by Michael Herr
The world outside the gates of Stanley Kubrick’s English manor house may have seen the legendary director as cold, arrogant, even a bit crazy. But to those who entered the citadel of Kubrick’s obsessive, often brutal devotion to filmmaking, his life made pure and perfect sense. At the premature end of a career that spanned Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Lolita, The Shining, and this summer’s Eyes Wide Shut,the author, who co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, pays unsentimental homage to his longtime friend, remembering the humor, the cleanly burning intelligence, the outrageous sanity of a 20th-century master.
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Kubrick was a friend of mine, insofar as people like Stanley have friends, and as if there are any people like Stanley now. Famously reclusive, as I’m sure you’ve heard, he was in fact a complete failure as a recluse, unless you believe that a recluse is simply someone who seldom leaves his house. Stanley saw a lot of people. Sometimes he even went out to see people, but not often, very rarely, hardly ever. Still, he was one of the most gregarious men I ever knew, and it didn’t change anything that most of this conviviality went on over the phone. He viewed the telephone the way Mao viewed warfare, as the instrument of a protracted offensive where control of the ground was critical and timing crucial, while time itself was meaningless, except as something to be kept on your side. An hour was nothing, mere overture, or opening move, or gambit, a small taste of his virtuosity. The writer Gustav Hasford claimed that he and Stanley were once on the phone for seven hours, and I went over three with him many times. I’ve been hearing about all the people who say they talked to Stanley on the last day of his life, and however many of them there were, I believe them all.
Somebody who knew him 45 years ago, when he was starting out, said, “Stanley always acted like he knew something you didn’t know,” but honestly, he didn’t have to act. Not only that, by the time he was through having what he called, in quite another context, “strenuous intercourse” with you, he knew most of what you knew as well. Hasford called him an earwig; he’d go in one ear and not come out the other until he’d eaten clean through your head.
He had the endearing and certainly seductive habit when he talked to you of slipping your name in every few sentences, particularly in the punch line, and there was always a punch line. He had an especially fraternal temperament anyway, but I know quite a few women who found him extremely charming. A few of them were even actresses.
Some Americans move to London and in three weeks they’re talking like Denholm Elliott. Stanley picked up the odd English locution, but it didn’t take Henry Higgins to place him as pure, almost stainless Bronx. Stanley’s speech was very fluent, melodious even. In spite of the Bronx nasal-caustic, perhaps the shadow of some adenoidal trauma long ago, it was as close to the condition of music as speech can get and still be speech, like a very well-read jazz musician talking, with a pleasing and graceful Groucho-like rushing and ebbing of inflection for emphasis and suggested quotation marks to convey amused disdain, over-enunciating phrases that struck him as fabulously banal, with lots of innuendo, and lots of latent sarcasm, and some not so latent, lively tempi, brilliant timing, eloquent silences, and, always, masterful, seamless segues—“Lemme change the subject for just a minute,” or “What were we into before we got into this?” I never heard him try to do other voices, or dialects, even when he was telling Jewish jokes. Stanley quoted other people all the time, people in the industry whom he’d spoken to that morning (Steven and Mike, Warren and Jack, Tom and Nicole), or people who died a thousand years ago, but it was always Stanley speaking.
When I met him in 1980, I was not just a subscriber to the Stanley legend, I was frankly susceptible to it. He’d heard that I was living in London from a mutual friend, David Cornwell (b.k.a. John le Carré), and invited us for dinner and a movie. The movie was a screening of The Shining at Shepperton Studios a few weeks before its American release, followed by dinner at Childwick Bury, the 120-acre estate near St. Albans, an hour north of London, that Stanley and his family and their dogs and cats had just moved into. Stanley wanted to meet me because he’d liked Dispatches, my book about Vietnam. It was the first thing he said to me when we met. The second thing he said to me was that he didn’t want to make a movie of it. He meant this as a compliment, sort of, but he also wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting any ideas. He’d read the book several times looking for the story in it, and quoted bits of it, some of them quite long, from memory during dinner. And since I’d loved his movies for something like 25 years by this time, I was touched, flattered, and very happy to meet him, because I was of course fairly aware that it was unusual to meet him. Stanley wasn’t someone you ran into at a party and struck up a relationship with.He was thinking about making a war movie next, but he wasn’t sure which war, and in fact, now that he mentioned it, not even so sure he wanted to make a war movie at all.
He called me a couple of nights later to ask me if I’d read any Jung. I had. Was I familiar with the concept of the Shadow, our hidden dark side? I assured him that I was. We did half an hour on the Shadow, and how he really wanted to get it into his war picture. And oh, did I know of any good Vietnam books, “you know, Michael, something with a story?” I didn’t. I told him that after seven years working on a Vietnam book and nearly two more on the film Apocalypse Now, it was about the last thing in the world I was interested in. He thanked me for my honesty, my “almost blunt candor,” and said that, probably, what he most wanted to make was a film about the Holocaust, but good luck putting all of that into a two-hour movie. And then there was this other book he was fascinated by—he was fairly sure I’d never heard of it—Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle, which means “Dream Novel,” meaninglessly called Rhapsody in the only English edition available at that time. He’d read it more than 20 years before, and bought the rights to it in the early 70s (it’s the book that Eyes Wide Shut is based on), and the reason I’d probably never heard of it (he started to laugh) was that he’d bought up every single existing copy of it. Maybe he’d send me one. I could read it and tell him what I thought.
“You know, just read it and we’ll talk. I’m interested to know what you think. And Michael, ask around among your friends from the war, maybe they know a good Vietnam story. You know, like at the next American Legion meeting? Oh, and Michael, do me a favor, will you?”
“Don’t tell anybody what we’ve been talking about.”
The next afternoon a copy of the Schnitzler book arrived, along with the paperback edition of Raul Hilberg’s enormous The Destruction of the European Jews, delivered by Stanley’s driver, Emilio, who whether I realized it or not was about to become my new best friend.
I read the Schnitzler right away, and that’s when I had my early inkling of how smart Stanley really was. Traumnovelle, published in Vienna in 1926, is the full, excruciating flowering of a voluptuous and self-consciously decadent time and place, a shocking and dangerous story about sex and sexual obsession and the suffering of sex. In its pitiless view of love, marriage, and desire, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that either all of it, or maybe some of it, or possibly none of it, is a dream, it intrudes on the concealed roots of Western erotic life like a laser, hinting discreetly, from behind its dream cover, at things that are seldom even privately acknowledged, and never spoken of in daylight. Stanley thought it would be perfect for Steve Martin. He’d loved The Jerk.
He’d talked about this book with a lot of people, David Cornwell and the novelist Diane Johnson among them, and since David and Diane and I later talked about it among ourselves (and out of Stanley’s hearing, I think), I know that his idea for it in those days was always as a sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak running through it. This didn’t make a lot of sense to us; we were just responding to the text as a work of literary art, and not a very funny one. Maybe Traumnovelle is a comedy in the sense that Don Giovanni is: attempted rape and compulsive pathetic list-keeping, implied impotence, and the don dragged down into hell forever, the old sex machine ignorant and defiant to the end. A pretty severe and upsetting comedy, not very giocoso, and not the essence of Traumnovelle, which more than anything else is sinister. The way we writers saw it, it was as frightening as The Shining. Now I think we were all too square to imagine what Stanley saw in Steve Martin, because this was not The Jerk. This could have turned out to be another one of those stories you heard so many times about him, usually from cameramen and other high-echelon crew: Stanley said we should try to do it this way and I said it’s never been done this way, and it can’t be done this way, the wrong stops on the wrong lens on the wrong camera, and he did it anyway, and he was right.
We talked about it for years, starting that afternoon, because I don’t think Emilio could have made it back to St. Albans before Stanley called. “Didja read it? What do you think?” After about an hour, he asked if I’d had a chance to look at the Hilberg book yet. I reminded him that I’d only just gotten it.
When he sent you a book, he wanted you to read it, and not just read it, but to drop everything and get into it. John Calley, who was probably Stanley’s closest friend, told me that when he was head of production at Warners in the 70s and first working with him, Stanley sent him a set of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, unabridged, and then bugged him every couple of weeks for a year about reading it. Finally Calley said, “Stanley, I’ve got a studio to run. I don’t have time to read mythology.” “It isn’t mythology, John,” Stanley said. “It’s your life.”
I picked the Hilberg up many times and put it down again. I finally read it only a few years ago, when I knew there was no possibility that Stanley would ever use it for a film, and I could see why Stanley was so absorbed by it. It was a forbidding volume; densely laid out in a two-column format, it was nearly 800 pages long, small print, heavily footnoted, so minutely detailed that one would have to be more committed than I was at the moment to its inconceivably dreadful subject. I could see that it was exhaustive; it certainly looked like hard work, and it read like a complete log of the Final Solution. And every couple of weeks, Stanley would call and ask me if I’d read it yet. “You should read it, Michael, it’s monumental!” This went on for months.
Finally I said, “Stanley, I can’t make it.”
“I don’t know. I guess right now I just don’t want to read a book called The Destruction of the European Jews.”
“No, Michael,” he said. “The book you don’t want to read right now is The Destruction of the European Jews, Part Two.”
You know, Michael, it’s not absolutely true in every case that nobody likes a smart-ass,” Stanley was saying.I once described 1980–83 as one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions. This serial call had many of the characteristics of the college bull session—long free-form late-night intellectual inquiries, discursions, conversations, displays, and I’d think, Doesn’t this guy get tired?—like talking to a very smart kid in a dorm room until three in the morning. But then Stanley never went to college; he was only a stunningly accomplished autodidact, one of those people we may hear about but rarely meet, the almost-but-not-quite-legendary Man on Whom Nothing Is Lost.
“Hey, Michael, didja ever read Herodotus? The Father of Lies?” or “Frankly, I’ve never understood why Schopenhauer is considered so pessimistic. I never thought he was pessimistic, did you, Michael?”—laughing at the four or five things he found so funny in this, with a winsome touch of self-deprecation, half-apologetic… It’s not my fault I’m so smart. And I’d think, Doesn’t he have anything else to do? But this is what he did. These calls were about information. They were about Stanley’s work.
We’d be talking about something, like why “most war movies always look so phony,” or why we thought this movie or that book was such a hit, and we’d be suddenly off across 2,000 years of Western culture, “from Plato to nato.” He was just an old-fashioned social Darwinist (seemingly), with layer upon layer of the old, now vanishing Liberal Humanism, disappointed but undimmed, and without contradiction; if he made no distinctions between Art and Commerce, or Poetry and Technology, or even Personal and Professional, why should he make them between “Politics” and Philosophy?
Stanley had views on everything, but I wouldn’t exactly call them political. (“Hey Michael, what’s the definition of a neoconservative? A liberal who’s just been mugged, ha ha ha ha.”) His views on democracy were those of most people I know, neither left nor right, not exactly brimming with belief, a noble failed experiment along our evolutionary way, brought low by base instincts, money and self-interest and stupidity. (If a novelist expresses this view, he’s a visionary, apparently, but if a movie director does, he’s a misanthrope.) He thought the best system might be under a benign despot, although he had little belief that such a man could be found. He wasn’t exactly a cynic, but he could have passed for one. He was certainly a capitalist. He believed himself to be a realist. He was known to be a tough guy. The way I see him, essentially, he was an artist to his fingertips, and he needed a lot of cover, and a lot of control.
For the most part we talked about writers, usually dead and white and Euro-American, hardly the current curriculum. Stendhal (half an hour), Balzac (two hours), Conrad, Crane, Hemingway (hours and hours—“Do you think it was true that he was drunk all the time, even when he wrote? Yeah? Well, I’ll have to find out what he was drinking and send a case to all my writers”), Céline (“My favorite anti-Semite”), and Kafka, who he thought was the greatest writer of the century, and the most misread: People who used the word “Kafkaesque” had probably never read Kafka. I’d read The Golden Boughand didn’t have to go through that again, but he urged me to check out Machiavelli, and The Art of War (years before Michael Ovitz slipped him a copy), and Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. He had a taste and a gift for the creative-subversive, and he dug Swift and Malaparte and William Burroughs, and was interested that Burroughs was a friend of mine. I got him to read Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!; he thought it was incredibly beautiful, but “there’s no movie in it. I mean, where’s the weenie, Michael?” Then he’d be into something else, the “inevitable” fiscal and social disaster lurking in the burgeoning mutual-fund market, or how he’d like to make a movie about doctors because “everybody hates doctors” (his father was a doctor), or the savage abiding mystery of Mother Russia, or why opera was “quite possibly the greatest art form” except, oh yeah, maybe for the movies. Then he’d dish about the movies.
“Always thinking, huh, Stanley?” I said after one of those exhausting (for me) rooftop-to-rooftop riffs of his. I felt that these calls were starting to take up most of my time, yet I knew they didn’t take up most of his, that he was doing other things, “many many of them.” I acquired a sense of awe at the energy that had coincided so forcefully with my own. You really needed your chops for this; you’d feel like some poor traveler caught in a ground blizzard, 3 to 30 times a week and usually after 10 at night, when he usually started wailing. Sometimes I’d duck his calls.
We talked this way, with occasional visits to his house, dinners and movies, until he found Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers bought the rights, wrote a long treatment of it, and asked me to work on the script with him. Then we really started talking. By then I knew I’d been working for Stanley from the minute I met him.
Stanley could never be accused of breaking any sumptuary laws. He may have been the master of Childwick Bury, but he dressed like a cottager, and it was very becoming, too. He wore the same thing every day, beat chinos, some sort of work shirt, usually in one of the darker shades of blue, a ripstop cotton fatigue jacket with many pockets, a pair of running shoes, so well broken in that you almost might think he was a runner (and not a man who liked to be seated), and an all-weather anorak. He had something like a dozen or so sets of this outfit in his closet, so he changed his clothes every day but never his wardrobe. When his daughter Katharina got married in 1984, he went to the Marks & Spencer in St. Albans and bought a dark-blue suit for £85, and a white shirt and a tie, and from one of the High Street shoe shops a pair of black shoes that he told me were made of cardboard. But he had never been admired for his dress sense. Even back in the late 50s, when he was working in Hollywood, the insouciance of his attire was remarked upon by many producers and actors, who thought that he dressed like a Beatnik. Body-blocked, uncomfortable in physical contact, even Stanley’s handshake was a bit awkward. The last time I saw him—we hadn’t seen each other in four years—he actually put an arm around my shoulder, but I think he felt he might have gone too far, and quickly withdrew it. I don’t mean to suggest that Stanley was not a warm person, only that he didn’t express it in kissing or hugging or even touching, except with his animals. Apollonian not Dionysian—I couldn’t see him on the dance floor breaking hearts. He hated being photographed, and the few glimpses of Stanley on film, in his daughter Vivian Kubrick’s documentary The Making of “The Shining,” show a man who clearly doesn’t want to be there at all. He never had the impulse to slip around to the other side of the camera like Orson Welles or John Huston or Hitchcock. I think he felt that he impressed quite enough of himself on his films without that.
He’d once been a chain-smoker, and would mooch the odd cigarette, but very rarely. He wasn’t especially appetitive, except where information was concerned. He ate temperately, almost never took a drink, and was drug-free. Stanley had a lot of self-control, to put it mildly a hundredfold.
He had small fine hands that he seldom used when he talked, with slender white fingers, expressive even in repose, although they were often in his beard, or up to his glasses for a compulsive adjustment. He had an odd habitual gesture, a stiff sweeping movement of the arm, indicating some low-rent real estate of the mind, “Over there, where we don’t want to be.” He had small feet, rather dainty, and they moved him along very quickly and smoothly. When I saw him on a set after years of only seeing him in his house, I was amazed at how fast he moved, how light he was, darting around the crew and cameras like one of the Sugar Rays, grace and purpose in motion.
He was totally contained physically, but everything else about him, all the action going on behind the forehead, was in constant play, and it showed—black beard and black hair horseshoeing back from his high brow to the crown of his head; he looked like he took care of his teeth; and although his mouth wasn’t particularly sensual, he had an interesting repertoire of smiles, expressing a wide range of thought and irony and amusement.
As for his famous eyes, described as dark, focused, and piercing, he looked out from a perceptibly deep place, and the look went far inside you, if you were what he happened to be looking at. Only extremely startled people ever get their eyes open that wide. I know that quite a few people, mostly actors, have unraveled when they got caught in Stanley’s beams, even though there was rarely much anger in them. Stanley’s look was just so deliberate, as cool as functioning intelligence itself, demanding satisfaction, or resolution, some kind of answer to some kind of problem before the next problem arose, which it would. Life was problem solving, and to solve a problem you have to see the problem. The eyebrows, especially when arched, were the coup de grâce.
After I moved back to America in 1991, the calls fell off a bit to something like once a month. Usually he’d open with “Now, Michael, don’t ask me anything about what I’m doing, O.K.?” I knew, but not from him, that he’d optioned the rights to a book I’d had sent to him in bound galleys, a possible way to make a two-hour Holocaust film, Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies, which Stanley adapted and called Aryan Papers; I heard he’d talked to Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman about it. He’d also been working with Brian Aldiss and a couple of other writers on A.I., a cyber-age version of “the Pinocchio myth,” which he scrapped because he thought it would be too expensive to make, until he saw Jurassic Park and started calling Steven Spielberg every 20 minutes to talk about the technology he’d used. I heard about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and Eyes Wide Shut. Then about three years ago he called.“Hey, Michael, what do you charge these days for a wash and a rinse?”
He was four or five months away from shooting Eyes Wide Shut, with a script he’d written with Frederic Raphael. The story was set in New York in the 90s, and he felt it needed “a little colloquializing.”
“You know, like, when someone says ‘Hello’ it should read ‘Hi.’ [Laughing.] It needs your ear, Michael. It’s perfect for you.”
“At the very most, two weeks. But it isn’t about how long. It’s about the magic.” He was laughing, but he meant it.
Naturally, he wouldn’t send the script he wanted “colloquialized” to me to read. I’d have to go to England and read it in his house, and once you walked in that door, it wasn’t always so easy to walk out again. I didn’t want to leave my family or my work and get into that kind of involvement with him again without some assurances. I said I’d do it only as a member of the Writers Guild, and that he’d definitely have to talk to my agent, Sam Cohn, at ICM. I told him that Sam was extremely intelligent and discreet, and besides, this was a Tom Cruise movie, and I felt that agents were appropriate, even required. I knew he’d never call Sam, and he never did. He wanted this to be between us, for a complex of reasons involving money and secrecy, affection and control, respect and pathology and old times’ sake. Stanley tried over the next few weeks to get me to change my mind, just drop everything and come over, but I couldn’t. When I think of all the ways he had of getting people to do what he wanted them to do, and of how much I liked him, I surprised myself.
“Come on, Michael,” he said, “it’ll be fun.”
And that was the problem. If you had anything even resembling a life, time and money and Stanley’s will could be a deadly infusion. I think I hurt his feelings. Over the next two and a half years, as I read about the ever expanding shooting schedule, I pictured myself chained to a table in his house, endlessly washing and rinsing for laughs and minimum wage, strenuous unprotected intercourse, and I had no regrets. Now, of course, I have a few.
I can hear my previous agent now all the way from 1983, when he’d just received Stanley’s appalling offer for my writing services on Full Metal Jacket. Rendered almost inarticulate by representational indignation, he taunted, “Little Stanley Kubrick wants his Bar Mitzvah money” (a Jewish man talking to a Jewish man about another Jewish man), adding, “And it isn’t even his money!,” obviously impressed, as we all were, by the nerve of the guy.Stanley was a good friend, and wonderful to work with, but he was a terrible man to do business with, terrible. His cheapness was proverbial, and it’s true that in the matter of deal-making, whether it was his money or Warner Bros.’ money, it flowed down slow and thin, and sometimes not at all, unless you were a necessary star, and even then: it bugged him for years that Jack Nicholson made more money from The Shining than he did. If, I feel I should add, Nicholson really did.
Stanley’s money pathology was one of the most amazing behavioral phenomena I’ve ever witnessed. In spite of the care he took, and the tremendous price he paid, to distance himself in all ways from the brutal, greedy men who ran Hollywood, a piece of him was always heart to heart with them, elective affinity, and he would sometimes use their methods. It’s possible that a few of Stanley’s ships sailed under Liberian registration, that his word was not necessarily his bond; and it’s true, if you were only in it for the money, I can see where you would feel undercompensated, some have said ripped off.
Stanley was the Big Fisherman. He played everybody like a fish, but all different fish, from the majestic salmon to the great white shark, from the agile trout to the sluggish mudfish, each to be played in its particular way according to the speed of the current and the fighting capacity of his adversary, and obviously his desire and even need for the fish. Sometimes there was just more fight than play, and he’d cut bait, but much more often there were the ones who couldn’t wait to jump right into his boat and knock themselves out, because after all he was Stanley Kubrick.
And he knew it, had every reason to know it. It really was Stanley’s feeling that it was a privilege to be working with him, and it wasn’t remotely the way it sounds, it was a reality that existed far beyond any question of arrogance or humility. I agreed with it then, and nothing ever happened to make me feel any different. Still, it made him happy, knowing that I would never make more than the lamest pro forma difficulties over what he loved to call “emoluments.” Probably somewhere he pitied me for being so careless with my “price,” for offering him my soft white throat like that, knowing as I did that he would never find it on his pathological screen not to take advantage of it.
“Gee, Michael, you’re such a pure guy,” almost drooling with sarcasm.
“Are you calling me a schmuck, Stanley?” And my agent’s words would pop into my head.
Stanley hadn’t really been Bar Mitzvahed. He was barely making it in school; he couldn’t do junior-high English, let alone Hebrew, and besides, Dr. and Mrs. Kubrick weren’t very religious, and anyway, Stanley didn’t want to. He was not what anybody would have called well rounded. From the day he entered grade school in 1934, his attendance record had been a mysterious tissue of serial and sustained absences, his discipline nonexistent or at least nonapparent, his grades shocking. He’d received Unsatisfactory on “Works and Plays Well with Others,” “Respects Rights of Others,” and, inevitably, “Personality.” He did all right in physics, but he graduated from high school with a 70 average, and college was out of the question. At 17 he was already working as a freelance photographer for Look magazine, and he joined the staff, and he played a lot of chess, and read a lot of books, and otherwise arranged for his own higher education, as all smart people do.
Stanley always seemed supernaturally youthful to his friends. His voice didn’t age over the almost 20 years that I knew him. He had a disarming way of “leavening” serious discourse with low adolescent humor, smutty actually, sophomoric, by which I mean a sophomore in high school. (Think of Lolita, with its cherry-pie, cavity-filling, and limp-noodle jokes, so blatantly smutty, without shame, subversive, which was the idea. He’d set the lyric-erotic Nabokovian tone and captured an essence of the novel in the opening credit sequence, the tender and meticulous painting of Lolita’s toes, and then begun the comedy. What a fabulous shiny moral barometer that movie looked like in 1962, when it was new, and how we loved which way we thought the wind was going to blow.) Everybody brings his adolescence forward through life with him, but Stanley’s adolescence was like a spring, not necessarily rising pure, but always fresh, and refreshing, and touching, because you’d get a glimpse at times of someone like Little Stanley in there, an awesomely intelligent teenager in a lot of pain keeping his courage up. Sometimes I imagined that I could see his actual adolescence in all its devious complexity.
In Vincent LoBrutto’s biography Stanley Kubrick, there’s a photograph of this socially challenged, academically reviled phenom, taken when he was 12 or 13, around the time he would have been Bar Mitzvahed, if he’d been Bar Mitzvahed, like a normal person. As a piece of evidence in some kind of Citizen Kane scavenger hunt to establish the character of a legend, it’s convincing in suggesting how this possibly dweeb-like little Jewish kid from the Bronx came to identify so intimately yet so appropriately with Napoleon.
It’s as striking and unsettling as photographs he used later in his movies: the late Mr. Haze in Lolita, “the soul of integrity,” whose mean, calculating eyes look down from his widow’s bedroom wall (his ashes are displayed on the bureau) upon the sexual train-wreck-waiting-to-happen, or Jack Torrance in The Shining, who has “always been the caretaker” at the Overlook, smiling like One Possessed in a picture on the hotel wall taken a generation before he was born. Only just pubescent and already temperamentally if not yet tactically beyond the possibility of compromise; secretive but frank, focused, willful, serious and seriously amused, not looking at you so much as past you, at what I’d be reluctant to say. I would call it a picture of a very powerful boy, a handful (as I’m sure someone in the house must have called him at least once), maybe not certain of what he wants but unusually clear about what he doesn’t want, and won’t stand still for; very refined features, delicate but tough, Stanley on the trembling lip of manhood, a pre-teen face enveloping an ancient soul, like he’s already seen them come and seen them go, and so what?
(This photograph could also suggest why, when he came to make his “youth movie,” actual youth was completely absent from it. A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 to unprecedented controversy, odium even, revealing presumptions in the critical “community” about the high order of our so-called civilization that Stanley was affronting here, a condemnation of the ambiguity that has always been the sign of the first-rate. I think he scared himself with that one, which speaks well for any artist, art and life riding so close together and out of control here that there was no time for one to imitate the other, it was pouring from the same fount. The copycat beatings and killings started as soon as it was shown in England, and he permanently withdrew it from release there. Right-minded people couldn’t believe that he was aware of what a repellent film he’d made, because if he’d been aware he could never have made it. But certainly he was aware, and perfectly sincere; he didn’t care that it was repellent—it was meant to be repellent—as long as it was beautiful.)
He disliked the usual references to his having been a “chess hustler” in his Greenwich Village days, as though this impugned the gravity and beauty of the exercise, the suggestion that his game wasn’t pour le sport or, more correctly, pour l’art. To win the game was important, to win the money was irresistible, but it was nothing compared with his game, with the searching, endless action of working on his game. But of course he was hustling, he was always hustling; as he grew older and moved beyond still photography, chess became movies, and movies became chess by other means. I doubt that he ever thought of chess as just a game, or even as a game at all. I do imagine that a lot of people sitting across the board from him got melted, fried, and fragmented when Stanley let that cool ray come streaming down out of his eyes—talk about penetrating looks and piercing intelligence; here they’d sat down to a nice game of chess, and all of a sudden he was doing the thinking for both of them.
A high-school friend, the director Alexander Singer, went with Stanley to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky around this time. “And we hear Prokofiev’s score for the battle on the ice and Stanley never gets over that. He bought a record of it and… played it over and over and over again,” until his kid sister couldn’t stand it anymore and broke it. “I think the word ‘obsessive’ is not unfair.”
It’s fair only as far as it goes; just as he was multidisciplined, he was variously obsessive, and not fastidious about picking up information, and not afraid of whatever the information might be. Nobody who really thinks he’s smarter than everyone else could ask as many questions as he always did. He was beating the patzers in the park, working for Look magazine, sometimes using a series of still photos to tell a story, sometimes taking pictures of people like Dwight Eisenhower and George Grosz, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio (and, I’m sure, keeping his eyes and ears open), reading 10 or 20 books a week, and trying to see every movie ever made. There was definitely such a thing as a bad movie, but there was no movie not worth seeing. As a kid he’d been part of the neighborhood multitude that poured ritually, communally, in and out of Loew’s Paradise and the RKO Fordham two or three times a week, and now he haunted the Museum of Modern Art and the few foreign-film revival houses, the very underground Cinema 16, and the triple-feature houses along 42nd Street.
Reportedly he was already careless, even reckless, in his appearance, mixing his plaids in wild shirt, jacket and necktie combinations never seen on the street before, disreputable trousers, way-out accidental hairdos. He started infiltrating what- ever film facilities were in the city in those days, hanging around cutting rooms, labs, equipment stores, asking questions: How do you do that? and What would happen if you did this instead? and How much do you think it would cost if…? He was jazz-mad, and went to the clubs, and a Yankees fan, so he went to the ball games too, all of this in New York in the late 40s and early 50s, a smart, spacey, wide-awake kid like that, it’s no wonder he was such a hipster, a 40s-bred, 50s-minted, tough-minded, existential, highly evolved classic hipster. His view and his temperament were much closer to Lenny Bruce’s than to any other director’s, and this was not merely a recurring aspect of his. He had lots of modes and aspects, but Stanley was a hipster all the time.
Just look at the credits of Killer’s Kiss to see what the 27-year-old director thought of himself even then. Story By—no screenplay credit is given—Produced By, and Edited, Photographed and Directed By Stanley Kubrick. But get a load of the film too. He made it under severe time and money limitations, which he addressed like a soldier, and not a boy soldier either, making virtues out of limitations, so that even though it’s only 67 minutes long it’s not really a small movie. You can see in 10 seconds how infatuated he was with the medium, and how incredibly adept, every scene packed with ideas, ambition, with tribute, hommage, even the odd tributary theft (what he started calling “souveniring” later, when he began picking up on the Vietnam grunt vernacular), mostly from the Europeans who had given him so much pleasure and inspiration: Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, Vsevelod Pudovkin, Jean Renoir, Vittorio De Sica, and, always, Max Ophüls, with that fluent, rapturous, delirious camera of his. It also has a strange ending, a painful travesty of a happy ending, where the couple go off together even though we’ve seen both of them cravenly betray and desert each other to save their own lives. It’s the kind of touch that would come to be called Kubrickian.
Money well timed and properly applied can accomplish anything. —Thackeray and/or Kubrick, Barry Lyndon.
We were driving toward Beckton, an abandoned gas- works in far East London, near the London docks. It was a late masterpiece of the 19th-century Imperial Industrial Style, and Stanley had arranged to blow it up for his Vietnam film, let the pieces fall exactly where he wanted them to fall, even if it meant countermanding the laws of physics, and re-create Hue, which it already uncannily resembled, built about the same time as the industrial district of the Vietnamese city, and out of the same grand, doomed cultural assumptions. (He never got the thin light of the Southeast England skies to match the opulent light over Vietnam, but whatever could be dressed was dressed à la Kubrick, Stanley studying photographs of palm trees that he’d had taken in Spain, individually choosing from the thousands of trees which ones he wanted in his movie. Very meticulous guy, Stanley.)
Beckton (or Bec Phu, as it was called after its Vietnamization) was about 40 miles from his house. He drove us, and he drove the white Porsche that he supposedly used only to tool around his driveway in. He handled the stick with great proficiency. He drove at speeds above 60, and neither of us wore a crash helmet. It may be true, as has been reported so many times, and is in all the books about him, that he wouldn’t let anybody driving him go above 35, and would not get in a car without a helmet. It’s not unbelievable. His whole hard drive was up there; it would only be prudent to protect it, to say the least. Maybe by the time I knew him he’d grown reckless.
As we approached the gasworks, Stanley pointed to a row of small, grimy houses across the road from the plant.
“I’ll bet they were owned by the company,” he said. “They’d rent them out to their laborers and their families. They had them coming and going. It reminds me of the old studio system.”
I looked over at them. They were so marginal, so dark.
“I wonder who lives in them now.”
“Poor people,” Stanley said.
Stanley liked to quote the songwriter Sammy Cahn, who was asked in an interview which came first, the words or the music. “The check,” Sammy said. (Stanley called him “Sammy.” He had never met him, but they were in the same business.)He’d say that when he was younger and people used to ask him why he became a movie director, he’d tell them, Because the pay was good. He was excited by the roar of the propellers as big money took off and went flying through the system, circulating and separating into fewer and larger pockets, even if those pockets were not always his own; he just liked knowing that it was going on out there. He had great respect for the box office, if not the greatest respect, and found something to admire in even the most vile movie once it passed a hundred million. For him, that kind of success always produced some kind of wonderful/horrible aura, vox populi, a reflection of a meaningful fragment of the culture that he contemplated so ardently. Stanley never was one of those middle-class American Jewish men who are afraid of success.
He loved the biz, the industry, the action he observed day and night from his bridge; all those actors and directors and projects, all the dumb energy endlessly turning over in the studios and the P.R. that came with each new product; he loved being a part of it from his amazing remove, and in terms of being a player, he didn’t see himself as better or worse, higher or lower, than any of them, all of them in play together, playing toward commerce and art, big expensive art and works of art for the cash register or, as I’ve sometimes thought in his case, art films with blockbuster pretensions.
He wasn’t exactly Show People, but he knew a lot about the procedures and protocols: if I mentioned some moment I’d liked in one of his films, he’d say, “Showmanship, Michael,” with more irony and levels of irony than you can imagine, with so much amusement, and affection, and respect. And modesty.
I’m not claiming that Stanley wasn’t self-absorbed, but I don’t think that just because he was obsessive-retentive he was a monomaniac, or even any more egocentric than anybody else in the movies. And I suppose that he was “selfish,” which doesn’t exactly make him a freak in the Directors Guild (or the Writers Guild either), nor was his particular selfishness uncharacteristic of artists in general, especially when they’ve acquired the reputation for genius. A powerful vision can be very fragile while it’s still only in the mind, and people have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect it. He didn’t think he was the only person in the world, or the only director, or even the only great director. I just think that he thought he was the greatest director, although he never said so in so many words.
Just because you like my work doesn’t mean that I owe you anything. —Bob Dylan
It’s been said by critics that he was misogynistic, although he photographed some women beautifully: Jean Simmons in Spartacus, Sue Lyon in Lolita, Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon, Susanne Christian in Paths of Glory, and, judging from the 90-second trailer for Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman. There are some wonderful women in Stanley’s movies, and some of them he had enough respect for that he made them as dangerous as any of the men. And they say he couldn’t make love stories, when what they mean is he couldn’t make happy love stories, since there’s the famously difficult love of Humbert and Lo in Lolita, and Redmond Barry’s young love for his cousin Nora in Barry Lyndon. She marries a pompous, cowardly, ugly Englishman for her convenience and the convenience of her family, turning Redmond into a fatally hard case. His films were certainly unromantic, possibly even anti-romantic.I know from dozens of articles and a few too many books that Stanley was considered cold, although this would have to be among people who never knew him. This perception devolved into cant among a lot of critics, who called his work sterile, particularly in the New York circle (what an awful time liberals have had with his movies; what convolutions of reason and belief, what sad denials of pleasure), including some of the best, even Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. Writing the week after Stanley’s death about Killer’s Kiss, he says, “Because Kubrick was still learning, and was hobbled by a tight budget, he couldn’t help stumbling up against life; the story of his subsequent career has been the slow and maniacal banishment of that young man’s riskiness, to the point where feelings, like rainfall, can be measured by the inch.” So how many inches for Charlotte Haze’s hunger and confusion, or for Humbert’s unending torture, in Lolita? How many for the loneliness verging on desperation of a space that’s empty beyond conception, and even emptier for the presence of a few humans, in 2001: A Space Odyssey? How many for Lady Lyndon’s humiliation and despair, and for all of Barry’s disappointments, however well earned, or for the grief they attempt to share at the death of their child, in Barry Lyndon? What about the living hell of Jack’s madness/possession in The Shining, or the truly unbearable suffering of Marine recruit Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket? Not even Robert Bresson showed more suffering in his films. Merciless is not the same as pitiless. In 2001, even the last words of a dying, sexually ambivalent computer are pitiful. Worse, to some unforgivable, even vicious, violent Droogie Alex in A Clockwork Orange, denatured and cast out by Em and Pee and the unspeakable Joe the Lodger, breaks your heart as he walks along the river clutching his life in a parcel, and it’s not a comfortable feeling. As Stanley said when we started to write Full Metal Jacket, “Well, Michael, it looks like I’m making another Who Do You Root For movie.”
Just as it made Stanley happy to know that all was well in the Emolumental Universe, so it upset and offended him to hear stories of profligacy among members of the industry. This wasn’t simply a phobic reaction to waste and folly, it was a response to energy and intelligence that weren’t burning like his own, furious and clean. I told him about a dinner I’d had a few nights before with a director, a man whose history had set new industry standards for wretched excess, and there he was again, committing further hubris in a London restaurant, leaving £300 worth of wine that had been ordered and opened sitting untouched on the table when we left. Stanley shook his head sadly. “You see, Michael. These guys don’t know how to live like monks.”I have to apologize for repeating this story, which I’ve told before, because I don’t know how to describe Stanley to you without it. I’d already begun to think of him that way before he said it, half joking and perfectly serious. His distance from people, his “impersonality,” were always attributed to his supposed neuroses, his “misanthropy,” but I think they were more probably signs of his purity. He lived a simple (outer) life, and a largely devotional one, although admittedly secular. Childwick Bury was as much a studio as a home, a double studio actually, one for him and his movies and one for his wife, Christiane, and her painting. It was a space of perpetual creative activity. He was thought by the press, and so by the public, to be sequestered there, lurking, scheming, like Howard Hughes or Dr. Mabuse or the Wizard of Oz, depending on which paper you read. This is because none of them could ever imagine living the kind of life Stanley lived. Anyway, he wasn’t misanthropic, he was irreverent; and come to think of it, he wasn’t irreverent either.
They say he had no personal life, but that’s ridiculous. It would be more correct to say that he had no professional life, since everything he did was personally done; every move and every call he made, every impulse he expressed, was utterly personal, devoted to the making of his movies, which were all personal. In terms of worldly activity, since you’d have to look to the spiritual sector to find anything like it, I never knew anyone who cared so much and so completely about his work.
When we first met I told him secondhand stories about the filming of Apocalypse Now, and what a tough shoot it had been. “They’re all tough, Michael,” he said, and they were, at least the way he did it. Yet something drew people to it, and kept them at it, even into the part of the process where you felt like you were a slave, to it and to him, like he and his movie were inseparable, insatiable, you were trapped in it, even though the door was always open and you were technically, if not always contractually, free to walk through it at any time. People stayed, holding on to whatever piece of the prevailing obsession was going around at the moment, dragging massive blocks nights and weekends and holidays to build another one of Stanley’s pyramids, and whether cheerful or resentful didn’t matter that much to him, although he preferred cheerful.
The more highly paid you were, or the closer to the actual shooting, the more enslaved you were likely to be. If you were right there on the set with film running, the pressure could be amazing, or so I was convincingly told by many of the cast and crew of Full Metal Jacket. I wasn’t the cameraman or the art director or even a grip, or, thank God, an actor. I was only even on the location two or three times, so maybe I wasn’t properly enslaved at all. I may have rewritten a few scenes 20 or 30 times—I would have done that anyway—but I never had to go through the number of takes Stanley would require. It was everything anyone ever said it was and more, and worse, whatever it took to “get it right,” as he always called it. What he meant by that I couldn’t say, nor could hundreds of people who have worked for him, but none of us doubted that he knew what he meant.
After seeing Paths of Glory, I remember walking out on the street and thinking that I’d never seen anybody shot and killed in a movie before. I was 17, I’d seen a few (thousand) movies, and I soon realized that I’d been seeing it all my life: cowboys shooting Indians, Indians shooting cavalry, cops shooting robbers, good guys shooting bad guys, weak guys shooting strong guys, Japanese and Germans and Americans shooting one another—it was a staple of the cinema. This was the first time I’d seen it done in this way, as calculated and pitiless as a firing squad itself, no possibility to dissociate, no way to look someplace else. Stanley had apparently wanted a last-minute reprieve for the condemned soldiers, a happy ending, because it was more commercial, and he wanted to make money. Now, 25 years later, he wanted Joker, the teenage hero of The Short-Timers and of his still-untitled movie, to die. (He also wanted a Joker voice-over.) I didn’t think so. “It’s the Death of the Hero,” he said. “It’ll be so powerful, so moving.” And he was genuinely moved by it. “We’ve seen it in Homer, Michael.”I’d arrived for work in the late afternoon. “Ready for some serious brainstorming, Michael? You want a drink first?” I reflexively checked my watch. “How come all you heavy drinkers always look at your watches when somebody offers you a drink?”
Jim Thompson, the toughest pulp novelist of them all, had made him nervous when they were working together on The Killing, a big guy in a dirty old raincoat, a terrific writer but a little too hard-boiled for Stanley’s taste. He’d turn up for work carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, but saying nothing about it—it was just there on the desk with no apology or comment—not at all interested in putting Stanley at ease except to offer him the bag, which Stanley declined, and making no gestures whatever to any part of the Hollywood process, except maybe toward the money.
We were working that afternoon in the War Room, a large space on the ground floor, which would have been airy if it hadn’t been crammed with computers and filing cabinets, long trestle tables littered with sketches, plans, contracts, hundreds of photographs of weapons, streets, pagodas, prostitutes, shrines, signs. (He’d taken three months, an entire summer, to go through his Full Metal Jacket contract with Warners, crawling up underneath the boilerplating to make sure there were no hidden viruses, checking the esoteric meanings of “force majeure,” calling his lawyer, Louis Blau, in L.A. every hour, because Stanley hated surprises.) There were two sets of French doors opening onto the garden, part of which was fenced off to make sure that none of the dogs got to any of the cats. He kept the cats in this section of the house and fed them himself. While we talked he cleaned their litter boxes.
The American language of the Vietnam War gave him tremendous pleasure. “Michael, I need this scene finished most ricky-tick” (a variation on “I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday”), or “Michael, these pages you sent me today are Number Ten. [Laughing.] In fact, I think they may even be Number Twelve.” One scene, where a bunch of Marines sit around in the evening eating C rations and talking (titled “C Rats with Andre” on the scene-by-scene file cards he kept), wasn’t only too long but too talky, boring, and a little sentimental. “Shouldn’t there be some guy playing a harmonica in the back?” he said. One day we took a few of Stanley’s guns over to a local gun club and fired at their range. It surprised him that someone who’d spent so much time in a war could be such a lousy shot. “Gee, Michael, I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve got what it takes to carry a rifle in my beloved Corps.”
The walls of his workrooms were one continuous shooting board—lists and schedules, names, dates, equipment, locations; except for one crowded wall, which seemed to be devoted to Stanley’s investments.
He liked the way my pages looked: open spacing, agreeable format, good font, big enough for easy reading but never obtrusive. He was very happy with the dialogue. But he wanted the scenes shorter. “Tell me, Michael, did you ever see a movie that had too many good short scenes?”—a funny question from a director who loved long takes and long scenes, who was, in Anthony Lane’s opinion, “alarmingly insolent toward the demands of chronology,” which wasn’t meant as a compliment but should be, and referred perhaps to the leap across three million years in a single jump cut in 2001, or the languorous protractions of 18th-century discourse held in rooms lit by candles in Barry Lyndon, every one of his films making its powerful assertion that pace is story as surely as character is destiny. He’d watched The Godfather again the night before and was reluctantly suggesting for the 10th time that it was possibly the greatest movie ever made, and certainly the best-cast.
“Your buddy Francis really hit the nail on the head with that one…; [Because Francis was another director, and a friend of mine, Stanley affected to regard him through a long lens.] It was certainly better than One from the Heart.”
“I loved One from the Heart,” I said.
“Boy, Michael, you’re so loyal…; Anyway, what were we talking about?”
It drove him nuts that I didn’t use one. This was 1983, pre-laptop. There were five computers in this room alone, all running, and he’d move from station to station to feed and manipulate data while we talked.
“Michael, listen to me: it’s only a very limited, arbitrary, and simple series of commands that you just don’t know yet. I mean, how hard can it be? The police use them.”
“I know, Stanley, but—”
“Michael I’m telling you, blah blah blah,” and “Michael I swear to God blah blah blah…; At least for screenplays [a lesser form] you’re crazy not to use them.”
He gave a demonstration to soften my Luddite heart and show me that I was only making more work for myself by resisting. He went to the computer that he was using to write the script. He typed, marked, cut, pasted, while I faked interest. When he was finished with the routine, Christiane phoned to say that dinner was ready. As we left, I reminded him that he hadn’t turned the computers off.
“They like to be left on,” he said ironically, factually, tenderly.
I sometimes thought that he was ruled by his aversions; chief among them—worse than waste, haste, carelessness to details, hugging, and even germs—was bullshit in all its proliferating manifestations, subtle and gross, from the flabby political face telling lies on TV to the most private, much more devastating lies we tell ourselves. Culture lies were especially revolting. Hypocrisy was not some petty human foible, it was the corrupted essence of our predicament, which for Stanley was purely an existential predicament. In terms of narrative, since movies are stories, the most contemptible lie was sentimentality, and the most disgusting lie was sanctimoniousness.Once a year he’d get the latest issue of Maledicta, a journal of scatological invective and insult, unashamedly incorrect, willfully scurrilous, and pretty funny, and read me the highlights.
“Hey Michael, what’s the American Dream?”
“Ten million blacks swimming to Africa, with a Jew under each arm.”
To which he added, “Don’t worry, Michael. They don’t mean us.”
Since everybody talks about Stanley Kubrick’s Eye, I’d like to say a word about his Ear: I’ve been reading lately about his “suspicion of language,” in books and critical pieces, and in the often strangely rancorous tributes that followed his death, and yet it’s always seemed obvious to me that language was one of the most striking things about his films. Whether cunningly, crushingly banal (a couple of “normal guys [getting] together to talk about world events in a normal sort of way,” as Quilty incognito tells Humbert agonistes in Lolita) or in manic bursts of frantic satire (inspired and encouraged, maybe childishly egged on, by Terry Southern and Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove), or starkly obscene, utterly cruel, sparing nobody’s sensibilities, from yarblocko nadsat in A Clockwork Orange to the elaborate yet brutal locutions of the 18th century in Barry Lyndon to the vicious comedy of Full Metal Jacket, he was highly sensitive to literary mise en scène, completely susceptible to it. He wasn’t merely unsuspicious of language, he was a believer, he had faith in it. Without it, dialogue was just talk.
Once he became his own man, he was drawn to his projects as much by the writing of the source material as by anything else. Story was at least as alive in the voice as it was in the plot; I know this is true of Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket (and if it didn’t already exist in Stephen King, Stanley and Diane Johnson brilliantly invented it for The Shining), and although I haven’t seen it, I’m sure that Eyes Wide Shut will contain the reflected, refracted, written essence of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, no matter what Stanley did to the “story,” after leaving it to season for nearly 30 years in his mind. He was always looking for the visual equivalents of what he’d first responded to when he read the book, and in that way paying some real respect to it.
Stanley didn’t live in England because he disliked America. God knows, it’s all he ever talked about. It was always on his mind, and in his blood. I’m not sure he even really knew he wasn’t living in America all along, although he hadn’t been there since 1968. In the days before satellite TV, he’d had relatives and friends send him tapes of American television—N.F.L. games, the Johnny Carson show, news broadcasts, and commercials, which he thought were, in their way, the most interesting films being made. (He’d tape his favorite commercials and recut them, just for the monkish exercise.) He was crazy about The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and he loved Roseanne, because it was funny and, he believed, the most authentic view of the country you could get without actually living there. “Gee, Stanley, you’re a real man of the people,” I said, but in his way he was. He was fiercely unpretentious. He was exclusive, he had to be, but he wasn’t a snob. It wasn’t America he couldn’t take. It was L.A.He was walking into a Hollywood restaurant one night in 1955 as James Dean came out, stepped into the Porsche Spyder that had just been brought around by the parking valet, and drove off. Stanley remarked at the time how fast he was going.
He lived in Hollywood for three or four years and made two movies, The Killing, which got him a lot of attention, and Paths of Glory, which got him a lot of respect. He and his partner, James B. Harris, formed a small company. He went to a thousand meetings with Harris, tummled and hondled, read and wrote scripts, watched the big changes as star power, in the form of independent production companies, started breaking down the old studios, and wished all the time that he was in New York.
Harris told me that when they were making Paths of Glory Stanley came to him with a new final scene, something to follow the execution of the three soldiers and make the ending less grim. A young German girl has been captured by the French, and they force her to sing for them in a tavern. They intend to humiliate her, but when she sings, her innocence and the suffering that they’ve all been through move them to tears of shame and humanity.
Stanley had just met a young German actress, Susanne Christian, and was going out with her. “She was his girlfriend,” Harris said. “He was really crazy about her, and he came to me with this scene he’d just written, and I said, ‘Stanley, you can’t just do this scene so your girlfriend can be in the movie.’” But Stanley had his way, and gave the film an unforgettable ending. The actress was incredible. Then she and Stanley got married, and the marriage lasted 40 years. Harris laughed. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Stanley could hardly fail to notice that very few directors had anything close to autonomy on their pictures. He said the way the studios were run in the 50s made him think of Clemenceau’s remark about the Allies winning World War I because our generals were marginally less stupid than their generals. He was determined to find some way to succeed there, because he didn’t know where else he could make movies. His ambition was spectacular; he had talent and confidence, a steely brain and huge brass balls. He saw clearly that on every picture someone had to be in charge, and figured that it might as well be him.
He told me that he owed it all to Kirk Douglas. Douglas once called Stanley “a talented shit,” and this may be one of the nicer things he said about him. He’d starred in Paths of Glory, and even though he’d done himself a lot of good by it, I imagine that he felt Stanley owed him, and would be grateful and pliant when he hired him to replace Anthony Mann after three weeks of shooting on Spartacus. The script had been written by Dalton Trumbo, who was still blacklisted in 1958, and when the producers agonized over whether they dared give him the writing credit or not, Stanley suggested that they solve the problem by giving the credit to him. (Douglas says that Stanley never wrote one word of that script, but I doubt this. Laurence Olivier’s Crassus is the most complex character ever to appear in an epic-genre film, almost Shakespearean, and I’m sure Stanley wrote and otherwise informed a lot of those scenes. I don’t think he wrote lines like “Get up, Spartacus, you Thracian dog.”) Kirk Douglas (and this is rich) was offended by Stanley’s chutzpah.
But specifically, conclusively, it was Kirk on horseback and Stanley on foot, just about to shoot a scene and having yet another of their violent disagreements. Kirk rode his white freedom-fighter stallion into Stanley to make his point, which was that he was the star and the producer, turning his horse’s flank against Stanley, pushing him back farther and farther to drive it home again, then riding away, leaving Stanley standing in the dust, furious and humiliated, as one of the wise guys on the crew walks by and says, “Remember, Stanley: The play’s the thing.”
The only other two places he knew of to make movies in were New York and London, and New York was too hard, and too expensive. That’s how he became English Stanley, and why he made all his movies there, most of them within an hour’s drive from his house. The English work ethic drove him nuts. The crew would call him “Squire” on the set, and he got so pissed off at their endless tea breaks that he wanted to film them surreptitiously when he was shooting Lolita there in 1961. He said, “England’s a place where it’s much more difficult to buy something than to sell something.” He once asked me if I’d mind moving with my family to Vancouver for a year to check it out for him, and he heard Sydney was a great place, maybe I could try that out for him too, but he liked England, it suited his family and it suited him, living and working and making telephone calls in his great house, his multi-gated manor, his estate, his park. And anyway, if he’d lived in America, it would have been in such a house, used the same way, as a studio, a citadel, a monastery, a controlled Stanley Kubrick environment, so what difference did it make which country it was in?
Gentiles don’t know how to worry. —Stanley Kubrick
I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t get extremely irritated, that I never thought he was a cheap prick, or that his lack of trust wasn’t sometimes obstructive and less than wholesome, that his demands and requirements weren’t just too much. Nothing got between the dog and his meat, somewhere it was that basic—I only just hesitate to say primitive. It was definitely unobstructed; you’d have to be Herman Melville to transmit the full strength of Stanley’s will—My Way or the Highway—yet he rarely raised his voice. It was hard to know whether he was just supernaturally focused or utterly fixated. “What is it they say, Michael—if something can go wrong, it will?” Vigilance wasn’t enough, pre-emption was the only way to go. Don’t think just because you’ve known a few control freaks in your time that you can imagine what Stanley Kubrick was like.Tony Frewin and Leon Vitali, who’d been working as Stanley’s assistants for years, said there was a staff joke about the one phrase you would never hear at Childwick Bury, and a week after Stanley’s death someone actually said it to them. It went, “Use your own judgment, and don’t bother me with the details.” His concerns ran from the ethereal-aesthetic through the technical to the crudely logistical, no detail too prosaic, all the way down to stationery and paper clips.
We know that even though he had a pilot’s license he’d stopped flying almost 40 years ago, allegedly after monitoring the air-traffic controllers at La Guardia Airport. I used to kid him about oversubscribing to the germ theory, and he’d go on various health kicks as long as they didn’t require any effort, like an aspirin a day, and vitamin C in the form of Redoxon, an English fizzy tablet in various flavors, “very pleasant-tasting,” upgraded to “delicious,” then invoking scientific opinion—“I mean, Michael, it’s Linus Pauling. He certainly ought to know what he’s talking about”—figuring, anyway, “at the worst, you’re only wasting your money.”
He had more compartments in his head than anyone else I have ever known, and he would open or close them selectively to the people he was working with, or to each of his friends; the one with the money in it, the one where he kept all his toys, the one where he kept his most personal things, like his hopes and his fears, that sort of thing, and whatever he loved most besides work, his family and friends, his dogs and cats. And however adroitly he manipulated the doors to those compartments—now open, now closed—essentially Stanley was a very open guy. Still, none of those compartments ever sprang open accidentally.
Beyond those compartments, and governing them, was a capability to take his intelligence up or down as circumstances required, without ever being either obscure or patronizing, a rather beautiful quality of mind.
I once told Stanley William Burroughs’s line “A paranoid-schizophrenic is a guy who just found out what’s going on,” and he took it to his heart. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I’ve gotta write that down.” He put it into wide release, telling it to everyone he knew, and I think it was mostly because he was so pleased to find himself of one mind with someone he admired as much as Burroughs. “What is it they say, Michael: What one has thought so often, but never said so well?”
Stanley would have said it was cash, but I think the most perishable element in the making of a movie is reverence. On most pictures it rarely survives the first day of shooting, but in Stanley’s case it had a life of its own. You can follow its career over the course of a series of interviews, usually but not always with actors, normally spanning a couple of years: They’re so honored to be working with Stanley, they’d do anything in the world to work with Stanley, such a privilege they’d work with Stanley for free. And then they work with Stanley and go through hells that nothing in their careers could have prepared them for; they think they must have been mad to get involved, they think that they’d die before they would ever work with him again, that fixated maniac, and when it’s all behind them and the profound fatigue of so much intensity has worn off, they’d do anything in the world to work for him again. For the rest of their professional lives they long to work with someone who cares the way Stanley did, someone they can learn from. They look for someone to respect the way they came to respect him, but they can’t find anybody. Their received, fictionalized, show-business reverence has been chastened and reborn as real reverence. I’ve heard this story so many times.
He’d been looking all day at hundreds of audition tapes sent in from all over America and England in response to the public casting call for Full Metal Jacket.“Some of them are interesting. Most of them are terrible. Oh well, I suppose I can always wipe the tapes and use them to record football on.” Like this was the first he’d thought of it.
Stanley was in his Low Road mode for Full Metal Jacket. “I only want people working on this one that no one else will hire or, if they hired them, would never dream of hiring them again.” This was of course Kubrickian misanthropic hyperbole, muttered privately to me, because he could never, would never, work with anything less than the best, even if that meant educating them all, “correcting” them, as Grady calls it in The Shining. And he started in on actors and all the problems they bring, not forgetting to sing a few choruses, without much conviction, of his old song about actors being to blame for the number of takes he was always forced to do. On Barry Lyndon, Marisa Berenson had a line, “We’re taking the children for a ride to the village. We’ll be back in time for tea.” “And Marisa couldn’t say it. We must have done 50 on that one alone.”
We talked a lot about actors for Full Metal Jacket. He couldn’t wait to find out who would play Sergeant Hartman, the demon drill instructor—“It’s such a fantastic part.” We talked about Robert De Niro, but Stanley thought the audience would feel cheated when he’s killed off in the first hour. Then he was thinking about Ed Harris, but Harris wasn’t interested, because “Get this, Michael. He wants to take a year off! Hey, I know! What about Richard Benjamin? He’d be perfect, Michael, ha ha ha ha.”
He didn’t exactly utter the word “actors” under his breath like a curse, but he definitely thought of them as wild cards, something to be overcome with difficulty. They were so lazy about learning their lines, were often otherwise “unprepared,” so capricious, so childlike, and the younger ones were completely spoiled. There was even something mysterious, and to him a little freakish, about anybody who could and would stand up in front of other people to assume and express emotions at will, sometimes to the point of tears.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have to tell you, I really like actors.”
“That’s because you don’t have to pay them, Michael.”
One of the sweetest things anybody ever said about Stanley, and one of the truest, was something Matthew Modine told Stanley’s biographer Vincent LoBrutto: “He’s probably the most heartfelt person I ever met. It’s hard for him, being from the Bronx with that neighborhood mentality, and he tries to cover it up. Right underneath that veneer is a very loving, conscientious man, who doesn’t like pain, who doesn’t like to see humans suffering or animals suffering. I was really surprised by the man.”This from a guy who really suffered for most of the year that he was in London shooting Full Metal Jacket, as part of an ensemble of young actors, some of them hardly actors at all, who had only the most rudimentary sense of what Stanley actually meant by “knowing your lines”; by which he meant that you had to know them so completely that there were no other possible lines anywhere in your head, and certainly no lines of your own, unless you were Peter Sellers or Lee Ermey. They were a jolly enthusiastic crew, some very talented, some not, all thrilled to be in a Stanley Kubrick movie—I think they all saw blue skies and high times ahead—but there was a plateau of discipline that they couldn’t have known existed before. Stanley showed them, and it hurt.
Then there was a break in the shooting of almost five months after Lee Ermey smashed up his car late one night and broke all his ribs on one side. Some of the cast had other jobs lined up and had to juggle while they sat and waited in London, going to the theater five and six times a week, and tried to keep some kind of edge. Vincent D’Onofrio had gained 40 or 50 pounds to play Private Pyle, and he had to keep the weight on through all those idle months. A few of them with their wives and girlfriends would come to our apartment for dinner, and they were all flipping out. They believed that Stanley asked me to the set only on the rare days when there were no foreseeable glitches, because he didn’t want me to hear the way he spoke to them. When I went to the set, they’d come over to me between takes, search my face for a clue, confused and half-mutinous, and then Stanley would walk by and say something like “Don’t talk to my actors, Michael.”
I have no idea what really went on for Stanley with actors. I do know that it was his belief, or his prevailing hunch, that actors were really working only when film was running. If he had any preconceptions about what he wanted them to be doing, he kept them to himself. Maybe actors were essentially visuals for Stanley, like Alfred Hitchcock and his blondes. Stanley said he didn’t like Hitchcock much—“all that phony rear projection”—but they had a lot in common. I was always impressed by what Hitchcock did with, or to, James Stewart in Vertigo, ruthlessly (but far more subtly than Carl Dreyer making Falconetti kneel on cobblestones all night to experience the suffering of Joan of Arc) drawing a performance out of him that was so sweaty, tortured, and unwholesome that, if Stewart had known he had any of that in him, he would have done anything in the world to conceal it. I think that Stanley did something like this with just about every actor he ever worked with.
Nor could I explain that strange irresistible requirement he had for pushing his actors as far beyond a “naturalistic” style as he could get them to go, and often selecting their most extreme, awkward, emotionally confusing work for his final cut. The peculiarity of it: George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange, and Jack Nicholson in The Shining, just to pick the most blinding examples; Scott complained publicly that Stanley not only directed him way over the top but also chose the most overwrought takes for the final cut, while Nicholson’s performance turned The Shining into a movie that largely failed as a genre piece but worked unforgettably on levels where it didn’t matter that there was a huge movie star and great actor on the premises or not. (Nicholson did some of his greatest work, and his very worst, in The Shining, and the same could be said of the director.) “That was much more real,” Stanley told him after a take, “but it isn’t interesting.” Even the biggest stars knew what it was like to be a pawn in Stanley’s game: “That was really great. Let’s go again.”
They’d come to him for direction, and he’d send them back to work to find out for themselves. On A Clockwork Orange, when Malcolm McDowell asked, he told him, “Malcolm, I’m not rada. I hired you to do the acting.” He was preparing a scene for Spartacus in which Laurence Olivier and Nina Foch are sitting in their seats above the arena waiting for the gladiators to enter and fight to the death, and Nina Foch asked him for motivation. “What am I doing, Stanley?” she asked, and Stanley said, “You’re sitting here with Larry waiting for the gladiators to come out.”
The usual M.O. was for him to become incredibly close to actors during shooting, and then to never see them again. A lot of actors were terribly hurt by this. There’s no question that the affection he felt for them and the inspiration he extended to them were genuine, and this made the break even more painful. For Stanley’s part, I never heard him speak of an actor, even ones who had given him a hard time or been “disloyal” once the film came out, with anything but affection, like a family member who’d gone off, dispelled into some new career phase, even if it was oblivion.
He told me once that if he hadn’t become a director he might have liked being a conductor. “They get to play the whole orchestra, and they get plenty of exercise,” he said, waving his arms a bit, “and most of them live to be really old.”
As I write this, the release of his last film is two months away. Only a few people have seen it, and already the entertainment media is holding itself ready to be shocked and offended, or pretending to. “What’s new?” Stanley would have said, as if it hardly warranted the question mark. He’d begun planning the publicity campaign before he completed the final cut of the film, but I’m sure that he’d thought about it for years. Some people seem to think that he’s controlling it from the grave. It’s inconceivable to anyone who knew him that an energy like that could stop just because death has occurred, that it isn’t going on in some form, circulating. This very piece is evidence of that, since it was his idea that I write about him, and specifically for this magazine.In the two and a half years between the time I declined to wash and rinse for fun and the moment he finished editing, we talked only a few times. He was shooting for most of it; he said it was going great, no matter what I might have heard. He was crazy about his stars, impressed with their professionalism and their energy; he said they energized the whole crew and made his job a lot easier. The only other actor I ever heard him speak quite that way about was James Mason, and that was on the day after Mason died.
In the beginning of January my wife and I received a gift from him, a book of photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue. It was a Season’s Greetings present, the first we’d had in three years, since he’d gone into production.
“That was nice of him,” my wife said. She’d always liked Stanley.
“Yes, it was,” I said, thinking, I wonder what he wants.
The calls started up again, every couple of days, longer and longer. He sounded terrific; it was great to be on the blower with him again. For the first time in all the years I’d known him, he actually asked me if there was some time of day that was better for me than others, so we did most of the talking in the mornings, his afternoons: Did I happen to see Norman Mailer’s piece in The New York Review of Books about Tom Wolfe? Brilliant. He must be pretty old now, Michael, but what passion, and I hear your buddy Francis just won a bundle from Warner Bros. in a lawsuit, and Somebody ought to write a book about Bill Clinton and call it “He’s Gotta Have It.”
Then, one morning, “Hey Michael [already laughing], I’ve had a great idea! How’d you like to write the exclusive piece on Eyes Wide Shut for Vanity Fair?”
I didn’t know. I was working on something, and besides, I hadn’t written a magazine piece in 20 years.
“Listen, it’ll be fun.… You come over for a week, I’ll show you the movie, you can talk to Tom and Nicole, interview me. Wouldn’t you like to do that, Michael?”
“I wouldn’t know what to ask you.”
“That’s all right, I’ll write all the questions… It’ll be the only piece about the movie, you know, Michael, a really classy piece of P.R.” (yuk yuk yuk), and “You’re the only one who can do it right,” and “It’s perfect for you,” and “It’ll be fun.”
I said that since it was him I’d think about it, look into it. I decided to do it, and called him.
“Gee, that’s terrific, Michael. That makes me very happy.”
“Me too, Stanley. Now you’ll find out what I really think of you.”
Problems arose, as I’d told Graydon Carter, the editor of this magazine, they would. Stanley called to ask me what I meant by the word “exclusive,” and I told him I’d never used the word, he had; what did he mean by “exclusive”? Then he called in extreme distress and said that he couldn’t possibly show me the movie in time for my deadline—there was looping to be done and the music wasn’t finished, lots of small technical fixes on color and sound; would I show work that wasn’t finished? He had to show it to Tom and Nicole because they had to sign nudity releases, and to Terry Semel and Bob Daly of Warner Bros., but he hated it that he had to, and I could hear it in his voice that he did. But once that screening was over, and the response to it was so strong, he relented.“All right, Michael. Let me see.” Then we talked about Hemingway, how you could never break that prose down into components that could be studied and examined and qualified and expect it to tell you how it worked in the magical way that it did.
On the Friday before he died, I was driving to Vermont on the New York State Thruway when my phone rang.
“Michael, can you drive and talk?”
“Yes, Stanley. And chew gum.”
“No, I mean, is it legal?”
He told me it would be all right if I came over in two weeks to look at the movie and “interview” him. When I asked him if this was his last word on the subject, he laughed and said, “Maybe.”
Then he told me about a friend of his, a studio head who’d just bought an apartment in New York. He told me how much he’d paid for it, and said that he was the first Jew ever admitted to the building.
“Can you believe that? What is it, 1999? And they never let a Jew in there before?”
In Holland, he’d heard, there was a soccer team called Ajax that had once had a Jewish player, and ever since then Dutch skinheads would go to all the team’s matches and make a loud hissing noise, meant to represent the sound of gas escaping into the death chambers. “And that’s Holland, Michael. A civilized country.” Laughing.
We talked for 90 or 100 miles, from before Utica until my exit at Albany. I told him I needed both hands now, and that I’d call him when I got home on Sunday.
All the things that people believe they know about Stanley they get from the press, and the entertainment press at that. Almost none of these reporters ever met him, because he thought you had to be crazy to do interviews unless you had a picture coming out, and even then it had to be very carefully managed. It wasn’t personal with him, but I think it became personal for a lot of them. They work hard, much too hard, the belt is moving faster and faster, carrying increasingly empty forms, silly and brutal and thankfully evanescent entertainments. You can’t go to the movies anymore without slipping in all the Pavlovian drool running down the aisles, big show business Manifest. This is the world that Stanley chose to become a master of, and one of the ways he did it was by keeping himself to himself. So I can see, in a time when so many celebrities are so eager to hurl themselves into our headlights, where anyone who doesn’t want to talk with the entertainment press might seem eccentric, reclusive, and misanthropic; crazy, autocratic, and humorless; cold and phobic and arrogant.
But I must say that a lot of people took it hard; people he’d known, some of them for 40 years, or people he hadn’t seen in a decade; certainly his family, since he’d been a loving husband and father—amazing, the number of people who loved him, and the way they loved him, and the size of the hole he made in our lives by dying. He was so alive to us that it was hard to believe, and then there was that other thing (“We’ve seen it in Homer, Michael”), people regarding their dead heroes and thinking, If it can do this to him, imagine what it can do to us.
He’d never talk about his movies while he was making them, and he didn’t like talking about them afterward very much, even to friends, except maybe to mention the grosses. Most of all, he didn’t want to talk about their “meaning,” because he believed so passionately in their meaning that to try to talk about it could only spoil it for him. He might tell you how he did it, but never why. I think that he, an arch-materialist (maybe) and an artist of the material world, made the single most inspired spiritual image in all of film, the Star Child watching with equanimity the timeless empty galaxies of existence-after-existence, waiting patiently once again to be born. Somebody asked him how he ever thought of the ending of 2001. “I don’t know,” he said. “How does anybody ever think of anything?”
Vanity Fair, April 21, 2010