From: The Guardian - March 13 1999
Title: "There was an atmosphere nicely poised between a seance and a chess game" - Novelist Candia McWilliam on a rich, strange experience working with Stanley Kubrick on his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.
Another great spirit gone, and this one, Stanley Kubrick, without the protection offered to Iris Murdoch by the loving articulacy of John Bayley. Bayley's practical achievement for his wife, aside from the artistic achievement, was to protect her, by the appearance of total transparency, from speculation about her circumstances.
This has not been the case with Stanley Kubrick. Not that Kubrick was without such love from his family, which is exceptionally close, but he had chosen to keep silence, in a society that is deafeningly noisy. Now he is being punished for it.
With a man of reputation dead, there's a rush for the scraps and I'm uncomfortably aware that a piece like this is, strictly, part of the indecorum. But such stuff has been written about him these last few days that eventually, when asked, by one of the few people who knew I had had anything to do with him, to write something, I decided I would. The danger is that, like a cannibal eating the heart of a great warrior to give himself courage, one is putting oneself first, attempting to absorb something of the departed hero.
With Stanley, this wasn't possible. He had made himself into a human being almost wholly absorptive, not reflexive. Not that he wasn't reflective; he gave most of his time to serious thought. He took it in: he didn't waste time by generating dazzle. Not, again, that he couldn't, but he conserved every bit of energy that came.
Kubrick telephoned me one morning in 1994. It wasn't a complete surprise because, with the unfailing manners he always showed me, be had asked my publishers first if he might have my telephone number. Most gossip columnists, most geeks in search of a free quote, don't do that.
He wondered if I might be interested in working with him and I said I didn't suppose l'd be very good at film. I continued in this gloomy vein. But we talked for a long time on the telephone and quite soon I forgot to be anyone other than my truest self in apposition to this intelligence that was taking time to talk to me. I was won over. Not long after that, a grey car of real, not showy, invisibility came to collect me. It was driven by Emilio from Monte Casino, who like everyone who worked with Stanley, used the word "we" of the entire family and included me at once in a world of long loyalties, knotted family ties and utter devotion to the man and his work - including the particular bending of time zones that Stanley needed to make the most of his time on earth.
His sudden death, so much younger than his own father who died in his late nineties, proves he was right. Perhaps his body knew he had completed this last film, Eyes Wide Shut, and simply went to sleep for good. The film, which is complete, was shown in New York to its stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and the executives of Warner Brothers, the week before Stanley died. Tony Frewin, who has been Stanley's assistant for 35 years, whose father and son also worked for Stanley, told me that the film is absolutely finished. No other hand than Kubrick's will cut nor polish it. It is his. A part of it was very nearly - and how wide a gulf is 'nearly' in films - mine, for this was the film he asked me to write and over which we worked in the summer of 1994, with Emilio coming to get me and taking me to the house in Hertfordshire where Stanley would be waiting.
I read, in one of the many inaccurate reports this week has offered, that he was a great bear of a man. I am big, but even had I not been, Stanley was delicate, little, even, with small hands and silky black hair. He, who was a mage of appearance, who could wring suggestion from the merest milk-glass framed within the camera's eye, had resigned from the timewasting presentation of himself. He was not self-disrespectful, but there was no sense of vanity. I heard it said this week that that he was "arrogant"; only a vain person could say that of him. He had proper pride. He did not indulge in the false modesty and writhing caringness of those who choose to waste themselves in sucking up to the Zeitgeist.
We would sit opposite one another among machines in a darkish room. There was a plate of biscuits we didn't eat, and once or twice he smoked, with distance, a cigarette that felt quite amateurish. There was an atmosphere poised nicely between a seance and a chess game and the purest flirtation, of the sort you have with a beloved character in a book, with no question of the vulgar imposition of the physical.
It was among the closest intellectual contact I've known. The construction of Stanley's brain was, to me who am solitary and fed by words and my eyes, like that of no other I have met. He was not distractible, nor was he narrow. He was a master of extraction; he could pull from one what he needed to make his own ideas complete. He was, if the word, has meaning in a debased time, a genius. He took from one what he needed, but I didn't feel depleted. because his undivertable energy and strange openness refreshed my mind.
James Kirkup was right to say in his obituary in the Independent, that "for Kubrick the film-maker the sense of language did not exist; and I suspect that's one of the reasons my script failed him, but it was unforgettably fascinating for me to learn from him. He took the gamble of using a quantity of his remaining time to teach me from scratch how a script can be made.
A novelist can marshal and deploy, boss and organise, millions, and none of them complains, for they are his companions in loneliness. A film-maker has to accommodate the innumerable imperfections of the temperaments of others. Unless you assert your supremacy, the friction between intervening personalities will ensure nothing gets done. I could not bear the idea of contact with other people to the degree that Stanley, in his professional life, had it. It is no wonder that he told me that actors were machines for transmitting emotion.
If you create films, rather than plays, novels, poems, that are mimetic of what is most real about the human condition, you are going to need to find some solution to the gluiness of that condition while you make the films. Stanley found control, confidence, and discretion. Instead of, like many directors, cultivating "profile", he relayed the third dimension. He is one of the few great artists who can manifest thought.
He was baffled by what he I think saw as my unworldliness. He asked me once if I had ever been out to a party when I was younger. Quite soon, he had Tony bring me an enormous fax machine so that we could be in touch at all times. It was like a piece of Stanley, whom it was impossible to consider without machines - ticking, whizzing, rolling, imparting, tallying - in the bedroom. He was bothered by how early I went to bed, but considerate of an oddball who didn't stay up till first light.
I took him garden roses, which he gave to his wife, who is a painter of exciting, unpastoral, figurative works. He did not know the roses' names, but to look at them with him was to see through his eyes, the gift his film gives us; he looked not with the eyes, but with the mind. We sat in the big kitchen with his big yellow English dogs and agreed that life was hell and people wicked, and returned again to the twists of the film, that deals with the blackest compulsions of human intimacy.
It was like a game of visualisation. By the end of each time together we would be feeling out a mutual maze, practically beyond words, in our heads. I feared privately that my slight gift was too indirect for him to lean upon and so I wrote increasingly in a way not my own, producing in the end a rank impersonation about which he was far too kind. It was rotten, and I think often of how it should have been had I been older then, and of how generous, tactful, encouraging and kind was this man who gave me such a lot of his time.
He also gave me a video of Full Metal Jacket. Emilio drove it over. Stanley rang to see how l was enjoying it. I told him it was horrible and that I could only watch it in bursts. The appalling thing is, I wasn't trying to be cheap or flip. It was true. He laughed, and we spoke of other things. That egoless behaviour would be uncommon in a celebrity chef, leave alone one of the greatest film directors in the world.
Stanley Kubrick, whose funeral was quiet, whose guide perfection, was amused by the definition of oblivion offered by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary: "Oblivion (noun): fame's eternal dumping ground".
The master recognised the difference between the grand illusion of film and the great illusion of fame. He would not peddle aversion of himself through interview or photo session to our Hello-drugged inattentive eyes. He gave us his work. I asked him what geniuses he'd known. Peter Sellers, he said, and Nabokov. One other I can't name. And he went on to describe Madame Nabokov, with a little ruby-inlaid pistol in her hand-bag. I don't know whether it was true or untrue, but he'd spoken me a frame of film.
Candia McWilliam's latest book is the collection of short stories, Wait Till I Tell You, published by Bloomsbury, £14.99, Picador paperback, £6.99