Excerpted from the book "Kubrick" by Michel Ciment (translated from the French by Gilbert Adair), Copyright ©1982 Michel Ciment, All Rights Reserved
Milestones Stanley Kubrick was born on 26 July in the Bronx, New York. His parents were American Jews of Central European origin. He has one sister, Barbara, six years his junior. His father, a well-known doctor, introduced him to chess at the age of twelve and to photography the following year when he gave him his first camera -- a Graflex -- for his birthday. The gift took Kubrick's mind off another of his youthful enthusiasms, jazz, and his dream of becoming a professional drummer. At school -- William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx -- the only good grades he received were in physics (science was his favorite subject) and he left at seventeen with a poorish average of sixty-seven. He was therefore refused entry to college, especially as in 1945 the return of thousands of young GIs from the war made standards of enrollment in higher education even more strict.
While still at high school, Kubrick had taken numerous photographs -- he was actually made the official school photographer -- and a few of these were exhibited. One morning in April 1945, on his way to school, he chanced to snap the haggard features of a newspaper vendor beside headlines announcing the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt; he then sold the photograph for twenty-five dollars to Look magazine, which offered him ten more than the New York Daily News. Shortly after, he proposed two other features to Look and both were accepted. One of these involved his English teacher, Aaron Traister, who had aroused his interest by playing all the roles in Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays himself (a fascination with multiple role-playing which will later be found in his films.)
Though he enrolled in evening city classes at New York's City College in the hope of eventually being eligible for university, his involvement in photography was given a boost when Helen O'Brian, the head of Look's photographic department, found him a place on the magazine's team. He worked there for four years, travelling all over the country and even to Portugal, his camera concealed inside a shopping bag so that he would not be taken for a tourist or a journalist.
During these years of apprenticeship -- when his independence, his stamina, and his bright ideas were already such that he came to be regarded as one of the magazine's best photographers -- Kubrick applied himself to the avid study of a wide range of books that would contribute to his intellectual development in every possible field of knowledge. Because of this thirst for facts and ideas, he enrolled as a non-matriculating student at New York's Columbia University, where he sat in on classes given by Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren.
Though they were destined to give way to the cinema, the young Kubrick's three favorite activities (two of which, chess and photography, are often viewed as frivolous pastimes) left a lasting mark on him. From chess, which he would continue to practice between takes (with George C. Scott, for example, during the filming of Dr. Strangelove), cam the mathematical precision of his plots, his enthusiasm for abstract speculation, and his view of life as a game in which one wrong move could be fatal. Photography, of course, gave him a feel for composition and an interest in visual effects, qualities evident in all of his films: he controls their photographic textures by working in close collaboration with his lighting cameramen, and occasionally shoots certain hand-held camera sequences himself. Jazz, finally, gave him a grounding in rhythm, in editing and in the art of selecting the right musical accompaniment for a scene, a talent which will have struck everyone who has seen his films.
In 1949, Kubrick and his first wife, Toba Metz (whom he had known at Taft High School and married at the age of eighteen), moved to Greenwich Village. He furthered his newly acquired ambition by becoming a film-maker by assiduously attending screenings at the Museum of Modern Art. His tastes were -- and have remained -- eclectic, his curiosity ever alert and his interest in formal problems constant. He admits that at that period Eisenstein's books had not impressed him, and adds: "Eisenstein's greatest achievement is the beautiful visual composition of his shots and his editing. But as far as content is concerned his films are silly, his actors are wooden and operatic. I sometimes suspect that Eisenstein's acting style derives from his desire to keep the actors framed within a composition for as long as possible; they move very slowly, as if under water...Actually anyone seriously interested in comparative film techniques should study the difference in approach of two directors, Eisenstein and Chaplin. Eisenstein is all form and no content, whereas Chaplin is content and no form."
When the American magazine Cinema asked him in 1963 to name his favorite films, Kubrick listed the following titles: 1. I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953), 2. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1958), 3. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), 4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), 5. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931), 6. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1945), 7. La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), 8. The Bank Dick (W.C. Fields, 1940), 9. Roxie Hart (William Wellman, 1942), 10. Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes, 1930). In this choice one can detect a broadminded attitude towards very dissimilar aesthetic experiences, with a preference nevertheless for European art films strongly colored by a pessimistic view of life (Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman); and a predilection for American directors known for their larger-than-life, as also for their marginal position with regard to the system (Welles, Huston, Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Howard Hughes, Wellman). Which should not surprise us from the future director of Dr. Strangelove.
The absence of one name, however, is striking: that of Max Ophuls, for whom Kubrick has always had the greatest esteem and about whom he said some years earlier: "Highest of all I would rate Max Ophuls, who for me possessed every possible quality. He has an exceptional flair for sniffing out good subjects, and he got the most out of them. He was also a marvelous director of actors." All of these qualities are to be found in Kubrick's work, along with the elaborate camera movements characteristic of the director of Le Plaisir. Finally, one might mention his admiration for Elia Kazan, whom he considered in 1957 "without question the best director we have in America. And he's capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses." By his bold choice of themes (adapted from Tennessee Williams, as with A Streetcar Named Desire, or straight from the headlines, as with On the Waterfront), by his introduction of a new approach to acting (via the Actors Studio) and by his desire to keep his distance from Hollywood (filming Waterfront with the independent producer Sam Spiegel in New York's dockland), Kazan in the early fifties could hardly fail to attract the attention of a young director with aspirations to independence and originality.
For Kubrick in 1950 was determined to take the plunge and become a film-maker. He spent his leisure hours (and augmented his modest income) playing chess at the Marshall and Manhattan Clubs and in Washington Square, proving to be one of the finest experts there. He would put his strategic gifts to the test by changing boards at nightfall: "If you made the switch the right way you could get a table in the shade during the day and one nearer the fountain under the lights, at night." This he confided to a physicist, Jeremy Bernstein, who visited him on the set of 2001: a chess enthusiast himself, the scientist claimed that he always won every fifth game. Intrigued, Kubrick challenged him. They played twenty-five games together, Bernstein gathering valuable information for an article by drawing Kubrick out during the breaks.
It was through meeting a former school friend, Alexander Singer (a future director himself), that he was given his first chance to direct a film. Singer worked as office boy at March of Time (a famous newsreel company) and had discovered that his employers would spend 40,000 dollars on films lasting only eight or nine minutes Kubrick and he decided to make the same kind of film for a tenth of the cost. The subject of their first documentary was the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, on whom Kubrick had already done a photo-feature for Look entitled "Prizefighter." The result was a 35mm film, Day of the Fight, whose musical score was written by another friend, Gerald Fried (subsequently a collaborator on Kubrick's early features, then a notable Hollywood composer.) Kubrick endeavored to sell the film, but was offered less than its cost price of 3900 dollars. When March of Time went into liquidation, RKO bought the documentary for a derisory sum (one hundred dollars more than its production cost), but offered an advance of 1500 dollars on a second documentary, The Flying Padre. After the violence of sport, this gave Kubrick a chance to deal with another of his favorite subjects, aviation: the film centered on a priest in New York who used to fly from one parish to another in a Piper Cub. Having recovered his costs, Kubrick decided in 1953 to direct his first feature and resigned from Look. He was encouraged by Joseph Burstyn, a New York distributor and exhibitor who was one of the first to introduce the idea of "art-house cinemas" in the United States at a time when European and independent films were impossible to see there. Kubrick scraped together 9000 dollars, borrowing from family and friends, in particular from his father and his uncle, Martin Perveler. He commissioned a screenplay from one of his poet friends in Greenwich Village, Howard Sackler (later to the author of The Great White Hope) and set off to film Fear and Desire in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, as the severe New York winter precluded any exterior shooting on the East Coast. The crew consisted of three Mexican workers to transport the equipment, a few friends and his wife Toba. Kubrick was director, lighting cameraman, and editor. For twenty-five dollars a day he rented a Mitchell camera, whose owner taught him to use it. But post-synchronization expenses amounted to three times the shooting costs and the film failed to make its money back.
Refused by all the major studios, it was finally distributed by Joseph Burstyn, who screened it at one of his cinemas, the Guild Theater in New York. Fear and Desire garnered critical attention, which encouraged Kubrick to direct a second film -- adopting the same means of financing, with 40,000 dollars put up mostly by Morris Bousel, a Bronx chemist to whom he was related. Killer's Kiss was shot in 1954 in the streets of New York, edited and mixed over a period of ten months and featured his second wife, Ruth Sobotka, who played the role of a dancer in one brief sequence. Though for the critics it confirmed the young director's importance, it failed to recover its costs.
A meeting with James B. Harris gave new impetus to Kubrick's career. Alexander Singer had known Harris in the Signal Corps where he was making training films for the Korean War. The son of the owner of Flamingo Films, a cinema and television distribution company, he had hopes of becoming a producer and was on the lookout for a talented director. He made contact with Kubrick through their mutual friend Singer; and, after seeing Killer's Kiss, decided to give him his chance. They were both twenty-six when they co-founded Harris-Kubrick Pictures. Together they produced The Killing in 1956. Though appreciative of Kubrick's abilities, the distribution company, United Artists, agreed to take over most of the budget (its investment amounted to 200,000 dollars) only after receiving a completed screenplay and the assurance that some well-known actor would be cast -- in this case Sterling Hayden, who had confidence in the young film-maker.
The Killing attracted the attention of Dore Schary, head of production at MGM, who invited Harris and Kubrick to select a subject from one of the novels in which the studio owned the rights. Kubrick and Calder Willingham wrote a screenplay based on Stefan Zweig's The Burning Secret, but the project aborted when Schary was dismissed. After Paths of Glory, (1957), also produced by Harris and filmed in Munich, they announced several projects for which scripts were written but never filmed: "The German Lieutenant," a World War II story by Richard Adam, "I Stole 16,000,000 Dollars," the autobiography of a former safecracker, Herbert Emerson Wilson; "The 7th Virginia Cavalry Raider," which recounted the adventures of a Confederate Cavalry officer, John Singleton Mosby, during the Civil War, with Gregory Peck slated for the leading role. During this same period, Kubrick spent six months preparing One Eyed Jacks, for and with Marlon Brando, but the actor finally decided to direct it himself.
In 1960 the producer of Spartacus, Kirk Douglas (also the star of Paths of Glory), asked Kubrick after one-week's shooting to replace Anthony Mann, with whom he had serious disagreements (Mann had directed the opening sequence and prepared the gladiatorial bouts). However remarkable his achievement, Spartacus is an exception in Kubrick's oeuvre: he did not contribute to the screenplay (as he invariably does), had no control over casting, and so simply had to accommodate himself to a project which he had not initiated.
He once more collaborated with James B. Harris on Lolita. Because of the exertion of pressure by various leagues of decency and the possibility of easier financing, Kubrick shot the film in Britain, then settled there for good. The interest aroused by an adaptation of Nabokov's novel placed him in a strong bargaining position, and he signed an agreement with MGM which would henceforth guarantee him real financial independence. After Lolita he and Harris separated, the latter branching out as a director ("The Bedford Incident"). Thanks to the commercial success of Lolita, it was Kubrick himself who produced his subsequent films, Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980), five unique works, all of them bearing the stamp of a single man who had mapped out a private, artificial space for himself in which to pursue his preoccupations. In the sixties and seventies, Kubrick enjoyed absolute security, the product of a hard-won independence.
Free to choose his projects, supervising each stage of their creation, he is able to make whatever films he pleases. He has often been compared to Orson Welles, and indeed there are parallels in their independence of character, moral preoccupations, extraordinary visual invention and showmanship. As their careers developed, however, they could scarcely be more different. Both of these young prodigies turned to film direction at the age of twenty-five. But Welles began at the very top of the pyramid -- Hollywood and its huge technical crews -- and was offered carte blanche on his first film, Citizen Kane, without the least interference from the studio; whereas Kubrick directed his first film on a tiny budget. Yet, never having had economic control of his films, Welles has always been at the mercy of his producers. Kubrick's strength derives from his realisation that if the film-maker is not in charge of every element of his product -- from the original rights via the screenplay down to the advertising campaign that will launch his film and the very cinemas in which it will be screened -- three or four years' work may go for nothing.
But Kubrick appeared on the film scene ten years after Welles, and in the decade beginning in 1950 significant changes took place which he, unlike his brilliant precursor, was able to turn to his advantage. The fifties marked the decline of the hierarchical, all-powerful major studios, outside of which nothing could be achieved in Hollywood. The growing popularity of television, coupled with the movement of urban populations away from the inner cities, would deprive the cinema of its regular audience. In order to regain it, the studios sought out younger talents bursting with new ideas (the generation which started in television: Frankenheimer, Lumet, Ritt, Mulligan, Penn), while according a greater degree of independence to its most prestigious directors who now became their own producers (Hitchcock, Wilder, Kazan, Preminger, Mankiewicz, etc.) Making The Killing, which would be distributed by United Artists, allowed Kubrick to step into this breach. His case is both unique and exemplary, however, and may be compared rather to the future French New Wave (Killer's Kiss, shot in 1954 in the New York streets, predated A Bout de Souffle by six years). Unlike his confreres, Kubrick was not the product of TV, the theatre, or film; nor had he ever been an assistant director, producer, or actor. He was an independent who learned everything on the spot, starting out with whatever means were available and ending up with absolute control over highly sophisticated technical equipment.
He has never really been absorbed into a system on which he is nevertheless financially dependent; jealous of his autonomy, juggling with millions of dollars, he probably enjoys greater freedom now than in the straitened circumstances in which he started his career. And today all his efforts are channelled into preserving the same autonomy in his films which he had in his first films so that, instead of becoming the victim of the means at his disposal, he can on the contrary make them serve his purpose, one which has never changed: self-expression. This is how he summed up his personal experience: "The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I'm doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of non-creative aspects to film which have to be overcome and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc...It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered artistic environment when you make a film and being able to accept this is essential.
"The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can and quickly go out and do it."
There is no doubt that Kubrick's ideas were confirmed by his period in Hollywood. The years spent there waiting for the go-ahead from MGM on "The Burning Secret," as well as on his other projects, made him suspicious of production companies which kept directors in a permanent state of inactivity. Similarly, the filming of Spartacus -- on which, as he himself phrased it, he was just a "hired hand" -- could only make him more determined that it should never happen again. In fact, it was after Spartacus -- whose commercial success, the first for him of such a magnitude, helped him to gain his independence -- that he opted definitively to work in London. It is as if his geographical separation from the United States might henceforth be a metaphor for the distance which he was determined to keep between himself and the mecca of cinema. Click here to read further