Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange

An interview with Michel Ciment

Michel Ciment: Since so many different interpretations have been offered about A Clockwork Orange, how do you see your own film?

Stanley Kubrick: The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free-will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction. At the same time, I think the dramatic impact of the film has principally to do with the extraordinary character of Alex, as conceived by Anthony Burgess in his brilliant and original novel. Aaron Stern, the former head of the MPAA rating board in America, who is also a practising psychiatrist, has suggested that Alex represents the unconscious: man in his natural state. After he is given the Ludovico 'cure' he has been 'civilized', and the sickness that follows may be viewed as the neurosis imposed by society.

The chaplain is a central character in the film?

Although he is partially concealed behind a satirical disguise, the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley, is the moral voice of the film. He challenges the ruthless opportunism of the State in pursuing its programme to reform criminals through psychological conditioning. A very delicate balance had to be achieved in Godfrey's performance between his somewhat comical image and the important ideas he is called upon to express.

On a political level the end of the film shows an alliance between the hoodlum and the authorities.

The government eventually resorts to the employment of the cruellest and most violent members of the society to control everyone else -- not an altogether new or untried idea. In this sense, Alex's last line, 'I was cured all right,' might be seen in the same light as Dr. Strangelove's exit line, 'Mein Fuehrer, I can walk.' The final images of Alex as the spoon-fed child of a corrupt, totalitarian society, and Strangelove's rebirth after his miraculous recovery from a crippling disease, seem to work well both dramatically and as expressions of an idea.

What amuses me is that many reviewers speak of this society as a communist one, whereas there is no reason to think it is.

The Minister, played by Anthony Sharp, is clearly a figure of the Right. The writer, Patrick Magee, is a lunatic of the Left. 'The common people must be led, driven, pushed!' he pants into the telephone. 'They will sell their liberty for an easier life!'

But these could be the very words of a fascist.

Yes, of course. They differ only in their dogma. Their means and ends are hardly distinguishable.

You deal with the violence in a way that appears to distance it.

If this occurs it may be because the story both in the novel and the film is told by Alex, and everything that happens is seen through his eyes. Since he has his own rather special way of seeing what he does, this may have some effect in distancing the violence. Some people have asserted that this made the violence attractive. I think this view is totally incorrect.

The cat lady was much older in the book. Why did you change her age?

She fulfills the same purpose as she did in the novel, but I think she may be a little more interesting in the film. She is younger, it is true, but she is just as unsympathetic and unwisely aggressive.

You also eliminated the murder that Alex committed in prison.

That had to do entirely with the problem of length. The film is, anyway, about two hours and seventeen minutes long, and it didn't seem to be a necessary scene.

Alex is no longer a teenager in the film.

Malcolm McDowell's age is not that easy to judge in the film, and he was, without the slightest doubt, the best actor for the part. It might have been nicer if Malcolm had been seventeen, but another seventeen-year-old actor without Malcolm's extra- ordinary talent would not have been better.

Somehow the prison is the most acceptable place in the whole movie. And the warder, who is a typical British figure, is more appealing than a lot of other characters.

The prison warder, played by the late Michael Bates, is an obsolete servant of the new order. He copes very poorly with the problems around him, understanding neither the criminals nor the reformers. For all his shouting and bullying, though, he is less of a villain than his trendier and more sophisticated masters.

In your films the State is worse than the criminals but the scientists are worse than the State.

I wouldn't put it that way. Modern science seems to be very dangerous because it has given us the power to destroy ourselves before we know how to handle it. On the other hand, it is foolish to blame science for its discoveries, and in any case, we cannot control science. Who would do it, anyway? Politicians are certainly not qualified to make the necessary technical decisions. Prior to the first atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos, a small group of physicists working on the project argued against the test because they thought there was a possibility that the detonation of the bomb might cause a chain reaction which would destroy the entire planet. But the majority of the physicists disagreed with them and recommended that the test be carried out. The decision to ignore this dire warning and proceed with the test was made by political and military minds who could certainly not understand the physics involved in either side of the argument. One would have thought that if even a minority of the physicians thought the test might destroy the Earth no sane men would decide to carry it out. The fact that the Earth is still here doesn't alter the mind-boggling decision which was made at that time.

Alex has a close relationship with art (Beethoven) which the other characters do not have. The cat lady seems interested in modern art but, in fact, is indifferent. What is your own attitude towards modern art?

I think modern art's almost total pre-occupation with subjectivism has led to anarchy and sterility in the arts. The notion that reality exists only in the artist's mind, and that the thing which simpler souls had for so long believed to be reality is only an illusion, was initially an invigorating force, but it eventually led to a lot of highly original, very personal and extremely uninteresting work. In Cocteau's film Orpheé, the poet asks what he should do. 'Astonish me,' he is told. Very little of modern art does that -- certainly not in the sense that a great work of art can make you wonder how its creation was accomplished by a mere mortal. Be that as it may, films, unfortunately, don't have this problem at all. From the start, they have played it as safe as possible, and no one can blame the generally dull state of the movies on too much originality and subjectivism.

Well, don't you think that your films might be called original?

I'm talking about major innovations in form, not about quality, content, or ideas, and in this respect I think my films are still not very far from the traditional form and structure which has moved sideways since the beginning of sound.

The film makes a reference to Christ.

Alex brutally fantasizes about being a Roman guard at the Crucifixion while he feigns Bible study in the prison library. A few moments later, he tells the prison chaplain that he wants to be good. The chaplain, who is the only decent man in the story, is taken in by Alex's phoney contrition. The scene is still another example of the blackness of Alex's soul.

But why did you shoot this crucifixion scene like a bad Hollywood movie?

I thought Alex would have imagined it that way. That's why he uses the American accent we've heard so many times before in biblical movies when he shouts, 'Move on there!'

Do you think there is any relationship between this and your interpretation of antiquity in Spartacus?

None at all. In Spartacus 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.

You use technical devices which break the narrative fluidity, and the illusion of reality: accelerated action, slow motion, and an unusual reliance on ultra-wide angle lenses.

I tried to find something like a cinematic equivalent of Burgess's literary style, and Alex's highly subjective view of things. But the style of any film has to do more with intuition than with analysis. I think there is a great deal of oversimplified over-conceptualizing by some film-makers which is encouraged by the way inter- viewers formulate their questions, and it passes for serious and useful thought and seems to inspire confidence in every direction.

Why did you shoot the orgy in skip-frame high-speed motion?

It seemed to me a good way to satirize what had become the fairly common use of slow-motion to solemnize this sort of thing, and turn it into 'art.' The William Tell Overture also seemed a good musical joke to counter the standard Bach accompaniment.

The first three sequences are very striking, employing the same zoom pull-back shots, starting from a close-up and ending on the whole set. How do you prepare this kind of shot?

There was no special preparation. I find that, with very few exceptions, it's important to save your cinematic ideas until you have rehearsed the scene in the actual place you're going to film it. The first thing to do is to rehearse the scene until something happens that is worth putting on film -- only then should you worry about how to film it. The what must always precede the how. No matter how carefully you have pre-planned a scene, when you actually come to the time of shooting, and you have the actors on the set, having learned their lines, dressed in the right clothes, and you have the benefit of knowing what you have already got on film, there is usually some adjustment that has to be made to the scene in order to achieve the best result.

There are many sequences -- for example Alex's return to his parents' house or the prison -- in which the camera is very still and the editing reduced to a minimum.

I think there should always be a reason for making a cut. If a scene plays well in one camera set up and there is no reason to cut, then I don't cut. I try to avoid a mechanical cutting rhythm which dissipates much of the effect of editing.

You did a lot of hand-held camera work yourself, especially for the action scenes.

I like to do hand-held shooting myself. When the camera is on a dolly you can go over the action of the scene with the camera operator and show him the composition that you want at each point in the take. But you can't do this when the camera is hand-held. Sometimes there are certain effects which can only be achieved with a hand-held camera, and sometimes you hand hold it because there's no other way to move through a confined space or over obstacles.

Most of the shooting was done on location.

The entire film was shot on location with the exception of four sets which were built in a small factory which we rented for the production. Nothing was filmed in a studio. The four sets we had to build were the Korova Milk Bar, the Prison Check-in, the Writer's Bathroom, and the Entrance Hall to his house. In the latter case, we built this small set in a tent in the back garden of the house in which we filmed the interiors of the writer's house. The locations were supposed to look a bit futuristic, and we did our preliminary location search by looking through back issues of several British architectural magazines, getting our leads for most of the locations that way.

Was the idea of the Milk Bar yours?

Part of it was. I had seen an exhibition of sculpture which displayed female figures as furniture. From this came the idea for the fibreglass nude figures which were used as tables in the Milk Bar. The late John Barry, who was the film's Production Designer, designed the set. To get the poses right for the sculptress who modelled the figures, John photographed a nude model in as many positions as he could imagine would make a table. There are fewer positions than you might think.

It was with Dr. Strangelove that you really started to use music as a cultural reference. What is your attitude to film music in general?

Unless you want a pop score, I don't see any reason not to avail yourself of the great orchestral music of the past and present. This music may be used in its correct form or synthesized, as was done with the Beethoven for some scenes in A Clockwork Orange. But there doesn't seem to be much point in hiring a composer who, however good he may be, is not a Mozart or a Beethoven, when you have such a vast choice of existing orchestral music which includes contemporary and avant-garde work. Doing it this way gives you the opportunity to experiment with the music early in the editing phase, and in some instances to cut the scene to the music. This is not something you can easily do in the normal sequence of events.

Was the music chosen after the film was completed? And on which grounds?

Most of it was, but I had some of it in mind from the start. It is a bit difficult to say why you choose a piece of music. Ideas occur to you, you try them out, and at some point you decide that you're doing the right thing. It's a matter of taste, luck and imagination, as is virtually everything else connected with making a film.

Is your taste for music linked to the Viennese origins of your father?

My father was born in America, and he is a doctor living in California. His mother was Rumanian, and his father came from a place which today is in Poland. So I think my musical tastes were probably acquired, not inherited.

It would appear that you intended to make a trilogy about the future in your last three films. Have you thought about this?

There is no deliberate pattern to the stories that I have chosen to make into films. About the only factor at work each time is that I try not to repeat myself. Since you can't be systematic about finding a story to film, I read anything. In addition to books which sound interesting, I rely on luck and accident to eventually bring me together with the book. I read as unselfconsciously as I can to avoid interfering with the story's emotional impact. If the book proves to be exciting and suggests itself as a possible choice, subsequent readings are done much more carefully, usually with notes taken at the same time. Should the book finally be what I want, it is very important for me to retain, during the subsequent phases of making the film, my impressions of the first reading. After you've been working on a film, perhaps for more than a year, everything about it tends to become so familiar that you are in danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. That's why it's so important to be able to use this first impression as the criterion for making decisions about the story much later on. Whoever the director may be, and however perceptively he has filmed and edited his movie, he can never have the same experience that the audience has when it sees the film for the first time. The director's first time is the first reading of the story, and the impressions and excitement of this event have to last through to the final work on the movie. Fortunately I've never chosen a story where the excitement hasn't gone the distance. It would be a terrible thing if it didn't.

What were the various projects that you have dropped?

One was a screenplay of Stefan Zweig's story, "The Burning Secret," which Calder Willingham and I wrote in the middle fifties, for Dore Schary at MGM, after I made The Killing. The story is about a mother who goes away on vacation without her husband but accompanied by her young son. At the resort hotel where they are staying, she is seduced by an attractive gentleman she meets there. Her son discovers this but when mother and son eventually return home the boy lies at a crucial moment to prevent his father from discovering the truth. It's a good story but I don't know how good the screenplay was. A few years later, I wrote an incomplete screenplay about Mosby's Rangers, a Southern guerilla force in the American Civil War.

Around that time I also wrote a screenplay called "I Stole 16 Million Dollars," based on the autobiography of Herbert Emmerson Wilson, a famous safe-cracker. It was written for Kirk Douglas who didn't like it, and that was the end of it. I must confess I have never subsequently been interested in any of these screenplays.

There is also a novel by Arthur Schnitzler, Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, which I intend to do but on which I have not yet started to work. It's a difficult book to describe -- what good book isn't? It explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage, and tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality. All of Schnitzler's work is psychologically brilliant, and he was greatly admired by Freud, who once wrote to him, apologizing for having always avoided a personal meeting. Making a joke (a joke?), Freud said this was because he was afraid of the popular superstition that if you meet your Doppelgänger (double) you would die.

Did you make a film for American television around 1960 about Lincoln?

It was in the early fifties, and I only worked for about a week doing some second unit shots in Kentucky for the producer, Richard de Rochemont.

Your films seem to show an attraction for Germany: the German music, the characters of Dr. Strangelove, Professor Zempf in Lolita.

I wouldn't include German music as a relevant part of that group, nor would I say that I'm attracted but, rather, that I share the fairly widespread fascination with the horror of the Nazi period. Strangelove and Zempf are just parodies of movie cliches about Nazis.

You seem to be very interested in language. Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are two films where the manipulation of words play an essential role.

Yes, of course I am. But my principal interest in A Clockwork Orange wasn't the language, however brilliant it was, but rather, the story, the characters and the ideas. Of course the language is a very important part of the novel, and it contributed a lot to the film, too. I think A Clockwork Orange is one of the very few books where a writer has played with syntax and introduced new words where it worked.

In a film, however, I think the images, the music, the editing and the emotions of the actors are the principal tools you have to work with. Language is important but I would put it after those elements. It should even be possible to do a film which isn't gimmicky without using any dialogue at all. Unfortunately, there has been very little experimentation with the form of film stories, except in avant-garde cinema where, unfortunately, there is too little technique and expertise present to show very much.

As far as I'm concerned, the most memorable scenes in the best films are those which are built predominantly of images and music.

We could find that kind of attempt in some underground American films.

Yes, of course, but as I said, they lack the technique to prove very much.

The powerful things that you remember may be the images but perhaps their strength comes from the words that precede them. Alex's first-person narration at the beginning of the film increases the power of the images.

You can't make a rule that says that words are never more useful than images. And, of course, in the scene you refer to, it would be rather difficult to do without words to express Alex's thoughts. There is an old screenplay adage that says if you have to use voice-over it means there's something wrong with the script. I'm quite certain this is not true, and when thoughts are to be conveyed, especially when they are of a nature which one would not say to another person, there is no other good alternative.

This time you wrote your script alone. How would you equate the problems of writing a screenplay to writing a novel?

Writing a screenplay is a very different thing than writing a novel or an original story. A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe Burgess's achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you've really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process -- something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I'm not saying it's easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn't, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.

However serious your intentions may be, and however important you think are the ideas of the story, the enormous cost of a movie makes it necessary to reach the largest potential audience for that story, in order to give your backers their best chance to get their money back and hopefully make a profit. No one will disagree that a good story is an essential starting point for accomplishing this. But another thing, too, the stronger the story, the more chances you can take with everything else.

I think Dr. Strangelove is a good example of this. It was based on a very good suspense novel, Red Alert, written by Peter George, a former RAF navigator. The ideas of the story and all its suspense were still there even when it was completely changed into black comedy.

The end of A Clockwork Orange is different from the one in the Burgess book.

There are two different versions of the novel. One has an extra chapter. I had not read this version until I had virtually finished the screenplay. This extra chapter depicts the rehabilitation of Alex. But it is, as far as I am concerned, unconvincing and inconsistent with the style and intent of the book. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the publisher had somehow prevailed upon Burgess to tack on the extra chapter against his better judgment, so the book would end on a more positive note. I certainly never gave any serious consideration to using it.

In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is an evil character, as Strangelove was, but Alex somehow seems less repellent.

Alex has vitality, courage and intelligence, but you cannot fail to see that he is thoroughly evil. At the same time, there is a strange kind of psychological identification with him which gradually occurs, however much you may be repelled by his behaviour. I think this happens for a couple of reasons. First of all, Alex is always completely honest in his first-person narrative, perhaps even painfully so. Secondly, because on the unconscious level I suspect we all share certain aspects of Alex's personality.

Are you attracted by evil characters?

Of course I'm not, but they are good for stories. More people read books about the Nazis than about the UN. Newspapers headline bad news. The bad characters in a story can often be more interesting than the good ones.

How do you explain the kind of fascination that Alex exercises on the audience?

I think that it's probably because we can identify with Alex on the unconscious level. The psychiatrists tell us the unconscious has no conscience -- and perhaps in our unconscious we are all potential Alexes. It may be that only as a result of morality, the law and sometimes our own innate character that we do not become like him. Perhaps this makes some people feel uncomfortable and partly explains some of the controversy which has arisen over the film. Perhaps they are unable to accept this view of human nature. But I think you find much the same psychological phenomena at work in Shakespeare's Richard III. You should feel nothing but dislike towards Richard, and yet when the role is well played, with a bit of humour and charm, you find yourself gradually making a similar kind of identification with him. Not because you sympathize with Richard's ambition or his actions, or that you like him or think people should behave like him but, as you watch the play, because he gradually works himself into your unconscious, and recognition occurs in the recesses of the mind. At the same time, I don't believe anyone leaves the theatre thinking Richard III or Alex are the sort of people one admires and would wish to be like.

Some people have criticized the possible dangers of such an admiration.

But it's not an admiration one feels, and I think that anyone who says so is completely wrong. I think this view tends to come from people who, however well-meaning and intelligent, hold committed positions in favour of broader and stricter censorship. No one is corrupted watching A Clockwork Orange any more than they are by watching Richard III. A Clockwork Orange has received world-wide acclaim as an important work of art. It was chosen by the New York Film Critics as the Best Film of the year, and I received the Best Director award. It won the Italian David Donatello award. The Belgian film critics gave it their award. It won the German Spotlight award. It received four USA Oscar nominations and seven British Academy Award nominations. It won the Hugo award for the Best Science-Fiction movie.

It was highly praised by Fellini, Bunuel and Kurosawa. It has also received favourable comment from educational, scientific, political, religious and even law-enforcement groups. I could go on. But the point I want to make is that the film has been accepted as a work of art, and no work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous.

What was your attitude towards violence and eroticism in your film?

The erotic decor in the film suggests a slightly futuristic period for the story. The assumption being that erotic art will eventually become popular art, and just as you now buy African wildlife paintings in Woolworth's, you may one day buy erotica. The violence in the story has to be given sufficient dramatic weight so that the moral dilemma it poses can be seen in the right context. It is absolutely essential that Alex is seen to be guilty of a terrible violence against society, so that when he is eventually transformed by the State into a harmless zombie you can reach a meaningful conclusion about the relative rights and wrongs. If we did not see Alex first as a brutal and merciless thug it would be too easy to agree that the State is involved in a worse evil in depriving him of his freedom to choose between good and evil. It must be clear that it is wrong to turn even unforgivably vicious criminals into vegetables, otherwise the story would fall into the same logical trap as did the old, anti-lynching Hollywood westerns which always nullified their theme by lynching an innocent person. Of course no one will disagree that you shouldn't lynch an innocent person -- but will they agree that it's just as bad to lynch a guilty person, perhaps even someone guilty of a horrible crime? And so it is with conditioning Alex.

What is your opinion about the increasing presence of violence on the screen in recent years?

There has always been violence in art. There is violence in the Bible, violence in Homer, violence in Shakespeare, and many psychiatrists believe that it serves as a catharsis rather than a model. I think the question of whether there has been an increase in screen violence and, if so, what effect this has had, is to a very great extent a media-defined issue. I know there are well-intentioned people who sincerely believe that films and TV contribute to violence, but almost all of the official studies of this question have concluded that there is no evidence to support this view. At the same time, I think the media tend to exploit the issue because it allows them to display and discuss the so-called harmful things from a lofty position of moral superiority. But the people who commit violent crime are not ordinary people who are transformed into vicious thugs by the wrong diet of films or TV. Rather, it is a fact that violent crime is invariably committed by people with a long record of anti-social behaviour, or by the unexpected blossoming of a psychopath who is described afterward as having been '...such a nice, quiet boy,' but whose entire life, it is later realized, has been leading him inexorably to the terrible moment, and who would have found the final ostensible reason for his action if not in one thing then in another. In both instances immensely complicated social, economic and psychological forces are involved in the individual's criminal behaviour. The simplistic notion that films and TV can transform an otherwise innocent and good person into a criminal has strong overtones of the Salem witch trials. This notion is further encouraged by the criminals and their lawyers who hope for mitigation through this excuse. I am also surprised at the extremely illogical distinction that is so often drawn between harmful violence and the so-called harmless violence of, say, "Tom and Jerry" cartoons or James Bond movies, where often sadistic violence is presented as unadulterated fun. I hasten to say, I don't think that they contribute to violence either. Films and TV are also convenient whipping boys for politicians because they allow them to look away from the social and economic causes of crime, about which they are either unwilling or unable to do anything.

Alex loves rape and Beethoven: what do you think that implies?

I think this suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men but it didn't do them, or anyone else, much good.

Contrary to Rousseau, do you believe that man is born bad and that society makes him worse?

I wouldn't put it like that. I think that when Rousseau transferred the concept of original sin from man to society, he was responsible for a lot of misguided social thinking which followed. I don't think that man is what he is because of an imperfectly structured society, but rather that society is imperfectly structured because of the nature of man. No philosophy based on an incorrect view of the nature of man is likely to produce social good.

Your film deals with the limits of power and freedom.

The film explores the difficulties of reconciling the conflict between individual freedom and social order. Alex exercises his freedom to be a vicious thug until the State turns him into a harmless zombie no longer able to choose between good and evil. One of the conclusions of the film is, of course, that there are limits to which society should go in maintaining law and order. Society should not do the wrong thing for the right reason, even though it frequently does the right thing for the wrong reason.

What attracted you in Burgess's novel?

Everything. The plot, the characters, the ideas. I was also interested in how close the story was to fairy tales and myths, particularly in its deliberately heavy use of coincidence and plot symmetry.

In your films, you seem to be critical of all political factions. Would you define yourself as a pessimist or anarchist?

I am certainly not an anarchist, and I don't think of myself as a pessimist. I believe very strongly in parliamentary democracy, and I am of the opinion that the power and authority of the State should be optimized and exercized only to the extent that is required to keep things civilized. History has shown us what happens when you try to make society too civilized, or do too good a job of eliminating undesirable elements. It also shows the tragic fallacy in the belief that the destruction of democratic institutions will cause better ones to arise in their place.

Certainly one of the most challenging and difficult social problems we face today is, how can the State maintain the necessary degree of control over society without becoming repressive, and how can it achieve this in the face of an increasingly impatient electorate who are beginning to regard legal and political solutions as too slow? The State sees the spectre looming ahead of terrorism and anarchy, and this increases the risk of its over-reaction and a reduction in our freedom. As with everything else in life, it is a matter of groping for the right balance, and a certain amount of luck.

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