so memorable. Is it the strong metaphors which have become a signature of your style, your voice?
RB- Yes, metaphor is really it. I was influenced by all the Greek myths, the Roman myths, and all those metaphors. The Old Testament, the New Testament -- both are full of metaphors. Egyptian mythology; metaphors. The great poetry of the world, it’s all metaphors. The great motion pictures; all metaphors. So I’ve grown up on a diet of metaphors. If young writers would find those writers who can give them metaphors by the bushel and the peck, then they’ll become better writers -- to learn how to capsualize things and present them in metaphorical form.
JJM- Is it wise for writers who want to write screenplays to watch modern films and try to emulate what they see?
RB- Well, you’ve got be careful. There’s a lot of crap out there. Most of the science fiction films alone are abominations, you know. They’re mindless. So you can’t learn from those kinds of films. You’ve got to find something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which at least has a philosophical, religious metaphor at its center. But there are very few films like that.
JJM- It sounds like writers should be going back to the classics to get the education they need to learn to write.
RB- Yes. Go back and reread ALL the great short story writers of the last one-hundred years: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Washington Irving. They all wrote with metaphors. And then in our time we have a lot of science fiction writers who’ve done some very good work. Heinlein is one. Theodore Sturgeon. The short stories of Henry Cuttner. Then, you’ve got to read over in other fields. Read Rudyard Kipling. Read Somerset Maugham’s short stories. Read the Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West--she's a wonderful writer. Willa Cather. Edith Wharton. There are a lot of wonderful women writers who would be good influences on writers. You’ve got to spread yourself out and educated yourself with all kinds of stories.
JJM- You’ve given us some wonderful metaphors to describe the writing/editing process over the years: "Throw up in the morning; clean up at noon. Step on a landmine upon waking and spend the rest of the day putting yourself back together." And my favorite: "You are the prism gathering all the white light of experience and in turn throwing your spectrum onto the page." Do you have any new ones to share with us today?
RB- I can’t think of any. [Laughs]
JJM- Okay. You’ve said to avoid Hollywood. But let’s say a young writer really wants to break into Hollywood. How can it be done?
RB- Well, first you mustn’t. You can’t learn to write that way -- by writing directly for the screen. Wait until you’re 30. But in the meantime write 200 short stories. You’ve got to learn how to write! Screenplays are not writing. They’re a fake form of writing. It’s a lot of dialogue and very little atmosphere. Very little description. Very little character work. It’s very dangerous. You’ll never learn to write. You’ve got to learn how to write well and then you can survive. You must write all kinds of things: Essays, poetry, short stories, novels, stage plays, and screenplays. That’s what I do. All those things.
JJM- But starting with short fiction.
RB- Yes. A story a week for five years and then you’ll know something about writing.
JJM- Should a writer get an agent to help sell his work?
RB- When he’s learned how to write, yes. [Laughs.] You’ve got to wait until you have a decent short story to show an agent.
JJM- Is it hard to sell short stories today?
RB- There are plenty of markets. Science fiction markets. Detective markets. The science fiction market is wide open. We’re publishing at least 200 SciFi books a year from Ballantine, Dell, Avon, and Bantam. Two-hundred books by new writers. Some are books of short stories, and a lot of them are short novels. So, there’s a field where you can break in. It’s wide open if you have any talent. Hitchcock Magazine is still being published. So is Ellery Queen.
JJM- Do you think playwrights get better treatment than screenwriters?
RB- Oh, it depends. A really good film gets a lot of attention. Take the film As Good as it Gets. Mr. Brooks is getting a lot of attention not just because he directed the film but because he wrote a good screenplay. Take the film Moonstruck. The young American/Irish writer got a lot of attention when that film came out. So it depends on the film.
JJM- With your busy schedule, are you still receiving 300 letters per week?
RB- Sometimes it’s 300, sometimes just 100 or 200.
JJM- And you answer most of them?
RB- I try to pay attention to all those letters that are really sincere.
JJM- It’s very nice of you to take the time to answer all those letters.
RB- Well, if someone sends you a love letter you’ve got to answer back don’t you!?
JJM- You said you have new books in the works.
RB- Yes, four new novels. One is a mystery, one is a fantasy, one is a sequel to Dandelion Wine, and one is a romance. A little bit of everything.
JJM- Speaking of sequels. I found a rumor circulating on the Web that you might be writing a sequel to the 451 novel.
RB- Never! Never. Never never never. It answers its own questions.
JJM- Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
RB- Just one. I wish we could get more productions of my opera Fahrenheit 451. It’s a beautiful opera, and I’m very proud of it.
JJM- Thank you Ray, for today, and for all your years of inspiration to all your fans.
RB- Thank you, Jason! And God bless you.
Ray Bradbury Interview Copyright © 1999 by Jason J. Marchi. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint, copy, quote or distribute by ANY means is strictly prohibited. To reprint this interview or any portion thereof please contact email@example.com