Ray Bradbury, I’m so sorry

(No, it’s not Summer, but I’m playing a few re-runs for the uninitiated while I am in heavy script mode on a feature. Here’s a favorite. Don’t forget to check the archive.)

(We lost Ray Bradbury last year, but his legacy is immortal.)

Dear Ray,

Okay, this is really embarrassing. You are the legendary science fiction author of Fahrenheit 451The Martian ChroniclesDandelion WineSomething Wicked this Way Comes, and hundreds of classic short stories such as The Illustrated ManI Sing the Body ElectricThe Fog HornThe Veldt. I read them all as a kid. I watched them adapted into episodes of my favorite television shows, on The Twilight ZoneAlfred Hitchcock Presents and Suspense. They were a key inspiration for me to write short stories in my youth and to pursue a career as a writer.

Your brand of science fiction was different than many of the technological or hardware-oriented genre writers of the day. Your stories were humanistic. You were less concerned with some new gadget or where a planet was located in the galaxy, and more interested in what effect that invention or discovery had on humans and their relations to one another. It was science fiction with soul. And it moved and inspired me. You were an idol.

And I diss-ed you to your face.

Oh, it wasn’t deliberate, or premeditated, or by any means intentional. I didn’t even realize it was supremely disrespectful at the time, heck, I was in my twenties, but I do now. And that’s why I’m writing this note to say I’m sorry.

Cut to 1983 and I’ve already had a little success as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I wrote a couple comedy feature scripts for National Lampoon that were going to be produced by Universal Pictures, but never quite made it to the screen. You first tried your hand at screenwriting as early as 1956, when you were hired to adapt Moby Dick for the screen, starring Gregory Peck. I was following the same path.

I had a meeting with an independent producer to possibly adapt a science fiction novel called Space Vampires by Colin Wilson for a feature. These weren’t your usual bloodsucking vampires, but vampires from another planet that sucked the very life force or energy out of your body until you were a withered piece of crust. I liked the story and the inherent metaphor of ‘energy vampires’ who drain you (we all know one or two), and was very excited about working with the director, Tobe Hooper, who shocked audiences with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But Cannon Films, which was going to oversee, market and produce the picture had another project they wanted me to interview for instead that they were also excited about. This was going to be a 3-D extravaganza called Escape From Beyond about a bounty hunter in space. There were already a director and producer attached who just had success with their previous ‘revolutionary’ new 3-D picture, Comin’ At Ya! This would be their big science fiction follow up, and they were interviewing well-known veteran science fiction writers for the gig and some up-and-coming hot screenwriters. I was one of the up-and-coming hot screenwriters who interviewed for the gig. And you were one of the veteran science fiction writers.

But I got the job.

Now, of course, I understand the decision made was not entirely based on merit, or just because I might have a younger or hipper approach to the material. The deal with me was undoubtedly finalized because the budget of the film had been targeted at about $2 million total, and my negotiated fee was about $17,000 and your agent was probably asking somewhere around $100,000 minimum. Your fee was definitely a factor, if not the factor.

I didn’t know that you were up for the same film until after my deal was in place. They didn’t even want to pay me as much as they did, but I was already a Writer’s Guild member and my agent and I insisted as part of the deal that they become signators of the Writer’s Guild (make a formal agreement to abide by union rules and minimums for professional screenwriters) and pay me the union minimum for a writer on a feature motion picture. I had some clout as the hot newcomer. I was always very proud of the fact a company that had previously underpaid and probably abused screenwriters for scores of projects finally went legit with my deal. Of course, $17,000 is still a LOT less than $100,000, but that didn’t make me any less proud. I had successfully ‘scored’ a screenwriting gig over a childhood hero.

Now, if it makes you feel any better about losing this particular gig, you will be pleased to note I was seriously abused for this victory. The fact they became WGA signators and had to abide by union fees, didn’t mean they couldn’t take their pound of flesh out of me in other ways. I eventually wrote about seven full drafts of the screenplay, working with an Italian director who spoke little English, and a temperamental actor-producer. The film went from a space bounty hunter picture to a medieval Spain chariot picture to-, well, at one meeting with the president of the film company, he said to me in the most serious and dramatic Israeli dialect and tone possible, “Vee got Charles Bronson.” Yes, could I somehow turn this original science fiction epic into … Death Wish IV?

Escape From Beyond poster in Reporter

The Charlie Bronson part of the deal never came through. His fee would have chewed up about $1.5 million of the $2 million budget (minus the $17,000). And by the time they had hired the chariot stunt crews and started building the sets in Mexico to film the medieval Spain version, the budget started to look more like $10 million and they pulled the project as being too costly. But not before they had pre-sold the film at the Cannes Film Festival using posters and art with my name as screenwriter, along with two other ‘producers’ who had nothing to do with the script. More abuse.

The money they didn’t have to spend on Escape From Beyond probably went to the budget overages for Space Vampires, which had gone before the camera earlier. This film was eventually released as Lifeforce; a film most horny science fiction fans will remember as the movie starring this unbelievably voluptuous naked chick walking around sucking the life energy out of every man within kissing distance. (She was Israeli, didn’t speak a lick of English, and was the company president’s girlfriend at the time, I’m told).

This brings me to the moment where I unfortunately diss-ed you.

You were making an appearance at a local science fiction bookstore, A Change of Hobbit, to sign copies of your books along with another of my writer heroes, horror scribe Robert Bloch (Psycho).

I waited patiently in line with paperback copies of your Golden Apples of the Sun and Bloch’s Stuff that Screams Are Made OfAnd when I got to the front, I shook your hand, effusively talked about how you had been my childhood inspiration; how I was now successfully making it as a writer in Hollywood; and how I had even got a job you were up for.

You betrayed no distress at my hideous lapse of manners, and graciously signed the book, but the conversation quickly and awkwardly ended. I grinned excitedly at finally meeting you, and under these unique circumstances, and walked away on air.

And later felt like a total douche bag.

My only excuse is that, I was just so excited about finally getting somewhere trying to walk your very same path, I didn’t realize when I was stepping on your toes (or heels). It was the move of an ego-pumped amateur. An upstart. And I’m sorry.

Karma caught up with me on the nightmare that was the rest of that project, and I have no doubt that neither you nor your agent would have put up with the blood I was made to spill on those seven different drafts (when the WGA supposedly only allows one revision per fee).

And I never made it much further up the path you blazed in terms of fame, fortune, or movies produced or adapted from your own stories or novels.

But for that brief moment, I felt like I could look a childhood hero in the eye from the same height and share the rarified air up there.

Thanks for not calling me a punk, and kicking my ass off that cloud.

— A. Wayne Carter

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