By Tim Pelan
I have had a complete set of Thackeray sitting on my bookshelf at home for years, and I had to read several of his novels before reading ‘Barry Lyndon.’ At one time, ‘Vanity Fair’ interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film. This problem of length, by the way, is now wonderfully accommodated for by the television miniseries which, with its ten- to twelve-hour length, pressed on consecutive nights, has created a completely different dramatic form. Anyway, as soon as I read ‘Barry Lyndon’ I became very excited about it. I loved the story and the characters, and it seemed possible to make the transition from novel to film without destroying it in the process. It also offered the opportunity to do one of the things that movies can do better than any other art form, and that is to present historical subject matter. Description is not one of the things that novels do best but it is something that movies do effortlessly, at least with respect to the effort required of the audience. This is equally true for science-fiction and fantasy, which offer visual challenges and possibilities you don’t find in contemporary stories.
Barry Lyndon is, like the Hogarth paintings its setting emulates, a Rake’s Progress of a kind, yet progress, our hero does not. It is the tale of a naïf: vain, selfish, constantly arriving, on the cusp of obtaining what he believes he holds most dear in the world: status. Barry subsumes his somewhat transparent persona to fit what he imagines are the societal norms he finds himself elevated to. He is the Zelig of the Age of Enlightenment, a state that passes our “shop dummy” hero (as Ryan O’Neill was unfairly criticized) by. Adapted by Stanley Kubrick from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, the story is split into two parts; how Irish rogue Redmond Barry achieves title and trappings of wealth as Barry Lyndon; and how misfortune dogs him from then on and leads to his downfall. The film replaces the novel’s unreliable first-person narrative in favor of a dryly ironic third-person one from Michael Hordern. After taking part in a duel for the affections of his cousin Nora with British officer Captain Quinn (Leonard Rossiter), Barry flees Ireland, mistakenly believing he has killed him. His family have in fact tampered with the shot, reluctant to lose the valuable stipend Quinn has promised in exchange for Nora’s hand. Barry enlists in the British army after being robbed at the outset of his odyssey. Deserting, he becomes press-ganged into the Prussian army, then becomes the protégé of gambler and spy Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), before eventually meeting Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) at a game of cards. He marries her, achieving wealth and some social standing, before ultimately undoing all he achieved through financial profligacy and vanity, ensuring the venomous enmity of his stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali).
Martin Scorsese said of the film, “I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favorite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to Barry Lyndon. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness—and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival. It’s a terrifying film because all the candlelit beauty is nothing but a veil over the worst cruelty. But it’s real cruelty, the kind you see every day in polite society. His audacity is to insist on slowness in order to recreate the pace of life, and to ritualise behaviour of the time. A great example is the seduction scene, which he stretches until it settles into a sort of trance, what always struck me is the ballet of emotions of the film, watch the tension between the camera’s movements and the characters body language orchestrated by the music in this scene.”
Leonard Rosenman’s incredibly powerful orchestration of Handel’s Sarabande drives home the inevitable, tragicomic downfall of our foolish hero. When first heard, it embellishes the pomp both of Barry’s ambitions and the old order; but as it recurs during Barry’s troubles the different orchestration suggests a funereal undertow.
In his book, Screen, Culture, Psyche: A Post Jungian Approach to Working with the Audience, author John Izod states that Michel Sineux believes that with Barry Lyndon, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, “music dominates, with the consequence that each film is rooted in the emotional and the sensorial. It addresses the intellect via feeling, and reaches the conscious mind only after having energized the unconscious.” In April 2017, the 50-piece Wordless Music Orchestra performed the score to a screening of the film in Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. “Barry Lyndon lies at the exact corner of total freedom and total fidelity when it comes to music,” conductor Ryan McAdams told Bilge Ebiri for The Village Voice. “So many film scores today are pitched sound effects. It’s often a drone, or a hum, meant to heighten or deepen an emotional place; you’re not even supposed to be conscious of it. But with Kubrick, when music is played, it often dominates the film as much as any particular visual does. He traps you in that world, sometimes when the movie itself is not moving at a breakneck pace.”
“If you listen to the music,” McAdams continues, “you realize that this film is not an attempt to re-create life in the eighteenth century, but an attempt to bring to life how these people wanted to have been seen.” Ebiri considers that, with the actors often in carefully framed repose, “the preponderance of zooms instead of tracking shots in the film may also have been a logistical choice: the production often shot in well-preserved historical homes and castles, and may have wanted to avoid damaging the delicate floors with heavy dolly tracks.”
The one possible true note of passion, of the masks slipping, between Barry and Lady Lyndon occurs when they first meet across the card table. They are illuminated only by candles and captured by cinematographer John Alcott with those incredible space-age Zeiss lenses developed by NASA that Kubrick specifically sought out to capture the authentic, immersive reality of the period (not a single studio set was used—Kubrick had considered this lighting method as far back as production on 2001: A Space Odyssey, when he was planning his ultimately unmade epic on Napoleon). Scored by Leonard Rosenman to Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat, Op. 100, they exchange lingering looks. She excuses herself and goes outside to the terrace for some air. Barry follows. They gaze again into each other’s eyes and kiss gently. Not a single word is spoken. Kubrick stated, “It suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship.” Mark Crispin Miller notes that Rosenman’s adaptation does not progress into Schubert’s passionate middle section but repeats the major theme. As Kubrick notes, this underscores both Lady Lyndon’s frustration and Barry’s failure to develop by committing to an enduring relationship. Kubrick settled on the choice of music during the editing of this scene. “I think I must have listened to every LP you can buy of eighteenth-century music. One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love-themes in eighteenth-century music. So eventually I decided to use Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, Opus 100, written in 1828. It’s a magnificent piece of music and it has just the right restrained balance between the tragic and the romantic without getting into the headier stuff of later Romanticism.”
Kubrick supposedly shot 100 takes of this meeting. “He was incredibly careful, he shot for a long time and shot an enormous amount of footage. But you know, so what! He wanted to get it right,” Jan Harlan told Paul Whitington. Those Zeiss lenses required very exacting camera movement and placement of actors, as they greatly reduced depth of field, requiring other workarounds. Harlan elaborated:
“You couldn’t move around, you could barely stand up, you know. It all had to be carefully rehearsed. If you moved your head forward five inches you’re totally out of focus. That’s why they sometimes look a little bit stiff! The background almost didn’t matter, it just had to have good colors, but we knew it was all totally out of focus. It didn’t matter, because the paintings of the time were also a little bit not sharp. But you had to get the lips and the eyes sharp, because that’s where people look. And that sometimes left you with a depth of field of only two to three inches. The candlelight photography was a real pain, but on the other hand it looked gorgeous. It would be a walk in the park today with all the new technology, but it wouldn’t look the same.”
Throughout, Kubrick exposes the frailties, foolishness and frivolities of characters through slow reverse zoom outs from medium close-ups, to revealing tableaux through which they parade, as if paintings by Gainsborough and Hogarth, come to life. He reveals a beautiful, indifferent world that will endure beyond our short time. Kubrick spent almost a year touring the great houses of southeastern Ireland for locations; the actual shoot lasted around 300 days, the director tripling his budget. He was as meticulous with research on costumes and production design. “On Barry Lyndon, I accumulated a very large picture file of drawings and paintings taken from art books. These pictures served as the reference for everything we needed to make—clothes, furniture, hand props, architecture, vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures would have been too awkward to use while they were still in the books, and I’m afraid we finally had very guiltily to tear up a lot of beautiful art books. They were all, fortunately, still in print which made it seem a little less sinful. Good research is an absolute necessity and I enjoy doing it. You have an important reason to study a subject in much greater depth than you would ever have done otherwise, and then you have the satisfaction of putting the knowledge to immediate good use. The designs for the clothes were all copied from drawings and paintings of the period. None of them were designed in the normal sense. This is the best way, in my opinion, to make historical costumes. It doesn’t seem sensible to have a designer interpret— say—the eighteenth century, using the same picture sources from which you could faithfully copy the clothes. Neither is there much point sketching the costumes again when they are already beautifully represented in the paintings and drawings of the period. What is very important is to get some actual clothes of the period to learn how they were originally made.”
Kubrick had also spent a year in pre-production on his “epic poem of action” Napoleon, visiting Elba, Waterloo and Austerlitz, and was disappointed that he could not ultimately get it made. “The two films would have had little in common, if Napoleon had gotten made,” Jan Harlan recalled. “But with Napoleon, he did want to find a new way of photographing the look of the time, and he did plan to use a very fast lens in order to achieve that painterly look on the screen.” The Kubrick Lyndon circus arrived in Dublin in May 1973, shooting one scene in Bray’s Ardmore Studios, before heading out on location. “Our base was Waterford, and then we went to Thomastown, Carrick-on-Suir, Ballynatray, that whole area, they were beautiful locations and landscapes. We had a wonderful time in Ireland. Hard work, though!” Kubrick fled Ireland when he received a death threat purporting to come from the IRA, supposedly for making a film with British soldiers on Irish soil. “Whether the threat was a hoax or it was real, almost doesn’t matter,” Jan Harlan said. “Stanley was not willing to take the risk. He was threatened, and he packed his bag and went home. And the whole crew went with him. Within 48 hours, we were all back in the southwest of England. Luckily we had really what we needed: one or two shots we would have done in Dublin Castle, we then transferred to a stately home in England. But the bulk of the film was made in Ireland.”
An unusual “supercut” video is The Hats of Barry Lyndon, which illustrates Barry’s odyssey via costume. Its commissioner, Robert Everett-Green, said in WornJournal (the site is now no more):
“Barry Lyndon spends the entire film trying to push his way up through a society in which clothes transmitted everyone’s status at a glance. His story is that of a man struggling to assemble and maintain the right appearances. The aristocratic widow he manages to marry is so perfectly projected by her clothing that she hardly needs to do or say anything. What Lyndon doesn’t realize is that her inertia is proof she belongs, while his pushing creates an appearance that dooms all his efforts.”
Indeed, there is very little introspection and true communication in the stifling society presented. Kubrick reflected to Michel Ciment that, “At the beginning of the story, Barry has more people around him to whom he can express his feelings. As the story progresses, and particularly after his marriage, he becomes more and more isolated. There is finally no one who loves him, or with whom he can talk freely, with the possible exception of his young son, who is too young to be of much help. At the same time I don’t think that the lack of introspective dialogue scenes are any loss to the story. Barry’s feelings are there to be seen as he reacts to the increasingly difficult circumstances of his life. I think this is equally true for the other characters in the story. In any event, scenes of people talking about themselves are often very dull.”
Each failing monetary transaction of Barry’s in an attempt to ingratiate himself into the society within which he has married drives a wider wedge between him and his wife, and ensuring the enmity of her lickspittle servant Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin) and Lord Bullingdon, finally resulting in the young man challenging him querulously but determinedly to a duel. The script for this scene simply reads, Barry duels with Lord Bullingdon. Yet this is one of the most powerful, tense and engaging sequences in the entire film, from the setting, the dread-inducing reprise of Handel’s Sarabande, and Barry’s naivety. Composer Frank Cogliano, who transcribed the score for the aforementioned Wordless Orchestra screening, noted that, “For the big duel scene at the end, you have this timpani part that’s playing these sixteen measures of Handel. It’s so little material, but it’s played in this way that goes on—I think one of the cues is eleven minutes. It’s always underlying, it’s always there. If you were to detach it from the movie, it would be monotonous.” Instead, it has the grim inevitability of death’s march—this film’s equivalent of the shark approach in John Williams’ Jaws score.
Barry deliberately miss-aims, and leaves himself open to being shot in the leg by his quailing opponent. Paid off by Bullingdon and the smirkingly triumphant Rev Runt, Barry ends up abed in a Coach House, dismembered, attended by his mother. The final shot of Barry is a freeze-frame of his back as he awkwardly enters a carriage to return to Ireland, one leg amputated below the knee, face obscured, stripped of the social masks he displayed previously that hid whatever inner life he had. The film’s reverse zooms and this “turning away” of Barry at his end serve to remind us that, however much we seek to understand these characters, they are ultimately unknowable to our modern mores. The past, as L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between opens, is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Kubrick’s painterly eye invites us to be all-seeing, but ultimately, unknowing.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
“I wrote the screenplay for Barry Lyndon alone. The first draft took three or four months but, as with all my films, the subsequent writing process never really stopped. What you have written and is yet unfilmed is inevitably affected by what has been filmed. New problems of content or dramatic weight reveal themselves. Rehearsing a scene can also cause script changes. However carefully you think about a scene, and however clearly you believe you have visualized it, it’s never the same when you finally see it played. Sometimes a totally new idea comes up out of the blue, during a rehearsal, or even during actual shooting, which is simply too good to ignore. This can necessitate the new scene being worked out with the actors right then and there. As long as the actors know the objectives of the scene, and understand their characters, this is less difficult and much quicker to do than you might imagine.” —Stanley Kubrick
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay for Barry Lyndon [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
STANLEY KUBRICK ON ‘BARRY LYNDON’
The following interview with Stanley Kubrick is excerpted from the book Kubrick by Michel Ciment. It was conducted upon the release of Barry Lyndon in 1975 and published in a partial form at the time. In 1981 Stanley Kubrick revised and approved the complete text of the interview for the English edition of Ciment’s book on his films.
You have given almost no interviews on Barry Lyndon. Does this decision relate to this film particularly, or is it because you are reluctant to speak about your work?
I suppose my excuse is that the picture was ready only a few weeks before it opened and I really had no time to do any interviews. But if I’m to be completely honest, it’s probably due more to the fact that I don’t like doing interviews. There is always the problem of being misquoted or, what’s even worse, of being quoted exactly, and having to see what you’ve said in print. Then there are the mandatory—“How did you get along with actor X, Y or Z?”—“Who really thought of good idea A, B or C?” I think Nabokov may have had the right approach to interviews. He would only agree to write down the answers and then send them on to the interviewer who would then write the questions.
Do you feel that Barry Lyndon is a more secret film, more difficult to talk about?
Not really. I’ve always found it difficult to talk about any of my films. What I generally manage to do is to discuss the background information connected with the story, or perhaps some of the interesting facts which might be associated with it. This approach often allows me to avoid the “What does it mean? Why did you do it?” questions. For example, with Dr. Strangelove I could talk about the spectrum of bizarre ideas connected with the possibilities of accidental or unintentional warfare. 2001: A Space Odyssey allowed speculation about ultra-intelligent computers, life in the universe, and a whole range of science-fiction ideas. A Clockwork Orange involved law and order, criminal violence, authority versus freedom, etc. With Barry Lyndon you haven’t got these topical issues to talk around, so I suppose that does make it a bit more difficult.
Your last three films were set in the future. What led you to make an historical film?
I can’t honestly say what led me to make any of my films. The best I can do is to say I just fell in love with the stories. Going beyond that is a bit like trying to explain why you fell in love with your wife: she’s intelligent, has brown eyes, a good figure. Have you really said anything? Since I am currently going through the process of trying to decide what film to make next, I realize just how uncontrollable is the business of finding a story, and how much it depends on chance and spontaneous reaction. You can say a lot of “architectural” things about what a film story should have: a strong plot, interesting characters, possibilities for cinematic development, good opportunities for the actors to display emotion, and the presentation of its thematic ideas truthfully and intelligently. But, of course, that still doesn’t really explain why you finally chose something, nor does it lead you to a story. You can only say that you probably wouldn’t choose a story that doesn’t have most of those qualities.
Since you are completely free in your choice of story material, how did you come to pick up a book by Thackeray, almost forgotten and hardly republished since the nineteenth century?
I have had a complete set of Thackeray sitting on my bookshelf at home for years, and I had to read several of his novels before reading Barry Lyndon. At one time, Vanity Fair interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film. This problem of length, by the way, is now wonderfully accommodated for by the television miniseries which, with its ten-to twelve-hour length, pressed on consecutive nights, has created a completely different dramatic form. Anyway, as soon as I read Barry Lyndon I became very excited about it. I loved the story and the characters, and it seemed possible to make the transition from novel to film without destroying it in the process. It also offered the opportunity to do one of the things that movies can do better than any other art form, and that is to present historical subject matter. Description is not one of the things that novels do best but it is something that movies do effortlessly, at least with respect to the effort required of the audience. This is equally true for science-fiction and fantasy, which offer visual challenges and possibilities you don’t find in contemporary stories.
How did you come to adopt a third-person commentary instead of the first-person narrative which is found in the book?
I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting. Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry’s view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray’s first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry’s version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don’t think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy.
You didn’t think of having no commentary?
There is too much story to tell. A voice-over spares you the cumbersome business of telling the necessary facts of the story through expositional dialogue scenes which can become very tiresome and frequently unconvincing: “Curse the blasted storm that’s wrecked our blessed ship!” Voice-over, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate and economical way of conveying story information which does not need dramatic weight and which would otherwise be too bulky to dramatize.
But you use it in other way—to cool down the emotion of a scene, and to anticipate the story. For instance, just after the meeting with the German peasant girl—a very moving scene—the voice-over compares her to a town having been often conquered by siege.
In the scene that you’re referring to, the voice-over works as an ironic counterpoint to what you see portrayed by the actors on the screen. This is only a minor sequence in the story and has to be presented with economy. Barry is tender and romantic with the girl but all he really wants is to get her into bed. The girl is lonely and Barry is attractive and attentive. If you think about it, it isn’t likely that he is the only soldier she has brought home while her husband has been away to the wars. You could have had Barry give signals to the audience, through his performance, indicating that he is really insincere and opportunistic, but this would be unreal. When we try to deceive we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we? The film’s commentary also serves another purpose, but this time in much the same manner it did in the novel. The story has many twists and turns, and Thackeray uses Barry to give you hints in advance of most of the important plot developments, thus lessening the risk of their seeming contrived.
When he is going to meet the Chevalier Balibari, the commentary anticipates the emotions we are about to see, thus possibly lessening their effect.
Barry Lyndon is a story which does not depend upon surprise. What is important is not what is going to happen, but how it will happen. I think Thackeray trades off the advantage of surprise to gain a greater sense of inevitability and a better integration of what might otherwise seem melodramatic or contrived. In the scene you refer to where Barry meets the Chevalier, the film’s voice-over establishes the necessary groundwork for the important new relationship which is rapidly to develop between the two men. By talking about Barry’s loneliness being so far from home, his sense of isolation as an exile, and his joy at meeting a fellow countryman in a foreign land, the commentary prepares the way for the scenes which are quickly to follow showing his close attachment to the Chevalier. Another place in the story where I think this technique works particularly well is where we are told that Barry’s young son, Bryan, is going to die at the same time we watch the two of them playing happily together. In this case, I think the commentary creates the same dramatic effect as, for example, the knowledge that the Titanic is doomed while you watch the carefree scenes of preparation and departure. These early scenes would be inexplicably dull if you didn’t know about the ship’s appointment with the iceberg. Being told in advance of the impending disaster gives away surprise but creates suspense.
There is very little introspection in the film. Barry is open about his feelings at the beginning of the film, but then he becomes less so.
At the beginning of the story, Barry has more people around him to whom he can express his feelings. As the story progresses, and particularly after his marriage, he becomes more and more isolated. There is finally no one who loves him, or with whom he can talk freely, with the possible exception of his young son, who is too uoung to be of much help. At the same time I don’t think that the lack of introspective dialogue scenes are any loss to the story. Barry’s feelings are there to be seen as he reacts to the increasingly difficult circumstances of his life. I think this is equally true for the other characters in the story. In any event, scenes of people talking about themselves are often very dull.
In contrast to films which are preoccupied with analyzing the psychology of the characters, yours tend to maintain a mystery around them. Reverend Runt, for instance, is a very opaque person. You don’t know exactly what his motivations are.
But you know a lot about Reverend Runt, certainly all that is necessary. He dislikes Barry. He is secretly in love with Lady Lyndon, in his own prim, repressed, little way. His little smile of triumph, in the scene in the coach, near the end of the film, tells you all you need to know regarding the way he feels about Barry’s misfortune, and the way things have worked out. You certainly don’t have the time in a film to develop the motivations of minor characters.
Lady Lyndon is even more opaque.
Thackeray doesn’t tell you a great deal about her in the novel. I found that very strange. He doesn’t give you a lot to go on. There are, in fact, very few dialogue scenes with her in the book. Perhaps he meant her to be something of a mystery. But the film gives you a sufficient understanding of her anyway.
You made important changes in your adaptation, such as the invention of the last duel, and the ending itself.
Yes, I did, but I was satisfied that they were consistent with the spirit of the novel and brought the story to about the same place the novel did, but in less time. In the book, Barry is pensioned off by Lady Lyndon. Lord Bullingdon, having been believed dead, returns from America. He finds Barry and gives him a beating. Barry, tended by his mother, subsequently dies in prison, a drunk. This, and everything that went along with it in the novel to make it credible would have taken too much time on the screen. In the film, Bullingdon gets his revenge and Barry is totally defeated, destined, one can assume, for a fate not unlike that which awaited him in the novel.
And the scene of the two homosexuals in the lake was not in the book either.
The problem here was how to get Barry out of the British Army. The section of the book dealing with this is also fairly lengthy and complicated. The function of the scene between the two gay officers was to provide a simpler way for Barry to escape. Again, it leads to the same end result as the novel but by a different route. Barry steals the papers and uniform of a British officer which allow him to make his way to freedom. Since the scene is purely expositional, the comic situation helps to mask your intentions.
Were you aware of the multiple echoes that are found in the film: flogging in the army, flogging at home, the duels, etc., and the narrative structure resembling that of A Clockwork Orange? Does this geometrical pattern attract you?
The narrative symmetry arose primarily out of the needs of telling the story rather than as part of a conscious design. The artistic process you go through in making a film is as much a matter of discovery as it is the execution of a plan. Your first responsibility in writing a screenplay is to pay the closest possible attention to the author’s ideas and make sure you really understand what he has written and why he has written it. I know this sounds pretty obvious but you’d be surprised how often this is not done. There is a tendency for the screenplay writer to be “creative” too quickly. The next thing is to make sure that the story survives the selection and compression which has to occur in order to tell it in a maximum of three hours, and preferably two. This phase usually seals the fate of most major novels, which really need the large canvas upon which they are presented.
In the first part of A Clockwork Orange, we were against Alex. In the second part, we were on his side. In this film, the attraction/repulsion feeling towards Barry is present throughout.
Thackeray referred to it as “a novel without a hero.” Barry is naive and uneducated. He is driven by a relentless ambition for wealth and social position. This proves to be an unfortunate combination of qualities which eventually lead to great misfortune and unhappiness for himself and those around him. Your feelings about Barry are mixed but he has charm and courage, and it is impossible not to like him despite his vanity, his insensitivity and his weaknesses. He is a very real character who is neither a conventional hero nor a conventional villain.
The feeling that we have at the end is one of utter waste.
Perhaps more a sense of tragedy, and because of this the story can assimilate the twists and turns of the plot without becoming melodrama. Melodrama uses all the problems of the world, and the difficulties and disasters which befall the characters, to demonstrate that the world is, after all, a benevolent and just place.
The last sentence which says that all the characters are now equal can be taken as a nihilistic or religious statement. From your films, one has the feeling that you are a nihilist who would like to believe.
I think you’ll find that it is merely an ironic postscript taken from the novel. Its meaning seems quite clear to me and, as far as I’m concerned, it has nothing to do with nihilism or religion.
One has the feeling in your films that the world is in a constant state of war. The apes are fighting in 2001. There is fighting, too, in Paths Of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove. In Barry Lyndon, you have a war in the first part, and then in the second part we find the home is a battleground, too.
Drama is conflict, and violent conflict does not find its exclusive domain in my films. Nor is it uncommon for a film to be built around a situation where violent conflict is the driving force. With respect to Barry Lyndon, after his successful struggle to achieve wealth and social position, Barry proves to be badly unsuited to this role. He has clawed his way into a gilded cage, and once inside his life goes really bad. The violent conflicts which subsequently arise come inevitably as a result of the characters and their relationships. Barry’s early conflicts carry him forth into life and they bring him adventure and happiness, but those in later life lead only to pain and eventually to tragedy.
In many ways, the film reminds us of silent movies. I am thinking particularly of the seduction of Lady Lyndon by Barry at the gambling table.
That’s good. I think that silent films got a lot more things right than talkies. Barry and Lady Lyndon sit at the gaming table and exchange lingering looks. They do not say a word. Lady Lyndon goes out on the balcony for some air. Barry follows her outside. They gaze longingly into each other’s eyes and kiss. Still not a word is spoken. It’s very romantic, but at the same time, I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship. The actors, the images and the Schubert worked well together, I think.
Did you have Schubert’s Trio in mind while preparing and shooting this particular scene?
No, I decided on it while we were editing. Initially, I thought it was right to use only eighteenth-century music. But sometimes you can make ground-rules for yourself which prove unnecessary and counter-productive. I think I must have listened to every LP you can buy of eighteenth-century music. One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love-themes in eighteenth-century music. So eventually I decided to use Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, Opus 100, written in 1828. It’s a magnificent piece of music and it has just the right restrained balance between the tragic and the romantic without getting into the headier stuff of later Romanticism.
You also cheated in another way by having Leonard Rosenman orchestrate Handel’s Sarabande in a more dramatic style than you would find in eighteenth-century composition.
This arose from another problem about eighteenth-century music—it isn’t very dramatic, either. I first came across the Handel theme played on a guitar and, strangely enough, it made me think of Ennio Morricone. I think it worked very well in the film, and the very simple orchestration kept it from sounding out of place.
It also accompanies the last duel—not present in the novel—which is one of the most striking scenes in the film and is set in a dovecote.
The setting was a tithe barn which also happened to have a lot of pigeons resting in the rafters. We’ve seen many duels before in films, and I wanted to find a different and interesting way to present the scene. The sound of the pigeons added something to this, and, if it were a comedy, we could have had further evidence of the pigeons. Anyway, you tend to expect movie duels to be fought outdoors, possibly in a misty grove of trees at dawn. I thought the idea of placing the duel in a barn gave it an interesting difference. This idea came quite by accident when one of the location scouts returned with some photographs of the barn. I think it was Joyce who observed that accidents are the portals to discovery. Well, that’s certainly true in making films. And perhaps in much the same way, there is an aspect of film-making which can be compared to a sporting contest. You can start with a game plan but depending on where the ball bounces and where the other side happens to be, opportunities and problems arise which can only be effectively dealt with at that very moment. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, there seemed no clever way for HAL to learn that the two astronauts distrusted him and were planning to disconnect his brain. It would have been irritatingly careless of them to talk aloud, knowing that HAL would hear and understand them. Then the perfect solution presented itself from the actual phsical layout of the space pod in the pod bay. The two men went into the pod and turned off every switch to make them safe from HAL’s microphones. They sat in the pod facing each other and in the center of the shot, visible through the sound-proof glass port, you could plainly see the red glow of HAL’s bug-eye lens, some fifteen feet away. What the conspirators didn’t think of was that HAL would be able to read their lips.
Did you find it more constricting, less free, making an historical film where we all have precise conceptions of a period? Was it more of a challenge?
No, because at least you know what everything looked like. In 2001: A Space Odyssey everything had to be designed. But neither type of film is easy to do. In historical and futuristic films, there is an inverse relationship between the ease the audience has taking in at a glance the sets, costumes and decor, and the film-maker’s problems in creating it. When everything you see has to be designed and constructed, you greatly increase the cost of the film, add tremendously to all the normal problems of film-making, making it virtually impossible to have the flexibility of last-minute changes which you can manage in a contemporary film.
You are well-known for the thoroughness with which you accumulate information and do research when you work on a project. Is it for you the thrill of being a reporter or a detective?
I suppose you could say it is a bit like being a detective. On Barry Lyndon, I accumulated a very large picture file of drawings and paintings taken from art books. These pictures served as the reference for everything we needed to make—clothes, furniture, hand props, architecture, vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures would have been too awkward to use while they were still in the books, and I’m afraid we finally had very guiltily to tear up a lot of beautiful art books. They were all, fortunately, still in print which made it seem a little less sinful. Good research is an absolute necessity and I enjoy doing it. You have an important reason to study a subject in much greater depth than you would ever have done otherwise, and then you have the satisfaction of putting the knowledge to immediate good use. The designs for the clothes were all copied from drawings and paintings of the period. None of them were designed in the normal sense. This is the best way, in my opinion, to make historical costumes. It doesn’t seem sensible to have a designer interpret—say—the eighteenth century, using the same picture sources from which you could faithfully copy the clothes. Neither is there much point sketching the costumes again when they are already beautifully represented in the paintings and drawings of the period. What is very important is to get some actual clothes of the period to learn how they were originally made. To get them to look right, you really have to make them the same way. Consider also the problem of taste in designing clothes, even for today. Only a handful of designers seem to have a sense of what is striking and beautiful. How can a designer, however brilliant, have a feeling for the clothes of another period which is equal to that of the people and the designers of the period itself, as recorded in their pictures? I spent a year preparing Barry Lyndon before the shooting began and I think this time was very well spent. The starting point and sine qua non of any historical or futuristic story is to make you believe what you see.
The danger in an historical film is that you lose yourself in details, and become decorative.
The danger connected with any multi-faceted problem is that you might pay too much attention to some of the problems to the detriment of others, but I am very conscious of this and I make sure I don’t do that.
Why do you prefer natural lighting?
Because it’s the way we see things. I have always tried to light my films to simulate natural light; in the daytime using the windows actually to light the set, and in night scenes the practical lights you see in the set. This approach has its problems when you can use bright electric light sources, but when candelabras and oil lamps are the brightest light sources which can be in the set, the difficulties are vastly increased. Prior to Barry Lyndon, the problem has never been properly solved. Even if the director and cameraman had the desire to light with practical light sources, the film and the lenses were not fast enough to get an exposure. A 35mm movie camera shutter exposes at about 1/50 of a second, and a useable exposure was only possible with a lens at least 100% faster than any which had ever been used on a movie camera. Fortunately, I found just such a lens, one of a group of ten which Zeiss had specially manufactured for NASA satellite photography. The lens had a speed of fO.7, and it was 100% faster than the fastest movie lens. A lot of work still had to be done to it and to the camera to make it useable. For one thing, the rear element of the lens had to be 2.5mm away from the film plane, requiring special modification to the rotating camera shutter. But with this lens it was now possible to shoot in light conditions so dim that it was difficult to read. For the day interior scenes, we used either the real daylight from the windows, or simulated daylight by banking lights outside the windows and diffusing them with tracing paper taped on the glass. In addition to the very beautiful lighting you can achieve this way, it is also a very practical way to work. You don’t have to worry about shooting into your lighting equipment. All your lighting is outside the window behind tracing paper, and if you shoot towwards the window you get a very beautiful and realistic flare effect.
How did you decide on Ryan O’Neal?
He was the best actor for the part. He looked right and I was confident that he possessed much greater acting ability than he had been allowed to show in many of the films he had previously done. In retrospect, I think my confidence in him was fully justified by his performance, and I still can’t think of anyone who would have been better for the part. The personal qualities of an actor, as they relate to the role, are almost as important as his ability, and other actors, say, like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman, just to name a few who are great actors, would nevertheless have been wrong to play Barry Lyndon. I liked Ryan and we got along very well together. In this regard the only difficulties I have ever had with actors happened when their acting technique wasn’t good enough to do something you asked of them. One way an actor deals with this difficulty is to invent a lot of excuses that have nothing to do with the real problem. This was very well represented in Truuffaut’s Day For Night when Valentina Cortese, the star of the film within the film, hadn’t bothered to learn her lines and claimed her dialogue fluffs were due to the confusion created by the script girl playing a bit part in the scene.
How do you explain some of the misunderstandings about the film by the American press and the English press?
The American press was predominantly enthusiastic about the film, and Time magazine ran a cover story about it. The international press was even more enthusiastic. It is true that the English press was badly split. But from the very beginning, all of my films have divided the critics. Some have thought them wonderful, and others have found very little good to say. But subsequent critical opinion has always resulted in a very remarkable shift to the favorable. In one instance, the same critic who originally rapped the film has several years later put it on an all-time best list. But, of course, the lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and on how much affection for it they have.
You are an innovator, but at the same time you are very conscious of tradition.
I try to be, anyway. I think that one of the problems with twentieth-century art is its preoccupation with subjectivity and originality at the expense of everything else. This has been especially true in painting and music. Though initially stimulating, this soon impeded the full development of any particular style, and rewarded uninteresting and sterile originality. At the same time, it is very sad to say, films have had the opposite problem—they have consistently tried to formalize and repeat success, and they have clung to a form and style introduced in their infancy. The sure thing is what everone wants, and originality is not a nice word in this context. This is true despite the repeated example that nothing is as dangerous as a sure thing.
You have abandoned original film music in your last three films.
Exclude a pop music score from what I am about to say. However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you’re editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. This is not at all an uncommon practice. Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary music tracks can become the final score. When I had completed the editing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music which was eventually used in the film. Then, in the normal way, I engaged the services of a distinguished film composer to write the score. Although he and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musical objectives of each sequence he, nevertheless, wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to, and much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion, was completely inadequate for the film. With the premiere looming up, I had no time left even to think about another score being written, and had I not been able to use the music I had already selected for the temporary tracks I don’t know what I would have done. The composer’s agent phoned Robert O’Brien, the then head of MGM, to warn him that if I didn’t use his client’s score the film would not make its premiere date. But in that instance, as in all others, O’Brien trusted my judgment. He is a wonderful man, and one of the very few film bosses able to inspire genuine loyalty and affection from his film-makers.
Why did you choose to have only one flashback in the film: the child falling from the horse?
I didn’t want to spend the time which would have been required to show the entire story action of young Bryan sneaking away from the house, taking the horse, falling, being found, etc. Nor did I want to learn about the accident solely through the dialogue scene in which the farm workers, carrying the injured boy, tell Barry. Putting the flashback fragment in the middle of the dialogue scene seemed to be the right thing to do.
Are your camera movements planned before?
Very rarely. I think there is virtually no point putting camera instructions into a screenplay, and only if some really important camera idea occurs to me, do I write it down. When you rehearse a scene, it is usually best not to think about the camera at all. If you do, I have found that it invariably interferes with the fullest exploration of the ideas of the scene. When, at last, something happens which you know is worth filming, that is the time to decide how to shoot it. It is almost but not quite true to say that when something really exciting and worthwhile is happening, it doesn’t matter how you shoot it. In any event, it never takes me long to decide on set-ups, lighting or camera movements. The visual part of film making has always come easiest to me, and that is why I am careful to subordinate it to the story and the performances.
Do you like writing alone or would you like to work with a script writer?
I enjoy working with someone I find stimulating. One of the most fruitful and enjoyable collaborations I have had was with Arthur C. Clarke in writing the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the paradoxes of movie writing is that, with a few notable exceptions, writers who can really write are not interested in working on film scripts. They quite correctly regard their important work as being done for publication. I wrote the screenplay for Barry Lyndon alone. The first draft took three or four months but, as with all my films, the subsequent writing process never really stopped. What you have written and is yet unfilmed is inevitably affected by what has been filmed. New problems of content or dramatic weight reveal themselves. Rehearsing a scene can also cause script changes. However carefully you think about a scene, and however clearly you believe you have visualized it, it’s never the same when you finally see it played. Sometimes a totally new idea comes up out of the blue, during a rehearsal, or even during actual shooting, which is simply too good to ignore. This can necessitate the new scene being worked out with the actors right then and there. As long as the actors know the objectives of the scene, and understand their characters, this is less difficult and much quicker to do than you might imagine.
Jan Harlan: “Storyboard is not the right word for what this is; Stanley did not construct his sequences in that kind of detail, but he certainly prepared himself well. Barry Lyndon has all these battle scenes, with lots of action, and Stanley would say: ‘How are we going to do this? I want some action.’ The art department would then come up with a visualisation of how to do a scene. Stanley wouldn’t have done this drawing himself; he was not a great pencil illustrator.”
Stanley Kubrick sent a personal note to every projectionist, in every country that released the movie, giving them extremely detailed instructions of how his movie needed to be presented.
KUBRICK’S GRANDEST GAMBLE
In a December 1975 cover story, TIME magazine examines Barry Lyndon and the many paradoxes of Stanley Kubrick, covering the filmmaker’s Herculean task in bringing the 18th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray to the screen and the near impossibility of selling a three hour art film spectacle to the masses. —New Beverly Cinema
CASTLES, CANDLES AND KUBRICK
In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his period masterpiece Barry Lyndon. On an overcast night the following January, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production also abandoned their stations. Produced by Pavel Barter, Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film.
HOLLYWOOD IN ÉIRINN
Subtitled Irish language documentary on Kubrick shooting Barry Lyndon in Ireland. When a major movie production machine rumbles into town, anything can happen and frequently does. An invigorating injection of magic, money and mayhem arrives along with it, all contributing to a wild sense of excitement and anticipation. Denis Conway travels to four such locations, small villages and towns, in search of the memories of residents who witnessed the high and low jinks during the making of four major Hollywood blockbusters: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Barry Lyndon, Moby Dick and Song for A Raggy Boy. Contributors include film actors Aidan Quinn, Iain Glenn, Jan Harlan and Pádraig Delaney. Produced by Seabed Productions.
KUBRICK RECALLED BY LEGENDARY SET DESIGNER SIR KEN ADAM
“In 1972 he approached me about designing Barry Lyndon but I think he decided I was too expensive and he employed someone else. Three weeks later I was in the south of France doing a film and the phone went. It was Stanley sounding like a little New York boy: he said the designer hadn’t worked out and he needed me. He schmoozed me into doing the film and I was never happy about it.” Barry Lyndon was an ambitious historical epic to be shot on location. But there was a problem: Kubrick wanted to find locations while barely leaving his family home in Elstree, north of London. “So we set up in his garage a little war room, with Ordnance Survey maps on the walls and pins everywhere. We had an army of young photographers to go looking at buildings and possible locations and every evening we looked at what they’d done. He would be enthusiastic about a particular bed or whatever in a slightly voyeuristic way. But we’d have big arguments because I would say: ‘No that’s Victorian but the film is set in Georgian times.’ Well Stanley was so competitive that he bought almost every book available on Georgian architecture so he could argue with me. But none of this was getting the movie made because the buildings and peaceful locations he wanted just don’t exist anymore near London.
“It was nerve-destroying. But after five months I got Stanley to switch production to the Republic of Ireland—which I thought was my masterstroke.” As Sir Ken recalls it, once in Ireland Kubrick changed totally. “He saw himself as General Rommel, who he admired greatly. He equipped all of us with Volkswagens so we became a complete mobile unit driving around Ireland finding locations. I spent weeks being chased through fields by bloody bulls. I was going crazy but this was Stanley’s character—with all his fears and anxieties he was relentless.” When Letizia, Sir Ken’s Italian-born wife, came out to Ireland she was shocked at his state of mind. She persuaded him to return to England and see a doctor for the sake of his health. “So now I was in hospital in England with a breakdown. Stanley rang the hospital every day to see how I was doing and if I was still alive. The day I left he phoned me at home. He said: ‘Ken you were right: we’re going to change the way we’re making the film and you’ll love it. I’m sending a second unit to Potsdam in Germany to pick up extra material and I want you to direct it.'” Sir Ken laughs. “Well I found that idea such a huge shock I had to go straight back to the clinic and check in again.”
After Barry Lyndon, Sir Ken decided this time, whatever his admiration for Kubrick, the two would never work together again. It was a vow he adhered to with one brief and slightly bizarre exception. In 1977, designing the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, Sir Ken had built a vast set at Pinewood studios. It included a supertanker which was proving hard to light. “So I called Stanley up and asked him down to Pinewood to give me ideas. At first he said I was out of my mind but eventually he agreed to come on a Sunday when only security were around. He spent three or four hours with me telling me how he would light the stage. And of course the whole thing being in secret appealed to Stanley’s sense of drama. But I knew we would never work together again. And Stanley didn’t ask—he’d been so scared when he saw what happened to me half way through Barry Lyndon.” —Kubrick recalled by influential set designer Sir Ken Adam
JOHN ALCOTT, BSC: PHOTOGRAPHING STANLEY KUBRICK’S ‘BARRY LYNDON’
March 1976 edition of American Cinematographer magazine with two Kubrick-related articles, each covering the photographing of the film Barry Lyndon. One article, Photographing Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, focuses generally on the cinematography by John Alcott, while the other, Two Special Lenses for Barry Lyndon, focuses more closely on the specialized lenses utilized for the film. Subscribing to American Cinematographer is highly recommended.
You’ve worked with Stanley Kubrick on three pictures: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and now Barry Lyndon. Can you tell me a bit about that working relationship?
We have a very close working relationship, which began on 2001. I had been assisting Geoffrey Unsworth [BSC] on that picture and then, when Geoff had to leave after the first six months, I was asked to carry on—so it was Stanley Kubrick who gave me my break. Our working relationship is close because we think exactly alike photographically. We really do see eye-to-eye photography.
What about the preplanning phase of Barry Lyndon?
There was a great deal of testing of possible photographic approaches and effects—the candlelight thing, for example. Actually, we had talked about shooting solely by candlelight as far back as 2001, when Stanley was planning to film Napoleon, but the requisite fast lenses were not available at that time. In preparation for Barry Lyndon we studied the lighting effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch masters, but they seemed a bit flat—so we decided to light more from the side.
You photographed both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon for Stanley Kubrick and, obviously, the photographic styles of these two pictures were quite different from each other. Comparing the two, purely as a point of interest, how would you describe those stylistic differences?
Well, A Clockwork Orange employed a darker, more obviously dramatic type of photography. It was a modern story, taking place in an advanced period of the 1980s—although the period was never actually pinpointed in the picture. That period called for a really cold, stark style of photography; whereas, Barry Lyndon is more pictorial, with a softer, more subtle rendition of light and shadow overall than A Clockwork Orange. As I saw it, the story of Barry Lyndon took place during a romantic type of period—although it didn’t necessarily have to be a romantic film. I say “a romantic period” because of the quality of the clothes, the dressing of the sets and the architecture of that period. These all had a kind of soft feeling. I think you probably could have lighted Barry Lyndon in the same way as A Clockwork Orange, but it just wouldn’t have looked right. It wouldn’t have had that soft feeling.
How did you translate “that soft feeling” into cinematic terms, and what technical means did you use to achieve it?
In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations. That was virtually their only source of light during the period of the film, and those houses still exist, with their paintings and tapestries hanging. I would tend to re-create that type of light, all natural light actually coming through the windows. I’ve always been a natural light source type of cameraman—if one can put it that way. I think it’s exciting, actually, to see what illumination is provided by daylight and then try to create the effect. Sometimes it’s impossible when the light outside falls below a certain level. We shot some of those sequences in the wintertime, when there was natural light from perhaps 9 o’clock in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The requirement was to bring the light up to a level so that we could shoot from 8 o’clock in the morning until something like 7 o’clock in the evening—while maintaining the consistent effect. At the same time, we tried to duplicate the situations established by research and reference to the drawings and paintings of that day—how rooms were illuminated and so on. The actual compositions of our setups were very authentic to the drawings of the period.
In other words, then, you would take your cue from the way the natural light actually fell and then you would build that up or simulate it with your lighting units in an attempt to get the same effect, but at an exposurable level?
Yes. In some instances, what we created looked much better than the real thing. For example, there’s a sequence that takes place in Barry’s dining room, when his little boy asks if his father has brought him a horse. That particular room had five windows, with a very large window in the center that was much greater in height than the others. I found that it suited the sequence better to have the light coming from one source only, rather than from all around. So we controlled the light in such a way that it fell upon the center of the table at which they were having their meal, with the rest of the room falling off into nice subdued, subtle color.
In creating that particular effect, did you use any of the light actually coming through the windows?
No, it was simulated by means of Mini-Brutes. I used Mini-Brutes all the time, with tracing paper on the windows—plastic material, actually. I find it to be a little bit better than the tracing paper.
Was most of the picture shot in actual locations, or did you have to build some sets?
Oh, no—every shot is an actual location. We didn’t build any sets whatsoever. All of the rooms exist inside actual houses in Ireland and the southwest of England.
What about the physical problems of shooting inside those actual stately homes?
Well, we did have problems, although they didn’t affect me too much. For instance, many of those stately homes are open to the public. We couldn’t restrict the public from going through—so we had to cater to them. We would use certain rooms with visitors virtually walking past in the corridor. They would simply close off that one room and have the public bypass it. However, at times our shooting schedule would be limited to the point where we had to work when they weren’t touring. They would go around in groups and we would virtually shoot when they were changing over from one group to another. In many of the locations, though, we had complete freedom of the house. We didn’t really have too many problems, except for having to build very large rostrums for the lighting in certain rooms. I also had rostrums built around the exterior windows. They could be wheeled out of the way for reverse angles when we were shooting toward the windows and wanted to show the view outside as well. Such was the case in the sequence that takes place in Countess Lyndon’s bedroom.
Did you have to gel the windows, or were you using a daylight balance?
In the actual interiors, most of the time, we did gel the windows, although there were a very few instances when we didn’t do it. We had neutral density filters made, as well—ND3, ND6 and ND9—so that we had a complete range to accommodate whatever light situation prevailed outside the windows. Also, on all the exterior shooting, I never used an 85 filter.
What was your reason for not using 85?
One reason was to get an overall consistent balance throughout the entire picture. In that sense, I tend to use it as I use forced development—that is, in every scene (including those that don’t actually need it), in order to maintain a consistency of visual character throughout. The second reason was simply that the exterior light was sometimes so low that I needed the extra two-thirds of a stop. Although we mostly used the zoom lens outdoors, there were many instances in which we ended up shooting wide open with the Canon T/1.2 lens.
In other words, the light was sometimes so dull, so overcast that you had to open up that lens all the way. Is that right?
Oh, yes—all the way. That was especially true in the holdup ambush sequence. We started off with a good day and there was plenty of light in the beginning, but the last part of that sequence was shot with the T/1.2 lens wide open. In order to match the brilliance of the normal daylight one had to be very fully exposed. I needed that fast lens.
Can you tell me to what extent you used diffusion in shooting Barry Lyndon?
When I went around looking at locations with Stanley we discussed diffusion, among other things. The period of the story seemed to call for diffusion, but on the other hand, an awful lot of diffusion was being used in cinematography at the time. So we tended not to diffuse. We didn’t use gauzes, for example. Instead I used a No.3 Low Contrast filter all the way through—except for the wedding sequence, where I wanted to control the highlights on the faces a bit more. In that case, the No.3 Low Contrast filter was combined with a brown net, which gave it a slightly different quality. We opted for the Low Contrast filter rather than actual diffusion because the clarity and definition in Ireland create a shooting situation that is very like a photographer’s paradise. The air is so refined, I think, because Ireland is in the Gulf Stream. The atmosphere is actually perfect and we thought it would be a pity to destroy that with diffusion, especially for the landscape photography.
That’s rather refreshing. There seems to be a tendency these days, despite the nice sharp lenses that are available, to just fuzz everything out as a matter of course.
Yes, it’s done a lot. I’ve even done it myself in shooting commercials. We did discuss the possibility for Barry Lyndon, but then we thought: “Well, it’s been done before so many times; let’s try for something different. Let’s go into low contrast.” We tested many filters and of all those we tested the Tiffen Low Contrast filters came out the best quality-wise. With the Tiffen filters we didn’t lose any quality whatsoever, even when shooting wide open, in fact. They were the best.
Did you use any of the 5247 color negative, or was it all 5254?
We used the 5254, because the 5247 wasn’t available even at the time when we finished shooting. It came out something like two months after we had finished the main shooting of the film. Now I find that, because of the fineness of the grain with the 5247, I would have had to use a No.5 Tiffen Low Contrast filter in order to get the same effect I got using the No.3 with the old stock.
Do you find, as many other cinematographers have found, that the 5247 negative has an inherently higher contrast than the 5254?
Well, they say it’s higher contrast, but I really think it’s not so much the contrast as the fact that the grain is so much finer. If the grain is finer, this will increase the apparent contrast. In other words, you’ve got to dress and color your sets to accommodate the film stock. Even the tiniest ornaments which are red will kick out on the new stock, whereas on the old stock they wouldn’t. This is because of the finer grain. It’s the color, in fact, which is building up the contrast. However, I can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t go for the finer grain, because that’s what it’s all about. The thing is to try to make it work by knocking down the contrast in some other way. We must either modify the lighting or design the set in a way to tone it down. For instance, in some of the interiors used for shooting Barry Lyndon there were lots of white areas—fireplaces and such. If you put a light through a window these would stick out like a sore thumb, as they say. So, most of the time, I covered them with a black net—the white marble of the fireplaces, the very large white three-foot-wide panels on the walls, and the door frames that were white. I covered them with a black net having about a half-inch mesh. You could never see it photographically unless you were really close to it—but in the long shots it wasn’t visible at all. It did wonders in toning down the white. I also used graduated neutral density filters on certain light parts of the set when the illumination was coming from a natural light source and there was no way to gobo it off. For example, if the light source were coming from the left and hitting something that it was not possible to put a net over, I would put a neutral density filter on the right side—an ND3 or ND6, depending upon the brightness.
You would actually use graduated neutral density filters for shooting interiors? That’s not done very often, is it?
I don’t think so—no. I know that when I use them now in different types of work that I do, some of the people on the set wonder what I’m up to, using graduated filters for interiors. But they work very well indeed. In fact, we had a matte box made to accept the three filters on the Arriflex 35BL. Incidentally, we used the Arriflex 35BL all the way through the picture.
Can you give me some of your impressions of that camera?
I think it’s a fantastic camera. To me, it’s a cameraman’s camera—mainly because the optical system is so good. Some optical systems give you a much more exaggerated tunneling effect than others, and I even came across someone the other day who prefers that long tunneling effect because it makes him feel like he’s in a cinema. Personally, I prefer it when my eye is filled with the actual picture image. You find that this only really occurs with the Arriflex 35BL. Another feature I like about the camera is that you’ve got the aperture control literally at your fingertips. It’s got a much larger scale and, therefore, a finer adjustment than most cameras. This feature is especially important when you’re working with Stanley Kubrick, because he likes to continue shooting whether the sun is going in or out. In Barry Lyndon, during the sequence when Barry is buying the horse for his young son, the sun was going in and out all through the sequence. You’ve got to cater to this. That old bit that says you cut because the sun’s gone in doesn’t go anymore.
Instead, you try to ride it out by varying the aperture opening during the shooting of the scene?
Yes, that’s why the Arriflex 35BL offers such an advantage. It’s got a finer aperture adjustment—more so than most other cameras—which allows you to cater to light variations while you’re actually shooting. On most lenses there’s not a great distance between one aperture stop and the next. There isn’t actually on the Arriflex 35BL lenses either, but it’s the gearing mechanism on the outside that offers the larger scale and, therefore, the possibility of more precise adjustment. It’s like converting a ¼-inch move into a 1-inch move.
What about the use of the zoom lens in this film?
Oh, yes—we used it a great deal. The Angenieux 10-to-1 zoom was used on the Arriflex 35BL, in conjunction with Ed DiGiulio’s Cinema Products “Joy Stick” zoom control, which is an excellent one. It starts and stops without a sudden jar, which is very important, and you can manipulate it so slowly that it almost feels like nothing is happening. This is very difficult to do with some of the motorized zoom controls. I find that this one really works.
What types of lighting equipment did you use?
We used Mini-Brutes and we used a lot of Lowel-Lights—all the time. I used the Lowel-Lights in umbrellas for overall fill. I always use the umbrellas—ever since A Clockwork Orange. I would find that the Lowel-Light has a far greater range of illumination from flood to spot than any other light I know of. In fact, it’s the only light of its type that gives you a fantastic spot, if you need it, and an absolute overall flood. Also, when you put a flag in front of most quartz lights you get a double shadow—but not with the Lowel-Lights. But then, of course, they were designed by a cameraman.
What about the use of the moving camera in Barry Lyndon?
We used it in certain sequences, but not too many. We had one very long tracking shot in the battle sequence, with the cameras on an 800-foot track. There were three cameras on the track, moving with the troops. We used an Elemack dolly, with bogie wheels, on ordinary metal platforms, and a five-foot and sometimes six-foot wheel span, because we found that this worked quite well in trying to get rid of the vibrations when working on the end of the zoom. It seemed to take the vibration out better than going directly onto the Elemack.
Do I understand that you were racked out to the end of the zoom on that tracking shot?
Yes, virtually all close-ups made from the track during that battle sequence were on the 250mm end of the zoom.
That is really living dangerously.
I made a test beforehand with the camera traveling on an ordinary track and one with this base, and the difference was quite amazing. That’s what got us round to building these platforms and using the Elemack with the bogie wheels on the four corners. They are really quite handy for doing all kinds of shots.
What would you say was your most difficult sequence to shoot in this film?
I think the most difficult bit was the scene in the club when Barry comes over to confront the nobleman sitting at the other table, is given the cold shoulder and then goes back to his own table. That involved a 180-degree pan and what made it difficult was the fluctuations in the weather outside. There were many windows and I had lights hidden behind the brickwork and beaming through the windows. The outside light was going up and down so much that we had to keep changing things to make sure the windows wouldn’t blow out excessively. This was the most difficult to do, because any time I changed the gels on the windows, I also had to change the lights outside in order to avoid getting too much light inside and not enough outside. I would say that was the most difficult shot in the whole picture, in terms of lighting. What complicated it further was the fact that this was one of those stately houses that had the public coming through and visiting at the same time we were shooting.
Did you use much colored light during the filming?
Yes, many times. An example that comes to mind is the scene in Barry’s room after he has had his leg amputated. I used a light coming through the window with an extra ½ sepia over it in order to give a warm effect to the backlight and sidelight. In other words, a 50% overcorrection. A similar effect was used on Barry in the sequence when his boy is dying. In some instances, I let the natural blue daylight come through in the background without correcting it. The result looked pleasing and it created a more “daylight” sort of effect.
I can’t recall any night-for-night shots in the picture. Were there any, perhaps, that didn’t appear in the final cut?
There weren’t really any night shots. There’s that one twilight scene of Barry by the fire meditating after he’s joined up, but that was shot at the “magic hour” and wasn’t a true night shot.
Now we come to the scenes which have caused more comment than anything else in this overall beautiful film—namely the candlelight scenes. Can you tell me about these and how they were executed?
The objective was to shoot these scenes exclusively by candlelight—that is, without a boost from any artificial light whatsoever. As I mentioned earlier, Stanley Kubrick and I had been discussing this possibility for years, but had not been able to find sufficiently fast lenses to do it. Stanley finally discovered three 50mm t/0.7 Zeiss still-camera lenses which were left over from a batch made for use by NASA in their Apollo moon-landing program. We had a non-reflexed Mitchell BNC which was sent over to Ed DiGiulio to be reconstructed to accept this ultra-fast lens. He had to mill out the existing lens mounts, because the rear element of this t/0.7 lens was virtually something like 4mm from the film plane. It took quite a while, and when we got the camera back we made quite extensive tests on it. The Zeiss lens was like no other lens in a way, because when you look through any normal type of lens, like the Panavision T/1.1 or the Angenieux f/0.95, you are looking through the optical system and by just altering the focus you can tell whether it’s in or out of focus. But when you looked through this lens it appeared to have fantastic range of focus, quite unbelievable. However, when you did a photographic test you discovered that it had no depth at all — which one expected anyway. So we literally had to scale this lens by doing hand tests from about 200 feet down to about 4 feet, marking every distance that would lead up to the 10-foot range. We had to literally get it down to inches on the actual scaling.
You say that the focal length was 50mm?
It was 50mm, but then we acquired a projection lens of the reduction type, which Ed DiGiulio fitted over another 50mm lens to give us a 36.5mm lens for a wider-angle coverage. The original 50mm lens was used for virtually all the medium shots and close shots.
And those scenes were illuminated entirely by candlelight?
Entirely by the candles. In the sequence were Lord Ludd and Barry are in the gaming room and he loses a large amount of money, the set was lit entirely by the candles, but I had metal reflectors made to mount above the two chandeliers, the main purpose being to keep the heat of the candles from damaging the ceiling. However, it also acted as a light reflector to provide an overall illumination of toplight.
How many foot-candles—no pun intended—would you say you were using in that case?
Roughly, three foot-candles was the key. We were forcing the whole picture one stop in development. Incidentally, I found a great advantage in using the Gossen Panalux electronic meter for those sequences because it goes down to half foot-candle measurements. It’s a very good meter for those extreme low-light situations. We were using 70-candle chandeliers, and most of the time I could also use either five-candle or three-candle table candelabra as well. We actually went for a burnt-out effect, a very high key on the faces themselves.
What were some of the other problems attendant to using this ultra-fast lens to shoot entire by candlelight?
There was, first of all, the problem of finding a side viewfinder that would transmit enough light to show us where we were framed. The conventional viewfinder would not do at all, because it involves prisms which cause such a high degree of light loss that very little image is visible at such low light levels. Instead, we had to adapt to the BNC a viewfinder from one of the old Technicolor three-strip cameras. It works on a principle of mirrors and simply reflects what is “sees,” resulting in a much brighter image. There is very little parallax with that viewfinder, since it mounts so close to the lens.
What about the depth of field problem?
As I suggested before, that was indeed a problem. The point of focus was so critical and there was hardly any depth of field with that f/0.7 lens. My focus operator, Doug Milsome [ASC], used a closed-circuit video camera as the only way to keep track of the distances with any degree of accuracy. The video camera was placed at a 90-degree angle to the film camera position and was monitored by means of a TV screen mounted above the camera lens scale. A grid was placed over the TV screen and by taping the various artists’ positions, the distances could be transferred to the TV grid to allow the artists a certain flexibility of movement, while keeping them in focus. It was a tricky operation, but according to all reports, it worked out quite satisfactorily.
Douglas Milsome, ASC, BSC discusses his work on Barry Lyndon as a “focus puller,” or camera assistant. Also working as an AC for Kubrick and Alcott on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Milsome would later collaborate with the director again as the lighting cameraman on Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon candlelit photography tests. Photo taken from Stanley Kubrick and me, the compelling memoir of Emilio D’Alessandro, personal assistant to Stanley Kubrick for thirty years.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is often lauded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinematography. And in a decade or even a year with some of the toughest competition you can think of, Barry Lyndon always seems to stick out just a little bit more. But what sets the cinematography of Barry Lyndon apart from other movies? And how was it done? Another excellent video essay by CinemaTyler.
Vivian Kubrick shows Stanley’s legendary Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens used for Barry Lyndon.
A complete guide to the lenses used by Stanley Kubrick.
Cinema Tyler takes an in-depth look at the many cameras used by the legendary director over the course of his career.
The final duel in Barry Lyndon is one of our favorite scenes in all of Kubrick’s work. You could say that the sequence actually starts in the previous scene where Bullingdon challenges Barry. This beautiful composition of a grieving Barry alludes to one of the “Marriage A-la-Mode” series paintings by William Hogarth, which BFI notes is referenced in the original novel. The dueling theme music begins when Bullingdon asks to speak with Barry Lyndon and carries over into the dueling sequence.
SIX KINDS OF LIGHT: JOHN ALCOTT
John Alcott, the great cinematographer who worked with Stanley Kubrick for some time, speaks at length about Kubrick and his additional work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, for which he took over as lighting cameraman from Geoffrey Unsworth in mid-shoot, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, the film for which he won his Oscar, andThe Shining. Kubrick promoted Alcott to lighting cameraman in 1968 while working on 2001: A Space Odyssey and from there the two created an inseparable collaboration, in which they worked together on more than one occasion. In 1971, Kubrick then elevated Alcott to director of photography on A Clockwork Orange. Alcott studied lighting and how the light fell in the rooms of a set. He would do this so that when he shot his work it would look like natural lighting, not stage lighting. It was this extra work and research that made his films look so visually beautiful. Along with his Academy award for Barry Lyndon, the film is considered to be one of the greatest and most beautiful movies made in terms of its visuals. Not one, but three films worked on by Alcott were ranked between 1950–1997 in the top 20 of ‘Best Shot,’ voted by the American Society of Cinematographers. Yet another great accomplishment made possible by John Alcott.
Six Kinds Of Light (Masters Of Cinematography), a look at the work of six cinematographers—including Gordon Willis; Vilmos Zsigmond; Sven Nykvist, and, of course, John Alcott—was shown on PBS as part of their Film On Film series in 1986. A huge thanks to the original uploader, J Willoughby.
THE EDITOR OF ‘BARRY LYNDON,’ TONY LAWSON
“I do remember that Warner Bros. was expecting it for a Christmas release, and it wasn’t out until the following Christmas. We took a long time. Just to give you an example, the duel scene with Bullingdon in the barn took us around six to eight weeks to edit. It was a 10-minute scene, and the process of getting there was quite long. At some point during the editing of that scene, we got the Handel ‘Sarabande’ as the soundtrack. I was surprised, watching the film again recently, the number of variations of that “Sarabande” we ended up [using in the film].” —Tony Lawson
During a break in filming Pat Heavin approached O’Neal for a photograph. “I was a member of the Waterford Camera Club at the time. I was conscious that no press were allowed on set so I kept it very low key. I asked Ryan O’Neal if I could take his picture. He was extremely friendly to me.” Then he spotted the famously irascible Kubrick, who hated being photographed, taking a break. “I said ‘To hell with it. I’ll go for broke.’ I asked if I could take his picture and with a bit of encouragement from Ryan O’Neal, Stanley smiled and I had my picture.” Kubrick is seen smiling in the photograph, something he rarely did and certainly not for the press. Heavin says he respected the circumstances in which he was allowed to take the photographs and has never released them publicly before now. —When Ryan O’Neal and Stanley Kubrick made a film in Waterford
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Photographed by Keith Hamshere © Peregrine, Hawk Films, Warner Bros. Kubrick on the set of Barry Lyndon, Waterford in 1973 by Pat Heavin. Photographs: SK Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of British Film Institute. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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