Philip Strick & Penelope Houston interview with Stanley Kubrick regarding 'A Clockwork Orange'

by Philip Strick & Penelope Houston

We met Kubrick last November [1971] at his home near Borehamwood, a casual labyrinth of studios, offices, and seemingly dual-purpose rooms in which family life and filmmaking overlap as though the one were unthinkable without the other. Despite his reputed aversion to the ordeals of interrogation, Kubrick proved an immensely articulate conversationalist, willing to talk out in detail any aspect, technical or theoretical, of his devotion to the cinema. When we came to transcribe our tapes, what indeed emerged was perhaps rather more of a conversation covering a lot of ground, than a formal interview.
When A Clockwork Orange opened in London a few weeks later, Kubrick found himself in the front line of somebody else’s war. The critics were up in arms about Straw Dogs, in particular, and A Clockwork Orange became caught in the crossfire, especially after the Home Secretary’s much publicised visit to the film. It was an extraordinary fuss (the novel was, after all, first published ten years ago), the more so for seeming to be about a Clockwork Orange that sounded like nothing much to do with the film Kubrick made. But it also meant that some of his replies to our original questions would have to be revised, to make due allowance for the arguments the film had caused. So what follows is to some extent a Kubrick rewrite of a Kubrick interview — in the interests, as always with Kubrick, of precision.

S&H: How closely did you work with Anthony Burgess in adapting A Clockwork Orange for the screen?

Stanley Kubrick: I had virtually no opportunity of discussing the novel with Anthony Burgess. He phoned me one evening when was passing through London and we had a brief conversation on the telephone. It was mostly an exchange of pleasantries. On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly concerned about this because in a book as brilliantly written as A Clockwork Orange one would have to be lazy not to be able to find the answers to any questions which might arise within the text of the novel itself. I think it is reasonable to say that, whatever Burgess had to say about the story was said in the book.

How about your own contributions to the story? You seemed to have preserved the style and structure of the original far more closely than with most of your previous films, and the dialogues are often exactly the same as in the novel.

My contribution to the story consisted of writing the screenplay. This was principally a matter of selection and editing, though I did invent a few useful narrative ideas and reshape some of the scenes. However, in general, these contributions merely clarified what was already in the novel — such as the Cat Lady telephoning the police, which explains why the police appear at the end of that scene. In the novel, it occurs to Alex that she may have called them, but this is the sort of thing you can do in a novel and not in the screenplay. I was also rather pleased with the idea of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as a means of Alexander identifying Alex again towards the end of the film.

How did you come to use ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the first place?

This was one of the more important ideas which arose during rehearsal. This scene, in fact, was rehearsed longer than any other scene in the film and appeared to be going nowhere. We spent three days trying to work out just what was going to happen and somehow it all seemed a bit inadequate. Then suddenly the idea popped into my head — I don’t know where it came from or what triggered it off.

The main addition you seem to have made to the original story is the scene of Alex’s introduction to the prison. Why did you feel this was important?

It may be the longest scene but I would not think it is the most important. It was a necessary addition because the prison sequence is compressed, in comparison with the novel, and one had to have something in it which gave sufficient weight to the idea that Alex was actually imprisoned. The routine of checking into prison which, in fact, is quite accurately represented in the film, seemed to provide this necessary weight.

In the book there is another killing by Alex while he is in prison. By omitting this, don’t you run the risk of seeming to share Alex’s own opinion of himself as a high-spirited innocent?

I shouldn’t think so, and Alex doesn’t see himself as a high-spirited innocent. He is totally aware of his own evil and accepts it with complete openness.

Alex seems a far more pleasant person in the film than in the book…

Alex makes no attempt to deceive himself or the audience as to his total corruption and wickedness. He is the very personification of evil. On the other hand, he has winning qualities: his total candor, his wit, his intelligence and his energy; these are attractive qualities and ones, I might add, which he shares with Richard III.

The violence done to Alex in the brain-washing sequence is in fact more horrifying than anything he does himself….

It was absolutely necessary to give weight to Alex’s brutality, otherwise I think there would be moral confusion with respect to what the government does to him. If he were a lesser villain, then one could say: ‘Oh, yes, of course, he should not be given this psychological conditioning; it’s all too horrible and he really wasn’t that bad after all.’ On the other hand, when you have shown him committing such atrocious acts, and you still realise the immense evil on the part of the government in turning him into something less than human in order to make him good, then I think the essential moral idea of the book is clear. It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human — a clockwork orange.

But aren’t you inviting a sort of identification with Alex?

I think, in addition to the personal qualities I mentioned, there is the basic psychological, unconscious identification with Alex. If you look at the story not on the social and moral level, but on the psychological dream content level, you can regard Alex as a creature of the id. He is within all of us. In most cases, this recognition seems to bring a kind of empathy from the audience, but it makes some people very angry and uncomfortable. They are unable to accept this view of themselves and, therefore, they become angry at the film. It’s a bit like the King who kills the messenger who brings him bad news and rewards the one who brings him good news.

The comparison with Richard III makes a striking defence against accusations that the film encourages violence, delinquency, and so on. But as Richard is a safely distant historical figure, does it meet them completely?

There is no positive evidence that violence in films or television causes social violence. To focus one’s interest on this aspect of violence is to ignore the principal causes, which I would list as:
1. Original sin: the religious view.
2. Unjust economic exploitation: the Marxist view.
3. Emotional and psychological frustration: the psychological view.
4. Genetic factors based on the ‘Y’ chromosome theory: the biological view.
5. Man, the killer ape: the evolutionary view.
To try to fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis, in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.

Is there any kind of violence in films which you might regard as socially dangerous?

Well, I don’t accept that there is a connection, but let us hypothetically say that there might be one. If there were one, I should say that the kind of violence that might cause some impulse to emulate it is the ‘fun’ kind of violence: the kind of violence we see in the Bond films, or in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Unrealistic violence, sanitized violence, violence presented as a joke. This is the only kind of violence that could conceivably cause anyone to wish to copy it, but I am quite convinced that not even this has any effect.
There may even be an argument in support of saying that any kind of violence in films, in fact, serves a useful social purpose by allowing people a means of vicariously freeing themselves from the pent up, aggressive, aggressive emotions which are better expressed in dreams, or in the dreamlike state of watching a film, than in any form of reality or sublimation.

Isn’t the assumption of your audience in the case of Clockwork Orange likely to be that you support Alex’s point of view and in some way assume responsibility for it?

I don’t think that any work of art has a responsibility to be anything but a work of art. There obviously is a considerable controversy, just as there always has been, about what is a work of art, and I should be the last to try to define that. I was amused by Cocteau’s Orpheé when the poet is given the advice: ‘Astonish me’. The Johnsonian definition of a work of art is also meaningful to me, and that is that a work of art must either make life more enjoyable or more endurable. Another quality, which I think forms part of the definition, is that a work of art is always exhilarating and never depressing, whatever its subject matter may be.

In view of the particular exhilaration of Alex’s religious fantasies, has the film run into trouble with clerical critics?

The reaction of the religious press has been mixed, although a number of superb reviews have been written. One of the most perceptive reviews by the religious press, or any other press, appeared in The Catholic News written by John E. Fitzgerald, and I would like to quote one portion of it:

“In print we’ve been told (in B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity) that man is but a grab-bag of conditioned reflexes. On screen with images rather than words, Stanley Kubrick shows that man is more than a mere product of heredity and/or environment. For as Alex’s clergyman friend (a character who starts out as a fire-and-brimstone-spouting buffoon but ends up the spokesman for the film’s thesis) says: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”The film seems to say that to take away a man’s choice is not to redeem him but merely to restrain him: otherwise we have a society of oranges, organic but operating like clock-work. Such brainwashing, organic and psychological, is a weapon that totalitarians in state, church, or society might wish for an easier good even at the cost of individual rights and dignity. Redemption is a complicated thing and change must be motivated from within rather than imposed from without if moral values are to be upheld. But Kubrick is an artist rather than a moralist and he leaves it to us to figure what’s wrong and why, what should be done and how it should be accomplished.”

Your choice of lenses for the shooting of the film often give it a subtly distorted visual quality. Why did you want that particular look?

It may sound like an extremely obvious thing to say, but I think it is worth saying nevertheless that when you are making a film, in addition to any higher purpose you may have in mind, you must be interesting; visually interesting, narratively interesting, interesting from an acting point of view. All ideas for creating interest must be held up against the yardstick of the theme of the story, the narrative requirements and the purpose of the scene; but, within that, you must make a work of art interesting. I recall a comment recorded in a book called Stanislavski Directs, in which Stanislavski told an actor that he had the right understanding of the character, the right understanding of the text of the play, that what he was doing was completely believable, but that it was still no good because it wasn’t interesting.

Were you looking after the hand-held camera for the fight with the Cat Lady?

Yes, all of the hand-held camerawork is mine. In addition to the fun of doing the shooting myself, I find it is virtually impossible to explain what you want in a hand-held shot to even the most talented and sensitive camera operator.

To what extent do you rationalise a shot before setting it up?

There are certain aspects of a film which can meaningfully be talked about, but photography and editing do not lend themselves to verbal analysis. It’s very much the same as the problem one has talking about painting, or music. The questions of taste involved and the decision-making criteria are essentially nonverbal, and whatever you say about them tends to read like the back of a record album. These are decisions that have to be made every few minutes during the shooting, and they are just down to the director’s taste and imagination.

How did you come to choose the Purcell piece — the ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’?

Well, this answer is going to sound a lot like the last one. You’re in an area where words are not particularly relevant. In thinking about the music for the scene, the Purcell piece occurred to me and, after I listened to it several times in conjunction with the film, there was simply no question in regards to using it.

The arrangements by Walter Carlos are extraordinarily effective…

I think Walter Carlos has done something completely unique in the field of electronic realisation of music- — that’s the phrase that they use. I think that I’ve heard most of the electronic music and musique concrete LPs there are for sale in Britain, Germany, France, and the United States; not because I particularly like this kind of music, but out of my researches for 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. I think Walter Carlos is the only electronic composer and realiser who has managed to create a sound which is not an attempt at copying the instruments of the orchestra and yet which, at the same time, achieves a beauty of its own employing electronic tonalities. I think that his version of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rivals hearing a full orchestra playing it, and that is saying an awful lot.

There is very little post-synchronisation of the dialog…

There is no post-synchronisation. I’m quite pleased about this because every scene was shot on location; even the so-called sets that we built which were, in fact, built in a factory about 40 feet off the noisy High Street in Borehamwood, a few hundred yards from the old M-G-M Studio. Despite this, we were able to get quite acceptably clean soundtracks. With the modem equipment that’s available today in the form of microphones, radio transmitters and so forth, it should be possible t get a usable soundtrack almost anywhere. In the scene where the tramp recognises Alex who is standing near the Thames, next to the Albert Bridge, there was so much traffic noise on the location that you had to shout in order to be heard, but we were able to get such a quiet soundtrack that it was necessary to add street noise in the final mix to make it realistic. We used a microphone the size of a paperclip, and it was secured with black tape on the tramp’s scarf. In several shots you can see the microphone, but you don’t know what you’re looking at.

In concentrating on the action of the film, as you do, isn’t there a danger that the lesser characters may appear rather one-dimensional?

The danger of everything that you do in a film is that it may not work, it may be boring, or bland, or stupid.
When you think of the greatest moments of film, I think you are almost always involved with images rather than scenes, and certainly never dialogue. The thing a film does best is to use pictures with music and I think these are the moments you remember. Another thing is the way an actor did something: the way Emil Jannings took out his handkerchief and blew his nose in The Blue Angel, or those marvelous slow turns that Nikolai Cherkassov did in Ivan the Terrible.

How did you manage the subjective shot of Alex’s suicide attempt?

We bought an old Newman Sinclair clockwork mechanism camera (no pun intended) for 40 Pounds. It’s a beautiful camera and it’s built like a battleship. We made a number of polystyrene boxes which gave about 18 inches of protection around the camera, and cut out a slice for the lens. We then threw the camera off a roof. In order to get it to land lens first, we had to do this six times and the camera survived all six drops. On the final one it landed right on the lens and smashed it but it didn’t do a bit of harm to the camera. This, despite the fact that the polystyrene was literally blasted away from it each time by the impact. The next day we shot a steady test on the camera and found there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. On this basis, I would say that the Newman Sinclair must be the most indestructible camera ever made.

How much planning do you do before you shoot a scene?

As much as there are hours in the day, and days in the week. I think about a film almost continuously. I try to visualise it and I try to work out every conceivable variation of ideas which might exist with respect to the various scenes, but I have found that when you come down to the day the scene is going to be shot and you arrive on the location with the actors, having had the experience of already seeing some of the scenes shot, somehow it’s always different. You find out that you have not really explored the scene to it’ fullest extent. You may have been thinking about it incorrectly, or you may simply not have discovered one of the variations which now in context with everything else that you have shot is simply better than anything you had previously thought of. The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstances, and unless you use this feedback to your positive advantage, unless adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realise the most out of your film.

How do you usually work when you get to the reality of the final moment?

Whenever I start a new scene, the most important thing in my mind is, within the needs of the theme and the scene, to make something happen worth putting on film. The most crucial part of this comes when you start new rehearsals on a new scene. You arrive on the location, the crew is standing around eating buns and drinking tea, waiting to be told what to do. You’ve got to keep them outside the room you’re rehearsing in and take whatever time is necessary to get everything right, and have it make sense. There’s no way to define what this process consists of. It obviously has to do with taste and imagination and it is in this crucial period of time that a film is really created.Once you know you’ve got something worthwhile, the shooting becomes a matter of recording (improving, if you can) what you have already done in rehearsal. Whatever problems exist during the actual shooting are not the kind of problems that worry me. If the actor isn’t getting it right, well, he’ll get it right eventually. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break of a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.
Sometimes you find that the scene is absolutely no good at all. It doesn’t make sense when you see it acted. It doesn’t provide the necessary emotional or factual information in an interesting way, or in a way which has the right weight to it. Any number of things can suddenly put you in a position where you’ve got nothing to shoot. The only thing you can say about a moment like this is that it’s better to realise it while you still have a chance to change it and to create something new, than it is to record forever something that is wrong. This is the best and the worst time: it is the time you have your most imaginative ideas, things that not occurred to you before, regardless of how much you’ve thought about the scene. It’s also the time when you can stand there and feel very dumb and unhappy with what you’re seeing, and not have the faintest idea of what to do about it.

Do you very consciously favor a particular style of shooting?

If something is really happening on the screen, it isn’t crucial how it’s shot. Chaplin had such a simple cinematic style that it was almost like I Love Lucy, but you were always hypnotised by what was going on, unaware of the essentially non-cinematic style. He frequently used cheap sets, routine lighting and so forth, but he made great films. His films will probably last longer than anyone else’s. You could say that Chaplin was no style and all content. On the other hand, the opposite can be seen in Eisenstein’s films, who is all style and no content or, depending on how generous you want to be, little content. Many of Eisenstein’s films are really quite silly; but they are so beautifully made, so brilliantly cinematic, that, despite their heavily propagandistic simplemindedness, they become important.

Do you have a preference for any one aspect of the whole filmmaking process?

I think I enjoy editing the most. It’s the nearest thing to some reasonable in which to do creative work. Writing, of course, is very satisfying, but, of course, you’re not working with film. The actual shooting of a film is probably the worst circumstances you could try to imagine for creating a work of art. There is, first of all, the problem of getting up very early every morning and going to bed very late every night. Then there is the chaos, confusion, and frequently physical discomfort. It would be, I suppose, like a writer trying to write a book while working at a factory lathe in temperatures that range from 95 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to this, of course, editing is the only aspect of the cinematic art that is unique. It shares no connection with any other art form: writing, acting, photography, things that are major aspects of the cinema, are still not unique to it, but editing is.

How long did the editing take on Clockwork Orange?

The editing up to the point of dubbing took about six months, working seven days a week.

Do you ever have problems cutting out your own material?

When I’m editing, I’m only concerned with the questions of ‘Is it good or bad?’ ‘Is it necessary?’ ‘Can I get rid of it ?’ ‘Does it work ?’ My identity changes to that of an editor. I am never concerned with how much difficulty there was to shoot something, how much it cost, and so forth. I look at the material with completely different eyes. I’m never troubled losing material. I cut everything to the bone. When you’re shooting, you want to make sure you don’t miss anything and you cover it as fully as time and budget allow. When you’re editing, you want to get rid of everything that isn’t essential.

How much support coverage do you shoot?

There’s always a conflict between time, money and quality. If you shoot a lot of coverage, then you must either spend a lot of money, or settle for less quality of performance. I find that when I’m shooting a scene, I shoot a lot of takes but I don’t try to get a lot of coverage from other angles. I try to shoot the scene as simply as possible get the maximum performance from the actors without presenting them the problem of repeating the performance too many times from different angles. On the other hand, in an action scene, where it’s relatively easy to shoot, you want lots and lots of angles so that you can do something interesting with it in the cutting room.

Do you direct actors in every detail, or do you expect them to some extent to come up with their own ideas?

I come up with the ideas. That is essentially the director’s job. There’s a misconception, I think, about what directing actors means: it generally goes along the lines of the director imposing his will over difficult actors, or teaching people who don’t know how to act. I try to hire the best actors in the world. The problem is one a conductor might face. There’s little joy in trying to get a magnificent performance from a student orchestra. It’s difficult enough to get one with all the subtleties and nuances you might want out of the greatest orchestra in the world. You want to have great virtuoso soloists, and so with actors. Then it’s not necessary to teach them how to act or to impose your will on them because usually there is no problem along those lines. An actor will almost always do what you want him to do if he is able to do it; and, therefore, since great actors are able to do almost anything, you find you have few problems. You can then concentrate on what you want them to do, what is the psychology of the character, what is the purpose of the scene, what is the story about? These are the things that are often muddled up and require simplicity and exactitude. The director’s job is to provide the actor with ideas, not to teach him how to act or to trick him into acting. There’s no way to give an actor what he hasn’t got in the form of talent. You can give him ideas, thoughts, attitudes. The actor’s job is to create emotion. Obviously, the actor may have some ideas too, but this is not what his primary responsibility is. You can make a mediocre actor less mediocre, you can make a terrible actor mediocre, but you cannot go very far without the magic. Great performances come from the magical talent of the actor, plus the ideas of the director.
The other part of the director’s job is to exercise taste: he must decide whether what he is seeing is interesting, whether it’s appropriate, whether it’s of sufficient weight, whether it’s credible. These are decisions no one else can make.

You have made what might seem some unusual casting choices for your last two films — how do you find the actors you want?

Well, that really comes down to a question of taste, doesn’t it? A lot of pictures are cast by producers and their decisions are frequently based on proven success rather than unproven hints at talent. Many producers aren’t willing to decide whether an actor who is unknown and who has done very little work is really good. I have nothing against people of proven talent, but sometimes there may be no one in that category who is right for the part.

Do you enjoy working with different actors? With a few exceptions — Peter Sellers, for instance — you haven’t often used the same actor twice, unlike a lot of directors who obviously prefer to build up a sort of stock company of people who know their work.

I don’t really think in those terms in those terms. I try to choose the best actors for the parts, whether I know them or not. I would avoid actors who have reputations for being destructive or neurotic but, other than that, there is no one whom I would not consider using for a part…
The only thing that is really important in your relationship with actors is that they must know that you admire them, that you admire their work, and there’s no way to fake that. You must really admire them or you shouldn’t use them. If they know that you admire their work, which they can sense in a thousand different ways, it doesn’t really matter what you think of each other or what you say to them, or whether you are terribly friendly or not. The thing they care about is their work. Some actors are very amusing and pleasant and always cheerful. They are, of course, more pleasant to have around than those who are morose, vacant or enigmatic. But how they behave when you’re not shooting has very little to do with what happens when the camera turns over.

You made Clockwork Orange initially because you had to postpone your Napoleon project. How do you see the Napoleon film developing?

First of all, I start from the premise that there has never been a great historical film, and I say that with all apologies and respect to those who have made historical films, including myself [Kubrick had yet to select or to film Barry Lyndon at the time of this interview — Ed.]. I don’t think anyone has ever successfully solved the problem of dealing in an interesting way with the historical information that has to be conveyed, and at the same time getting a sense of reality about the daily life of the characters. You have to get a feeling of what it was like to be with Napoleon. At the same time, you have to convey enough historical information in an intelligent, interesting and concise way so that the audience understands what happened.

Would you include Abel Gance’s Napoleon in this verdict?

I think I would have to. I know that the film is a masterpiece of cinematic invention and it brought cinematic innovations to the screen which are still being called innovations whenever someone is bold enough to try them again. But on the other hand, as a film about Napoleon, I have to say I’ve always been disappointed in it.

Did you think of A Clockwork Orange as being in any way a form of relaxation between two very big films?

I don’t think in terms of big movies, or small movies. Each movie presents problems of its own and has advantages of its own. Each movie requires everything that you have to give it, in order to overcome the artistic and logistic problems that it poses. There are advantages in an epic film, just as there are disadvantages. It is much easier to do a huge crowd scene and make it interesting than it is to film a man sitting at a table thinking.

Source: Stanley Kubrick, interview by Philip Strick and Penelope Houston, “Modern Times: An Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight & Sound, Spring 1972; repr. in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. Gene D. Phillips (ed.). Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. pp. 126-139.


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