For much of the late 20th century, the world had come to him. Whether his films were set in a haunted hotel in the Colorado Rockies or a bombed-out city in Vietnam, Stanley Kubrick somehow re-created that world in the studios of his adopted home base, England. Tied by an electronic umbilical cord to the rest of the world, he lived on the telephone, constantly sending out queries and incessantly, obsessively asking questions. Now, consumed with a dream project called A.I., he had summoned a pair of visual-effects masters to his Hertfordshire mansion.
It was late in the evening of Thanksgiving 1993. Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor at George Lucas’ Northern California effects powerhouse, Industrial Light & Magic, and his colleague Ned Gorman, ILM’s visual effects producer, arrived at Kubrick’s fortresslike estate. The car the reclusive director had sent to pick them up drove through a series of security gates along a road that wound its way to the estate’s carriage house, now Kubrick’s office/library/editing bay/screening room/kitchen. Inside, the 65-year-old expatriate American had prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for his guests.
Though Kubrick peppered his speech with British slang like ”I don’t know what you’re on about,” more than 20 years of living in England had failed to take the Bronx out of the man. In a strong New York accent, Kubrick discussed his past technical triumphs and his latest equipment between bites of turkey and stuffing. Expecting to encounter an icy, Howard Hughes-esque recluse, Muren and Gorman instead found themselves in the company of a jolly, energetic man who chatted breezily about everything from the latest laserdisc release of Dr. Strangelove to Muren’s Oscar-winning work on Jurassic Park. ”He’d jump up and say, ‘Oh! I gotta show you this!’ and he’d come back with a photo he had of the big front-projection system that had been built for 2001,” Muren remembers. ”Then he started telling us about some of the gear he had, including a couple of 70 mm cameras that he’d bought for Barry Lyndon. He said he didn’t know if he was going to shoot A.I. with them or not.”
”Everywhere you looked there were old IBM electric typewriters and computers that had sort of come and gone,” Gorman says, remembering a cubicle littered with the rubble of technologies past. ”I got the impression that Stanley immediately obtained whatever new technology was available, but as soon as it was displaced, it literally got heaved in the corner for the next thing.”
Kubrick’s career was also littered with abandoned projects: the Western he’d surrendered to Marlon Brando that became One-Eyed Jacks; the Napoleon film idea he’d worked on for years with A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess; and the Holocaust-themed Aryan Papers, among countless others. His indifference, like his obsessions, knew no bounds.
But Kubrick was also a master strategist. As the discussion turned to A.I. — short for artificial intelligence — he revealed only the barest details of his project’s plot: The ice caps were melting, New York City was suddenly underwater, and his proposed hero was a boy who might very well be a robot. ”’Need to know’ would be the way to put it,” Gorman says of Kubrick’s elusiveness. ”I think he was meting out just [enough information] to see, ‘Is this something I can accomplish without spending the Bank of England?”’