First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.
Regardless of whether he was making heist thrillers, anti-war dramas or historical epics, director Stanley Kubrick was always a force to be reckoned with. However, it was his move towards science fiction and horror in the sixties and seventies which brought out his true genius as director and saw the creation of four of his greatest films. But what was the price of Kubrick’s lifelong battle for perfection? Over the years, the director’s obsession with power and control brought him close to the brink of madness…
WORDS: Chris Hallam
It’s easy to see why some people might think director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an obsessive, controlling character. It’s there in his work. As the journalist Lewis Jones has noted; “All his films have an intensely painstaking air, an overpowering feel of perfectionism. They are all hugely ambitious… and all his films are driven by some kind of fear – fear of war (Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), of crime (A Clockwork Orange), of computers (2001), of creative failure and madness (The Shining), or sex (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut)”.
The image of Kubrick as an obsessive telephone-fixated recluse may be an unfair stereotype. It is, after all, perfectly possible to feature certain recurrent themes in your work without necessarily exhibiting them within your own personality. There is also something of a lazy media tendency to label any celebrity who doesn’t do regular interviews “a recluse”.
Between 1963 and 1980, effectively the middle period of his career, Kubrick, already an established director, thanks to the likes of The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita, embarked, intentionally or not, on an exciting new journey. With the notable exception of his period piece 1975’s Barry Lyndon, Kubrick departed from real world scenarios as the subject matter for his films. Dr. Strangelove occurs against the backdrop of imminent nuclear war. 2001 and A Clockwork Orange both depict very different versions of the near future, while The Shining is set in a world in which ghosts and the supernatural exist.
It was undeniably the most creative period of his entire career. But it was also the period during which Kubrick’s own behaviour reportedly grew most eccentric. As Kubrick’s subject matter increasingly moved further and further away from real world scenarios, did his own grip on reality start to loosen too?
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. To give just one example, on learning that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles on the island just 80 miles off Florida, the initial reaction of President Kennedy’s team was that the US should invade Cuba. The president’s brother Bobby talked them out of it fearing the US would come across looking like a bully. Thirty years later, it was revealed: officials on Cuba were under orders to launch a nuclear strike on the US if they had attempted to invade. That’s how close the world came to nuclear holocaust.
Clearly, then, an obvious topic for a film comedy.
Nor was Stanley Kubrick, the obvious choice to direct a comedy. Although well-established in the movie business by his thirties, Kubrick who had directed Spartacus (1960) and the controversial Lolita (among other things) was not associated with comedy at all. Indeed, despite directing Dr. Strangelove, rated in 2000 by the AFI as the third best US comedy film of all time, he still isn’t. Ask anyone to describe Kubrick in ten words: more likely than not, the words “funny” and “hilarious” will remain unused.
The film did not start out as a comedy. Kubrick was fond of adapting novels as the basis for his films, in fact, every single Kubrick film after 1955’s Killer’s Kiss was based on a book (in the case of 2001, the short story The Sentinel was expanded by its author Arthur C. Clarke during production). Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, to give it its full title, was based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert released as Two Hours To Doom in the UK. The novel was quite different from the eventual film in that it was deadly serious, did not feature the character Dr. Strangelove at all and had a completely different ending. Nevertheless, the essential point that a US general goes mad and attempts to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR, is the same as the film (neither were directly based on the Cuban missile crisis). Kubrick increasingly came to recognise the dark humour in the Cold War arms race and with the help of co-writer Terry Southern, turned it into a comedy.
He was, of course, immeasurably helped by the comedy genius of his friend, the actor Peter Sellers. Kubrick indulged Sellers somewhat and would often be rendered hysterical by Sellers’ ad-libbing on set. Sellers’ role in Lolita had been massively expanded from a very small one indeed in Nabakov’s book and had ultimately unbalanced the film. In Dr. Strangelove, Columbia Pictures insisted Sellers be cast in multiple roles as he had in Jack Arnold’s 1955 film The Mouse That Roared. This time, Sellers was given four roles including that of the missile-riding Major Kong. In the end, Sellers struggled to master the Texan accent and feigned a sprained ankle to get out of the Major Kong role. But he still did an impressive job on the other three assigned to him: the wheelchair bound ex-Nazi of the title, US president Merkin Muffley and perhaps most successfully, plucky British Group Captain Mandrake.
Madness is never far away in Kubrick’s films. In Strangelove, the whole real life scenario is as mad as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) itself, General Jack D. Ripper’s insane fear of bodily fluids is frighteningly convincing, while general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the Doctor himself are clearly little more balanced.
Kubrick originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight (perhaps rather like the end of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone) and even got to the stage of filming it it but the sequence was never used. Peter Sellers’ own life was certainly plagued by personal instability and Peter George who had written the book and helped with the screenplay committed suicide in 1966. Was Kubrick suffering with private demons of his own?
In his biography, John Baxter argues Dr. Strangelove arose from Kubrick’s fear of nuclear war:
“His fears were legitimate, but they also smacked of the paranoia that would increasingly characterise his life and work…because he so distrusted his own mental mechanism, he came to distrust machines also. His films, always preoccupied with systems that fail and plans that don’t succeed, increasingly dealt with the same problems but on a global or cosmic scale…”
He could also be a hard taskmaster putting his set designer Ken Adam through hell creating the sets for the film. But Kubrick got results. The War Room, in the film, in particular, looks amazing,
“Moscow gold could not have produced better propaganda,” wrote one conservative US newspaper about the film. But it was a hit and like many Kubrick films, it would prove initially controversial before eventually achieving classic status.
Kubrick’s eternal struggle for perfectionism had begun.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The success of Dr. Strangelove gave Kubrick the power to do pretty much anything he wanted. He thus decided to settle permanently in the UK, grow a beard, team up with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and make the most ambitious film ever made.
Nearly fifty years after it first appeared, 2001 has lost none of its power to both awe and baffle audiences. Even the fact, the year 2001 has long since passed hasn’t really changed this, though it must be said, for a man who predicted that the first moon landings would occur in the year 1970 as far back as 1945 (he was only one year out as they happened in 1969), Clarke managed to be some way out in his prediction of how far advanced space technology would be just 33 years hence. It is doubtful that even by 2101, we’ll be as flying to Jupiter as the film suggests. We certainly weren’t by 2001 as Clarke, though not Kubrick sadly, would live to see.
The film rather defies conventional story synopsis, but broadly speaking some apes in prehistoric times are excited by the arrival of a large black monolith. The monolith seems to have a civilising effect on them and soon they are able to demonstrate impressive examples of cinematic match cut technique. Much much later, in the year 2001, in fact, a ship is sent to investigate another such monolith which has appeared on Jupiter. The mission goes wrong when the ship’s computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) malfunctions and kills most of the crew before being gradually shut down by sole survivor Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). This surprisingly touching sequence is probably the best loved of the film. Counterculture hippies of the time, however, preferred the psychedelic lightshow precipitated by Bowman flying into the monolith. And then a giant space baby appears, something which er… obviously needs no explanation.
Not everyone liked the film at the time. Roger Ebert later wrote that: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made… But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’ There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace…” A producer’s wife threw up during a screening although that might not have been because of the film. Influential critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “monumentally unimaginative” but unlike many things from the 1960s, the film has aged well and is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Though not “full of stars” (Leonard Rossiter is about the most famous person in it), it was a big hit at the time too, ultimately inspiring an okay sequel (2010 directed by Peter Hymans in 1984), Solaris, essentially a Soviet version (remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) and influencing everything from Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) to TV’s Red Dwarf.
The film was the making of special effects guru Douglas Trumbull but he didn’t enjoy working with Kubrick at all. In the generally sympathetic documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001), made by Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Trumbull says:
“After working with Stanley on 2001, I swore I’d never work for anybody again. Stanley was a hell of a taskmaster. He was difficult. He was demanding. His level of quality control was astronomically close to perfectionism…his mind was so insatiable. I saw that he lived his work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he had a hard time keeping up with his own intellect.”
Demanding… perfectionist ..insatiable Turnbull would not be the last person to use these words about Stanley Kubrick.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick’s next film was also a science fiction film set in the near future. But it could hardly have been more different from 2001.
Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of four young thugs in a violent Britain of the late 20th century. Aside from Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) who loves the music of Beethoven, the gang seem to have no interests other than drinking milk and inflicting acts of violence and rape upon the surrounding populace.
Like the book, much of the film’s dialogue is in Nadsat, a futuristic slang, derived from Russian and Yiddish, devised by Burgess. Although different in certain key respects, the film actually follows the book very closely with large sections of the text reproduced almost verbatim. Despite this, Burgess was annoyed that the substantial attention and controversy the film attracted, transformed a book which he had considered a very minor work into easily the most famous thing he had ever written.
Malcolm McDowell, the young star of Clockwork Orange had a famously complex relationship with Kubrick. On the one hand, McDowell loved playing a part he felt (perhaps rightly) he had been born to play and developed a strong friendship with Kubrick during filming. On the other hand, it was a tough shoot. McDowell suffered cracked ribs during filming and at one point was temporarily blinded when his cornea was scratched accidentally.
At one point, McDowell found the director alone in his office listening to something on his headphones. Some Beethoven perhaps? McDowell wondered, wrongly.
“Another near miss at Heathrow,” Kubrick reported. The director had a tremendous fear of flying,
Kubrick, was in turn, greatly amused when McDowell spontaneously began singing “Singin in the Rain” during one violent scene and immediately bought the rights so Gene Kelly’s most famous song could be used in the film. Kelly had previously been on friendly terms with Kubrick. He blanked him the next time he saw the director and never spoke to him again.
McDowell, then in his late twenties was himself deeply hurt by the brutality with which Kubrick severed all ties with McDowell once production was over. Some of McDowell’s interviews in the years afterwards reflect some bitterness when discussing the director, even bizarrely claiming Kubrick was very badly organised in one.
What happened next couldn’t have helped. After a year of showings, Kubrick withdrew the film from release in the UK. It would not be shown again in the UK (legally) until the year 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death.
McDowell is now in his seventies and has had a good and varied career from playing the lead in Lindsay Anderson’s public school based If..(1968) to recent performances in Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle. It would be understandable, though, if he was a little aggrieved that his most iconic performance was withdrawn from public view in his homeland until he was well into his fifties.
The suppression of the film did not happen because of its lead actor though. For many years, the official line was that Kubrick had intervened due to a number of copycat attacks allegedly linked to the film. Controversy continues to reign as to whether these widely publicised attacks really had been inspired by the film anyway. But in in fact, Kubrick had made the decision on police advice after a series of death threats made towards him and his family.
Kubrick’s next effort Barry Lyndon (1975) is the odd film out here, an 18th century set period drama which flopped on release but has since received considerable critical acclaim. But it was Kubrick’s next film which would see move back away from reality and towards the horror genre and which would bring out the greatest excesses in his character.
The Shining (1980)
Author Stephen King has never liked the film of The Shining much.
Speaking earlier this year, King said:
“The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know then he’s crazy as a shithouse rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.
“I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it … I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,” said King.
King has a point. Nicholson’s Torrance seems crazed even before he begins his job interview for the position at the Overlook Hotel. Whether King did keep his “mouth shut” at the time is more questionable, author Roger Luckhurst says King “conducted a press campaign” against the film at the time of its release.
What’s not in doubt is that The Shining was a tough shoot. “cast and crew… quickly tired of the relentless regime,” writes John Baxter. “Scatman Crothers (who played caretaker, Dick Halloran) had no experience of working methods like Kubrick’s and found the multiple takes gruelling…Kubrick demanded eighty five takes in the middle of which Crothers broke down and cried in frustration. “What do you want Me. Kubrick?’ he screamed.” What do you want?!”… Nobody was sure if the exhausting system bore fruit or if it didn’t simply prop up the mystique of a director who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends.”
Thanks to the Making of the Shining documentary made by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian we get an unstinting portrait of life on set. The footage is all the more remarkable bearing in mind Stanley insisted on approving it first (not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances). Kubrick insisted some scenes unflattering to him and some shots of some members of the cast doing cocaine be excised. But the sequences in which Jack Nicholson intervenes to prevent Kubrick badgering the ageing Crothers are still there as are Kubrick’s relentless haranguing of female lead, Shelley Duvall, at one point accusing her of “ruining the whole movie”. Duvall, had an especially tough time and is in the Guinness Book of Records for enduring 127 takes before one scene was completed.
There were also reportedly incidents off camera, director SK (Kubrick) not endearing him to the author SK (King) by reportedly calling him at all hours to ask him random questions.
“I think stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic don’t you?” Kubrick reportedly asked King at one morning at seven. “If there are ghosts, then that means we survive death!”
“How the hell does that fit in with the picture?” King asked, perhaps not unreasonably.
“I don’t believe in hell,” the director answered.
Kubrick again, got results. The set for the Overlook Hotel hotel was then the largest ever built at Elstree up to that point and looks spectacular.
“Who wants to see evil in daylight through a wide-angled lens?” complained critic Pauline Kael, spectacularly wrong once again. “We are not frightened.”
But, of course, we were and are. The Shining is now held in higher regard than almost any other horror film. Like Coppola after Apocalypse Now, Kubrick was not quite the same afterwards.
Kubrick made fewer and fewer films over time. Four Kubrick films were released in the sixties, two in the seventies, two in the eighties (seven years apart) and Eyes Wide Shut completed at the end of the 1990s and at the end of Kubrick’s life. Kubrick regretted the fact he was not more prolific. Full Metal Jacket had a brilliant first forty-five minutes but neither it nor Eyes Wide Shut are amongst his best films, Unrealised projects included AI (2001) a sci-fi film later made by Spielberg, though a disappointment and a biopic of Napoleon. It has been argued Kubrick saw himself as a Napoleon-like figure, obsessed with power and terrified of defeat.
Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick has gone to some lengths to argue that her late husband’s controlling reputation is undeserved. In an interview with journalist Lewis Jones she said:
“Yes, Stanley was a perfectionist, but not in the nerdy way that is sometimes reported. And the actors were on his side, because he wanted them to feel that there was all the time in the world.”
There is certainly some truth in this last claim. Actors such as Jack Nicholson and Malcolm McDowell who initially struggled with Kubrick, often ended up amongst his keenest champions.
Kubrick’s portrayal as a paranoid loner also does not generally fit in with the contented family man he so often seems to have been. His unparalleled decision to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from UK distribution, does seem to have occurred not as a result of megalomania but from genuine concern for the wellbeing of himself and his family.
And yet, there is evidence here too, home video footage of Kubrick bullying his children from behind the camera as if he is on a film set. Then there is the 17-page list of instructions for looking after his cats while he went on holiday. well-meant but undeniably obsessive.
Mental illness is, of course, not an issue to be treated flippantly. Just because Stanley Kubrick made films about people as unbalanced as Dr. Strangelove or as violent as Alex DeLarge or Jack Torrance, it does not follow that Kubrick was in any way like that at all. Indeed, he definitely wasn’t.
But did he have a tendency to be paranoid, bullying, obsessive and controlling? The evidence is too strong to suggest otherwise. And as this was undoubtedly essential to his method. We would not have his brilliant array of films otherwise.
Section: What exactly is science fiction anyway?
There has been plenty of discussion about exactly what science fiction is over the years. Thankfully, discussing her own book Onyx and Crake in The Guardian in 2003, Margaret Atwood sorted the matter out forever. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she told the paper. “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.”
Is that all clear? No? Well, it shouldn’t be because it isn’t true. Sci-fi may contain intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians but these certainly are not essential ingredients for anything to qualify. The Terminator, The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park contain no one of these things. Yet all are clearly science fiction.
Intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians incidentally are all things which COULD exist in the future. Test tube babies didn’t exist when Huxley wrote about them in Brave New World. Cloning also didn’t exist once outside the realm of science fiction. And spaceships exist already.
In fairness, there are different definitions around. For the purposes of this feature, science fiction will be defined as any piece of fiction where the major problem has a clear scientific explanation. Clear? So The Thing is science fiction and horror as it has aliens in Apollo 13, meanwhile, is based on real events so is not.
This is tricky in the case in the case of Dr. Strangelove but thankfully film journo, Angie Errigo has already written about this:
“Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy,” he wrote. “It’s a savage, surreal political satire. It’s a cautionary Cold War tale. It’s a suspense farce. And it is also science fiction. Sci-fi is not confined to stories of space exploration, the future, or extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction is speculative fiction about human beings exploring themselves and their possibilities. Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove.”
I would add that 2001 is clearly sci-fi as it clearly based around a high technology future. Stephen Spielberg appears to deny even this in the film Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001) but let’s ignore that for now. A Clockwork Orange is also set in the future and is also science fiction as are both Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Onyx and Crake whether Atwood wants them to be or not.
Which just leaves The Shining. Which has no scientific basis whatsoever. But it is definitely horror and Geeky Monkey magazine covers that. Happy now?