An interview with Kubrick By Vicente Molina Foix

The following interview took place at Stanley Kubrick’s home in early 1980. (c) 1980 by Vicente Molina Foix. Reprinted in The Stanley Kubrick Archives, a spectacular book that brings together a selection from the cult director’s archives and highlights his relentless pursuit of perfection.

Although you have been making films and living in England for quite a long time, you’re still considered an American director. Are the reasons for you living in the UK only personal or are they related to the fact that filmmaking in England is cheaper than in America?
If you’re going to make films in English, there are three places which are centers of production, Los Angeles, New York, and London, and since I spend so much time in the preparations and the cutting of a film, I have to live in one of those production centers, otherwise I’d never be home, I’d always be away. New York is not as well equipped as London, and Hollywood is slightly better equipped, but given the choice to live between Hollywood and London, I just like London much more, it’s a more interesting city and I like living here. I probably would like living in New York, but New York simply is not a practical place to try to make pictures other than location films; if you’re talking about a studio picture like The Shining or 2001, New York does not have big studio facilities or big set construction facilities. So England just seems the place to be.

But has your being in contact with a different reality and film industry had any influence on your work?
I don’t think so. Because even living in America… if you live in New York, that is a completely different thing than living in Atlanta or Dallas or Minneapolis or the rest of the country. If you live in New York the most you can say is that you have a “New York sense of life.” I think living in London I still have whatever American sense of life I would have living in New York. And certainly I have more sense of reality than living in Hollywood, which is the most unreal place. I read the New York Times every day, I read American magazines, I see American films, so I don’t really feel that it makes any great difference to me. In fact, I don’t feel that I’m not living in America. I don’t feel isolated or cut off culturally in any way.

The other day you told me that you’ve always enjoyed going to the movies. Do you still go regularly?
I try to see every movie, I have projectors at home, so it’s a little easier for me now; those pictures that I can borrow prints of I run at home, and those that I cannot, I go and see, but I try to see everything.

I would like to ask your preferences. What kind…?
I like good films. (Laughs.)

Would you agree with those (mainly Europeans) who after years of lavishing praise on the Hollywood film product now believe that good filmmaking there is virtually disappeared?
Well, certainly some of the most entertaining films have come from Hollywood. Whether if you made a list of the most important films which will go down in film history, those people will look at for a long time, whether the majority of those come from Hollywood, I’m not so sure. I rather doubt it. Some of them may.

Are you interested in the new paths or trends within current Hollywood production being tried by people like Coppola, Schrader, Spielberg, Scorsese, or De Palma?
I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood—American films—that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American’s films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe. It wasn’t a success, I don’t know why; it should have been. Certainly I thought it as a wonderful film. It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else.

So you obviously are not very keen on the, let’s call it, “Hollywoodesque” kind of movie.
I wouldn’t say “Hollywoodesque,” but I think it’s very hard to make a film that is both dramatically appealing to a wide audience and contains the kind of truth and perception which you associate with great literature. I suppose it’s hard enough to do something like that even if you don’t appeal to a wide audience… because films do cost a lost of money in the United States, people might be overtly concerned with appealing to a wide audience. Now, it should be possible to make something which is dramatically appealing and yet still not false. But it is difficult.

Do you know many examples of that?
It’s hard to think of many examples, because if you made a list of what you would consider your ten best films, they would never be the ten biggest grossing films, would they? But of course it all depends on how much the films cost, I mean, the gross is only really relevant to the cost of the film. The great problem is that the films cost so much now; in America it’s almost impossible to make a good film, which means you have to spend a certain amount of time on it, and have good technicians and good actors, that aren’t very, very expensive. This film that Claudia Weill did, I think she did on an amateur basis; she shot it for about a year, two or three days a week. Of course she had a great advantage, because she had all the time she needed to think about it, to see what she had done. I thought she made the film extremely well.

Were you ever interested in the so-called “underground” American cinema, either in its politicallyminded directors (Kramer, Di Antonio) or the more explicitly avant-garde New York names (Warhol, Anger, Mekas, Markopoulos)?
Well, I haven’t really seen any good underground movies. I mean, one of the problems with movies is that it does require some degree of technical ability to keep the film from looking foolish. And most underground films are poorly made. But I wouldn’t call, for instance, Girlfriends an underground movie, that was really just a low-budget professional film. I certainly haven’t seen any underground films that I thought were important or particularly interesting. I mean, they are rather interesting in a way because people are doing things that no one would ever think of doing. But I couldn’t say that they are very stimulating or important in creating new ideas that are going to be taken up by other people.

Most of your films are based on novels. Do you find it easier to make a film taking literary material as basis?
There’s one great advantage taking it from literary material, and that is that you have the opportunity of reading the story for the first time. I’ve never written an original screenplay myself, so I’m only theorizing as to what I think the effect would be, but I suppose that if you had an idea yourself that you liked and you developed, your sense of whether or not the story was interesting would be almost gone by the time you wrote it. And then at that point, to try to make it into a film you’d have to trust only your own first interest and instincts. The advantage of a story you can actually read is that you can remember what you felt about it the first time you read it; and that serves as a very useful yardstick on making the decisions that you have to make directing the film, because even with somebody else’s story you become so familiar with it after a while that you can never really tell what it is going to seem like to somebody seeing the film for the first time. So at least you have that first impression of the story and your first ideas, which are very important.

All the novels you have adapted (Nabokov’s Lolita, Fast’s Spartacus, Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, King’s The Shining, to name only some) are very different from one another. What attracts you to a book to want to make it into a movie?
First of all just some indefinable personal response to the story. It sounds overtly simple but it has something to do with the fact that you just like the story. Then, the next question is, does the story keep you excited and, if you think about it for two weeks, is it still exciting? When it gets past that point, the next question is really: is the novel translatable into a film? Because most novels, really, if they are good, aren’t; it’s something inherent about a good novel, either the scale of the story or the fact that the best novels tend to concern themselves with the inner life of the characters rather than with the external action. So there’s always the risk of oversimplifying them when you try to crystallize the elements of the themes or the characters. So, okay, some novels probably will never be able to be made into good movies. But ley’s say you now decide that it is possible to make a movie out of it; the next questions are: does it have cinematic possibilities? Will it be interesting to look at? Are there good parts for the actors? Will anybody else be interested in it when you’ve finished with it? Those are the thoughts that cross my mind. But mostly, I would say, a sense of personal excitement about the thing; the fact that you just fell in love with the story.

What did you especially like in Stephen King’s The Shining?
Well, the novel was sent to me by John Calley, an executive with Warner Bros., and it is the only thing which was ever sent to me that I found good, or that I liked. Most things I read with the feeling that after about [a certain number] pages I’m going to put it down and think that I’m not going to waste my time. The Shining I found very compulsive reading, and I thought the plot, ideas, and structure were much more imaginative than anything I’ve ever read in the genre. It seemed to me one could make a wonderful movie out of it.

Did you know King’s previous novels?
No. I had seen Carrie, the film, but I hadn’t read any of his novels. I would say King’s great ability is in plot construction. He doesn’t seem to take great care in writing, I mean, the writing seems like if he writes it once, reads it, maybe writes it again, and sends it off to the publisher. He seems mostly concerned with invention, which I think he’s very clear about.

But were you thinking of making a horror film before you got that novel?
No. When I’m making a film I have never had another film which I knew I wanted to do, I’ve never found two stories at the same time. About the only consideration I think I have when I read a book is that I wouldn’t particularly like to do a film which was very much like another film that I’ve done. Other than that, I have no preconceived ideas about what my next film should be. I don’t know now, for instance, what I’m going to do. I wish I did. It saves a lot of time.

In previous films, you have worked within the conventions of specific genres (science-fiction, thriller, war film, etc.). Were you attracted to The Shining because it gave you the opportunity to explore the laws of a new genre in your career?
About the only law that I think relates to the genre is that you should not try to explain, to find neat explanations for what happens, and that the object of the thing is to produce a sense of the uncanny. Freud in his essay on the uncanny wrote that the sense of the uncanny is the only emotion which is more powerfully expressed in art than in life, which I found very illuminating; it didn’t help writing the screen-play, but I think it’s an interesting insight into the genre. And I read an essay by the great master H.P. Lovecraft where he said that you should never attempt to explain what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people’s imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of anxiety and fear. And as long as it doesn’t, within itself, have any obvious inner contradictions, it is just a matter of, as it were, building on the imagination (imaginary ideas, surprises, etc.), working in this area of feeling. I think also that the ingeniousness of a story like this is something which the audience ultimately enjoys; they obviously wonder as the story goes on what’s going to happen, and there’s a great satisfaction when it’s all over not having been able to have anticipated the major development of the story, and yet at the end not to feel that you have been fooled or swindled.

Who is Diane Johnson, who wrote the screenplay with you?
She’s a very good novelist, she’s published about five or six books. I was interested in one of the books and started to talk to her about it and then I learned that she also was teaching a course on the Gothic novel at Berkeley University in California. It just seemed that it would be interesting to work on the screenplay with her, which it was. This was her first screenplay.

There are quite a few changes in the film with respect to the novel. Several characters have been, in a good way, simplified, the supernatural and pseudo-psychological sides have been almost eliminated and even the basic horror element is reduced. All this is to me a great improvement to the novel. Were you trying to escape from the more conventional norms of the genre in order to build something different, although, of course, the film can still be seen by many as a pure horror movie?
You say that a lot of the horror was cut out of the book and I don’t agree on that. As a matter of fact, other than the scene where the child sees the blood splashed all over the walls and when he hears the little noise in the big drainpipe when he’s playing in the snow, I think there’s more horror in the film than there is in the book. People have said that. In the book, for instance, nobody gets killed.

Yes, but you have eliminated all the comings and goings of the animal figures cut in the topiary garden…
That’s all. When Halloran, the black cook, comes at the end, these topiary animals try to stop him, but that is the only thing lost from the book.

And you have also emphasized the relationship between the main characters and their sense of isolation in the hotel, Jack’s frustration as a writer… All these things certainly become crucial in the film and not so much in the book.
I think in the novel, King tries to put in too much of what I would call pseudo-character and pseudo-psychological clues, but certainly the essence of the character such as it is, that he puts in the novel, was retained. The only change is we made Wendy perhaps more believable as a mother and a wife. I would say the psychological dynamics of the story, even in the novel, are not really changed. When you said the characters are simplified, well, obviously, they become more clear, less cluttered; that’s it, less cluttered better than simplified. When I said simplified, I meant exactly that: clarified. From Jack’s character, for instance, all the rather cumbersome references to his family life have disappeared in the film, and that’s for the better. I don’t think the audience is likely to miss the many and self-consciously “heavy” pages King devotes to things like Jack’s father’s drinking problem or Wendy’s mother. To me, all that is quite irrelevant. There’s the case of putting in too many psychological clues of trying to explain why Jack is the way he is, which is not really important.

Right. Reading the novel, I constantly felt he was trying to explain why all those horrible things happened, which I think is wrong, since the main force of the story lies in its ambiguity. At the same time, you have avoided the many references to Poe in the book, especially to his mask of the red death, and in fact, your film escapes completely Poe’s influence and gets, I believe, much closer to Borges, particularly in its conclusion. To me, it’s a major shift from the novel.
The most major shift is really the last thirty minutes of the film, because King’s climax really only consisted of Jack confronting Danny, and Danny saying something like “you’re not my father,” and then Jack turns and goes down to the boiler and the hotel blows up. The most important thing that Diane Johnson and I did was to change the ending, to shift the emphasis along the lines you’ve just described. In terms of things like Jack’s father and the family background, in the film a few clues almost do the same thing; when Wendy tells the doctor about how Jack broke Danny’s arm, you can tell she’s putting a very good face on the way she tells it, but you realize that something horrible must have happened. Or, for instance, when Ullman, the manager, asks Jack “How would your wife and son like it?” and you see a look in his eyes meaning he thinks “what an irrelevant question that is!” and then he smiles and just says “They’ll love it.” I mean, I think there are lots of little subtle points that give you at least subconsciously the same awareness that King works so hard to put in. Also I think that he was a little worried maybe about getting literary credentials for the novel; all his Poe quotes and “Red Death” things are all right but didn’t seem necessary. He seemed too concerned about making it clear to everybody that this was a worthwhile genre of literature.

How do you normally work with the actors? Do you like to introduce their improvisations on the set?
Yes. I find that no matter how carefully you write a scene, when you rehearse it for the first time there always seems to be something completely different, and you realize that there are interesting ideas in the scene which you never thought of, or that ideas that you thought were interesting aren’t. Or that the weight of the idea is unbalanced; something is too obvious or not clear enough, so I very often rewrite the scene with the rehearsal. I feel it’s the way you can take the best advantage of both the abilities of the actors and even perhaps the weaknesses of the actors. If there’s something they aren’t doing, or it’s pretty clear they can’t do (I must say that’s not true in The Shining because they were so great), you suddenly become aware of ideas and possibilities which just didn’t occur to you. I’ve always been impressed reading that some directors sketch out the scenes and can actually find that it works. It may be some shortcoming of my screenplay, but I find that no matter how good it ever looks on paper, the minute you start in the actual set, with the actors, you’re terribly aware of not taking the fullest advantage of what’s possible if you actually stick to what you wrote. I also found that thinking of shots, or thinking of the way to shoot a scene before you’ve actually rehearsed it and got it to the point where something is actually happening that is worth putting on film, will frequently prevent you from really getting into the deepest possible result of the scene.

You always try to keep total control of every step taken in the making of a film. I feel curious about one or two aspects of this fastidious control. The first concerns the art direction of your films, and The Shining is particular. Do you intervene directly in this?
Well, yes. For example in this film, the art director, Roy Walker, went for a month all over America photographing hotels, apartments, things that could be used for reference. We must have photographed hundreds of places. Then, based on the photographs we liked, the draughtsmen drew up the working drawings from the photos, but keeping the scale exactly as it was, exactly what was there, not something like it. When the photographs were taken he stood there with a ruler, so that you could actually get a scale of everything, which is very important. Take something like the apartment they are living in at the beginning of the film, with very small rooms and the narrow corridors and that strange window in the boy’s bedroom, about five feet high. Well, it’s first of all silly to try to design something which everybody sees in real life and knows that looks slightly wrong. So, things like those apartments and their apartment inside the hotel, which is so ugly, with this sort of lack of design, the way things actually get built without architects, is also important to preserve. So those have to be carefully copied as well as the grander rooms, which are beautiful and where you want to preserve what the architect did. Certainly, rather than have an art director try to design a hotel for this, which I think is almost impossible without it looking like a stage set or and opera set, it was necessary to have something real.

I think also because in order to make people believe the story it’s very important to place it in something that looks totally real, and to light it as if it were virtually a documentary film, with natural light coming from the light sources, rather than dramatic, phony lighting, which one normally sees in a horror film. I compare that with the way Kafka or Borges writes, you know, in a simple, non-baroque style, so that the fantastic is treated in a very everyday, ordinary way. And I think that in the sets it’s very important they just be very real, and very uninteresting architecturally, because it just means there are more compositions and more corners to go around. But they must look real. Every detail in those sets comes from photographs of real places very carefully copied. The exterior of the hotel is based on an existing hotel in Colorado, but the interiors are based on several different places, for example, the red toilet is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed toilet which the art director found in a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s exactly like it, color and everything. Why try to design a toilet when you not only have a real toilet with all the proportions right, but an interesting toilet too?

If you are going to build sets, it’s crucially important to leave the possibilities for simulating natural light. For instance, all of the chandeliers that were built had to be very specially wired, because each of those bulbs is a 1000-watt bulb, on lower voltage, so that it’s bright, but it has a warm light. If you noticed, the color and everything else in the hotel is warm—well, that’s by burning 1000-watt bulbs on lower voltage. The daylight coming through the windows was simulated by a 100-foot long translucent backing, thirty feet high, on the big sets, right? And there were about 750 1000-watt bulbs behind the backing, so that the soft light that comes in from the windows is like daylight; it was really like an artificial sky. So that in the daytime it looks real. Considerations like that have to be thought of very early on, because they are really part of the making of the sets; the lighting has to be integrated very early on in the design of the set.

 
Are you already thinking of a new project?
No, I’m anxiously awaiting getting an idea.

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