The Five-O Interview
James B. Harris: When Kubrick and I finished Paths Of Glory, Marlon Brando called us up and said I want to make pictures with you guys. I’ve seen “The james b. harrisKilling” and now Paths Of Glory and I think we should be in business. Let’s plan on doing a picture together. So we started having meetings and we couldn’t get to any agreement with Marlon on what picture to make. Which leads me to believe either that we had completely different tastes or that he was angling all the time to get Stanley to do One-Eyed Jacks. He eventually sprung that on us after many, many meetings of this sort. He said, OK, I have this obligation at Paramount, so Jimmy will continue looking for material but in the meantime Stanley and I will do One-Eyed Jacks. I think what he wanted all the time was to get Stanley to direct, and I think that developed into wanting to direct the picture himself.
By the time I acquired the rights to Lolita, Stanley had finished on One-Eyed Jacks. Marlon became very difficult for Stanley to work with and Stanley had never worked with anything except his own approval. We thought alike anyhow so there was never anybody to account to. Now we were going to get back to work on Lolita, developing the script. We no sooner get back to our own office — Stanley is no longer at Paramount working with Marlon Brando — when the phone rings and it’s Kirk Douglas saying he’s having trouble with Spartacus, can we make a deal to get Stanley to direct it. Douglas fired Anthony Mann after three days shooting. Well, my heart sunk in one way because I had been waiting for Stanley to get done with Marlon. Luckily that deal fell apart and Stanley left without doing the film and we started developing the script of Lolita and then this comes up, Spartacus. We said, well jeez, it can’t hurt for Stanley to get a big credit plus he’ll be directing three directors, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier, and that could do a lot for us. So we wound up lending Stanley to Kirk’s company to direct Spartacus.
We had gone back to Calder Willingham [writer on Paths Of Glory & The Graduate] to do the first draft of Lolita, and Stanley didn’t like the draft. He was in Spain doing the battle scenes for Spartacus. I kind of liked Calder’s draft. I thought it was really good. But we decided to go after Nabokov to write the screenplay.
Five-O: Did Nabokov introduce the nested structure that begins with the murder, travels back in time then works its way back up to it?
Harris: No. That was my idea to do that. Stanley and I were discussing the script and I said, you know, we’ve always said that this is a bizarre love story. And we want to really engage an audience into reversing what they perceived as a dirty old man. By the time the picture ends they should really feel sorry for him. If we end the picture with the killing of Claire Quilty, I said we’re leaving the audience with a comedic scene and we won’t really accomplish what we want. Wouldn’t it be better to do that scene at the beginning and end the picture on Humbert’s sadness finding Lolita and begging her to come back and crying and having his heart broken? And Stanley immediately said, you’re absolutely right, let’s do it that way. I thought it was a better way to leave the audience.
Five-O: Was there mischievous intent in subverting the audience’s sympathy?
Harris: There was a certain amount of craftiness, shrewdness, about survival in our minds. First of all, to us the story’s most interesting part was it was a bizarre love story, and the craftiness was: what do we have to gain except censorship and defeat if we get into Humbert Humbert’s predilection for little girls? Why bring that in at all? Why not make this a love story? When he sees this girl, this is the girl he falls in love with. Why do we have to introduce the idea that he’s been chasing little girls his whole life? This is a major departure from the book.
We knew that there would be hell to pay with the critics and anyone who thinks the book is a masterpiece, which it was. But our position was, we’re making our movie. We are not obliged to anything except making the best picture we can make in our view. So let’s forget about staying accurate with the book. Let’s just dramatize the story the way we think it really works. We wanted to show the consequences of what happens when you’re that foolish and that much struck by somebody.
After the Calder screenplay didn’t satisfy Stanley we went and got Nabokov to come over from Switzerland and write a script at a house in Mandeville Canyon but we dropped it. I think he probably put in some predisposition for little girls.
So Calder did the first draft and Nabokov the second, and the real draft, the one that we used to shoot, was done by Stanley and myself up in the attic in England, where we rewrote the whole thing, took the best of everything, the book, the scripts, our own ideas. And when we finished it, we said, well, who’s name are we going to put on this? And we decided there’s only one name you can put and that’s Nabokov. If people are going to be really hard-nosed about sticking to the book, when they see the changes they’ll kill us. So if we put Nabokov’s name on the script as sole screenwriter, how are they going to complain about any departure from the book when the author wrote the movie?
You know what happened? Nabokov got nominated for an Academy Award. Isn’t that beautiful?
Harris: Making the film was one thing, but getting to that point, raising the money, that was the tough part. Nobody would have the guts to finance the movie and run the risk of not getting a code seal. At that time if you didn’t get a code seal from the MPAA most distributors wouldn’t touch the picture. And in addition to that, you had the Catholic Legion of Decency. So nobody would make a picture unless the script had been approved, and even then the censors say we have to see the movie because there are a lot of ways to shoot scenes. There was a guy at the MPAA named Geoffrey Sherlock who handles censorship. He said, just on general terms we would not give a code seal to any picture that shows a relationship between an adult and a 12 year-old child. That’s Lolita’s age in the novel.
[So Jimmy researched the laws in all fifty states and soon found one that served his cause.]
I went back after I did this research and I said, Geoffrey, let me ask you something: if something is legal, could you really then say it’s immoral? I mean you can’t, can you? He said, no, I guess not. I mean it’s legal. So I said, what we’re going to have them do is get married. Because in one of the states, possibly Southern, I don’t remember, it was legal to marry a girl as young as 12. I said, now under those circumstances do you think we can get a seal? And he said, yeah, I do. Provided there’s nothing explicit. Even between grown-ups in those days. Warner Brothers had offered a million dollar deal if we could get the code seal. Now I had the code seal in my pocket.
[But when Harris & Kubrick sit down with their attorney Lou Blau, they find the studio had suddenly back-pedalled on creative control and retained approval on every element.]
The music, the cast, the cut, everything has to be approved. So we actually walked away from the deal. We felt it was so hard to get to that point, and it’s so hard, painful, compromising to make a good film. We turned down a million dollars.
[So Jimmy Harris raised the million bucks one more time. It was staked by financier Eliot Hyman, later known in the feature distribution business as the principal behind Seven Arts. Harris-Kubrick had final cut. One of the big hurdles appeared to be cleared, but others remained. Nailing down the cast was the foremost challenge. Agents of the day were less than thrilled with the idea of their clients headlining a scandalous property like Lolita.]
ENTER MASON, OLIVIER & NIVEN
Harris: We had in mind James Mason and Laurence Olivier, those two. And when we had problems with them, David Niven was a possibility. All three at different times had agreed to do the picture. James Mason we approached first. He said he was terribly interested but he was committed to do a stage play and was unavailable. Olivier agreed and then backed out because of his agents. Funny part, they were our agents as well. Maybe he was a bigger client. We had a deal at lunch time and he said, all I have to do is tell my agent, and at 4 o’clock the deal was off. We didn’t have Mason or Olivier now so we tried Niven. And he loved the idea and agreed to do it. But his agent also backed him out because of exposure from his contract on the TV show “Four Star Playhouse” with Dick Powell and Ida Lupino and Charles Boyer. They had sponsors.
Now James Mason calls back and says the play is not going to happen. Is that part still open? He couldn’t have come at a better time. We were down in the dumps. We had nobody and we needed an attractive Humbert and a female who would be attractive to any male as a sex object so it would not seem disgusting, repulsive or demented. Lolita was wise enough to know the strength she has in her looks and the way men feel. So it wasn’t necessary to make her look like Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” to make her look like a real child.
Errol Flynn came in on a casting call. He brought in a little girlfriend he was hanging out with — it was widely publicized — in hopes that he could play Humbert and she could play Lolita. A letter came into the office from her mother claiming she could play this part better than anyone because she’s been living the part. It was shameless.
Sue Lyon got by us. We interviewed her and we kept going. And then one day Stanley came into the office and said, you know, last night I saw an episode of “The Loretta Young Show.” Remember that girl that was in here? Yeah, what about her? He says, she’s a terrific little actress. We gotta bring her back here and read her. She was bright, she had a good sense of humor. She saw the humor in it.
SELLERS & KUBRICK, ROUND 1
Harris: When we were working with Peter Sellers on Lolita we had a terrific relationship. And it was mostly for laughs, most of the stuff we thought of was designed to make people laugh. The scene in the balcony, the dancing scene, the scene where Humbert bullies Dr. Zempf into letting Lolita do the school play. No problems. Stanley said that when he did Dr. Strangelove with him it was different. Sellers used to get into these deep depressions by the afternoon.
KUBRICK DISCOVERS ENGLAND
Harris: We shot 88 days on budget at $1.8 million. Today that’s lunch. That’s the agent’s commission (laughs). After shooting I was relegated to working on the music. My brother Bob [Harris] did the Lolita love theme [and also composed the famous “Spiderman” theme song for the ’70s TV animation] and I made the suggestion to use Nelson Riddle for the score. Riddle came over to England, which was the place we thought we could make the movie with the money we had available. Stanley fell in love with England. He felt it was a more civilized place to raise kids. Living in New York he had a fear of sending his kids to school there. Too much violence. He felt comfortable in England. He spoke the language. And they had the facilities to make films. He said, you can make films anywhere. It’s where you live with your children that’s to care about. He wasn’t a big fan of California. He wasn’t an outdoors guy. Stanley wasn’t one to go out and sit in the sun.
Listen, Kubrick is and was a regular guy. What a lot of people don’t know is how interested he was in other people and the things that people do. He’s not an “I-Me, I-Me” guy. If he was conceited he certainly never bragged. He must have known how talented he was. I hate to use the word genius but he was one, and like all those kind of people he had fear of failure, and that’s what makes you good. You know you can get knocked out. A fighter who doesn’t think he can get knocked out gets KO’ed because he doesn’t protect himself. Stanley always made sure he never got knocked out. He stayed away from scenes he knew didn’t play. Kubrick hates exposition. Everyone should.
WAS THERE EVER ANY TREPIDATION?
Harris: We were not daunted by the fact that Lolita was infamous. Listen. Fools rush in. We were young and we had done two films already. Starting from The Killing, I had never produced a picture before. Stanley had never made any kind of a real movie. Paths Of Glory, they told us it was too down-beat, impossible, no girls in the picture — everything was against it. So I was naive enough to believe that you can’t be stopped and if you try hard enough you’ll get it done. The only way you’re going to have any kind of success is to be absolutely undaunted. They throw you out the front door, you come in the side door, through the back door, through the window — but keep comin’ at ’em. It’s mostly in your youth. You’re not daunted by other people who have failed or by wiser people who know all the pitfalls, who say you could lose a lot of money here. We had nothing to lose.
POSTSCRIPT — ONWARD INTO THE ’60s
“Lolita” was the final film of the Harris-Kubrick partnership. They remained lifelong friends.
Jimmy actually set up the deal for the film that would become Dr. Strangelove. It was originally to be called “The Delicate Balance Of Terror,” a nuclear warfare suspenser based on the novel Two Hours To Doom by Peter George. Eliot Hyman, the investor who staked Harris a cool 1960 million to make Lolita, was ready to invest. That’s when the call came in from Stanley, now an expatriate happily encamped outside London, saying he had switched directions and was now playing the film as a nuclear war comedy with the help of Texas-bred satirist Terry Southern. Mr. Hyman declined the gamble.
Today Jimmy laughs when he remembers his own reaction to Stanley’s 180-degree U-turn: “I leave him alone for ten minutes and he’s gonna blow his whole career!”
Kubrick lined up the financing for his new brainchild and supported his best friend in expanding his horizons as a film maker. In short order came Harris’s directing debut, The Bedford Incident (1965), a taut Cold War thriller (prefiguring today’s Tom Clancy genre) starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier and Donald Sutherland.
“The Five-O Interview”. Hollywood Five-O, Inc., Fall 2002.