Stanley Kubrick: A DEBRIEFING

This article is an excerpt from “The Final Features”, Part 5 of our video series on Stanley Kubricka

In November of 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted the first ever exhibition of director Stanley Kubrick’s career. I went with a good friend of mine—a fellow aspiring director—to marvel at the artifacts of Kubrick’s work up close. We got to see models of the iconic war room set of 1964’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. The slightly decayed monkey outfits used in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The giant NASA-designed lens used to capture a scene by candlelight in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON. We even saw the famed file cabinet that held a card for everyday of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life that Kubrick assembled in his research for the failed project on the French emperor. However, the most powerful item for me to have seen with my own eyes was located right at the entrance to the exhibit: Kubrick’s directing chair—a weathered, battered canvas seat flanked on either side by a wooden box stamped with the word: “KUBRICK.” The director’s chair is perhaps the most iconic and clichéd image that comes to mind when one thinks of the profession, but I was captivated by this chair in particular and all the groundbreaking decisions that had been made on it.

Every living filmmaker today works under the shadow of Stanley Kubrick. When one first expresses an interest in pursuing a career in the art form, they are almost always pointed towards the work of Kubrick. He is the reference-grade gold standard in filmmaking, and even though many find his films unlikable, they admire and respect the total command of craft on display in every single one. No other director, living or dead, can claim as many true masterpieces in their filmography. Okay, maybe Hitchcock. Even in my own early explorations of Kubrick’s work in college, I didn’t necessarily love them butdamn, did I admire them. I’ve grown to appreciate every single one, and every time I watch a Kubrick film, I discover something I never picked up on before. Kubrick’s legacy endures because no two viewings of a given film are ever the same. They’re always withholding a new secret, beckoning you deeper down the rabbit hole.

Kubrick’s roller coaster ride of a career lasted forty-five years and spanned two continents, leaving fourteen features and countless innovations in its wake. Even as a young boy growing up in New York City, Kubrick’s intimidating intellect was immediately apparent— despite the fact that he performed poorly in school. His love for photography and chess would fundamentally shape his worldview as he grew into a young man. Indeed, he approached his life’s work like one big game of chess—every move must be thoroughly considered and planned for if one had any desire to beat his opponent. The stark naturalism of his early black and white works—KILLER’S KISS (1955), THE KILLING (1956), and PATHS OF GLORY (1957) reflected his time as a documentary photographer for Look Magazine, where he honed his talents for evocative lighting and cinematic, depth-filled compositions. His fluid, graceful camerawork suggested the influence of director Max Ophuls, whom the young Kubrick admired for his tracking shots and eye for movement.

His love for film was all-consuming, and by the mid 50’s he had already burned through two marriages. His marriage to Christiane Harlan, who he met on the set of PATHS OF GLORY, would be the love that stuck and transformed him into a devoted family man. As the Kubrick family grew, they relocated from New York to Los Angeles for a brief time in the late 1950’s. Being located in the heart of Hollywood gave Kubrick his biggest career opportunity when Kirk Douglas recruited him to helm 1960’s SPARTACUS. It was a crucial development in Kubrick’s life, but not for the obvious reasons—the unfavorable experience only served to push him away from Hollywood, solidifying his desire to work outside of the studio system as a means to exert total artistic control. He found this autonomy in England, where he shot LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE, eventually deciding that it would also be a good place to permanently relocate his family to. Kubrick’s move to England was also a catalyst for a change in his filmmaking style—he became inspired by the innovations and transgressions of the New Wave coming out of Europe and incorporated them into his own work. As a result, his films increasingly took on a distinct sense of surrealism.

Kubrick’s considerable talent is immediately apparent to everyone who watches one of his films, and his power over the Hollywood studio system never has and never will be repeated. He had full artistic independence with his projects, in addition to the full backing of studios. It’s almost impossible to comprehend this scenario in today’s filmmaking environment. This total autonomy turned Kubrick The Man into Kubrick The Myth, with legends of his demanding eccentricities spreading like wildfire in the media. They said he was a control freak. A secretive recluse. A mad scientist. They said he went to insane lengths in researching his projects and drove actors to the brinks of insanity themselves with the countless number of takes he would demand from them. In truth, these reports were gross embellishments, designed solely to sell newspapers. The reality was that Kubrick was an intensely private person who prized his anonymity and cared deeply about his work because he knew would have to answer for it for the rest of his life. His voluntary withdrawal of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from UK cinemas in the wake of a wave of copycat crimes inspired by the film wasn’t just a display of his astonishing directorial power, but a prime example of his sense of social responsibility and foresight. His life and his work was one big game of chess, and he was playing the long game. He was playing for keeps.

In making his films, Kubrick ultimately wanted to change the form of cinema itself. His exploration of alternative story structures and new forms of expression resulted in several groundbreaking contributions to the development of the craft itself. He pioneered realistic visual effects with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, generating what director Steven Spielberg called “his generation’s Big Bang”, and inspiring a legion of upcoming filmmakers to push those boundaries even further. Kubrick’s supreme command of his craft and knowledge of trick photography would result in the only Oscar he would ever win—for 2001’s groundbreaking visual effects. The gold statue for Directing or Picture would evade him for his entire life.

Other groundbreaking innovations that Kubrick popularized are well known: the specialized low light lenses on BARRY LYNDON, or the graceful gliding of the Steadicam on THE SHINING, to name just a few. Some of his innovations are less well-known—his endorsement of video assist, a technology that allowed filmmakers to view a take immediately after filming it, directly contributed to its quick adoption throughout the industry. He also popularized the idea of shooting dozens of takes as a way for actors to let go of their preconceptions about “technique” and reach a deeper, fundamentally authentic style of performance—a practice that Kubrick acolyte David Fincher would claim as his own calling card. It’s important to remember, however, that accumulating mountains of footage wasn’t just a means to wear his actors down to raw nubs. Kubrick often found the final form of his films in the editing room, sifting through the dozens of takes and various angles he had explored on set and stitching it together into a unified whole. In that sense, he was a perfectionist in the best way— making sure that he left no stone unturned in realizing the full potential of any given project. Indeed, when he accepted the most prestigious directing award of his life from the DGA shortly before his death, he invoked the myth of Icarus in a videotaped speech that alluded to his perfectionism—Icarus may have failed in trying to touch the sun, but that only means that we must build better wings.

Kubrick is unique among other directors in that he had very few constant collaborators. Whereas some directors continue to work with one particular actor again and again (see Martin Scorsese and his string of films with Robert DeNiro—or Leonardo DiCaprio for that matter), the only leading man that Kubrick used more than once Kirk Douglas, and even then it was only because Kubrick had no say in the casting of their second collaboration together. Kubrick’s regular confidantes stayed firmly behind the camera, with producing partners James B Harris and Jan Harlan being the most significant in terms of their contribution to Kubrick’s films, as well as cinematographer John Alcott who shot three consecutive films (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON, and THE SHINING) for the maverick auteur. Other craftsmen (and women) like production designers Ken Adam and Roy Walker or composer Wendy Carlos can only count two collaborations with Kubrick. Out of all the people who wandered on and off Kubrick’s sets over the decades, only one person could claim a lifelong collaboration with him—his wife, the love of his life, and the woman who inspired him on a daily basis: Christiane Kubrick.

In a video interview, Kubrick’s late-career executive producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan states that Kubrick’s work is fundamentally about the conflict between emotion and intellect. His protagonists are often painted as men railing against the confines and impersonality of civilization’s institutions. Kirk Douglas raged against the uncompromising imperialism of both France and ancient Rome in PATHS OF GLORY and SPARTACUS (1960), respectively. DR. STRANGELOVE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are both about mankind fighting to preserve itself from the cold objectivity of our own technological innovations. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s Malcolm McDowell manages to free himself from the institution of prison only to land firmly within the prison of his own mind and body. FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT each deal with the institutions of military and marriage, respectively—specifically the internal destruction that can be wrought upon the individual when the idea of moral ambiguity is introduced.

For Kubrick, storytelling was ultimately about the cycle of creation and destruction. He knew that people always have a visceral response to violence and sex, and he filtered his narratives through these two prisms as a way to challenge our own preconceptions and hang-ups. This is a brilliant tactic because while the content may turn us off, it actively engages us and forces us to confront the darkest, most base impulses of our humanity.

Another defining trait that can be seen in all of Kubrick’s works is his presentation of his films as puzzles. Kubrick’s background in photography was immensely helpful in this regard in that it trained him to get across his message in a single, static shot. Towards this end, he had to use every available tool to tell the story: lighting, composition, depth of field, etc. His mise-en-scene is comprised of coded messages left open to interpretation, and it is Kubrick’s refusal to elaborate on the meaning of his films that bestows the air of mystery on his work. Kubrick’s films mean different things to different people and it’s because they see what they want to see. People watch THE SHINING and see an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans, or they watch EYES WIDE SHUT and see nothing but references to masonry and the Illuminati. This alluring ambiguity is the key to his work’s longevity and ensures that his films will be studied and dissected for decades, if not centuries, to come.

This idea of the puzzle, or the maze is crucial to our understanding of the dark, seductive power that Kubrick’s work holds over us. Kubrick was profoundly influenced by the Greek myth of The Minotaur and the Labyrinth, which saw brave men descend into a maze-like underworld to face the demon that was torturing their community. He was so inspired by the myth that the imagery of tunnels or mazes makes it way into nearly every film. THE SHINING, with its labyrinthine tangle of halls and grand open spaces (as well as its literal hedge maze) is the most visible example, but the idea pops up in places one wouldn’t expect. In EYES WIDE SHUT, the grid-like streets of New York City become an underworld that Tom Cruise must navigate. The confined spaces of the spaceship in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY render the crew unable to hide from an omniscient intelligence. The supernatural mystique that exudes from Kubrick’s work suggests the lurking Minotaur—a force that threatens to destroy Kubrick’s protagonists either physically or mentally.

In the nearly five-decade span of Kubrick’s career, he only completed fourteen features. That may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to directors like Woody Allen, whom Kubrick admired for churning out a new film without fail every single year. Kubrick’s perfectionism meant that he had to spend long amounts of time on any given project, and he always regretted his slow pace. Like most other filmmakers, Kubrick abandoned a few projects over the course of his career, but unlike those other filmmakers, his unrealized works are regarded as great gifts that we’ll never receive. Funnily enough, these films all involve his close friend and fellow director Steven Spielberg in some fashion. Kubrick’s lifelong ambition to make a film on Napoleon Bonaparte is well known, so much so that it widely called “The Greatest Film Never Made”. In a way, it would have been the most autobiographical film that Kubrick ever made—both Kubrick and Napoleon were master strategists that were well aware of their brilliance. He no doubt would’ve drawn many parallels between the art of war and the art of filmmaking, seeing as both men approached their respective work with a totalitarian mentality. Kubrick’s shooting script for NAPOLEONis now reportedly being developed by Spielberg as a television miniseries, so we may end up seeing The Greatest Film Never Made after all. Kubrick’s other big failed project was a planned film about the Holocaust called THE ARYAN PAPERS, based off Louis Begley’s book “Wartime Lies”. In a nod to his companionship with director Steven Spielberg, it would have starredJURASSIC PARK’s Joseph Mazzello as a young boy hiding from the Nazi regime as they persecuted Europe’s Jews. Ironically, Kubrick abandoned the film after Spielberg released SCHINDLER’S LIST—perhaps the definitive narrative film about the Holocaust—in 1993. SCHINDLER’S LIST was a tough act to follow, and Kubrick wasn’t keen on reliving the disappointment he experienced when FULL METAL JACKET was eclipsed by Oliver Stone’s PLATOON that same year, so he abruptly stopped development on the ARYAN PAPERS and turned his attention to EYES WIDE SHUT. And finally, there’sA.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—- a long-gestating project that Kubrick sought to make himself but ultimately decided to pass on to Spielberg to direct. After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg was compelled to honor his old friend and made the film as closely as he could to Kubrick’s original vision.

Kubrick continues to be a highly influential filmmaker because his work continues to be extremely relevant, even today. His career holds countless lessons for both aspiring filmmakers and established ones. In watching Kubrick’s body of work in chronological order and charting the ebbs and flows of his career, I came away with several distinct observations that I intend to apply to my own work. Kubrick was well-known for working out of his home, which served to bring him closer to his material and make it more personal for him. As an art form and a mode of self-expression, filmmaking should be an intensely personal endeavor. Kubrick always trusted his instincts, even when they veered off the beaten path and out into the deep end. As a filmmaker, the courage of conviction is a necessity. A director must have the presence of mind to follow his or her vision, but not at the cost of rigidly adhering to it. Contrary to his authoritarian reputation, Kubrick would solicit advice from anyone who cared to give it, whether they were the lead actress or the set janitor. He demanded many takes and took an inordinate amount of time during the shooting process because he wanted to explore every possible angle in a given scene. No stone must be left unturned lest it hides brilliance underneath. If we are to take away any lessons from Kubrick’s illustrious, controversial career, let it be this: a script isn’t a rigid document—it’s a blueprint for collaboration with performers and craftsmen, each one bringing their experience and technique to the project and enriching it to a degree that a director cannot achieve on his own, even if he is a genius.

As arguably the single most influential filmmaker of all time, Kubrick leaves behind a substantial number of heirs and acolytes, and he will continue to do so as long as cinema remains as viable art form. While Steven Spielberg was greatly influenced by Kubrick and even became a close friend later in life, it could be argued that Spielberg’s own distinct aesthetic disqualifies him as a true “heir” to Kubrick’s cinematic legacy. Rather, he is more of an immediate beneficiary. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have modeled core conceits of their careers and aesthetics on Kubrick’s example, but I, for one, would argue David Fincher as Kubrick’s most-direct successor. Yes, both men are infamous for their meticulous attention to detail and countless number of takes, but it’s really their shared thematic explorations of the fragile human psyche as well as their almost-clinical observations of mankind’s inherent darkness that bonds both artists to each other. Fincher’s career simply wouldn’t be possible if not for the paths that Kubrick so bravely paved a generation earlier.

Like a large storm cloud, Kubrick’s shadow looms large over the cinematic landscape—he was a force of nature that permanently altered the art form, and while we may never get the gift of a new Kubrick film ever again, his legacy will continue to endure as long as there are uncompromising artists who are unafraid to gaze directly into the dark side of human nature.