Nearly 40 years before his death, the famed director spoke about his life and work in this exclusive interview

By Robert Emmett Ginna
Updated April 09, 1999 at 12:00 PM EDT
Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

Before his unexpected death last month at 70, director Stanley Kubrick — always an elusive figure — had become the subject of intense speculation and mythologizing. With a minimal crew and a surplus of perfectionism, he had shot Eyes Wide Shut in London with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The director of 13 features, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, had come out of seclusion to make his first film in 12 years, and had kept the stars occupied with multiple takes and reshoots for an astounding 19 months.

Hearing of his death, I burrowed into my files stored in an old New Hampshire barn and extracted the transcript of an interview I’d done with Kubrick in 1960 for Horizon magazine. Kubrick, who was 31 at the time, had just finished postproduction on Spartacus and was preparing Lolita. He agreed to be interviewed for Horizon‘s series ”The Artist Speaks for Himself” and invited me to his modest, Spanish-style home in the unfashionable flats of Beverly Hills.

Chain-smoking but relaxed, wearing a gray blazer and corduroys, Kubrick spoke for hours about filmmaking, his life thus far, as well as his affinity for the Austrian dramatist and novelist Arthur Schnitzler (1862- 1931), whose novella Traumnovelle (or ”Dream Story”) would become the basis for Eyes Wide Shut.

While Horizon interviews averaged 4,000 to 5,000 words, the Kubrick transcript ran to 26,000 words. I made several attempts to hew it down to publishable length with the help of the director, but Kubrick became absorbed in his filmmaking. I went off to make films too, and Horizon ultimately folded. The interview was never published.

Some years later, I was a producer working at the MGM British studios where Kubrick was immersed in making 2001. One morning I arrived at my production office to find that Stanley had begun to wall off his area of the studio. The symbolism was fitting. He’d become increasingly reclusive by then, and in later life he seldom spoke to the press, preferring to let his films speak for themselves.

What follows are excerpts from what he called ”our heroic conversation.”

Q:: Before your last picture, Spartacus, you’d begun work on One-Eyed Jacks, with Marlon Brando, which he ultimately directed himself. Why did you withdraw from that project?

A: When I left Brando’s picture, it still didn’t have a finished script. It had just become obvious to me that Brando wanted to direct the movie. I was just sort of playing wingman for Brando, to see that nobody shot him down.

Q: Prior to Spartacus, your movies were modest in scale. Are you joining the ”big picture” trend in Hollywood?

A: I think Spartacus is probably part of the trend of trying to combat television by giving the public something they can’t see on television — namely, a multitude of big stars and spectacle. But what may be a trend in Hollywood isn’t a trend for me, because I’ve always approached every picture I’ve done just from the standpoint of telling a story. And if it happens that the story takes three and a half hours to tell, and you need Roman costumes instead of modern clothes, and if some scenes are supposed to represent the Roman legion and need 5,000 people, I think that is all part of making films.

Q: What attracted you to Lolita as a movie?

A: I was instantly attracted to the book because of the sense of life that it conveyed, the truthfulness of it, and the inherent drama of the situation seemed completely winning. I’ve always been amused at the cries of pornography on the part of various film columnists and people of that ilk, because, to me, Lolita seemed a very sad and tender love story. I believe that Lionel Trilling, in an article he wrote about the book, said that it was the first great [contemporary] love story. He remarked that in great love stories of the past, the lovers — by their love and through their love — totally estranged themselves from society and created a sense of shock in the people around them. And because of the slackening moral and spiritual values in the 20th century, in no love story until Lolita has that occurred.

Q: You’ve said you’re very fond of the work of Arthur Schnitzler. What draws you to him?

A: His plays are, to me, masterpieces of dramatic writing. It’s difficult to find any writer who understood the human soul more truly and who had a more profound insight into the way people think, act, and really are, and who also had a somewhat all-seeing point of view — sympathetic if somewhat cynical.

Q: Schnitzler employed indirection — a roundabout way of getting to the point.

A: I think all great dramatists have achieved their ends in very much the same way. The most potent way to move an audience is to reach their feelings and not their brains. Of course, it’s a much more dangerous way to write, because if the audience fails to discover what you mean, they’re left quite disturbed.

Q: Do you find yourself drawn to works that are marked by ambiguity?

A: Well, that’s an interesting point. It has always seemed to me that really artistic, truthful ambiguity — if we can use such a paradoxical phrase — is the most perfect form of expression. Nobody likes to be told anything. Take Dostoyevsky. It’s awfully difficult to say what he felt about any of his characters. I would say ambiguity is the end product of avoiding superficial, pat truths.

Q: But don’t you feel that films with too much ambiguity will lose a mass audience?

A: The intellectual is capable of understanding what is intended and gets a certain amount of pleasure from that, whereas the mass audience may not. But I think that the enemy of the filmmaker is not the intellectual or the member of the mass public, but the kind of middlebrow who has neither the intellectual apparatus to analyze and clearly define what is meant, nor the honest emotional reaction of the mass film audience member. And unfortunately, I think that a great many of these people in the middle are occupied in writing about films. I think that it is a monumental presumption on the part of film reviewers to summarize in one terse, witty, clever, TIME magazine-style paragraph what the intention of the film is. That kind of review is usually very superficial, unless it is a truly bad film, and extremely unfair.

Q: What led you into filmmaking?

A: I was born in New York City, where my father was a doctor. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and I was supposed to go to medical school, but I was such a misfit in high school that when I graduated I didn’t have the marks to get into college. But like almost everything else good that’s ever happened to me, by the sheerest stroke of luck, I had a very good friend at Look [magazine], which gave me a job as a still photographer. After about six months, I was made a full-fledged staff photographer. My highest salary was $105 a week, but I did travel around the country, and I went to Europe and it was a great thing. I learned a lot about people and things. And then I made a documentary film — the first one I made — called Day of the Fight [1951]. It was about a boxer called Walter Cartier and everything that happened on the day of a fight. I thought there was a great future in making documentaries, but I didn’t make any money on any of the documentaries I made. Then I made a feature, Fear and Desire [1953], and then Killer’s Kiss [1955]. That led to The Killing [1956] and my association with [producer] Jim Harris. We did Paths of Glory and Lolita together.

Q: What’s the best preparation for being a film director?

A: Seeing movies. One of the things that gave me the most confidence in trying to make a film was seeing all the lousy films that I saw. Because I sat there and thought, Well, I don’t know a goddamn thing about movies, but I know I can make a film better than that.

Q: Were your earliest films received well by critics?

A: Not really. Fear and Desire was a lousy feature, very self-conscious, easily discernible as an intellectual effort, but very roughly, and poorly, and ineffectively made. Killer’s Kiss had some exciting action sequences in it, but the story was written in a week in order to take advantage of a possibility of getting some money.

Q: What are the elements of a film you feel a director must control?

A: He must control everything. I think you have to view the entire problem of putting the story you want to tell up there on that light square. It begins in the selection of the property; it continues through the creation of the right kind of financial and legal and contractual circumstances under which you make the film. It continues through the casting, the creation of the story, the sets, the costumes, the photography, and the acting. And when the picture is shot, it’s only partially finished. I think the cutting is just a continuation of directing a movie. I think the use of music effects, opticals, and finally main titles are all part of telling the story. And I think the fragmentation of these jobs, by different people, is a very bad thing.

Q: Since you were a photographer before you were a filmmaker, does cinematography hold particular interest for you?

A: Well, no, I confess that story and acting interest me much more. Because of my background in photography, I have been able to quickly figure out the best visual way to photograph or represent a scene on the screen. But I never start thinking in terms of shots. I first begin thinking of the main intent of the film. After the actors rehearse the scene and achieve a level of reality and excitement, only then do I really look through the viewfinder and try to figure out the best way to put this on the screen. Generally speaking, you can make almost any action or situation into an interesting shot, if it’s composed well and lit well. I’ve seen many films in which interesting camera angles and lighting effects are totally incongruous to the purpose of the scene. When the whole thing is over, you’ve seen a rather interestingly photographed movie that has no effect at all.

Q: How do you feel about using movie stars in your films? Do you prefer accomplished unknowns?

A: No. I like stars if they’re good actors. I suppose there are situations in which the awareness of the star’s personality is too strong for the audience to overcome, and the star might destroy the character he’s playing, even though he’s good. But I think those instances are rare. I would say that 95 percent of the pictures released were made because a star was willing to do them. The movie business has become so difficult, audiences have become so indifferent to films, that the only assurance a distributor or financier may have of getting his money back is by using a star in the part. If the stars are right, they make life easier for you.

Q: Is music highly important to your films?

A: I think music is one of the most effective ways of preparing an audience and reinforcing points that you wish to impose on it. The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the filmmaker has at his disposal.

Q: Have the works of certain directors, or pictures, been milestones for you?

A: I believe [Ingmar] Bergman, [Vittorio] De Sica, and [Federico] Fellini are the only three filmmakers in the world who are not just artistic opportunists. By this I mean they don’t just sit and wait for a good story to come along and then make it. They have a point of view which is expressed over and over and over again in their films, and they themselves write or have original material written for them.

Q: Is your view of the world, of life, optimistic or pessimistic?

A: I wouldn’t care to try to convey what it is. It is unfair enough to try to convey somebody else’s. I wouldn’t be that unfair to myself. One of the things that I always find extremely difficult, when a picture’s finished, is when a writer or a film reviewer asks, ”Now, what is it that you were trying to say in that picture?” And without being thought too presumptuous for using this analogy, I like to remember what T.S. Eliot said to someone who had asked him — I believe it was about The Waste Land — what he meant by the poem. He replied, ”I meant what it said.” If I could have said it any differently, I would have.

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