There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now, the great Kirk Douglas told Roger Ebert back in 1969. “I don’t have to wait fifty years to know that; I know it now.” The film he was referring to was Stanley Kubrick’s touching First World War drama Paths of Glory, in which the master tells the story of a group of French soldiers court-martialed for cowardice during the trench war with the Germans, and their moral commander who decides to defend them in court. Paths of Glory came out in 1957, was released exactly on Christmas, and managed to cover the cost of its production, but not achieve any significant financial gain. This comes to no surprise given the themes it chose to explore and the obstacles it faced in its initial run. The film’s obvious anti-military subtext was met with criticism and even censorship: the French government pressured United Artists not to release it in France, it was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival in Germany’s attempt not to irritate France, thanks to Francisco Franco’s government Paths of Glory was shown in Spain as late as in 1986, American bases in Europe refused to show it for a long time, and even the Swiss thought it was too provocative, keeping it censored until 1970. Today, Paths of Glory is considered one of Kubrick’s legitimate masterpieces, demonstrating the technique and style which Kubrick would show in his later works, a brave, poignant work of art set in the trenches, where mood and blood tend to obscure the humanity and reason. Led by Kirk Douglas, without whom the film probably wouldn’t have even seen the light of day, Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s first crucial step on his very own path to glory, a thoughtful, intelligent piece of filmmaking that illuminates the absurdity of war and the tragedy of the human condition. Having directed the critically praised The Killing in 1956, Kubrick was looking for a project to follow it up, deciding to work on The Burning Secret, a film based on Stefan Zweig’s short story. After Dore Schary, the head of production at MGM, left the studio, Kubrick gave up on the project and remembered Humphrey Cobb’s ‘Paths of Glory’ he had admired since his early days. He acquired the rights to this fictional account inspired by the events that had really happened in France in 1915 for mere ten thousand dollars from Cobb’s widow, most likely surprised at his interest in a book that had been out-of-print for a long time. Douglas, the owner of Bryna Productions, was intrigued and used his influence to get the film’s production started. Even though he thought no money could be possibly made from a film like this, he also felt such a film needed to be made. United Artists agreed and Kubrick was given the green light. Paths of Glory was shot in Bavaria, at the Geiselgasteig Studios and Schleissheim Palace near Munich.
Acquiring the rights to Cobb’s story, Kubrick and his partner, producer James B. Harris hired pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson to develop the script. Author Calder Willingham, who had previously worked on The Burning Secret, was once again approached in order to rewrite Thompson’s version. The official screenwriting credit for Paths of Glory, therefore, went to Willingham, Thompson and Kubrick himself. German cinematographer Georg Krause was chosen to handle the camerawork, and to Kubrick and him we have to thank for the incredible work on the film, such as the unforgettable tracking shot in the Anthill attack sequence. Kubrick’s reliable and frequent collaborator, composer Gerald Fried (Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing), provided the score, while Eva Kroll edited the picture. Paths of Glory proved influential and significant on three different levels: firstly, it helped establish Kubrick’s growing reputation, garnering positive reviews and even grabbing several international rewards; secondly, it established respect and trust between Kubrick and Douglas which would later lead to Kubrick directing Spartacus; and finally, and most sentimental of all reasons, it was on the set of Paths of Glory that Kubrick met his future wife. Actress Christiane Harlan appears briefly in a very effective scene at the end of the film, when she tenderly and timidly sings a German song, bringing tears to both the soldiers’ and the film audience’s eyes.
It’s interesting to note that screenwriter Jim Thompson added a happy ending to the first draft of the script, encouraged to do so by Kubrick himself, who wanted to make the film more appealing to the general public. Douglas was allegedly furious by the decision, obviously not caring about the box office results of the picture. Kubrick finally gave up and chose to closely follow the original novel’s ending, making a decision that surely influenced the numbers from the receipts. The deserved gratification for Kubrick and Douglas, however, slowly came in the years, even decades, that followed. Roger Ebert stated this was the film “by which Stanley Kubrick entered the ranks of great directors, never to leave them.” Kirk Douglas called it the summit of his entire career. For us, it will forever remain one of the best anti-war films ever made.
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham & Jim Thompson’s screenplay for Paths of Glory [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.
Review by François Truffaut, ‘The Films In My Life,’ pp.120-122.
I have just seen Paths of Glory, an independently produced American film that was shot in Belgium after the French authorities refused to allow it to be made in France. The filmmakers, I believe, have no intention of even submitting their work to the censorship commission. Paths of Glory is adapted from a novel of the same title which is based on a true event—an event that, because the truth has been kept fairly quiet, mars the usual heroic history of World War I. As the film opens, we are present at a conversation between two French generals portrayed by George Macready, with his scarred face, and the Hollywood actor of French descent, Adolphe Menjou (not his first role as turncoat, since it appears that, despite “public opinion,” he denounced his old friend Charlie Chaplin to the House Committee on Un-American Activities). Menjou, speaking for general headquarters, asks Macready to capture a trench network considered impregnable, whatever the cost. The real purpose is to quiet down the criticisms of the press. At first Macready refuses to sacrifice his men to no purpose, but then gives in when Menjou promises him personal advancement. As a result, the general deliberately sends an entire company of brave men to their death, led gallantly by their colonel, Kirk Douglas.
The trenches are, in truth, impregnable, and the attack scene becomes a frightful, bloody slaughterhouse. This desperate advance is the best segment of the film. At the height of his madness, the general orders an artillery barrage on his own troops as they are pinned down by the enemy, the artillery officers refuse to carry out the order. When the few survivors return, the general orders three of them, chosen by lot, to be shot as examples of cowardice. The film ends with the scene of the execution; one of the three, mortally wounded in a prison fight in which he had attacked the chaplain, is tied down to a stretcher. Kirk Douglas, in a rage, decides to get the general; he muses aloud on the remark of Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” This film, which was withdrawn from a Brussels movie house at the demand of Belgian veterans, will never be released in France, not as long as there are soldiers around, in any case. It’s a shame, because it is very beautiful from a number of points of view. It is admirably directed, even better than The Killing, with many very fluid long shots. The splendid camera work captures the plastic style of that epoch—we think of the war as it was pictured in the photographs of L’Illustration.
The film’s weakness—what keeps it from being an irrefutable indictment—is a certain lack of psychological credibility in the “villains’” behavior. There were, certainly, during World War I, a number of similar “war crimes,” barrages aimed at our own troops out of error and ignorance and confusion rather than from personal ambition. Cowardice is one thing, cynicism another. This general, who is both cowardly and cynical, is not very believable. The screenplay would have been strengthened if one officer, a coward, had panicked and ordered a barrage on his own troops, and another officer had had the three survivors shot as an example. Similarly, Robert Aldrich in Attack, irritates us with psychological error when he has the frightened captain push over with his foot the revolver that had fallen to the ground, the gun the lieutenant whom he had betrayed was going to use to kill him. It’s easier to forgive Kubrick a technical error, which is nevertheless obvious; Colonel Kirk Douglas several times salutes his superiors bareheaded!
I would have thought that Stanley Kubrick, who from the start had decided not to try to distribute his film in France, could have found better examples of military abuses in more recent wars. They abound: pillaging by French officers; the Indochina war with all the scandals we know so well; the Algerian war, with which, after Henri Alleg’s experience, the director could have posed his “question” more effectively. In any case, despite its psychological oversimplification and its theatricality, Paths of Glory is an important film that establishes the talent and energy of a new American director, Stanley Kubrick.
James B. Harris produced three films with his friend Stanley Kubrick. In this interview, he offers a rare glimpse of life on the set with Kubrick—not as a legend but a working director. The following is an excerpt from DGA Quarterly, written by F.X. Feeney, ‘In the Trenches with Stanley Kubrick.’ Read the rest of the article at DGA Quarterly.
“You’ll never know complete satisfaction until you’ve tried your hand at directing,” Stanley Kubrick told his close friend and producer James B. Harris one day, late in 1962. The pair had been creative partners for nearly a decade—working together on a string of critically successful pictures: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). After Lolita gave them both a welcome financial independence, they collaborated on a nuclear war-themed thriller called Edge of Doom, only to find they were at an amiable deadlock over the tone of the picture. Harris was committed to straightforward suspense; Kubrick wanted to turn it into an absurdist comedy. (It was later made as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) “I’m about to become the worst kind of producer,” Harris warned him, “I’m about to try and tell you how to direct your picture.” Kubrick replied: “You should direct.” On that note they dissolved their partnership but remained friends for life, until Kubrick’s death in 1999. And Harris went on to direct five features including The Bedford Incident (1965) and Some Call It Loving (1973). In a sense, Harris taught Kubrick how to produce, and Kubrick taught Harris how to direct. Artifacts, letters, scripts, photographs from their partnership, are currently on view as part of the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In a conversation with the Quarterly, Harris shares a rare view of Kubrick’s working method.
Can you describe a typical day—if there was such a thing as a typical day—shooting Paths of Glory?
The battlefield scenes were the last things on the schedule. That farmland we hired had to be dressed and built into a battlefield, with the trenches and barbwires and all of the shell holes. Stanley loved moving shots. The main thing was taking Kirk Douglas through this obstacle course, this barrage. The idea was that Kirk was going to be followed, in a moving shot, through as much action as we could muster before a cut had to be made, after which we would set up to continue. It was cold; it was uncomfortable; it was wet. Everything was tough on Kirk. After he did it the first time, he told Stanley, ‘I’ll give you one more, maybe two, but that’s it. I’m not going to do this forever.’ I remember Stanley asked me to go up on one of the big parallels, to check out an angle.
A parallel meaning a crane?
No. A parallel being a platform we built. Stanley didn’t like heights. I climbed up to look through the camera, and saw the image we were going to get. We had multiple cameras, even a handheld in the middle of the field, to cover the explosions, while Stanley covered Kirk with the moving shots. I don’t remember Stanley ever coming in with homework, saying, ‘This is the first shot we’re going to do.’ He pretty much knew in his guts, and then did it. Then again, there’s no room in a scene like that for added ideas. It’s a done deal: show Kirk going through the battle. Make it look as uncomfortable and dangerous as it can possibly look, with explosions all around him. Kirk had to crawl through the cold water and muddy shell holes.
You worked side by side every day with Kubrick for close to ten years. What was that like day-to-day?
I was required by Stanley to be there, not just as a producer, but because he liked input. There was no insecurity about him. Some people who are insecure don’t want other people hanging around, because they don’t want them to see, or witness any indecision on their part, or anything that could indicate they’re not sure of what they’re doing. Openness to suggestion was one of Stanley’s great attributes. He genuinely thought any idea that was better than his was going to make the picture better.
How did Kubrick deal with conflicts on the set? Did he raise his voice?
No. Stanley would never—not ever in the three pictures we did together—lose his temper. I don’t know if that changed after we went our separate ways. When we were together he was always able to outlast the other side of the argument, whether with actors, or in the case of Lucien Ballard on The Killing, the DP. On the first day of principal photography, Ballard, by then very established and sought after, decided to lay a set of tracks and choose a lens contrary to what had been asked for. When Stanley discovered this, he repeated his first order. Ballard objected, ‘It’ll be fine like this. Nobody will notice.’ Stanley looked him in the eye and said quietly, ‘You will either do as I direct or you can leave right now.’ Ballard nodded, rebuilt the tracks and they never had another bad moment. Stanley would say to me, ‘You need to write things down.’ He always had a notebook with him. He’d talk to somebody on the crew, ask them about the progress of this or that, and then jot a note. Later we’d be walking down the hall, and if this person were coming at us the other way, Stanley would already be patting his pocket, ready to follow-up. That was a moment of panic for a few people. You could see it in their eyes when they had no answer. We shot The Killing in 24 days; Paths of Glory in 66 days. We were getting up there, but disciplined. If I had to say to him, ‘We’re two days behind schedule,’ he’d smile and say: ‘Oh yeah? Watch this,’ and wham! We’d be back on.
How would he do that?
He was fast on his feet, and would think through a way to cover whatever was next—either simply, or in a single complex master.
What was the hardest part about directing for Kubrick?
Stanley would always say it was ‘the moment you arrive on the set each morning.’ It’s that way for every director. It was no different for Kubrick. You’ve got a city block filled with equipment, trucks, extras in costume, honeywagons. There you are pulling up, and dozens if not hundreds of people are looking straight at you. They’ve all got questions, and they need them answered right away. Everybody likes the idea of being a director—of being that guy that everybody looks to—but the reality is a whole other ballgame. You’ve got to be ready to answer, but you’ve got to keep your nerve and not answer too fast. They talk now about how Kubrick disciplined himself with chess. It’s true. You’re staring at the board and you think, ‘I can grab that guy’s queen,’ but if you don’t catch your breath and rethink, you could be building a trap for yourself. The same with filmmaking: You don’t want to be too attracted to an easy answer. An idea might look great on the surface, but create a world of problems up the line. And that applies if you’re in a bad spot. If some disaster happens, and everything’s capsized—keep your nerve. Don’t jump at the first easy answer. Look at your options. They’re there.
Kubrick clearly knew what he wanted to do. Would he listen to other opinions?
Stanley had a very open mind. He encouraged contributions by other people. A number of suggestions I made, he accepted, but if he didn’t like them, you weren’t criticized. He admired you; he admired anybody who thought enough about something to have an idea, with the intention of making it better. He’d say, ‘Look. The director’s going to get credit for everything in the picture, no matter where the idea comes from. If a lighting guy on the catwalk yells down, ‘Why don’t you try it from this angle,’ and that suggestion is better than the idea you had, you’re going to get the credit for it anyway. Why not accept it?’ [laughs] If an idea makes a picture better, pride of authorship is a waste of time and effort. Kubrick invited enormous input from me on Lolita. My brother, Bob, composed the ‘Love Theme,’ which Stanley loved. I picked Nelson Riddle to do the score. The first day we came to record the theme, we discovered that Nelson had written it in a minor key. As soon as he started to play it, I jumped out of my seat. ‘We can’t do this in a minor key. A minor key works if you’re doing horror, or suspense, but we don’t want that. The main love theme should be beautiful.’ Stanley welcomed that adjustment. He appreciated that I could discern a difference, and let me run with what I could contribute to the film. So, overnight it was transposed into a major key, and became something else entirely.
After you parted ways and began directing for yourself, did he give you advice?
He not only gave me advice, he wrote down things for me like I was a kid he was sending to school. ‘Don’t get bullied into making a shot-list’ was key advice. He said, ‘A lot of magic happens on the set; it’s no disgrace to not know what you want to do.” It’s no disgrace. If you’re not careful, people will bully you into thinking there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have a clear image of where every shot is, and where you’re going to put the camera. Stanley said, ‘It’s much better to discover your strategy with dialogue scenes. You want the actors to make a contribution. Don’t put them in a position where they’re told what to do—that you’ve already set up the first shot in your mind. They may feel more comfortable walking around, doing this or that.’ He often said: ‘Let the camera accommodate the actors. Don’t have the actors accommodate the camera.
What did you learn about casting from Kubrick?
He always drilled into my head that you live or die by your choice of actors. They can be brilliant and bring to your film a dimension beyond your highest expectations. But they can also be incompetent, irresponsible, subject to moods, insecure, and the bearer of unlimited personal problems, which can easily affect the rest of the cast and turn the best-intended film into a shamble. He would say, ‘Unless you’re fortunate enough to have the financial wherewithal to replace a bad actor, you’re stuck with them for the rest of the schedule.’
If you’re working with a well-chosen actor but something is wrong anyway, what did he advise?
He told me there are three things you should carefully analyze, if your instincts tell you a scene doesn’t play. The first is: Do the actors know their lines? It could be that simple. If they don’t and have to be constantly prompted by the script supervisor, then there’s no rhythm to what you’re shooting. The mess is right there on the surface. On the other hand, if they do know their lines, ask yourself: Do they know what the scene is about? If they do and it still won’t play, then the scene itself isn’t written properly. The essential talent of a director is that ability to know when a scene is off, for whatever reason.
You and Kubrick shared a passion for music, particularly jazz. Is that what a director’s ear for the ‘false note’ boils down to?
As a director, you’re always dealing with a melodic line. Jazz deals with variations of a theme. All the films that Stanley directed, all the ones I directed, have been based on previously published material. That novel or story is the melody. In movies, as in jazz, the melody is stated. The harmonics that go with it remain the same—but the soloist, or the instrumentalist, or even the full orchestra will do variations on these harmonics, making up their own melody, so to speak. If an actor doesn’t know their lines, it’s as if they haven’t run their scales. They can’t play the tune, so they can’t improvise. They can’t go find the spontaneous thing inside the harmonics; it’s not going to swing. You can’t make anything new out of it.
Jazz also relies on improvisation. How did he feel about that?
The movies Stanley and I made relied on improvisations—but we didn’t want them to sound improvised. This is why rehearsal is so important. We’d have the actors try wild, extemporaneous stuff before shooting, but we’d record them. The discoveries would be woven into the script. You have all the spontaneity of improv, but it’s clean. You don’t have a million ‘y’knows,’ and ‘likes’ all over the place. When the actors were handed those pages and came in knowing their lines, the result was magic.
So ultimately, what did you take away from your time with Kubrick?
I did not have dreams of directing when I first met Stanley. My directing was totally impressed and influenced by his directing. When you see terrific athletes perform, when you see a Joe DiMaggio—he makes an impossible thing look easy. You don’t realize the degree of difficulty that exists when a master performs. [When I became a director] I was rudely awakened. You’re working with human beings. You have to be a combination of psychiatrist, Dutch uncle, genius, and leader. You can’t show weakness. You’ve got to supervise everybody, and answer all the questions from every department. It seemed so easy for Stanley. —In the Trenches with Stanley Kubrick
An interview with Stanley Kubrick (1969) by Joseph Gelmis. Excerpted from ‘The Film Director as Superstar’ (Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York) © 1970 Joseph Gelmis.
How many men did you use in the trench battle of Paths of Glory?
That was another story entirely. We employed approximately eight hundred men, all German police—at that time the German police received three years of military training, and were as good as regular soldiers for our purposes. We shot the film at Geiselgesteig Studios in Munich, and both the battle site and the chateau were within thirty-five to forty minutes of the studio.
How do you get a good performance from your actors?
The director’s job is to know what emotional statement he wants a character to convey in his scene or his line, and to exercise taste and judgment in helping the actor give his best possible performance. By knowing the actor’s personality and gauging his strengths and weaknesses a director can help him to overcome specific problems and realize his potential. But I think this aspect of directing is generally overemphasized. The director’s taste and imagination play a much more crucial role in the making of a film. Is it meaningful? Is it believable? Is it interesting? Those are the questions that have to be answered several hundred times a day. It’s rare for a bad performance to result from an actor ignoring everything a director tells him. In fact it’s very often just the opposite. After all, the director is the actor’s sole audience for the months it takes to shoot a film, and an actor would have to possess supreme self-confidence and supreme contempt for the director to consistently defy his wishes. I think you’ll find that most disappointing performances are the mutual fault of both the actor and the director.
Some directors don’t let their actors see the daily rushes. Do you?
Yes. I’ve encountered very few actors who are so insecure or self-destructive that they’re upset by the rushes or find their self-confidence undermined. Actually, most actors profit by seeing their rushes and examining them self-critically. In any case, a professional actor who’s bothered by his own rushes just won’t turn up to see them—particularly in my films, since we run the rushes at lunch time and unless an actor is really interested, he won’t cut his lunch to half an hour.
On the first day of shooting on the set, how do you establish that rapport or fear or whatever relationship you want with your actors to keep them in the right frame of mind for the three months you’ll be working with them?
Certainly not through fear. To establish a good working relationship I think all the actor has to know is that you respect his talent enough to want him in your film. He’s obviously aware of that as long as you’ve hired him and he hasn’t been foisted on you by the studio or the producer.
Do you rehearse at all?
There’s really a limit to what you can do with rehearsals. They’re very useful, of course, but I find that you can’t rehearse effectively unless you have the physical reality of the set to work with. Unfortunately, sets are practically never ready until the last moment before you start shooting, and this significantly cuts down on your rehearsal time. Some actors, of course, need rehearsals more than others. Actors are essentially emotion-producing instruments, and some are always tuned and ready while others will reach a fantastic pitch on one take and never equal it again, no matter how hard they try. In Strangelove, for example, George Scott could do his scenes equally well take after take, whereas Peter Sellers was always incredibly good on one take, which was never equaled.
At what point do you know what take you’re going to use?
On some occasions the take is so obviously superior you can tell immediately. But particularly when you’re dealing with dialogue scenes, you have to look them over again and select portions of different takes and make the best use of them. The greatest amount of time in editing is this process of studying the takes and making notes and struggling to decide which segments you want to use; this takes ten times more time and effort than the actual cutting, which is a very quick process. Purely visual action scenes, of course, present far less of a problem; it’s generally the dialogue scenes, where you’ve got several long takes printed on each angle on different actors, that are the most time-consuming to cut.
How much cutting are you responsible for, and how much is done by somebody you trust as an editor?
Nothing is cut without me. I’m in there every second, and for all practical purposes I cut my own film; I mark every frame, select each segment, and have everything done exactly the way I want it. Writing, shooting, and editing are what you have to do to make a film.
Where did you learn film editing? You started out as a still photographer.
Yes, but after I quit Look in 1950—where I had been a staff photographer for five years, ever since I left high school—I took a crack at films and made two documentaries, Day of the Fight, about prize fighter Walter Cartier, and The Flying Padre, a silly thing about a priest in the Southwest who flew to his isolated parishes in a small airplane. I did all the work on those two films, and all the work on my first two feature films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man—you name it, I did it. And it was invaluable experience, because being forced to do everything myself I gained a sound and comprehensive grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking.
How old were you when you decided to make movies?
I was around twenty-one. I’d had my job with Look since I was seventeen, and I’d always been interested in films, but it never actually occurred to me to make a film on my own until I had a talk with a friend from high school, Alex Singer, who wanted to be a director himself (and has subsequently become one) and had plans for a film version of the Iliad. Alex was working as an office boy for “The March of Time” in those days, and he told me they spent forty thousand dollars making a one-reel documentary. A bit of simple calculation indicated that I could make a one-reel documentary for about fifteen hundred. That’s what gave me the financial confidence to make Day of the Fight. I was rather optimistic about expenses; the film cost me thirty-nine hundred. I sold it to RKO-Pathe for four thousand dollars, a hundred-dollar profit. They told me that was the most they’d ever paid for a short. I then discovered that “The March of Time” itself was going out of business. I made one more short for RKO, The Flying Padre, on which I just barely broke even. It was at this point that I formally quit my job at Look to work full time on filmmaking. I then managed to raise ten thousand dollars, and shot my first feature film, Fear and Desire.
What was your own experience making your first feature film?
Fear and Desire was made in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. I was the camera operator and director and just about everything else. Our “crew” consisted of three Mexican laborers who carried all the equipment. The film was shot in 35mm without a soundtrack and then dubbed by a post-synchronized technique. The dubbing was a big mistake on my part; the actual shooting cost of the film was nine thousand dollars but because I didn’t know what I was doing with the soundtrack it cost me another thirty thousand. There were other things I did expensively and foolishly, because I just didn’t have enough experience to know the proper and economical approach. Fear and Desire played the art house circuits and some of the reviews were amazingly good, but it’s not a film I remember with any pride, except for the fact it was finished.
After Fear and Desire failed to pay back the investors, how did you get the money to make your next film, Killer’s Kiss?
Fear and Desire was financed mainly by my friends and relatives, whom I’ve since paid back, needless to say. Different people gave me backing for Killer’s Kiss, which also lost half of its forty-thousand-dollar budget. I’ve subsequently repaid those backers also. After Killer’s Kiss I met Jim Harris, who was interested in getting into films, and we formed a production company together. Our first property was The Killing, based on Lionel White’s story ‘The Clean Break.’ This time we could afford good actors, such as Sterling Hayden, and a professional crew. The budget was larger than the earlier films—$320,000—but still very low for a Hollywood production. Our next film was Paths of Glory, which nobody in Hollywood wanted to do at all, even though we had a very low budget. Finally Kirk Douglas saw the script and liked it. Once he agreed to appear in the film United Artists was willing to make it.
How’d you get that great performance out of Douglas?
A director can’t get anything out of an actor that he doesn’t already have. You can’t start an acting school in the middle of making a film. Kirk is a good actor.
What did you do after Paths of Glory?
I did two scripts that no one wanted. A year went by and my finances were rather rocky. I received no salary for The Killing or Paths of Glory but had worked on 100 per cent deferred salary—and since the films didn’t make any money, I had received nothing from either of them. I subsisted on loans from my partner, Jim Harris. Next I spent six months working on a screenplay for a Western, One-Eyed Jacks, with Marlon Brando and Calder Willingham. Our relationship ended amicably a few weeks before Marlon began directing the film himself. By the time I had left Brando I had spent two years doing nothing. At this point, I was hired to direct Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. It was the only one of my films over which I did not have complete control; although I was the director, mine was only one of many voices to which Kirk listened. I am disappointed in the film. It had everything but a good story.
What do you consider the director’s role?
A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible. Shooting a movie is the worst milieu for creative work ever devised by man. It is a noisy, physical apparatus; it is difficult to concentrate—and you have to do it from eight-thirty to six-thirty, five days a week. It’s not an environment an artist would ever choose to work in. The only advantage is has is that you must do it, and you can’t procrastinate.
How did you learn to actually make the films, since you’d had no experience?
Well, my experience in photography was very helpful. For my two documentaries I’d used a small 35-mm hand camera called an Eyemo, a daylight loading camera which was very simple to operate. The first time I used a Mitchell camera was on Fear and Desire. I went to the Camera Equipment Company, at 1600 Broadway, and the owner, Bert Zucker, spent a Saturday morning showing me how to load and operate it. So that was the extent of my formal training in movie camera technique.
As a beginner, you mean you just walked cold into a rental outfit and had them give you a cram course in using movie equipment?
Bert Zucker, who has subsequently been killed in an airline crash, was a young man, in his early thirties, and he was very sympathetic. Anyway, it was a sensible thing for them to do. I was paying for the equipment. At that time I also learned how to do cutting. Once somebody showed me how to use a Movieola and synchronizer and how to make a splice I had no trouble at all. The technical fundamentals of moviemaking are not difficult.
What kind of movies did you go to in those days?
I used to want to see almost anything. In fact, the bad films were what really encouraged me to start out on my own. I’d keep seeing lousy films and saying to myself, “I don’t know anything about moviemaking but I couldn’t do anything worse than this.”
You had technical skills and audacity, but what made you think you could get a good performance out of an actor?
Well, in the beginning I really didn’t get especially good performances, either in Fear and Desire or Killer’s Kiss. They were both amateurish films. But I did learn a great deal from making them, experience which helped me greatly in my subsequent films. The best way to learn is to do—and this is something few people manage to get the opportunity to try. I was also helped a great deal by studying Stanislavski’s books, as well as an excellent book about him, Stanislavski Directs, which contains a great deal of highly illustrative material on how he worked with actors. Between those books and the painful lessons I learned from my own mistakes I accumulated the basic experience needed to start to do good work.
Did you also read film theory books?
I read Eisenstein’s books at the time, and to this day I still don’t really understand them. The most instructive book on film aesthetics I came across was Pudovkin’s ‘Film Technique,’ which simply explained that editing was the aspect of film art form which was completely unique, and which separated it from all other art forms. The ability to show a simple action like a man cutting wheat from a number of angles in a brief moment, to be able to see it in a special way not possible except through film—that this is what it was all about. This is obvious, of course, but it’s so important it cannot be too strongly stressed. Pudovkin gives many clear examples of how good film editing enhances a scene, and I would recommend his book to anyone seriously interested in film technique.
But you weren’t impressed by Eisenstein’s books. What do you think of his films?
Well, I have a mixed opinion. Eisenstein’s greatest achievement is the beautiful visual composition of his shots, and his editing. But as far as content is concerned, his films are silly, his actors are wooden and operatic. I sometimes suspect that Eisenstein’s acting style derives from his desire to keep the actors framed within his compositions for as long as possible; they move very slowly, as if under water. Interesting to note, a lot of his work was being done concurrently with Stanislavski’s work. Actually, anyone seriously interested in comparative film techniques should study the differences in approach of two directors, Eisenstein and Chaplin. Eisenstein is all form and no content, whereas Chaplin is content and no form. Of course, a director’s style is partly the result of the manner in which he imposes his mind on the semicontrollable conditions that exist on any given day—the responsiveness and talent of actors, the realism of the set, time factors, even weather.
You’ve been quoted as saying that Max Ophuls’ films fascinated you when you were starting out as a director.
Yes, he did some brilliant work. I particularly admired his fluid camera techniques. I saw a great many films at that time at the Museum of Modern Art and in movie theaters, and I learned far more by seeing films than from ready heavy tomes on film aesthetics.
If you were nineteen and starting out again, would you go to film school?
The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered, artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential. The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can as quickly as he can and go out and do it. And this is no longer as difficult as it once was. When I began making movies as an independent in the early 1950s I received a fair amount of publicity because I was something of a freak in an industry dominated by a handful of huge studios. Everyone was amazed that it could be done at all. But anyone can make a movie who has a little knowledge of cameras and tape recorders, a lot of ambition and—hopefully—talent. It’s gotten down to the pencil and paper level. We’re really on the threshold of a revolutionary new era in film. —An Interview with Stanley Kubrick
A series of interviews between Jeremy Bernstein and Stanley Kubrick from November 27, 1966. “So when it came time to do the interviews, Kubrick took control as director and insisted on using one of the devices. My interviews were done before tape recorders were commonplace,” Bernstein later wrote. “I certainly didn’t have one. Kubrick did. He did all his script writing by talking into it. He said that we should use it for the interviews. Later on, when I used a quote from the tape he didn’t like, he said, ‘I know it’s on the tape, but I will deny saying it anyway.’” Kubrick talked with Bernstein on a range of topics related to his early career. In the nearly 77 minutes of audio preserved in the recording below, Kubrick discusses his bad grades in high school and his good luck in landing a job as a photographer for Look magazine, his earliest film work producing newsreels, and all of his feature films up to that point, including Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. He talks about his working relationships with Clarke and Vladimir Nabokov, and his views on space exploration and the threat of nuclear war. —Stanley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Interview with The New Yorker
The Directors Series’ examination into the films and career of director Stanley Kubrick, covering his features in collaboration with actor Kirk Douglas.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Production still photographer: Lars Looschen © Bryna Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in