by John Hofsess
The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s bid for a super hit, his attempt to even a number of scores.
A solid commercial success for the film — which opens here next week — would confirm one of Kubrick’s basic beliefs: “If a story interests me sufficiently to spend two to three years making it into a film, then I believe it will interest many others as well.
“It’s very difficult to say why I finally decide upon a particular story,” the 51-year-old filmmaker said in London recently. “I could list the qualities it should have — a strone narrative, cinematic potential and interesting parts for the actors. But it goes deeper than merely assessing it on some point system.
“Certainly Stephen King’s novel had a cascade of inventions that I had not encountered before in any fiction of the genre, which tends to be built around a single idea in most other cases.”
“The Shining” — the first best-seller that Kubrick has optioned since Nabokov’s “Lolita” — was a pre-sold property. As a tie-in with the current movie advertising campaign, Signet has reprinted the novel using scenes from the film and the film’s logo, guaranteeing Kubrick 1.5 million copies to be circulated in 100,000 outlets. “The Shining” is not Kubrick’s greatest film or his greatest gamble, but it is his most ambitious attempt to connect with a mass audience.
“I’ve never achieved spectacular success with a film,” he says. “My reputation has grown slowly. I suppose you could say that I’m a successful filmmaker — in that a number of people speak well of me. [He smiles ironically; the rave Newsweek review of “The Shining” lies in front of him.] But none of my films have received unanimously positive reviews. And none have done ‘Star Wars’ business.”
The public response to Kubrick’s 1975 film “Barry Lyndon” still puzzles him. In Paris alone, “Barry Lyndon” grossed $3 million; in many European countries, it has established a cult following just as in North America “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) have.
“‘Barry Lyndon’ was one of Warner Brothers biggest grossers internationally — but not in the United States,” Kubrick says. “If business had been as good as in Europe, the film would have been a great financial success.”
He does not say so directly (least of all in formal interviews, which Kubrick rarely grants) but there are persistent hints in his conversation that Kubrick would like to prove to any doubters in the film industry that he can make an American film while living in England, where he has resided for 18 years. That achievement would counter the view that he is in fact an undeclared expatriate, and, as Pauline Kael contended in her review of “Barry Lyndon,” cut off from his American roots, out of touch with contemporary social realities here. He also would like to prove that he can make a film that does just as well as any of those by the so-called “new Hollywood” directors.
“The Shining” is Kubrick’s attempt to get back into the mainstream of American commercial cinema. It is not an artistic compromise for him, but it doesn’t represent growth, either — for him or his audience.
Stephen King’s novel is a psychological horror story about a man named Jack Torrance, his wife and their psychic little boy who take up residence at the haunted and malevolent Hotel Overlook in Colorado during the winter. Kubrick made a number of significant changes in the novel. The most obvious is the different ending — with the film avoiding an apocalyptic blowup of the hotel.
Kubrick cites an essay by H. P. Lovecraft in which the author says, “In all things that are mysterious — never explain,” but he nevertheless agrees to shed light on a few details.
“Very early on, I decided the novel’s ending wouldn’t do. I didn’t want the conventional ending — the big bad place burns down. I had many discussions with Diane Johnston, a very good novelist whom I admire and whom I asked to collaborate on the screenplay. We decided we needed an ending that was ingenious, that had visual potential. So we hit upon the idea of the hedge maze.
“There are a number of scenes that work in the novel — such as the topiary, in which the hedge animals move and pursue a victim — that I deleted from the screenplay because I didn’t think they would work in the film. There are no creaking doors, no skeletons tumbling out of closets — none of the paraphernalia of the standard horror film. In a story of this kind, establishing believability is the most important matter, which is why I tried to establish a matter-of-fact visual style.”
The film’s technical expertise is all the more remarkable considering that 98 percent of it was shot on a soundstage at Elstree Studios in England. The apearance of being in a hugh hotel in the mountains with scenic vistas out every window, is a masterful illusion.
“We shot in what looks like existing light: no elongated shadows or melodramatic highlights. It’s just the story of one man’s family quietly going insane together,” Kubrick says.
“To a considerable degree, I cast the film while reading the novel. Who else but Jack Nicholson could play the father? I think Shelley Duvall, in addition to being a wonderful actress, perfectly embodies the kind of woman who remains married to a man like Jack Torrance, even though she knows he has on an earlier occasion, in a drunken rage, dislocated their son’s shoulder. You certainly couldn’t have Jane Fonda play the part — you need someone who is mousey and vulnerable.
“Scatman Crothers [who plays a psychic hotel employe] was chosen because I like his work in other films. He had appeared with Nicholson in “King of Marvin Gardens’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
“Danny Lloyd [who plays the ‘Torrances’ son] was discovered the hard way. One of my assistants, Leon Vitali, visited a number of cities, Denver, Chicago, Cincinati, conducting interviews with over 5,000 applicants for the role — that is, young boys who had never acted before. The most promising of these [several hundred] he videotaped doing improvisations and sent the tapes to me. Finally we got down to five, of which Danny was clearly the best.
“We came to the conclusion that genuine acting ability is probably a natural gift that one in 1,000 have. Danny wasn’t even 6 years old when we shot the film, but judging from his performance you would think he understands everything about acting.”
“The Shining” is being marketed in a strikingly different manner from any of Kubrick’s other films. This time he wants a big return and he wants it fast. “Anyone who earns film money,” he says, “as opposed to earning a living in most other lines of work, is doing very well, and I’ve been able to live off films for nearly 20 years now, ever since ‘Lolita’ was released.
In the past, Kubrick opened “2001,” “A Clockwise Orange” and “Barry Lyndon” in three key cities — New York, Los Angeles and Toronto — which have the highest per capita film attendance in North America. (In Toronto, “2001” ran for three years at one theater and grossed more than $1.5 million.) He relied on reviews and word-of-mouth to generate interest in the films. Then anywhere from two to six months later, each film went into general release until it played out.
It was a method that worked for the first two films. “2001” overcame its initial bad press and went on to become one of the top-grossing films in MGM’s history. “Yet it only broke even two year ago, when a sale of the television rights was negotiated,” Kubrick says. “2001” cost $10 million to make and its slow payoff, spread over 10 years, meant that a lot of money it earned at the box office was siphoned off to pay interest rates to those who had bankrolled the film. “A Clockwork Orange,” which cost “under $2 million” and grossed more than $40 million, made a substantial profit; but it too had to play a long time in a few metropolitan areas where repeat business sustained the film, before its negative costs were paid back.
With the release of “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick realized that if he wanted to go on making movies that cost between $10 million and $15 million, and if he wanted to maintain the creative freedom that he finds necessary (no studio interference during the making of a film, and the right to final cut), it was imperative that he find a better way of earning money. A long-running hit in a few cities might look impressive on paper, but it was mainly profitable to bankers, not to him, and in a time of inflation and rising interest rates, the situation would only get worse.
So with “The Shining,” it was decided a year ago that the film would open in Los Angeles and the New York area on Memorial Day weekend, in a total of 10 theaters including an L.A. drive-in, to see how well it performed. (The results so far: House records were set in most of the theaters, and Warner Bros. is projecting a box-office gross of nearly $1 million in the first week.) Then on Friday, June 13, the film would open in 750 more theaters throughout the United States and Canada, sustained by a four-week national television campaign concentrating on the ABC network because its ratings show the highest concentration of viewers between the ages of 18 and 34, the age group that from which most filmgoers are drawn.
On the June 6 edition of “Saturday Night Live,” for example, which NBC claims has an audience peak of around 9 million viewers, the 30-second trailer for “The Shining” will be repeated three Times. It is estimated by those who devised the marketing campaign that by the fourth week of film’s release, 93 percent of all adults in the 18-to-34 age group will have seen the trailer (which Kubrick personally edited and scored) at least seven times, and that 88 percent of all households in America will have been exposed to the advertisements 10.8 times.
The purpose of the campaign is two-fold: to overcome any negative criticism the film has received, and most importantly, to build a huge national audience for the movie, guaranteeing an early return on its $12 million investment.
With the Memorial Day weekend results in, Kubrick says, “Everyone at Warners’ is holding their breath — it looks like we have a monster hit on our hands. The Sunday grosses topped the Friday reocrds.” It’s the best news he’s had in years. As to future plans: “I haven’t seriously thought about [his planned] Napoleon film for several years, though at one time I was fully prepared to embark on that project. I had over 5,000 illustrations in a cross-referenced library, concerning costumes of the period. I collected over 500 books on the subject. But now . . . inflation would put the film in the neighborhood of $50 to $60 million, and I’m not sure that it can be done in under three hours’ playing time.”
Kurbrick spent the last week personally examining every reel of the first 25 prints of “The Shining” to make sure that the sound mix and reproduction, and the visual quality (color and brightness) of each print met with his approval.
The next task will be preparing the foreign-language prints, and making sure that they approximate, as closely as possible, the standards set by the original. He is called by some “the mad perfectionist.” But he sees his obsessions as artistic responsibilities.
When he was younger, growing up in the Bronx, and developing and avid interest in movies, Kubrick (who never went in college) had a high regard for certain film critics. But after serving as a staff photographer for Look magazine, he got into the film business himself — first as a writer, producer and director of documentaries, and then of feature films. And he came to the conclusion that “Film critics only seem to have any importance when their tastes coincide with those of the general public.”
It wasn’t simply that in 1964 Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called “Dr. Strangelove” an “un-American movie,” and repeatedly denounced it as an act akin to treason.
What convinced Kubrick that most critics (“even the ones who write well”) are fools was the total drubbing that “2001” got upon its release in 1968. “A monumentally unimaginative movie,” wrote Pauline Kael. “A major disappointment,” said Stanley Kauffmann. “Incredibly boring,” commented Renata Adler. “A regrettable failure,” wrote John Simon, shrugging it off as “a shaggy God’s story.” “A disaster,” said Andrew Sarris.
After that, nothing that critics have written about Kubrick’s work has mattered to him. A good review, he believes, is useful only as a marketing tool. “I don’t believe that any critic spends as much time doing his or her work as I do in my work,” he said in an earlier interview when “A Clockwork Orange” was being released. And discussing “Barry Lyndon”: “I have never learned anything about my work by reading film critics.”
Kubrick has never cultivated friendships with any critics; he issues no press releases concerning his films. He doesn’t believe in “explaining” his work; if a viewer cannot make intelligent deductions about what is shown on the screen, more’s the pity.
Still, Kubrick is curious about his reporter’s opinion of the Newsweek article, in which Jack kroll calls “The Shining” “the first epic horror film,” and rave reveiw by Alexander Walker that has just appeared in London’s Evening Standard, six months ahead of the film’s release in England. Words such as “masterpiece,” “classic,” “genius” and “epic” should be used sparingly, Kubrick is told — maybe once every 10 years a film comes along to justify such superlatives.
And if all of his movies are substantial pieces of film work — giving good value to anyone who spends money on a ticket, but not necessarily lifting them to cloud nine of aesthetic ecstasy isn’t that enough? There are so few films about that one can give that kind of minimal respect to, that it’s a significant distinction.
Kubrick looks over a page of movie advertisements from the New York Times, and studies the effectiveness of “The Shining’s” logo competing for attention with other ads. “Half the films now showing are masterpieces,” he says, laughing. “Spine-tingling, ravishing, painfully beautiful.” He folds the paper and puts it away, with one word: “Critics.”
Years from now, when the films of 1980 have become pop-culture history, “The Shining” is likely to be viewed as further evidence of the degree to which pure escapism dominated the entertainment scene during this downhbeat economic era. “The Shining” is technically impressive. But anyone familiar with “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001” will know that Kubrick can be much more than a technical wizard when his imagination is working with all stops out.
“The Shining” is Kubrick’s flirtation with the horror movie, but no matter how well it does there will be no sequels. “I couldn’t grow as a director and make sequels,” he says. “It’s like trying to have your cake and eat it too.” Perhaps it’s because of that stuborn sense of integrity, or the restlessness of his intelligence, that Kubrick is one of few film directors whose work is worth taking seriously and passionately arguing about; he is also one of very few to sustain a period of active creativity over 25 years and show no sign of wearing out.
“I’ve never felt better, sharper or younger,” he says. His inner-space odyssey continues.
John Hofsess is the film critic of the Calgary Albertan. He recently won Canada’s National Newspaper Award for his critical writing.
The Washington Post, June 1, 1980