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Kubrick's "Notes on Film"

From The Observer Weekend Review, Sunday, December 4, 1960, p. 21

"With his anti-militarist "Paths of Glory", Stanley Kubrick established himself as one of the most alert and trenchant young directors in Hollywood. Since then he has made "Spartacus", the star-filled epic which opens in London this week, and he is now in England to direct the film version of Lolita.

Still only thirty-two, Kubrick is one of the great white hopes of the commercial film industry as well as of cineastes. Box-office and the star-system are conditions that Kubrick feels a good director should be able to dominate: for him the fact that the cinema is an industry is part of its essence as an art. His previous films were "Fear and Desire", a dark, moody study of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, "Killers Kiss", and "The Killing", a microscopic record of a gang-robbery that had the intensity of Rififi and a style that moved critics to speak of Welles and Max Ophuls. In 1957 "Paths of Glory" made Kubricks name.

These thoughts, jotted down for The Observer in odd moments, are a Directors Notes on his Trade."

I don't think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I dont think that any genuine artist has ever been orientated by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.

The making of any film, whatever the historical setting or the size of the sets, has to be approached in much the same way. You have to figure out what is going on in each scene and whats the most interesting way to play it. With Spartacus, whether a scene had hundreds of people in the background or whether it was against a wall, I thought of everything first as if there was nothing back there. Once it was rehearsed, we worked out the background.

I must confess that I never thought very much about the proportions of the wide screen after the first day or two. I think that much too much emphasis is put on it. It is really just another shape to compose to: for some scenes it's a better shape than others; for some scenes it just doesn't make too much difference. Instead of having the people stand two feet apart, sometimes you have them standing four feet apart; or you throw up a prop in the corner or something. As to the big screen, a big screen is a small screen from the back of the house and a normal screen is a big screen from the front rows.

I haven't come across any recent new ideas in films that strike me as being particularly important and that have to do with form. I think that a preoccupation with originality of form is more or less a fruitless thing. A truly original person with a truly original mind will not be able to function in the old form and will simply do something different. Others had much better think of the form as being some sort of classical tradition and try to work within it.

I think that the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, the start that gets under the audiences skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don't have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.

When you make a movie, it takes a few days just to get used to the crew, because it is like getting undressed in front of fifty people. Once you're accustomed to them, the presence of even one other person on the set is discordant and tends to produce self-consciousness in the actors, and certainly in myself.

You feel you should run up to the person who is watching and say: Now look -- this scene comes in here after this scene and we have just this other take: the reason she is yelling so much is because... and so on.

Maybe the reason why people seem to find it harder to take unhappy endings in movies than in plays or novels is that a good movie engages you so heavily that you find an unhappy ending almost unbearable. But it depends on the story, because there are ways for the director to trick the audience into expecting a happy ending and there are ways of very subtly letting the audience be aware of the fact that the character is hopelessly doomed and there is not going to be a happy ending.

In a criminal film, it is almost like a bullfight: it has a ritual and a pattern which lays down that the criminal is not going to make it, so that while you can suspend your knowledge of this for a while, sitting way back of your mind this little awareness knows and prepares you for the fact that he is not going to succeed. That type of ending is easier to accept.

One thing that has always disturbed me a little is that the ending often introduces a false note. This applies particularly if it is a story that doesn't pound away on a single point, such as whether the time-bomb will explode in the suitcase. When you deal with characters and a sense of life, most endings that appear to be endings are false, and possibly that is what disturbs the audience: they may sense the gratuitousness of the unhappy ending.

On the other hand, if you end a story with somebody achieving his aim it always seems to me to have a kind of incompleteness about it, because that almost seems to be the beginning of another story. One of the things I like most about John Ford is the anticlimax endings - anticlimax upon anticlimax and you just get a feeling that you are seeing life and you accept the thing.

It is sometimes supposed that the way to make pictures entirely as one wants to, without having to think about the box-office, is to dispense with stars in order to make them on a low budget. In fact, the cost of a picture usually has little to do with how much the actors get paid. It has to do with the number of days you take to shoot it, and you cant make a film as well as it can be made without having a sufficient length of time to make it.

There are certain stories in which you can somehow hit everything on the nose quickly and get the film shot in three weeks. But it is not the way to approach something of which you want to realise the full potential. So there often is nothing gained by doing without stars and aiming the film at the art houses. Only by using stars and getting the film on the circuits can you buy the time needed to do it justice.

I've often heard it asked whether it doesn't affect the reality and the artistic quality of a picture not to make it in actual locations. Personally I have found that working out of doors or working in real locations is a very distracting experience and doesn't have the almost classical simplicity of a film studio where everything is inky darkness and the lights are coming from an expected place and it is quiet and you can achieve concentration without worrying that there are 500 people standing behind a police line halfway down the block, or about a million other distractions.

I think that much too much has been made of making films on location. It does help when the atmosphere circumstances and locale are the chief thing supposed to come across in a scene. For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that a studio is the best place. Working on a set provides the actor with much better concentration and ability to use his full resources.

When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren't sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them. Whereas outside everything fades away, inside there is a kind of inner focusing of physical energy.

The important thing in films is not so much to make successes as not to make failures, because each failure limits your future opportunities to make the films you want to make.

People nowadays seem to have a great deal of difficulty deciding whether a character in a film is good or bad -- especially the people who are making the film. It seems as if first they deal out twenty-five cents worth of good and then twenty-five cents worth of bad and at the very end of the story you have a perfect balance.

I think it essential if a man is good to know where he is bad and to show it, or if he is strong, to decide what the moments are in the story where he is weak and to show it. And I think that you must never try to explain how he got the way he is or why he did what he did.

I have no fixed ideas about wanting to make films in particular categories -- Westerns, war films and so on. I know I would like to make a film that gave a feeling of the times -- a contemporary story that finally gave a feeling of the times, psychologically, sexually, politically, personally. I would like to make that more than anything else. And it's probably going to be the hardest film to make.

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