From: Sunday Telegraph Review - 14 March 1999
As friends, Stanley Kubrick and I went back nearly 40 years. I had seen his second feature film, Killer's Kiss, then The Killing, and written to the films' British distributors, United Artists, asking why such hugely original action-thrillers had been relegated to tawdry little London screens instead of playing in first-run cinemas. The UA publicity director - a Kubrick fan, too, he professed - promised that the new film he was making, Paths of Glory, would definitely open big. "It has stars," he added. (Oh dear.)
I used this letter as my sympathetic "calling card" when next in New York. Kubrick was then living on the Upper East Side. The area at that time - early 1960s -was a German-American enclave. We ate dinner in a local restaurant with a Bierkeller bias to its menu -Wiener schnitzels, I remember - in order to escape the debris of Kubrick's apartment that was currently being cannibalised into the one next door: a sign of his expanding activities and need for space.
At 12.30 am, we went up to his apartment for me to collect my topcoat. Bright tin cans of film were being off-loaded from a delivery truck into his lobby elevator. I squinted at their titles. They were in Japanese, but a few words here and there in English provided a clue. "Are you going to make a film about outer space?" Even then Stanley gave me that swift, wary glance of his I was to come to know. "Please, be careful what you write."
I was careful, until there was no need to he careful any more - 2001: A Space Odyssey was under way. Later, I surmised that he'd ordered up the Japanese SF films to study the state of the art in special effects. But secrecy - or as Stanley would prefer it, security - was even then tight. Control was becoming the ruling passion.
Even before he won the formidable legal powers that his contracts ceded him, including ownership of virtually all his films after the 15 years or so of commercial exploitation by their distributors, Stanley had innate ways of exercising control.
At times, on the set with him or on location, even a visitor such as myself felt a palpable concentration of will-power playing on me, the way it did on the artists and crew. Nothing malign. But a kind of cerebral intensity expressed through his voice, which was low but curt, and his eyes, which were large and dark. When he wanted it to, the voice could turn irresistibly enticing. But the eyes were the commanding feature. They locked one into their owner's system like a radar beam tracking a UFO.
Occasionally I would try to break the spell he cast by telling him something I knew would divert him, only to find my passing intervention acquiring a baleful relevance to some basic interest of his own, usually to do with the exercise of power, and being filed away for future use. Thus I once suggested he look at the memoirs which Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and munitions minister, had just published of his 20 years' incarceration for war crimes in Spandau prison, along with a dozen of so other high-ranking Nazis who had been spared execution.
Speer's account of such men, once the most powerful in Europe, reduced to whiling away their days pursuing grasshoppers in the prison yard, throwing flies to spiders, or quarrelling with each other to maintain their phantom rank and status, struck me as marvellous material for a grotesque comedy on the lines of Dr Strangelove. "You could get Speer to design it," I added, perhaps too glibly. Stanley saw the possibilities, but vetoed my suggested production designer. Speer? He would be too expensive.
To Stanley, all talk had to contain vitamins and calories. I don't think he missed food of the routine kind, if he had to do without it. Napoleon, another irregular and abstracted eater, with no table manners to match his eminence, was the same way inclined: people with weighty matters on their mind don't pay much attention to what's on their plate. But people who provide talk have to be precise. "Garrulous" is the word Stanley used - not unkindly, though - of one close associate from the past who hadn't gotten his conversational priorities right.
Not that Stanley's own conversational priorities were always to do with film-making. Finding Jack Nicholson sitting near me and alone at the 1995 Venice film Festival, waiting for his hosts to arrive at his luncheon table, I re-introduced myself (we'd met on the set of The Shining, but that was 15 years earlier). Almost immediately, our lines of dialogue overlapped:"Have you been in touch with Stanley?" He's been onto me almost every night, Nicholson said. "About a new movie?" No, to find out how OJ's trial went that day.
People trying to contact Stanley experienced frustration, and generally ended up defeated and irritable. One person who did get through is reputed to have been met with: - "To what low criminal act did you stoop to get this number?" Which may be apocryphal, but sounds likely. Very different the other way round.
One Christmas, in the Swiss ski resort of Murren, the proprietor of the small hotel I was staying in woke me up around 1.30 am. A telephone call from England. I took it where it had come through, in the bar, still occupied at that hour by a few of the owner's hard-drinking cronies. It was Stanley calling. He had tracked me down through the Swiss tourist office in London, ruthlessly eliminating the (admittedly few) hotels where I might be staying.
The call was about a series of his films which British television was planning to show in the New Year. "Stanley," I said, "it's not even Christmas yet." To make this I call had involved putting in an earlier one to a private yacht cruising in the Caribbean, carrying Alan Yentob, then chief of the BBC channel that was going to show the Kubrick movies. The yacht was under charter to one of the Saatchi brothers, the British advertising moguls:Stanley had reached Yentob by radio-telephone. All this to co-ordinate how I was going to introduce and comment on the films.
A few hours previously the same night, after I had gone to bed, an American airliner had crashed on the Scottish village of Lockerbie. Stanley broke this news to me. He didn't then know the horrifying extent of the disaster, or whether it was accident or sabotage; but if the former, he was already speculating on the potential metal fatigue to be expected in an aircraft of this vintage.
I worked for Stanley only once, unpaid and briefly. He sought my journalist's know-how to help him compose "period" news items for a montage sequence intended for The Shining. He wanted me to invent 50 years of ill-omened events at the Overlook Hotel, happenings great and small, sudden deaths, murders, arson, suicides, financial swindles, marital scandals, bizarre accidents, and so on, all suggesting the fateful ambience of the place.
The reports had to be "dressed up" to look as if they'd been culled from Colorado newspapers during the first half of the 20th century. "But what do I know of newspapers in Colorado over one week, never mind 50 years!" I exploded. The reply was: You supply the items, I'll supply the papers.
A few weeks later, I got home to find cans of film containing 35 mm photocopies of the front pages of The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News blocking the front hall of my apartment, along with a reading machine, a device then the size of a small domestic refrigerator.
It took me six weeks, working on my knees in the hall since the "reader" was too big to fit into my work-room, scanning newspaper reports of events in Colorado between 1900 and 1955, then inventing my own mini-dramas, fabricating headlines in a variety of period styles as the newspaper's make-up changed over the half-century, adding sub-heads, bylines, intros and subsequent paragraphs - for I had warned Stanley that someone, some day, would freeze-frame the video of The Shining and read the stories that supposedly were conveying the hotel's malign reputation to Jack Nicholson: it wouldn't be enough to have just an opening paragraph.
I like to think I created a sense of hellish doom for the Overlook Hotel of which Dante - well, Stephen King at least - would have been proud. Stanley thought it... OK. None of it was ever used: the sequence showing Nicholson discovering the scrap-book was abandoned as overly obvious - though, as I have mentioned, the book can still be glimpsed at Jack's elbow while the "blocked" writer is vainly labouring at his typewriter.
Disappointed? Well, a little. But I had learnt that heartbreak was a hazard of working with Kubrick.
Stanley was a man of instinctual kindness and generosity; he never forgot an anniversary. He repaid the loyalty of his aides when they left his employ. Once he even intervened with Jerry Brown, then governor of California, on behalf of the late Gustav Hasler, when the author of the novella on which Full Metal Jacket was based was convicted of purloining a vast quantity of books from several London libraries, and sentenced to a term in a California correctional facility. (Brown was sympathetic, but let the verdict stand.)
But an individual's feelings - any individual's - counted for little, or nothing at all, when Stanley set out to achieve what he wanted, or didn't want, or perhaps may want. All options were covered, most rejected. Sometimes people took it hard. Hence the occasional intimations of "ingratitude" that keep seeping through the otherwise ostrich recollections of some of those who were closest to Stanley while filming.
To tell the truth, I would have been happier if The Shining had cut all ties with the supernatural: its powerful illustration of a how a man is driven mad by his own demons was terrifying enough clinically, without conjuring up the occult in demonic forms to gratify the Stephen King ghoul club...
Madness appeals to those who see the world as an asylum. The protagonists' warped perception of things supplies the energy, comic or tragic, that drives several of Kubrick's finest movies. He was particularly fascinated by the mundane things that counterpoint the madness of great events. They fed his ironic pessimism about how the world is organised.
I remember his grim amusement on learning what Pierre Salinger and Dean Rusk had allegedly done when they had been hastily summoned back from Hawaii after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963. They had played poker. And Salinger won $700 - "quite a lot then," Stanley mused.
"You may think it terribly bad taste, playing poker at such a time," he went on, "but looked at another way, it is just the thing that men numbed by momentous calamity would do. It gives a macabre perspective to events that you couldn't get if you played the world-shaking consequences of Kennedy's murder."
The theme of "containment'' or "entrapment" also exercised a persistent fascination for Stanley, even outside the thematic content of his films. I glimpsed this at first hand. He was with me when on the afternoon when I took possession of the first home I owned in London, a newly built, very modern apartment - with wall-size windows. These afforded me a pleasant view of the outside world, but were already arousing fears of same of the less than pleasant things that might come through them.
Stanley's off-the-cuff remedy was brutally simple:I put up steel grilles. "You mean live behind bars!" I said. Oh, it's not so bad: - you'll soon get used to it.
Well, it wasn't. . . and I did. With slatted Venetian blinds covering the rigid metal grids, and double-glazing, I was scarcely aware of the grilles I had fitted and have lived behind ever since - so far securely. Out of sight, out of mind: they soon ceased to radiate the feeling of voluntary incarceration. Stanley, I imagine, could have thrived in a cell, given reasonable comforts and, crucially, comniunications with the outside world.
It's a cliche that great artists with their minds on their work scarcely know the colour, shape or cut of the clothes on their backs. Stanley proved the truth of this. The only way that the clothes reflected the man was provided by the frequent military provenance of his daily wear. If the pants and jackets were meant for battle, they were good for film-making - crisis management in both cases.
Though concerned to conceal the workings of his own mind, it was the notion of "works" in the widest sense that continuously fascinated him and so gives some insight into that mind. His obsession with - "systems" and the way they function didn't eliminate an aesthetic response.
On one recent occasion when I visited him at home, I noticed a gleaming white Porsche parked in the mansion's forecourt - a thoroughbred among the workhorse Range Rovers and ex-US army trucks he kept in the adjoining stable yard. Stanley was famously concerned with physical safety. He viewed speed with scepticism. He had been known to ring off on his car phone when approaching an intersection, then call back once he'd negotiated the crossing. So it surprised me to find that the high-speed Porsche belonged to him.
Yet considered simply as a piece of superb machinery, the ultimate in engineering systems, the car made a statement about its owner that had absolutely nothing to do with speed, still less with status. It was "the works" in it that he admired and aestheticised.
If I were invited to record one single vision of Stanley, my mind would go back to a moment when I witnessed with the clarity of an epiphany, his daunting concern for detail.
On the eve of The Shining's opening in New York, I called at Elstree Studios, on the outskirts of London, where Stanley had his production offices. I was picking him up for supper. It was 9 o'clock , a late hour for studio visiting. "Anyone working?" asked the security man checking me through the front gate. "One is,'' I said, with sinister emphasis, as if to imply you're only keeping the lot open for him. The guard laughed: he knew who.
I found Stanley in the storage block he was renting for use as a general-command post. Its sole identification: a forbidding notice saying "HAWK FILMS - KEEP OUT". Its open-plan space was already cluttered up with all the paraphernalia of a film company: trestle tables, type-writers, stacks and stacks of documents, the congealed remains of meals on paper platters: the high tech co-existing with the unhygienic.
Stanley was sitting in a pool of light, hemmed in bunker-like by rack upon gleaming rack of bright film canisters containing every single take he'd shot, used in the film or not. He was wearing his usual combination of mismatched items that might have been left over from the last war - or issued for the next. He was holding a telephone to his ear and an outsize magnifying glass to his eye. It looked as if he was directing his forces on some distant battlefront. I didn't speak, he simply nodded to me - sit down.
Spread in front of him was what proved to be a copy of that day's edition of The New York Times, couriered in an hour of so earlier from London airport. It was open at a full-page advertisement for The Shining. Stanley was talking in low, well-contained but intense tones. It was clear he was angry. But he was reprimanding whoever the unhappy soul was at the other end of the line with the for of irony, not ire.
"Doesn't it strike you as strange that you're 3,000 miles away in New York and here I am in London telling you that the 1 am extra performance of The Shining has been left out of the movie ad in today's Times ?"
Did it strike to me as strange to be sitting there listening to this disclosure? Not really. What other moviemaker, I asked myself, having spent an exhausting three years of his life in creating on film the fantasies in his mind's eye, could have mustered the reserves of energy to monitor the small print in a transient advertisement for a cinema in another country thousands of miles distant? I already knew the answer: only Stanley Kubrick.
Extracted from Stanley Kubrick, Director by Alexander Walker, published later this year by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (£25)