Capturing Kubrick: A Stanley Kubrick Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary director Stanley Kubrick in the first of a two-part feature…

Stanley KubrickWhen the teenage Stanley Kubrick stepped behind a camera lens he discovered a vast world of opportunity. “I worked for Look Magazine from the age of seventeen to twenty-one,” remarked the legendary filmmaker, of his time as a staff photographer. “It was a miraculous break for me to get this job after graduation from high-school. I owe a lot to the then picture editor, Helen O’Brian, and the managing editor, Jack Guenther. This experience was invaluable to me, not only because I learned a lot about photography, but also because it gave me a quick education in how things happened in the world.” However, the novelty of being a photo-journalist soon worn off so Kubrick quit his job and decided to pursue another career. “I took a crack at films,” stated the New York City native, “and made two documentaries, Day of the Fight (1951), about prize fighter Walter Cartier, and The Flying Padre (1951), 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 (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1954). 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.”

The Killing poster KubrickThere was another area of the movie industry Kubrick was learning about first hand. “Fear and Desire was financed mainly by my friends and relatives,” remarked the director, “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 (1956), 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 (1957), 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.”

Paths of Glory poster KubrickAuthored by Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory loosely recounts the true WWI tale of a group of French soldiers who were publicly executed by their own army for political expediency. In the cinematic adaptation, Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax who defends three condemned men during their court-martial trial; he realizes that his clients are not guilty of cowardice but instead are the victims of a treacherous and incompetent General. Adapting the novel proved to be no small task for Stanley Kubrick. “We employed approximately eight hundred men,” he revealed, “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.”

Banned for its anti-military content by the government of Francisco Franco, Paths of Glory was not seen in Spain until 1986; it lost out at the BAFTAS for Best Film to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and was a modest box office success. Not all was lost for the director who met his third wife, German actress Christiane Harlan, during the filming; she sings at the emotional conclusion of the story. In 1992, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the movie to be sufficiently cultural and historical enough to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

“Next I spent six months working on a screenplay for a Western,” stated the American moviemaker, “One-Eyed Jacks (1961), 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.”

Spartacus poster KubrickReleased in 1960, Spartacus was a troubled Hollywood production which resulted in the epic’s star and co-producer, Douglas, replacing the original director Anthony Mann (The Far Country) with Stanley Kubrick. Based on the book by Howard Fast, the movie which won four Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov, four decades later served as an inspiration for another Oscar winner, Gladiator (2000). Despite the accolades and commercial success, Kubrick did not look back fondly on the project. “In Spartacus,” he explained, “I tried with only limited success to make the film as real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn’t, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this would have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime.”

To obtain complete creative control for his subsequent projects, the New Yorker moved himself and his family across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe to shoot a highly controversial literary classic; the novel written by Vladimir Nabokov details the illicit relationship between a middle-aged man and his teenage stepdaughter, Lolita. The temporary living arrangement eventually became a permanent one for the director. “It was necessary to make Lolita (1962), in England for financial reasons,” responded Kubrick, “and to mitigate censorship problems, and in the case of Dr. Strangelove (1964), Peter Sellers was in the process of getting a divorce and could not leave England for an extended period, so it was necessary to film there. By the time I decided to do 2001 (1968), I had gotten so acclimated to working in England that it would have been pointless to tear up roots and move everything to America.”

Lolita poster KubrickThere were a number of skeptics whom Stanley Kubrick had to face regarding his sixth feature length movie. “People have asked me,” began the moviemaker, “how it is possible to make a film out of Lolita when so much of the quality of the book depends on Nabokov’s prose style. But to take the prose style as anything more than just a part of a great book is simply misunderstanding just what a great book is. Of course, the quality of the writing is one of the elements that make a novel great. But this quality is a result of the quality of the writer’s obsession with his subject, with a theme and a concept and a view of life and an understanding of character. Style is what an artist uses to fascinate the beholder in order to convey to him his feelings and emotions and thoughts. These are what have to be dramatized, not the style. The dramatizing has to find a style of its own, as it will do if it really grasps the content. And in doing this it will bring out another side of that structure which has gone into the novel. It may or may not be as good as the novel; sometimes it may in certain ways be even better.”

A fundamental issue had to be addressed when composing the Oscar nominated script for Lolita. “One of the basic problems with the book,” divulged Stanley Kubrick, “and with the film even in its modified form, is that the main narrative interest boils down to the question ‘Will Humbert get Lolita into bed?’ And you find in the book that, despite the brilliant writing, the second half has a drop in narrative interest after he does. We wanted to avoid this problem in the film, and Nabokov and I agreed that if we had Humbert shoot Quilty without explanation at the beginning, then throughout the film the audience would wonder what Quilty was up to. Of course, you obviously sacrifice a great ending by opening with Quilty’s murder, but I felt it served a worthwhile purpose.”

Dr Strangelove poster KubrickFor his follow-up effort, Stanley Kubrick turned to a Cold War thriller by novelist Peter George called Red Alert. The director, along with co-writer Terry Southern (Easy Rider), went about altering the genre of the story and in the process gave it a new name, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. “I started to work on the screenplay,” stated Kubrick, “with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war. As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself, ‘I can’t do this. People will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful. After all, what could be more absurd than the very idea of two mega-powers willing to wipe out all human life because of an accident, spiced up by political differences that will seem as meaningless to people a hundred years from now as the theological conflicts of the Middle Ages appear to us today? So it occurred to me that I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy or, better, a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible. Most of the humor in Strangelove arises from the depiction of everyday human behavior in a nightmarish situation, like the Russian premier on the hot line who forgets the telephone number of his general staff headquarters and suggests the American President try Omsk information, or the reluctance of a U.S. officer to let a British officer smash open a Coca-Cola machine for change to phone the President about a crisis on the SAC base because of his conditioning about the sanctity of private property.”

The cornerstone of the filmmaker’s satirical masterpiece is the virtuoso acting of Peter Sellers as American President Merkin Muffley, British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi nuclear war expert. Complimenting Sellers’s stellar work in three very different roles is the over-the-top comedic performance of George C. Scott as the cigar-chomping American General Buck Turgidson. The movie was nominated for four major Oscars including Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, and went on to win Best British Film at the BAFTAS. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked Dr. Strangelove 39th on its 100 Years…100 Movies list and the declaration “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room.” is considered to be one of the most famous lines ever spoken in cinema.

When analyzing the difference between the classic 1965 picture and the one subsequently released in 1968, Kubrick responded, “Strangelove was a film where much of its impact hinged on the dialogue, the mode of expression, the euphemisms employed. As a result, it’s a picture that is largely destroyed in translation or dubbing. 2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

2001 poster KubrickAfter adapting five consecutive books for the big screen, the transplanted American moviemaker decided to simultaneously create a script and novel with Arthur C. Clarke. Originally entitled Journey Beyond the Stars, 2001: A Space Odyssey proved to be a revolutionary step forward in visual special effects. In the movie, a team consisting of astronauts and scientists are fatally besieged by a malevolent on-board computer as they travel towards Jupiter where the sole survivor makes alien contact with a mysterious artifact. “From the very outset of work on the film,” explained Kubrick, “we all discussed means of photographically depicting an extraterrestrial creature in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. And it soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable. All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That’s why we settled on the black monolith — which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype and also a pretty fair example of “minimal art.””

The iconic figure in the science fiction tale proved to be the monotone speaking computer system christened HAL 9000. “Some critics seemed to feel,” remarked the director, “that because we were successful in making a voice, a camera lens, and a light come alive as a character, this necessarily meant that the human characters failed dramatically. In fact, I believe that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the astronauts, reacted appropriately and realistically to their circumstances. One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.” When asked what caused the technological instrument to turn against the people it was designed to serve, the director answered, “In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility. The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon — most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it’s inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy, etc. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film.”

As for his religious beliefs, Stanley Kubrick replied, “The God concept is at the heart of this film. It’s unavoidable that it would be, once you believe that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life.”

Upon the release of the picture, the response of mass media proved to less than favourable. “The first reviews of 2001,” recalled Kubrick, “were insulting, let alone bad. An important Los Angeles critic faulted Paths of Glory because the actors didn’t speak with French accents. When Dr. Strangelove came out, a New York paper ran a review under the head MOSCOW COULD NOT BUY MORE HARM TO AMERICA. Something like that. But critical opinion on my films has always been salvaged by what I would call subsequent critical opinion. Which is why I think audiences are more reliable than critics, at least initially. Audiences tend not to bring all that critical baggage with them to each film.”

Even with the mixed reaction, 2001: A Space Odyssey was honoured with the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The AFI ranked the film 15th on the 100 Years…100 Movies list in 2007, and the command “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” has become part of the cinematic lexicon.

Coming back to earth for his ninth feature length effort, Stanley Kubrick decided to turn his focus towards a French military leader who attempted to conquer Europe and Russia in the early nineteenth century – Napoleon Bonaparte.

Read part 2 of this feature.

Short Film Showcase – Day of the Fight (1951)

View an interview with Kubrick in nine parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.