Chesley Bonestell's paintings, beginning in the 1940s, appeared on the covers of science fiction and fantasy magazines and books through the 1950s. The futuristic images, depicting planets and galaxies unseen by the human eye, helped launch the United States space program.
Palos Verdes filmmaker Douglass M. Stewart Jr. saw Bonestell's work on magazine covers growing up and was inspired to tell the artist's untold story on film.
The documentary “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future” was a hit at film festivals and Comic-Con International in 2018, and it now debuts at Laemmle Theatres in West Los Angeles, Pasadena, Encino and Claremont on July 15 and 16.
“On the 50th anniversary (July 20) of man landing and walking on the moon, here’s the story that nobody’s heard,” Stewart said, who added the film is about a man who helped get us to the moon, not with technology, but with a paint brush.
“His paintings were incredibly influential," said Stewart. "Why do people go into the aerospace business? Why do they dream to fly rockets? Because there’s something in us that resonates, there’s a spark that comes from somewhere. When people looked at Chesley's paintings they go 'Wow, I want to go there, I want to see that.'”
But Bonestell's art, which led to him being billed “The Father of Space Art,” is just a part of his life story.
Stewart said he discovered “little thrills along the way” including that Bonestell helped design the Chrysler Building in New York and turned blueprints and technical drawings into paintings to help get the Golden Gate Bridge built.
Bonestell was also a matte painter, creating a visual background for filmmakers through painting landscapes to sets, in Hollywood for the Orson Welles films “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” as well as science fiction classics “Destination Moon” and “The War of the Worlds.”
Through research and numerous interviews, Stewart talked to people who were inspired by Bonestell's art, from visual effects artists on “Star Wars” to Palos Verdes retired rocket engineer Rocco Lardiere.
Stewart and Lardiere knew each other through their childrens' school. One day Lardiere, whose space career began at McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach in 1980 on the Delta rocket program, told Stewart he had been inspired by Bonestell's book “The Exploration of Mars.” The aspiring engineer had purchased the book when he was 11 years old because he liked the color plates of Bonestell's paintings.
“Chesley Bonestell painted very realistic and exciting scenes of an imagined future,” Lardiere said. “When he was painting.... for the most part we had not even launched a satellite... Sputnik had not happened yet.”
For Stewart, the documentary was a more than three-year “labor of love.” After eight Emmy Award nominations for providing tribute films for the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, among other productions, Stewart launched research into Bonestell's life.
“It contains a tremendous amount of wonderful archival footage some of which has never been seen before,” Stewart said. “There is wonderful footage of Chesley on camera, very hard to find, and Ray Bradbury is on camera talking about Chesley. There are really priceless gems that just came about as a result of incredible detective work that one has to do when you do a film like this. It’s a collaboration of people who knew Chesley or were influenced by him.”
Stewart said the idea of making a film about Bonestell had been “percolating in my mind for a long time” but he thought that a film about Bonestell's life would have been produced. So he contacted Bonestell expert Ron Miller who said that no film had been made about the artist.
“He (Miller) said, 'It's time to do one and you should do it and I will help you,” Stewart said.
Stewart had the images of the “haunting, unforgettable paintings” of Bonestell's that appeared on books and magazines, and plenty of interviews.
But, the filmmaker said he was worried he would not find any footage of Bonestell, who died in 1986 at the age of 98. Fortunately he was able to obtain footage from an interview on “CBS Sunday Morning” in the 1970s and some footage found in storage in Florida.
Stewart said “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future,” is not just about space, but also history and art.
“You don't have to be a space geek to like this film... you'll leave thinking 'Why haven't we heard about this man before?,” Stewart said.
Stewart added, “He gave America hope, he inspired Americans to continue to conquer the final frontier of space.”
For more information, visit chesleybonestell.com.
For ticket and time information, visit laemmle.com/films/45869.