STANLEY KUBRICK: AT A DISTANCE – Interview by Lloyd Rose

by Lloyd Rose

PINEWOOD GREEN, ENGLAND – The board room at Pinewood Studios is disturbingly baroque. The ceiling sags with chandeliers. Gilt-edged paneling dresses every inch of wall. At one end a cold-eyed movie mogul, the late J. Arthur Rank, grins from his painted portrait. It hangs above a sideboard bearing an electric burner. “IMPORTANT! COFFEE MUST NOT BOIL” reads a label on the machine, atop of which two pots contain smoking black sludge. At the other end of the room, far, far away, a filigreed mirror. The chasm between is filled by a table and 20 padded chairs. In front of each, a sea-green blotter. Natural light, diffused through curtains, washes in from a bank of windows.
Time passes slowly here, if at all. Portentous pops from the burner occasionally break the silence. Thus brewing anarchy threatens stolid formalism. It could be a scene out of a Stanley Kubrick film.
At length the director of Full Metal Jacket, an elegant vision of chaos during the Vietnam war, shambles in through a set of double doors, which spring back and forth on their hinges until they reach a point of equilibrium. He plops a satchel on the table and takes the chairman’s seat. He wears an ocher corduroy jacket – unabashedly shabby, with a dark blue stain at the chest – khakis that ride toward his calves, and jogging shoes worn to a fare-thee-well (though not, it would seem, by jogging). Black hair sprouts from a balding head. The grayish beard is like jungle growth. The eyes, gazing through wire rims, look slightly surprised.
“Has it been seven years?” he asks with the hint of a smile. His last movie, The Shining, came out in 1980. “I never remember the years … I don’t remember dates. I usually have trouble remembering how old my children are. I know that one’s about 28. But I’m not sure. Is she 28? 27?”
For Kubrick, who will turn 59 next month, time is infinitely malleable, though he periodically consults a digital watch. One of his avowed artistic goals is to explode the narrative structure of movies. He has also managed to explode the narrative structure of life. At one point in a five-hour conversation, he seems to remember that World War II ended 20 years ago. At another point he mistakenly refers to Richard Nixon as president during the Tet offensive in the early months of 1968, the setting of his new film.
“Was it Johnson?” he asks ingenuously.
The release of a Stanley Kubrick movie is always an event.
In his long absences and astonishing reappearances – he has made 12 movies since 1953 – he evokes the dark monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, his classic about the ascent of man from apehood to the cosmos. It’s “as if Stanley K. were the black slab itself,” critic David Denby wrote in the current Premiere magazine, “a force of supernatural intelligence, appearing at great intervals amid high-pitched shrieks, who gives the world a violent kick up the next rung of the evolutionary ladder.”
Full Metal Jacket – based on former Marine combat correspondent Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel “The Short-Timers” and filmed, audaciously, entirely in England – will probably provoke its share of shrieks.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of outraged and offended responses to this movie,” says Michael Herr, author of the acclaimed Vietnam memoir “Dispatches,” who spent a year working with Kubrick on the screenplay. “The political left will call him a fascist, and the right – well, who knows? I can’t imagine what women are going to think of this film.”
Kubrick, as ever, is reluctant to shed light on his $17 million creation, the first of a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. The film, at once visceral and cerebral, seems to crystallize his concerns about the destruction of human personality (as in A Clockwork Orange, 1971), the machinery of mass delusion (Dr. Strangelove, 1964), and the undivine comedy of war (Paths of Glory, 1957).
“We were just going for the way it is,” he says, unable to resist a chuckle, perhaps thinking about all the film buffs who will be chewing on it for years.
“I certainly don’t think the film is anti-American,” he expands. “I think it tries to give a sense of the war and the people, and how it affected them. I think with any work of art, if I can call it that, that stays around the truth and is effective, it’s very hard to write a nice capsule explanation of what it’s about.”
He mentions last year’s Vietnam blockbuster, with which Full Metal Jacket has inevitably been compared. “I liked Platoon, ” he says. “It’s very different. I think Platoon tries to ingratiate itself a little more with the audience. But then, I have enough faith in enough of the audience to think that they are able to appreciate something which doesn’t do that. At least you’re not bored. I don’t know if you go to the movies a lot, but that’s one of the biggest problems.”
Kubrick submits to interviews so seldom, and then usually under the most calibrated of conditions, that he has become the J.D. Salinger of movie mythology. “Or worse,” he laments, “Howard Hughes.”
“I don’t know what you’ve read about Stanley,” says Matthew Modine, who plays the new film’s central character, a cynical Marine combat correspondent nicknamed Private Joker, “but the impression I got was that he was this crazy lunatic who was afraid of germs and flies. It’s just not true.”
“He’s not a recluse,” says Herr. “He doesn’t go to parties but he sees a lot of people. He’s a very sane guy.”
“He may think,” says Hasford, who also worked on the screenplay, “that the public enjoys thinking of him as a mad scientist.”
In case one hasn’t heard the bizarre stories, Kubrick is happy to repeat them, albeit with a few strategic shrugs.
“I mean,” he says, “I’m supposed to wear a football helmet and have a chauffeur who’s told not to drive more than 30 miles an hour. In fact, I have a Porsche 928S, which I drive myself, like anybody else on the motorway, at 70 or 80 miles an hour … I’ve read I have a huge fence around where I live. In fact, I have a car gate which is about that high to keep the dogs from running out on the road, where you press a button and the gate opens. That’s described as ‘an electronically operated security gate.’ I did an interview with a guy once, and he wrote that I hire a helicopter to spray my garden because I don’t like mosquitoes. Well, I mean, there are very few mosquitoes in England.”
And if he indulges a fear of flying, “there are about 50 million other people who don’t like to fly. But with me, it tends to be attributed to some kind of singularly neurotic and generally incomprehensible weakness. In fact, I had a pilot’s license. I used to fly single-engine aircraft out of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.” For a moment he reflects. “I don’t know why people don’t do it. Certain things get to your imagination and boom!” He smacks the table. “Who can define where phobias come from?”
Born in the Bronx, a fact still evident in his speech, at once hard edged and homey, he has lived half his life in England, these days on a country estate outside London. He hasn’t been back to his native land since 1968. He keeps up by reading newspapers and watching videotapes (often of old football games, his passion along with chess), screening movies in his projection room, talking on the phone and sending messages by modem and fax. “Stanley,” says Herr, “is a great tool-using animal.”
Kubrick’s rambling house and converted stables – which he shares with his third wife Christiane, pets both canine and feline, and a rotating retinue of assistants – are stacked with papers, books and film cans. Kubrick himself cuts every foot of his films – he spent 10 months on Full Metal Jacket – and half a dozen rooms are devoted to high-tech editing gear, run by a computer that is never turned off.
“They say it likes to be on, it likes to be hot,” he explains. “So it’s been on since we started editing, and it’s still on. It’s a bit like HAL,” he adds, referring to the computer that turned homicidal when threatened with disconnection in 2001.
His is an entirely self-contained world, from which he rarely ventures forth. Over the years he has marshaled a panoply of reasonable-sounding explanations. Traveling to no purpose is “boring,” he says, the equivalent of “aimless wandering.” Then there’s the problem of pets. “It’s one thing to leave your house,” he says, “but then suddenly you’ve got to leave your dogs and cats, and there’s really no one particularly to take care of them properly. So it starts to become inconvenient to leave the place. And I have no particular reason to.”
London is also a good place to make movies, with production facilities superior to New York’s and less expensive than Hollywood’s. And, after all, it doesn’t really matter these days where one hangs one’s hat. “If you live, say, in New York, you get the images of your neighborhood and your friends, but essentially it’s all the electronic village stuff and it isn’t that different now living any place, with cities being decentralized and computer modems and TV.”
He fails to cite the most persuasive argument – that this carefully composed environment is probably the only one in which his obsessive imagination could flourish. The image of Kubrick abroad evokes the hapless astronaut in 2001 struggling with a severed life-support system as he hurtles through the void.
The director who explored the horror genre in The Shining, knockabout satire in Dr. Strangelove, and costume drama in Barry Lyndon (1975), insists that he never set out to put his stamp on the Vietnam War Movie. As always, he says, he just wanted to tell a good story.
“There are certain things about a war story that lend itself to filming,” he says, “but only if the story’s good. There’s something about every kind of story. There’s something about a love story with Greta Garbo in it. Whether it’s a war story, or a love story, or an animal story … I would say it’s the story, not the subject.”
On finishing The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King, he launched a literary reconnaissance mission. “When I don’t have a story,” he says, “it’s like saying a lion walking around in the veld isn’t looking for a meal. I’m always looking.” In 1982 he happened on The Short-Timers, in which young Marines are molded by boot camp and then twisted by war – and was immediately enthralled. It took him longer to decide that the novel was filmable. The term “full metal jacket,” which appears nowhere in the book, describes the casing of a bullet.
“This book,” Kubrick says, “was written in a very, very, almost poetically spare way. There was tremendous economy of statement, and Hasford left out all the ‘mandatory’ war scenes that are put in to make sure you understand the characters and make you wish he would get on with the story … I tried to retain this approach in the film. I think as a result, the film moves along at an alarming – hopefully an alarming – pace.”
Beginning in 1983, he steeped himself in Vietnam – countless movies and documentaries, Vietnamese newspapers on microfilm from the Library of Congress and hundreds of photographs from the era – as he collaborated on the screenplay with Herr and Hasford and looked for locations in England. He found a British Territorial Army base to serve as the Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where the movie’s searing opening sequences unfold. For Da Nang, Phu Bai and the Imperial City of Hue, which was devastated by the Tet fighting, he found an abandoned gas works on the Thames River at Beckton, already scheduled for demolition.
The architecture on the isolated site, about a mile square, closely resembled certain neighborhoods in Hue, circa 1968. It was “all in this industrial functionalism style of the 1930s, with the square modular concrete components and big square doors and square windows,” Kubrick says. “And so we had a demolition team in there for a week blowing up buildings, and the art director spent about six weeks with a guy with a wrecking ball and chain, knocking holes in the corners of things and really getting interesting ruins – which no amount of money would have allowed you to build.”
Kubrick’s Hue was finished off with grillwork and other architectural accents, 200 palm trees imported from Spain and thousands of plastic plants shipped from Hong Kong. Weeds and tall yellow grass – “which look the same all over the world,” he notes – were conveniently indigenous. Four M41 tanks arrived courtesy of a Belgian army colonel who is a Kubrick fan, and historically correct S55 helicopters were leased and painted Marine green. A selection of rifles, M79 grenade launchers and M60 machine guns were obtained through a licensed weapons dealer.
“It looks absolutely perfect, I think,” the director says of his dusty rendering of Vietnam on the Thames. “There might be some other place in the world like it, but I’d hate to have to look for it. I think even if we had gone to Hue, we couldn’t have created that look. I know we couldn’t have.”
Kubrick discarded documentary realism only once in the film – for the sake of facing rows of naked toilets in the boot camp barracks, built on an interior set in London. The actual Parris Island toilets didn’t have that sinister configuration. “We did that as a kind of poetic license,” he says. “It just seemed funny and grotesque.”
He hired extras from the local Vietnamese community, and cast the principals largely from videotaped auditions. He received about 2,000 tapes, including one from a then-unknown named Vincent D’Onofrio, whose performance as Private Pyle, a weak-minded recruit who spiritually melds with his M14, is already being touted for an Oscar nomination. But perhaps his luckiest discovery was retired Marine gunnery sergeant Lee Ermey, a Vietnam veteran and former drill instructor who was already employed as Kubrick’s technical adviser.
After videotaping Ermey insulting and intimidating prospective actor-recruits, an exercise designed to see who would react in interesting ways, Kubrick picked him to play the savagely efficient drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The D.I.’s dialogue, much of it Ermey’s invention, nearly all of it unprintable, forges new frontiers of ear-burning obscenity.
“It was quite clear that Lee was a genius for this part,” Kubrick says of Ermey, who heretofore had performed only in small movie roles. “I’ve always found that some people can act and some can’t, whether or not they’ve had training. And I suspect that being a drill instructor is, in a sense, being an actor. Because they’re saying the same things every eight weeks, to new guys, like they’re saying it for the first time – and that’s acting.”
Kubrick concedes that certain Marine Corps PR types might be less than thrilled with the depiction. “I just think the dialogue is so good it goes beyond the question of ‘should he be saying this? Is it right or wrong?’ The most important thing is that it’s dramatically effective and interesting and it’s true. It’s both funny and frightening.”
For music, Kubrick scoured Billboard Top 100 lists of the era – using, for instance, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” for a shot of a hooker slinking through downtown Da Nang – and hired first-time film composer Abigail Mead to supply some deftly ominous ambiance.
Vietnam, Kubrick says, was “probably the only war that was run by hawk intellectuals who manipulated facts and fine-tuned reality, and deceived both themselves and the public.” History records that the Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the North Vietnamese, but also a pivotal psychological victory. In this regard, the director quotes one of his favorite lines from the film, spoken by a Marine lieutenant as he briefs correspondents for Stars and Stripes: “The civilian press are about to wet their pants, and we’ve heard that even Cronkite is about to say the war is now unwinnable.”
“Probably the war was always unwinnable,” Kubrick says. “I’m sure it was. The Tet Offensive wasn’t really the most appropriate time to realize that. They could have realized it a lot earlier.”
“Stanley is an extremely difficult and talented person,” set designer Ken Adam once said of his stint on Dr. Strangelove. “We developed an extremely close relationship, and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquilizers.”
“He’s a control freak,” says Herr. “But he’s philosophical about the things he can’t control.”
His compulsion for detail is famous. Once, during the opening week of A Clockwork Orange, he ordered a theater in New York repainted because he’d heard, from 3,000 miles away, that the walls were a bit too shiny. His sets are closed to everyone but cast and crew. He rarely shows his films to the studio executives until a few weeks before the release dates. He doesn’t do audience test-screenings because they are, in his view, “irrelevant and potentially dangerous.” It goes without saying that he has final cut.
“I may have poor insight about myself,” Kubrick says when asked if he is indeed a control freak, “but I don’t think so, no. Obviously, in the nature of making a film, you are trying to control a lot of people. Either you control them or they do what they want. I suppose somebody could agree that if you are able to do that, and are not made uncomfortable by it, it appeals to you. But that’s certainly not why I’ve made movies.”
If anything, says Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s longtime executive producer, the director has grown “more thorough, more precise” over the years. “Stanley is a locomotive,” Harlan adds. “He just pulls everybody along.”
Midinterview, Kubrick requests to see a transcript of his quotes. He wants to make sure that he can recognize his voice. Some days later, after 18 pages of transcript are dispatched to London, he sends back 28 pages of corrections. He insists during a subsequent discussion that he has no interest in appearing spontaneous in an interview, that he sounds inarticulate to himself – that that’s not the way he talks. (A few of his suggestions were incorporated into this piece.)
He is also sensitive to the suggestion that he films endless takes.
“I think this about takes,” he says. “An actor has to know his lines before he can begin to act. You cannot think about your lines and act. Some actors – and those are usually the ones who go back to L.A. and do interviews about what a perfectionist I am and how they had to do a take 70 or 80 times – don’t go home after shooting, study their lines and go to bed. They go out, stay out late, and come in the next morning unprepared …
“So you can reason with them or explain how they’re hurting themselves, or you can yell at them. Some of them respond, some don’t, and there isn’t an awful lot you can do about it except not work with them again.”
“He’s very kind, one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” says Ermey. “But he’s in a position where he can’t show that side of himself. You can’t be Mr. Nice Guy and win awards.”
“He’s probably the most heartfelt person I ever met,” says Modine. “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 human suffering or animals suffering. I was really surprised by the man.”
In Full Metal Jacket Modine’s Joker, sporting a peace sign on his fatigues and the words “Born to Kill” on his helmet, defines this condition as “the duality of man.”
“The Jungian thing, sir!” he explains to an inquisitive officer.
In the striving, middle-class Bronx neighborhood where Kubrick grew up, the son of a doctor, he was considered slightly Bohemian – a polite, soft-spoken young man with a far-off look in his eye. “As if he were somewhere else,” recalls one of his contemporaries from William Howard Taft High School, where Kubrick’s grades were so poor he couldn’t get into college. Instead, at age 17, he became a photographer for Look magazine. He left at 21 to make documentary short subjects.
The old neighborhood “isn’t there any more,” Kubrick says. “I guess the part I grew up in is still there, it’s just different.” How does he know? “Because people tell me. And I’ve seen documentaries.” He describes one in which snipers take pot shots at firefighters.
“My sort of fantasy image of movies was created in the Museum of Modern Art, when I looked at Stroheim and D.W. Griffith and Eisenstein,” he recalls. “I was star struck by these fantastic movies. I was never star struck in the sense of saying, ‘Gee, I’m going to go to Hollywood and make $5,000 a week and live in a great place and have a sports car.’ I really was in love with movies. I used to see everything at the RKO in Loew’s circuit, but I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t know anything about movies, but I’d seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, ‘Even though I don’t know anything, I can’t believe I can’t make a movie at least as good as this.’ And that’s why I started, why I tried.”
He was 25 when he borrowed $9,000 from family and friends to make Fear and Desire, his first feature. He made his second, Killer’s Kiss, two years later. “I was forced to do everything, literally everything,” he says, “from photographing them, going and buying the film, keeping the accounts, editing them, laying in the footsteps, creating the sound effects, to going to the lab.”
He went from there to Hollywood, where he detected a “general sense of insecurity and slight malevolence … That immediate effect on you isn’t particularly useful in trying to make films. It’s very easy to be put off your balance.”
He made Paths of Glory, Spartacus and Lolita in quick succession. He’d just as soon have Spartacus hacked from his oeuvre. “I don’t know what to say to people who tell me, ‘Boy I really loved Spartacus. Gee, I think that’s my favorite film,’ ” Kubrick says of the only movie on which he was just a hired hand.
Some critics since have noted a strange detachment in his films, an observation that leaves him baffled. “I don’t even think that’s a particularly valid comment,” he says. “It’s more in the department that those normal signals – ingratiating and reassuring signals that most films make sure they give, and which are usually false – are not in the films.”
Kubrick, in any case, has little use for critics.
“I wouldn’t like to have to write an appreciation of a movie that I liked, because I think it’s so elusive, and the things that critics are forced to do – make connections and conceptualizations of it – seem at best minor, and at worst fairly irrelevant to what seems almost inexpressibly beautiful about the movie.”
He can still be a fan. “Your expertise only clicks in when the thing isn’t good,” he says. “When a film really works, you’re captured by it and you’re just sitting there responding to it and enjoying it.”
Occasionally, Kubrick will respond almost to point of tears. “Close to it, but don’t ask me which ones. There aren’t that many movies that try to bring you to tears that are that good.”
For the next three months, he must maintain his composure. He will be supervising the dubbing and subtitling of “Full Metal Jacket” for international release. Then he will retreat from the limelight, no doubt to return once again.
“The structure of making films is nice and enjoyable, and I like to make films,” he says. “But there are certain virtues and benefits to doing other things – like living.”

The Washington Post, June 28, 1987


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