Charlie Kohler, The East Village Eye
Stanley Kubrick, long one of America’s most talented film-makers, firmly establishes himself with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the world’s greatest film artists.
EYE spoke to the thirty-nine-year-old director-writer-producer a few days after the opening of 2001. At a time when most other film-makers would be well into their next project, Kubrick was still supervising post-release work, which even included editing the 2001 trailer.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Kubrick compiled only a modest high school average and couldn’t get into colleges already swamped with applications from returning GI’s. He instead joined the photographic staff of Look, and made his first feature film, Fear and Desire, at the age of twenty-four. Six others followed: Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Kubrick lives wherever he happens to be filming. For the past six years or so, that’s been in England. He resides in modest splendor in a London suburb with his beautiful wife, Christiane (whom Kubrick fans will remember as the girl who appears at the end of Paths of Glory), and their three children. A gentle man, Kubrick seldom loses his temper. He is, though, an enthusiastic talker with an insatiable curiosity and a distinctively sardonic wit. Interviewer Charlie Kohler met with Kubrick in an MGM conference room surrounded by posters and stills from 2001. Kubrick was eager to discuss his new film.
EYE: How did you first become interested in science fiction? You were interested at one time, and still are, in the possibilities and philosophical implications of extraterrestrial life. Is that true?
KUBRICK: Yes. I’ve never been a science fiction buff, though. I’ve read science fiction, but I did become very interested in the scientific probability that the universe was full of intelligent civilizations and advanced entities. I’d been an admirer of Arthur Clarke’s work, and it seemed to me that he was not only the most talented of all the science fiction writers, but that his knowledge and his general scientific background made him an even more appropriate person to work with, to try to develop a story that would revolve around my central interest in advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
EYE: You felt from the beginning that it was absolutely essential that this film be scientifically accurate?
KUBRICK: I felt that there should be no deliberately stupid mistakes. But obviously, to get into the area that the story gets into, you have to move into pure imagination and use the factual elements as a means of building up dramatic credit with the audience, so that they are better prepared to open their minds to the more speculative and purely visionary aspects of the story. The predictions on what hardware will be available in 2001 are easy to come by. Clarke himself is often asked by NASA what he thinks will happen. (It’s far less an orderly business than you think.) I don’t think they themselves are really sure what they’ll have. But the hardware that was presented in the film was not logically inconsistent with prevailing beliefs concerning what will exist. There really isn’t a great deal to be questioned in the film. I mean, everybody knows there’ll be space stations, there’ll be lunar bases and so on. Things like that are fairly well-known and agreed upon by all space experts. The only question was really the concept of the ultra-intelligent machine, and on this we generally found a prevailing consensus among the computer experts.
EYE: Let’s talk about writing the film. I understand that it wasn’t done in the traditional way, but that it was first written as a novel.
KUBRICK: It was written by Arthur and myself, not really as a novel, but as a lengthy prose treatment of the movie. The screenplay form is about the least ideal way of communicating information, especially if it’s visual or emotional. The formal limitations of the screenplay, where description has to be sparse, made it seem much better to do the story in a prose version, to first of all try to create the mood, which is very difficult to get across in a screenplay, and the visual happenings. So it was written as a fifty-thousand-word prose “thing,” looking more like a novel than anything else. This was the basis of the screenplay. The central incident was based on Arthur’s short story, “The Sentinel.” We worked on it for about a year. Then I prepared the film for approximately six months, spent about four and a half months shooting the portion of the film in which the actors appear, and then spent a year and a half shooting the two hundred and five special effects.
DESIGNS AND SPECIAL EFFECTS FOR 2001
EYE: Didn’t you actually reject a probable design in a space helmet because it looked too futuristic and too Edgar Rice Burroughs?
KUBRICK: Well, no. I think there were two problems in the design of anything. One was, is there anything about it that would be logically inconsistent with what people felt would actually exist; and the other one was, would it be interesting? Would it look nice? So obviously, in the conceiving of space helmets there’s an almost infinite number of possible designs. We just chose one that would look good. Actually, the word that they use in the space business is “sexy.” Really, they always talk about machines being sexy. In the design of the clothes, we consulted six or seven of the leading designers, including, I would imagine, fairly imaginative people, and nobody really came up with anything that looked new, without making it look absolutely ridiculous. You realize what an impossible thing it is to ask somebody to give you an aesthetic of another period, without it naturally evolving, as those things do, from day-to-day, and month-to-month.
EYE: Many people are impressed by the ape costumes. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you did that.
KUBRICK: Well, first of all, about a year was spent trying to develop a makeup which would look convincing, because I’d never seen ape characters presented realistically in a film. This involved the body, and, of course, getting a head that looked right, where muscles moved and lips curled. The body problem was partially solved by finding dancers and mimes with extremely narrow hips and skinny legs, so that they didn’t bulk up when they put on the hairy suits. And the head problem was solved by making a very intricate headpiece. This had a subskull under it, to which elastics were attached, just as muscles are attached in the human skull, so that when mouths opened the lips curled, and with little toggle switches that the people could work with their tongues, you could control left-side snarl, right-side snarl, et cetera. The tongues in the mouths that you see are false, and behind them the artist is working the toggles with his own tongue.
EYE: You also did do a lot of complicated stuff with the centrifuge.
KUBRICK: Yes, the centrifuge was built by Vickers Armstrong, and it cost $750,000. The whole set was built in a forty-foot diameter, circular steel structure, and everything rotated, with lights, projectors and so forth. When it was closed up and moving, from certain camera positions nobody could be in the centrifuge except the actor. The camera was on a remote-control head, with television finder, and it was all controlled from the outside.
EYE: Did this cause any problem with the actors?
KUBRICK: Everybody was always afraid of what would happen if there were a fire, because the thing really was bolted shut. It took about four minutes to get out.
EYE: Did you yourself shoot part of Strangelove and 2001?
KUBRICK: Well, on hand-held-camera stuff I did, because it’s impossible to tell an operator what you want on a hand-held movement.
EYE: People are intrigued not only by the implications but the essence of the ending. Could you give us your own interpretation?
KUBRICK: No. I don’t want to because I think that the power of the ending is based on the subconscious emotional reaction of the audience, which has a delayed effect. To be specific about it, certainly to be specific about what it’s supposed to mean, spoils people’s pleasure and denies them their own emotional reactions.
EYE: Can you be general about what you intended?
KUBRICK: Well, I can tell you what literally, at the lowest level of plot, happens. Bowman is drawn into a stargate. He is taken into another dimension of time and space, into the presence of godlike entities who have transcended matter and who are now creatures of pure energy. They provide an environment for him, a human zoo, if you like. They study him. His life passes before him. He sees himself age in what seems just a matter of moments; he dies, and he’s reborn, transfigured, enhanced, a superbeing. I don’t believe that anyone is terribly far from understanding it. What people sometimes mean is that they want some confirmation of what they’ve seen happen, and what they think. Some people who are used to the conventions of realistic theater and the three-act play are surprised when a new form is presented to them, no matter how intensely they react to it, and no matter how much pleasure they get from it.
EYE: Bowman, after this incredible experience, winds up in an eighteenth-century French bedroom. That really flips a lot of people out. Can you tell us how you conceived of this bedroom?
KUBRICK: Well, again, this gets into the area of imagination and artistic processes, whatever they are. The room is made from his own memories and dreams. It could have been anything that you could possibly imagine. This just seemed to be the most interesting room to have.
EYE: Part of the sound track goes into the nineteenth century, also goes back instead of forward. Was there a particular reason you wanted this kind of music?
KUBRICK: It just seemed the most interesting way to portray the beauty and the grace of the space station.
EYE: Another point that interests a lot of people, and another point of controversy, is why HAL should rebel against the mission.
KUBRICK: Again, I don’t like to get into interpretation of the story. By the way, just to show you how interpretation can sometimes be bewildering: A cryptographer went to see the film, and he said, “Oh, I get it. Each letter of HAL’s name is one letter ahead of IBM. The H is one letter in front of I, the A is one letter in front of B, and the L is one letter in front of M.” Now this is a pure coincidence, because HAL’s name is an acronym of heuristic and algorithmic, the two methods of computer programming … an almost inconceivable coincidence. It would have taken a cryptographer to have noticed that.
EYE: The role of women is not brought into 2001 much. Was there a specific reason why?
KUBRICK: No, it’s just in telling the story women didn’t seem to have a lot to do with it.
EYE: Well, the astronauts being so well equipped for their voyage in space, sex is the only thing that’s missing.
KUBRICK: Well, you obviously aren’t going to put a woman on the crew. It’s a problem that they’ve never really gone into. What will deep-space missions be like, and how will the crew take care of their sex urges? It’s very unlikely that they’ll do it by providing a mixed crew.
EYE: I wonder if the “Dawn of Man” title at the beginning could be applied to the film all the way through until the appearance of the star child?
KUBRICK: It certainly could be one interpretation. I mean, the idea that, as somebody said, man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilized beings, is partially inherent in the theme of the story.
EYE: What parts of the film do you particularly like?
KUBRICK: Well, I mean … perhaps it sounds foolish for me to say this, but I like everything in the film.
KUBRICK’S EARLY FILMS
EYE: Perhaps you could tell us a bit about how you began in filmmaking?
KUBRICK: Well, I made two short subjects and two features. The two short subjects were financed by myself, and the two features by myself in part, and by friends and family, and business people whom I was able to meet. Because I had no conventional film financing and no contact with any film companies, nobody interfered with me, and I became accustomed to doing exactly what I wanted to do. So that at the time I made The Killing with Jimmy Harris producing it and United Artists putting up two-thirds of the money, it seemed inconceivable to me that I could work in any other way. Even though I didn’t have the position at the time to warrant insisting on this, my persistence got Jimmy and myself artistic control of the film, within an agreed-upon budget, providing that the Motion Picture Production Code Seal could be gotten and the film would not be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and would not exceed a certain length.
EYE: But during that time, and also on Paths of Glory, you took no salary, right?
KUBRICK: Right. On filming the Paths of Glory, Jimmy Harris and I had to defer our salary, which means that you receive your salary only out of profit, and although the films never lost money, they also never made a profit, so we received nothing. Then I was involved in a number of abortive projects, among which was working on One-Eyed Jacks for six months before shooting began. Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which, I feel, was not enhanced by that fact. It all really just came down to the fact there are thousands of decisions that have to be made, and that if you don’t make them yourself, and if you’re not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was. Obviously I directed the actors, composed the shots and cut the film, so that, within the weakness of the story, I tried to do the best I could.
EYE: Let’s talk about your other films, then. Which are your particular favorites?
KUBRICK: Gee, you know, it’s like saying to somebody, “Which of your children do you like the most?” The only film I don’t like is Spartacus.
EYE: You once said that if you hadn’t been a photographer at Look Magazine, you probably never would have gotten into films. What did you mean by that?
KUBRICK: Well, first of all I was terribly unaware of everything else that you had to know about film-making, other than Podovkin’s Film Technique, and photography. Since I had read Podovkin and was a photographer, what could prevent me from making a movie? I could load the camera, shoot and I would have a movie. If I hadn’t been a photographer, I would have lacked the one essential ingredient you have to have to put anything on film, which is photography. Even though the first couple of films were bad, they were well photographed, and they had a good look about them, which did impress people.
EYE: You certainly were well-schooled in film history. You constantly went to movies at the Museum of Modern Art, didn’t you?
KUBRICK: Yes, I used to go to see every film that played in New York. Do you remember the newspaper PM? In about four-point type, they’d list every single film playing in the five boroughs? Well, I used to sometimes go out to Staten Island, just to see a film I hadn’t seen.
HOW TO LEARN MOVIEMAKING
EYE: Do you feel that a young film-maker could learn as much by constantly going to the movies and keeping his eyes and ears open, as by attending two years of graduate film school?
KUBRICK: I would say he could learn more about what he might wish to accomplish in making a film by looking at movies, particularly by looking at a movie that might interest him as many times as he could get to see it.
EYE: Was there one like that for you when you were just starting?
KUBRICK: I must say, I was hung up during that period on Max Ophuls, whom you can’t call one of the great film-makers, but who fascinated me with his fluid camera techniques. In films like Le Plaisir and The Earrings of Madame de …, the camera went through every wall and every floor. But I don’t think it really makes a lot of difference which film-makers you become fascinated with. Your own style, if you get a chance to make a film, is really a result of the way your mind works, imposed on the semi-controllable factors that exist at the time you start, both in terms of time, or the way the set looked, or how good the actors were that day. I don’t think it matters which films you look at. Close attention to a single film teaches you a great deal. Film schools could be useful if you get a chance to lay your hands on a camera and see a little film equipment, but as far as film aesthetics are concerned, I think that they’re largely a waste of time. You’re generally hearing the views of somebody who rarely warrants listening to. You’re much better off taking films by great film-makers and studying them very closely. The great thing about underground films, for example, is their great disrespect for the technical problems of making a film. It’s about the healthiest thing that has ever happened in movies. People used to think that it was impossible to make a film without the awesome apparatus of Hollywood. When I made my first film, I think the thing that probably helped me the most was that it was such an unusual thing in the early fifties for someone to actually go and make a film. People thought it was impossible. It really is terribly easy. All anybody needs is a camera, a tape recorder and some imagination. I expect that some great things will be done. I haven’t seen any underground films since I came back to America in March, because I haven’t gone to movies. I’ve been working every day. In England, they don’t have underground films. Whether anyone has yet made a great film or not, somebody surely will, because now it’s getting down to the pencil-and-paper level and no one will be stopped by all the stupid conventions that have stopped people before.
KUBRICK: There are several levels of circumstances. From the most ideal circumstances you do everything you want, everybody does what you tell them, and hardly anybody ever expresses a strong, emotionally loaded, devastating criticism of what you want to do or what you’re doing. Now if you’re good, this is an ideal circumstance to work in, because you’re not distracted by having to fend off other ideas, or even disturbed by angry criticism which may be invalid but which you never can forget. That’s, say, the most ideal. The next level might be having control over what’s being done, having to argue with somebody all the time, even though you can be the arbiter of the argument. Having to entertain somebody else’s ideas is a very confusing thing. It throws you off your own stride and it takes the fun out of it all. The next level, obviously, is having to argue with someone who could make you do something you don’t want to do. The worst level is being afraid to argue because you might get fired.
EYE: Do you think Hollywood is loosening up?
KUBRICK: Well, I don’t think Hollywood is allowing young people more leverage; I think young people have the leverage by just being able to go out and do it. But Hollywood certainly is allowing directors who have established any kind of a reputation at all to do virtually what they want. The critical factors are the cost of the film, how much the company really dislikes it, how much faith they have in the director and who the cast is. Even if they hate the story, if it’s not too expensive and they have faith in the director they will often go along against their “better judgment.”
DRUGS AND THE MIND
EYE: Let’s go back to the end of 2001 again. A lot of people are calling it “psychedelic.” Was it an expressly designed psychedelic…
KUBRICK: Well, like “underground” films, “psychedelic” is becoming a catchphrase. It’s just a convenient word.
EYE: But you didn’t do any in-depth hallucinogenic research?
EYE: Well, what about that whole drug scene?
KUBRICK: I think that, as man frees himself from the workaday responsibilities in the modern world, as computers begin to take a more decisive role and everything becomes automated, there’ll be more time for people to go into perception-enhancing experiences. There’s no doubt that mind-enhancing, perception-enhancing drugs are going to be a part of man’s future. The brain is constructed the way it is today in order to filter out experience which doesn’t have survival value in order to produce man the worker. As soon as man the worker loses some of his responsibilities, which he’s rapidly doing in an automated society, the evolutionary development of the brain will no longer be particularly relevant. So I think that what may seem today like irresponsible action, at some point will seem completely valid and perhaps socially useful. I certainly don’t think that drugs, which make everything seem more interesting than they might otherwise be, are a useful thing to the artist, because they minimize his powers of self-criticism, or of trying to decide what’s interesting. If everything becomes interesting to you, and your mind begins to echo and resonate by looking at a piece of cellophane, it becomes awfully difficult to make any valid, artistic decisions. I think that drugs will be more useful for the artist’s audience than for the artist. I’m talking, particularly now, about the kind of phenomena that one gets from acid. I haven’t taken it, but from talking to friends who have, what I’m particularly struck by is their sense of everything being interesting and everything being beautiful, which does not seem to be the ideal state of mind for the artist.
EYE: You are an excellent chess player, and there are references to the game in most of your films. Do you think there’s any tactical similarity between planning a film and a chess problem?
KUBRICK: There is a distant relationship between chess and making a film. With chess you have to explore different lines of play, and think of different possible outcomes. In films you’re always juggling more things than you can ever think about at one time, and trying to analyze as many moves as deeply into the consequences as you can. So there is that analogy. Films are a peculiar combination of the worst circumstances imaginable for an artist to work in, and the most powerful art form ever devised. And finding the resultant of those forces is the key to getting the film done. You have to be able to juggle all the noncreative things as effectively as you can, to allow yourself the moments where your creativity can be used.
EYE: Does the film-maker today, on the level that you’re working, have time to really sit down and think out projects?
KUBRICK: Well, I do, because I take the time. From the time I started thinking about 2001 until now I had about four years. But this one was particularly long. I usually take about a year to get interested in something, get it written and start working on it, and in a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then, as you’re making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what’s happening with the resources of all the analysis that you’ve done. That way, you can most fully utilize each moment while you’re making the picture. I think that, without a doubt, no opportunities have ever existed as they do today, for people to make the films they want to make, both in terms of the conventional big-budget films and the small-budget independent films. Everything is really just wide open and waiting for someone to do something good.
CHILDREN AND CENSORSHIP
KUBRICK: I saw Mary Poppins three times, because of my children, and I like Julie Andrews so much that I enjoyed seeing it three times. I thought it was a charming film. I wouldn’t want to make it, but… Children’s films are an area that should not just be left to the Disney Studios, who I don’t think really make very good children’s films. I’m talking about his cartoon features, which always seemed to me to have shocking and brutal elements in them that really upset children. I could never understand why they were thought to be so suitable. When Bambi’s mother dies this has got to be one of the most traumatic experiences a five-year-old could encounter. I think that there should be censorship for children on films of violence. I mean, if I didn’t know what Psycho was, and my children went to see it when they were six or seven, thinking they were going to see a mystery story, I would have been very angry, and I think they’d have been terribly upset. I don’t see how this would interfere with freedom of artistic expression. If films are overly violent or shocking, children under twelve should not be allowed to see them. I think that would be a very useful form of censorship.
EYE: Making Lolita at this point, instead of eight years ago, do you think the film could have been improved?
KUBRICK: I think that the erotic component of the film could have had much more weight. At the time I made it, it was almost impossible to get the film played. Even after it was finished it laid around for six months. And then, of course, the audience felt cheated that the erotic weight wasn’t in the story. I think that it should have had as much erotic weight as the novel had. As it was, it had the psychology of the characters and the mood of the story. Nabokov liked it. But it certainly didn’t have as much of the erotic as you could put into it now.
EYE: And that would have enhanced it.
KUBRICK: Well, it would have made it more true to the novel, and it would have been more popular. The film was successful, but there’s no question that people expected to see some of the things that they read in the book, or hoped they might see those parts, anyway.
EYE: You’re talking about censorship of movies on violence. How about Vietnam coverage on the television?
KUBRICK: That does create kind of a unique problem. I have three girls. One of them’s old enough not to be too bothered—she’s fourteen. But one of them’s eight and one of them’s nine. Children don’t realize the statistical improbability of catastrophe occurring in their environment. When they look at the news and all they see is snipers holding out in a motel, or an execution in Vietnam, or a tornado, they get upset by it. I’ve tried to get them not to look at the news. I don’t know how you do it on television, but I do think that the sense of total and continuous catastrophe that a child gets from looking at television-newsreel footage can profoundly upset a child.
EYE: Have people become immune to television violence?
KUBRICK: I don’t think so. I think, in fact, that the newsreel coverage of Vietnam must be, to some extent, responsible for the swing of opinion against the war.
EYE: Does that hearten you?
KUBRICK: Yes. I mean, whereas in the past, certain political clichés could just be blown out into the air, people would accept them and not really think about what is going on. They didn’t have much direct personal experience with these events, or vivid coverage of them, which allowed them to abstract the events and become less concerned about them. It’s great that anything that goes on long enough that’s terrible, and comes into the living room every night in vivid, sync-sound, dialogue-newsreel form, makes a big impression on people. It will produce a more active body politic.
EYE: And you’re glad that we’re getting out of Vietnam, if we are?
Stanley Kubrick Raps, Interview by Charlie Kohler Published in The East Village Eye (08/1968)