Stanley Kubrick was a maniac. But only in the most flattering maniacal light. He burned more than a few bridges along the way because of his unwavering attention to detail. But without it, some of the 20th centuries greatest films wouldn’t have been made.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Kubrick exhibit at the Tiff Lightbox in Toronto. As a film maker the inspiration was overwhelming. So many of the nuts and bolts of making film classics were revealed. The letters, the arguments, the sacrifice; much of it is on display. It shows in large part that often its not just talent but sheer determination that sees a great film through to completion.
At 13, Kubrick’s father bought him a Graflex camera, starting him off on a life long fascination with photography. Then he began going to cinemas and studying technique. Although considered “bookish” as a boy, Kubrick was not an A student to his father’s consternation.
He made extra money by playing chess for quarters in Manhattan parks and eventually made his first film, a documentary about his other passion, prize fighting. To save film budgets, he did almost everything. He was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man, lighting and whatever else was required that didn’t need an extra set of hands. This gave him a full grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking. Kubrick made a whopping $100 profit on his first film. It was on this film that he started what became a regular part of his technique, the reverse tracking shot. This involved combining the zoom lense movement and the dolly movement of the camera to compensate each other so the object stayed the same size in the shot, but the background created a dizzying movement.
It was later in Paths of Glory that Kubrick’s attention to detail became even more apparent. Note the chart he built that details everyone’s actions and placement on the set.
Paths of Glory was praised by critics for its honest appraisal of World War I combat scenes. And in a time when movies were starting to come out in colour he stuck with a raw, black and white look. The film was banned in France and Germany for years because of unflattering depictions of the French military.
It was on this set that Kubrick and actor Kirk Douglas struck up a working relationship. Kirk recognized the genius of Kubrick and hired him to direct a picture he was producing. That turned into another classic, Spartacus.
Kubrick and Douglas shared mutually determined personalities. Kirk Douglas was not only a talented actor, but an ambitious producer. In 1962 he bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
He took it to Broadview in 1963 for five months with plans to turn it into a movie starring himself.
After ten years of attempts to get it produced he gave the rights to his son Michael. Michael, equally determined, succeeded in bringing it to the big screen with a multi Oscar winning result.
Kirk Douglas recognized brilliance. Douglas was successful as a producer because of his endless energy, but also due in large part to his charm. Here he reached out to Stanley Kubrick in this 1959 letter, pre internet of course, touching base on progress for the film. He signed it “Spartacus”. It was after witnessing Kubrick in action on the set of Paths of Glory, dealing with temperamental actor Adolphe Menjou, that Douglas knew he had the stones to produce something as ambitious as Spartacus.
Although Kubrick was known primarily as a writer, producer, cinematographer and director, he was also an innovator of film technique. In 1975 he received a letter from his brother in law Jan Harlan. Jan had become a producer of many of Kubrick’s films and wanted his talented relative to have every advantage at his finger tips.
In 1980, on the set of The Shining, Kubrick called in Garrett Brown. Brown is the inventor of the steadicam and Kubrick had some suggestions for improvements to the device. He needed a camera to be able to shoot from barely above the floor when young Danny Torrence rode his tricycle up and down the hallways of the Overlook Hotel.
This prompted the innovation of a “low mode” bracket to mount the top of a camera to the bottom of an inverted post, which allowed for a low angle option. It was a huge improvement to what is now a film making essential.
Kubrick knew the key to exceptional storytelling was to take a great story and leave just enough ambiguity that the story lines are somewhat open ended. The personal analysis is half the fun and opens up the film to so many more stories when the watcher can speculate on “what really happened”.
And Kubrick was no stranger to controversy. 1962′s Lolita caused a worldwide buzz because of its racy tone involving a 12 year old girl. 1964′s Dr Strangelove was banned in Portugal due to its political nature. Most of his films had some newsworthy hook to them.
Of course the occasional controversial quote didn’t hurt either. “The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes”.
Prolific to the end his last film, Eyes Wide Shut was completed only six days before his death from a heart attack. Eyes Wide Shut set a record for the longest continuous film shoot period at 400 days.
It was based on the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story. Kubrick had always wanted to do a movie about complex sexual relations but it was only in 1994 that a clear vision appeared when he brought in writer Frederic Raphael. Prior to that Kubrick had even entertained the idea of making the story into a comedy sex farse starring Steve Martin.
Eyes Wide Shut was very controversial and required several digital edits of sexual content before Warner Brothers could hold on to just an R rating and distribute. No doubt, from the great beyond Kubrick heaved a sigh of relief when the hatchet job on his film was replaced with the original version on subsequent DVD releases.
Stanley Kubrick has been called the great, quintessential film director of the 20th century. Due in no small part to his attention to detail. Some might call it “control issues”. But you can probably count on one hand, or even one finger how many truly great films were created by committee.