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Biography : Stanley Kubrick Site Map     Search

Excerpted from the book "Kubrick" by Michel Ciment (translated from the French by Gilbert Adair), Copyright 1982 Michel Ciment, All Rights Reserved

Everyone knows how exacting Kubrick can be, how he insists on being in sole command of a film from its preparation and shooting to the editing process. "Stanley is an extremely difficult and talented person. We developed an extremely close relationship and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquillizers", remarked one of his set designers, Ken Adam. And Arthur C. Clarke, the scenarist of 2001, added, "Every time I get through a session with Stanley, I have to go lie down." In effect, Kubrick submits his scenarists (Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, Vladimir Nabokov, Terry Southern and Arthur C. Clarke) to a gruelling work schedule in which he himself actively participates (he wrote A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon on his own), devoting between six months and a year to the preparation of the script. But his view of screenplays remains pragmatic: "Thinking of the visual conception of a scene at script stage can be a trap that straitjackets the scene. I find it more profitable just to try to get the most interesting and truthful business going to support the scene and then see if there's a way to make it interesting photographically. There's nothing worse than arbitrarily setting up some sort of visual thing that really doesn't belong as part of the scene."

Kubrick has no interest in theories and, like all American directors, gives prominence to his actors. Shooting a film is the natural extension of writing it and actors are the essential means by which a director can give flesh to his vision. "Writers tend to approach the creation of drama too much in terms of words, failing to realize that the greatest force they have is the mood and feeling they can produce in the audience through the actor. They tend to see the actor grudgingly as someone likely to ruin what they have written rather than seeing that the actor is in every sense their medium." James Mason, Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Kirk Douglas have all recognized Kubrick as a great director of actors, who is willing to spend his 'breaks' in lengthy discussions with them. Much has been written about the number of takes which he requires for each shot in his search for perfection; but none of his actors has ever questioned the merits of this method, however much he might have suffered from it. As Lady Lyndon's spiritual adviser, Murray Melvin recalls having played one scene fifty times. "I knew he had seen something I had done. But because he was a good director he wouldn't tell me what it was. Because if someone tells you you've done a good bit, then you know it and put it in parentheses and kill it." Jack Nicholson adds, "Stanley's demanding. He'll do a scene fifty times and you have to be good to do that. There are many ways to walk into a room, order breakfast or be frightened to death in a closet. Stanley's approach is: how can we do it better than it's ever been done before? It's a big challenge. A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don't he'll beat it out of you -- with a velvet glove, of course." Malcolm McDowell has spoken of the long discussions he had with Kubrick about his character, emphasizing the degree to which the director, far from browbeating the actor, leaves him free to invent gestures and suggest variations: notion of using 'Singin' in the Rain' to accompany one of A Clockwork Orange's most violent sequences. "This is why Stanley is such a great director. He can create an atmosphere where you're not inhibited in the least. You'll do anything. Try it out. Experiment. Stanley gives you freedom and he is the most marvellous audience. I used to see him behind the camera with the handkerchief stuffed in his mouth because he was laughing so much. It gave me enormous confidence." Anthony Harvey, who edited Lolita and Dr.Strangelove, has noted how Kubrick would adjust the editing to the performances: "If an actor gives something terribly exciting in terms of performance, I think it is important to stay on his face, even though the conventional thing is to cut every so often to the person he is talking to. I think the audience can imagine the other character's reactions for themselves. There was a scene in Lolita where Sue Lyon is talking to James Mason and they are alone in the room: she was so extraordinary that we remained on her for the entire scene without cutting to him at all." The shooting script of Dr.Strangelove, though regarded by Harvey as the most brilliant and most perfectly constructed he had ever read, was also modified at the editing stage. Once the film had been shot, they realised that the rhythm was not sufficiently varied and the tension did not develop properly. They therefore decided to delay each change of scene in order to gain clarity and sustain interest.

For Kubrick to maintain such autocratic control over the work in hand, he needs total isolation. Pursuing his Pascalian reflections on the infinity of space during 2001, he cloistered himself in a private protected estate far removed from any distractions. He lives in a country house about twenty miles from London with his third wife, the former German actress Susanne Christian (who played the cafe singer in Paths of Glory and is now a well known painter), his three daughters and lots of cats and dogs. There he leads a real family existence, with everyone interested in what everyone else is doing and he only very occasionally goes up to town. He travels as rarely as possible, forbids his chauffeur to drive faster than 40 miles an hour, and while filming 2001 wore his safety helmet rather more often than was necessary. His clothes are famous for their simplicity (baggy trousers, open-necked shirt and anorak -- "a balloon vendor," his wife says), and his working-day meals for their frugality -- he has no time to waste.

For his whole life seems to be a race against the clock, a battle against the relentless passage of time. He has, for example, turned part of his garage into an editing room so that he can continue working at home; he has had a 35mm projection room installed in which, with voracious curiosity, he has the latest films screened for him; and he communicates essentially by telephone, telex, video, tapes and brief memos. He employs an entourage of technicians, secretaries and assistants to form an empire within the vaster empire of the company which distributes his work, but from which this parallel power allows him to retain his independence. There is no affectation in such an attitude (social standing means nothing to him and he has no interest in acquiring it; money serves exclusively to guarantee him independence): wholly absorbed in his work, he is not the kind of person to make capital out of his inaccessibility. When, on the release of a film, he agrees to be interviewed by a few critics, he does so with good grace and modesty. I observed, on the occasions we met, how measured and methodical were his replies to my questions, his obvious concern being to get down to essentials without either showing off or spouting paradoxes. His features are alert and extraordinarily intense, their authority accentuated by his beard and dark, l spoken, with a crisp, surprisingly youthful voice, alternately serious and humorous in tone. Later, he will insist on checking each sentence entrusted to the tape recorder. What could be more natural, given that so many remarks are distorted then quoted again and discussed without the speaker having any further say in the matter? His sole contact with the press, then, takes place every four or five years. A chauffeur drives the chosen few (Kubrick would be happy to arrange more of these meetings, but his other activities make it impossible...) to a roadside pub near the director's home or to his office, or even to the editing room piled high with cans of film, newspapers, files and card indexes, like some enormous artist's loft in Montparnasse or Greenwich Village where this 'eternal student' can work away in privacy.

Since Kubrick sees only those who may, in one way or another, be of assistance to the career of his films, his principal concern he has been spared the increasingly frequent globe trotting to which his less fortunate colleagues have to resign themselves in order to launch their films, repeating the same remarks over and over again (how they must envy him!). He prefers to prepare a project, collect material for it over a period of months, even years, pore over books and magazines with the systematic curiosity of an autodidact, monitor the seating capacity and average takings of cinemas in each foreign capital or the design and deployment of posters or even the distance between seats and screen at press shows, not to mention the size of newspaper ads and the rates of currency exchange. He also has the subtitles of every foreign version of his films completely re-translated into English to make certain that nothing crucial has been omitted, supervises all dubbed versions, and checked out the quality of the seven hundred prints of The Shining which were released the same day in the United States.

He may interrupt the interview to ask you about some technical detail or plot point of a film which he has never seen. Alexander Walker, the critic who has written about him best, described how on a single evening in Kubrick's company the conversation ranged over an incredible variety of subjects, all of which required his close attention. "An evening's conversation with him has covered such areas as optical perception in relation to man's survival; the phenomenon of phosphene; German coastal gun emplacements in Normandy; compromised safety margins in commercial flying; Dr Goebbels' role as a pioneer film publicist; the Right's inability to produce dialecticians to match the Left's; the Legion of Decency's pressures during the making of Lolita; S.A.M.-3 missiles in the Arab-Israeli conflict; Irish politics and the possibility of similarities in the voice prints of demagogues; and, of course, chess."

We have become too accustomed to the romantic image of the artist as someone creating in an ivory tower not to entertain doubts about such indefatigable attention to economic, technical or administrative questions. But in Kubrick's case one can draw no strict line between his work and this kind of super-technician's existence. Some film-makers find their inspiration in the contemplation of nature, others from the study of news items, still others in constant contact with the world at large. Kubrick's films reflect his perfectionism, his inordinate taste for technology, his fascination with diagrams and statistics, but also his fear of any flaw in a totally programmed system, of an excessive dependence on machines. It should be understood that the power which Stanley Kubrick has acquired within the film industry (he not only has the right to the final cut -- that goes without saying; but he also, in the case of Barry Lyndon and The Shining, received millions of dollars from Warners, the distributors, without being obliged to screen either film to the studio heads more than ten days in advance of their release date) he means to exploit solely in furtherance of his work. Unlike Coppola, who has extended his empire to include real estate, newspapers and distribution, Kubrick's only concern is an artistic one. At the centre of the extraordinary organization which he has created, he remains as much a craftsman writing, photographing, directing and editing his films as the young amateur who started out in the streets of New York if now with infinitely greater means at his disposal. And the painstaking care he brings to the release of his films simply reflects his concern to see them presented in the best possible conditions without their being compromised by a bad print, faulty projection or flat dubbing. Kubrick, who in his youth sensed the arrival of TV as a dangerous competitor, has undoubtedly understood that, if the cinema is to compete with the small screen, it must make each film an 'event' displayed to advantage in technically perfect conditions.

Thus his career has been guided by logic and lucidity, since they alone can guarantee his freedom vis-a-vis a system which he has succeeded in beating at its own game.

For if the major studios MGM and Warners have for twenty years given him carte blanche on his most unconventional projects and most extravagant budgets, it is because he has enjoyed an unbroken string of commercial successes, with the exception perhaps of Barry Lyndon (even though that too, in the long term, should prove profitable). Of course, Dr. Strangelove's takings (5 million dollars to the United States distributor), Barry Lyndon's 10 million, A Clockwork Orange's 15 million and 2001's 25 million cannot compare, even if one takes inflation into account, with Star Wars' 175 million, Jaws' 135 million and the 85 million each of The Exorcist and The Godfather. But they represent an undeniable and enduring financial success for what are exceptionally personal works, blockbuster 'auteur films', projects so much riskier and more original than those of Hollywood's Movie Brats (who venerate Kubrick no less for his independence than for the films themselves).

The director of 2001 appears to have mastered the subtle game of art and finance that was the downfall of his celebrated predecessors. I refer to those powerful and ambitious artists who seem to surface every ten years in Hollywood to shake it up, rebel against its conventions and revitalise its genres. Griffith at the beginning of the century, Stroheim in the twenties, Sternberg in the thirties, Welles in the forties, Kazan in the fifties, Kubrick in the sixties and Altman in the seventies. In the past, each of them found himself virtually forced into retirement or exile . Orson Welles (a man not given to fulsome praise) recognized this lineage when he remarked in 1965: "Among the younger generation Kubrick strikes me as a giant." With Griffith Kubrick shares a penchant for super-productions (2001 is his Intolerance, Barry Lyndon his Birth of a Nation) and for the primacy of the image; with Stroheim the relentless search for the telling detail and a taste for novelistic length (his dream of a film lasting twenty hours and the 'Greed in high society' aspect of Barry Lyndon); with Sternberg the fusion of visual invention with detached irony; with Welles the influence of expressionism, the sense of deep focus and mobile camerawork; and with Kazan the pleasure of letting the actor contribute by drawing out what is most deeply rooted in him.

If the general public has had no difficulty appreciating such a rebel and individualist, his relations with the critics have always been ambiguous -- at least since Lolita, which is to say for the last twenty years after they had been virtually unanimous in their praise of his first features, The Killing and Paths of Glory. With hindsight, the vast majority of critics have acknowledged his importance. When in 1978 the Cinematheque royale in Belgium polled 200 international specialists (film-makers, critics, historians, etc.) on the most important films in the history of the American cinema, Kubrick's name was cited 138 times, preceding that of every other post-war director and figuring in sixteenth place. In the same year, 300 readers of the French magazine L'Avant-scene du cinema established their ideal film Pantheon and placed 2001 at the top of their list ahead of Citizen Kane, Les Enfants du Paradis, Modern Times and Battleship Potemkin. Finally, at the end of the seventies, the Parisian weekly Les Nouvelles litteraires questioned about forty well known personalities on what they considered the outstanding films of the preceding decade: both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon were listed, with Kubrick and Fellini coming out on top.

But such a consensus is deceptive, as the admiration which it appears to reflect is scarcely borne out by the reception accorded his films on their initial release, a reception which their subsequent prestige has consigned to oblivion. Who now remembers the firing squad directed at 2001: A Space Odyssey by New York's 'establishment': "It's a monumentally unimaginative movie" (Pauline Kael, Harper's magazine); "A major disappointment" (Stanley Kaufman, The New Republic); "Incredibly boring" (Renata Adler, 'The New York Times'); "A disaster" (Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice)? Variety, the American show business bible, is the most reliable barometer of the profession's suspicion of any unique, unconventional artist. It could hardly have foreseen 2001's enormous success when it wrote prior to its release: "2001 is not a cinematic landmark. It compares with but does not best, previous efforts at film science-fiction; lacking the humanity of Forbidden Planet, the imagination of Things to Come and the simplicity of Of Stars and Men. It actually belongs to the technically slick group previously dominated by George Pal and the Japanese," and, as the ultimate criticism, "Film costs too much for so personal a film." Seven years later, writing of Barry Lyndon, it noted "The point which seems to be made is that some people are hustlers, a few succeed, life goes on, the sun still comes up in the East. Well, we knew all that walking in" (17 December 1975). As for The Shining, it was demolished in almost parodic fashion, with Variety complaining above all that Warners "not having learned its lesson with Barry Lyndon was silly enough to let him do it" (28 May 1980).

The reaction of the Hollywood community at Oscar time perfectly illustrates the ambivalence of Kubrick's status. Because of his ambition and commercial success they are obliged to recognize him, but his refusal to become one of the 'family' and the distance which he maintains from Hollywood have wrecked his chances of ever being honoured Nominated Best Director for four films in succession (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon), he shares with Charlie Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Robert Altman (rebels, all of them!), but also with Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, the unique distinction of never once having received an Academy Award for Best Direction.

The explanation for his equivocal position vis-a-vis critics and film people lies in the very nature and personality of his art. Disturbing both stylistically and thematically, refusing ever to do what is expected of him though sometimes infiltrating traditional cinematic genres (the war movie, science fiction, horror), ceaselessly experimenting yet prepared to play the commercial game, preferring spectacle and fantasy to moral complacency and philosophical certitudes, Stanley Kubrick, as an intellectual and an artist, has contrived to win over the public without sacrificing any of his ambitions. Which is surely because as a visionary film-maker bringing personal obsessions to life on the screen of his fantasy, he has been able to apprehend the underlying tensions of his period and tap its collective unconscious.

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